Any visit to Suriname, one of South America's best but least-visited birding destinations, necessitates several days' stay in Paramaribo. This quaint, colonial capital is noteworthy for its beautiful collection of historical wooden buildings, constructed in the Dutch style with elaborate pitched roofs and hand-carved embellishments. Birders will also note that more than 400 bird species have been recorded in the environs of Paramaribo, where there are three significant sites, each worthy of a day trip: Weg naar Zee, the road to the coast, which passes through swamps and mudflats; Peperpot, an overgrown coffee plantation, which is the best place to find several Guyanan endemics, including the Blood-Colored Woodpecker and Arrowhead Piculet; and Cultuurtuin, a zoo and botanical garden with a good variety of common birds.
Any independent birder visiting Suriname would profit from first contacting Otte Ottema, Suriname's finest resident ornithologist and guide, who can arrange day trips to the three principle sites without great cost as well as extended trips to sites outside of the capital, including Raleigh Falls and Brownsberg. As he was out of country when Aimee and I visited, we attempted to bird these sites on our own, arranging transportation via taxis or private cars, thinking that the logistics couldn't be any more difficult than in Ecuador, where we live. Unfortunately, birding in Suriname is not a well-known activity, and very few of the hotel managers, taxi drivers, or guide companies understood why we wanted to visit these three sites or where they were actually located. Also, many drivers do not speak English, nor for that matter do we speak Dutch. These sources of confusion resulted in much frustration and anguish, and I missed several unique birding opportunities, having instead to satisfy myself with only a half-day at Peperpot and some riverside scrub birding at our hotel, the EcoResort.
Despite the brevity of our visit to Peperpot, at which we arrived several hours after dawn and left at midday, it was still a success. Within the first hour we had located both the Blood-Colored Woodpecker and Arrowhead Piculet, our two target birds; the piculet was particularly easy to track down as it was vocal in several canopy flocks, and I also approached one within a few meters as it foraged in some scrub. We managed to locate an overgrown road passing through the center of the plantation, which yielded a few mixed flocks with Black-Spotted Barbet, Cinnamon Atilla, Variegated Flycatcher, Cinerous Becard, and Ashy-Headed Greenlet. We also had good looks at the Black-Crested Antshrike and Plain-Crowned Spinetail, which are common but skulking birds. On several occasions we heard Spotted Puffbird calling, but it didn't respond as we hoped to playback; neither did the Blackish Antbird, which seemed to be calling from everywhere. The mosquitoes were intense at the site, and I never really felt like I was birding in the best area, but as we saw our target birds here, we decided it wasn't worth coming back and exploring further.
Birding the grounds of our hotel, which is located on the banks of the Suriname River, I found a number of common scrub and riverside birds, including Yellow-Headed Caracara, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Greater Ani, Glittering-Throated Emerald, Arrowhead Piculet, Plain-Crowned Spinetail, Yellow-Bellied Elaenia, Pied Water-Tyrant, Lesser Kiskadee, Lined Seedeater, and Yellow Warbler. At breakfast the staff puts out fruit on a feeder, and Aimee and I enjoyed a nice variety of garden birds, including Tropical Mockingbird, Bare-Eyed Thrush, Silver-Beaked Tanager, and Burnished-Buff Tanager. The latter was particularly memorable as I first mistook it with the similar Scrub Tanager from the arid high Andes until the proper identification finally clicked. Much of my time birding in Suriname was like this, as I was slow to recognize common birds and their calls, often confusing them with birds I'm much more familiar with in Ecuador.
Aimee and I did make a trip out to the Cultuurtuin one morning with high hopes of finding the Crimson-Hooded Manakin lek and birding the pond there, but our taxi driver strongly discouraged us from getting out of the car once he finally grasped the nature of our visit. He said that we would be obvious and easy targets for the drug addicts and lowlifes that inhabited the park and that we would no doubt be relieved of our expensive optical equipment should we wander the grounds by ourselves. Erring on the side of caution, we took his advice and spent the morning enjoying the pleasures of the beer garden instead.
Although the concept of birding is not well understood in Suriname, there is a bit of local birding culture to be enjoyed in Paramaribo. Early every Sunday morning in the principle city square in the historic district, local men gather with their caged songbirds to compete as to whose bird is the most dynamic and impressive singer. Although the participants generally seemed a bit hungover, the birds, mostly seedeaters, were ready and willing to show off their diverse repertoire, painstakingly learned from other birds and practiced in an urban environment. I prefer enjoying wild birds myself, but the event is a bit of tradition from Paramaribo's colonial past and worth checking out if it's convenient.