Ex­otic bird­ing

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

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: DAVID CHAN­DLER

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.

Los Tar­alles

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.

Horned Guans

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

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