Birding in Coastal Guyana
Images of Harpy Eagles, Guianan Cock-of-the-Rocks and Scarlet Macaws often lead birdwatchers in Guyana to focus on the country’s interior, where places like the Iwokrama Forest of Rupununi Savannah harbour some of the world’s most exotic bird species.
But those who skip Guyana’s coast – especially in and around the capital city of Georgetown – miss out on some spectacular birding, including some species that can’t be found in the interior.
Some favourite spots of local and international birders alike include the Georgetown Botanical Gardens, where more than 180 bird species have been identified; the Mahaica River for good looks at the primitive Hoatzin; the Abary River trail, where the Blood-colored Woodpecker is regularly seen; and some mudflats along the Atlantic Coast or Demerara River to see shorebirds including the Scarlet Ibis.
A country’s capital city may not be the first place that comes to mind when planning a birding trip, but Georgetown, with its location at the convergence of the Demerara River and the Atlantic Ocean, is awash with Neotropical bird species. Out of Guyana’s 800-plus species of birds, more than 180 from 39 different families have been recorded here.
If you ask the experts from Guyana’s birdwatching society, the Georgetown-based Guyana Amazon Tropical Birds Society (GATBS), to show you one of the best birdwatching locations in the city, they would surely take you to the Georgetown Botanical Gardens.
The Botanical Gardens date back to 1877 when British Guiana’s Court of Policy granted the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society permission to create a Botanical and Horticultural Garden in Georgetown. To facilitate the process, the government purchased 276 acres of the backlands of an old coffee plantation called Vlissingen. Roughly 185 acres of this land were set aside for the gardens.
To transform the swampy fields a Mr. Prestoe of the Trinidad Gardens designed a plan, and Mr. J F Waby (also from Trinidad) was appointed head gardener. Eventually another botanist, Mr. G S Jenman, was added to the project to assist Mr. Waby in developing the gardens. The two oversaw a team of workers that filled the gardens with an array of ornamental trees, a variety of tropical flowers and a host of different palms.
The gardens were also decorated with manmade monuments and structures, some of which still serve as centerpieces today. The famed Kissing Bridge is a pair of ornamental cast iron bridges that lead to two small islands, while the Caretakers Hut – seen upon entering the gardens – was built in 1881 to provide lodging for the gatekeeper. Also famous is the Place of the Seven Ponds, which was built in 1969 as a shrine to Sir David Rose, the first Governor General of Guyana. Former President Hugh Desmond Hoyte and poet Martin Carter are also laid to rest there.
While the national monuments are a draw, come early in the morning or late in the afternoon and chances are you’ll see birders with binoculars running around the paths. It could be argued that some of the most famous inhabitants of the Botanical Garden are the West Indian Manatees, which have been present in the ponds since 1895, but there are a few species of highly sought-after birds that are also doing their best to lure visitors.
The main ornithological highlight here is the Blood-colored Woodpecker, an astonishingly colorful Veniliornis found only in the three Guianas. Within its range, the bird is almost wholly limited to the narrow coastal plain, and the gardens are one of the best places in Guyana to find it. Also present are the Great Horned Owl, Green Ibis, Golden-spangled Piculet, White-bellied Piculet, Black-crested Antshrike, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, and Wing-barred Seedeater.
Around the garden’s ponds are healthy populations of Great, Snowy and Cattle Egret along with Pinnated Bittern, Black-capped Donacobius, Wattled Jacana, Black-crowned Night, Tri-Colored and Little Blue Heron. Raptors can include Peregrine Falcon, Snail and Gray Kite and Yellow-headed Caracara.
Red-and-green Macaw, Red-shouldered Macaw and Brown-throated Parakeet are also present, as are all five species of Amazonian parrots found in Guyana: Festive, Mealy, Blue-cheeked, Orange-winged and Yellow-crowned. A Toco Toucan or two have also been known to show their flashy bills.
Birding in the centrally-located Georgetown Botanical Gardens is easily done from the main road that intersects the grounds, but it’s always recommended to enlist a local birding guide so you can safely explore the furthest reaches of the gardens while not missing any of the spectacular birds.
Heading east along the Atlantic coast from Georgetown, the Mahaica River is less than an hour’s drive. Here, the birding is done from small boats that ply the tannin-rich water that winds through mangrove gallery forest and savannahs. More than 150 species have been recorded along the Mahaica River and some that you’ll likely hear your guide call out include Black-capped Donacobius, Wing-barred Seedeater, Point-tailed Palmcreeper, Moriche Oriole, Rufous Crab-Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, Boat-billed Heron, Pied Water-Tyrant, Tropical Kingbird, Silver-backed Antbird, Green-rumped Parrotlet and Great Black-Hawk.
An impressive list, but the real draw here is the abundance of Guyana’s national bird, the Hoatzin. Locally called the Canje Pheasant, the Hoatzin is believed to provide a direct link to the Archaeopteryx, the first known bird. The social birds live in family groups of up to 40 birds along the river, making the chances of seeing them quite good. Their long tail feathers and elongated neck topped with a tiny head bearing blood-red eyes ringed in blue skin and a punkish crest of long feathers makes this bird one to see.
Just a short drive from the Mahaica River site is some excellent birding along an easy walking trail within protected Abary River mangrove forest. The trail provides great chances of seeing many endemic and coastal species, including the Blood-coloured Woodpecker, Guianan Gnatcatcher, White-bellied and White-barred Piculet, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Great-billed Seed-Finch, Long-winged Harrier and Bicolored Conebill. As the trail gets closer to the Atlantic, you may also see the endangered Rufous Crab-Hawks scour the marshes for their namesake food.
A coastal birding trip near Georgetown wouldn’t be complete without ticking off several coastal species, and there are two excellent options for doing just this. On route to the Mahaica and Abary river birding sites, there are some birdy mudflats near Ann’s Grove. From the seawall, you can easily spot numerous shorebirds, including Scarlet Ibis, numerous plovers, Western Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Clapper Rail, Whimbrel, Tricolored and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Rufous Crab-Hawk.
Another option to spot shorebirds near Georgetown is to bird along the beautiful Demerara River when the tides are out and the mudflats are exposed. This trip offers a choice of birding from a drifting boat or by walking along the mudflats; either option provides good looks at Scarlet Ibis, Rufous Crab-Hawk, Little Blue Heron, Tri-coloured Heron and Magnificent Frigatebird.
Plan Your Trip
One of the best ways to experience any of the birdwatching tours in and around Georgetown is to contact the expert tour operators specialising in birding tours.
For more on birdwatching throughout Guyana, visit www.guyanabirding.com, where you’ll find information on planning a trip to Guyana (including itineraries, tour operators and lodging information), archived birding news and newsletters, and up-to-date information on new developments within Guyana’s birdwatching industry. From here you can also download A Field Checklist of the Birds of Guyana, which was recently updated by the Smithsonian Institution.