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.