As my time in Guatemala comes to an end, I return to Petén and travel back up the Río San Pedro to the Estación Biológica Las Guacamayas (EBG) in Laguna del Tigre National Park. Last December, I participated in a Christmas Bird Count at this same biological station (click here for the blog post). Situated on the edge of the river within the vast Mayan Biosphere Reserve, EBG is the hub of important conservation work, including biological research, community development, and environmentally and socially responsible tourism. Thanks to Cornelio Chablé, Jeovany Tut Rodríguez, and the rest of EBG’s staff, I have the privilege of photographing birds for the station’s database. Following are a selection of my favorite photographs . . .
Red-capped Manakin (Ceratopipra mentalis)
Green-breasted Mango (Anthracothorax prevostii)
Black-headed Trogon (Trogon melanocephalus)
Left to right, top to bottom: Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (Phaeochroa cuvierii), White-bellied Emerald (Amazilia candida), Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl), and Wedge-tailed Sabrewing (Campylopterus curvipennis).
The Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation (FUNDAECO) in Guatemala runs the longest continuous bird banding and monitoring program in Latin America. For nearly two decades, Guatemalan biologists have been banding birds in the Izabel province. Thanks to FUNDAECO’s banding crew, I join local field researchers for nearly a month. Most days consist of ten hours of banding in mature forests, camping in remote locations, swimming in pristine rivers, laughing together, and snacking on corn tortillas with hot sauce.
Thank you Alexis, Miguel, Obdulio, Antonio, Yaquelin, and Thelma for a truly remarkable and memorable experience!
A Tawny-winged Woodcreeper (Dendrocincla anabatina) that was banded a previous season.
Crowned Woodnymph (Thalurania colombica) and Long-billed Hermit (Phaethornis longirostris)
In my trek to see the legendary Horned Guan, my dreams of seeing the amazing creature appears to end in smoke and ruins. After a long and steep hike up the mountain, we are confronted by a raging wildfire at our exact Horned Guan destination. However, not all hope is lost. Adjacent to the pillaring smoke and sweltering flames, the guan appears. This endangered bird is one of the top target species of Guatemala, and I am privileged to get great views and capture a unique flight photo. Thanks to local guide, Cruz Chikibal, for a successful day!
Several of my Guatemalan friends jokingly forbid me to leave the country without seeing Goldman’s and Pink-headed Warblers. Both regional endemics, Goldman’s and Pink-headed Warblers can be found in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America. Enjoying our birding adventures (click here), Pablo Chumil and I decide to rent a car and make the long trip west in a quest to see these coveted birds. After driving all night, we arrive at Todos Santos where local guide, Esteban Matias, drives us on rough roads through a stunning landscape of grassland, rock outcroppings, and islands of pine trees and junipers.
Once in appropriate habitat, we hike through the hills and immediately find several Goldman’s Warblers singing and foraging in the pine trees. While we spend a few hours observing the Goldman’s, we also see a variety of other highland species, many of which remind me of my home in Colorado. These birds include Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Brown Creepers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Rufous-collared Robins, Red Crossbills, Olive Warblers, Yellow-eyed Juncos, and Spotted Towhees.
A very cooperative Pink-headed Warbler puts on a spectacular show.
Me (left) and Pablo (right) photographing Goldman’s Warblers. Sometimes you need to climb a tree to get the desired vantage point.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The Yellow-backed Oriole (Icterus mesomelas) is a common species found along the creek of Finca Rubel Chaim.
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.
Thank you Rob and Tara for giving me this amazing opportunity! It was a pleasure getting to know you, John, Peter, and Ruth.
For the past eight years, I have participated in a myriad of Christmas Bird Counts in my home state of Colorado. Birding from dawn to dusk, we brave frigid temperatures as we scour rugged terrain for mountain birds and wade through icy waters counting American Dippers. This Christmas season, however, I find myself dripping with sweat in the humid broadleaf forests of Petén, Guatemala.
While I happen to be out of the country this winter, that doesn’t stop me from participating in Christmas Bird Counts. Shortly after departing Belize, I join the Christmas Bird Count at Estación Biológica Las Guacamayas (EBG). Stationed 45 minutes up the Río San Pedro by boat, EBG is an ecotourism lodge and research station surrounded by the vast forests and wetlands of Laguna del Tigre National Park. With a six year count history, the EBG Christmas Bird Count has rapidly grown in popularity within the Guatemala birding community. This year’s count doubles as a book launch for the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America with authors Oliver Komar and Jesse Fagan.
After an evening of socializing and looking for Northern Potoos along the river, we divide into groups to conquer tomorrow’s count day. I join a group poised for a long day of hiking. After a boat ride to our starting point, we begin trekking through the jungle in the early morning darkness. Twelve hours, eighteen kilometers, and 160 species later, my group completes the 2016 Estación Biológica Las Guacamayas Conteo Navideño de Aves. Many incredible birds were seen and it was the perfect introduction to the Guatemala birding community.