Friday, April 21, 2017

Post #101 - Guatemala, Part 3 (of 4) - Petén birding: Las Guacamayas

The Guatemala birding beat rolls on! In this third installment we're going to visit the Estación Biológica Las Guacamayas, a remote research installation that has been converted into one of the coolest Ecolodges I've ever visited. If you missed the first two posts in this Guatemala series, it is advised to check out my recaps of birding and site-seeing at the Mayan Site of Yaxha (Post #99) and Tikal (Post #100). 

Leaving Tikal, we reached Flores, a small, lakeside community well worth a visit if passing nearby. The island portion of the town will appease non-birders. It is very cute and a great place to pause after a morning of birding at Tikal or elsewhere. The island's perimeter can easily be walked in half an hour, and it is possible to hire a local boat to go for an extended ride on the lake should one so desire. Flores had an authentic Guatemalan charm that I didn't see replicated until I reached the Guatemalan Highlands at Lake Atitlán (next post!).

Flores (stock photo)

Lunch fun in Flores

We left Flores and, just outside of town, turned onto a dirt road. I thought that we were making a quick birding detour, but after 30 mins on the dirt track, I realized that the bumpy, primitive track was actually the main the route to our next destination. When all was done, we spent 1.5 hours on what seemed like the dirt road to nowhere. We finally reached a small settlement where we found these waiting for us. Check out the video to see what our ride looked like! 


Once in the boats, we didn't see a single sign of civilization until 25 minutes later when we rounded a river bend and our place of lodging came into view. Snuggled between the jungle hillside and the river, Las Guacamayas was like something out of a dream. We docked and unloaded to find ourselves in a jungle paradise. It was a bit late in the day for birding, but a nice variety of hummingbirds kept us entertained as we drank fresh squeezed fruit juice as a welcome.

Las Guacamayas = Scarlet Macaws

View from the deck. Pretty sweet, huh?

We rose before sunrise the following morning and climbed the steep bluff behind the lodge for some sunrise birding. Cloud cover squashed our sunrise hopes, but the view from the overlook was still stunning!

After breakfast we piled into the boats and continued downriver a bit to look for Scarlet Macaws. Beaching the boats, we hiked into the jungle on a rudimentary motorcycle track. Twenty minutes of walking produces jaw-dropping views of the stunning birds! Their raucous calls rang out across the jungle in the most primitive and unforgettable of ways.

2 of 10 Scarlet Macaws that we found

After the macaws, we returned to the lodge, packed up our stuff, and boarded the boats to make our final exit from Guacamayas. One that exit, we picked up Black-and-white Hawk-eagle, a bird that was a lifer for even one of our guides. I rolled the entire morning into a single eBird checklist that can be found here. Other notables included Muscovy, Stripe-throated Hermit, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Linneated Woodpecker, Red-capped Manakin, and Crimson-collared Tanager.

Red-capped Manakin

The boats delivered us to our bus, and, after the return 1.5 hours on the dirt roads and a bit more paved distance, we reached the Flores airport where we boarded a small charter plane. We reached the highlands at Guatemala City after an hour flight. There we boarded another bus for the 3 hour drive to Lake Atitlán and the 2017 Gutatemala Bird Forum. It is at that location and event that I will pick up next time Please stay tuned!

Leaving Petén....

....flying over Guatemala City.....

...and finally landing!

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Post #100 - Guatemala, Part 2 (of 4) - Petén birding: Tikal

OK, let's continue with the recap of my recent Belize and Guatemala birding extravaganza! As a quick backdrop, Post #99 treats my 3 days in Belize and Post #100 describes my time birding at the ancient Mayan site of Yaxha. To get the full run-up to this post and at least a bit of background on Guatemala's Petén region, I suggest you give those a look if you haven't already. Now, on with the show!

Collared Aracari at Tikal

Departing Yaxha, we drove less than two hours to reach Tikal, the most famous and recognizable Mayan site in Guatemala and possibly in all of Central America. Tikal thrived from 500 BC to 1000 AD, roughly in-line with the appreciated timetable for Yaxha. Tikal was, however, almost twice as large with an estimated population of nearly 90,000 at its peak. The jungle generally kept an abandoned Tikal largely off-radar until the first explorers visited around 1850, and it wasn't until the 1950's that any sort of formal excavation began. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, and the excavation process today continues as funds become available. Below you can see a motorcycle being used to power a ramshackle pulley system to deliver restoration materials to the top of one of the temples. So yeah, money is in short supply.

We stayed at the wonderful Jungle Lodge right in Tikal National Park. The lodge is well-equipped and suitable for all sorts of travelers. A late afternoon bird walk initiated from the lodge yielded Black-headed Trogon, Masked Tityra, Ocellated Turkey, Red-capped Manakin, Plain Xenops, and Smoky-brown Woodpecker (full eBird checklist). Some folks heard a distant Pheasant Cuckoo, but we never got a glimpse of it. The cuckoo and Black Catbird are apparently fairly reliable at the old, long-since grown-over airstrip not far from the lodge. So, serious listers keep that mind!
Jungle Lodge

Jungle Lodge

Jungle Lodge dining area

Black-headed Trogon

The following morning, we visited the archeological site. It was magnificent, an engineering and building marvel on par with the Egyptians Pyramids. It would be easy to spend an entire day exploring the site. We stuck mainly to the largest structures due to a tight morning timetable, but I am already wondering when I can make it back to Guatemala to explore the rest of the site!

Temple 1

Plaza between Temples 1 and 2

Temple 3 (I think) through the trees

Temples 1, 2, and 3 from Temple 4

Fans of Star War might recognize this scene
from the original movie, "Episode IV: Star Wars".
Millennium Falcon flying over Temple 3!

The scenery at Tikal was equalled only by the birdlife. Bare-throated Tiger-heron, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Emerald Toucanet, Collared Aracari, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Golden-winged Warbler, Gray-headed Tanager, and Olive-backed Euphonia lead an eBird checklist that tallied 61 species. The bird of the morning though was Orange-breasted Falcon, a known breeder that nests right on the temples. Lighting conditions were terrible, but I did manage to squeeze out a few shots of the magnificent raptor in addition to some of the other birds mentioned above. 

Orange-breasted Falcon - Falco deiroleucus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/400 at f/5.6, ISO 400, handheld
**This is a very heavy crop warranted only
by the rarity of this particular species**

Bare-throated Tiger-heron - Tigrisoma mexicanum
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld

Ocellated Turkey 

Slaty-tailed Trogon

Wow, I have a lot more to say about Guatemala than I thought. What I originally thought would be 2 posts is now going to take 4. In the next post, the third in the that series, we'll venture super-duper into the Petén Jungle, so deep that we'll need to take a river boat to reach our next birding destination. It's so awesome and top secret that you'll have to wait for that next installment for the big reveal!

Oh wait! I almost forget this guy - Señor (or maybe Señorita!) Coati - patrolling the Tikal grounds!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Post #99 - Guatemala, Part 1 (of 4) - Petén birding: Yaxha

Greetings from Guatemala! Well, not really since I'm writing this from my LA apartment, but it's from here that I'll continue my account of my recent, Central American travels. I'll break my Guatemala recount into 4 posts, three to recap my time in the Petén lowland region and a fourth to share my experience in the highlands around Lake Atitlán. Here we go!

Our group crossed into Guatemala from Belize just west of Benque Viejo Del Carmen. Moving between the two countries was painless, and any traveler should manage the crossing with ease. Midday is generally the best time to cross as cues early in the morning and later in the afternoon can be long. This is because many tour operators in Belize run day trips to the ancient Mayan sites of Yaxha (pronounced yash-HA) and Tikal, and the busses they use can overwhelm the checkpoint when they arrive early and and late in the day.

OK, now that we're in Guatemala, let's stop for a paragraph to orient ourselves before we go too much further. Sound good?Guatemala is a country of 17 million folks that is sandwiched between Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Hondurus. The country is comprised of 23 departments, or states. Petén is by far the largest of these, alone occupying a third of the country's footprint (see below). Petén is generally lowland, so the birding is superficially similar to Belize. Interestingly, Petén is the least densely populated department with just 600,000 inhabitants. The dearth of population can be traced to the region's generally poor soil; The inability to grow food locally means few people live in the area. Cattle ranching and tourism are the largest industries, the Mayan sites being hugely popular international destinations. Many tour operators couple Belize to a few days in Petén, a strategy I think makes perfect sense and that I would encourage those on their own to adopt. The addition of the Mayan sites will provide the non-birder with a welcome break from woodcreepers, tanagers, trogons, and such (I know, who needs a break from those, right? RIGHT!?!?!)

Petén Department

Within an hour of crossing into Guatemala, we arrived at El Sombrero Ecolodge. Built right into the lakeshore, the lodge was very comfortable and perfectly suitable for tour groups or individual travelers. We dropped our stuff and immediately departed for the adjacent Yaxha Mayan Archeological Site. Not as well-known as Tikal, Chitzen-Itza, or Tulum, Yaxha is every bit as impressive. Yaxha thrived from 600 BC to 900 AD and was home to nearly 50,000 people at its peak. So yeah, it was a pretty big deal back in the day!

We did a bit of birding on that first visit, but our main goal was to climb the main temple for a view of the sunset. We weren't the only ones interested in the sunset as a Bat Falcon joined us atop the temple. Other bird highlights were Blue Bunting, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Eye-ringed Flatbill, and Golden-crowned Warbler (full eBird Checklist). It was a really amazing evening, one that I will certainly never forget.

Yaxha Sunset
Canon 17-40 f/4 at 23mm on EOS 7D2
1/125 at f/8, ISO 400

Bat Falcon perched high on the temple

Yaxha movie!

We spent the early hours of the following morning birding around El Sombrero. The grounds proved very productive with Green-breasted Mango, Lesson's Motmot, Gartered Trogon, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Bright-rumped Attila, and a host of wintering warblers just steps from my room. The lake gave up some nice waterbirds to round out an eBird checklist that can be found here.

(Migrant) Wood Thrush - Hylocichla mustelina
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/160 at f/4, ISO 800, handheld

A return, mid-morning visit to Yaxha yielded Keel-billed Toucan, Brown-headed Parrot, Black-headed Trogon, Ocellated Turkey, White-wiskered Puffbird, and Double-toothed Kite (full checklist here). Very impressive were both the Howler and Spider Monkeys. Most stayed sufficiently high in the trees to make photography difficult, but one or two came lower for closer inspection. Watching them swing from branch to branch with the various Mayan temples below them was magical. I couldn't help but wonder what the site looked at felt like when the civilization was at it's peak. I'm sure it was even more impressive then than now. Much of the site has yet to be excavated, so even today the jungle has yet to give up all of its secrets!

Yaxha through the trees

Spider Monkey

White-whiskered Puffbird

Yaxha, from above!

Yaxha was pure enjoyment. Birding and history were inseparable, and for a brief time it felt as though we were the only people on planet earth. As I said previously, it is certainly worth adding a few days to a Belize itinerary so as to experience Yaxha and Tikal, a second Mayan site I will showcase in the next post. Approaching these sites is significantly easier from Belize than it is from the very distant Guatemala City, so do keep this in mind when planning your visit!

OK, that's it for this installment. We'll pick up with Tikal in the next post!

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Post #98 - Birding Beautiful Belize (long!)

So, my Spain adventure ended on February 28, and I flew back to the states that day. I got home at midnight, and the following morning drove to SF where Sonia and I spent 5 days apartment hunting (we found a great place in San Mateo). I returned to LA for 2 days, then headed south to Belize and Guatemala for another 10-day birding/ecotourism press trip. The visit was a whirlwind tour designed to give us a flavor of what the two countries had to offer. I was incredibly impressed with both places, and the next 5 posts will reveal all that I experienced on my inaugural visit to both places. These posts are detailed enough that a person could fairly easily put together an really nice itinerary from the information I provide. OK, let's get going!

The opening, Belize portion of the trip was just 3 full days in length (an afternoon, 2 full days, and a morning), and I'll condense my account of them into this single, rather long post. I'll take you through each of my days so that you can get a good idea of what a birder might accomplish in Belize in just a few days. I didn't have much of an idea what to expect before my departure, but I can now say unequivocally that Belize should be right at the top of any traveling birder's wish list. My visit was very brief, so this account is by no means all-encompassing. It should, however, give you a nice introduction to what to expect on your (hopefully) upcoming visit! 

From the Central American map above, it's clear that Belize is very small. At 8,867 square miles, it's only ~10% larger than El Salvador, Central America's smallest country. Interestingly, we hear a lot about the bird species density of Costa Rica; With 910 species packed into 19,730 square miles, Costa Rica's avian density is certainly impressive. However, with ~590 bird species in its 8,867 square miles, Belize's bird species density is actually higher! The metric is a bit misleading as it favors smaller geographies, but it's nonetheless easy to see that Belize packs tremendous birdlife into a small package. 

When speaking about birding in Central America, Costa Rica is clearly the established reference point. I have visited Costa Rica once before, and the thing that immediately struck me about Belize is how comparatively underdeveloped (in a good way) it is. Belize has just 374,000 people in the entire country, making it - by an order of magnitude - the least populated country in Central America (Panama is next with 4 million, then Costa Rica with 5 million). Correcting for area, Belize has a population density 1/6 of that of Costa Rica. This means - first - that there is a lot of undisturbed habitat in Belize, and, second, that the country feels a bit more rustic, a bit less polished than Costa Rica. Stated another way, Belize is that great new restaurant that has yet to be fully discovered. It's still possible to get a table and a great meal at a reasonable price. The hype has far from out run the product, and those that visit Belize sooner (rather than later!) will be the trend setters versus the trend followers. 

Day 1 was a wash from a birding standpoint as it consisted of an afternoon arrival and evening welcome reception for our group. I did meet many fine folks from the Belize Audubon Society, an entity that both promotes conservation and manages reserves within the country. After dinner we headed an hour north from Belize City to reach the Bird's Eye Lodge at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. It was pitch black when we arrived, but a night outing yielded underwear-soiling views of Yucatán Nightjar, a reclusive species generally restricted to that geography.

Yucatan Nightjar - Antrostomus badius
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/300 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, handheld
Flash with 580EX II and Better Beamer
More like this on my Instagram account!
You are going to want to click on the
images for higher resolution views!

Same settings as above

We spent the morning of Day 2 birding Crooked Tree, and it was FANTASTIC!!! My eBird checklist from that morning has 106 species on it, including Jabiru, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Russet-naped Wood-rail, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Yucatán Woodpecker, Yellow-headed Parrot, Laughing Falcon, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Yucatán Flycatcher, Swainson's Warbler, Black-cowled Oriole, and Yellow-billed Cacique. The highlight of the morning was certainly the boat ride through the sanctuary. There were hundreds of waders and dozens of kingfishers. At one point, I had 5 Snail Kites in my binocular field! The bird of the morning was an Agami Heron as it picked it characteristic way through tangled roots overhanging the water's edge. I was so mesmerized by the bird's beauty that I forgot to get a photo (would had a lot of roots in the way, anyway!)

Bird's Eye View Lodge, from lakeshore

American Pygmy Kingfisher

Egrets Egrets Egrets!


Russet-naped wood rail - Aramides albiventris
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld from boat

Crooked Tree Boat Trip

In my opinion, it would be completely possible to spend 3 full days at Crooked Tree, particularly if photography is a priority. The lake runs north-south and as such the western and eastern shores should be perfectly lit in the morning and afternoon, respectively. A person could do some real photographic damage with a kayak at Crooked Tree! 

After our amazing morning at Crooked Tree, we headed south along the Hummingbird Highway towards Blue Hole National Park. An afternoon arrival left us a bit of time for birding at the park. Double-Toothed Kite, Passerini's Tanager, White-whiskered Puffbird, and Barred Antshrike highlighted an eBird checklist that can be found here. We spent night 2 at the very nice Jaguar Creek. We had planned to return to Blue Hole on the morning of Day 3, but heavy rains washed out that plan. We instead detoured to the coast and Gra Gra Lagoon where we padded our trip list with a variety of shorebirds (eBird checklist here). Mangrove Cuckoo was a very welcome surprise at that stop! 

Jaguar Creek

Mangrove Cuckoo, characteristically 
buried in the coastal bushes

After our visit to the coast, we headed back inland - where the rains had since stopped - to reach Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. That night (night 3) we stayed in a very primitive research station that at present is not suitable for 95% of visitors. There was electricity in the evening only, and no hot water at any point. Needless to say there was no wifi. I actually loved it, but I think most folks would be best staying somewhere else and commuting into the park to bird. We birded Cockscomb that evening (Day 3) and the following morning (Day 4). Highlights included Great Tinamou, Crested Guan, White Hawk, Uniform Crake, Black-headed Trogon, Gartered Trogon, Lineated Woodpecker, Black-faced Antthrush, Northern Bentbill, White-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, Crimson-collared Tanager, Yellow-tailed Oriole, and Chestnut-headed Oropendella. Clearly, the birding was fantastic, overwhelming even at times. The checklist from the evening outing can be found here, and the checklist from the morning outing is here.

White-collared Manakin

Cockscomb Basin basic lodging

Cockscomb birding

Cockscomb River habitat

After our morning at Cockscomb we headed back North and turned east to arrive at the Guatemala border after lunch. The blog will continue with Guatemala's Petén Region and its Mayan archeological sites next time, but I do want to leave you with a few additional impressions of and notes on Belize. The first of these is the generally huge potential for birding and ecotourism in the country. With such a small population and a big conservation presence, Belize's birding product is likely to be intact well into the future. Local guides were friendly and very knowledgeable, particularly those from Paradise Expeditions. They knew the birding areas and they really spent the necessary time to get us onto birds. It is worth noting that most people in Belize - and everyone in the tourism arena in the country - speaks English, the guides included. So, English in unlikely to be a barrier to any visit.

Ivory-billed Woodcreeper - Xiphorhynchus flavigaster
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/400 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, handheld

Lodging options in Belize are admittedly not as extensive as other places, but that contributes - for the better as far as I am concerned - to the generally rustic feeling of the place. If you're OK keeping the focus on birding, this won't at all be an issue. If you're looking for lodges with attached spas and such, most won't fit that bill. We didn't visit the Chan Chich Lodge, but I know from reputation that it is supposed to be really nice. 

As my LA life has made me constantly aware of traffic, it is worth mentioning that there was little traffic anywhere. Belize City, into which you'll fly, has only 50,000 people, so escaping its clutches is much, much less painful than say, San Jose. The Hummingbird Highway was well-maintained and generally smooth sailing. Side roads are unpaved and can be beat up, but that's industry standard for Latin America. Driving one's self around Belize would be pretty straightforward.

Wish the sun was behind me instead of
in front of me, but you get the idea!

So there it is, a quick overview of Belize as done in 3 full days! It would be very possible to spend 2 nights in each of the areas we visited to make a trip of about a week. Alternatively, a couple days in Belize could be coupled with a few days in Guatemala's Petén to see the Mayan sites. This is exactly what I did, and it will be from there that we pick up next time! Cheers!

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