My bucket list got shorter

Venezuela is a beautiful country, with everything from deserts to rainforests, snowy mountains to seasonally flooded savannas. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to many of the different environments along the northern coast, from the arid Paraguaná peninsula, where I saw the world’s largest grasshoppers, to the incredibly biodiverse Paria peninsula, where I swam at night in a bioluminescent beach and released sea turtle hatchlings. However, I hadn’t visited the central part of the country, the Llanos, a vast, flat savanna teeming with wildlife. This changed this past weekend when I was asked to accompany the Ecology I course to Hato Masaguaral, so I could show undergrad students insect collecting techniques and show them how field work was done and just how different it was from lab work (many of them were interested in cell/mol bio, and due to a series of unfortunate events this was their first ever field trip).

A few hours after leaving the temperate climate of the mountains around Caracas we arrived at Los Llanos biological Station, where we made a brief stop. A few minutes after walking around the station and seeing an american kestrel nesting inside a termite mound, the course’s TA called me over so I could take a pic. She was pointing up at a tree stump with a smile on her face, saying “Look, it’s so cool!”. I looked up and there it was, a common potoo!

Tree stumps with feathers are common

Tree stumps with feathers are common

After a short drive, we arrived at Hato Masaguaral, we got settled in the houses for researchers. They were teeming with tree frogs and other critters, like this gravid female mantis that was on our doorstep

Stagmatoptera sp.

Stagmatoptera sp.

After dinner we were getting ready to go to the field very early the next day, but as I was taking a shower I heard one of the students, out of breath, tell the teacher that there was a snake in the bathroom. I quickly dried off, got my camera and saw it, a little colubrid that feeds mainly on small frogs. It was in the bathroom’s water tank, so we carefully took it outside for a quick picture before it slithered off.

Leptodeira annulata

Leptodeira annulata

We were up quite early the next morning, setting up the mist nets to capture and measure birds. It was a great sight, seeing everyone chirping with excitement (although many were half asleep) under a starry sky. It was a perfect photo opportunity.

Field work starts early and covered by stars

Field work starts early and covered by stars

After setting up the mist nets, we walked for a few minutes while the sun rose. In the meantime, one of the TAs (an expert in tracking mammals) showed the students how to recognize paw prints in the mud.

A typical sunrise in los llanos

A typical sunrise in los llanos

Around 8 am we headed back to the mist nets to see if we had collected anything. Sure enough, there were two troupials (our national bird) and two lineated woodpeckers. Our troupials are colorful birds, and they have quite a temper!

Icterus icterus

Icterus icterus

After that, the actual field work began. Under the scorching sun we walked towards the field site where the students would collect soil samples. I was ecstatic; amazing birds left and right, meter long snakes, crocodiles and lizards. Despite it being extremely hot and dry, there was plenty of wildlife. A few minutes later, I heard hoarse hissing sounds, as if something was exhaling loudly, and I was overcome with excitement, for I had been waiting ten years for this. They were hoatzins, shaggy, prehistoric-looking birds that are basically punk dinosaurs. They have long feathers that project upwards and backwards, like crests (which gives them their generic name, Opisthocomus).

IMG_8379

Opisthocomus hoazin

IMG_8385

We continued our walk torwards the field site, which to the students seemed like ten Km due to the scorching heat (we’re talking 42-44 C, with barely any wind and no clouds). Savanna hawks flew above us, while smaller birds rushed for cover when they heard us approaching.

IMG_8262

Buteogallus meridionalis

After a grueling mid-day field work session (and a slight scare, due to a student almost passing out from the heat), we headed back to camp. As we scouted for a place to set up the camera trap, one of the students squealed with delight as she pointed towards the trees. It was a small group of capuchin monkeys (Cebus olivaceus)! The alpha male wasn’t too thrilled to see me close by with my camera, and he rattled the branches as he grunted and screamed at me.

This is not a happy face

This is not a happy face

When we finally got back to camp, we were treated to a tour of the crocodile nursery. There they breed the critically endangered Orinoco crocodiles and release them in specific areas once they reach a certain length.

Chillin' in the nursery

Crocodylus intermedius

The following day I had only one other item to cross off my bucket list: See a burrowing owl. So a fellow colleague and ornithologist asked me to go with her first to a nearby pond to check out the aquatic birds, and after that we would look for burrowing owls. We saw plenty of birds on our way:

IMG_8618

Aplomado falcon, Falco femoralis

I hadn’t seen a large group of aquatic birds before, and seeing all of them fly at once is something amazing. It’s a living cloud, basically. We quickly counted the two species of whistling ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis and D. viduata) and the black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) before heading over to the dunes to look for the burrowing owls.

Los Llanos went a little overboard with the Clone tool

Los Llanos went a little overboard with the Clone tool

Then, to finish an amazing trip, I saw them. After almost two decades of only seeing them in calendars and books, I saw them in real life. These little owls have a perpetual stare, and they make their nests underground.

IMG_8652

Athene cunicularia

All in all, despite the excessive heat and extremely dry environment, it was a fantastic trip, and I can’t wait to go again. I crossed several items off my bucket list: hoatzins, burrowing owls, deer, crocs, several eagles/haws/kestrels/falcons, and the Llanos themselves. Next time I will collect insects so I can leave an insect box at the camp’s museum. More pics will come in the future!