by Toby Ross, Seattle Audubon Science Manager
(L to R) Toby Ross with Darcy Barry and Roland Kilcher
It should come as no surprise that Guatemala, translated from the Mayan language as “place of many trees,” is also a place of many birds. Unfortunately, as a result of a decades-long civil war ending in 1996, tourism in general, and birding tourism in particular, is behind many other Central American countries like Costa Rica and Belize. However, this is beginning to change, and why I chose Guatemala for Seattle Audubon’s latest international trip destination.
Over 10 days in February 2018, a group of nine, intrepid travelers and I set off with Seattle Audubon in partnership with National Audubon’s International Alliances Program and Holbrook Travel. Our basic itinerary covered Antigua, Finca Los Andes, Finca Los Tarrales, Santiago Atitlán, and Panajachel. Each destination offered its own unique atmosphere and habitats, but there were several experiences and birds that none of us will soon forget.
On the search for Long-tailed Manakin, the group was birding a trail at Finca Los Tarrales, situated on the lower flanks of Volcán Atitlán. Our local guide, Josue de Leon, first heard and then sighted a male not too far along the trail. A relatively small bird, about the size of a Black-capped Chickadee with a mostly black body and head, punctuated with a bright crimson cap and stunning blue wings. Its namesake long tail is made up of two thin tail feathers that are 4-6” long. The bird was flitting around in fairly dense vegetation about three feet away from the trail. It wasn’t easy to get everyone on the bird, and sightings were fleeting, but everyone was excited to have seen a glimpse of such an iconic neo-tropical bird.
We were then alerted by our lead guide, Pablo Najarro, who had wandered further up the path. He was madly beckoning us to hurry up the path toward him. We didn’t know what he had seen, but it was obviously exciting due to Pablo’s wild gesticulations. When we reached Pablo, he pointed into the vegetation in front of him and shout-whispered, “MANAKIN LEK!” We all peered into the bushes and there, in front of us, slightly obscured by leaves, were three male Long-tailed Manakins conducting their courtship display. (Click here for an example of the display on YouTube.) Each male was taking turns jumping into the air, fluttering down and then skipping along a perch where a female was carefully inspecting them all to determine whether one was a worthy suitor. It looked exhausting, but we were thrilled to see this rarely seen behavior. Neither of the guides had seen a lek of this species before and were as amazed as we were to witness it.
Long-tailed Manakin | Photo by Darcy Barry
While visiting Lake Atitlán, renowned as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, we took a boat from Santiago to San Juan La Laguna in search of a few target species which included Belted Flycatcher, Prevost’s Ground Sparrow, and the Lesser Roadrunner (‘meep meep!’). As we crossed the lake, we passed flocks of familiar Lesser Scaup, occasional pairs of Pied-billed Grebe and the only gull we encountered on the entire trip, Laughing Gull.
Once landed on the dock, we found a flotilla of tuk-tuks waiting for us that whisked us through town to a trail at the base of a volcano that lead slowly through dry forest habitat. Walking the trail we saw a number of flycatchers, sparrows, and doves, along with a ‘heard’ Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge. As we reached the top of the trail, where the dry forest turned into tall dry grassland and scrub, we heard our first Lesser Roadrunner! At the top of the trail, the group clustered together as one, and then another roadrunner were seen about 50 feet down the trail in the open. At this point we assumed they were interacting normally with each other, before one of them picked up a piece of dried grass. They then performed a brief courtship display and we watched as the bird with the grass “gift” jumped on to the back of the other and proceeded to mate. We were all aghast at our fortune, witnessing this behavior! It only lasted about 30 seconds, but it was spellbinding. Once finished with their dalliance, we watched them disappear into the grass. We looked at each other with huge grins on our faces and the guides were as excited as we were, as it was the first time they had ever seen that behavior. We knew at that point that this would be one of the highlights of the trip.
Lesser Roadrunner | Photo by Darcy Barry
On the first day of the trip, while still in Antigua, our main guide, Pablo asked each of us which species we most wanted to see during the trip. A number of our group hoped to see a Resplendent Quetzal, a couple wanted to see a Horned Guan and I wanted to see a Pink-headed Warbler. I didn’t even know this bird existed before I started to plan this trip, but when I came across the species as one that we might encounter I knew this would be my most treasured find of the trip. The itinerary placed the habitat where this species was to be found on the last day of the trip and so the pressure was on and didn’t leave much room for error.
We left Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlán, and headed toward the capitol, Guatemala City, where we would spend our last night before heading home. Half way to the city we pulled off the Pan-American Highway to a small reserve called Corazón del Bosque (“heart of the forest”) containing oak pine forest habitat. As we pulled up, this looked like the most unlikely place to find such a spectacular bird. The parking lot was directly next to an area of picnic tables and a decrepit playground, which, due to it being Saturday, were flooded with youth and families celebrating birthdays. As we walked past them we stopped to enjoy a very familiar Steller’s Jay. We continued through a couple of gates and walked along the bottom of a ravine where a small stream ran. Within only a couple of minutes the first Pink-headed Warbler was spotted, and there it was, the most bizarrely colored bird I’d ever seen. It truly had a pink head. Not quite flamingo-pink, but a light pink, with darker streaks leading to a reddish-pink body. We got good looks at this species and ended up seeing four individuals. My trip was made.
Pink-headed Warbler | Photo by Darcy Barry
International Alliances Program
National Audubon’s International Alliances Program (IAP) has worked on various conservation and capacity building projects throughout Central and South America, one of which has been an effort to kick-start birding tourism in a few of their focus countries, Guatemala being one of them. These efforts intend to demonstrate to local communities that by protecting birds and their habitat, people from all over the world, will visit to see them.
One of the challenges this plan faces is the lack of experienced and trained bird guides in the country. In an effort to mitigate this, the IAP has created bird-guide training curricula and engaged local, in-country conservation organizations to deliver the program. Seattle Audubon is eager to support such efforts and intentionally chose this partnership with IAP to do so. While it’s really exciting to take trips to exotic places to see unique birds, we want our international travelers to do more than just sightsee.
Seattle Audubon intends to add as much conservation, community development, and capacity building elements as it can to each of our international birding trips. Additionally, in order to add an element of scientific application, each trip’s sightings will be entered into the eBird database. The data gathered will aid in understanding species occurrence and distribution, as well as providing incentive to other eBird users to indicate where certain species are found that will in turn promote bird tourism throughout Central America.
Guides Pablo Najarro (left) and Benjamin Hernandez (right) | Photo by Toby Ross
To see more stunning photographs from this trip, visit our Flickr photo album. The full report can be found here. Visit Seattle Audubon's International Birding Trips page for more information on our international trips program.
If you’d like to be notified of information on the next International Birding Trip, please get in touch with Science Manager, Toby Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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