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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our April tour to Guatemala was quite amazing, with a whole suite of regional endemics and mind-blowing views of many of them: from not-so-sneaky Blue-and-white Mockingbirds to daytime Fulvous Owls near Lake Atitlan; from nest-building Blue-crowned Chlorophonias and Resplendent Quetzals in the cloud forest to stunning Goldman’s Warblers in the pines and junipers above Huehue; from the bizarre Horned Guan (seen with our feet on pavement!) near the town of Xela to eye-level Azure-rumped Tanagers; from a stunning male Ocellated Quail in the open to the ever-wonderful Pink-headed Warblers dancing through the alders. We also enjoyed migrant warblers, orioles, and tanagers aplenty to complement the specialties. The Tikal extension was equally delightful, with a whole host of special birds—Yucatan endemics like Gray-throated Chat and Yucatan Flycatcher performed well, Ocellated Turkeys displayed at arm’s reach, a surprise Agami Heron perched in the same view as an American Pygmy Kingfisher (!!!), tons of parrots and toucans…the list goes on and on. This tiny country has so much to offer, and I can’t wait until next year!

IN DETAIL: We started in the charming city of Antigua, where early arrivals had the chance to walk around and enjoy the cobbled streets and churches. Our first morning took us downslope to Finca El Zapote, with a quick stop to enjoy the fiery eruptions of Volcán de Fuego while it was still dark. Upon arrival, we enjoyed an easy morning of birding in the gardens, familiarizing ourselves with many common residents like Yellow-winged Tanager and Morelet’s Seedeater along with migrants like Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Western Tanager. Plenty of parakeets zipped overhead, including flocks of Orange-fronted, Orange-chinned, and Pacific Parakeets. After a tasty breakfast we headed up into the forest, where patience eventually paid off with a great scope view of the always-tricky Tody Motmot!

We then headed further south and west towards Los Tarrales, our base for the next three nights. Of course, we made our usual stop at the “magic gas station” along the way, which produced a rare Bell’s Vireo along with stunning Turquoise-browed Motmots, a migrant Willow Flycatcher, and odds and ends like Rufous-naped Wren and Altamira Oriole.

Our two full days at Los Tarrales were full of incredible birds. We started with spectacular Azure-rumped Tanagers perched in the open for a brief and satisfying view. At least one Bar-winged Oriole played hard-to-get, only allowing for glimpses through the tangles, and Emerald-chinned and Blue-tailed Hummingbirds were seen well. Some dedicated searching eventually produced a roosting trio of Black-and-white Owls to top off the morning! After a nice mid-day siesta, we headed out to the lagoon, where we started with great views of Violet Sabrewings buzzing around the understory. Further down the trail, activity started picking up as temperatures cooled down. A close Rufous-browed Peppershrike was much appreciated, while little gangs of Black-headed Saltators noisily moved through the thickets. White-throated Magpie-Jays eventually showed well and a Spot-breasted Oriole perched in the scope. There were lots of migrants around, too, including several snazzy Indigo Buntings and even a flock of Cedar Waxwings! We headed back to the lodge and met up with Freddy, who showed us a roosting pair of Mottled Owls…a perfect way to end the day.

Our second day at Los Tarrales started at La Isla, where throngs of Western Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Warbling Vireos, and Tennessee Warblers flooded into the canopy. We eventually connected with good views of Yellow-green Vireo, and got some good glimpses of Long-tailed Manakins. Overhead, a Black Hawk-Eagle flew over, followed some time later by King Vulture! The surrounding coffee plantations held White-faced Ground-Sparrow, eventually cooperating for everyone. After another mid-day break, we took a nice afternoon walk to La Rinconada, which paid off with amazing views of Rufous-breasted Spinetail, an eye-level Boat-billed Flycatcher, White-bellied Chachalacas, and plenty of other bits and pieces to keep us busy.

From Los Tarrales we headed up towards Lake Atitlan, where a new trail turned out to be very productive. We birded for the full morning in coffee plantations and lush cloud forest, with perhaps the highlight being a stunning pair of Fulvous Owls! The supporting cast wasn’t bad either: the specialties just kept coming, with multiple Blue-and-white Mockingbirds, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, sneaky Bar-winged Orioles, Blue-throated Motmot in the scope, a male Gray-collared Becard, Tufted and Yellowish Flycatchers, and adorable Rufous-browed Wrens. It was quite a successful morning!

We then worked our way further west, with a morning at Fuentes Georginas now potentially including the enigmatic Horned Guan! With this year’s impromptu change of plans, we were hoping the trail at Fuentes would be manageable and we could score the guan without going all the way to the Mexican border (or usual spot). We needn’t have worried when we stepped out of the bus in the parking lot, and it took our local guide around 30 seconds to declare “Horned Guan!” while looking way up on the hillside. A few seconds of panic and there it was, in the scope, sitting totally in the open. Distant views, perhaps, but really quite good in the scope: we could clearly see the horn on the head! Wow. I never thought I’d see Horned Guan with my feet on pavement! The rest of the morning was pressure-free, with a few group members hiking up the trail for closer views (and a good audio experience, too) while the others remained on the entrance road, enjoying close Pink-headed Warblers, tons of Brown-backed Solitaires, Rufous-browed Wren, Mountain Thrush, Crescent-chested Warbler, and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush.

After a nice early lunch at Fuentes, we drove on towards San Marcos, with a stop along the way just south of Xela. Here, we were really testing our luck with an attempt at Maroon-chested Ground-Dove…at first, it didn’t seem likely, as the forest was nearly silent and the fog was so dense we could barely see fifty feet ahead. However, patience paid off, and we were eventually rewarded with an amazing view of the ground-dove right at the edge of a potato field!  What a bonus!

Our next two days were spent near the town of San Marcos, with a whole host of cloud forest species to keep us occupied. One of the stars of the show was the exquisite Resplendent Quetzal, and we spent a very enjoyable morning watching a male and female attend a nest cavity. The Yellow-throated Nightingale-Thrush nearby was equally appreciated, hopping around nearly at our feet. Another morning of birding on a nearby roadside was way better than anyone expected: starting off with Blue-crowned Chlorophonias building a nest in a roadside bank, followed by a close pair of Hooded Grosbeaks right next to Elegant Euphonias, and then the real highlight…eye-level Azure-rumped Tanagers!! Seriously, the best views one could ever hope for. And they just kept coming…pairs and small flocks at every stop we made along the road, with an ever-increasing supporting cast including Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner and Flame-colored Tanager. Wow! 

We also explored the Astillero de San Marcos on multiple occasions, which hosted a suite of high-elevation species. Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo snuck in for good views, Blue-throated Motmots perched in the open, Yellow-backed Orioles paraded through the canopy, and Black-throated Jay snuck through the understory. We enjoyed repeat views of Pink-headed Warbler (who wouldn’t?!), Rufous-collared Thrush, and Rufous-browed Wren. The grand finale may have been the two male Mountain Trogons that zoomed in for perfect views right in front of us!

From here we worked back east and north to Huehuetenango, where we awoke before dawn the next morning and made our way up to Todos Santos Cuchumatanes. This high-elevation plateau is covered with open pine-juniper forest and some very special birds. This is perhaps my favorite spot of the entire trip; it’s so unique and I just can’t get over how awesome Goldman’s Warbler is! Our local guide, Esteban, took us to a quiet dirt (rock?) road and we were immediately enjoying incredible views of a stunning pair of Goldman’s perching down low…all with coffee and local champurradas (a type of cookie) in our hands. Good start! We then continued further west on the plateau, where we planned to spend quite a bit of time and effort trying to see Ocellated Quail. Well, it didn’t take very long for Amy to spot the male quail sitting up on a rock. And he just sat there for perfect scope views for as long as we wanted! We inched closer, soaking up this unbelievably beautiful bird and savoring our luck.

It wasn’t easy to compete with that, but we certainly enjoyed the rest of our day in the grasslands and near the town of Chiabal, with the local Steller’s Jays (very different from the ones in the US and Canada!), a nice male Olive Warbler, brief Guatemalan (Yellow-eyed) Juncos, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Guatemalan (Northern) Flickers, Spotted Towhees, Eastern Meadowlarks, and even the resident Savannah Sparrows! Particularly interesting for the taxonomically-inclined may have been “perplexing” Pine Siskins and heavily-marked “Southern” Rock Wren. 

Too soon it was time to pull ourselves away and head back towards Guatemala City. Our flight back was quick and easy, and we even had some time to scrape out a few more species for the tour. We headed to a school on the east side of the city, where our local contacts had been keeping an eye on a Stygian Owl nest. The chicks had already fledged, so it took a long time, but eventually Roland pulled off an amazing spot with a young Stygian roosting in the top of a huge pine tree! Great views of Grace’s Warbler nearby was an added bonus. What a great way to wrap up our tour in the highlands. We enjoyed a final scrumptious dinner at our hotel and some last-minute packing before continuing on to the Tikal extension early the next morning. Thank you, everyone, for making this tour so fun and successful!

TIKAL EXTENSION: We woke up super early and flew to Flores the next morning, ready to hit the ground running. We headed straight for the open savannah and scrub at Santa Ana, before it got too hot. We were suddenly awash in new birds: most importantly the Yucatan endemic Black Catbird showed extremely well, perching up and singing right next to the van! We then worked through the grasslands, with great views of Botteri’s and Olive Sparrows, Mangrove Vireo, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Vermilion Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, and even catching glimpses of a covey of Black-throated Bobwhite. New for the tour was a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, not to be outdone by a gorgeous Laughing Falcon perched nearby. From here we spent the rest of the morning at Ixpanpajul, where birds included Gartered and Black-headed Trogon, White-browed (Carolina) Wren, American Redstart, Magnolia Warbler, heard-only Rose-throated Tanager, and an awesome Royal Flycatcher just over the road.

After a short break in the heat of the day, we spent the afternoon on a boat at the far west end of lake Peten-Itza, where multiple Yellow-breasted Crakes (recently discovered in Guatemala) performed brilliantly! It was a nice change of scenery, too, with numerous waterbirds all around us: dozens of Purple Gallinules and Northern Jacanas, a handful of Common Gallinules and American Coots, a couple Blue-winged Teal and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, great views of Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and even a pair of Ruddy Crakes walking in the open. Also very much appreciated were at least three Pinnated Bitterns giving us some excellent close fly-by views.

The next morning, we headed to Yaxha, with some productive roadside stops on the way. Yaxha was a great introduction to the forest birding in the region, with some nice Yucatan endemics to sweeten the pot. We started with great views of Green-backed Sparrow, Spot-breasted Wren, White-browed (Carolina) Wren, and Yucatan Flycatcher on the entrance road, followed by a surprise Agami Heron feeding in a roadside puddle!! Unbelievably, while admiring the Agami, Amy spotted an American Pygmy Kingfisher almost in the same binocular view. Hard to improve on that, but we worked our way along, with other highlights including Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers and a hybrid thereof in the same little migrant flock, cooperative Rufous-tailed Jacamars, Mayan Antthrush, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Blue Bunting, and an exquisite Gray-throated Chat perched right above our heads.

We arrived at Tikal in the mid-afternoon, excited about the coming two days. This magical place never fails to disappoint; the experience of dawn breaking atop one of the pyramids, surrounded by forest, listening to the world awaken is always remarkable. Birds, of course, are omnipresent and plentiful. We covered plenty of ground, birding among the ruins and just around the hotel and parking lot! Highlights were many…Ocellated Turkeys displaying within touching distance, Orange-breasted Falcon from the top of a temple, a wonderful parrot show including White-crowned, Red-lored, White-fronted and loads of Mealy, plus Olive-throated Parakeet, loads of Keel-billed Toucans and Collared Aracaris, eye-level Plumbeous Kites, great views of Russet-naped Wood-Rail, walk-away Tody Motmot in the scope, a superb Barred Forest-Falcon, new-for-the-tour Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, nest-building Black-crowned Tityras, adorable White-bellied Wren foraging unconcernedly on the roadside, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, amazing displays from Montezuma Oropendola…the list goes on and on!

Another morning on an easy roadside nearby gave us some final birds before heading back towards Guatemala City, including cooperative Slaty-tailed, Black-headed, and Gartered Trogons, Mayan Antthrush (in the scope!), a very confiding Northern Schiffornis, White-collared Manakin, both Red-throated and Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, and some sneaky Gray-headed Tanagers. The extension was ending all too fast, but we stopped at the Hotel Villa Maya for lunch on the way to the airport, where most of the group relaxed during the heat of the day. Our siesta was interrupted by a pair of Blue Ground-Doves perched up nicely, followed by one more scrumptious lunch before heading back to Guatemala City and onward home.

Thank you all for a wonderful trip! An especially huge thank-you to Roland, our local guide extraordinaire, without whom this tour would simply not be possible. His warmth, care, and expertise are unmatched.

                                                                                                                                                                                         - Luke Seitz 

Created: 03 May 2023