Brownsberg Nature Park, Suriname: December 29-31, 2008

Located at an elevation of 500m on a laterite plateau, Brownsberg Nature Park is a rich and complex birding site with a variety of different habitats prime for viewing many Guyanan endemics. It is also rich in mineral wealth, and evidence of past and present mining projects is abundant despite the ample surrounding rainforest. To the east the plateau offers views of the massive Brokopondo Reservoir, which was created in the early 60's by damming the Suriname River to provide electricity to power the country's bauxite processing plants. Displacing thousands of people and millions of animals and birds, the reservoir is now a strange and empty watery expanse over ten-thousand square kilometers in size.

Only a few hours from Paramaribo, the outer limits of Brownsberg Nature Park can be easily accessed via public transportation or private minibus. Transportation into the park, where there are a variety of lodging options, is conducted by STINASU and must be arranged in advance at the office in Paramaribo. Once inside the park, visitors are free to hike around and view wildlife independently, and there are a wide variety of trails and roads providing different access to different habitats and scenic destinations such as waterfalls and viewpoints over the forest. With a restaurant also on site, independent birders could productively spend a week at here without also spending a fortune, making it unique among Suriname's other prime birding destinations.

Aimee and I had hauled our camping equipment from Ecuador just for our visit to Brownsberg, and we were able to manage a three-day stay for very little cost. On the other hand, we did have to lug all our gear, including food and water, in transition between the various types of transport it took to get there and back, which was a little daunting, especially on the final leg of the return journey as we marched through Paramaribo on New Year's Eve in overburdened backpacker style. Finding an appropriate minibus to take us to Brownsweg, which is a town near the park's border, probably would have been easier had we spoken any Dutch, but the hassle and commotion was part of the adventure, I guess, and certainly must be supported if you're going to travel low budget. Our rendezvous with STINASU transportation wasn't very smooth either, but at least it provided me with the opportunity to toss back a breakfast beer, a stout no less, as we waited at one of the country's ubiquitous Chinese groceries.

Driving into the park and up onto the plateau, we passed through beautiful humid lowland forest, encountering four Black Curassows crossing the dirt road. These massive cracids are shy terrestrial birds with elegant wavy crests and striking white under parts. This particular race also has a rich butter yellow base of the bill, which was visible from a considerably distance even without binoculars. Buoyed by this sighting and having arrived at the emplacement on the top of the plateau, we quickly set up camp in a quiet clearing and surveyed our surroundings. Although it was already early afternoon, at the nearest lookout I spotted a solitary Guianan Toucanet, a dark-colored and smaller toucan that we had missed at Raleigh Falls. A Red-Legged Honeycreeper was also probing a flowering tree nearby.

As bird activity was pretty quiet, we decided to get a better sense of the environment, passing by several viewpoints to the east as we walked to the Mazaroni Top, which offers panoramic views of the surrounding forest. Quickly we located a troop of Red Howler Monkeys sitting high in the canopy and placidly probing each other's coats for insects. In fact, the park is home to several troops of Red Howler Monkeys as well as other primates, and they would prove common and active companions to our birding expeditions, on several occasions becoming the principal attraction as they actively foraged for fruit and leaves. Aside from getting good views of the Red-Necked Woodpecker, we observed few birds on this hot and sunny afternoon, spending some time conversing with a few Peace Corps volunteers at the Mazaroni Top instead. Americans are few and far between in this part of South America, I understand, and they wanted to know what we were doing in Suriname of all places.

The weather grew foggy in the evening, so we had to content ourselves with listening to the White-Throated Toucan and the Green Oropendola as we prepared for an early night. A group of Black-Necked Aracaris also moved about high in the canopy, as countless parrots, parakeets, and parrotlets returned to neighboring trees to roost. Anticipation was high for the following morning as we planned to bird the Mazaroni Road, which runs through excellent forest along the plateau and offers unparalleled opportunities for viewing subcanopy flocks, particularly species of antbirds. I was a little worried about Aimee though, as not all birders are interested in parsing the differences between these dull-colored, furtive, and seemingly inscrutable birds. Hopefully the morning would also offer a few surprises.

Dawn was cool and misty, making the calls of various antshrikes even more mocking and mysterious. A flighty Musician Wren was also moving through the forest near our camp, offering its flute-like call at each momentary perch. It didn't take long for us to encounter a large flock of birds along the road, complete with a frustrating array of antwrens and antbirds. After consulting my iPod over and over again to confirm the calls, I was finally able to identify the Mouse-Colored Antshrike, and differentiate between the Black-Headed, Grey, and Dusky Antbirds. The antwrens proved a little easier in another flock as I had good views of the Brown-Bellied, White-Flanked, Long-Winged, and Grey Antwrens. This painstaking identification took most of the morning, though, and by then Aimee was more interested in the monkeys, I'm afraid.

There were other highlights during our many hours long excursion along the Mazaroni Road: we saw a variety of hummingbirds, including the Long-Tailed Hermit, Grey-Breasted Sabrewing, and White-Necked Jacobin, as well as the White-Tailed Trogon, Black-Spotted Barbet, Golden-Collared and Olive-Colored Woodpeckers, and the Fulvous Shrike-Tanager. Perhaps the best sighting was that of the Ornate Hawk-Eagle, which we encountered briefly as it was perched along the road. I understand that in past years a rather tame individual could be seen daily as it hunted lizards in the area of the emplacement, but this would be our only sighting of this magnificent raptor.

Returning to the emplacement for a much deserved rest, we settled into the benches at the Tapir Lodge viewpoint, which looks out magnificently towards the Brokopondo Reservoir. The short fruiting tree just above us was active with a variety of honeycreepers and tanagers, and I managed some nice photographs of both the male and female Purple Honeycreeper as they extracted pieces of fruit while hanging upside down. While tracking a troop of Red Howler Monkeys, we were also surprised by a pair of White-Faced Sakis, the male and female of which are about as different looking from each other as the Purple Honeycreeper. The two primates moved quietly about until the female jumped boldly through the air into the crown of a tree below; somehow I fired off this terrific photograph capturing the leap.

The action continued at the viewpoint as we were visited by another group of tanagers and allies, including the Golden-Sided Euphonia, the male of which might have been one of the birds of the trip for me with its steely midnight blue coloring and golden yellow pectoral tufts. A Fulvous-Crested Tanager made a quick appearance in the trees in front of us, and we spotted a White Hawk perched way in the distance in a bare tree as several Swallow-Tailed Kites floated gracefully up and down in the rising thermals. We had trekked down the famous Mazaroni Road and back for many hours, but I wondered if the day hadn't been more productive simply sitting at the Tapir Lodge viewpoint. Serious thunderheads soon engulfed the plateau, and while it didn't rain much, the late afternoon was certainly spoiled for more birding.

With transportation potentially becoming an issue over the holiday, we decided to return to Paramaribo for New Year's Eve, making the following morning our last at Brownsberg. Recent visitors had marveled at the number of primates along the Wiki Creek Trail, so we got an early start the next day and wound our way down the plateau for several kilometers. Despite a few Screaming Pihas, we encountered very little action in terms of birds or monkeys, and the tiny Reddish Hermit was our only notable bird of the morning. Back at the emplacement, though, we finally witnessed the group of Grey-Winged Trumpeters that frequent the rice feeders in front of the restaurant. These shy terrestrial birds are hunch-backed and dark-colored, but they're marvelously draped over their backs by long loose-hanging grey feathers and their chests boast highly iridescent purple, violet, and green feathers. I was shocked by their paradoxical appearance and tame behavior as they moved awkwardly about poking at the cooked rice the workers had thrown in the forest. I probably abused the use of the flash on my camera, but I simply had to capture these unique birds in a photograph.

Before the STINASU transport shuttled us out of the park, a little prematurely for my taste, I had to revisit the Tapir Lodge viewpoint, which had been so productive the afternoon before. Again, several birds visited the fruiting tree above the benches, including the Green Honeycreeper and the Blue Dacnis, but the best sighting was of a male Golden-Headed Manakin that popped up in a shrubby patch of berries just a few meters away. Most manakins are pretty clownish looking, but this boldly colored individual made a serious impression on me before dropping below into the undergrowth. I felt some serious regret leaving the park after only three short days, as we had barely made a dent in the bird list that boasts almost 400 species. This was also the last chance to see the Capuchin Bird, one of my target birds for the trip of which I had neither seen nor heard. Still, what would New Year's have been without a few beers?

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