A Bird-Watching Boat Trip to Suriname’s Bigi Pan Natural Reserve

Baby caiman amidst black mangrove roots in Bigi Pan, Suriname (photo credit: Coen Wubbels)

Baby caiman hiding among black mangrove roots (photo credit: Coen Wubbels)

Herons skim the water, their white bodies reflecting in the inky-black water smooth as glass. Green kingfishers nosedive from branches and resurface with a thrashing fish, roseate spoonbills scratch around in shallow waters, and jacanas do what Jesus Birds do: they walk on the water.

Stephanie, our guide, has eyes like a hawk and points out birds, crabs and all kinds of tiny creatures crawling among the mangroves before my eyes have even turned in the right direction. Oh yes, and there’s a caiman too.

A Boat Trip to Suriname’s Largest Open Water Lagoon

Bigi Pan means Big Lake. Like the rest of South America’s northern countries, Suriname not only consists of Amazon Rainforest, but has a coastline of rivers and wetlands that are home to hundreds of bird species, many of which yearly migrate between the US and Canada down to the southern parts of this continent.

Bird watching along Suriname's Atlantic Coast at Bigi Pan (photo credit: Coen Wubbels)

The tidal mudflats of the Atlantic Ocean are a popular feeding ground for migrating birds (photo credit: Coen Wubbels)

In Bigi Pan alone 122 species have been identified, 72 of which live here permanently and 50 that come and go during migration.

Nieuw Nickerie is west Suriname’s main town and a good base from which to organize a boat tour to Bigi Pan. Stephanie was recommended to me as a guide and after a day on the water with her, I can see why. She has knowledge, passion, and a heart in the right place. Together with her husband, who is the game warden of this protected area, they fight for wildlife conservation in a region that in this respect resembles the lawless Wild West, especially in terms of the illegal expansion of agriculture and poaching.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Bigi Pan is one of Suriname’s best places for bird watching.
  • The boat trip includes fishing, swimming, canoeing, lazing in a hammock and catching crabs.
  • Boating on Bigi Pan is a topper for bird watchers and a fun trip for family outings.

Mangroves in the Jamaer Canal

Fishing in Bigi Pan, Suriname (photo credit: Coen Wubbels)

During the boat trip, Stephanie catches some big fish (photo credit: Coen Wubbels)

There are six of us and we have to step out of the open, aluminum boat to help pull it over the slipway that separates the river from the five-mile-long Jamaer Canal, which was dug in 1853 to open up Bigi Pan for fishing and to regulate a fresh water influx (from the Nickerie River) into the brackish ecosystem.

The canal is hemmed in by deep layers of parwa (black mangrove), forming an open-air tunnel. Where branches bow towards each other we duck to avoid getting hit by thick aerial roots. Just above the water surface protrude zillions of short breathing roots that characterize the black mangrove and which form such perfect hiding places for animals like caimans.

Outdoor Activities, Lunch and a Guesthouse on Bigi Pan

The Jamaer Canal opens out into Bigi Pan. About halfway there are several houses on stilts and the boatsman moors along one of them. While Stephanie and her cook prepare a regional lunch with rice, green vegetables and fried fish, we enjoy the activities on offer: lazing in a hammock, angling with a simple rod and line, or taking the canoe out for a spin.

Suriname's largest water lagoon: Bigi Pan (photo credit: Coen Wubbels)

Sunset from the guesthouse in the middle of Bigi Pan (photo credit: Coen Wubbels)

Bird Watching along the Atlantic Ocean

From Bigi Pan we sail to other open-water areas, studded with dead trees. The high branches are favorite spots for birds of prey from which they scan the horizon or water surface for a good meal. I have seldom seen so many birds or such a variety of species in South America as here (a notable exception being the wetlands of the Pantanal, in Brazil).

We stop along a dike, climb to the top and look out over the tidal mudflats of the Atlantic Ocean that stretch towards the horizon. There are few scarlet ibises today, but I’m told that in November they come here by the hundreds. We stroll along the beach, and watch crabs scurrying around in an attempt to escape the hungry beaks of blue herons, sandpipers and other waders.

Practical Information

  • Best season for bird watching is February-March and end of July-November.
  • Don’t forget to bring sun lotion, a hat, insect repellent (there are many mosquitoes but no malaria), and a camera.
  • The cheapest option is to book a tour directly with Stephanie (stephbigipan@hotmail.com). She’s the region’s birding guide for ornithologists.
  • You can also organize a bird watching trip with a tour operator in Paramaribo or Nieuw Nickerie. You may be approached by people in the streets of Nieuw Nickerie who’d like to guide you, but take note that guides are not organized in any way. Unfortunately, there are still a number of people out who wouldn’t mind taking you to illegally hunt certain species.

Photos by: Coen Wubbels

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