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Guatemala: Familiar Birds in Unfamiliar Places

February 12, 2010
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We interrupt this Los Tarrales lovefest to bring you an important sidenote that the birder in Central America this time of year cannot possibly ignore. For many would-be tropical birders, the appeal of the neotropics is largely based in the diversity of prototypical tropical families.  You’ve got your toucans and your motmots and your trogons and your tanagers.  These are the birds that draw the most eyes when flipping through field guides, and for good reason. They’re truly brilliant birds and any trip south of the border feels incomplete without filling up a checklist with species whose common names contain a several rainbows worth of technicolor and who contribute greatly to the visual splendor that is tropical birding.

But impossible to ignore on any trip taken during the North American winter are birds for whom the names are far more familiar.  Names that would not be out of place of a field trip anywhere in the United States and Canada on a typical spring morning.  For foraging in ornamentals and filling up feeding flocks up and down the region, are those birds we refer to as neotropic migrants spending the balance of their year living the good life in countries like Guatemala.  From the moment I started birding in the garden of the Guatemala Tourism Office in central Guatemala City, most of the birds we came across were warblers, vireos and tanagers of several species more commonly associated by birders in this part of the world with our forests and fields than parts further south.

Not that I didn’t expect to see these neotrops in Guatemala.  Of course I know they’re down there, but until you’ve seen their numbers for yourself it’s a difficult to thing to understand.  After all, we’re talking about an entire continent’s worth of birds crammed into a space barely a fifth of the area they take up in the warm months. So while I’ll be fortunate enough to see a handful of Tennessee Warblers or Blue-headed Vireos on a spring morning in North Carolina, it was fairly shocking to come into an entire tree full of them.  In downtown Guatemala City, no less!  Orioles were equally common and it wasn’t unusual to come across a flowering tree, like the one below, practically crawling with Baltimore and Orchard Orioles mixing with the tropical hummingbirds and tanagers as if they were stunning rainforest gems which, taken in proper context, they kind of are.

Among the regular eastern US migrants were those from the western half of the country less known to me.  It’s one thing to hear a Summer Tanager pitty-tucking from a Ceiba tree, it’s quite another to then turn around and find a Western Tanager foraging in the one behind you.  While these birds generally don’t overlap in their summer range, they’re found in precisely the same spot in winter.  When you account that the birds we off-handedly consider to be our breeding birds up north, including these Piranga tanagers, in fact evolved together in Central America, it’s an amazing testimony to the power of migration, and specifically migration across the broad expanse of the North American continent, to drive speciation.  And some speciation it is too, the diversity of tanagers, or as these birds were recently dismissed from the Thraupids they’re probably better considered to be near-tanagers, is the sort of stuff that keeps taxonomists up at night.

Anyway, I suppose this is all a round-about way of saying “Dude, we saw both Western and Summer Tanagers together.  It was awesome”.  So there you have it.

It hardly stopped with Orioles and Tanagers.  Warbling Vireos were practically everywhere and Wilson’s Warbler vied with Townsend’s Warbler to battle for the most common wood-warbler named for an 19th century naturalist, with the Willies coming out just ahead at the final buzzer.  In fact we ended up with quite a tally of North American Warblers including such notables as Nashville, Black and White, and Blue-winged.  And fighting for spots among the resident hummers were our familiar Ruby-throats, strangely limited to females or young birds making picking them from the apparently also present Black-chinned something of a hairy predicament.

But perhaps the most unexpected bird came to us as we arrived at the Hotel Bambu, our lodge on the edge of Lake Atitlan, when a single gorgeous male Painted Bunting fed on a flower in the garden.  Perhaps more than any other neotropic migrant, Painted Buntings look at home here in Central America.  Its gaudy plumage competes with the best the American tropics has to offer, and as far as the European contingent of our group was concerned it was as welcome a sight as anything else between the covers of Howell and Webb.  Cameras were clicking as soon as we arrived and even I couldn’t resist trying to get a passable shot.  Apologies for the quality, dear reader, the photo was taken through my binoculars as my scope was still in transit from the lodge before.

These birds are just as as home here in Guatemala as they are among english-speakers farther north, and in fact, you could very easily mount the argument that they’re even more at home here in their evolutionary cradle.  But the truth is that they’re birds of both worlds, and the magic of migration allows them to take advantage of two seemingly disparate regions of the planet with ease, but complicates efforts to protect them as they find themselves at risk at both latitudes.  This naturally brings up the importance of efforts in both North and Central America to not only preserve habitat using traditional conservation models, but to use land in ways that don’t actively destroy habitat like growing coffee, an important cash crop in many Central American countries, on shade-grown plantations that preserve vegetation or transforming working farms into eco-lodges for nature tourism.  These actions are incredibly important for countries like Guatemala and and the birds that depend on them, and ultimately for those of us who love to watch those birds.

So along with the gorgeous scenery and abundant birdlife and friendly culture, a visit to Guatemala encourages the continuation of these bird-friendly business models.  As birders, our connection to countries like Guatemala is so much more crucial than people may realize, and supporting them means that our familiar birds will always have a place from which to return to us.

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13 Comments
  1. February 12, 2010 11:10 am

    I loved seeing Tennessee Warblers at fruit feeders in Costa Rica. Bizarre.

  2. Nate permalink*
    February 12, 2010 3:16 pm

    @Patrick- Indeed! They were everywhere!

  3. February 12, 2010 4:11 pm

    I’ve often wondered if the spring and summer birds I have here are found in similar habitat in central America during winter or if they have a very different wintering habitat. In other words, would a Central American field guide book indicate a different typical habitat for a Western Tanager than my Sibley’s?

  4. February 12, 2010 7:35 pm

    A very cool reminder that our migrants “return home” in winter. It’s quite intoxicating that you came across so many recognizable faces. Proof that when you go south for the cold season, you’re always with friends.

  5. Nate permalink*
    February 12, 2010 8:09 pm

    @Avimor Birder- According to Howell and Webb, Western Tanagers prefer pine-oak woodlands in winter just as they do in summer, and my experience in Guatemala bore that out. The habitat we found them in reminded me of places I found them in Arizona, highland forests with a good mix of pines. Though they were also in the shade-grown plantations where the Summers would mix in.

    @jason- Absolutely. It’s easy to fall into an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality with birds like that when they leave, to our detriment really. But they’re always there, doing their thing until they come back. It was a wonderful reminder of that fact.

  6. Greg Swick permalink
    February 12, 2010 9:33 pm

    Great post! Nice to know that rich habitat still exists for these coast to coast birds, even when “coast to coast” is quite a short distance! Your words and these birds, which span the two worlds, remind us just how interconnected it all is. Reminds us to do what we can to preserve the pristine and restore the damaged areas all along the corridors, so we can forever enjoy our spring and autumn reunions with the neotrops.

  7. February 13, 2010 3:14 am

    Wow, it must have been amazing to see both Eastern and Western birds together!

  8. February 13, 2010 12:44 pm

    I’d love to see a tree full of Tennessee Warblers. I’m usually lucky to see one!

  9. February 15, 2010 4:39 am

    Okay, the feature a picture of a Painted Bunting in a post called “Familiar Birds…” was a bit rough, but it’s okay. We understand…

  10. Nate permalink*
    February 15, 2010 3:39 pm

    @Dad- Thanks!

    @Ali- It was very cool!

    @John- You and me both. Tennessees are fairly common out in the western part of the state in fall, but not where I am.

    @Jochen- The same place that hosts the Sharp-tailed Sparrows in the winter has Painted Buntings in the summer. Just sayin’…

  11. February 16, 2010 4:25 am

    @ Nate: and I hear there’s good beer, too.

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  1. Guatemala: Familiar Birds in Unfamiliar Places « The Drinking Bird | Guatemala Today
  2. Guatemala: Familiar Birds in Unfamiliar Places « The Drinking Bird | guatemala News Station

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