Wednesday 12 December 2012

The Best Birthday Ever!

It was my birthday a few days ago. Not particularly remarkable as, apart from a few notable exceptions, I try to take as little notice of the passing of years as possible. This year, however, I happened to be spending my birthday tucked away in the heart of the equatorial rainforests of tropical Guyana. This South American country has had the foresight to preserve vast wildernesses areas that are home to an astonishing assortment of creatures. I can't imagine a much better place to be on a birthday, or on any other day for that matter.

I was staying at the Iwokrama River Lodge - a place that serves as both scientific field station and home base for visitors wishing to explore the surrounding wilderness. Located on the shore of Guyana's largest river, the mighty Essequibo (third largest in South America after the Amazon and Oronoco), the lodge is also the centre of operations for the management of a park comprised of 1,430 square miles of protected wilderness that's one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. There are absolutely massive old-growth trees and the creatures who call this gem of a place home include everything from humble insects (not to mention some not-so-humble ones!) to the region's apex predator, the magnificent jaguar. To me it's like heaven, or maybe the Garden of Eden, and you can expect to read about it in more than one blog entry as my enthusiasm for this place and my delight in having spent several days there is boundless!

Birds abound in every size, shape and colour imaginable. Some boldly mooch tidbits from lodge guests and staff in the dining hall while others stick to the surrounding forest. They enrich the place with songs, chirps, squawks, and other noises that defy description. Parrots of various species roost in trees, macaws soar overhead, songbirds flit among the shrubs, wading birds hunt along the river shore, swallows and swifts glide above the surface of the river, larger birds tramp the forest floor, and raptors keep watch over it all. It's magical.

A Red Capped Cardinal on a chair in the dining hall.
Dusky Parrotlets perch on a nearby tree.

A Blue Headed Parrot. 
It's always been a personal dream of mine to see a toucan in the wild. There's something about these striking birds that has appealed to me throughout my life and I have painted them on silk several times based on observations of captive birds in zoo settings.

But seeing these active, acrobatic birds in a captive setting does not compare to glimpsing them in the wild. I couldn't have had a better birthday present than to sight this fellow perched high atop a giant tree as I wandered about the grounds with my camera in the early morning light:

Later that day I travelled by boat to a forest camp down river which would be the base for a forest hike and then a night spent sleeping (or trying to) in hammocks suspended in an open-sided shelter. Small grey birds, aptly called Screaming Pihas, abounded in the trees surrounding the camp, shrieking their insanely loud and very distinctive territorial song every few seconds (to see/hear one, check out this YouTube video). As I tested out my hammock I observed a loose flock of Aracari, smaller cousins of the toucan, alight in some nearby trees.

A Black Necked Aracari pauses in a tree at the edge of camp.
A winding 90-minute uphill hike through the forest culminated in a stunning viewpoint at an elevation of about 300 metres. Tropical forest stretched as far as the eye could see. The tops of the tree canopy lay below and the the rough voices of howler monkeys drifted up, as did the sudden screech of a spider monkey. And then... a flash of colour: two red and green macaws streaked gracefully above the treetops. After seeing these magnificent, free-flying birds soaring above the canopy, I will never view a captive macaw the same way. This is how they were meant to live. They are the very embodiment of the importance of forest conservation.

A pair of red and green macaws soar above the treetops.

Back at camp darkness fell suddenly so after a quick dinner the hammocks beckoned. A commotion among the camp workers (there was a group of them living there while working on trail enhancements plus our guide Alex and others) broke out as a coral snake was discovered on the very door-step of one of the shelters.

A deadly coral snake practically underfoot!

These small snakes are almost too beautiful to be real and are highly venomous, but this little fellow was simply redirected back into the forest by our guide Alex with the deft use of a stick, away from possible deadly interactions with humans. Such is the commitment of the people who live and work in this forest. They recognise that even a potentially deadly snake has its place.

Curled up in my mosquito-net enshrouded hammock, lulled by the humming of cicadas, the rustling and squeaking of bats, the peeping of frogs, and the various hoots, squawks and chirps emanating from the surrounding forest, I reflected on what an amazing day it had been - one not soon to be forgotten. Definitely the best birthday ever.

My hammock, prepared with a mosquito net
for the onslaught of nocturnal insects.

For more information about the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, visit

Please note that all photos are protected by copyright.


  1. Such lovely and lively descriptions - thanks for 'bringing me' along on your journey. A special birthday indeed. Look forward to seeing lots of colourful new works of art from you.

  2. Wow - what an amazing birthday you had! I'm so glad you got to see the toucans and macaws in the wild, and can't wait to see what artistic creations arise from your experience.