Mahaica Dawn | Offtrack

Southeast of Georgetown, the lower Mahaica River runs through rice paddies and vegetable fields, but the intact native vegetation along its banks is a refuge for numerous birds and other wildlife. Janette Bulkan and John Palmer head out on an early-morning boat trip, encountering dozens of Guyana’s colourful bird species

The Mahaica River is home to dozens of Guyana’s bird species. Photo by Pete OxfordA hoatzin, Guyana’s national bird. Photo by Dr Horst VogelRed howler monkeys. Photo by Dr Horst VogelTours on the Mahaica River include catch-and-release fishing trips. Photo by Dr Horst Vogel

An early start is worth the effort. The night sky is growing light as we drive into the dawn, eastwards from Georgetown along the coastal highway for twenty-five miles. At Vic Singh’s rumshop in De Hoop we turn inland, heading south alongside the Mahaica River through the villages of Big Biaboo and Little Biaboo. Villagers are slowly waking up, gathering in small groups at the side of the road. Men with toothbrushes stuck like thermometers in the corners of their mouths glance curiously as we drive past.

Our road winds through flooded and fallow rice fields, past farms with bora — long green beans — twining up five-foot poles, callaloo, boulanger, and other vegetables for the local markets. Black-and-white Friesian cattle graze on the dykes between the fields, flounder across the canals, and are happy to swim in the river and munch on the floating grass with only their heads above water. Business is good for some farmers: new concrete houses are growing up on the flat fertile soil, and rice-ploughing and -harvesting equipment stands in the yards.

When we get to the ramp, the six-seater aluminium boat — provided through the generous support of the Caribbean Aqua Terrestrial Solutions (CATS) Programme — is waiting. Our guide, Ramesh Shibsahai, is one of seventeen community members who were trained under the CATS programme which gave birth to the Mahaica River Birding Tours.

Although this farmland has been under cultivation for a century or more, the native trees and other vegetation along the riverside between the farms and residences have been left relatively intact. There is enough shade and shelter in these narrow strips for a great variety of wildlife. As we board the boat, a large green iguana watches from an overhanging branch. Bunches of flowers float past us, early-morning Hindu offerings on the Mahaica River.

We’ve barely set off upriver when we spot them. Prehistoric, Jurassic, reptilian, their red-ringed eyes set in a face of blue skin, topped by a thin crest of spiky feathers. Their heads look too small for their hen-size bodies, their wings are broad but weak, and the birds are, to put it mildly, ungainly as they scramble and flutter among the riverside trees with hoarse cries. These are hoatzins or Canje pheasants (Opisthocomus hoazin), the national bird of Guyana. The Mahaica River is home to a thriving population of these paired-for-life birds, a generally rare Amazonian species. In all, we see around sixty hoatzins, whose preferred food is the leaves of the moko-moko (Montrichardia arborescens), a tall straight plant on the edge of the river with arrow-point waxy leaves.

The Mahaica River provides a connecting corridor for avian and riverine wildlife. Threats come and go, but the river is a highway along which animals and birds can move to safety.

The small four-stroke outboard motor is quiet enough for us to hear the morning birdsong. One hundred and fifty-eight species have been counted so far along this river. In just two hours, we see thirty-five of these, mostly multiple individuals in small flocks. Tiny ring-necked seedeaters flit at the river’s edge, while three species of flycatcher and two species of kingfisher perch on overhanging branches. Nests of yellow orioles swing from the smaller trees, and rufous and black hawks show their backs as they stand in the taller treetops, beautiful bars across their backs, more pronounced at the tail. Three species of woodpecker knock holes in dead and dying tree trunks, probing for grubs — their scarlet crests brilliant in the growing sunlight.

Among the bushes, greater and lesser anis show their dense black and blue plumage and laterally flattened bills. Great and lesser kiskadees call repeatedly, while brown cuckoos sit quietly in the rising sun, a small hummingbird zips between the flowers of false cocoa, and male red-capped cardinals lead the more subdued females through the undergrowth. Chachalacas peer from low trees into the stands of moko-moko.

Overhead, two or three kinds of pigeon fly cautiously from tree to tree while broad-winged hawks circle and vultures patrol higher up. As the sun ascends in the sky, pairs and trios of Amazon parrots cross the river heading east, while small flocks of parakeets fly west. Sunlight flares into the tree canopy, shining off the red-brown fur of silent families of red howler monkeys, known in Guyana as baboons. Our guide Ramesh tries calling to them, but fails to provoke a response from the big bearded males who watch calmly as the boat glides below.

We turn around just south of the upper limit of farming along the river, as the banks became more densely wooded and the birds more difficult to see. Speeding back downstream, the experienced eyes of Ramesh spot other birds we failed to notice on the way up, or which can be seen more easily now in full daylight. If you’re lucky, Ramesh tells us, you might even catch a glimpse of otters frolicking in the river — but today we have no such luck.

We stop for a late breakfast of fried bangamary (a river fish) and plantain chips at the river restaurant and pool bar, where we hear about the popular whole-day catch-and-release fishing trips run by the same Mahaica River Birding Tours, looking for tarpon and the peacock bass. The fishing is better when the river level is falling, pulling the fish out of their spawning areas in the flooded savannah behind the farmlands.

As if we needed another reason to come back.

 

For more information about Mahaica River Birding Tours at dawn or dusk, visit www.mahaicatours.com