19 Highlights of 2019

The year 2019 was yet another year chocked full of action-packed adventures and amazing experiences. I spent half the year in the incredibly beautiful and diverse country of Colombia guiding at Parque Nacional Natural Tatamá (Montezuma Rainforest) and continuing my explorations of other regions. As well, a few weeks were spent in Panama where I had the privilege of visiting two of the country’s premier eco-lodges, Mount Totumas Cloud Forest in the highlands and Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge in the Caribbean. As a second-year limited-residency student at Prescott College, I also had the opportunity to participate in amazing and rewarding field classes, Community-Based Conservation in Costa Rica, and a suite of Marine Studies courses at the Prescott College Kino Bay Center in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Though my time at home in Colorado was very limited this year, I had the honor of assisting with American Birding Associations’ Camp Colorado for young birders, guiding for Colorado Birding Adventures, and birding around my hometown of Lyons. Thanks to everyone who helped make 2019 unforgettable!

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A Golden-fronted Redstart forages for insects on Montezuma Road in Parque Nacional Natural Tatamá, Risaralda, Colombia. Twelve-kilometers long, Montezuma Road climbs in elevation through one of the best-protected forests in the world. Over 500 species of birds can be found along this legendary road and one never knows what surprise may lie around the next corner.
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Flitting through an elfin forest laced with colorful moss, a Blue-backed Conebill briefly pauses before disappearing into the dense vegetation. This vibrant bird was moving in a large mixed flock of several high Andean songbird species in Parque Nacional Natural Chingaza above Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city
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Just below treeline on Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano in Colombia’s Central Andes, a Golden-breasted Puffleg perches on a grass stem.
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After making a food delivery to its young, an American Dipper perches on driftwood in the middle of a mountain stream near Lyons, Colorado.
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In the largest alpine-tundra ecosystem in the world, Páramo de Sumapaz, a Bronze-tailed Thornbill flashes its striking iridescent gorget feathers. This special hummingbird’s distribution is restricted to páramo habitats in Colombia’s Central Andes, barely extending into Venezuela.
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“Wave Rider” – An American White Pelican endures an early spring windstorm in a small pond on Colorado’s Front Range.
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A pair of Spectacled Parrotlets blend in with their environment at Laguna de Sonso, the last intact wetland system in the Valle del Cauca of Colombia.
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An immature Red-tailed Hawk takes flight from a ponderosa pine to ambush a small rodent below. – Boulder County, Colorado.
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A Russet-throated Puffbird silently perches in the dry thorn-forest of Santuario de Flora y Fauna Los Flamencos in La Guajira Desert of Northern Colombia.
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Separated from their mother, two recently hatched Common Merganser ducklings seek shelter on the edge of a swift mountain stream near Lyons, Colorado.
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A Green-crowned Brilliant strikes a gorgeous pose in the spectacular hummingbird gardens of Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Reserve in the highlands of Panama.
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After a spectacular sunrise, the sun peeks through the clouds illuminating a feeding frenzy of Brown Pelicans and Black Terns. This moment was captured while kayaking in the pristine waters of Tranquilo Bay in the Caribbean of Panama.
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One of my all-time favorite experiences of 2019 was watching Red-billed Tropicbirds circle Swan Cay, a tiny, pristine, and magical island in the Caribbean of Panama. While circumnavigating the island, it felt as though I had time traveled to an unblemished, prehistoric world.
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After a long migration from North America, a Northern Waterthrush skulks in the mangrove swamps of a Carribean island in Panama. – Tranquilo Bay, Bocas del Toro, Panama.
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A mother three-toed sloth cradles her sleepy baby, the most precious moment I had the privilege of capturing in 2019. – Tranquilo Bay, Bocas del Toro, Panama.
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Western Sandpipers forage in a hurricane-flooded field in Bahía de Kino, Sonora, Mexico. Like these shorebirds, I too migrated down to the Gulf of California this past fall. Though these birds migrate to escape the harsh winters of the northlands, I arrived to study the fascinating marine and desert environment of the region.
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Off the shores of Isla San Pedro Mártir, an isolated island in the middle of the Gulf of California, a pod of ~600 bottlenose dolphins hunt federally protected waters.
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A big personality of the Sonoran Desert, a Cactus Wren perches atop an organ pipe cactus. – Bahía de Kino, Sonora, Mexico.
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During a flaming sunrise, Brown Pelicans stream across Bahía de Kino, a magical place in the Gulf of California.

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

Christmas at Finca Rubel Chaim

20 December 2016 – 2 January 2017

After the Conteo Navideño de Aves – Estación Biológica Las Guacamayas, I am off to another Guatemalan Christmas Bird Count. From the lowlands of Petén, we travel to the misty mountain town of Cobán in the Central Highlands of Guatemala. It almost always rains in Cobán, but despite the wet and cold weather, the area is a birder’s paradise. 

Hosting Cobán’s Conteo Navideño de Aves, Finca Rubel Chaim serves as base for the Christmas Bird Count. Managed by Rob and Tara Cahill of Community Cloud Forest Conservation, Finca Rubel Chaim boasts a pristine creek, caves, cloud forest, and associated fauna (including Ocellated Quail, Guatemalan Pygmy-Owl, Blue-throated Motmot, and Blue-crowned Chlorophonia). With many of the same participants from the previous count, we divide into groups for yet another day of intensive birding. While one group stays behind to bird the finca, the others venture further afield to their assigned count areas in the Cobán vicinity. 

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I join Luis Gonzalez, Erdozain López, Marlo Garcia, and Luke Seitz to tackle an area. Despite the unrelenting rain, we had a great time and saw some amazing birds.  
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It was a pleasure to meet and get to know the fabulous Christmas Bird Count participants. (Left to right): Luis Gonzalez, Oliver Komar, Daniel Aldana Schumann, Kim Score, Joel Such, Luke Seitz, and Jesse Fagan. If you ever go birding in northern Central America, make sure to take along a copy of Jesse and Oliver’s “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America.”

While the 2016 Cobán Christmas Bird Count comes to an end, my time at Finca Rubel Chaim is not over. With no definitive plan in place for my next move, the Cahills offer a housesitting position at the finca while they embark on a family vacation. Through the remainder of the year, I work alongside the local caretakers and continue to explore the amazing property.

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Cloud Forest
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Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens). While this species is by far the most common warbler, there is also the similar looking Golden-cheeked Warbler wintering on the finca.
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Limpkin (Aramus guarauna)

During the Christmas Bird Count, another group found a mega-rarity Spotted Rail (Pardirallus maculatus) skulking on the shores of Laguna Chichoj in San Cristobal Verapaz. The day after the count, I joined a group of birders poised to relocate the bird. We were successful! 

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Elegant Euphonia (Euphonia elegantissima)
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Green-Throated Mountain-Gem (Lampornis viridipallens)
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Paltry Tyrannulet (Zimmerius vilissimus)

The Yellow-backed Oriole (Icterus mesomelas) is a common species found along the creek of Finca Rubel Chaim.

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Mushrooms
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Rusty Sparrow (Aimophila rufescens)
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Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)

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The architecturally stunning headquarters of Community Cloud Forest Conservation (CCFC) at Finca Ruble Chaim demonstrates an eco-friendly and sustainable design. CCFC’s mission is to “protect cloud forests, and natural areas in general, through education, reforestation, community development and advocacy.”

While I wasn’t home for Christmas, I enjoyed my time working and conversing with the local caretakers. Every night we sat around the dinner table teaching each other our respective languages (English, Spanish and their Mayan language, Q’eqchi). Making new friends and being immersed in a different culture was a truly remarkable experience.

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Thank you Rob and Tara for giving me this amazing opportunity! It was a pleasure getting to know you, John, Peter, and Ruth.