Monday, 15 December 2014

A Guatemalan Birding Adventure.

I've been back over two weeks now from my latest birding adventure. Mary & I were both 50 this year and fancied celebrating with a birding trip a bit different from normal & somewhere that we wouldn't want to go on our own. We decided on Central America and a 16 day tour organised by Naturetrek...."Guatemala - Birding in the Realm of the Maya". It sounded magical & it didn't disappoint.

We actually flew out 3 days before the tour started to get acclimatised & to see La Antigua, one of the old ex-capitals. I'd frightened myself silly reading reviews of peoples experiences in Antigua (crime etc), but we were careful and actually had a fantastic few days before everyone else arrived. We'd booked ourselves into a little hotel with a superb roof terrace from which we could bird safely with all our optics and admire the smoking Volcano de Fuego. We explored the town which is amazing, and enjoyed a half day birding tour at Finca Filadelfia that whetted our appetites, although the armed guards were a bit of a surprise!

Mary birding on the roof terrace, Volcan de Fuego smokes in the background!
La Antigua...
We were collected at 5am for our tour at Finca Philadelphia. 
The drive up the steep mountain track in the dark was a real experience & that alone made the trip worth while!

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Our transport....anything less wouldn't have made it up the steep mountain track
Our armed guard, not sure if they made me feel more or less safe.....
....but they did find us this rather gorgeous Northern Pygmy Owl.
The species may soon be a this could become a Guatemalan Pygmy Owl.
Even better!!
During the morning at Finca Filadelfia I saw 26 Lifers, including Bushy Crested Jay, Emerald Toucanet, Rose-throated Becard, Green Violet-ear, Magnificent Hummingbird, Bar-winged Oriole & White-collared Swift.

And so to the start of the official tour: 16 days, which included 2 travelling days with no birding involved. The first half of the tour was to be in the Highlands in the South of the country. There were 8 of us, plus Tour Leader Byron, local guide Pablo and driver Jose Manuel. We also had a rather nice new Mercedes Sprinter minibus, one of the few roadworthy vehicles in town!

Day 1:

We started our first full day birding together with a short drive out to Finca el Pilar, another private coffee eco-plantation & reserve on the outskirts of La Antigua.

View looking towards La Antigua from the mirador at Finca el Pilar
Heliconius hortense
Azure-crowned Hummingbird
Lunch was back at Finca rest for the obsessive...a bird between courses!
The sun had set by the time we'd finished birding & were collected by
our giant 4 x 4 for another exciting ride on the mountain tracks in the dark!
Day 2:

We drove West towards Los Tarrales Reserve, stopping en route for a morning's birding at Cerro Tecpan. It was a small mountain reserve, where we clambered around dodgy trails to find some great birds including Pink-headed Warbler, Blue-headed Euphonia & a Blue-throated Motmot that gave us the runaround for about an hour before Byron finally tracked it down for us! We also had a nice long look at a Mountain Trogon, which I'd only glimpsed the day before.
Yes, it's only a bad record shot of a Pink-headed Warbler....but it was one of the targets for the trip
As was to be the norm, we then had a full 3 course lunch. Ray, being an ex bird guide himself & possibly the most obsessive of us all, disappeared during coffee & then took us all to see a couple of extra birds he'd found whilst we were slacking! That got us the only Spotted Towhee & Yellow-eyed Junco of the trip!

The view towards Lake Atitlan taken during a brief stop en route 
On arrival at Los Tarrales we walked down the long entrance track to our lodge and were immediately confronted by so many new bird species that I didn't know where to look, and consequently I missed half of them! It was probably no more than an hour during which I saw 9 Lifers.....Lineated Woodpecker, Common Tody-flycatcher, White-bellied Chachalaca, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Rufous-naped Wren, Tropical Pewee, Lesser Nighthawk & Orange-fronted Parakeet. What a start to our 4 night stay at the reserve!

Only time for a quick shower before reconvening for the daily run through the species Checklist.
The Team, clockwise from front left:
Phil, me, Steve, Pablo, Gaye, Byron, Ray, Dave & Lyn. I guess Mary took the photo!

Day 3:

We spent the day exploring the tracks around the lodge.  In addition to Byron & Pablo we were also assisted by Josue the resident bird guide, and he  certainly knew his patch. We'd breakfasted at 5.30am & started birding at 6.15am, by which time it was already getting warm. We quickly started adding new species to the list including Scrub & Yellow-throated Euphonia, Long-tailed Manakin & Rufous-breasted Spinetail, to name just 4 of the 32 new birds for the day.

Blue-crowned Motmot
Mary exhausted.....& it was only lunchtime!
Collared Aracari
The birds were the other side of the Byron, Pablo & Josue built us a bridge! 
After 10 hrs birding (we did get about 1 1/2 hrs to recover at lunchtime), time for a quick (unfortunately cold) shower before Checklist & dinner. As we sat there exhausted reading the itinerary details sent to us before the trip, there was a certain amount of hysterical chuckling...."The pace of life at our Finca is a leisurely one....". I'm not sure which trip Byron was writing about....and it was about to get worse!

Day 4:

Gathered at 4.30am to set off for the reserve of Los Andes where we travelled up through the reserve standing in the back of pick-up trucks....quite an experience! The scenery was magnificent & we had some great birds, including Cabanis' (Azure-rumped) Tanagers,  Collared Trogon & Central American Pygmy Owl. The only negative was the non-appearance of a Resplendent Quetzal, but then that's the nature of birding! Our afternoon session was cut short by an impressive  tropical downpour, which produced one of many magical moments on the trip.....I was sheltering on the first floor watching the hummingbirds on the feeders when they actually started flying under the verandah & whizzing around right in front of me. Amazing!

The only way to travel!
Stygian Owl. He posed beautifully!
I think I've finally got the hang of digiscoping with my iPhone!
Rain stopped play...
Violet Sabrewing. 

Day 5:

Phil, Gaye & Lyn had decided to stay at Los Tarrales & have a relaxing day birding around the reserve. The rest of us gathered at 4.30am for breakfast before setting off to hunt for Horned Guan....not an LBJ (Little Brown Job) but a 33 inch long bird that lives in trees. This involved crossing Lake Atitlan on a small speeding boat & then climbing about 1000m up the steep sided San Pedro Volcano. Almost immediately on reaching Guan height, Ray, Byron & I had a decent view of one walking along a branch before it flew off. Dave saw it fly, along with a second which I hadn't seen, Steve saw a blob move, and Mary at the back didn't see anything at all. We carried on up a bit further, watched & waited for hours, then disaster struck....there was a loud crash as Steve & his equipment hit the deck. He hobbled off & pushed his dislocated shoulder back in. Ouch! With Mary's camera strap acting as a sling & a few painkillers we luckily had in the bag, Byron took him down the mountain to the local doctor while we unsuccessfully tried a bit longer for the Guan. Luckily Steve was in good spirits despite the pain when we joined him & Byron in a bar for a quick beer before the trip back across the lake.  Not the most successful of days, but we did see some nice birds along the way including Chestnut-capped & Yellow-throated Brushfinch, Common Bush Tanager & Hooded Grosbeak. I couldn't celebrate seeing the Guan as Mary had missed it completely....
Crossing Lake Atitlan towards our goal....we were going to climb that volcano! 
Looking back toward the lake from about 1/2 way up....
Slate-throated Redstart
My favourite beastie of the trip, this  spectacular caterpillar was about 2 1/2 inches long.
Another blast across the lake to end the day with a nice sunset.
Day 6:

Spent the morning wandering around the trails of Los Tarrales again, picking up 13 species that we'd missed before including a gorgeous Barred Antshrike, White-eared Ground Sparrow & Rufous-browed Peppershrike.
We had a Northern & Louisiana Waterthrush by the pool, a nice comparison.
Watching a Blue-black Grassquit doing a bizarre Zebedee impression. 
Drying coffee beans.....we were staying on a coffee plantation
A bit of packing, a quick lunch & off to Finca El Zapote, a quinine plantation south of La Antigua & at the base of the very active Volcan de Fuego. We passed lots of impressive forest & volcanic scenery on the way, and whilst stopping briefly for photos we added Scissor-tailed Flycatcher to the list.

The finca was in the back of beyond, up miles of unmade track and across 4 large rivers....none of which had bridges! We walked the last stretch notching up Green Honeycreeper & Green-breasted mango.
Finca al Zapote was actually quite modern & surrounded by botanical gardens
Mary had cleverly packed gin, but this was our first tonic...
very appropriate on a quinine farm. Lovely!!
Day 7:

Woke up before the alarm when the Volcan de Fuego made such a loud rumble that the windows shook! We spent the day wandering around the tracks of the estate. It was mostly pretty quiet and we only added 11 new species to the list. However, we also saw some very impressive giant tree iguanas, some fruit bats in the old coffee mill, and a lot of quinine bark! Byron dropped the bombshell over lunch that we could take less than half our luggage on tomorrow's internal flight.....everyone was glad that I'd packed luggage scales!
Groove-billed Ani 
A rather large impressive tree iguana
Quinine...where would we be without it for our gin?
However, all El Zapote's goes to Germany for use in medical products.
Actually sitting down & watching egrets & herons roosting. Luxury!
That night as we were going through the Checklist, there was a loud rumble & in the darkness we could see the top of the volcano glowing red! What an amazing sight & not something that I ever expected to see!

Day 8:

This was to be a largely non-birding day as we travelled back to Guatemala City to fly to Flores in the north & then on to the Tikal. We finished the serious re-pack before breakfast, still not sure how we'd get all the optics on the plane with our minimal luggage allowance. We bumped our way out along the rough track, and then sat by the roadside for 20 mins whilst Jose Manuel removed 2 rocks from between the twin back wheels! 
The Team in front of Volcan de Fuego. Left to right:
me, Mary, Phil, Gaye, Steve, Ray, Byron, Dave, Lyn & Pablo
Stopped at Antigua on the way to the airport.
Everyone else had a tour whilst we drank latte & wrote postcards.
Almost like being on holiday!
We were saying goodbye to Jose Manuel & Pablo (our 'pocket bird guide').
Jose Manuel had never driven a birding group before,
but I think he's now going to get some bins himself!
Managed to get bins & camera through booking-in by wearing them!
Mary descending from our huge 19 seater plane!
Another fun experience!

We booked into Jungle Lodge in the middle of the Tikal National Park, which was to be home for the next 3 nights.

Day 9:

Out early for a spot of pre-breakfast birding. It started well with a Mottled Owl sitting in a tree right outside reception...and just got better! We had been joined by our local guide Miguel, who's worked in the park over 40 years & certainly knows his birds as well as his archaeology. What an amazing day! I missed a few birds but even I saw 34 new species, 29 of those being Lifers, including Oscillated Turkey, Keel-billed Toucan, Royal Flycatcher & the superbly named & rather odd looking Montezuma Oropendola.  However, it was the surroundings that made the day so special....the Mayan temples were fantastic, and when you throw in the noise of the aptly named Howler Monkeys sounding like something from 'The Land that Time Forgot', you have an unforgettable day!

Keel-billed Toucan
Oscillated Turkey
Birding amongst the Mayan ruins was an experience to remember!
You can climb & sit on lots of the ruins.....a bit different to Stonehenge
(Me, Byron & Mary in front & Ray in the background.
And yes, that's a very silly hat I'm wearing!)
Chestnut-coloured Woodpecker
The main plaza....we climbed up the temple on the left, the view from which heads this post.
Looking for a Thicket Tinamou.....
Tinamous are ALWAYS on the ground & NEVER in the trees!
(A valuable lesson from Byron!)
Royal Flycatcher, beautiful even without its stunning orange & blue crest up
(unfortunately I didn't get that on film, but it was another magical moment!)
Phil (with his severely mozzie nibbled legs) &
Byron (carrying Mary's camera....what a gent!!)
Day 10:

Another atmospheric day of birding amongst the ruins. Added anther 22 species to the trip list, 19 of which were Lifers for me & included the absolutely stunning Purple-crowned Fairy, which unfortunately we didn't manage to photograph. We also experienced one of the most amazing spectacles of the trip (and we had quite a few!) and one which even Byron says he sees only once a year if he's lucky. We were walking along a trail when we stopped to watch a Woodcreeper. Whilst trying to get a better look at that, more & more birds started appearing. We realised that we were looking at a carpet of ants and that the birds, involved in a feeding frenzy, were following the ants & getting closer & closer to us on the path. It was phenomenal! We had Ruddy, Northern Barred, Tawney-winged & Strong-billed Woodcreepers at very close range, along with some beautiful Grey-headed Tanagers. We couldn't tear ourselves away and ended up with a last minute dash to the top of a temple and almost missing lunch!
Red-lored Parrot
White-nosed Coati
Tawny-winged of the many at the ant-feeding frenzy....
...along with this Grey-headed Tanager
It was worth the dash to the top of Temple 4....what a view!!
Mary &'s a long way down!
In the UK they'd have spoilt it with safety barriers, or more likely not let you up at all.

Plain Chachalaca
Day 11:

We left Tikal after breakfast to head south in our very cosy Toyota Hiace minibus. We had a brief & productive stop at a lake before going on to the archaeological site of Yaxha for more fantastic birding amongst the ruins. Then we took a boat down the river La Pasion to Lake Petexbatun and our island lodge. This was way past the 'back of beyond', but amazingly we still had a phone signal!
It doesn't look much, but in a matter of minutes we added 11 species
to the trip list & I saw my first  Northern Jacana &  Amazon Kingfisher
More temples....they never ceased to amaze
Slaty-tailed Trogon
What a place to watch the raptors....especially when that included Lifers King Vulture & Bat Falcon
The Mayans certainly knew how to build neat walls!
One of the highlights of the trip, and it's not even a bird!
 A Black-vested Anteater.
We pottered down the river for about 2 hrs
We didn't see many birds, but it was an interesting ride....
.....and it was dark by the time we arrived
Chiminos Lodge is on an island and we all had individual cabins which were miles apart..... we had a 3 day camel ride to get back to reception/bar/dining area! The cabins didn't have proper walls, just mozzie mesh, and that was a bit holey so it was just like sleeping outdoors! We (well Mary) evicted a huge hairy spider, we killed 2 cockroaches and had a colony of ants in the sink....I dread to think what else we were sharing with!
The view from our verandah was superb
We were very glad we'd packed our mozzie nets....
we're not on fire, that's smoke from our mozzie coil!
When we got back to the cabin after Checklist, beer & dinner, there was an enormous dead beetle in the sink being carried by our ant colony towards the tiny overflow. They were still trying to get it down the hole when the generator stopped at 10pm & the lights went out.

Ants at work!
During the night there was absolute silence except for the wildlife....& in particular we had Howler Monkeys howling directly over our cabin, what an amazing & slightly scary experience!

Day 12:

Normally the generator doesn't start until 6am, but Byron had arranged for it to come on early so we could see to get up. It was 5.15am & the beetle in the sink had vanished! Some pre-breakfast birding at reception got us a couple of new birds....Long-billed Hermit & Wedge-billed Woodcreeper. Then it was an hour by boat to our last Mayan site at Aguateca. Spent the afternoon back on the island & more pottering by boat in search of Agami Heron, but unfortunately the water levels were too high.

Long-billed Hermit
 Spider Monkey.
White-collared Puffbird
Red-capped Manakin
Mayan stela
Heading back to the boat. No H & S restrictions here,
the steps up were in a real state but we all survived.
We were all hot & sweaty. Phil decided on a novel technique to dry off,
ably assisted by Gaye! 
Landing area  & birding verandah at Chiminos Lodge
In the evening we had an unsuccessful owl hunt & watched lightening across the lake. We'd seen 75 species, which was the most on any one day of the trip,   11 of those were new for the trip & 10 were Lifers for me.  Not bad!

Day 13:

The lights didn't come on until 5.45am & as we weren't going to start moving about until we could see what we were stepping on, we were a bit late for the planned 6am start! Had a fleeting glimpse of a Sungrebe, which Gaye had seen yesterday from her hammock! After breakfast we made the return journey to Flores where we actually had an hour to play normal tourists before lunch!
Sayaxche, where we left the boat for the minibus
Flores is on an island in Lake Peten Itza, joined to the mainland by a causeway

Flores had some lovely colonial buildings.
More of Flores
Back to the birds up a nearby track, nice views of a Black-headed Trogon...
..and our first Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Mary, Byron, Miguel & me.
Miguel had been an excellent guide, both for the birds & the  archaeology.
We flew back to Guatemala City on another tiny 19 seater,
where we were collected by Jose Manuel in our nice minibus!
We thought we must be in the wrong hotel.....
talk about a change from our previous accommodation!

Day 14:

Our last day! It was really windy so when we set off for our last  morning's birding we weren't hopeful of finding anything. Cerro Alux is a pine-oak forest on the side of a big hill on the outskirts of Guatemala City. We could hear the wind whistling through the tops of the trees, but it wasn't too bad at ground level. We were now down to 6 as Ray & Lyn were flying back earlier in the day than us via Miami. It was a pleasant wander around the trails although pretty quiet.

I was a happy bunny at breakfast.....
my first decent cup of tea since leaving home! 
In Cerro Alux. Mary had Byron well trained...
he wasn't just carrying her camera now!
And then it was back to the hotel to finish packing before lunch & the long journey home.

I've done a preliminary species count for the trip.....I saw 271 species of which 181 were Lifers.

It had been an absolutely fantastic trip. The birds alone were amazing, but made even more special by the environments in which we saw them....birding amongst the volcanoes & Mayan ruins was a truly unforgettable experience. We were also extremely lucky to have such a fab Tour Leader in Byron, who wasn't just an expert on birds & other wildlife, but was a thoroughly nice chap & a good laugh too. And as for the rest of our group.....we couldn't have wished for a nicer bunch of people!

It will be difficult to go back to our usual DIY trips. We wanted to do something different to celebrate our 50th year.....and we certainly did!