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Guatemala: Birding the Tarrales, pt 2

February 16, 2010
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After our initial walk around the forests at Los Tarrales ranch, in the beautiful volcanic highlands of southern Guatemala, we were unsure of precisely what to do for the afternoon.  It’s true that we were somewhat bummed, for lack of better word, about the missed Today Motmot, our target bird for the morning, but given the explosion of avifauna we had been privy to this was hardly a complaint that anyone would take seriously.  That’s one of the hidden advantages of birding the neotropics.  Sure you have the birds you specifically want to see, how can you not?  But you see so much incidentally that even if you don’t get them you still feel pretty good about your day.  It’s like everything is icing.

Besides, when common birds are as cool as a Masked Tityra, you know you’ve got it pretty good.

But our intrepid guide Josué would not be deterred.  He was feeling deeply the bird guide’s burden, disappointed that couldn’t nail down a much desired bird for his guests.  It’s this kind of attitude that makes for a great bird guide, which Josué undoubtedly was, and he had something up his sleeve to salvage the day, such that it needed salvaging, which as I mentioned before seemed a bit like gilding the Peppershrike.  Not privy to the mind of the determined host, we mingled around the main house discussing what we considered to be the best bird of the morning when we were posed with a simple question.

Would we like to see an owl?

Is there really a choice when presented with such a pointed query?  Do you really need time to think?  It doesn’t matter if the bird in question is Screech or Eagle, the answer is always “absolutely”.  There is no hesitation.  A short time later Josué had done it, easy as you please, as after a truck ride and a short hike we were right below a roosting midday Black-and-White Owl who gazed serenely over a little group who simply couldn’t take photos fast enough.

The owl was merely the ends of the walk, but the means were pretty good too.  A Blue-throated Goldentail was a fine addition to the hummingbird list and some sharp imitations of a Barred Antshrike song brought a female in to investigate. And as if to remind us once again of the importance of this place for wintering songbirds, Swainson’s Thrushes were just about everywhere in the underbrush, calling like water dripping into a pool.  By the time we got to the roosting owl we had decided we were pretty happy with the walk regardless of what waited at the end for us, but like I said, in the tropics everything is icing, and Owls especially so.

In the afternoon, those members of our group associated with bird tour guide companies had to duck out to take part in a symposium on Guatemala as a bird tour destination.  Frankly, more time out in the woods would have likely done the trick just as well but formalities must observed.  For those of us associated with the international press (yes, including me), we got to skip out and head down to a small pond on the property to essentially hang out for a while.  For as much as I’ve always thought “bird tour guide” would be an incredible job, I was more than happy to leave those guys in the dust and take the opportunity to stay outside for as long as I could.  The walk was short and productive and we quickly picked up some common neotropic regulars we’d missed earlier in the day.  Birds like Squirrel Cuckoo, Boat-billed Flycatcher and Green-breasted Mango dropped onto the fast growing list before we arrived at our destination.

It was like one of those starving artist paintings rendered in real life.  Something I’d probably write off as overly cheesy, the domain of Bob Ross and his happy little trees.  I mean, come on, there’s a tiny island… with a palm tree on it.  It’s like a cartoon it’s so perfect.  Where’s the hammock?  The Pina Coladas?

It turns out the birding was pretty good too, as the first thing we heard as we came upon the opening was the soft guttural hooting of a Trogon.  The thing about Trogons, if you’ve had any experience with them in the neotropics or the Southwestern US, is that they have a really annoying habit of throwing their voice.  So while the bird sounds as though it’s half a mile off there’s a better than decent chance that it’s sitting completely still, save the rhythmic pulsing of its throat making that maddening call, not more than 20 feet away from you.

So it was with this one.  The quality of the birders present didn’t allow it to hide for long, however, and we soon picked up a female Violaceous Trogon sitting on a bare branch.

And it wasn’t long before we even found the bird making all the noise, a stunning male sitting in the direct sun with violet head and yellow belly practically glowing.  Trogons are the best, we should really work on getting them established wider in the United States.  Who do we get on that?  The ABA?

Anyway, soon enough it was time to leave the pond, and Los Tarrales.  It must be said, though, that Andy Burge, the owner, runs a phenomenal operation there and should be commended for his dedication to creating an place that successfully combines both the often contradictory needs of a productive ranch and an eco-lodge hosting a staggering diversity of species.  I was truly sorry to say good-bye, especially knowing that so many great birds had yet to present themselves to me, but hopefully there will come a time when I can return.

Besides, we had more places and more flashy birds to find….

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9 Comments
  1. February 16, 2010 7:44 am

    The palm island picture is UNREAL!! Seriously, it must be photoshopped, ey?

  2. February 16, 2010 8:33 am

    “Trogons are the best” AGREED!
    Seeing the Elegant Trogon in AZ some years back was definitely a life-changing moment for me, and every individual I have had the luck to see since then – male or female, in US or Trinidad – has been equally special. They might even compete with the woodpeckers for my favorite family of birds, and that’s saying a lot. And Black-and-white Owl is very sweet icing indeed. Really how can you go wrong with birds like Violaceous Trogon, Squirrel Cuckoo,Rufuos-browed Peppershrike, Masked Tityra, etc – even if they are common???

  3. Nate permalink*
    February 16, 2010 10:21 am

    @Jochen- I’d say yes, but I’m a terrible photo-shopper so you know it’s legit.

    @Christopher- Absolutely. There’s something about this secretive bird that just glows once you finally find it that’s so intriguing. You’ll have a blast in Costa Rica, when I was at Selva Verde Lodge we had three species on the grounds alone!

  4. February 16, 2010 12:35 pm

    Great stuff, Nate. Sounds like you had a blast. I’ll be sure to smuggle a Trogon from AZ to NJ the next time I’m there.

  5. February 16, 2010 1:22 pm

    I have a cunning plan.

    A bird’s distribution is limited by the available range maps, right? So if we can change the range maps so trogons (and other cool species!) are included at locations where we’d like to find them, they’ll start showing up. I mean, we used to be stuck with wherever Peterson, Sibley, Kaufman, etc told the birds where they should stay. But with eBird, maybe We The Birding People can change their distribution!

    And with that modest proposal, I’m off to the coffee pot for some much needed caffeine.
    -Mike

    ps Love the storytelling and photos from your trip – I’ve added another birding destination to the top of the list.

  6. Nate permalink*
    February 16, 2010 4:16 pm

    @Patrick- I did, indeed!

    @Mike- Brilliant! Who are Peterson, Kaufman and Sibley to arbitrarily determine the range of Trogons? And using what exactly? Evidence? Please. I like this idea a lot.

  7. February 17, 2010 2:47 am

    @Mike and Nate: oh, old idea is ooooold. Isn’t that being done with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker?

    Oooops.

    🙂

  8. February 17, 2010 1:10 pm

    Were there birds in this post? I can’t stop gazing longingly at that island photo. Jochen got it right: Unreal! It’s the kind of image that calls to mind the imaginary wonderlands of childhood (or the tropical paradises of adult fantasies).

    Sounds like a great adventure and a marvelous day. The owl–like all owls no matter how common–really does fascinate me.

  9. Nate permalink*
    February 17, 2010 1:17 pm

    @Jochen- Careful there… 😉

    @Jason- Absolutely. It was a phenomenal day, as beautiful scenery and fantastic birds tend to create.

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