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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Guatemala

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our first Guatemala tour for a number of years enjoyed amazing experiences with a number of regional specialties alongside abundant Neotropical migrants and more widespread species. Birding here can be physically challenging with lots of time spent walking on fairly steep terrain, but the rewards are sweet. On just our second birding day, we were staring at multiple Pink-headed Warblers flitting through the pines and oaks – this species handily won the “Bird of the Trip” award, especially after even better views on our last day! Other highlights, in no particular order, included a roosting family of Stygian Owls, the spectacular Goldman’s Warbler flitting around nearly at our feet (!!!) in the high pine savanna near Chiabal, jewel-like Garnet-throated Hummingbirds melting our eyes at Fuentes Georginas, plus Azure-rumped Tanager, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Lesser Roadrunner, Resplendent Quetzal, Blue-throated Motmot, Chestnut-sided Shrike Vireo, Bar-winged Oriole…the list goes on and on! Our brief Tikal extension was nothing short of a smashing success, with point-blank views of Royal Flycatcher (affectionately dubbed “Crested Thingy-majiggy”) with its crest fully splayed for ten glorious seconds (WOW), a hulking Black-and-white Owl staring us down, Ocellated Turkeys bringing a whole new meaning to the word ‘iridescent’, Orange-breasted Falcon, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, and great views of a number of shy understory species – all around beautiful Mayan temples in pristine primary forest. Needless to say, this small Central American country has a lot to offer the birder – I’m already looking forward to returning next year.

IN DETAIL: After assembling at our quaint hotel in the center of Antigua – a beautiful city brimming with charm and character – we headed up to Finca El Pilar for our first morning of birding. This spot is a great introduction to the montane avifauna of Guatemala. We started out overlooking a patch of forest that immediately gave us Gray Silky-Flycatchers in the scope, lots of migrant Western Tanagers, some Bushy-crested Jays, a pair of Olive Warblers, lots of Rufous-collared Robins, and beautiful Elegant Euphonias. The nearby flowers held our first Green-throated Mountain-gem alongside White-eared Hummingbirds. We worked our way into the forest, where we filtered through several big mixed flocks including Townsend’s, Black-throated Green, Tennessee, Wilson’s, Crescent-chested, and Black-and-white Warblers, and Blue-headed and Plumbeous Vireos. A pair of Blue-throated Motmots played very hard to get, though a Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo was eventually more cooperative, giving most of the group a pretty good view among the dense foliage!

Before heading back to Antigua for lunch, we hit the hummingbird feeders in the lower section of the reserve, ticking off plenty of Rufous Sabrewings and Rivoli’s, Berylline, Azure-crowned, and White-eared Hummingbirds. We had a free afternoon to explore the historic city before another fine dinner at our hotel.

The next morning, after breakfast at our hotel, we loaded up the bus for a not-too-long drive up to Finca Caleras Chichavac to search for one of the most sought-after birds in Guatemala: Pink-headed Warbler. Like a strawberry dusted in snow, dipped in a fine Merlot, this little gem is restricted to pine-oak forests in Guatemala and the neighboring Mexican state of Chiapas. Needless to say, it was on the forefront of our minds as we walked down the dirt track and listened for its cheerful song. Not a half-hour had passed before we hit the jackpot with a gorgeous individual zipping in to check us out. After we had our fill, we continued to bird the forest and edge, ticking some key species like Blue-throated Motmot (everyone eventually got a glimpse of this atypically shy motmot), Mountain Trogon, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, and another (even more cooperative) pair of Pink-headed Warblers! Another major highlight was a stunning performance by a pair of Hooded Grosbeaks feeding in a fruiting tree at eye level. They stayed in the scope for a solid five minutes, allowing everyone to soak up fantastic views of this species that is often only heard flying over!

After a large lunch across the highway at Rincon Suizo, we headed out on the longer-than-expected drive to Finca Los Andes on a very bumpy road. By the time we arrived, it was drizzly and gloomy, but we managed some views of Blue-tailed Hummingbird and Violet Sabrewing at the feeders before tucking into dinner and bed.

The next morning saw us loading into the bed of an old cart-like contraption for a tractor tow up to the base of the promisingly-named Quetzal Trail. Of course, our main target here was Resplendent Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala (although rather local and not super easy to find). We were lucky today, though: we heard a quetzal calling before we even entered the primary forest, and once we were all assembled inside, it didn’t take more than a couple minutes before we had a young male lined up in the scope. We won’t judge him too much for his lack of long uppertail coverts so characteristic of this species – he was still beautiful!

The rest of the morning was spent enjoying the gorgeous forest, with special focus being given to the very local Azure-rumped (or Cabanis’s) Tanager. After amazing views of Blue-crowned Chlorophonia (another rather restricted species only found from Mexico to Nicaragua), Collared Trogon, Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, and some fleeting glimpses of Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, we finally all got on some Azure-rumps in the canopy. Buoyed by our success, we started back down the hill for lunch. However, during our tractor ride, our local guide Jesús mentioned the slim possibility of a surprise bird roosting in some nearby trees…and pretty quickly, we were all starting at a family group of Stygian Owls! This widespread species is not easy to find anywhere in its range, so we were all ecstatic…what a way to finish our morning at Los Andes!

The rain started in earnest after lunch, causing a slight delay as a tree had to be cleared from the entrance road – but we were on our way to Los Tarrales before too long, battling the impressive torrential downpours. After checking in at Los Tarrales, a few of us wandered around near the lodge as the skies cleared, enjoying some of the common species like White-bellied Chachalaca and White-throated Magpie-Jay.

The next full day was spent exploring Finca Los Tarrales, from the lower elevation coffee plantations to the higher cloud forest. Our morning was very productive, producing many of the hoped-for species like Turquoise-browed Motmot (my favorite motmot), White-faced (Prevost’s) Ground-Sparrow, repeated scope views of a Highland Guan (their wing noise is so cool!), Long-billed Starthroat, Rufous-brested Spinetail, Long-tailed Manakin, Rufous-naped and Cabanis’s Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, and Spot-breasted and Altamira Orioles. A fun kettle of raptors mid-morning held Sharp-shinned, Broad-winged, two Short-tailed, and five Gray Hawks. The local Tody Motmot was a no-show despite a fair amount of effort, but we really enjoyed a roosting Mottled Owl in the bamboo right before heading back for lunch!

In the afternoon, we took the SUVs upslope, stopping along the way to try unsuccessfully for Blue Seedeater. We did find a locally rare Ruddy Woodcreeper, the first time Daniel had seen this species at Los Tarrales, and a few more Highland Guans. As we reached the cloud forest, the fog really set in, diminishing our chances for species like Bar-winged Oriole. However, we eventually connected with Emerald-chinned Hummingbird from the roadside, before calling it a night and heading back to the lodge for dinner and an early bedtime before our super early start the next morning.

Well, here we go – the much-anticipated full-day hike to look for Horned Guan. Due to some recent fires on Volcán San Pedro and safety issues at Cerro Paquisis, we switched plans and prepared ourselves for the trek up Volcán Tolimán – by far the best option for the guans. We knew this would be a long and strenuous hike, but…let’s just say our expectations were exceeded on that front, and not necessarily in the best of ways. It was indeed a long and very strenuous day, though not without some very enjoyable birds along the way. Just after our ~5:15am start, we were treated to spectacular views of Whiskered Screech-Owl and Blue-throated Motmot in the pre-dawn half-light. As we trudged upslope, migrant flocks abounded, with Townsend’s and Tennessee Warblers especially abundant, MacGillivray’s Warblers chipping and skulking around the understory, and Least and Hammond’s Flycatchers giving good studies. We teased out a White-faced (Prevost’s) Ground-Sparrow for some quick views, although nearby White-eared Ground-Sparrows remained quite elusive. Blue-and-white Mockingbird perched up in the scope for several minutes, we saw our first Rusty Sparrows of the trip, and Bushy-crested Jays were conspicuous. Perhaps coolest of all was a pair of Singing Quail that hung around long enough for everyone to get a decent view. We slowly made our way uphill and finally reached the primary forest at around 11:30, quite a bit later than expected, just in time for some moderate wind to kick in - great. After a bit of searching, we heard a guan calling not far away, and everyone scrambled down a side slope to try to get a view. Well…a very short view was had by some, and then the Horned Guan exploded out of the canopy and flew across a small valley, never to be seen again.

After a couple hours of additional fruitless searching, we had to make the very difficult decision to start heading back downhill. I was hoping the trail would have somehow gotten easier, but nope – it was still long and difficult on the return journey. Our descent was kindly interrupted by a very cooperative Lesser Roadrunner, and then on we trudged, finally reaching the bottom very knackered and ready for a cold beer and lots of sleep.

We took it easy the next morning, enjoying a leisurely breakfast and some birding around our hotel – White-faced Ground-Sparrow in the gardens, lots of migrant Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and nice views of Azure-crowned and White-eared Hummingbirds at the abundant flowers. We then loaded up and drove over to Mirador Rey Tepepul for a couple hours of birding. It turned out to be more productive than we hoped! Shortly after arriving, we heard some Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge calling down the slope. On a whim, we played the tape, barely hoping they would come in from so far. Just a few minutes later…up pops the head of a funny-looking chicken with a buffy crown and bright red skin around the eye! Boom. We played a little hide-and-seek, and eventually one of them (I think there was a pair) came up onto a fallen log, completely in the open! Wow.

This excellent sighting was about to be outdone (maybe) by a simply stunning view of a female Bar-winged Oriole, and perhaps the best photos ever taken of a female? A much-wanted target bird for several in our group, and a big sigh of relief from me and Danny…

Too soon, we had to head back for lunch and onward towards Huehuetenango, a drive that took several hours with traffic, slow trucks, and poorly-paved roads. We rolled in just in time for dinner at our comfy hotel on the south side of town.

The next day, we visited my favorite spot in Guatemala: a national park called Todos Santos Cuchamatán, home to the best bird in the country, the incomparable Goldman’s Warbler! An early start and hour-long drive brought us to the small town of Chiabal, where we loaded into SUVs and headed further up into the mountains (to over 12,000ft). It was a gorgeous morning, with abundant sunshine, little wind, and comfortable temperatures. Right off the bat, we screeched to a halt just past the entrance gate, when we spotted a couple Goldman’s Warblers in the low junipers right next to the road. Seemed like a perfect breakfast spot, so we jumped out and enjoyed ample stunning views of at least three Goldman’s hopping around nearly at our feet, flycatching, calling, singing, all while we gorged on delicious breakfast sandwiches and local Guatemalan coffee…a better experience couldn’t be had! One male in particular was deep black, perfectly setting off the bright lemon-and-white throat, yellow sides and crown…I could wax poetic about this creature for hours. It truly is a pity that some authorities don’t (yet) consider it a separate species…

Bird diversity up here is pretty low, but there was one more specialty we wanted to try for: Ocellated Quail. This is gorgeous species that’s only found from Chiapas to Honduras, and as many quail tend to be, it’s shy and uncommon. Nevertheless, our local guide Esteban brought us to the best zone (through the throngs of Yellow-eyed (Guatemalan) Juncos, Spotted Towhees, Eastern Meadowlarks, and a few more Goldman’s Warblers), where we quickly formed a plan of attack. We heard a quail calling in fairly short order, and the group assembled with a good view of a small valley while Danny, Esteban, Diane, and I scrambled up the steep rocky slope to try to locate the bird. We had a pretty good idea of where it was calling from, so we snuck around the back side of the hill and came up over in a line, trying to herd it back towards the group. Well, the plan almost worked…turns out, we knew almost exactly where it was, and it did flush…but it flew in the wrong direction! A couple people got brief flight views, but after several more attempts, it was clear that the quail had disappeared. Better than nothing!

Heading downslope again, we briefly checked some agricultural fields for siskins (no dice), before lunch at a cool local restaurant and another long afternoon drive towards Quetzaltenango (Xela for short). We arrived at our hotel, Las Cumbres, ready for dinner and beer and coming up with our hit list of remaining targets for the next morning…

Our final morning of birding on the main tour was at a popular local hot spring called Fuentes Georginas. We had a few key birds left to find, and we immediately connected with one of them: Unicolored Jay, stunningly cobalt in the early morning light. We ended up seeing lots of these throughout the morning. Because this is such a heavily visited site, the birds are quite accustomed to people, so we enjoyed great views of Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Brown-backed Solitaire, Chestnut-capped and White-naped Brushfinches, Golden-browed Warblers, and Rufous-browed Wrens right around the parking lot. We had a few target hummingbirds in mind, so we walked a bit back down the entrance road looking for patches of flowers. This turned out to be a good move – we sifted through the numerous Green-throated Mountain-gems and found a female Garnet-throated Hummingbird…followed by an eye-melting male…and another male…upwards of ten or twelve of these stunners, feeding at or below eye-level just a few feet away! It was a really unique experience – Garnet-throateds aren’t the easiest hummingbirds to find, and often they’re just seen briefly feeding and zipping away. It was difficult to drag ourselves away! Amethyst-throated Hummingbird was also seen briefly, but we couldn’t find a Wine-throated to save our lives…strange, as this is one of the best spots for them, but perhaps they undergo some seasonal movements (like Mexican Violetear, which was also notably absent).

By late morning, the fog was rolling in and the crowds of people were arriving for a dip in the springs, so we grabbed a bite to eat and loaded up for the drive back to Guatemala City (but not without a coffee stop along the highway with a nice Rufous Sabrewing in the garden!). All too soon, we were gathered for a final dinner at our hotel, saying goodbyes to part of the group while the other part prepared for the Tikal extension in the morning!

TIKAL EXTENSION: Those continuing on to the Tikal extension awoke early to catch a flight to the small town of Flores. Once we arrived (and ticked Eurasian Collared-Dove from the airport parking lot), we loaded into our minibus and headed towards Yaxha. Some quick stops along the way produced Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Least Grebe, Pectoral and Solitary Sandpipers, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Fork-tailed, Scissor-tailed, and Vermilion Flycatchers, among others. Arriving at the ruins, we quickly started appreciating the radically different birdlife here compared with the first section of the tour. White-bellied Emeralds zipped around, Keel-billed Toucan perched in the canopy,migrant flocks were loaded with Magnolia and Black-throated Green Warblers, King Vulture soared overhead, and Lineated and Pale-billed Woodpeckers vied for our attention. Certainly my favorite was a fantastic Chestnut-colored Woodpecker perched in the scope for ten minutes…wow! We also worked on some understory species, scoring fabulous views of a Northern Bentbill as the morning started heating up and lunch felt like a pressing priority.

On our afternoon drive up to Tikal itself, our driver Jaime suddenly stopped and pointed up to a snag hanging over the road…a snag with a funny lump on top that turned out to be a Northern Potoo! A wonderful bonus that would make our night birding here a little easier. After checking into our lodge right at the entrance to Tikal, we embarked on some afternoon birding at the old airstrip trail, but not before stopping to admire the Ocellated Turkeys strutting around the parking lot and campground! Wow – I never get tired of admiring these birds with their unbroken iridescence and lumpy orange caruncles.

We ended up needing to dodge some rain, so the rest of the afternoon was fairly slow, although we heard a few Thicket Tinamous, saw the local Boat-billed Herons at a small pond, along with Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and Hooded Warbler. Perhaps the “best” bird was a female Rose-throated Tanager, a rather local Yucatan endemic.

We awoke the next morning to the raucous calls of Yucatan Black Howler Monkeys echoing across the forest – an evocative noise that toes a fine line between exceptionally cool and numbingly annoying. Our full day at Tikal was spent exploring the various trails around the ruins, enjoying the sheer abundance of birds here with special focus on some trickier target species. We had a super successful day, starting off with Royal Flycatcher just inside the park gate. We took a side trail that we hoped wouldn’t have much competing foot traffic, a decision that paid off with an exceptionally cooperative juvenile Bicolored Hawk, several Slaty-tailed and Black-headed Trogons, Northern Emerald-Toucanet, a ridiculous Scaly-throated Leaftosser (in the scope!!), Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Long-billed Gnatwren, Couch’s Kingbird, and Blue Bunting, among others. And of course, we had plenty of time to learn the local parrots: Brown-hooded, Red-lored, White-fronted, White-crowned, and Mealy Parrots along with Olive-throated Parakeet. The abundance and ease of viewing parrots in this park never ceases to amaze me – it’s better than pretty much anywhere else I’ve been in the Neotropics!

One of the highlights of the morning came while we were trying to get on some sly Red-throated Ant-Tanagers in the understory, when suddenly another bird flew in and perched quietly: a superb male Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, one of the key targets at Tikal, perched no more than twenty feet away from us, and not fifteen feet above the ground! Wow – an exceptional view of a truly beautiful bird, and much better than the typical backlit canopy views.

As the morning warmed up, we heard the distinctive whistling of a Black Hawk-Eagle, eventually spotting a very high speck in the sky. Below it and much closer was the much-wanted Orange-breasted Falcon perched in a tree next to the main plaza, giving us a good study of its large feet, broader white bars on the belly, and orange breast. As we headed to lunch, we noticed some Brown Jays making a fuss (their calls don’t toe any fine lines, they’re just numbingly annoying) – following the ruckus, we came upon a Collared Forest-Falcon bathing in a small pool just off the trail, paying no attention to us. Another exceptional view of a species that can be exceedingly shy!

Our afternoon was spent on the trail to Temple VI, notching up great views of the shy Stub-tailed Spadebill, Northern Schiffornis (bathing in a small pool of water on a fallen palm leaf!), a singing Black-faced (Mayan) Antthrush that Pete expertly spotted perched about a meter off the ground, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and glimpses of a male Great Curassow. We were doing very well, but we had some more plans for the evening – so we shoveled in an early-ish dinner and headed back out for some owling after dusk fell. Our main target was Black-and-white Owl, so we walked to a good spot, dodging some Common Pauraques and a Morelet’s Crocodile on the way. After just a couple bursts from the tape, we got a response from the owl. There was a pair vocalizing, getting closer…and after a few tense minutes, Danny spotted the male perched right above us, glaring down! We enjoyed at least a solid five-minute view soaking in the details of this beauty, with his gleaming yellow bill and talons, dark eyes, and bold barring on the underparts. Spectacular!!

Our final morning saw us atop Temple IV, waiting for the sun to rise over this ancient Mayan metropolis. It was unusually cool and a bit windy, so birding was fairly slow at first, but it was a simply beautiful experience. As the crowds of people dissipated, we started birding in earnest, making our way back through the ruins towards breakfast. The Orange-breasted Falcon perched up nicely for us, in the same tree as perhaps the same juvenile Bicolored Hawk…how often does that happen?! A few new species included a Blue Grosbeak, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, and Black-cowled Oriole, along with repeats of a bunch of our favorites, including throngs of parrots and some low Keel-billed Toucans. The absolute highlight, however, came as we had nearly arrived back to the entrance. A calling Royal Flycatcher naturally grabbed our attention, and as we were watching it, it seemed a little agitated…and suddenly, as it flew between perches, it raised its crest (in flight!!). It landed in the open, crest still fully splayed, an enormous fan of bright orange tipped with glossy silvery-black. A few expletives may have been whispered as we all stood spellbound by this shocker, one of the classic birds of the Neotropics that almost never gives such a perfect display. Wow.

We saved a little time for the old airstrip trail one more time, where we eventually connected with the target Gray-throated Chat and a few other things (Mangrove and Yellow-green Vireos, Gray-headed Tanager, Rose-throated Tanager, Blue Buntings, Couch’s Kingbird, and some flyover King Vultures and Hook-billed Kites). We then reluctantly said farewell to Tikal, loaded our vehicle, and headed back in the direction of Flores for lunch and our late afternoon flight. Our lunch stop was a little restaurant near the village of El Remate, complete with fruit feeders harboring bunches of Baltimore Orioles along with Clay-colored Thrushes, White-collared Seedeaters, and Ruddy Ground-Doves. We had some time to walk a little boardwalk out into the lakeside marsh, where Ruddy Crakes remained heard-only, but we enjoyed gorgeous Purple Gallinules, lots of Northern Jacanas, Neotropic Cormorants, and Green Herons, Pied-billed Grebe, and a heard-only Least Bittern.

Roadside stops on the way to the airport produced a few more new species for the trip, including Snail Kite, Tricolored Heron, and rare-for-Guatemala Piratic Flycatcher. And before boarding, we ticked a Collared Plover on the runway, apparently quite uncommon in this region of the country. And then we were whisked off back to Guatemala City for one last dinner together, celebrating an amazing extension around Tikal and a very successful tour overall. Thanks everyone for making everything so smooth, and for lots of amazing sightings – I can’t wait for next year!

-          Luke Seitz

2018

Created: 02 May 2018