An independent bird watching trip with the exception of 6 days of guided birding with Fred Pansa at the Fredberg/Fred’s Place. In total, we saw 330 species in 2 weeks at 4 primary locations.
Manuela and Rick Bateman went to Suriname for two weeks during the latter part of October to early November 2018. For the most part, we birded independently. At the Fredberg, we were guided by lodge owner, and bird guide and forest-ninja Fred Pansa.
We had been interested in Suriname for quite some time before going. We read about its pristine interior locations and became aware of it as a possible birding location after browsing through the Bradt Guide to Suriname by Phillip Briggs at a London bookstore. Mr. Briggs has written several Bradt guides to African destinations that we have used in the past and we trusted his estimation of the country as relaxed, welcoming, intriguing and beautiful. We were not disappointed. Suriname is all of those things in addition to being a somewhat of an off-the-beaten path option for birders, especially considering that only the Dutch can reliably locate Suriname on a map. It’s also the best value for travel amongst the three Guiana countries (Suriname, Guiana, French Guiana) for those looking to see Guiana specials.
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Although Dutch is far and away the main European language spoken, we got by swimmingly with English and we were pleasantly surprised that nearly everyone spoke English (especially in the capital). Because we speak German and English, reading signs and understanding Dutch was not a problem. Moreover, the people we met were friendly, interested, and extremely helpful. We can’t recommend Suriname enough as an extremely relaxed South American destination to bird.
Suriname was a delight and not just for the birds. Having travelled extensively in Indonesia in the past, we were delighted to be eating many of our favorite Asian dishes in South America. Delicious Indian and Indonesian food was also widely available in the capital and elsewhere and Surinamese dishes (especially those cooked at Fredberg) were very tasty. Even the food at Brownsberg was okay, if not a little boring. Though basically everything at the Brownsberg could use a little pepping up.
We recorded all of the Cotinga species in Suriname and saw all of them very well with the exception of the White Bellbird which we had calling for over an hour at Brownsberg at close range but would not show (a story for later in the report). The call of the White Bellbird is simply incredible and perhaps even better than seeing the bird itself (that’s what I tell myself lying awake at night).
Watching Golden-Headed Manakin display for a female, photographing lekking Cock-of-the-Rock at the newly built hide (constructed for the BBC at Fredberg), seeing many Capuchinbirds, observing Royal Flycatcher at Peperpot, Fred finding a new lek for COTR during our descent from the Fredberg, numerous incredible antbirds, antshrikes and antwrens in addition to great views of Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Glossy-backed Becard, Black Curassow, incredible hummingbirds everywhere and morning coffee looking for a pair of Zigzag herons at Fred’s. The list continues with many incredible woodpeckers, toucans, jacamars and tanagers every day.
We also saw some great mammals including Paca, Squirrel Monkey, Brown Capuchin, Bearded Saki, White-faced Saki, Red Howler Monkey, Red-handed Tamarin, Kinkajou, Tayra, Pale-throated Three-toed Sloth, Linnaues’s Two-toed Sloth, Red-rumped Agouti, and Gray Four-eyed Opossum.
We bought the Bradt Guide to Suriname about a year and a half in advance of actually going. We put off the trip as the KLM flights from Amsterdam can be quite pricy (though very quick) and we hoped that at some point the price of the flight would fall to within our budget. When it finally did, we paid just over EUR 800 per ticket (from Munich, via Amsterdam), which is still far more than we paid to Brazil, most countries in Africa, the USA or Asia. This was cheap confiding the flights had been going for as much as EUR 1400! Ouch!
Somewhat more information is available about birding in Suriname in Dutch and not very much in English. Thankfully two separate trip reports were published from 2017 in English by Dutch birders Remco Hofland (26 Nov – 12 Dec 2017) and Tues Luijendijk (23 Feb – 13 March 2017). In particular, Remco Hofland’s report is extremely detailed and highly recommended. They seemingly saw it all, but they also had guides at more places and the ear of a seasoned local can make all the difference, especially in dark forests. Thank you to Remco and Tues.
There is a dedicated bird guide to Suriname, namely the Birds of Suriname featuring plates by Ber van Perlo. I am not a huge fan of this book but it does narrow things down considerably in comparison to using a guide from Columbia, Brazil or Venezuela. In addition, the glue melted off the spine of the book and it basically fell apart in the field. For a book published in 2016, the design, layout and usability are straight out of the 1970s. The plates are overloaded with species on most pages and there are no range maps. In spite of these shortcomings, the book was serviceable for most things and we were glad to have it. Still recommended.
It wasn’t completely obvious to us how best to tackle the topic of transport in Suriname before leaving. Our original goal was drive to every location by ourselves. Driving to Fred’s Place in a high-ground-clearance vehicle would have been very doable. The logging road through the jungle to Fred’s is not problematic: It is flat, wide and in excellent condition.
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The road to Brownsberg, however, is another thing entirely, and in hindsight we were glad that we didn’t try to tackle this on our own though we certainly would have made it just fine with the right vehicle. The challenge is to rent a vehicle capable of making the long ascent to the Brownsberg plateau from Brownsweg without possibly damaging the car. All the rental companies we contacted expressly forbid even driving at all on an unsealed road (of which there are many) let alone a road in this poor condition. Before renting, Ross Rental Car asked us to list where we intended to go. Put off by this, we decided to rent a small car instead and not go it alone. Being unwilling to take the risk in this instance was probably wise. The road to Brownsberg is steep, full of deep big holes that look like ponds and there is a fair amount of traffic on it at the weekend. It also rains regularly at the Brownsberg because of its elevation at over 700 m. Fred told us no one feels responsible for this road and so no one fixes it.
So instead, we arranged to have Fred bring us to the top of Brownsberg in his vehicle. Once at the top, everything can be done on foot (though birding the long access road with a car would have been very rewarding). There is only one driver at the top who will gladly take you down for the extortionate price of 400-500 SRD. This price, like many things at Brownsberg continues to go up. If you are a bigger group or kind find others who want to go down at the same time then this price isn’t so bad. At the weekend Brownsberg gets busy. Most weekday guests wanted to leave as soon as this happened so maybe time going down for Saturday and share the taxi costs like we did. From Brownsweg we took at taxi back to Zanderij from Fargo’s place. Fargo’s place is a gas station/supermarket area in Brownsweg that is somewhat of a tourist transport hub. A taxi from town might be cheaper.
We didn’t accomplish everything we had originally set out to do in Suriname. With just two weeks in country and the desire to bird most of the trip independently, we took our time and reduced the number of locations we visited. When birding ourselves, we find it helpful to go to the same location at least two times. We therefore birded at Weg naar Zee, Chocopot and Peperpot near the capital. We also looked for birds near the airport in the white-sand savannah areas near Powaka, Colakreek and at Palulu Camping (where we also stayed 2x). Additionally, we birded for 6 days with Fred Pansa at Fredberg/Fred’s Place and stayed 3 nights at Brownsberg.
Remco and Tues describe all these areas in detail in the aforementioned trip reports, which are available at CloudBirders.com. We did not visit Bigi Pan, though I wish now that we had made the time to see the western area along the coast. We skipped Warappa Creek because the boat trip is expensive. In hindsight, I wish we had skipped Weg naar Zee (a coastal location) in favor of doing an afternoon drive out to Bigi Pan and spending the night.
To see some of the specialties (COTR) and other cotingas etc., one used to have to fly or boat to an interior location. Now that Fred’s Place has opened up, this is no longer necessary. So instead of taking a domestic flight, we spent 6 wonderful (though somewhat expensive given how we usually travel) days with Fred. We don’t regret it at all.
That being said, one of the reasons we first became interested in Suriname was to see some truly unspoiled forest. This surely exists at Kabalebo Nature Resort. But we didn’t have the time or the budget to do both Fred’s Place and Kabalebo and so we chose Fred’s. We saw an incredible number of birds with Fred that we likely wouldn’t have seen or not nearly as well without him. Highly recommended. That being said, the area around Fred’s is being ‘selectively’ logged by the Chinese. This is likely nothing new to those of you have birded nearly anywhere ever, but it is worth keeping in mind. Mammals are certainly better in the undisturbed interior.
We made great use of the Birds of Brazil app for calls and organization. The app has a favorites feature that allows you to check as many birds as you want for a shortlist. In combination with eBird’s advanced tools to help you pinpoint what is around and what you haven’t yet seen, this is a nice feature for narrowing things down. Otherwise it can be overwhelming looking for the 300 plus species at every location. We recorded our sightings (330 birds in two weeks) on eBird. We also had birdcalls on our smartphone for all nearly all the species. Contact me and I will send them via WeTransfer.
For tricky species and look alike flycatchers, Merlin was sometimes quite useful. You can even take a picture of your camera’s screen and it’s sufficient for an ID/narrowing things down. When you are with Fred you don’t need any of this of course because he knows all the calls.
We got a SIM card from Telesur to have internet on our phone for eBird and Google Maps. We also downloaded the Dutch dictionary for Google Translate, but we didn’t need this as we got by quite well with English.
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Water/Reducing Plastic Consumption
Carrying a SteriPEN (a water purifier that relies on ultraviolet light) can really save on plastic consumption and the need to buy loads of water in plastic bottles.
In Paramaribo the water is evidently of drinking quality. Outside of the capital, we found that water was readily available from the tap and we purified this water with the SteriPEN and refilled it into our existing plastic bottles.
- Fred has water-refilling stations at the main area at Fred’s Place (Zintete).
- We refilled water from the tap in Brownsberg and purified it ourselves and even mixed in a little grape juice for a sugar kick.
If you are a birder, we are sure you already care about and have witnessed first hand plastic’s impact on the environment! SteriPENS are a great investment and allow you to drink river water, etc.
Safety, Dangers, Traffic, Annoyances
Safety: Having previously travelled fairly extensively in South and Central America, we experienced Suriname as very low key. In many South American countries there can sometimes be a bit of a harder edge in the background, necessitating varying levels of caution and common sense. Additionally, there is usually more overall tourism. Suriname in our estimation lacked this edge and there were very few tourists. With a population of just over 450,000, the country has more of a village vibe (especially outside of Paramaribo).
Mosquitos were not an issue at all during our stay, although we got smashed by chiggers (sand flies) almost everywhere we went and the bites still itch as we write this. Bring and use deet products but be smart and remember that it is highly poisonous, especially if you have sensitive skin. Ticks were also an issue with the smaller variety being more annoying as they were usually only discovered later (once had 30 in one go while photographing a Sungrebe at Peperpot). The larger ticks bite hard and were immediately discovered and removed. At Brownsberg there was an endless supply of biting flies to contend with. These were large and fairly easy to kill with patience but they distracted from calling birds as they buzzed around.
Car travel is always the most dangerous element of any trip. Traveling during the short dry season (October/November), roads everywhere were in good condition (if sometimes a bit dusty). We rented a car from Ross Rental Cars (by far the best value in comparison to the international brands and their weekly rates are very good). Driving on the left was no problem and for the most part traffic (and aggressive drivers) was nothing in comparison to e.g. Brazil. That being said, however, the roads in Paramaribo do become clogged during rush hour and then all bets are off. Otherwise driving ourselves around during the first week was really quite easy and it allowed us to go at our own pace. If we had been able to get a car for our whole trip, we would have considered it but in the end it wasn’t necessary.
Conclusion/What we might have done differently
All in all it was a good trip and by selecting just a few locations we weren’t moving around all the time and we had second and third chances at different birds. Subsequent visits to good birding locations like Peperpot and multiple days at Brownsberg meant we could take our time and explore.
The original idea was to get somewhere deep in the interior. Other trip reports have also lamented not doing this but for birding it was the right choice. Fred’s place is amazing and there is still so much more potential that even Fred hasn’t discovered.
With more time and the benefit of hindsight I would add a day and one night our schedule and go to Bigi Pan. Also, there is a research boat that looks for River Dolphins out of Paramaribo. This only takes place on Sundays. I would have built this in to the schedule. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing any of the other dolphin tours as we have been warned these are hokey.