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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2024 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The tour through Guatemala’s rich birding landscapes provided an abundance of remarkable avian encounters, with notable highlights featuring the Horned Guan, Pink-headed Warblers, Ocellated Quail, Resplendent Quetzal, Orange-breasted Falcon, and Ocellated Turkeys.

Beginning in Antigua, participants were greeted by the vibrant avifauna, including Violet- and Rufous Sabrewings. Moving to Tarrales Nature Reserve, days were filled with extraordinary sightings such as Collared Forest-Falcons, Long-tailed Manakins, and Black-and-white Owls. The quest for the elusive Resplendent Quetzal in San Marcos yielded memorable moments, with sightings complemented by encounters with a Yellow-throated Nightingale-Thrush and Rufous-browed Wrens. In Sibinal, the excitement peaked with the sighting of the elusive Horned Guan and the frosty-headed Pink-headed Warbler, marking unforgettable lifers for all. The journey to Huehuetenango showcased a diverse array of species, including the rare Goldman’s Warbler and the secretive and extremely rare Ocellated Quail. The extension to Petén added further richness to the birding experience, with highlights including encounters with Black Catbirds, Rose-throated Tanagers, and the rare Yellow-breasted Crake. Exploring Tikal’s archaeological wonders unveiled an enchanting array of species, from Orange-breasted Falcons perched atop ancient temples to Royal Flycatchers and White-whiskered Puffbirds adorning the forest canopy.

Throughout the journey, camaraderie and shared experiences enhanced the enjoyment, culminating in a memorable final dinner celebrating the splendor of Guatemala’s avian treasures.

IN DETAIL: We started our tour as usual in the beautiful town of Antigua, which was once the heart of the New World. Early arrivals went out in search of birds on their own even before a lovely welcome dinner, finding great species like Violet and Rufous Sabrewings. Early on the first morning, we made our way to one of Guatemala’s most beautiful fincas on the southern foot of Volcan de Fuego for a great morning of introductory birding in the area. Shortly after arrival, we were treated to large numbers of migrant Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, while the first large flocks of Pacific Parakeets, numerous pairs of Yellow-winged Tanagers, and Cinnamon-bellied Saltators gave everyone time to get acquainted with the new bird environment. Before and after a wonderful breakfast in the stunning gardens, we enjoyed looks at several freshly fledged Green Herons and a spectacular show of two Bat Falcons, while we got a surprise visit from two Neotropical River Otters diving through the ponds, while Fuego Volcano kept spewing out large clouds of ash continually. In the afternoon, we carried on towards our destination for the day, the Tarrales Nature Reserve. On the way, we, of course, made a stop at the “magical gas station” where we got fantastic looks at a resident Gray-crowned Yellowthroat over ice cream. We arrived in Tarrales in time to enjoy flocks of Pacific, Orange-Chinned, and Orange-Fronted Parakeets flying over the lodge while noisy White-bellied Chachalacas called out into the evening.

Our two full days in Tarrales were filled with one spectacular sighting after another. Starting on the first day with a young Collared Forest-Falcon that swooped in on a branch right in front of us and was as surprised as we were. Followed by possibly the longest scope views of two male Long-tailed Manakins singing away until our attention was caught by a nearby Green Shrike-Vireo that everyone got good looks at while it foraged casually through a Tourist Tree. The remainder of the morning, we enjoyed Short-tailed and Zone-tailed Hawks while chasing Blue-tailed Hummingbirds until the heat sent us back to the lodge for a lunch break. But the afternoon wasn’t going to be any less spectacular. Starting with a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Everilda heard nearby Barred Parakeets. An opportunity that we weren’t going to let pass. In her twenty years of birding experience, she had only seen them perched twice. So, we closed in on their calls coming out of a seeding bamboo when we managed to observe over a dozen of these extremely rare parakeets. But the day was far from over at this point. Before nightfall, we were still to encounter a Mottled Owl in another growth of bamboo and then Everilda showed us a pair of Black-and-White Owls she had been tracking with a big smile on her face.

On the second day in Tarrales, we headed up to La Rinconada before daybreak to get a chance at the elusive Highland Guan. We enjoyed a fascinating soundscape of the Guans calling and doing their wing rattle in flight. Once it was light enough, we walked up the trail a little further when someone shouted out “I got one”! We got a chance to watch a male hop up bare branches and tree trunks and then take flight doing the amazing wing rattle right in front of all of us. We then headed up the volcano to Vesubio where we tracked down the regional endemic Bar-winged Orioles getting great looks and the even smaller distributed Azure-rumped Tanager when we heard a high-up call of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle above our heads. We spotted the bird and then watched this stunning raptor dive in display to almost eye level where everyone got great looks before it disappeared behind the tree line. In the afternoon, we had great luck spotting a singing Striped Cuckoo with scope views while tracking down a Turquoise-browed Motmot and Yellow-naped Parrots and lots of other species to keep us well entertained.

From Tarrales, we headed towards Lake Atitlán to bird a trail up the western slopes of Volcan Atitlán that had been rather productive in the past. And it did not disappoint. On the hike up, we encountered a rare pair of Gray-collared Becard and then had spectacular views of the usually very skulky Blue-and-white Mockingbird that circled us several times giving us stunning looks. Shortly after, we encountered a stunning pair of Blue-crowned Chlorophonia right above our heads. The stars of the morning, though, were two Fulvous Owls that perched on the most beautiful mossy branch followed by two male Mountain Trogons. What a morning!!! The plans for the afternoon were to get us to our next destination of San Marcos, but we made a quick stop to squeeze in a Sora on the lakeshore before crossing beautiful Lake Atitlan.

The next two days we spent around the town of San Marcos with the main objective of encountering the Resplendent Quetzal. On the first morning, we spent some time around an active nest cavity hoping for a Quetzal to make an appearance when a gorgeous Yellow-throated Nightingale-Thrush hopped up on a fence right in front of us. Out of the corner of our eye, we saw a large bird fly in, and sure enough, a wonderful male Resplendent Quetzal flew in right in front of us and started calling and displaying before entering the cavity. Another highlight of the morning was a Guatemalan Yellow Grosbeak that was spotted just after arriving at the refuge. In the afternoon, we went to the Astillero de San Marcos, where we got great views of a Rufous-browed Wren, both Brushfinches, and a flock of Black-throated Jays followed by Yellow-backed Orioles.

On our second day, we birded the lovely cobblestone road to Bojonal, even finding a male Hooded Grosbeak before leaving breakfast. Getting more great looks at species like Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, Yellowish Flycatcher and to our surprise, another male Resplendent Quetzal. We all watched it fly over our heads in the very way the Maya mythology describes it as the feathered serpent. Another highlight was an Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush that finally sang away on a bare branch right in front of our eyes.

In the afternoon, our main objective was to get us to Sibinal, the base town from where we would start our quest for the Horned Guan and the stunning Pink-headed Warbler. We arrived in good time and stopped on a dirt road for some casual afternoon birding, when someone shouted out “I got it”! And there it was, our first Pink-headed Warbler for the trip for everyone to enjoy. This frosty-headed beauty of pink is a lifer to remember for the rest of our lives! Excited about the encounter, we finished off the day with a Guatemalan Pygmy Owl and some extremely bad singing from a nearby church that can’t be avoided by any means. Yet again, what a fantastic day in the western highlands of Guatemala.

On our full day in the region, we left Sibinal long before dawn to see one of Guatemala’s most mythical birds. The Horned Guan! This species is notorious for being very hard to come by, usually accompanied by extremely hard hikes and exhaustion. We arrived at our first location at perfect timing and immediately started scanning the mountainside in front of us, a beautiful landscape filled with large Canaque trees and old-growth conifers. It was a freezing cold morning and while the sun slowly edged over the ridge, we enjoyed the songs of Pink-headed Warblers and Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireos while not taking our eyes away from the forest. Suddenly the excitement became frantic when we spotted a beautiful Horned Guan hopping up a conifer much like the Highland Guan had done days earlier. We scoped our desired Unicorn, and after frantic first looks, everyone got their share of this once-in-a-lifetime experience! For the remainder of the morning, we birded down towards Roman’s house picking up many more sought-after species like Blue-throated Motmot, Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo and Black-capped Siskins. One highlight chased the next. In the afternoon, we got rained out, but our excitement levels were topped up anyway, and we enjoyed a relaxing evening.

From Sibinal, we worked our way back east towards Huehuetenango, making a stop in the morning in Union Reforma, enjoying many more Pink-headed Warblers and several migrating Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks dispersed by two White-throated Swifts. The drive to Huehuetenango was uneventful and we arrived in good time to get some rest before tomorrow’s planned early start up the Cuchumatanes.

We left for Guatemala’s highest plateau well before sunrise, and it took us a while to drive up to over 11,000 feet. In Chiabal, we picked up our good friend Esteban and his daughter Cecilia, who is a new bird guide in training. We drove on to our very favorite spot for first looks at the oh so different Goldman’s Warbler. With a cup of hot coffee in hand, we shortly after had a magnificent male Goldman’s swoop in and give us ample time and close-up opportunities to marvel at this special Warbler. After a first look, one participant looked at me, saying: “I had thought the bird on your shirt was exaggeratedly chunky, but now I think he’s not even chunky enough!” And yes, that’s how different of a bird it is. We enjoyed the company of the Warbler for some time, while looking at the resident Yellow-eyed Juncos, Spotted Towhees, and three very nearby Guatemalan Northern Flickers. Even a female Olive Warbler came right down to eye level to greet us. The rest of the morning we reserved for the search of another very special bird that inhabits that unique páramo-type habitat of low juniper forests and pine Savanna. The target, the elusive Ocellated Quail! This species often goes undetected altogether. But April is one of the better months to experience at least the call of this secretive bird. We birded and drove through the unique habitat of the Cuchumatanes all morning, enjoying the landscape and picking up bits and pieces like the resident Savannah Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlarks. We decided to hit one more patch for our elusive target before we had to turn around for lunch and the descent back to Huehue. After a few minutes, one participant called out two Quails walking right over a plowed field in front of us, a male and a female followed and disappeared between the grass. We tried to surround them and everyone got looks at another two males that flushed out of the grassland once we got off the vehicle. What excitement!

After a lovely lunch with Esteban and Cecilia, we enjoyed some more casual birding around Chiabal, picking up the resident Rock Wren and the very different-looking Chiapas subspecies of Pine Siskins. Tired but very happy, we said our goodbyes to Esteban and returned to Huehuetenango for our last big meal together. The main tour was coming to an end, and the following day we would fly back to the city, have a lovely lunch and then fly on to a whole new region and birdscape to Petén. A great big thank you to everyone on the tour for making this such a great experience with lots of birds and experiences shared!

Tikal Extension: We arrived in Petén in the evening and made our way to the beautiful Villa Maya. The next morning, we got up before dawn to bird the Savannah for things like Black Catbird and Botteri’s Sparrow. The area is notoriously hot, so we made an effort to be there as early as possible. It was a Sparrow kind of morning, and within a short time, we racked up several Botteri’s, Green-backed and Olive Sparrow. Then we hit the best location for Black Catbird… a highway! Chasing the bird along the road, we eventually pinned one down, and with extreme luck, we even managed to put it in the scope for a minute. That left us enough time to try for another hard bird this morning. The Rose-throated Tanager. It took some effort to reach the location, but once there, our desired friend didn’t make us wait even a minute, and we all got to see a beautiful male before heading to lunch. In the afternoon, we had a special treat planned. We took a boat across Lake Petén Itzá in search of the rare Yellow-breasted Crake, and fingers crossed, maybe a Pinnated Bittern. Jose had recently discovered a new location and it didn’t take us all too long before a gorgeous crake walked out of the grass and gave everyone fantastic looks. A very worthy lifer for everyone! On the way back, we didn’t see one, but an incredible four Pinnated Bittern. Without a doubt a high count for the lake.

The next morning, we drove east to Yaxha in search of more Yucatan endemics. On the entry road, we picked up two Yucatan Flycatchers and to our big surprise, we found another Agami Heron in the same location as last year. Speechless by this encounter, we birded the remainder of the morning at the archaeological site and familiarized ourselves with Olive-backed Euphonias, Black-headed and Gartered Trogons, and the stunning Blue Bunting. Before leaving the site, we climbed the highest pyramid and enjoyed wonderful views over the Yaxhá lagoon in the midday sun. After lunch and a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, we headed to Tikal, where an Ocellated Turkey and a Russet-naped Wood-Rail welcomed us.

The next two days we spent birding the archaeological site of Tikal which is always a magical experience. We started out enjoying the awakening forest from the lost world, listening to Pheasant Cuckoos and Bright-rumped Attilas, while the surrounding pyramids and temples slowly emerged from the fog. Once there was enough light, we soon spotted an Orange-breasted Falcon perched up high on temple four, while dozens of Red-lored, White-fronted, and Mealy Parrots flew around us at and below eye level giving us spectacular views. Over the next two days, we enjoyed many fantastic species like Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Royal Flycatcher, Gray-headed Tanager, Ruddy, Tawny-winged, Northern Barred and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, and a copulating pair of Barred Forest-Falcon seen at close range through the scope. Tikal always offers an endless number of species that make one wish to stay several more days to enjoy the vast range of lowland species. On our usual hike down the old runway, we encountered a Morelet’s Crocodile and listened to several more Yucatan Flycatchers and Scaled Pigeons while another Pheasant Cuckoo called into the early evening. Just before reaching the Hotel, we encountered a White-whiskered Puffbird, a great way to finish the day.

The next morning, we birded the road towards Uaxactún. This dirt road lies within the national park and represents over 20 km of fantastic birding. We encountered Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, White-browed Gnatcatcher, and an absolutely stunning male Black-throated Shrike-Tanager. Then it was time to bid farewell to Tikal. We packed up and headed back to the Villa Maya for a wonderful lunch before taking our flight back to the city (Guatemala City) where we gathered for our final dinner at the Tikal Futura..

Thank you all for an absolutely spectacular trip! As much as the country and the birds make a trip special, so does the group itself. It was an absolute pleasure to have you in beautiful Guatemala!!! 

                                                                                                                                                                                       - Roland Rumm

Created: 17 May 2024