By Diane Porter
Birds fly, innocent of national borders. They don’t get their passports stamped at the airport, but they carry the story of one nation to another. A Wilson’s warbler that I welcome back to Iowa in May tells me that a patch of forest in Central America is still there.
Some countries where “our” birds spend the winter have a growing understanding of how valuable natural habitats are to their economy and environment. Guatemala is one. I recently spent five days there as a guest of the Guatemala Tourism Department, birding and attending the first Guatemalan Bird Fair, at Lake Atitlán.
Rincón Suizo, Warblers and More Warblers
If you have only a few days for birding in an unfamiliar country, it’s well worth engaging a knowledgeable guide. I was doubly lucky to have the help of two. One was Maynor Ovando, director of birding guides for the tour company Birding Expeditions. More than an expert birder, he is a teacher of birding guides. He also manages the Guatemala Birding Club.
The other was Aarón de Leon, who was trained by Maynor and is now his colleague at Birding Expeditions. He displayed an uncanny talent at locating birds.
On my first morning in the Guatemala highlands, we stopped in Tecpán for breakfast. The restaurant, Rincon Suizo, looks like a Swiss chalet, tucked into the side of a mountain. I had a fine breakfast, yogurt from a nearby dairy, fresh fruit, and an extraordinary cup of hot chocolate. It was served in a pottery cup and made only of hot water, cinnamon, sugar, and locally grown chocolate, with a flavor so delicious that it may have ruined ordinary chocolate for me forever.
The jewel in the crown of Rincón Suizo is the nature preserve out back. We followed an easy walking trail up the canyon. The descending trills of brown-backed solitaires filtered through thick woods, and a pair of mountain trogons watched us from the shade of the canopy. Flitting at all levels, from ground to treetops, were warblers and other woodland species I knew from home, as well as many I was seeing for the first time.
After a couple of leisurely hours in the canyon, I’d added a dozen birds to my life list, including blue-throated motmot, blue-and-white mockingbird, slate-throated redstart, and crescent-chested, rufous-capped, and golden-browed warblers, as well as pink-headed warbler, emblematic of Guatemalan birding.
We also found many warblers, many of whom will soon migrate to North America. There were American redstarts, and Tennessee, MacGillivray’s, Townsend’s, black-throated green, red-faced, and Wilson’s warblers. It hit me how much our countries support each other’s birds. What would happen to the dawn chorus in the USA if the winter habitat of these species were to disappear?
To assist in the dual causes of bringing economic opportunity and preserving natural habitat, the National Audubon Society recently completed a two-year project to train Guatemalan and other Central American tour guides. In Guatemala, these new birding guides are licensed by the government. (The first group of trainees was taught by my guide on this trip, Maynor Ovando.)
Birding tourism, aviturismo, is an expanding Guatemalan industry. It counters the pressure to gobble the remaining original forest for agriculture and firewood. Every dollar (or Guatemalan quetzal) that a birder spends supports habitat preservation, by demonstrating to local people that it’s good business. People in rural communities are finding that they can raise their standard of living by becoming birding guides, and local businesses prosper. The environment, the birds, and the people all benefit.
The First Guatemalan Bird Fair
The March 2018, Guatemalan Bird Fair centered on Lake Atitlán. It’s at 5,000 feet in the volcanic highlands of southern Guatemala. Filling the huge caldera left by a volcanic explosion 84,000 years ago, it’s more than 1,000 feet deep and is the third-largest lake in Guatemala.
I stayed at the Jardines del Lago Hotel in the town of Panajachel, by the side of the lake. I could have been completely happy to spend a whole day birding its gardens. As I found my way to my room, a tropical mockingbird flooded the courtyard with music.
The trees were hopping with gray silky-flycatchers, blue-gray tanagers, yellow-bellied elaenias, and the Guatemalan subspecies of the golden-fronted woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons santacruzi). Rufous-collared sparrows strolled on the lawns.
This 2018 bird fair was designed primarily for the people of Guatemala, to raise awareness of the aviturismo industry. Put on by the Guatemalan Department of Tourism and the private Guatemalan Birding Association, it had representatives from universities, private preserve owners, and tour companies. The event featured bird trips to see emblematic birds of the region.
The organizers hope that the 2018 fair will initiate a series of Guatemalan bird fairs. Plans are underway for the next, in 2019 in Petén, where famous Mayan ruins are found. The second Guatemalan bird fair will reach out to birders from other countries as well as locals.
Rey Tepepul Park
One of the birding events of this fair was a trip to the Rey Tepepul nature reserve. It was barest dawn when, with a dozen other participants, I got on a small boat at Lake Atitlán. The sky washed pink and orange as we crossed the lake. A pickup truck met us at the dock at the village of Santiago Atitlán.
We loaded in and wound our way up the tortuous road to an overlook at about 6000 feet, from which we viewed a vast forest below, fading into mist rising from the Pacific. Outrageously colorful elegant euphonias perched overhead.
I spent a long time studying the thick underbrush, from which an insistent, musical song emerged, before being rewarded with the sight of a Cabanis’s Wren.
From the overlook we saw also saw mountain elaenia, rusty sparrow, Hammond’s flycatcher, and squirrel cuckoo. It was a fine view with good birding, but our destination was down the stone steps of the mountainside, through subtropical forest with a complex mix of trees. This was probably the richest morning of birding of my life.
Our main target was the resplendent quetzal.
A northern emerald toucanet stayed just ahead of us for a time, displaying the changing greens of its iridescent plumage. In its bill it held a tiny ficus nut. My companions told me that the toucanet also likes to eat the eggs of other birds, including those of the resplendent quetzal. I was glad it wasn’t my job to take sides between two charismatic birds that I had long wanted to see.
Down in the forest, a platform on the trail provided a spot where a dozen people could stop together in the shade, pull out snacks, and watch for quetzals. It was like being in a treehouse, with the forest laid out before us. We could see, in the crowns of trees growing downslope, a flock of five gray silky-flycatchers, with their yellow petticoats and their sweepingly graceful posture.
While we waited for quetzals, we watched a flock of azure-rumped tanagers fly toward us across a canyon. This beautiful species lives in a restricted range that makes it one of the most sought-after birds in Central America. We heard the quetzals calling through the woods for a long time before one appeared. A male streaked at eye level across our field of view, its green streamer of a tail undulating behind it. I’ll never forget the brilliance and smoothness of that flight. (I’d show you my photo, but it’s only of the tail.)
On the way back up, the stone path was not too difficult, but our group paused a few times. Once, we stepped aside and allowed three forest workers to pass us. Each carried on his back an enormous, neatly tied bundle of wood, cut from downed trees in the forest. When we reached the top, they had set down their bundles by the side of the road and were resting. I squeezed my fingers under the cord at the top of a bundle to see if I could lift it. No way—I couldn’t even rock it! Another member of our group was just reaching the top. He was young and strong, so I casually asked him if he thought he could lift the bundle. He put his fingers under the cord, gave an ineffectual tug, and grimaced. The guys who had carried the bundles were laughing. We all posed for photos with each other’s phones.
The pickup truck appeared to take us back down to Lake Atitlán. I got in back and grabbed the hold bar as we stood for the ride back down the mountain, the temperature rising as our elevation declined.
When we reached town again, with its steep, narrow streets, it was a slow-mo roller coaster ride. At an intersection, a North American tourist leaned out of her vehicle and took a picture of us. I had become part of the scene!
Maynor dropped me at the airport for my easy flight home. It’s only three hours on Delta Airlines from Guatemala City to Atlanta. During my flight, I tallied up my sightings. I’d seen 141 bird species, of which 58 were life birds. I was a little tired, after getting up early and birding all day every day. Yes, I was tired. But completely satisfied. And I know I’m going back.
Tour companies in Guatemala
Several tour companies are offering tours for birders. Here are a few:
Phone toll free from USA: (866) 832-2776
Based in Guatemala
Based in Rutland, England
Falcon Birding Tours Guatemala
Phone: 00 502 49561649
Founder/owner: Pablo Chumil, Birder & Naturalist Guide
Based in Solalá, Guatemala
Diane Porter co-hosts http://birdwatching.com, a website about wild birds and the sport of birding. It’s for everyone who’s interested in bird watching and enjoys nature.
About the Author
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