Raleigh Falls, Suriname: December 24-27, 2008

Located within the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, a newly created reserve in an area long famous for its rich bird life, Raleigh Falls must be the highlight of any birder's trip to Suriname. The most impressive attraction is the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock lek, positioned at the base of the Voltzberg, a massive granite dome that rises impressively above the rain forest. But the region also boasts a wide variety of habitats, including towering humid lowland forest, an extensive riparian zone, as well as micro savanna habitats, all of which can keep birders busy for days tracking down specialties.

Trips to this region are typically made in groups of ten to twenty tourists, and accommodations in the open air dormitories are basic but comfortable (mosquito nets are included). Depending on the tour, which can be arranged by STINASU or private tour companies, transport to Foengoe Island on the upper Coppename River is either made via airplane (1 hour) or bus and boat (10 hours). Cost per person for a three-night trip is approximately four hundred euros, all inclusive. Typical itineraries include a day trip to the Voltzberg, a visit to the falls, and a variety of cultural activities related to the Maroon communities that live along the Coppename River.

Aimee and I were fortunate to secure a place on a relatively low-budget trip over the holidays led by a young man named Diego who grew up in a Maroon village on the lower part of the Coppename River. Although most of the other participants were uninteresting, and disinterested, young Dutch women, we were free to form our own birding itinerary, participating in group activities only when we wanted to and taking independent excursions with one of the STINASU guides who lives on the island. Coupled with the language barrier, this created something of an uncomfortable disconnect with our group, but the amazing bird and mammal life we witnessed was easily enough to outweigh any social awkwardness we might have experienced.

Travel to Foengoe Island by bus and boat turned out to be quite an adventure, as we first bounced violently along a pock-marked dirt road for five hours and then spent several hours navigating the treacherous Coppename River in the dark after being delayed at port by a combination of poor planning, organization, and execution. Still, the arduous and perilous journey was more enlightening than a short plane ride, as it provided us with a dramatic sense of place and exposed us to the brazen and boisterous ways of Maroon river navigation. Plus, the boat ride offered dramatic sightings of several species of macaws and toucans flying overhead, as well as kingfishers, herons, and a troop of Red Howler Monkeys.

The following morning Aimee and I were up early and headed upriver by boat to the Voltzberg trailhead. Shortly after asking us whether we were also interested in seeing mammals in addition to birds, our guide Winston pointed out a troop of Brown Capuchin monkeys flowing stealthily overhead in the canopy. Bird activity along the eight kilometers to the Voltzberg was relatively quiet, but we stopped in several places to enjoy good views of the White-Headed Piping Guan, Scarlet Macaw, Scaled Pigeon, Great Jacamar, White-Crowned Manakin, and Rufous-Throated Antbird among others. I felt rushed and discombobulated along the trail, though, trying desperately to match my observations with the birds I had studied before the trip, as well as keeping an ear out for the Capuchin Bird, White Bellbird, Great Tinamous, and Black Currasow, just a few of the specialties that are often seen along the trail. On expeditions like these, I've found that it's good to keep your expectations low and to be happy to see only a small fraction of your target birds, so I tried to set my heart on seeing the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock and treating every other bird as a welcome surprise. Easier said than done.

After several hours of hiking we reached a large granite plateau from which the Voltzberg could be seen nearby looming over the forest. The weather had turned rainy and visibility was diminishing, and Winston cautioned us that there might not be any birds at the lek, and that if there were, activity would almost certainly be low. With this disheartening news in mind, we anxiously wound our way along the trail at the base of the Voltzberg for another half hour as the rain increased. Disappointments like these can be common, especially when birding in the neotropics, but I felt immune to them in Ecuador knowing that as a resident I could return to any site the following weekend if things didn't work out. Here in Suriname, I was just like any other birding tourist, and every excursion felt like a one-shot deal.

Doubt and misgiving were suddenly expelled by a bright flash of orange in the middle of the dense green forest. We had arrived at the lek, which looked surprisingly to us like any other part of the forest. Upon closer inspection we were awestruck by the presence of thirty to forty Guianan Cock-of-the-Rocks perched in the subcanopy in front of us, some only a few meters off the ground. While the birds weren't carrying on raucously as they do in better weather, they were actively displaying their marvelous fan-shaped crowns and flared tail feathers, whether bobbing forward on branches or posing dramatically statuesque in the low light. It was a shocking spectacle, and we struggled to take it in during the next hour while stumbling around the lek in the rain as Winston sat calmly under a shelter he had constructed.

On the return hike, I felt relieved, fulfilled, and strangely much more free to stop our small party to check out a mixed flock or follow up on an unknown bird call. We lingered for an hour on the granite plateau near the base of the Voltzberg, enjoying great views of two perched White-Throated Toucans and a troop of Black Spider Monkeys swinging along just under the canopy. Aimee and I also took some time to check out the micro savanna habitats growing in small clumps on the plateau, which contained noticeably different plant and bird life from the surrounding humid forest. Along the trail we ran into a nice understory flock with the Fulvous Shrike-Tanager, Lemmon-Chested Greenlet, and Ochre-Bellied Flycatcher, and we had terrific views of a screaming Screaming Piha as it darted about in the understory piercingly announcing its territory.

At one point, Aimee and our guide stopped to rest their weary feet, and I slowly advanced along the trail hoping to add a few more birds to the list. Flushing and then locating a Grey-Fronted Dove, I narrowly missed stepping on a brightly colored snake that was moving through the leaf litter on the trail behind me. Having birded for several years in the neotropics and spent countless hours on trails like these, I've only seen a snake one other time, and I was almost paralyzed with fear as I back away slowly. It's irrational to say that I avoided stepping on the snake because some primitive animal instinct in me was aware that it was there, but I am grateful nonetheless that Aimee and Winston didn't have to carry me back to the river.

It poured rain throughout the following evening and night, but we awoke before dawn to relatively dry weather and headed out behind the dormitory area to the airstrip. This long dirt and grass swath runs the width of the island and offers terrific views of the river and the bordering forest. Early mornings on the airstrip proved to be an outstanding time for viewing large, spectacular birds such as the Scarlet, Blue-and-Yellow, and Red-and-Green Macaws, the Channel-Billed and White-Throated Toucans, the Green and Black-Necked Aracaris, the Red-Necked and Lineated Woodpeckers, and the Orange-Winged, Blue-Headed, and Red-Fan Parrots. In the regenerative scrub along the strip we also encountered the Short-Crested Flycatcher, White-Browed Antbird, Dot-Winged Antwren, and Little Chachalaca, as well as a number of more common birds like the Silver-Beaked Tanager. Perhaps the standout bird that morning was the Green Ibis, which we saw arising from its roost and flying away to feed for the day.

After a late breakfast (we were late to almost every meal thanks to being detained by one bird or another), Aimee and I spent the latter part of the morning down at the river, enjoying high levels of bird activity as the weather finally cleared and became sunny. An adult and a juvenile Great Black Hawk perched over the opposite bank, the latter calling frequently, and the Green and Crested Oropendolas moved noisily about high over the water. Among the many boulders in the river we disturbed a sleeping Ladder-Tailed Nightjar that first posed unaware for this photograph, and we frequently caught sight of Amazon Kingfishers hunting actively along the far bank. Especially neat were the group of Swallow-Wing Puffbirds that were catching insects just above us, dropping them off to their nestlings along the river bank near our feet.

In the afternoon we visited the falls with the rest of the group, and absorbed some local knowledge from Diego about medicinal plants. The walk to the falls passes through some beautiful humid forest which was pretty quiet except for a male White-Crowned Manakin and several White-Lined Tanagers. The falls themselves aren't of the towering or crashing variety, but are rather a modest series of drops over a field of large boulders. Among the rocks in the distance a Capped Heron was feeding deliberately, which entertained us until Diego found a massive Electric Eel in a pool nearby. More closely related to fish, these eels can reach over two meters long and breathe air, rising to the surface occasionally; their 500 volt shocks are certainly worth considering before you decide to swim in the river.

Returning to the island by boat while the rest of the group floated downstream in their life jackets, Aimee and I had a chance to enjoy some tea together and feed bananas to the Common Squirrel Monkeys that visit every late afternoon. The sunset from the airstrip was gloriously clear, and we watched the bird activity from the morning happen in reverse as birds came back to roost in the towering trees. The White-Headed Piping-Guan was particularly active as it glided from tree to tree with its primaries rattling together for affect.

After a frustrating night in which Aimee and I tried to sleep through an African drumming session fueled by much drinking (we wouldn’t have tolerated the sleeping arrangements without earplugs), we found ourselves back on the airstrip, which functions something like a canopy tower as it provides unparalled access to canopy birds. While we encountered many of the same showy species as the previous morning, there were plenty of surprises, including the Pied Puffbird, King Vulture, White Hawk, Grey Hawk, Black-Spotted Barbet, and Lined Seedeater. Several trails wind through the forest on the far side of the airstrip and along these we saw the Reddish Hermit, White-Tailed Trogon, and White-Flanked Antwren. While I was wandering aimlessly along the airstrip, Aimee had great looks at a female Crimson Topaz, one of the world's most spectacular hummingbirds. Walking the trails on my own later that morning, I ran into a pair of Ferrugineous-Backed Antbirds picking through leaf litter on the forest floor, and startled a Pygmy Brocket, a small deer that went bounding away through the trees.

With just a few hours remaining until our flight back to Paramaribo, Aimee and I decided to take another walk along a trail that runs along the southern end of the island. Although it was sunny and almost midday, this was perhaps our most productive and remarkable excursion of the trip. First, we encountered a large group of Black Nunbirds perched about in the subcanopy. To bring them into better view, I briefly used playback, which sent them into a noisy frenzy and attracted a host of birds from the area that were coming to investigate the commotion. While marveling at the Black-Tailed Trogons, Golden-Collared Woodpeckers, and Fulvous Shrike Tanagers moving about, we both noticed a large, bright red bird flying overhead. As it was thirty to forty meters above us and moving from perch to perch quickly, it was impossible to identify it with complete assurance as the Guianan Red Cotinga, but the thought was certainly tantalizing. For the uninitiated, this striking cotinga is one of the finest and rarest of the Guianan endemic bird species and certainly one of the highlights of any birding trip to Suriname. As Steven Hilty notes in the Birds of Venezuela, this "tongue of flames" is "hardly ever seen often enough." While reluctantly heading back to the dormitory to catch our plane, Aimee pointed out the Chestnut Woodpecker, a massive crested bird that posed gloriously in the filtered sunlight of the subcanopy.

Flying back to Paramaribo in a small propeller plane above millions of hectares of undisturbed and uninhabited rain forest, I noticed that I still had my binoculars on. Despite the dull Dutch girls and the drumming and the ticks and mosquitoes, I felt as if we could have spent several more days happily birding the Raleigh Falls area. That's what it must feel like to be birding tourist in Ecuador, I guess.

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