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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Guatemala

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: It’s difficult to articulate just how fun, exciting, and successful this tour was. Of course, I always try to make my tours sound as good as possible in the write-up…maybe embellishing a little bit, or glossing over the more challenging days. For this tour, the only challenge will be finding enough unique superlatives to use in describing our outrageous views of rare and difficult birds, the great sense of humor shared by everyone in the group, and the memories of a trip that will go down as one of the best I’ll ever do! I hope it’s clear that Guatemala is a special place…from the road where we saw over 60 (!) Pink-headed Warblers in just a couple hours, to the miniscule Slender Sheartail feeding at eye-level, to the Belted Flycatcher that popped up in the open, to the stunning Blue-crowned Chlorophonia perched in plain view, to the male Resplendent Quetzal flying out of his nest hole, to the abundant Goldman’s Warblers flitting through the pines and junipers…

IN DETAIL: Our tour begins in the bustling city of Antigua, where rustic charm (a local mariachi band playing in the quaint hotel restaurant) contrasts with modern amenities (bass-heavy dance music blasting outside and McDonald’s just around the corner). We started in a fairly relaxed fashion, with some easy birding at Finca El Pilar just outside the city. Here, we enjoyed a great introduction to highland birding, familiarizing ourselves with many of the species we’d be seeing throughout our tour: Gray Silkies perched up conspicuously, the calls of Blue-throated Motmots echoed through the cloud forest, Black-capped Swallows zipped around overhead, and Brown-backed Solitaires serenaded us with their spectacular song. A pair of White-winged Tanagers was appreciated in the scope, Singing Quail crossed the trail quickly, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner played hide-and-seek, and Blue-and-white Mockingbirds perched in the open on fence posts – phew! That can be a tough one.

A quick stop at a set of hummingbird feeders on the way back down the mountain was also quite productive, with dozens of birds keeping us busy – Rivoli’s, Azure-crowned, Berylline, and White-eared Hummingbirds vied for our attention alongside Green-throated Mountain-gem and Rufous and Violet Sabrewings.

After a free afternoon to explore the historic city, we enjoyed a tasty dinner and prepared for our birding the next day. We headed out of Antigua just in time (pre-Easter celebrations were predicted to draw over 100,000 visitors to the city that weekend!) and continued our journey to the west. Our destination was Finca Caleras Chichavac, another easy birding spot with more highland endemics. We started off with a bang – Blue-throated Motmots in the scope for 10 minutes! As we continued walking down the dirt track, birds kept coming – Hairy Woodpecker, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Brown Creeper, Olive Warbler…and finally, our first Pink-headed Warblers! These little gems performed brilliantly, perching on open pine branches and even on the roadside fence posts. One of the most-wanted birds for the tour, in the bag…awesome. We could hardly pull ourselves away from the “Pinkitos” for long enough to notice the Red-faced Warbler nearby or the pair of Hooded Grosbeaks just overhead, perching long enough for scope views…too many good birds to handle!

From there, it was a long drive west, through the town of Huehuetenango and up onto the high plateau of Todos Santos Cuchamatanes. Here, our primary target is quite common and easy to see…the stunning Goldman’s Warbler. Our morning in its high elevation pine savannah habitat was nothing short of spectacular, with better weather than predicted, tons of birds, and amazing scenery. The Goldman’s performed brilliantly, singing from conspicuous perches and sallying out to catch insects in the air. Steller’s Jays bounded around in noisy groups, Guatemalan Flickers perched in the scope, and we lost count of all the Guatemalan Juncos, Spotted Towhees, and Eastern Meadowlarks.

After a late lunch in the town of Huehuetenango, we had another long drive ahead to the far western reaches of Guatemala. Arriving at our rather basic hotel just after dusk, we managed to sort out various necessities (towels, toilet paper, functional light bulbs!) before heading to bed in anticipation of our hike in the morning. Our destination on the flanks of Volcán Tacaná was primarily for Horned Guan, but very dry conditions and very little fruit on the trees made this quest unsuccessful. However, our day of birding was still full of mega highlights – the bamboo was still seeding (just as I hoped after my scouting trip in December!), meaning we had killer views of a male Maroon-chested Ground-Dove in the scope, singing, for about 15 minutes! That will surely never happen again in any of our birding careers. Wow. Everything else paled in comparison to this incredibly rare and enigmatic bird, but it was hard to ignore the Amethyst-throated Hummingbirds, White-breasted (Sharp-shinned) Hawk, Yellowish Flycatcher, multitude of Mountain Thrushes, Crescent-chested and Pink-headed Warblers, and Guatemalan (Yellow) Grosbeak…and even a quick pair of Slaty Finch dashing through the bamboo!

With a great day already under our belts, we decided to spend a few hours the next morning on a nearby road to clean up some of the remaining highland birds and simply enjoy the active birding in this region. This turned out to be a good decision…our morning tally of Pink-headed Warblers exceeded 60 (!!), a Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo perched fully in the open and sang its heart out, Black-throated Jays hopped around unconcernedly, Singing Quail came onto the trail, Rufous-browed Wren did its best to convince us it was a House Wren as it sat on a clear branch and sang for minutes, and Black-capped Siskins almost escaped us but we scored scope views at the very last minute. Another spectacular morning, but alas it was time to start heading back east, with a lunch stop in the town of San Marcos and finally arriving at our lodging just south of Xela (Quetzaltenango).

Optional owling after dinner produced stunning views of a pair of Fulvous Owls, calmly hooting away just above our heads. Well worth the hour of precious sleep lost. The next morning, we ascended to the same spot, and again called in the Fulvous Owls for the rest of the group in the daylight – I guess we could have used that extra sleep the night before! Continuing birding along the entrance road to Fuentes Georginas, we were treated to amazing views of Garnet-throated Hummingbirds, Green-throated Mountain-gems, Unicolored Jays, Black-capped Swallows, lots of Brown-backed Solitaires, a few Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes, Mountain Thrushes, White-naped and Chestnut-capped Brushfinches, and even more Pink-headed Warblers. We were running out of new birds to look for! We contemplated our strategy and decided to have an early lunch and start the drive towards our next destination, Los Tarrales, with hopes to have a couple hours of evening birding to squeeze in around the lodge.

Let’s not forget the productive mid-afternoon stop at a very special gas station, giving us migrating Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flying overhead, a mysteriously-vanishing Turquoise-browed Motmot, a few Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, Orange-chinned and Orange-fronted Parakeets flying over…our first taste of the Pacific slope lowlands that we would become familiar with at Los Tarrales over the next couple days. Upon arrival at our lodging, birding was mostly thwarted by torrential rain, which only added to the excitement and anticipation of birding the next morning at this productive location.

Our time at Los Tarrales was simply phenomenal – again, full of outrageous views of a whole suite of difficult birds. We started birding at the Vesubio sector of the reserve, up in the foothills where some very rare birds live. Almost immediately upon arrival, we stumbled upon a pair of vibrant Blue-crowned Chlorophonias feeding just above eye-level along the trail…so bright green, we almost needed sunglasses! Shortly thereafter, we heard the thin calls of Azure-rumped Tanagers…and quickly had one perched in the scope for five minutes, singing away! Wow – this bird has a super small range, only occurring in some remote places in Chiapas and on various volcano slopes in Guatemala. Awesome! Just a few minutes later, as we kept an eye on some flowering trees, a pair of Bar-winged Orioles flew in! They were sneaky, but shortly followed by an immature bird that was somewhat more cooperative. Another difficult and hard-to-predict bird in the bag.

Descending slightly, we saw a brilliant White-eared Ground-Sparrow perched in the open (that never happens!), and then tried unsuccessfully for Tody Motmot…as usual. But we happened to be stationed just under a productive flowering tree. Emerald-chinned Hummingbirds abounded, with stunning views sparkling in the sunlight. Then, Annette said the words that sent a shock wave through the air – “what’s this hummingbird with the white band on the rump?”…WHAT?!?! Black-crested Coquette! A cute little female, feeding on the tiny flowers above our heads for several minutes. How could we get luckier? Okay, a little bonus view of a Northern Bentbill on the way out was just icing on the cake…

With so much luck already, and more random bonuses on our way down to lunch (Black Hawk-Eagle soaring over the road and Long-tailed Manakin bouncing around just in front of us), we were really on a hot streak…it was difficult to take a lunch break. Our afternoon outing was supposed to focus on the lower-elevation species around the lodge, and we partially succeeded with this (great views of Turquoise-browed Motmot and White-bellied Chachalaca), but the torrential rain came fast and the remainder of the evening was spent relaxing and enjoying some beers before a delicious pizza dinner (!).

During our second morning at Los Tarrales, we first walked out along the entrance track for Yellow-naped Parrots (and the locally rare Cedar Waxwing) before breakfast, and then headed in the opposite direction on a trail to clean up our remaining targets. Parrots were everywhere – tons of Pacific Parakeets, along with lesser numbers of Orange-chinned and Orange-fronted. As soon as we headed into the scrub, we heard a White-faced Ground-Sparrow singing…and soon spotted it teed up, in beautiful morning light, for everyone to enjoy in the scope. Again, this never happens! Incredible views of a sometimes-tricky bird. That was not to be outdone by the Striped Cuckoo a little bit further down the trail, also perched in the open, singing, at length in the scope. Honestly, I’m running out of ways to express how much luck we were having.

However, it was soon time to pack up and head out, driving north towards Lake Atitlan. We enjoyed lunch at a lakeside restaurant and then visited the nearby Mirador Rey Tepepul, where a narrow trail led us to a Resplendent Quetzal nest. It took a while for the male and female to switch places (we could only see the long “tail” feathers of the male sticking out of the nest hole for a while), but eventually the female flew in and the male flew out in full glory.

We had purposefully left our last day of birding a little flexible, depending on the desires of the group and what remaining birds we felt we could reasonably pick up. We hatched a plan that worked quite well, I think – starting in the early morning at a small private reserve for Slender Sheartail, which cooperated very well – male and female, perched and feeding. Sweet! We then took a boat across the beautiful lake, disembarking in Panajachel (and spotting some surprise Franklin’s Gulls during our group photo session), and driving a short distance to another finca to try for Belted Flycatcher. By now, it was mid-morning and hot and sunny, but that didn’t stop the normally-painfully-tricky Belted Flycatcher from popping up into plain view for everyone to see after only about ten minutes of effort. Seriously…Roland and I were speechless.

And now, after lunch in Pana, it was time to head back to Guatemala City for a final dinner before the Tikal extension. It was, without a doubt, an exceptional trip. Every member of our group added fun, positive energy, a great sense of humor, and a helpful and flexible attitude – that makes such a huge difference for me as a guide and for the success of the tour overall. I like to think our positive energy translated into an enormous list of extraordinary moments with nearly all of the special birds of the region…I truly can’t imagine anything better. Thank you, thank you, for making this tour so memorable!

TIKAL EXTENSION: Those continuing onto the Tikal extension enjoyed a very early departure the next morning, and a short flight that took us into the hot and steamy lowlands. We loaded into our vehicle and drove towards Yaxha, with a nice stop at a roadside pond that held lots of Wood Storks, a few shorebirds, a perched Scaled Pigeon, and various other lowland species. By the time we arrived at Yaxha it was relatively quiet, but still fun to explore the ruins and get a taste of some of the fun birds in this region: Pale-billed Woodpecker, Plain Chachalaca, White-bellied Emerald, Gartered Trogon, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager and Red-throated Ant-Tanager were all seen very well. Certainly the star of the show was a Barred Forest-Falcon that zoomed right in to our pygmy-owl calls, but a Purple-crowned Fairy sitting on a nest was a close contender.

After lunch (with Blue Bunting and Wedge-tailed Sabrewing), we continued towards Tikal, arriving in the late afternoon after a quick stop for a roosting Northern Potoo along the road. Of course, we took a few minutes to enjoy one of the local Ocellated Turkeys stomping around the parking lot, before settling in to our lodge in time for rest before an early start the next morning…

Sunrise at Tikal is a powerful experience: looking over the rainforest, listening to the birds and monkeys waking up, from the top of a Mayan temple among one of the greatest civilizations in Middle America. Our morning was no exception, although to see the actual “sunrise” we had to stretch our imaginations to the max, peering through the fog and mist. Nevertheless, we were alone on top of the Mundo Perdido temple, with nothing but hordes of Collared Aracaris, Keel-billed Toucans, Gartered Trogons, Red-lored, Mealy, and White-fronted Parrots, and Montezuma Oropendolas to keep us company. It was awesome. We reluctantly descended and started walking trails, keeping up with our stellar track record from the rest of the tour: a pair of Tody Motmots came right in and perched in the scope for something like 20 minutes (the group wandered off, leaving only me and Roland standing transfixed by this normally reclusive bird!), a Pheasant Cuckoo flew a loop around the canopy and landed in the open to sing for a while, Slaty-tailed Trogon perched over the trail, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker was seen very well outside our lunch restaurant, Northern Barred and Ruddy Woodcreepers fed unconcernedly nearly at our feet, a White-collared Manakin showed off at his lek, cute White-bellied Wrens showed amazingly well…the list goes on and on. It was easy to see why Tikal is such a magical place for birding!

After lunch and a siesta, we headed back out for an afternoon walk on a nearby road. It was rather quiet on the birding front, with another White-bellied Wren hopping in the roadside thickets and some migrants around, but we were far from disappointed…because on our walk back towards the hotel, a dark shape flashed across the road and into the forest. What was that?! I felt like I got kicked in the stomach when our local guide, Tito, said the word “Jaguar”…but unprecedented luck struck again when ANOTHER JAGUAR crossed the road behind the first one. This time, it was a young animal, and it calmly paused on the roadside for fifteen seconds, looking at our group with idle curiosity, just enough time for me to stammer a few words out…”there’s….there…JAGUAR…ON THE ROAD…” and somehow everyone was able to decipher my poor directions and get a full binocular view of this magnificent animal. Wow, wow, wow…our luck just refused to run out.

Our heads were still spinning from the previous day, but we had one more morning to spend around Tikal, this time on the old airstrip track…so we focused on some of the remaining specialties, scoring Gray-throated Chat, Yucatan Flycatcher, another Pheasant Cuckoo, Blue Ground-Dove, Mangrove and Philadelphia Vireos, Green-backed Sparrow, and Rose-throated Tanager before it was time to head towards Flores. Birding along a boardwalk near our lunch restaurant produced an American Pygmy-Kingfisher and many Purple Gallinules and Northern Jacanas. It was HOT, so we took some time at the hotel in Flores to refresh ourselves in the lovely air conditioning before heading out again for a dusk vigil at a nearby marsh. As I said repeatedly, I love marshes at dusk – there is always bird activity – and this time was no exception, with Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Pinnated and Least Bitterns, Limpkins, Snail Kite, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and tons of migrant Barn Swallows keeping us entertained. It was a great way to end another great day!

Amazingly, the final day of the tour had arrived. Our plan was to check some different habitats around Flores, like scrubby savannah, for a few interesting species. The forecast was for extreme heat (over 100F), so we headed out early for a few hours before taking a mid-day break back at the hotel. This worked well – we scored brief but satisfactory views of Black Catbird (the main target), a heard-only Black-throated Bobwhite, a miniscule Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, several Fork-tailed Flycatchers, a very sneaky Botteri’s Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, Yellow-billed Cacique, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat at our savannah spot. After our break and lunch, we still had some time to kill before our flight back to the city, but we had quite literally run out of new birds to look for! We decided to take a hike at Ixpanpajul (a bit steeper than expected!) with a heard-only Slaty-breasted Tinamou, more Rose-throated Tanagers and a Gray-throated Chat, flyover Bat Falcon and Gray-headed Kite, and a couple Piratic Flycatchers topping the list.

And so our time together had ended, with everyone heading their separate ways from Guatemala City. I sound like a broken record, but again, our days around Tikal and Flores were stunningly successful and simply fun. Thanks, everyone, for a great time!

- Luke Seitz 2019

Created: 17 May 2019