by Jeffrey F. Peters
Background on Guatemala
Nomenclature of species names follows Clements (5th edition)
In March of 2007, John Deppman and I took a custom trip with Cayaya Birding (www.cayaya-birding.com) to Guatemala with the aim of seeing as many of the countries specialty birds as possible in a ten day time frame. John and I met on a trip in the Dominican Republic several years ago and, along with one other friend who could not join us this year, do a once per year “reunion” tour in the tropics.
This year, we decided on Guatemala and, with Cayaya, designed a trip with 3 main sections: (1) birding on the Pacific slope with a focus on seeing some rare Mexican/Guatemalan endemics, including Horned Guan and Azure-rumped Tanager, (2) birding in high altitude cloud forest in the central part of the country for localized specialties including Resplendent Quetzal, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge and Highland Guan and (3) birding in the Mayan ruins of Tikal National Park for specialties and rarities such as Great Currasow, Orange-breasted Falcon, and Crested Guan.
Overall the trip was a wonderful success with 344 species observed (including 16 heard only) in 10 days and well over 100 life birds for me and 82 for John. We also saw or heard most of the region’s restricted range species, including the species mentioned above and many other “goodies” such as Fulvous Owl, Bar-winged Oriole, Bushy-crested Jay, Pink-headed Warbler, Ocellated Turkey, Guatemalan Pygmy-Owl and Guatemalan Screech-Owl.
Cayaya did a great job for us and was outstanding both in terms of the birding
and the logistics of the trip. Knut Eisermann and Claudia Avendaño,
who run Cayaya together, are deeply knowledgeable about the avifauna of Guatemala,
are great birders and organized everything without a hitch. They are working
hard surveying the birdlife in Guatemala, developing birding and eco-tourism
through local lodges such as Los Tarrales and Chelemha (described below), and
exposing Guatemala as a first rate birding destination with marquee species
like Horned Guan that may be found more easily in Guatemala than in any other
area. We would heartily recommend them for anyone interested in birding in Guatemala.
Guatemala has not traditionally been a popular destination for birders over the last 15-20 years due to the civil war that raged there until the middle 1990s, as well as concerns about safety in the country overall. I am happy to say that we encountered no problems whatsoever around either issue. Guatemala is very peaceful and is populated with friendly, helpful people who seem eager to reinvigorate tourism. We had no safety problems at all (though we took the typical precautions in the cities) and neither of us had any real health concerns. Bring insect repellent and sunscreen though-both are needed.
The infrastructure in Guatemala was surprisingly (to me) well-developed, with good highways on a par with those in more developed countries. Hotels in all of the areas we visited were very good and other logistics (flights, etc) proved no problem. In terms of currency, US dollars were accepted in the cities/major towns, though we did rely mostly on quetzals (the local currency), particularly in more rural areas. The food was also very good on the whole and relatively inexpensive. Traditional Central American staples were always available (chicken, rice, beans etc) and we also had some excellent beef and vegetables at various points of our trip.
Finally, the cultural aspects of the trip deserve mention. Antigua with its
traditional colonial markets and architecture was well worth a visit and Tikal
with its vast Mayan ruins lived up to its reputation with stunning pyramids
and temples that are a must see. The highlands around Chelemha were also very
interesting to us. The local people in the area are primarily descended from
Mayan people. They farm in traditional ways, have little to no Spanish and
offer a glimpse into what the rest of the country must have been like historically.
It was fascinating and rewarding to experience just a little bit about how
We had 9 days of birding in Guatemala and two (largely) travel days. Itinerary was as follows:
Day 1, 3/16
Flew into Guatemala City from Miami (2.5 hours) and proceed to Antigua for the night with a short birding stop outside of Guatemala City at a small reserve called Cerro Alux. Night at the Hotel San Jorge in Antigua.
Day 2, 3/17
Bird mid-elevation dry forest near Antigua (El Pilar) and then travel to Los Tarrales, a lodge in the shadow of the Atitlan volcano and our base for 2 days. Bird the area around the lodge in the afternoon. Night at Los Tarrales.
Day 3, 3/18
Very early start to hike up to 2500m on the Atitlan Volcano for Horned Guan and other highland species. In the afternoon, bird the shade coffee plantation in Los Tarrales for Azure-rumped Tanager and other mid elevation species. Night at Los Tarrales.
Day 4, 3/19
Bird different trails around lodge in the early am and drive back to Guatemala City, stopping at Cerro Tecpan for high-elevation mixed forest specialties including Pink-headed Warbler in the afternoon. Night in Guatemala City.
Day 5, 3/20
Long drive to new cloud forest lodge in a tiny village called Chelemha, located between Guatemala City and Coban. Upon arrival, bird one trail circuit at Chelemha looking for Resplendent Quetzal. Night at Chelemha Lodge.
Day 6, 3/21
All day at Chelemha hiking trails and birding around the lodge for highland species. Owling at night. Night at Chelemha.
Day 7 3/22
Morning at Chelemha followed by drive to Guatemala City, stopping in the arid Motagua Valley for quick “desert” birding. Night at Guatemala City.
Day 8, 3/23
Catch early flight to Tikal National Park, near Flores. Bird along road to park and in the park in the afternoon. Night birding after dinner. Night at Jungle Lodge, Tikal.
Day 9, 3/24
Full day in Tikal, starting with early morning walk on trails, mid-morning on the pyramids for raptors and more forest birding in the afternoon. Night birding after dinner. Night at Jungle Lodge, Tikal.
Day 10, 3/25
Morning on trails at Tikal followed by mid-afternoon flight back to Guatemala City. Farewell dinner that evening.
Day 11, 3/26
Depart for Miami
Day 1, 3/16: Arrival and Cerro Alux
After battling snowstorms (me) and red eyes (John), we met in Miami and, after a modest delay due to thunderstorms, flew to Guatemala City, arriving by 3:30 pm. After clearing customs and retrieving baggage, we met Knut and started toward Antigua. We were anxious to start birding, so Knut suggested we stop at a park in the hills above Guatemala City called Cerro Alux.
Cerro Alux turned out to be a nice, smallish reserve with nice vistas over the city. Due to our flight delay, we arrived only an hour or so before dark, so we focused our birding on the lookout and nearby picnic area. Nonetheless, we quickly got into some good birds. Steller’s Jay (a distinctive subspecies with little crest and white around the eye) was vocal as we left the car, and we soon found our first target, Black-capped Swallow, at the overlook. Hooded Grosbeak was also singing and, as we proceeded down the hill to a picnic area, we saw several Rufous-collared Robins in the grassy areas, Band-tailed Pigeon and a Tufted Flycatcher hawking insects. We also heard a couple of Blue-and-White Mockingbirds and had a very brief view of what was probably an Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush but failed to get good views of either of them as darkness began falling. We made our way back to the car and completed the drive to Antigua, where we checked into our comfortable hotel, had a nice dinner and went to sleep.
Day 2, 3/17 – El Pilar and Los Tarrales
We started the next day with breakfast on the patio of the hotel, accompanied by more Black-capped Swallows, the local race of Vaux’s Swift, and the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackles, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Clay-colored Robins and Bronzed Cowbirds. We then left Antigua and drove to a nearby forest named El Pilar. There was a lot of activity along the road into the reserve, which culminates in a culvert next to which there are several hummingbird feeders. In the trees along the road, we encountered a nice mixed flock which included Bushy-crested Jay, Squirrel Cuckoo, Band-backed Wren, Black-headed Siskin, Gray Silky-Flycatcher, Golden-Olive Woodpecker Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Rose-throated Becard, Grayish Saltator, Yellow-winged Tanager, Elegant Euphonia, and our only Bar-winged Orioles of the trip. Neotropical migrants were much in evidence as well, with Tennessee, Magnolia, Townsend’s, Wilson’s and Black-and-White Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Cedar Waxwing and Summer Tanagers all seen.
We then move up the road to the hummingbird feeders, where we had 8 species of hummer: Violet and Rufous Sabrewings, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Blue-tailed and Magnificent, White-eared, Berylline and Azure-crowned Hummingbirds. We also had other species such as Guatemalan (Northern) Flicker, the local ssp of Hairy Woodpecker, Slate-throated Redstart, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and Blue-and-White Mockingbird. White-eared Ground-Sparrows were calling but did not provide any views.
It was here in El Pilar that we saw our first of many Gringo Quemado (Bursera sp.) trees. The bark of this tree is dark red and peeling, thus it is widely known as the "burnt gringo" tree.
After a couple hours at El Pilar, we went back to Antigua to change money, get some provisions and collect our gear and it was off to Los Tarrales. Los Tarrales is a relatively new lodge situated behind the Atitlan Volcano with a variety of habitats ranging from lowland fields and wet scrubby forest to mid-level shade coffee plantation to high altitude cloud forest. Los Tarrales owns much of one forested side of the volcano and is the best place to see the much sought after Horned Guan and Azure-rumped Tanagers as well as many other specialties. The drive was uneventful, though we did get several swallows on the way, including Gray-breasted Martin, Black-capped, Barn and Northern Rough-winged as well as our first White-throated Magpie-Jays.
We arrived at the lodge at about mid-day and, after a short stop at the entrance for a feeding flock of Tennessee Warblers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias, Altamira Oriole as well as flyovers of a flock of Pacific Parakeets, Short-tailed Hawk, and a surprising Merlin, we checked in and had a very nice lunch. We then headed out on a trail which passed a small pond (which surprisingly had had Sungrebe on it a couple of weeks earlier) and ventured into disturbed forest. The area was quite birdy, and we quickly had Orange-chinned and Orange-fronted Parakeets, Red-billed Pigeon, Cinnamon and Blue-tailed Hummingbirds, Yellow-naped Parrot, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-billed Cacique and flyby White-bellied Chachalaca. Flycatchers were common, including Ochre-bellied, Common Tody and Yellow-olive Flycatchers amongst the common Socials, Kiskadees and Dusky-cappeds. Magnolia Warbler, Least and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Spot-breasted Oriole rounded out the list. After 90 minutes or so, we were in the middle of searching for Rufous-breasted Spinetail when we were interrupted by a heavy rain shower, which sent us back to the lodge.
After the rain ended, Knut and I made a return trip to the spinetail spot but had only Blue-crowned Motmot and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl for our trouble. Overall, however, we were quite happy with our luck, as we saw almost all of the lowland Pacific species we were targeting. We made our way slowly back to the lodge, watching some migrating Lesser and Common Nighthawks as darkness fell. As the next day was the Horned Guan hike and started with a 2:30 am wake-up, we had an early dinner and were off to get some rest.
Day 3, 3/18 – Horned Guan and Azure-rumped Tanager, Los Tarrales
This was my most anticipated day of the trip as we were targeting both Horned Guan (in the morning) and Azure-rumped Tanager (in the afternoon). I also enjoy hiking quite a bit and was looking forward to ascending the Atitlan volcano. (I was half-hoping to summit it, but after having done the hike, I realize now that would have been impossible without taking the entire day).
2:30 am found us in the car driving some rough roads up to a small village on the Los Tarrales property called Vesubio, where we were met by Gerardo López who monitors the guans weekly. By 3:30, we were starting on the 3-4 hour hike up to 2500m, where we needed to be to see the guans when they are most active, daybreak. Shortly into the hike, John unfortunately began not feeling well, so he and one of the local Tarrales guides who had come with us decided to stay at the lower elevations. Knut, Gerardo and I pushed on.
Despite my enjoyment of hiking, I soon found that this hike was not for the faint of heart. The trail followed a ridge line straight upslope, with a steep, unrelenting incline that went on the entire way, with very few switchbacks on which to rest and difficult, dusty, slick footing. Nevertheless, we did the hike quickly as we were in a hurry to get up to the guans.
Within the first hour, hiking in pitch dark, we had found only a Pauraque resting on the path, but as we ascended, bird activity began picking up. It started with calling Mexican Whip-poor-wills and Mottled Owl, which I managed to spotlight very briefly before it flew off into the forest. Fulvous Owls also were calling from far off and Highland Guans began giving there peculiar rattles but it was too dark to see them. We did see a local member of the raccoon family, the Cacomistle, which we were able to spotlight well next to the trail.
After 2.5 hours, the sky began to lighten and we were treated to the awesome sight of the sun rising over two volcanoes (Acatenango and Fuego), one of which was active and had smoke pouring from its conical summit. A truly stunning sight I will never forget.
But the best was yet to come, as not more than 30 minutes later, Gerardo held up his hand for quiet. We then heard a low “ooming” sound close to the trail. Quietly, we moved toward the sound and within 5 minutes were looking at 2 beautiful Horned Guans with 2 chicks! We couldn’t believe our good fortune. We had found the birds quickly, complete with chicks, something neither Gerardo nor Knut had seen before. What fantastic birds and a great reward for a challenging hike!
We watched the guans for about 30 minutes and then began working our way down, checking off the other birds which had emerged in the forest. In short order, we had the Guatemalan ssp of Common Bush-Tanager, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, Hooded Grosbeak, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Yellowish Flycatcher, Golden-browed Warbler, Collared Trogon, Paltry Tyrannulet, and Brown-backed Solitaire as well as calling Black-throated Jay. Farther down slope, we also saw Plumbeous Vireo (first Tarrales record) Emerald Toucanet, Blue-throated Motmot, a beautiful Black Hawk-Eagle, White Hawk, Brown-capped Vireo, White-collared and White-throated Swifts and Fan-tailed Warbler. We missed Emerald-chinned Hummingbird at a stake-out Knut had for it and could not catch up to the jays, but we did see a flock of 4-5 thrushes (Swainson’s and Hermit) attacking a small snake on the trail.
As we emerged from the forest into the coffee plantation, we ran into a small flock and were able to add Black-headed Saltator, Golden-crowned Warbler, Prevost’s and White-eared Ground Sparrows, Rusty Sparrow and Violaceous Trogon, in addition to more Neotropical migrants, with Blue-headed Vireo, Worm-eating Warbler, Nashville Warbler and Blackburnian Warbler being the most notable.
As daylight broke, John birded the forest below with Josue, our local guide, seeing Highland Guans, as well as White-faced Quail-Dove, Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, Long-billed Starthroat, Black-crested Coquette, Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird, and Tody Motmot.
After a quick picnic lunch at the car, we embarked on another hike down to a ridge full of cecropia trees where the Azure-rumped Tanagers had recently been seen. On the way to the ridge, we ran into some good birds including several hummers in one large flowering tree that John had found in the morning. Along with the more common Blue-taileds and Green-throated Mountain-Gems, we found Emerald-chinned, as well as Sparkling-tailed Woodstar and Black-crested Coquette. A very nice tree! We also saw more thrushes, warblers, vireos etc before cresting a dry ridge where we began seeing tanager flocks in earnest.
We searched along the ridge for about two hours and had many Yellow-winged, Western, Summer and White-winged Tanagers, but no Azure-rumpeds. Finally at the end of the ridge, I was looking at several Yellow-wingeds and saw a tanager that looked different. I could only see the front part of the bird but it had all black wings and a light blue head, akin to a Beryl-spangled Tanager in coloration. I alerted the rest of the group, but the bird flew before anyone else could get on it. As I was the only one who saw it, I spent a lot of time poring over notes and field guides before confirming it as an Azure-rumped Tanager. Not the best look and very unfortunate that I was the only one who saw it, but the head color and all black wing coverts clinched the id for me.
As evening aproached, I retraced the trail with Knut and Gerardo to our car (I wanted another chance to find the Azure-rumped) while John and Josué returned in another vehicle, seeing two Crested Guans along the way. On our hike, we did not get another Azure-rumped, but we did see Flame-colored Tanager, Blue-Crowned Chlorophonia, White-breasted Hawk, some very high flying Barred Parakeets, Ruddy Quail-Dove and White-throated Robin. Gerardo also had White-faced Quail-Dove. We made it back to the hotel in another rain storm and, though pretty weary from the 12+ miles of walking we had done, we made a brief attempt at owling. No luck, so we sat down to a great dinner with a celebratory beer or two before collapsing into bed.
Day 4, 3/19 – Los Tarrales and Cerro Tecpan
The next morning was our last at Los Tarrales and we spent it on another trail through the coffee plantation. This was actually the birdiest part of the trip to date. Activity was very high and we had great views of new trip birds such as Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Lesser Greenlet, Rufous-capped Warbler, Long-billed Starthroat, Long-billed Gnatwren, Northern Bentbill, Greenish Elaenia, Long-tailed Manakin, Yellow-breasted Chat, Painted Bunting, and Rufous-naped, Southern House, Spot-breasted, Plain and Rufous-and-white Wrens. White-bellied Chachalaca gave much better views and we heard but could not track down Tody Motmot.
By mid-morning we were back at the lodge, ready to make our way back to Guatemala City for the night. On the way, we stopped at a pine forest called Cerro Tecpan for some other specialties including Pink-headed Warbler. Our trip was quite slow due to lots of road work, and we did not arrive at Tecpan until after lunch time. We had an excellent lunch at a rib restaurant just off the road and then got into the forest at Tecpan.
The contrast with Los Tarrales was stark. Temperatures were cool and the pines were a strong change of pace from the lush cloud and shade coffee forest we had been in for the last two days, The birding, however, turned out to be just as good. We quickly found a feeding flock and saw new birds such as Olive Warbler, Hutton’s Vireo, Crescent-chested Warbler, Black Robin, Bushtit and Guatemalan Flicker in short order. After some searching, we also found a Pink-headed Warbler, which showed very well for us for 5-10 minutes. What a stunning bird, with its bright red body and pinkish white head! Chestnut Shrike-Vireos were also calling up slope but we could not find them. Black-capped Siskin has been recorded at Tecpan, but we did not see it.
Leaving Tecpan, we continued on to Guatemala City, where we had a nice dinner at our hotel and called it a day.
Day 5, 3/20 – Drive to Chelemha
Today was mostly spent driving from Guatemala City into the highlands to Chelemha. Chelemha is a small, new lodge in a remote village between Guatemala City and Coban. The lodge is owned by two Swiss whose dream it was to protect some forest in Cental America. They bought a large tract and have built this lodge at the forest’s edge. Across the valley is another large tract of forest as well, so the highland birding potential is quite good. It should be noted that Chelemha is a very remote area , 2 hours off the main highway on roads which varied from okay to only passable with 4WD. The roads are being upgraded currently and by early 2008 should be okay all the way to the lodge. The lodge itself is rustic with no lights and hot water only when the cooking fires and wood-stoves are lit, but it is spotlessly clean and quite comfortable. The food at the lodge is also outstanding, with most grown locally. The lodge even has a small but nice collection of wine!
Chelemha has potential to be a very special area. It is reputedly the best place for Resplendent Quetzal in Guatemala and has many other difficult birds, including Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Guatemalan Pygmy-Owl, Highland Guan, etc. Our luck was not stellar while we were there as a storm blew in one hour after we arrived and we struggled through rain and dense fog for most of our time there. That said, we did see some nice birds and heard all of the specialties, but a return visit may be necessary to see some of the tougher species.
The drive was uneventful, notable only for the quality of a rest stop we stopped in for coffee (complete with new Plasma TV!) and some Chestnut-headed Oropendolas along the road to Chelemha, as well as the very depressing devastation caused to the forests we were passing through by slash and burn farming (to plant corn). It was tough to see, as the only forest that was left was at the very peaks of the mountains where it is too steep to farm. One bright spot was that, where the forest was left to regrow, it did so quickly. The owners of Chelemha were actively reforesting some cleared land below the lodge and the rate of growth was astounding given that they had only planted a few years ago.
When we arrived, we gratefully stretched our legs, unpacked our gear (which was winched up to the lodge to save us a difficult hike with our bags), had a quick lunch and hit the trails behind the lodge. The key bird for us was Resplendent Quetzal, and we were not disappointed. After a half hour of hiking, Knut spotted a beautiful male in a clearing near some fruiting trees and we were treated to great views of this awesome bird! We would see several during the two days at Chelemha. Other notable birds along the trail were Spectacled (Scaly-throated) Foliage-Gleaner, Blue-throated Motmot, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Black-capped Swallow, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Mountain and Black Robin, and Mountain Trogon (heard only). We also saw a nice Garnet-throated Hummingbird and Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer in the brush near the lodge.
It was then that the rains unfortunately came, and we spent the rest of the day resting in the lodge before a nice dinner and bed. That night, we did hear Guatemalan Pygmy-Owl down the valley and Fulvous Owls as well, but the visibility was too poor to go after them.
Day 6, 3/21 - Chelemha
The next day dawned to cold weather, constant rain and dense fog. Knut remarked how unusual this was as March is the dry season. I would hate to see the wet season!
Despite the rain, we went out birding and had some good things in between the rain drops: Ruddy Foliage-gleaner at the lodge, Rufous-browed Wren, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch and calling Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge. However, after an hour or so, we couldn’t see anything and activity was really low, so we adjourned to wait for better conditions and have some hot coffee.
The better conditions never came, but an hour or so later, Knut and I went out again, focusing on the secondary forest below the lodge, where we had Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-throated (White-naped) Brushfinch and a nice sparrow (Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, Lincoln’s), seedeater (White-collared) and Grassquit (Yellow-faced) flock. It began pouring again so we went back to the lodge for lunch.
After lunch, it brightened a little, and John and Knut went out to see some of the species Knut and I had seen in the morning (they got all of them). I took the opportunity to hike the trails again and tried to go higher up where there was a better chance at Black-throated Jay. I had some luck, but it was hard, wet work. I was able to flush two White-faced Quail-Doves, which was nice after missing them earlier, and I had good looks at Slate-colored Solitaire and Mountain Elaenia, as well as very poor looks at a sodden Mountain Trogon that blasted off from a clearing as I approached. I did see several more Quetzals as well. However, I did not see the jays. The weather was truly horrible by the time I got to the trail head to go higher up the ridge, so I turned back, not wanting to hike an unfamiliar trail in poor conditions alone. There were no signs of Black-throated Jay anyway.
We ventured out for one final time in the late afternoon when it did clear a little and were rewarded with our first good looks at Highland Guan. We also tried for Fulvous Owl, but we had to content ourselves with 3 birds calling very close to us.
Day 7, 3/22 – Chelemha and the Motagua Valley
More rain today as we got up and my spirits were a bit low. Knut came with me one more time to go across the valley to an area where he had recently had Pygmy-owl, Chestnut Shrike Vireo, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge and Black-throated Jay. The weather was even worse than yesterday and we saw none of the target birds. The only excitement came when we heard Barred Parakeet but the fog was so thick we had no chance of seeing them.
When we returned, we all decided to move on to drier pastures, so we packed up the car and began the long drive back. The weather did not clear up until we were well into the dry rain shadow of the Motagua Valley, where we stopped to do a bit of birding for some of the dry country specialties there. It was nice to be in the heat and the birding was good. At a local peach plantation , we were led around a river bed and saw Russet-crowned and Turquoise-browed Motmots, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Rufous-naped Wren, Tropical Mockingbird, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Stripe-headed Sparrows, and Altamira and Streak-backed Orioles. We had to cut the walk a bit short because it started to rain - the only time Knut had seen rain in the valley in March. This dry season was a real treat! Actually, the rain felt good and did not curtail things much-we jumped in the car and drove back to Guatemala City, looking forward to the last stage of the trip – Tikal.
Day 8, 3/23
A brief flight to Flores found us disembarking the plane at around 8:30 am to several Gray-breasted Martins and Ridgway’s Rough-winged Swallows. As I got off the plane, I also had 1 Sinaloa Martin fly by. I saw the bird with its blue sides/chest white belly and thought it was a Caribbean. Caribbeans do not occur in Guatemala , however, whereas Sinaloa evidently migrates through, so this was a nice surprise life bird for me.
Off to this great start, we hopped in a van and headed toward Tikal, which was about 1 hour away. En route, we stopped for an hour at a roadside pond, which was very birdy. We saw Limpkin, Snail Kite, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck among the more common water and shorebirds, and then we picked up Mangrove Swallow on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá 20 minutes later.
Then it was on to Tikal. After the gates to the park, we stopped to admire the first Montezuma Oropendolas of the trip and also saw a nice Violaceous Trogon. As we entered the park, we saw many of the very tame Ocellated Turkeys and a ridiculous Gray-breasted Wood-Rail that was running around the concession area. John got some photos of it in a T-shirt shop!
We were staying at the Jungle Lodge. Hotels at Tikal had a mixed reputation, but we found the Jungle Lodge to be fine, with good (though not great) food and service. After lunch, we hit the trail greeted by Brown Jays, Masked Tityra and Sepia-capped Flycatcher in the parking lot, Pale-billed Woodpecker outside our rooms and a nice Royal-Flycatcher. We looked around the pond for Ruddy Crake but had no luck (indeed we never saw or heard this bird-it was absent for some reason) and then started on the trail to Temple VI. As it was mid-afternoon, birding was a bit slow, but we did manage Lineated Woodpecker, Barred Antshrike, Thrush-like Schiffornis, Rufous Piha, White-breasted Wood-wren, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Spot-breasted Wren, Blue-black Grosbeak, White-eyed and Yellow-Green Vireos, Yellow-throated Euphonia and Collared Trogon. We also heard Great Tinamou. The Bat Falcons were not at Temple VI, which was disappointing, but we made up for it with some great views of Mexican Black Howler and Spider Monkeys.
When we entered the main plaza, we were pleased to find a lot of bird activity. Within 10 minutes we had found Slaty-tailed Trogon, 3 Crested Guans, Collared Aracari and Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, as well as more Montezuma Oropendolas and the attendant Giant Cowbirds. We decided to climb the Lost World Pyramid to look for parrots and in doing so saw many, including White-crowned, White-fronted, Red-lored and Mealy, as well as Olive-throated Parakeets and a nice pair of nesting Plumbeous Kites that Knut found while scoping the tree tops. Olive-backed Euphonias also put in an appearance.
With these birds in hand, we decided to head over to Temple IV and go for one of our other “most wanteds” on the trip, Orange-breasted Falcon. When we arrived at the top of the rickety stairs which brought us up the Temple, we were disappointed to find much of the viewing platform roped off and no falcon in sight. A quick chat to the docent got us under the rope and soon, on the other side of the pyramid, we were looking at a point blank Orange-breasted Falcon perched on the scaffolding at the top of the pyramid. What a beautiful little falcon and a real contender for bird of the trip! (As an aside, why does it seem like all great monuments around the world must constantly be covered with scaffolding? )
We watched the sun set from the pyramid and then wandered back to the hotel
for dinner, followed by owling and nightjarring for Knut and me on the nearby airstrip.
This excursion was quite successful as we saw several Pauraques and heard at least 2 Guatemalan Screech-Owls in the brush near the airstrip. As John had opted out, we did not work too hard to see these little owls-we knew we could try again the next night. Nonetheless, it was a nice way to wrap up a great day.
Day 9 – 3/24 - Tikal
Today we had another early start taking a new set of trails through the forest around the other side of the park. It was typical forest birding (i.e. bouts of great activity amongst several dry spells) but we did well. Rising early was not difficult, however, as the Mexican Black Howler Monkeys started howling in the trees just outside our rooms at 5 am. We had 2 different sightings of Great Curassow as they wandered near the trail and we also picked up Bright-rumped Attila, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Stub-tailed Spadebill, White-bellied Wren, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Green Shrike-Vireo, and Prothonotary Warbler as new birds for the trip.
10:30 found us in the lost world again and we climbed the Pyramid of the Lost World (which is really quite spectacular and highly recommended) to look for parrots (we were missing Brown-hooded) and raptors. We saw no parrots, but we did find a nice Double-toothed Kite that showed very well and some soaring King Vultures, as well as more views of Orange-breasted Falcon. Many of the tourists were using their cell phones on the Pyramid of the Lost World as this is the only reliable reception in Tikal. We then adjourned for lunch and a rest during the doldrums of the day. I traversed the Temple IV trail again and picked up new birds such as Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Little Hermit, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper and Tawny-crowned Greenlet, as well as better views of Olive-backed Euphonia. John and Knut joined me on the plaza (they had White-necked Puffbird on their walk in), and we walked the trails back out to the entrance. We added nice Yellow-bellied Tyrannulets as well as a Hooded Warbler on the walk and then tracked down a calling Slaty-breasted Tinamou at dusk, which we managed to see as it crossed the path.
After dinner, we went out to the airstrip again and had an even better owl and nightjar show. The Pauraques were much in evidence and we also had Yucatan Poorwill calling (and possibly seen-one nightjar flushed from the track lacked white in the tail and could have been this species). As we got farther into the forest, we had many Guatemalan Screech-Owls, including one which Knut and I saw very poorly through a dense tangle of brush and calling Mottled and Black and White Owls, which did not come in.
The next day would be our last in Tikal, so we celebrated our final night with a cold beer and then went to sleep.
Day 10 3/25 – Morning at Tikal
Our flight for Guatemala City left at 3:00, giving us the morning at Tikal and we decided to spend it in the forest by the airstrip as there were some species there that we had not yet tried for. First, though we took a brief walk down the entry road to a path into some deeper forest. Here we had some good luck, seeing many species we had seen before and adding Plain Antvireo, Western Long-tailed Hermit, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Red-capped Manakin and Red-throated Ant-Tanager to the seen list. We also heard Gray-headed Dove, Green-backed Sparrow, Brown-hooded Parrot, and Short-billed Pigeon.
After a quick breakfast, we went back out to the airstrip and did a two mile circuit through secondary and more mature forest. In the brushier habitat, we saw several new birds including White-bellied Emerald, Mangrove Vireo, Scaled Pigeon and most importantly, two great views of Pheasant Cuckoo as it flew twice across the path singing. We also heard but could not track down Thicket Tinamou. Once we got into the forest we encountered 2 different feeding flocks. New birds included Plain Xenops, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, Rufous Mourner and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. Gray-throated Chat was heard only. John and Knut also got views of Tawny-crowned Greenlet.
By the tie we emerged from the forest, it was time to go. After lunch, we met our driver and headed for the airport, stopping one more time at the pond on the road to the airport and seeing nothing different. Then it was back to Guatemala City, a great farewell dinner and our flight the next morning.
* * *
Overall this was a great trip. The struggles with the weather did not help at Chelemha, but we saw most of our targets. Better weather luck at Chelemha obviously would have been helpful, and adding 2 or 3 more days ( 2 on the Pacific slope to allow more time at Tecpan and explore some other sites for species that we could not target) and another day at Tikal would have been helpful. Work would not allow the latter, so it leaves us with a great excuse to go back!
(H)-species heard only
Nomenclature of species names follows Clements (5th edition)
Jeffrey F. Peters, Weston, MA, USA.
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