Birds of the Mahaica

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Guyana enjoys top-tier renown among one important subset of tourists: bird watchers. The country’s undisturbed rain forests, wetlands and other ecosystems support large numbers of unique and unusual bird species.

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Mahaica Tours offer a 5-hour boat tour of the Mahaica River, an offshoot of the Demerara. The tour focuses on spying birds (more than 150 bird species live in the wetlands surrounding the river), but also offers the chance to spot monkeys, manatees, and other mammals. The tour boat drifts down the river with the current for most of the tour, and then speeds back to the starting point. The tour launches from Unity Village, about a 45 minute drive from Georgetown. Expect birding tours to start early, shortly before or right after dawn.

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The dark water of the Mahaica perfectly reflects the sky and trees above.

The beautiful Mahaica River is home to people as well. A few homes and small settlements scatter the banks along the tour; our tour crossed paths with boats carrying locals fishing or traveling to and from their homes on the river. Some of the houses upriver look like perfect slices of rustic paradise.

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A home on the Mahaica

 

The tour company provides high-powered binoculars which are essential if you go to see the birds and not just the beautiful river and environs. I also came armed with a copy of Birds of Northern South America, the bible of birding in these parts. Both the book and the binoculars would have proved close to useless without our guide’s knowledge and sharp eyes.

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Hoatzin bird

The tour can almost guarantee spotting hoatzin, the national bird of Guyana. Truly an odd bird, the species’ distinctive and solitary family line extends back some 64 million years almost to the dinosaurs. We saw dozens flapping clumsily back and forth along a long stretch of the river bank. Also known as the stink bird, the fermentation of their digestion process emits a strong, unpleasant aroma. Adding to the overall effect, the hoatzin’s noisy call sounds almost like a grunting pig. The hoatzin have endured through the ages despite being a large, mostly flightless ground bird probably because they smell like ass.

To note other frequently sighted species along the Mahaica: gray-breasted crakes, Rufous crab-hawks, silvered antbirds, black-capped donacobius, wing-barred seedeater, point-tailed palmcreeper, Moriche oriole, black hawk-eagle, boat-billed heron, pied water-tyrant, tropical kingbird, and green-rumped parrotlet.

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Can you spot the monkeys? Can you spot the hoatzin?

The only creature we saw in greater number than hoatzin were monkeys, mainly the red howler monkey. As our boat drifted down the river, we observed a large group of monkeys sleepily rousing from the night’s sleep clustered together midway up a large tree. Then at the very top we saw one very wakeful monkey apparently on lookout and eyeing us warily.

I can’t overstate how beautiful and peaceful the Mahaica River is with or without the birds, primates and other creatures. One final picture to underscore the point:

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A rainbow reflected in the Mahaica

Footnote on birding in Georgetown: One hardly needs leave the city for amazing bird watching in Guyana. Georgetown is a very green city with large, well-distributed tracts of park lands, including the massive Botanical Gardens, acres of which might as well be in the middle of the jungle. Over 200 species of birds live in Georgetown. Most common in my neighborhood are kiskadees. I’ve learned to identify scarlet ibis which I always see flying over the National Aquatics Center pool when I’m there with Sylvie in the early evening. The nearby Promenade Garden attracts flocks of parrots to roost each evening. A large hawk I’ve photographed and identified per the Birds of Northern South America as a black-collared hawk often hunts snakes out of a field next to our house.

 

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