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Guatemala: Birding the Tarrales, pt 1

February 11, 2010

Ok, so I went to Guatemala last week for what was an incredible, if short, trip to this very birdy Central American country.  I was a guest of the Guatemala Tourist Office, who is actively pushing Guatemala as an ecotourism destination on par with Costa Rica and Panama, those nations widely considered to be the benchmarks of bird tourism.  Now, I’ve been to Costa Rica, way back in 2007 before I started blogging, and if you’ve been birding south of the Rio Grande the birds in the neotropics get in your blood in a way that’s hard to explain but easy to understand.  It is, simply put, intoxicating, and after a first trip you’re filled with a desire to go back and see more, to do more.  Needless to say, I was jonseing for some neotropic birds in a big way since that trip nearly 3 years ago, and Guatemala promised to do just the trick.

But wait, there’s more!  This was no ordinary trip.  I was part of a contingent of bird folks the likes of which made me feel, as a member of the online bloggoratwittersphere community of nature writers, somewhat minuscule.  After all, soon after I was picked up from the airport I was joined by birding guide Keith of the South African based Rockjumper Tours, a crack birder whose lack of neotropical experience was hardly a detriment and whose enthusiasm was fairly infectious.  While we tooled around the main office of the Guatemalan Tourist Bureau (a small, but productive, bit of garden) picking up loads of wintering North American migrants, we were soon joined by none other than Ted Floyd, editor of the ABA journal Birding and author of a fine field guide.

These were serious birders, big wheels in the community, and here was little old me, a bird blogger with a regular 9 to 5 who was in Guatemala practically by sheer luck.  At this point I was feeling a bit heady and it was about to get worse.  We had to wait for the last group to arrive before making our way out to Los Tarrales, where we would be spending our first full day in Guatemala.  So up we rolled to the airport on our way out to pick up the Euro birders of our trip consisting of the editor of Birdwatch magazine, the operator of a Dutch tour company called Birding Breaks, and none other than Bill Oddie himself.

Americans may not realize who Bill is, and I counted myself generally among that number, but for British birders it’s a bit like birding with Jack Hannah or Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter.  Bill has done several popular nature programs for the BBC and is something of a celebrity over there, something we were made aware of by groups of British tourists we occasionally ran into.  Perhaps any British readers I have can speak to the phenomena that is Bill Oddie, but from where I was, he’s a friendly guy, a fine field companion, and an incredibly dogged climber of volcanos for an older gentleman of small stature (more on that in a later post).

Aaaaanyway, I was the lone little bird blogger here in Guatemala among some serious movers and shakers of the worldwide birding community.  I don’t say this to drop names or anything, but I hope to point out how fortunate I felt in their company.  But even though I was with folks far better known than me, when it comes to getting out in the field we’re all the same, equally excited at the prospects of getting out on the property of Los Tarrales the next morning to look at some good birds.

Los Tarrales has become one of the premier birding spots in this part of Guatemala.  In addition to being a lodge, it’s a working farm where plots for bananas, ornamental flowers and shade-grown coffee are all interspersed with second-growth forest.  It’s a recipe for lots of birds, the first of which were the trio of Collared Aracari that bounded in that toucan way into the bare branches of a distant tree as the sun was just beginning to lighten the grounds to remind me, just in case I had forgotten, that I was back in the neotropics.

From that point on it was fast and furious.  Melodious Blackbirds sang from every palm, White-throated Magpie Jays hopped to the top of naked trees, and Yellow-winged Tanagers proved that Costa Rica wasn’t the only country with killer Thraupids.  I didn’t have a real camera with me or I would have gotten some nice images of some of the amazing birds that became regular companions throughout the morning walk.  Between the residual comfort of neotropical birds from my trip to Costa Rica and the fact that half of the species we were seeing were wintering North American birds I felt as though I hung in there pretty well.  Neotropical birding can be overwhelming at first, but if you’ve got a base to build on you can avoid the helpless feeling birders are susceptible to in the face of so many new species and families.

Guatemala is kind of good for this, especially in the south where their are lots of great birds, many of them regional endemics, but not so many that you feel as though your head is going to explode.  And in fact, many of the species are down-right familiar to anyone with even some experience in the near-tropical parts of the United States.  Great-tailed Grackles, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and Great Kiskadees are easily recognized.  But no amount of South Texas prep can get you ready for something as cool as a Bat Falcon.

Los Tarrales’ Hummingbird feeders were not particularly active when I checked, but that doesn’t mean Hummingbirds were hard to find.  In their natural state, skimming the epiphytes and tube-petaled flowers in the forest, they can be a real bear to identify beyond genus.  But the odd perched bird made the work easy for us, like the lovely male Long-billed Starthroat, whose name is perfectly evocative of the bird it’s attached to.

Our terrific guide, Josué de León Lux, who, it must be noted, was simply one of the finest guides I’ve had the pleasure to bird with, worked hard to get a Tody Motmot to present for the group to no avail.  We missed this much desired bird, but Josué had some other birds up his sleeve for later in the day (and for another post), and headed back to the lodge for breakfast and to decompress from a great morning of flycatchers and euphonias and peppershrikes in which we nearly topped 100 species in only a few hours.  A good day all around, and only a taste of what would come.

More soon…

  1. February 11, 2010 9:40 am

    Yes, yes, yes.
    The flora and fauna of the tropics do get into your blood the way nothing else I have ever experienced has… To the point where I am even more interested in reading blog posts about the neo-trops that I am about good birds being seen in my own (metaphorical) backyard.

    And, as expected, your first post has us drooling for more. Can’t wait to read about the rest of the trip…

  2. February 11, 2010 10:22 am

    Bill Oddie!?
    Holy…, that must have been quite an experience.

    And Ted Floyd?? Gosh, I mean… did you actually do some birding or were you just talking to your fellow birders? I for one surely would have liked to spend a few hours just chatting with Ted Floyd about his AMAZING field guide!! I won’t go as far as saying I would have prefered that conversation over the sight of a toucan or two, but you do get the picture, ey?

    How lucky!!

    Oh, and then the birds. Yes, what Christopher said: drooling for more!

  3. Nate permalink*
    February 11, 2010 11:10 am

    @Christopher- More to come. Looking at my stuff, I’m amazed by how much I can milk from what amounted to just over two days.

    @Jochen- Yes, and yes. One of the best parts about this trip was talking to the amazing birders present. I would have loved to have stayed longer for that even if the birds weren’t so great as well.

  4. February 15, 2010 2:17 pm

    Many thanks Nathan it was great and an honor to have you in Guatemala and I hope we can have the chance to have you again to keep improving the importance of nature to the entire planet. Many thanks for being with us!!!

  5. Nate permalink*
    February 15, 2010 3:40 pm

    @Ana Christina- Thanks so much, it was truly an honor to be invited! I’d love to come back, and for longer next time!

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