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Isla de Margarita

September 1999

by Mark Gawn

In September, 1999 I went on a week's holiday to Isla de Margarita, Venezuela with my wife, Angie and our eight year old daughter, Jessica. Lying just off the mainland, Isla de Margarita offers some interesting birds in a relaxed atmosphere. Target species include several species restricted to the arid littoral area which stretches from northeastern Colombia through coastal Venezuela, a habitat which does not figure in most Venezuelan birding itineraries. Chief among these species is the endangered Yellow-shouldered Parrot which is now virtually extirpated on the mainland and can only reasonably be expected in either Isla de Margarita or Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles. In addition, Isla de Margarita has a number of Caribbean species otherwise difficult to see in South America. We were able to see all the target species and sample some interesting neotropical families including two Antbirds, one Manakin, and a Puffbird, but saw only 69  species in total.

Isla de Margarita is easy to get to with multiple international flights, including charters from Europe and North America. It has lots of hotels in all price ranges, a good road system, reliable car rental, and incredibly cheap gas (about US$ 0.10 per liter). We stayed in a very nice small hotel, "La Finca", at Playa el Aqua at a cost of $US50 per night (tel: 0058 95-490127; email: It is located about a 10 min. walk from the beach, good restaurants and other services including car rental. Its' Swiss proprietor, Alain, is helpful and knows birds. The grounds hosted several of the commoner species including three species of hummingbird: Buffy, Blue-tailed Emerald, and Ruby-Topaz. Other features were Lesser Nighthawks seen from the pool, a seemingly permanent assemblage of Frigatebirds overhead, and Burrowing Owls in the adjacent fields. We rented a Suzuki Baleno for three days from at a cost of $US55 per day; we selected the Baleano to take advantage of the air conditioning - it was hot!

Isla de Margarita is essentially two islands connected by a narrow causeway. While most tourists head for the eastern half which hosts the major city (Porlarmar) and all of the international hotels, the best arid scrub birding is to be had in the western half known as Macanao. Our birding effort consisted of morning walks from the hotel into nearby scrub habitats, one morning each at Parque Nacionale La Restinga and PN La Sierra, an afternoon circuit of Macanao, and incidental birding while touring the island.

Parque Nacionale La Restinga, which straddles the causeway linking the two islands, offers mangrove species and incorporates an extensive area of arid scrub habitat in eastern Macanao. It is close to the airport (half hour drive) and can be reached by cheap bus from Porlarmar; it took us about 45 minutes by car to get to the park entrance from our hotel. A fleet of small boats departs from the parking lot; $US20 per boat buys you a tour through the mangrove channels and a dropoff/pick up on the beach (great shelling) where you can get food & drinks. Bicoloured Conebill is easy in the mangrove (instant response to squeaking) and we saw a pair of Blue-crowned Parakeets. However, other than masses of Brown Pelican & Frigatebirds, there were relatively few waterbirds, e.g. the only heron we saw was a lone Striated/Green. The eastern end of the main lagoon, which can be accessed by road from La Guardia, hosted a flock of about one hundred larids on our visit, mostly Laughing Gull but with a few Royal & Cayenne Tern thrown in.

Good arid scrub birding can be had by crossing the causeway and heading north by turning right on to the road which circumnavigates Macanao.  For the first several kilometers the land is level, once it enters a hilly area look for a gated road on your left with a PN La Restinga sign indicating that it is the habitat (entorno) for the Yellow-shouldered Parrot (Cotorra). If you get to the lookout (mirador) on the right you have gone too far. The gate was open when we arrived (4PM) and we drove up it for about 1 km until we got to a small official looking building, which was unoccupied. Just past this building there was a large fruiting tree which, much to the delight of Angie and Jessica, was decorated with Brown-throated Parakeets and Yellow-shouldered Parrots. If this road is accessible after dark it would probably be good for nightjars (White-tailed) and owls. We saw our only Northern Scrub Flycatcher and Bare-eyed Pigeons along this road. The Mirador on the main road has good scrub birding. Generally arid scrub species, which can be seen anywhere along the road which circumnavigates Macanao, were highly response to squeaking, at virtually every stop Vermilion Cardinals and Tropical Mockingbirds materialized in seconds, even in the noonday heat.

A few forest species more typical of the mainland can be seen at PN La Sierra, which can be accessed from Porlarmar by taking the road up to La Valle. The summit offers stunning views of the island and a myriad of vultures, however, the best birding is to be had on the road shortly after the park entrance. There are no trails, so birding is restricted to the road edge; a good strategy would be to have someone drop you off up top & meet you at the park entrance where there is a small recreation area. Common birds include Tropical Parula, White-fringed Antbird, Barred Antshrike, and Copper-rumped Hummingbird; we saw one Lance-tailed Manakin. The endangered endemic island subspecies of Red-legged Tinamou occurs here as does Scale-breasted Antpitta, niether was apparent on our late morning visit. Note that the park opens at 8AM and is closed on Mondays. There is a small park fee to enter both this and PN La Restinga.

Some tropical seabirds can be seen along the northern coast; while shelling along the beach west of Juan Griego we saw several Brown and Red-footed boobies and three distant Tropicbirds. We highly recommend the Marine Museum in Boca de Rio near PN La Restinga which has excellent specimens of local marine life including an extensive collection of seashells, along with a few birds. Isla de Margarita would be a good jumping off point to explore eastern Venezuela as there are plenty of inexpensive ferries to the mainland.

Annotated List
(NE Colombia/Venezuelan littoral endemics are underlined)
Tropicbird sp 3 far off shore
Magnificant Frigatebird Abundant
Red-footed Booby Several off shore
Brown Booby Several off shore.
Brown Pelican Abundant
Neotropic Cormorant Abundant.
Snowy Egret 1 definite, several too distant. Little Egret could occur
Great Egret Several distant large white herons presumed to be this species, could not rule out white morph Great Blue.
Great Blue Heron 1 gray morph
Striated/Green Heron 1, PN La Restinga.
Black Vulture Abundant
Turkey Vulture Abundant
Osprey 3 at PN La Restinga
Pearl Kite 1, near airport.
Harris' Hawk 2 pairs, PN La Restinga
Crested Caracara About a dozen mostly in Macanao
Crested Bobwhite Fairly common in scrub near Playa Aqua; also heard, Macanao
Greater Yellowlegs General note: we saw several small groups of waders but did not invest much time in looking at them
Lesser Yellowlegs -
Spotted Sandpiper -
Sanderling -
Semipalmated Sandpiper -
Black-necked Stilt -
Collared Plover -
Laughing Gull Common on beach at La Restinga
Cayenne Tern Several at La Restinga.
Royal Tern Several at La Restinga including fresh juv.s
Least Tern 2 at La Restinga
Rock Dove Common.
Eared Dove Very common, Macanao
Common Ground Dove Abundant
White-tipped Dove Common.
Bare-eyed Pigeon 2, road into Parrot habitat
Scaled Dove Common.
Blue-crowned Parakeet 2, mangroves at La Restinga
Brown-throated Parakeet Common, Macanao.
Yellow-shouldered Parrot About 10, western side of La Restinga
Dark-billed Cuckoo 1 in scrub near Playa Aqua.
Lesser Nighthawk Up to 20 over La Finca, Playa Aqua
Copper-rumped Hummingbird 1 well seen, several others assumed this species, PN La Sierra.
Ruby-topaz Hummingbird 1 female resident at La Finca
Buffy Hummingbird Common, Macanao, 1 resident at La Finca, others in nearby scrub
Blue-tailed Emerald 2 resident at La Finca
Russet-throated Puffbird 1 in scrub near Playa Aqua.
Red-crowned Woodpecker 2, La Valle
Straight-billed Woodcreeper 1, mangroves, PN La Restinga
Pale-breasted Spinetail 1 in scrubby ravine, Macanao
Barred Antshrike Several pairs, PN La Sierra.
White-fringed Antbird Common in scrub (e.g Playa Aqua) and in forest at PN La Sierra
Lance-tailed Manakin 1 male, PN La Sierra.
Brown-crested Flycatcher Common, Macanao
Tropical Kingbird Common around Playa Aqua
Fork-tailed Flycatcher Common Macanao, several large flocks seen.
Mouse-colored Tyrannulet 1 in scrub near Playa Aqua
Northern Scrub Flycatcher 1, along Parrot access road.
Scrub Greenlet Common in scrub, also seen in forest, PN La Sierra
Tropical Mockingbird Mega abundant.
Tropical Gnatcatcher Common in scrub; Angelica was struck by how similar this bird looks and acts to Sardinian Warblers in similar habitat (Spain)
Gray-breasted Martin Several martins seen assumed this species
Barn Swallow Common; many swallows seen and not checked so others may have been present.
Tropical Parula Common, PN La Sierra, most road side stops had one or two
Bananaquit Common.
Black-faced Grassquit Common
Bicolored Conebill Common in mangroves at PN La Restinga.
Glaucous Tanager Common around Playa Aqua
Vermillion Cardinal Common throughout in scrub habitats.
Pileated Finch 1 female only, well seen in dense scrub, Macanao
Carib Grackle Mega abundant.
Troupial Common, Macanao
Yellow Oriole Common throughout

Mark Gawn