At the end of September 2014, a team of intrepid researchers set out into the wilds of eastern Guyana on the northern coast of South America, to track down and document the region’s abundant wildlife, ranging from the small invertebrate (bullet ants) to larger mammals (puma). The forests of south-central Guyana are among the least studied and most biologically diverse forest types in the Guianas. Until now, biologists have never studied the Upper Berbice River region, located between the upper reaches of the Berbice Rier and the Corentyne River, along the border with Suriname. A few members of that team, including GWC’s Director of Global Biodiversity Exploration Dr. Leeanne Alonso, capture their experiences here.
The White Sands Forest: September 26, 2014
By Leeanne Alonso
Today the Berbice survey team moved from our peaceful and shady Berbice River camp, deep in the pristine rainforest, to the Berbice White Sand camp. As the name implies, this camp is located in forest that grows on white sand. This forest is very different from the forest at the Berbice River camp. We no longer see large buttress trees and spiny palms but a more dense forest of smaller trees. The dominant trees here are Dimorphandra conjugata—locally known as “Dakama,” and other palm species including Euterpe oleraceae and Jesenia sp. The forest floor has a thick mat of leaf litter and roots. As we are in the dry season, the white sand heats up quickly in the hot daytime sun and the dry leaf litter crunches under our feet. The forest is much cooler than the open road and is fairly open, allowing us to walk easily through it. The areas along the creek are obviously flooded in the rainy season, with an uneven terrain with many depressions and hummocks and thinner leaf litter.
The burnt forest: September 27, 2014
By Leeanne Alonso
Our new camp area is remarkably different from our first site, not only due to the different forest type, but in terms of disturbance to the area. The camp itself is located in a large white sandy clearing beside forest and a flowing black-water creek. While it is nice and flat, it is also very hot in the noonday sun! We hide under the tarps or work in the forest during the hottest parts of the day. The camp is next to a large logging road that extends for 140 km south through the forest.
We are also camped next to a large area where the forest has been burned. We hear anecdotally that it was burned accidentally, but we are not sure when or why it burned. The area has tall dead trees and little understory—the deep leaf litter and root mass of the forest likely burned slowly and did not scorch the trees. The disturbance from the road and the burned forest has significantly opened up the area. Thus the species we are finding here are more related to open habitats than to closed forest and are in large part different from those we found around Berbice River camp. The ant and water beetle species found along the road are typically of open sandy areas and we did not find them at our first camp.
Tracks in the sand: September 28, 2014
By Leeanne Alonso
Each afternoon around 4 p.m. I take a walk up the road to see if I can see any animals or find new ants. I hear snapping noises coming from the forest—some of which are leaves and sticks falling to the ground as birds jump around in the canopy. Some are the sounds of exploding seed pods from the dominant “Dakama” tree in the forest. Looking down, I start to see animal tracks in the sand—lots of them! Small and large cat tracks running in both directions: jaguar, puma and ocelot! There are also some tracks in which you can see the nails, which are savanna fox. We also see smaller pointy tracks of agouti. We have not seen any of these animals yet at this second camp, but they are here! Overhead a flock of parrots catches my attention since they are making a lot of noise, squawking and jumping from branch to branch. Occasionally a pair flies off to another emergent tree, announcing their departure loudly. I try to see them through the leaves but they are now just silhouettes against the darkening sky.
Heavenly hummingbirds: September 29, 2014
By Leeanne Alonso
Meshach Pierre cannot sit still. When he’s not tracking large mammals along the road or through the forest, he searches for elusive birds. He really wanted to catch and see up close a hummingbird called the crimson topaz, which he had never seen before. It is a very large hummingbird with two long black tail feathers. The male is red and the female is green. This species is endemic to the Guiana Shield and prefers living along black-water creeks. Meshach first saw them flying above the creek as he bathed the first night. The next afternoon he set up two mistnets (fine black mesh nets to catch live birds) across and along the creek and waited patiently. It was not long before he had his first catch—not the elusive crimson topaz but a cute tiny reddish hermit (another hummingbird). He took it to camp to photograph and then let it go in the forest. He also caught a white-crowned manakin in the net. Meanwhile, the survey team’s herpetologists brought in a green vine snake that had eaten a bird (now unidentifiable!). The next morning, Meshach again opened the mist nets after his early morning mammal tracking rounds. This time he was in luck; he caught five hummingbirds, one male and three female crimson topaz and a white-necked jacobin. Meshach dutifully photographed each and let them carefully go back into their forest home along the creek.
Wake-up call: September 30, 2014
By Leeanne Alonso
Nothing like a coral snake to wake you up in the morning! This morning I got out of my hammock, put on my field clothes and walked over to the creek to splash my face with the cool water. As I started down the short dry clay bank toward the creek I saw a small snake just ahead of me. It had the telltale red, black and yellow bands of a highly poisonous coral snake so I knew better than to try to catch it. I called to Nelanie La Cruz to keep an eye on the snake while I called to the survey team herpetologist Andrew Snyder: “Hey Andrew, snake! It may be poisonous!” He (and half the camp) came running in an instant, clutching his long snake tongs. The snake had slithered into a clump of bushes alongside a large tree so it was concealed. A group of six of us searched through the clump using long sticks but we couldn’t find the little snake. We sadly ended our search and returned to camp for breakfast. But within 10 minutes, another team member called to us from the creek. The snake was back! We ran over and found the same elusive creature on the open sand. Andrew pinned it with a long stick and took a careful look at its head. By its large eyes he was quickly able to identify it as Erythrolamprus aesculapii, a non-poisonous mimic of the coral snake (coral snakes have tiny eyes on their slender little heads). We all sighed with relief that we did not have a poisonous snake at our bathing spot. But it certainly was a snaky spot; just last night late-night bathers found a small Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) hanging from the trees over the creek! I think back to my own bath yesterday afternoon in the peaceful and beautiful creek. I wonder who was watching me!
The five potoos: October 1, 2014
By Liz Condo
Ornithologist Brian O’Shea achieved a rare feat partway through his two weeks on the expedition: he heard and recorded all five of the potoos found in Guyana. It is the first time he has heard all five in any single trip to South America.
Potoos are difficult to see in the forest. They are nocturnal birds with very good camouflage. The plumage of most potoos is mottled either gray or brown, and they roost on bare branches, often pointing their heads up to the sky, making them almost indistinguishable from the tree they sleep in. Two of the five potoos found in Guyana are common—the aptly named common potoo and the great potoo. The other three are more rare—the rufous, white-winged and long-tailed potoos. It is especially unusual to hear or see a rufous potoo; there are few records of the species in Guyana and none in Suriname.
Potoos often call at dusk and dawn, but are more likely to do so during a full moon. Considering the brief amount of time the moon has been up each night during the expedition, and the short duration of the expedition itself, Brian says he never expected to hear all five.
“For a trip like this, you hope you get lucky and hear one or two of the rare ones, but this time I heard all three,” Brian says.
He attributes his success to the dawn soundscape recordings he creates using stereo microphones. It was during those recordings that Brian heard the three rare potoos, calling along with the rest of the dawn chorus—a symphony of insects, monkeys, frogs and birds.