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Guatemala 2006

From February 25 to March 04, 2006, I attended the Second Birdwatching International Encounter in Guatemala. Here are links to birding sites, local tour operators, and birding guides that I had personal contact/experience with during my visit:-

INGUAT - Guatemala Tourism Commission: they are the principal organizers of the Birdwatching Encounters. It is clear that Eco-tourism is very high on the list of priorities for the Government, as this event was endorsed at the highest levels, and flawlessly delivered thanks to the organisation, drive and passion of INGUAT's Ana Cristina Prem Crespo - I wish every country had such Tourism representatives!

Guatemalan Birding Resource Center - Jason Berry's excellent introduction to Guatemala's avian attractions, with succinct summaries of each region.

Reserves de Guatemala (English version) - The Association of Private Nature Reserves, Guatemala.

Cerro Alux - (pronounced "Serro Aloosh") is a small reserve on the outskirts of Guatemala City - you drive right past the entrance as you head west on the Pan American Highway. We spent our first morning there, and I got seven lifers: Blue-throated Motmot (completing the family for me!), Rufous-browed Wren, Bushy-crested Jay, Black-capped Swallow, Slate-colored Solitaire (great looks at one - it's much rarer here than the common Brown-backed Solitaire), Rufous-collared Robin (very common here), and a lovely male Grey-collared Becard. Also seen were a number of Brown-backed Solitaires, Black Robin, Hooded Grosbeak, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Guatemalan Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker (quite different to North American forms, in both plumage and voice), Tufted and Yellowish Flycatchers (plus a possible southern Pine Flycatcher), Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, many Grey Silkies, Golden-browed Warbler, and Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer. CLICK HERE to see my pics from Cerro Alux.

Before you get to the entrance for this Reserve (coming from the City) look for the Swiss Restaurant on the right (look for signs with the Swiss flag on them) - this is currently the only place with hummingbird feeders, and during my half-hour stop they were covered in White-eared Hummers, plus a few Magnificents, Azure-crowns, and a Rufous Sabrewing (plus Green-throated Mountain-Gem has been seen there by others).The ridgwayi form of Steller's Jay is fairly common in the highlands but at this spot it seems rather used to humans and can be seen in the low bushes near the restaurant. I anticipate a big increase in the use of hummingbird feeders in Guatemala, such that some of the harder regional endemic hummingbirds will become much easier to see... CLICK HERE to see more hummingbirds at the feeders.

Volcan San Pedro Reserve - located on the western shore of Lake Atitlan. It is possible to see the enigmatic Horned Guan on a day-hike (as we did), but your chances of seeing it are greatly increased by spending more time in the proper habitat - and it is possible to arrange for a tented overnight stay at the lower Mirador platform (located c. two kms up the trail, and about three kms before the start of the best part of the trail for the Guans.) Such a two-day visit would allow a more-relaxed ascent to the Mirador so that you can look for some of the good birds in the first kilometer of the trail, such as Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, Prevost's Ground-Sparrow and Slender Sheartail - plus the lower part of the trail goes through excellent habitat for Belted Flycatcher, which is not yet known from the Reserve (very little birding has been done on the lower section) but has been seen in similar habitat near Panajachel on the northeast shore of the Lake. You can then try for the guan in the afternoon and again early the next morning - this should give you very good odds of finding it. NOTE: To go up to the Horned Guan habitat and back in one day is an arduous 5-plus kilometer hike at a steep gradient with few switchbacks - mostly you go straight up the side of the volcano. Based on personal experience I'd rate it physically as being much harder than, for example, the hike to Boot Springs in Big Bend NP, Texas, and even a bit harder than the hike from Cana to Cerro Pirre Camp in the Darien of Panama. The actual trail is not difficult or hazardous (in the dry season at least, when it is rather dusty,) as log-edged steps have been cut into the steepest parts, and the Mirador platform offers a welcome spot to rest and enjoy incredible views of the Lake. CLICK HERE to see my pics from Volcan San Pedro.
I cannot find any online resource for the Reserve at Volcan San Pedro: there is a small Reserve HQ located at the start of the trail, where you are asked to sign-in. I expect that the staff there could arrange for a guide. I recommend that you contact INGUAT or one of the tour operators/guide services listed here to arrange a visit.

Los Tarrales Reserve - an extensive private Reserve on the southern flank of Volcan Atitlan, south of Lake Atitlan; this site hosts five specis of Cracid, Buffy-crowned Wood-partridge, and almost all the regional endemics. I did not visit this site, but local guides told me that the hike up to where the Horned Guans are found is perhaps a bit tougher than that required at Volcan San Pedro.

Los Andes Nature Reserve - A wonderful site south of Lake Atitlan (on the slopes of Volcan Atitlan and overlooking the Pacific Ocean) that combines responsible farming of organic coffee and tea with social programs empowering the indiginous community - plus great birds! I have never before seen montane forest like this: numerous emergent giant trees the like of which I've only ever seen in pristine lowland rainforest - an awesome sight. They have a large population of Resplendent Quetzals which are just starting to use artificial nest boxes - a pioneering project that may have significant consequences for the survival of this magnificent bird. Higher up the wide, easy trail there is a particular emergent tree favored by Azure-rumped (Cabani's) Tanager - we saw at least five individuals feeding on the fruit (plus a male Blue-crowned Chlorophonia for good measure.) Also seen during our brief visit were Black Hawk-Eagle, Pacific Parakeet, Emerald Toucanet, Wine-throated, Emerald-chinned, and Blue-tailed Hummingbirds, Rufous Sabrewing, Highland Guan, Bushy-crested Jay, and Scaled Antpitta. This location must be one of the best places for seeing the Antpitta, as the understory is fairly open and the bird can often be located by hearing it hopping on the dried leaves that cover the ground. CLICK HERE to see my pics from Los Andes.

Corazon del Bosque - this is a Forest Reserve Cooperative at Km 145 on the InterAmerican Highway, northeast of Lake Atitlan. A small trail system takes you through the pine-dominated woodland (with Hooded Grosbeak, nesting Black-capped Swallows, Guatemalan Flicker, Yellow-eyed Junco, etc.) to an oak-dominated gorge at the back of the property, where Pink-headed Warblers are fairly common and sometimes drop down close at eye-level! Also in the more-deciduous parts there are Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, Mountain Trogon, Blue-throated Motmot, Bushy-crested Jay, and Blue-and-white Mockingbird. The published bird list is incomplete (we added four new species in two hours) due to lack of coverage by birders - I am sure there are some great birds waiting to be found there. There are two large family-style cabins (each with a Mayan Sauna!) located 500m up the main trail, nestled among the pines. A large restaurant sits a few meters above the main parking area, and a local guide told me that some type of Pygmy-Owl and another large, tuftless owl often come down at night to sit on the restaurant balcony rail and catch moths... CLICK HERE to see my pics from Corazon del Bosque.

Chicabal Volcano - Located 24 Km west of Quetzaltenango, this Reserve extends up to 2850m at the Overlook on the rim of the volcano, from where a 600+step path(!) drops down to the forested crater lake. Pink-headed Warblers can be found just a short way up the main trail from the parking area, but are more common closer to the Overlook. Also seen on our morning visit were Mountain Trogon, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, Black Robin, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, White-winged Tanager, Yellow-eyed Junco, and Black-throated Jay (best found along the crater rim trail or down into the crater; Steller's Jay is common lower down.) CLICK HERE to see my pics from Volcan Chicabal.

El Patrocinio Plantation and Natural Reserve - a Plantation near Retalhuleu growing a variety of local and international crops in an eco-friendly way, plus they have some areas of old second-growth and some primary forest and are keen to have birders visit. Our morning visit produced many birds, including White-bellied Chachalaca, nesting Collared Forest-Falcons, nesting Yellow-naped Parrots, Laughing Falcon, Collared Aracari, Violet Sabrewing, Blue-crowned Motmot, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Red-legged Honeycreeper, White-winged Tanager, and Black-headed Saltator. You can email them directly at Aguilarr@internetdetelgua.com.gt. CLICK HERE to see my pics from Patronicio.

Takalik Lodge - This is a coffee finca close to Retalhuleu, with a small Mayan archaelogical site, lodgings, and restaurant, with a section of second-growth and primary forest and a fine overlook above a wooded river-gully. We only had a couple of hours there in the late afternoon, but managed to see Short-tailed and Zone-tailed Hawks, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Spot-breasted and Rufous-and-white Wrens, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and Black-headed Saltator; I'm sure that an early-morning visit would yield many more interesting birds. CLICK HERE to see my pics from Takalik.

Operador Latino - This is a bilingual local tour operator that works with one of the most-experienced Guatemalan Ornithologists - Hugo Haraldo Enriquez Toledo - to offer custom birding itineraries and guiding. The owner, Irene Rodriguez, was one of the principal operators of the Birdwatching Encounter, and demonstrated a professionalism and keen eye for detail that would well-serve all levels of birders in Guatemala. Hugo was one of our bilingual guides throughout the Encounter and post-event tour to Los Andes and Volcan San Pedro:- I can thoroughly recommend him for his knowledge of the birds and their locations, and for his attentiveness to clients and sense of humour!

Tessa Tours - A bilingual local operator who uses a local bird guide to offer custom and fixed-departure birding tours. The owner, Estela Rosales, was one of the principal operators of the Birdwatching Encounter, and demonstrated a tireless professionalism and willingness to get everthing right that would rival any operator I've ever worked with. Their website is under construction - you can email Estela at tessa@tradepoint.org.gt.

La Via Maya - A bilingual local operator who uses local bird guides to offer custom and fixed-departure birding tours. The owner, Bitty Ramirez-Protilla, was one of the principal operators of the Birdwatching Encounter, and worked tirelessly with Estela, Irene, and Ana Cristina to deliver a seamless, hassle-free event, despite the many complexities and inter-agency responsibilities - I'd recommend her organizational skills to anyone.

Otus Guatemala - These are two bilingual professional Natural Resources Conservation Consultants who offer a series of specially-designed birding packages, drawing on their experience of finding and monitoring many of Guatemala's special birds. Lemuel Alfredo Valle Alvizures and Maynor Estuardo Ovando Ortiz accompanied us on some of our trips, and demonstrated an in-depth knowledge of many of the regional endemics.

Cayaya Birding - a birding tour operator: principal guides Knut Eisermann and Claudia Avendaño have extensive birding experience in Guatemala, and speak Spanish, English and German.