Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Post #126 - A day of birding around San Salvador, El Salvador with super guide Julio Acosta

Well, here it is, the first Speckled Hatchback post of 2018! This will be the fourth full year for the blog, and I am going to kick it off with a very quick post about birding in El Salvador. Wait a second? Wasn't I just in Ecuador for 2 weeks? I was, but I was also in El Salvador in-transit. As the Ecuador posts and the photos that will accompany them are going to take a lot of time to prepare, I am going to hop right into El Salvador in the interim. 

Located between Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. At just over 8000 square miles, El Salvador is comparable in size to the state of Massachusetts or the country of Slovenia. Roughly 550 species have been eBirded from the country, none of which are true endemics. However, El Salvador does share a number of regional endemics with the countries it borders, so there's no lack of neotropical birding excitement. Many North American migrants winter in El Salvador and surrounds, so those interested in neotropical migration might find the country a particularly interesting destination for that reason. For example, I saw 25 Tennessee Warblers in a morning of birding, a total that exceeded the number of Tennessee Warblers I've seen in the states in the last 10 years combined!

My visit to El Salvador actually occurred in the larger context of my Ecuador trip. As there are no direct flights from San Francisco to Quito, we (my wife and I) flew through San Salvador where we had 8-hour layovers on both the outgoing and returning legs. The outgoing layover (1pm to 9pm) didn't have enough daylight to make leaving the airport worthwhile, but, with the returning layover running from 7am to 3pm, we had a perfect window to get out and do some birding. Interestingly, and in preparation for the layover, I went into eBird to see what birding might be available near the airport. In looking through the recent sightings at nearby sights, many came from 'Julio Acosta ES Tour Guide'. As Julio provided his email on his eBird profile page (julio_explorer@yahoo.com), I contacted him and arranged to have him guide us around during our extended layover.

Me and Julio

Before I get into birding specifics, I first want to say that Julio is an ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC guide. He knew all the local birds by sight and sound, and his more general knowledge of the natural world and the country was equally impressive. A former English teacher, Julio is perfectly fluent in the language, and his fun and laid-back personality ensures that he can get along with just about anyone. If you're thinking about hiring a bird guide in El Salvador, you absolutely must get in touch with Julio. He is your man!

Julio and a driver collected us from the airport at 7:00am, and we headed for Ecoparque El Espino on the west side of downtown San Salvador. Located at nearly 3000 feet (900 meters) of elevation and overlooking the city, the park was incredibly birdy. We arrived at 8am and had effectively non-stop action for the next 3.5 hours. Highlights included White-bellied Chachalaca, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo (heard only), Gartered and Elegant Trogons, Lesson's Motmot, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, White-Throated Magpie-Jay, Bushy-crested Jay, Rufous-naped Wren, and Streak-back, Spot-breasted, and Altamira Orioles. I ended up with 53 species at that first stop (eBird checklist). A quick, second stop at the nearby Parque del Bicentanario, yielded a stunning view of the national bird, the Turquoise-browed Motmot (eBird checklist). When all was said and done, I tallied 61 species between the two locations. After that, it was back to the airport to make our connecting flight.

View of San Salvador from Ecoparque El Espino.
The hotspot is just 10-15 minutes from downtown.

El Salvador's birding is often - and understandably - overshadowed by that found in other, larger Central American countries. However, that doesn't mean there isn't great birding to be found in the country. While it would be possible to bird the entire country in a week, a birding visit to El Salvador is probably best coupled to a visit to another destination. Interestingly, Avianca allows layovers of up to 72 hours, so it would be very easy to drop into El Salvador for 3 days before continuing to somewhere else more distant. Alternatively, and because the country is so small, it is possible to fly in and out of San Salvador and spent 7-8 days birding El Salvador and the neighboring Guatemala and Honduras. It is worth noting that the dry season in El Salvador runs from November to May, so do think about that as you plan any potential visit.

For those with long layovers like we had, leaving the small San Salvador airport for a day's worth of birding is very straightforward but does cost a few bucks (El Salvador, like Ecuador, uses the $US). Importantly, a departure tax of $15 per person applies once one leaves the airport, and it is necessary to pay that tax BEFORE you leave the building. We went to the Avianca information desk as soon as we arrived and quickly dealt with the tax right then and there. The receipt from that tax allowed us to obtain our day visas at an additional cost of $10 per person. So, it cost us $50 (2 x $15 departure + 2 x $10 visas) to leave the airport for the day, but it was well worth it to spend a morning birding with Julio. Re-entering the airport was very easy. We showed up 1.5 hours before our flight and breezed our way to out gate with plenty of time to spare.

So, there it is; A quick morning of San Salvador birding turned into an entire blog post. I hope some of you will have the opportunity to visit El Salvador in the future. If you do, please find this post archived in the International Birding tab under the banner heading. It'll be waiting there for whenever you do finally make it to El Salvador!


  1. What dates did you actually do the birding in El Salvador? was it dry season?

    1. El Salvador's dry season runs November to April. I was there at the very end of December, so dry season!

  2. I have family down there in San Salvador, and am always amazed of all the cool birds and insects I find every time I go down there. Too bad they don't have an entomological tour guide to get to experience the insect fauna of El Salvador. Next time I am down there, I will consider contacting Julio, although I always am there around March, which is still the dry season.

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