A review: Field Guides tours to Northern Central America

In this post I summarize our Northern Central America (NCA) tour offerings, each of which is a great introduction to tropical birding as well as superb birding for anyone. All are convenient, relatively short trips (9 to 12 days) that work well with most schedules. In addition, travel to and from these countries is easy, with direct flights from major US cities like Miami, Houston, or Los Angeles.


Guatemala has a magical hold on those who visit — it’s the land of the quetzales, where active volcanoes still shape the terrain and descendents of proud Mayans sell wares in bustling, colorful markets. We offer a comprehensive tour to the country, and Guatemala is a country you don’t want to miss.

Lake Atitlan, by participant Amy McDonald
Lake Atitlan, by participant Amy McDonald

Our Guatemala: Shade-grown Birding tour focuses on the Pacific Slope, visiting six coffee plantations as well as making stops in historic Antigua and taking a boat ride across Lake Atitlan (a caldera lake and one of the most beautiful in the world). It’s no surprise that Guatemala has some of the best coffee on Earth: coffee is cultivated at mid-elevations along the Pacific Coast where the temperature, moisture levels, and fertile volcanic soils create ideal growing conditions. Many of the coffee plantations that dot the hillsides of Guatemala have set aside patches of forest as conservation easements or for erosion control. Birding on shade-grown coffee plantations is excellent (many birds take advantage of the canopy above the coffee), and it’s especially so when natural habitat has been preserved at various elevations throughout the farm.

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Wine-throated Hummingbird, by guide Jesse Fagan

What can we expect to see? Resident species that favor the coffee canopy or surrounding edge habitats include Blue-crowned Motmot, Rufous-capped Warbler, Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, Bushy-crested Jay, and even Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge; and there are common wintering visitors such as Tennessee and Wilson’s warblers, Warbling Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush, and Summer Tanager. Above the coffee belt, the humid semi-deciduous forest and coffee gives way to pine-oak and cloud forest. It is here that many specialty birds and regional endemics occur including Fulvous Owl, Highland Guan, Azure-rumped Tanager, Resplendent Quetzal (national bird of Guatemala), Blue-throated Motmot, Black-throated and Unicolored jays, and Wine-throated Hummingbird. Of the 40 NCA endemics, Guatemala has a fantastic 34.

Tikal, by guide Jesse Fagan
Tikal, by guide Jesse Fagan

Many dream of visiting the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal, and that dream comes true on our pre-tour Tikal Extension. Imagine spending two days among other-worldly Mayan temples of the Classic period, where we might watch a pair of Orange-breasted Falcons nesting on Temple IV or a parading group of Ocellated Turkeys in the main plaza! Tikal offers some of the best birding in all of Central America, as the surrounding forest of the Peten (northern Guatemala) is one of the last large areas of intact lowland Caribbean rainforest in North America.


Honduras is the last birding frontier in NCA, and with its towering peaks, virgin rainforest, endemic hummingbird, and 738 species of birds (300 of which we see on the tour!), it is a compelling destination. Our Honduras: Land of the Emeralds tour begins in the highlands at La Tigra National Park and then cuts a comma-shaped path north to end along the north coast in the unexplored wilderness of Pico Bonito National Park.

The Lodge at Pico Bonito features lovely grounds for birding. (Photo by guide Rose Ann Rowlett)
The Lodge at Pico Bonito features lovely grounds for birding. (Photo by guide Rose Ann Rowlett)

Pico Bonito is a massive east-west chain of mountains between Tela in the west and La Ceiba in the east.  The mountains rise from sea-level almost straight up — there are few foothills to speak of — and because of this rugged topography, the Cordillera Nombre de Dios (protected by Pico Bonito National Park) is covered in virgin forest, and all the large animals like Baird’s Tapir, Puma, and Jaguar are present. Fortunately, one of the nicest lodges in Central America sits at the base of this range: The Lodge at Pico Bonito, with its luxurious cabins and excellent restaurant, makes for an ideal base to explore the surrounding region. The lodge itself sits on approximately 400 acres, and trails behind the lodge are great places to see Keel-billed and Tody motmots, Lovely Cotinga, Sunbittern, Tawny-faced Quail, and Black-and-white Owl among the 417 other species that have been recorded at this site.

Keel-billed Motmot, by guide Jesse Fagan
Keel-billed Motmot, by guide Jesse Fagan

The Honduran Emerald, a medium-sized hummingbird of interior dry valleys and a Honduran endemic, is another important reason to visit the country. The species was largely unknown until 1988 when it was found to be locally common in the arid Aguan Valley. It has now also been found in several other interior valleys, including the Agalta Valley, where I saw my lifer in August 2003. Despite being locally common in a few areas, this species is still extremely rare (it’s listed as Critically Endangered by BirdLife International) and highly susceptible to continued habitat destruction.

If you are looking for a quick holiday getaway, we also offer a relaxed, one-site tour over New Year’s, Holiday in Honduras: The Lodge at Pico Bonito. This tour visits many of the sites on the north coast that we visit on the main tour, including a trip to the Aguan Valley for the Honduran Emerald, yet one returns each night to the same bed (and what a bed it is, as you will find the accommodations at the lodge quite satisfactory)!


Orange-breasted Falcon, by guide Peter Burke
Orange-breasted Falcon, by guide Peter Burke

Featuring a list of more than 550 bird species and with nearly 70 percent of the country covered in natural vegetation, Belize is a birder’s paradise. On our updated itinerary we’ll visit two standout sites that are sure to get your birding juices flowing: Lamanai Outpost Lodge and Hidden Valley Inn — together they optimize our Belize experience. Lamanai Outpost Lodge sits on the shores of the Northern Lagoon in Belize district. During the dry season when water levels are lower, numbers of waterbirds — from cormorants, herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills, and Limpkins to even the rare Agami Heron and Jabiru — gather to take advantage of the concentrated food supply. Lamanai offers a superb diversity of other habitats within easy reach as well — from tropical hardwood forests to secondary scrub to open pine savannah — making it a premier birding destination in Belize! We can expect to see toucans, chachalacas, aracaris, jacanas, and many other tropical birds, and we’ll also seek regional specialties like Yucatan Jay, Gray-throated Chat, and Yucatan Woodpecker.

From Lamanai we’ll travel west into the Maya Mountains to visit two other important tropical habitats of Belize: broadleaf evergreen and mountain pine forests. From the comfort of Hidden Valley Inn on Mountain Pine Ridge, where both of these habitats are close by, we’ll enjoy a wealth of species that includes everything from Blue-crowned and Tody motmots, Gartered, Slaty-tailed, and Black-headed trogons, and Ivory-billed, Tawny-winged, and Olivaceous woodcreepers to Pale-billed, Lineated, and Chestnut-colored woodpeckers, Golden-hooded, Crimson-collared, and Blue-gray tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and many more on a long list of possibilities. With luck, we may even find three of the world’s scarcest raptors in the Mountain Pine Ridge area — Orange-breasted Falcon, Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, and Solitary Eagle. Hidden Valley offers very comfortable accommodations with the wonderful advantage of being central to a number of birding locations within a 30-minute drive — and the grounds themselves are very birdy. For a quick trip only a couple of hours south of the US, Belize can’t be beat!

Rufous-naped Wrens
Rufous-naped Wrens are a lively part of the avifauna of Northern Central America. (Illustration by guide Peter Burke)

Our tours to Northern Central America are designed to see a great variety and number of birds and regional endemics (while learning more about them), to experience the rich local culture from Mayan to Spanish colonial, and to give us an appreciation of the countries we visit. (Did you know, too, that Jesse Fagan is hard at work wrapping up a new field guide to Northern Central America, and that Peter Burke is contributing some illustrations as well? Great stuff! An example of Peter’s lovely work is at right.)

From towering volcanoes to lush lowland rainforest to arid valleys and dry forest, let us show you why we love this region. Our December 2013 and calendar-year 2014 tours and guides in Northern Central America include:

Holiday in Honduras: The Lodge at Pico Bonito — Dec 29, 2013-Jan 3, 2014 with John Coons

Guatemala: Shade-grown Birding — Feb 12-22, 2014 with Jesse Fagan

Honduras: Land of the Emeralds — Feb 12-22, 2014 with Jesse Fagan

Belize — Apr 6-12, 2014 with Peter Burke

Holiday in Honduras: The Lodge at Pico Bonito — Dec 29, 2014-Jan 3, 2015 with Jesse Fagan