The central American country of Guatemala is home to hundreds of different bird species so is a must-visit destination if you’re planning an exotic birdwatching trip
David Chandler takes a birding trip of a lifetime to Guatemala in Central America
GUATEMALA PRODUCES QUALITY coffee and quality quetzals, but with more than 700 bird species on the national list – and the possibility of more than 300 in a week’s birding – there’s a lot more to this tropical hotspot than roasted beans and birds with outrageously long tails, as you will find out here...
Guatemala covers 109,000 square kilometres, making it less than half the size of the UK. Its frontiers rub against Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. This is a country with large areas of tropical forest, including near mythical cloud forest. There’s dry scrub and humid savannah, upwards of 30 volcanoes, three of which are active, and wonderful Mayan history and
archaeology. I spent nine days there in March last year. It’s a tough job, I know. If you’re new to the Neotropics (Central and South America and the Caribbean) be prepared for a bold palette of avian colour, bird families you have never encountered before, and some identification challenges. This country is home to tinamous, guans and chachalacas, trogons, motmots, toucans, parrots, woodcreepers, leaftossers, and no fewer than 38 hummingbird and 58 flycatcher species! If you’re an old hand, there are still some compelling reasons to visit Guatemala; specifically Azure-rumped Tanager, Pink-headed Warbler and Horned Guan. These three will raise the heart rate of hardened, battle-weary world-birders. Add Resplendent Quetzal and you have Guatemala’s ‘big four’. We arrived late at night, but that didn’t prevent an early start (a recurring theme!). In dim light, we walked to the van through the cobbled streets of Antigua Guatemala, a World Heritage city, with a volcano outlined in the distance. St Cristobal el Alto was our destination, not far from the city and 1,900 metres above sea level. It was low-energy, high-impact birding,
with little walking involved. Layer upon layer of volcanoes were laid out before us, scrubby, wooded, and misty. A Golden-fronted Woodpecker showed well, high on a tree snag. There were three Bushy-crested Jays, with dark heads and turquoise backs. A blob in a nearby tree turned into a tiny Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. Three Gray Silky Flycatchers came over, long-tailed, with bubbly calls. They perched – and were indeed silky grey, with white eye rings and yellow vents. A hummingbird whizzed out from a tree – Azure-crowned. Golden Olive Woodpecker… Lesser Goldfinch… Acorn Woodpecker… The mist was clearing, slowly. A Bandbacked Wren flicked its tail, calling roughly. We scoped an Elegant Euphonia, a small finch with a very, very blue head – a blast of colour. Two Rusty Sparrows put in an appearance – at 19cm long, these are big sparrows, with a dark moustache and a rusty crown, and a voice reminiscent of Cetti’s Warbler. Then there was a scene that looked like a photo-composite but wasn’t. One tree snag, a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at the top, two male and two female Elegant Euphonia further down, and three Gray Silky Flycathers. All at once. Honest! A Townsend’s Warbler… a Boatbilled Flycatcher... I was overwhelmed already, but it was time for a gorgeous al-fresco breakfast, with 16 distant Gray Silky Flycatchers, and a much closer Hermit Warbler, one of countless North American wood warblers that can be seen here. Then to Finca El Pilar, a private montane forest nature reserve, complete with hummingbird feeders. If you feed them, they will come... and they did – four species in a minute or two – Rufous Sabrewing, with a white stripe behind the eye, cinnamon tail corners and underparts, a species found only in Guatemala, a bit of Mexico, and El Salvador; Magnificent Hummingbird – a very large hummer, black and green with a white spot behind the eye, and green on the throat – but only when the light is right; Azure-crowned again, and Berylline, with white trousers. We left Antigua, Guatemala, early(!), saw White-eared Hummingbird at a feeder in the breakfast stop car park, then strolled into pine forest, 2,200 metres above the sea. We were looking for Pink-headed Warbler, a bird the colour of red wine, with… a pink head. There are perhaps 50,000 left, but you can only see them in Chiapas (a southern Mexican state), and Guatemala. Deforestation means its future may be less rosy than its plumage. They didn’t prove too tricky to see, but were none the less special for that. The first of the big four came easy. Tecpan had more delights up its forested sleeve… a Crescent-chested Warbler, found in Central America and Mexico, eating a caterpillar. A Mountain Trogon – perched quite high, its chest pumping out its electronic call. A Spot-crowned Woodcreeper – in essence, an oversized treecreeper. A Blue-throated Motmot called, ‘pooh-pooh-pooh’, but was secretive. Eventually, we saw it. The motmots are related to kingfishers and bee-eaters. Most have distinctive tail rackets – this species doesn’t. The strikingly marked Chestnut-sided Shrike Vireo is one of those birds that when you see it illustrated, you want to see for real. It’s another species found only in Chiapas and Guatemala. ‘Ours’ perched high, giving a drawn out whistle. A small group of Band-backed
Wrens rattled noisily. The Hairy Woodpecker had buff, not white, underparts – it was the Guatemalan subspecies.
This remarkable lodge and private nature reserve sits on the south-eastern side of Atitlan Volcano. More than 340 bird species and more than 270 butterfly species have been recorded on its 1,300 hectares of forest and shade coffee plantation. It looks after its people, too, providing income (to highly competent local bird and wildlife guides for example), education (including nature studies and conservation), medical care and even a church for 60 Maya Kaqchikel families who live in the protected area. Los Tarralles stretches from 700 metres to a pulse-quickening 3,500 metres above sea level. There is a lot to see here, and we spent two days looking! A Cinnamon Hummingbird welcomed us, its long white tongue flicking in and out of a blood-red, dark-tipped bill. Black-headed Saltator, Spot-breasted Oriole, Yellow-winged Tanager, Orange-chinned and Orange-fronted Parakeets. A Tayra (a giant relative of the Pine Marten) ambled through the treetops. We followed the path into forest, passing bamboo of outrageous dimensions. It was still, sweaty and humid. The stars that afternoon were ‘Toledo’ birds, named after their electronic ‘te-tu-tuu’ call. They’re not called that in the field guide of course – their proper name is Long-tailed Manakin, one of 50 or so species that make up this Neotropical family famed for complex courtship rituals and lekking. We saw a male, blue on the back, red on the nape, 10cm of body, 15cm or so of tail, and then another male, ‘te-tu-tuu’. By 5.30pm the light was fading. Two Yellow-naped Parrots came over on shallow wingbeats. A Grayish Saltator, two White-bellied Chachalacas, peculiar turkey-like birds with red throats, Pacific Parakeet and Vaux’s Swift completed the day’s notebook entries. By 6.10am the next morning, after a spell in a four-wheel-drive, we were in secondary forest looking for Azure-rumped Tanager. It’s a special bird, with a small ribbon range, reaching from southern Mexico into Guatemala. Up to 7,000 is the top end of the population estimate, and they occur in maybe half a dozen sites in Guatemala. My old field guide to Mexican birds says “extremely rare; only two specimens known”. It took time, but we saw one, at the nest, high and distant – the first known nest in Guatemala this year. That was the second of the big four. A Long-billed Starthroat put in an appearance – a hummingbird with a cool name and a magenta throat. A White Hawk perched obligingly and a male Painted Bunting showed off its colours, straight out of a six-year-old’s paintbox. The cicadas made a dreadful noise – it sounded like their batteries needed replacing. A White-bellied Chachalaca called, ‘chachala, chachala’, and a Smoky-brown Woodpecker drummed, then appeared. We went higher for another al-fresco breakfast, with Turkey Vultures, a King Vulture and a Black Hawk Eagle against the backdrop of Atitlan Volcano. We were in coffee-growing territory and it was flowering, and good for birds, with Prevost’s Ground Sparrow – large, with a rufous crown and cheek patch, and a Buffy-crowned Wood Partridge. There was a much closer encounter with Azure-rumped Tanager, when you could see the azure on the wings and rump, a beautifully red White-winged Tanager, two Turquoise-browed Motmot, as good as you
imagine, with tail rackets, Blue-crowned Motmot and Tody Motmot – hard to see, shade-loving and secretive. The Northern Potoo was doing a convincing impression of part of a tree, watching through notches in closed eyelids.
Fuentes Georginas National Park
We started early and drove into the highlands, 2,400 metres above sea level. It was cool, subtropical forest clinging to volcano sides, with bromeliads and tree ferns, and Santa Maria Volcano standing proudly in the distance. A Unicoloured Jay made itself obvious on top of a conifer, a tasteful blue, with black accents on the wings and around the eyes. What sounded like a voice-coached Corn Bunting was singing – that was a Brown-backed Solitaire, a high altitude thrush. There were more hummingbirds, and Pink-headed Warblers again! A bird with a cinnamon belly poked around flowers looking for food… it was a Cinnamonbellied Flowerpiercer, searching for nectar. While we birded, people bathed in the hotbaths. Birding continued in the restaurant – a Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush moved from table to table.
A Horned Guan is the size of a turkey, lives in trees and is only found in parts of Guatemala and Chiapas. Birdlife International classify it as ‘endangered’ and estimate its population, conservatively, at 1,000-2,499 individuals. As you would expect, this Guan has a horn – a red sticky-up casque on its head. No other Guan has the audacity to sport such an ornament, but the Horned Guan doesn’t let many people see its horn, or any other part of itself for that matter. But we are going to try. Up early, out early, and in a boat early, we sped across Lake Atitlan, Central America’s deepest. A Great Blue Heron sat on the water like a duck. We passed an Osprey, some Lesser Scaup, American Coot and Laughing Gull, then docked at San Pedro, walked a little, and climbed into the back of a pick-up truck, heading for San Pedro Volcano National Park. By 6.35 we were walking, through flattish, wooded habitat, the mist clearing. We stopped and waited for a Belted Flycatcher, another ‘special’, but no show. Our mood dropped. We sweated, puffed and zig-zagged our way up, ever nearer to the Guan’s cloud forest habitat. A Garnet-throated Hummingbird provided encouragement, and a Black-throated Jay, high in the canopy, proved to be a bit of a neck-breaker. The climb isn’t easy, and most of us slipped over. We waited, 2,400 metres above sea level, with clouds drifting through. The Guans weren’t proving easy, and our guides were worried. Hope faded. Aaron and Cruz, two of our guides, went completely off-piste to track down a Guan, having heard one call. Then Cruz appeared out of the forest. He had left Aaron with the birds and run back. It is 15 minutes or so through jungle, avoiding thorns. And there they were. Not too distant – big, splendid and horned. Two of them – high in a tree, where they should have been. It was about 3pm. It had taken that long. We were rather pleased… On the way down we saw a Belted Flycatcher. You might think the ‘world’s most beautiful bird’ – the quetzal – would put in an appearance for a Bird Watching writer. It was a roadside café, where quetzal encounters are recorded in the graffiti. Lorries thundered past, but the quetzals stayed hidden. We had nice views of a Highland Guan, though. Three out of four ain’t bad.
We waited, 2,400 metres above sea level, with clouds drifting through. The Guans weren’t proving easy, and our guides are worried. Hope faded
MOUNTAIN TROGON One of several species of trogon found in Guatemala KEEL-BILLED TOUCAN One of the most beautiful of the toucan family TIKAL This Mayan temple is perhaps the most famous site in Guatemala
FERRUGINOUS PYGMY OWL A widespread tiny owl COLLARED ARACARI Aracaris are beautiful, small, long-tailed toucans BLUE-CROWNED MOTMOT One of a few motmot species David encountered in his travels
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Rose-breasted Grosbeak