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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2022 Narrative

In Brief: Our April tour to Guatemala was a resounding success, from buzzing hummingbird feeders on the outskirts of Antigua to stunning Azure-rumped Tanagers and Bar-winged Orioles at Los Tarrales; from Blue-crowned Chlorophonias in the cloud forest to stunning Goldman’s Warblers in the pines and junipers above Huehue; from absurd views of the bizarre Horned Guan near the Mexican border to so many Pink-headed Warblers we had to kick them out of the way; from a stunning male Ocellated Quail to diminutive Rufous-browed Wrens. We enjoyed migrant warblers and Swainson’s Hawks, and racked up nearly all of the available resident regional endemics. The Tikal extension was equally delightful, with a whole host of special birds—Yucatan endemics like Rose-throated Tanager and Gray-throated Chat, Ocellated Turkeys strutting around at arm’s reach, tons of parrots and toucans, and even an antswarm with attendant woodcreepers, shrike-tanagers, and ant-tanagers. 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 into the cool pine-oak forest at Finca El Pilar, where lots of Black-capped Swallows cavorted overhead and we were treated to excellent views of Eastern Bluebirds, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Bushy-crested Jay, and several Black-headed Siskins. A brief jaunt up the road produced a stunning Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge zipping around at the edge of the forest, much more of a view than we normally have! We then walked down the road and peered up at a few slow mixed flocks, with Crescent-chested Warbler, Plumbeous Vireo, and Slate-throated Whitestart showing well. A pair of Blue-throated Motmots were very uncooperative, staying almost totally hidden in the canopy.

On the way back to Antigua, a stop at the hummingbird feeders was quite entertaining, with repeat views of many nice species. We enjoyed excellent studies of Rufous and Violet Sabrewings, including a very confiding Rufous that perched regularly just an arm’s reach away. Azure-crowned Hummingbirds, Green-throated Mountain-gems, and Rivoli’s and Berylline Hummingbirds rounded out the list. We descended down to town for lunch and headed onward to Los Tarrales, of course with a stop at the “magic gas station”, complete with nearly 150 migrating Swainson’s Hawks, a migrant Willow Flycatcher, and odds and ends like Rufous-naped Wren, Altamira Oriole, and a few Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters.

Our two full days at Los Tarrales were full of incredible birds. We started with spectacular Azure-rumped Tanagers in the morning light, and then another pair, and then more…too many, in fact, so most of the group had gotten bored and started looking at other things! Certainly my best views ever of this extremely local tanager. Several Bar-winged Orioles were much appreciated, too, along with perched Emerald-chinned Hummingbirds, Blue-tailed Hummingbird, a pair of displaying Ornate Hawk-Eagles, a single Black Hawk-Eagle, an always-gorgeous Barred Antshrike, sneaky Long-billed Gnatwrens, perched Gray Silky, and some migrant warblers, vireos, and orioles moving through the flowering trees. Phew! This first awesome morning was followed by an equally productive afternoon, with a mega Sungrebe swimming around at close range in the lagoon, and even perching on a branch so we could all admire its bizarre feet. Plus a huge migrating flock of 282 Franklin’s Gulls overhead, and Turquoise-browed Motmot (the best-looking motmot in the world, I think!), lots of parrots and parakeets, Spot-breasted Oriole, and a roosting Northern Potoo!

Topping our first day at Los Tarrales would be a tall order, but we did our best, starting with another stunning adult male Bar-winged Oriole at La Isla, plus some nice views of Long-tailed Manakin, lots of White-bellied Chachalacas, a very distant King Vulture, close views of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Lesson’s Motmot, a couple White-winged Tanagers including a close male, and a White-faced Ground-Sparrow perched up in the scope, singing his heart out!

From here we headed up towards Lake Atitlan, where a new trail turned out to be very productive. We birded for the full morning in lush cloud forest, with vocal Highland Guans and Singing Quails keeping us company, along with some very sneaky Blue-throated Motmots, two male Gray-collared Becards (!!), our first Spot-crowned Woodcreepers, Tufted and Yellowish Flycatchers, adorable Rufous-browed Wrens, and incredible views of a trio of Blue-crowned Chlorophonias!

We then worked our way further west, with a morning at Fuentes Georginas producing great views of Unicolored Jays and Garnet-throated Hummingbirds, our first Pink-headed Warblers, and an obliging Blue-throated Motmot FINALLY sitting still for scope views and photos! We were slowly heading towards the Mexican border, where our rendezvous with Horned Guan was keeping us all on our toes…

…but we needn’t have worried. A quick roadside stop on the way to the “real” trail, a 100-yard walk across a field, and voila. Well, it took a little bit of back-and-forth scrambling, but we eventually had a pair of Horned Guans feeding in front of us for a half hour, stunning scope views…one of them even lay down on a branch and fell asleep! I don’t really know how to emphasize it any more…it does NOT get easier than this! Wow.

The only problem was figuring out what to do with the rest of the morning! It actually turned out quite nicely, with an easy walk downhill along the road, where we tracked down Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, more Blue-throated Motmots, another Blue-and-white Mockingbird, lots of Black-capped Swallows, Mountain Thrush, Guatemalan Yellow Grosbeak, Yellow-backed Oriole, and so many Pink-headed Warblers! This incredible day was topped off with a very pleasant evening at a nearby park, where Black Thrush perched up at dusk, Mexican Whip-poor-wills serenaded us (and even performed visually!), and dinner was not half bad…oh, those cinnamon-infused cappuccinos.

From here we worked back east and north to Huehuetenango, with a final morning of birding near the Mexican border. Migration was in full swing, with dozens of Cliff and Barn Swallows, Vaux’s Swifts, and Broad-winged Hawks migrating overhead. In the roadside forest we found a flighty Guatemalan Pygmy-Owl, a couple Hairy Woodpeckers (much browner than the ones in the U.S.), lots of Steller’s Jays, Rufous-collared Robins, Yellow-eyed Juncos, and warbler flocks including tons of Pink-headed and Townsend’s. Certainly the highlight was discovering a Black-throated Jay nest, one of very few ever described!

After a long afternoon drive and night in Huehuetenango, 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 male Goldman’s. Good start! We then continued further west on the plateau, where we spent quite a bit of effort trying to see Ocellated Quail. Indeed, it ended up being the most cooperative individual of this species on the planet…after all three guides ran up and down the hillsides (not easy at over 11,000’), we eventually had a male…in both scopes, sitting in the open, at the base of a bush, for about fifteen minutes…completely insane…and then, after keeping it in place and getting the group all the way up the hill in the vehicles, the bird waltzed TOWARDS us, in the open. Unbelievable!

It wasn’t easy to compete with all that, but a few more stops were good for Golden-crowned Kinglet, Pine Flycatcher, several Black-vented Orioles, tons of Rufous-collared Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, and some Pine Siskins, and even a quick Scott’s Oriole for some.

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. Our lunch restaurant was good for Grace’s Warbler, and the real prize came a bit later in a nearby residential area: a roosting Stygian Owl! What a perfect way to wrap up our tour in the highlands. We enjoyed a final scrumptious dinner at our hotel and those continuing on to the Tikal extension prepared for an early flight the next morning. Thank you, everyone, for making this tour so fun and successful!

Tikal Extension: Those continuing onto the Tikal extension flew to Flores the next morning and 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: a covey of Black-throated Bobwhite flushed out, White-tailed Kite hovered overhead, Yellow-bellied Elaenias called around us, Vermilion Flycatchers burned our retinas, and we enjoyed great views of Olive and Botteri’s Sparrows. Black Catbird took a bit of work, but eventually surrendered itself in bits and pieces. From here we spent the rest of the morning at Ixpanpajul, where birds were active despite the heat: Slaty-tailed, Gartered, and Black-headed Trogons were great, along with various forest birds like Tawny-crowned Greenlet, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant-tanagers, and a great view of Gray-headed Tanager.

Our afternoon was spent on a boat at the far west end of lake Peten-Itza, where a pair of Yellow-breasted Crakes (recently discovered in Guatemala) was the clear highlight! It was a nice change of scenery, too, with a gorgeous sunset, moonrise, and plenty of other birds including Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Sora, Purple Gallinule, and Northern Jacana.

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, but it turned out to be just a small taste of the excellent few days coming up. We started with great views of Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, followed by Black-cheeked and Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, glimpses of White-bellied Wren, low Olive-backed Euphonias, and finally some super close Bat Falcons atop one of the temples.  

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, parrots including White-crowned, Red-lored, White-fronted and Mealy, plus Olive-throated Parakeet, loads of Keel-billed Toucans and Collared Aracaris, great views of Russet-naped Wood-Rail, walk-away Tody Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, Mayan Antthrush in the scope, Red-capped Manakin, a ridiculous Barred Forest-Falcon that nearly took us out (and proceeded to perch right in front of us and sing!), White-bellied Wren, lots of warblers (especially American Redstart, Magnolia, and Black-and-white, plus a great look at Kentucky), confiding Green-backed Sparrows, amazing displays from Montezuma Oropendola…the list goes on and on!

We even encountered an antswarm in the afternoon, with many birds frolicking around in the middle of the road! I don’t think I’ve ever said “Ruddy Woodcreeper in the road”…followed by “Black-throated Shrike-tanager in the road”…followed by “Red-throated Ant-tanager in the road”…

Phew! We almost didn’t know what else to look for the next morning, but thankfully the old airstrip holds plenty of different birds. Some Yucatán specialties like Gray-throated Chat and Yucatan Flycatcher surrendered themselves, and other fun birds included Boat-billed Herons at the pond, Blue Ground-Dove in the open, multiple Scaled Pigeons, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, and a brief glimpse of Blue Bunting.

The extension was ending all too fast, but we stopped at the Hotel Villa Maya on the way to the airport, where we were overwhelmed with the amount of birds even in the middle of the day! An incredible pair of Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers took top prize, but the trees were full of dozens of migrant warblers, and we even added a few new trip birds (Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Sepia-capped Flycatcher). Our flight was delayed, but eventually we made it back to Guatemala City and onward home, full of fun memories of great birds, scenery, and camaraderie. Thanks for a wonderful trip!

                                                                                                                                                                                 -Luke Seitz

Created: 09 May 2022