Lago de Atitlán – Panajachel y Santiago

23-25 January 2017

After several days in Tzununa, I take a lancha (public boat) east to Panajachel to connect with my friend, Pablo Chumil. A Guatemalan bird guide from the Lake Atitlán region, I first met Pablo at the Petén and Cobán Christmas Bird Counts. Now, we meet up to do some birding on his home turf, an area rich with regional endemic species. For our first birding adventure, we visit Finca Santa Victoria just outside of town. Here, we search for the rare and elusive Belted Flycatcher on the dry forested slopes. With a small and limited range on the Pacific slope of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and northwestern El Salvador, there are only a few reliable locations to see this species. After the bird’s fifteen-year absence around Panajachel, Pablo recently rediscovered a population at Finca Santa Victoria. Beyond successfully finding the Belted Flycatcher, we also see our other target species, Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird and Slender Sheartail.

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Black Thrush (Turdus infuscatus)
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Azure-rumped Tanager (Tangara cabanisi)

For our second birding adventure, Pablo and I take a lancha to the south shore for some cloud forest birding. From the dock, we take a tuk-tuk to the Continental Divide high above Santiago Atitlán. With a 360-degree view, we overlook the spectacular volcano-ringed caldera lake to the east and an expansive vista towards the Pacific Ocean. Our day’s main target species include Black Thrush and Azure-rumped Tanager, both uncommon birds with restricted ranges. With Pablo’s keen familiarity of the area and its regional endemics, the Black Thrushes are promptly located gorging on the white berries of a fruiting tree with Northern Emerald-Toucanets. After a steep hike plunging into the humid forest to the west in search of other birds, we eventually return to the exact same white-berried tree. Pablo explains that the Azure-rumped Tanager often shows up to feed at ten o’clock. Sure enough, as the clock strikes ten, the Azure-rumped Tanager appears.

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Northern Emerald-Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus)
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Blomfild’s Beauty (Smyrna blomfildia) feeding on the sap wells of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

The Subtropical Humid Forest of the Pacific Slope

Lago de Atitlán – Tzununa

19-23 January 2017

The long, winding descent to San Marcos La Laguna on Lake Atitlán was a harrowing ride. Accompanying the amazing views were sheer death defying drop offs, treacherous curves, and a blown engine. With the lingering screams of a half dozen fellow travelers ringing in my ears, I settle in the small and friendly village of Tzununa on the northwest side of the lake. Here, I decompress for a few days while I hike the surrounding hills, meet locals, and of course, go birding.

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Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)
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Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
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White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)
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White-faced Ground-Sparrow (Melozone biarcuata)
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Townsend’s Warbler (Setophaga townsendi)
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Fisherman at Dawn
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The Liquid Gold Waters of a Lake Atitlán Sunset 

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Finca El Pilar

4 January and 7 January 2017

As I find myself stationed in Antigua for two weeks of intensive Spanish classes, I visit the nearby birding hotspot, Finca El Pilar. At elevations ranging from 1,600 to 2,400 meters (5,250 to 7,870 feet), this private nature reserve protects 470 acres of forest. The finca’s habitats include dry shrub forest, humid broadleaf forest, as well as pine-oak and cloud forest. A long trail system through these respective habitats allows for some amazing altitudinal birding.

From the Spanish Baroque influenced city of Antigua, I ride a tuk-tuk to the finca’s entrance and hop off ready for a morning of solo adventuring. As I walk the road towards the trailhead, a familiar voice calls my name from a passing vehicle. It is Daniel Aldana Schumann, one of the finest birders and guides of Guatemala. I first met Daniel at the American Birding Expo in Columbus, Ohio last September while working for Black Swamp Bird Observatory. Since my arrival in Guatemala, I have had the privilege of birding with Daniel at both the Petén and Cobán Christmas Bird Counts. Unexpectedly, I get to bird with Daniel once again.

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Blue-throated Motmot (Aspatha gularis)

On a scouting mission with Dušan Brinkhuizen for a future Rockjumper birding tour, they invite me to join their morning excursion. With hopes of seeing Rufous Sabrewings, Blue-throated Motmots, and White-eared Ground-Sparrows, we hike up the nature trail. Over the course of the morning, we see our target species along with many other great birds, including Yellowish Flycatcher, Crescent-chested Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, and White-winged Tanager. As well, we hear the crazy flight display of the Highland Guan (click here for an audio recording) and the tooting of a Guatemalan Pygmy-Owl. After scouring the lower three kilometer loop for birds, we bid farewell yet again. I suspect our paths will cross again, either here in Guatemala or someplace else.

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Azure-crowned Hummingbird (Amazilia cyanocephala)

Three days later, I return to Finca El Pilar in a quest to reach the cloud forest at the top end of the reserve. While I see many of the same birds along the way, I pick up a few new ones including Singing Quails and a Berylline Hummingbird. I even see my first ever Highland Guans scurrying through the underbrush. While the Highland Guan is very common and frequently heard vocalizing, they are extremely difficult to see.

In the process of reaching the cloud forest, I am blown away by the diversity found across the altitudinal zones. For an ebird list of the day’s 20 kilometer hike, click here.

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Black-headed Siskin (Spinus notata)
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White-eared Hummingbird (Basilinna leucotis)
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Inca Dove (Columbina inca)
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Crescent-chested Warbler (Oreothlypis superciliosa)
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Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

Various Landscapes of Finca El Pilar