Sunday, August 26, 2018

Volcanoes and Pink-headed Warblers

August 2018: A Short Trip to the Volcanic Highlands of Guatemala

Tuesday, August 14 - Guatemala City to Tecpan

Some trips are just a little random.  Earlier this year, while chatting on-line with a friend (future birding star Jacob Drucker) we got to talking about Southern Mexico and from that conversation my mind drifted to some of the Central American Highland birds I really have long wanted to see.  Before too long I had arranged a short trip to Guatemala as a tag-on to my Birthday Foodie trip to Mexico City.  Why Guatemala and not Chiapas?  No good answer there really, I would like to go to Chiapas but settled on Guatemala, perhaps blaming that pesky eBird World Map that gives you such endorphins for filling in new countries in shades of yellow, orange or red.  Anyway, plans were made with Cayaya Birding and I threw the invitation open to some friends resulting in Michael Duffy, Carlos Sanchez, and Brent Bomkamp signing up to join me.

Having survived a bit of a rough landing, the Aero Mexico pilot aborted the landing twice before sticking it on the third attempt, I made it to Guatemala City and promptly passed out exhausted.  Brent ended up dropping out due to a family medical emergency but on Tuesday morning Michael, Carlos and I met with local bird expert and tour leader/fixer extraordinaire Knut Eisermann and headed off to explore the birds of the Guatemalan highlands.

First stop was a small park not far from the city center that preserved a small valley with native vegetation.  Highlight here was BUFFY-CROWNED WOOD-PARTRIDGE  a lifer for me and part of a nice selection of birds that fortified us for the long road trip to the highlands and our main birding target.  By lunch-time we'd arrived at an odd Swiss-chalet-style restaurant that specialized in crepes, but with lunch done we hiked up into the pine-oak forest behind the restaurant and were smack in the middle of our target birds.

Highlights here included BLUE-THROATED MOTMOT which we heard a lot before we finally got a good look at it.  That stunning confection of a bird, the PINK-HEADED WARBLER was also here and gave good views, and bad photos, at the top of the trail along with a supporting cast of lifers including Hooded Grosbeak, Black-capped Swallow, Guatemalan Tyrannulet and Blue-and-white Mockingbird.  A couple of hours truly well spent and a few of our key target birds locked down on the first morning made for a very good start.  And it was still only mid-afternoon on Day 1 ... what was next?

Pink-headed Warbler and Blue-throted Motmot
(Two of the star endemics of the Guatemalan Highlands)

"Next" turned out to be the Tecpan area and a site for another nemesis bird of mine, the UNSPOTTED SAW-WHET OWL.   This was a bird I've looked for twice unsuccessfully, both times in Costa Rica, and so another chance was most welcome.  The exact site had to be withheld at Knut's request and the arrival of two local guys with shotguns who escorted us into and out of the area was a definite reminder that we were off the beaten track here.  The site, more beautiful mixed forest quickly provided more lifers for me with Black-throated Jay and Rufous-collared Robin joining the life list.  As the light fell, we also had quite a night-bird treat with Mexican Whip-poor-wills, Whiskered Screech-Owls and Northern (Guatemalan) Pygmy-Owl all calling their hearts out around us and allowing themselves to be seen.  Then the Saw-Whet Owl also called and for the next hour or so we played a game of cat and mouse with it ... we would move, play the tape ... and the owl would fly over to a nearby tree and call back ... but never showed itself .... nothing more than hints of movement in the shadows.  But at least I heard it this time ... one day I will see one.

Wednesday, August 15 - Tecpan to Santiago Atitlán

After another morning in the Tecpan area we headed out towards the famous, and stupidly scenic Lake Atitlán for a two night stay.  The site of a sad extinction story where the Atitlán Grebe slipped away into oblivion as a result of human stupidity (the introduction of Large-mouth Bass for sport fishing) and a natural disaster (an earthquake that lowered the lake and eliminated feeding and breeding areas) I'd long wanted to see this place.  That a species survived here at all on such a tiny and fragile lake was a wonder in and of itself.  Still, I wish I'd been here earlier to see it, although it was gone before I started world-birding.

While our first views of the lake were scenic and high up, our first birding was at a place called IMAP where I added my life SLENDER SHEARTAIL and White-faced Ground-Sparrows.  Then a very pleasant evening ensconced at the comfortable Hotel Bambú with good food, decent wine and great views of the lake.

Slender Sheartail
Thursday, August 16 - Santiago Atitlán Area

Today I had a choice ... attempt a death march up the volcano with Knut, Michael and Carlos for Horned Guan, a bird I desperately wanted to see, or take it easier and bird some local cloud forest for a bunch of life birds.  A recent surgery made the volcano climb inadvisable and, as much as I wanted to try it, I knew I'd just slow the others down, so ended up going for the softer option.

The cloud forest option turned out to be perfectly great and I ended up adding 8 life birds with Rolando Torres on the trails at Rey Tepepul.  The adds included 3 life hummingbirds - Wine-throated Hummingbird, Green-throated Mountain-Gem and Emerald-chinned Hummingbird - plus Azure-rumped Tanager, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, and Black Thrush.  The last two were the, always hard to see, White-faced Quail Dove and the long-wanted Spotted Nightingale-Thrush, a bird I've salivated over in field guides for twenty years and never connected with.  A very nice day.

Wine-throated Hummingbird and Guatemalan Tyrannulet

After my birding morning, I ordered a nice lunch and a margarita, took a nap and was reading by the pool when I heard the sound of sobbing and shuffling on the path to the room.  Michael and Carlos had triumphed and seen the Horned Guan but at great physical cost it would seem as they limped back to the hotel in search of a hot tub or alcohol or both.  Physically I clearly made the right choice ... but maybe there are some Horned Guans closer to the road somewhere?

Friday, August 17 and Saturday, August 18 - Los Tarrales

A quick stop for the last major target bird of the trip, the BELTED FLYCATCHER, which despite Knut's pessimistic expectation management showed itself easily at Finca Santa Victoria.

Rusty Sparrow
Then the long drive to Los Tarrales was made longer by a defective van that couldn't break without an ominous wobbling and shuddering sensation and so the driver stayed stubbornly in second gear the whole way.  Once we arrived though, and sent the driver back to get a replacement van, we settled in to great food, nice rooms, and an afternoon/evening that alternated between birding around the lodge and drinking wine and reading bird books in the library.  Sure the rain was torrential but the settings were scenic and we still managed to whittle out some good life birds (White-breasted Chachalaca and Yellow-naped Parrot) and the lodge itself with it's faded affluence, bird art collection and welcoming staff made for a very pleasant experience.

The rain, mercifully had stopped in time for our last morning of birding where a Mottled Owl called to us as we climbed into a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the climb up to the higher altitude forests on the preserve.  I tried scoping the cloud forest for a Horned Guan (technically possible I suppose) but most of the day was spent slowly descending through the forest and we did encounter a good mix of species.  Highlights for me were lifer Blue-tailed Hummingbird, Ruddy Woodcreeper, and a BLUE SEEDEATER, a bird I really had not expected to see.  Carlos and Michael also got to catch up on some of the species I'd seen two days before and in total we rounded off a very nice list for a short trip.

Food was overshadowed by the Mexico trip but here a traditional Mayan
Fish Stew
Then back to Guatemala City, a delayed flight and a bouncy red-eye back to New York.  Overall a very nice trip and I definitely left wishing I had another week this time.  I think I'll be back, and not just for that pesky Honed Guan.

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