Surf and Turf: A New, Spicy Western Panama Tour in March

There is still space on our exciting new itinerary to Western Panama. The tour runs from March 20-29, 2016, and visits two important birding sites, one located in the Caribbean lowlands (surf) and the other in the Chiriqui Highlands (turf).

Boating at Tranquilo Bay phf16 scouting Jesse Fagan
A boat ride is our transportation to some birding sites around Tranquilo Bay. (Photo by guide Jesse Fagan)

The first site, Tranquilo Bay, is based in the tropical lowlands on the island of Bastimentos with views of the Caribbean from the dock or on their 100-foot-tall birding tower. It’s ideally set with spacious cabins located amidst the lush forest teaming with birds, monkeys, and sloths. Exploration of the surrounding areas will be on foot and by boat with plenty of time for siestas in the hammock, a swim off the dock, or lounging by the bar (surely holding some fruity drink with a small umbrella).

tranquilo bay main building by Tranquilo Bay
The Lodge at Tranquilo Bay (Photo courtesy of Tranquilo Bay Lodge)

The second site is in altogether different habitat and climate, a welcome and striking contrast to the lowlands: Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Reserve. The lodge is located in the Chiriqui Highlands, a region famous for bird endemism, including species from small (Silvery-fronted Tapaculo) to large (Black Guan), and other special birds, like Three-wattled Bellbird and Resplendent Quetzal. The lodge is part of an old shaded coffee plantation built in the highlands with surrounding primary montane forest and cloud-forest. The trail system is excellent and camera traps have documented healthy populations of Puma and tapir. And the home cooking at both lodges is reason enough to take this tour.

Click to visit our web page for this tour…

bellbird lodge 1 by Bellbird Lodge
The Bellbird Lodge at Mount Totumas is nestled into lush cloud forest with some great birds! (Photo courtesy of Bellbird Lodge)

So, still need convincing that this is just the right tour for you? Think about this: it’s a short (9-day) trip to tropical Panama (with direct flights from the US) that visits just two sites, which means less unpacking and more time birding or relaxing. However, even in comfort, this tour offers some of the best birding in Central America.

Resplendent Quetzal phf16 scouting Jesse Fagan
Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Reserve is an excellent place to see Resplendent Quetzal, as evidenced by this fabulous male. (Photo by guide Jesse Fagan)

Not mentioned above (but noted here for emphasis!) are two days along the Fortuna Road, the famous birding road that crosses the Continental Divide from the province of Bocas del Toro to Chiriqui. Here we’ll have chances for a number of high quality birds too numerous to mention but including Orange-bellied Trogon, Prong-billed Barbet, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Black-thighed Grosbeak, and Black-and-yellow Tanager. Lastly, if you feel so inclined, you can arrange to take on an extra day or three to explore the Canal Zone or visit the Canopy Lodge or Tower for very productive Canal Zone birding!

It’s easy enough to request an itinerary from our office, and I hope you’ll join me for what will be a thoroughly fun and birdy time!

All the best for your birding in 2016,
Jesse Fagan (aka Motmot)

Green-crowned Brilliant phf16 scouting Jesse Fagan
This male Green-crowned Brilliant allowed guide Jesse Fagan an easy photo. This species is a common visitor to hummingbird feeders at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Reserve.
bellbird lodge 3 by Bellbird Lodge
Bellbird Lodge offers a great birding perch and some fabulous views! (Photo courtesy of Bellbird Lodge)

World Birding Rally, Peru: the FG Team takes first!

Team Field Guides has won the greatest birding competition on the planet! The World Birding Rally took place December 3-10, 2013, in Peru, pitting five international birding companies against each other. The competing teams/companies represented the countries of South Africa, Colombia, England, and the United States. The grueling weeklong event took place at two different sites in southeastern Peru: along the Madre de Dios River in the Amazonian lowlands, and at Machu Picchu, the famous Inca ruin site. Both sites represent two distinctly different elevations and habitat types which include Amazonian rainforest and humid subtropical forest, respectively. This great event was sponsored by the Peruvian tourism board, PromPerú, and Inkaterra, a private company that runs a series of luxury ecolodges throughout Peru (see their blog post at this link). Our team included Field Guides leaders Jesse Fagan (yours truly) and Dan Lane, along with Fernando Angulo, a Peruvian biologist and conservationist. In addition, at each location all the teams had a local guide to assist them. In our case, the local guides were Leon (Madre de Dios) and Cecy Cabrera (Machu Picchu). Both were excellent and they helped us immensely on our way to victory.

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 7.35.03 PM
Dan, Fernando, and Jesse celebrate their victory with local guide Cecy Cabrera.

It was a tense competition, and we got off to a rocky start when Team Field Guides came in fourth place on a rainy Day One. On Day Two, we fought our way into third place, where we remained until Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu. It wasn’t until these final two days that we managed to inch ahead and gain the top position. Our final species count was 457 (team highlights included White-chested Swift, Curl-crested Aracari, Tawny-rumped Tyrannulet, and Cusco Brush-Finch). The next two teams tied for second place with 455 species recorded. Indeed, it was a very tight race throughout the rally. All in all, it was a fabulous experience to bird and compete in one of the richest avian countries in the world. This competition is unrivaled in its length and number of species possible.  The total species count for the competition among all teams was an astounding 619, a significant percentage of the world’s total species of birds! Team Field Guides would like to thank all of the sponsors and teams for a very memorable time. The winning team trophy, a pewter Black-faced Cotinga, will be placed in the Field Guides office in Austin, Texas, so come by and take a look!

In addition, Team Field Guides was competing in the name of bird conservation. Prior to the start of the rally, Field Guides Incorporated and Team Field Guides partnered with Birdlife International to help raise funds for a watershed conservation campaign benefitting the northern Peruvian communities of San Isidro de Maino and Levanto and further protecting critical habitat for the globally endangered Marvelous Spatuletail, one of the world’s most spectacular hummingbirds. There is still time to help us in this endeavor; if you are interested, please visit the following link and make a donation:

Birding unites countries, people, and our amazing biodiversity as few governing bodies or politicians are capable of doing. The commonality of seeing birds, and the enjoyment this brings us, breaks down many barriers of hatred, prejudice, racism, and socioeconomic divide. It empowers people to look and think critically, to identify, to listen, to ask questions, to seek out, to travel and, most importantly, to discover. Birds and birding can change the world.

The next World Birding Rally will be held in Peru from May 11-22, 2014.

–Jesse Fagan (aka Motmot)

Resting on their laurels now? No way! See what’s next on Jesse’s and Dan’s schedules from their guide page links!

Below are more pics from the Rally…

At Machu Picchu with Cecy
Dan — nice shirt!
Hard at work in the field (definitely some multi-tasking going on!)
The win makes the Peruvian newspapers!

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.

hummingbird_wine-throated (12)
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

The Colorful Canasteros…Huh?

I like canasteros. I like canasteros a lot. There are only five people in the world who like canasteros more than I do, and they ain’t admitting it. However, I have decided to break with the status quo (don’t voluntarily humiliate yourself in public) and admit my infatuation with these long wiry-tailed brown jobbies that live in brown places and probably eat brown things. Canasteros, to put it in terms my mom would understand, are neat. To put it in terms my brother would understand, canasteros are gettin’ jiggy with it.

Two canasteros, the more grassland Scribble-tailed (Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru) and the higher-elevation Streak-throated (Bolivia and Peru). Photos by guide George Armistead.

The Spanish word canastero means simply “basket-maker.” Canasteros make baskets, sort of. Their nests, which are made of fine grasses or small twigs, resemble baskets. Canasteros belong in the family Furnariidae, and are classed in one of two genera: Asthenes and Pseudasthenes. The genus Asthenes also includes Itatiaia Spinetail and 8 species of thistletail, which are, for all intents and purposes, also canasteros.

Junin Canastero, a species endemic to Peru which may be seen on Jesse Fagan’s Machu Picchu & Abra Malaga, Peru tour. Photo by guide Dan Lane.

If you read a description of the habitat or location of canasteros, you will find a repetition of the words “arid” and  “Andes.”  So, though technically many canasteros are found well within the New World tropics, you may be wearing a warm jacket when you see one; there could be snow on the ground and quite possibly no trees in sight.  If you read about their songs (if you can call what comes out of their syrinx a song), then you will find clarifying tidbits like “repetition,” “trill,” “descending,” “sometimes ascending,” or “strident.” These birds are loud vocalists, but their voices are not necessarily their endearing marks. Or, at least no one is describing them as accomplished songsters. Now then, what does one look for visually to distinguish them, that is, what are their field marks? Streaking (presence or absence; above or below). Chin patch (presence of ?). Any rufous on the tail? Any rufous on the wing? Oh boy, this sounds like a bit of a challenge. Hey, look at that Mountain Caracara! Wowwwwww.

Canasteros can be a bit of a mystery. While we were distracted by a flicker or that caracara, it has snuck in like a mouse, making its way through the bunchgrass, popping its little head up, sitting up to take a peek, moving closer, until just a few feet from our group its up on a rock, head held high, tail cocked, and singing. Okay, maybe just trilling, but it’s loud and we are still shocked. How did it get here so quietly and without our noticing?! Now, of course, this doesn’t happen every time. Sometimes it just pokes around in the grass or rocks, calls a few times, and we never see it. This frustrates us no end. It’s partly because in the field guide description on distribution it states many canasteros are “local and rare” or “local and uncommon” and always punctuated with “hard to see.” True, but that’s part of the allure.

A canastero quest will surely include a good deal of birding in high Andean habitat like this, as roughly 50% of these birds occur only above 8000 feet in elevation. Photo by guide Dan Lane.

Wish me luck. I am now on a Canastero Quest. You all are the first to know. Forget warblers, hummingbirds, and who needs those Tangara tanagers, anyway? I want brown, streaky, loudly trilling, local, and difficult to see. I want behavioral problems. I want color without the color.

Guide Jesse Fagan (a.k.a. theMotmot) still has a bunch of canasteros to see.  And where can you hope to see a canastero? Certainly on either of Jesse’s MACHU PICCHU & ABRA MALAGA, PERU tours, or on many of our Andean tours, a sampling of which includes:

Peru’s Magnetic North: Spatuletails, Owlet Lodge & More
Montane Ecuador: Cloudforests of the Andes
Ecuador: Rainforest & Andes
Bolivia’s Avian Riches
Northwestern Argentina: The Chaco, Cordoba & Northern Andes 



The Kirtland’s Warbler: Eleuthera Island, Bahamas

The Kirtland’s Warbler is one of the rarest of the temperate New World warblers. It is listed as a federally endangered species and Near Threatened by BirdLife International. Nearly its entire population (current estimates of more than 3600 individuals) breeds in north-central Michigan in young Jack Pine forests. These forests were once naturally fire-maintained ecosystems, but they are now heavily managed through controlled burns and harvesting.

Jesse Fagan
Jesse Fagan

Brown-headed Cowbirds, though native to the Great Plains,  spread into Michigan in the 1880s following the felling of eastern forests, which acted as a natural break to the expansion of this species eastward. Cowbird parasitism rates on Kirtland’s Warbler were once as high as 70%, but with control measures that began in the 1970s, this rate dropped to a low of 3%, and warbler productivity tripled. The population of Kirtland’s Warbler has continued to grow since the 1990s, so much so that the federal government is beginning to think about de-listing it. Pairs are now breeding in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in Ontario, and most recently in central Wisconsin. Despite still being very rare in migration, birds are being found with more frequency, including at least two seen in northwest Ohio in May 2010. I was fortunate to see a female on migration in late September 2006 on Folly Island (Charleston County), South Carolina.

Kirtland's Warbler
Kirtland's Warbler, Eleuthera

Surprisingly though, my experiences with Kirtland’s have not occurred where most people are likely to see them. I mentioned the bird in migration (my lifer), but I have now had the pleasure of seeing Kirtland’s Warbler on its wintering grounds in the Bahamas. In late April 2008, I made my first visit to the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas to scout the area for a Field Guides tour there. Eleuthera is one of just two islands in the archipelago where visitors can see Great Lizard-Cuckoo, though I must admit I had Kirtland’s on my mind as well. I searched extensively throughout the island but didn’t find a one. I suppose the late date of my trip may have had something to do with this. Kirtland’s generally arrive on their breeding grounds in mid-May, which would mean that many of them have probably left or are beginning to leave the islands by late April.

It was the following year in early April 2009 while leading the tour that I got my first look at a wintering Kirtland’s Warbler. We had spent the previous day on Eleuthera tracking down the Great Lizard-Cuckoo, eventually finding several individuals around our hotel grounds on the north end of the island near Gregory Town. These oversized Coccyzus cuckoos spend much of the day in the shadows of tall coppice hunting Anolis lizards. Occasionally they like to come out and sun themselves. They also make amazing cackling or growling sounds. However, on this day I knew I needed to find some good low scrub or coppice if we had any chance of locating a Kirtland’s, our remaining target bird. We set out and after driving several kilometers south of Governor’s Harbour I eased the van over to the right shoulder at a spot where the habitat looked good—a mix of low open scrub with visible bare ground between bushes. No sooner had we gotten out of the van than we began hearing a rich call note, tsip!, coming from the vegetation. All of a sudden, a bird popped up in front of us in the closest small scrub. A little surprised, I remember saying to the group, “Hey guys, that’s a Kirtland’s Warbler!”

Bahamas birds
A few resident friends that Kirtland's Warblers get to see in the Bahamas in winter: the rose-throated Bahama Parrot (likely to be split from Cuban), a glowing male Bahama Yellowthroat, and the dark-eyed Thick-billed Vireo. (All photos by Jesse Fagan)

We ended up finding a total of five Kirtland’s that day at two different sites. In April 2010 our tour group found another female. That totals six sightings of Kirtland’s in two years. Not bad, I believe, considering the paucity of records on the wintering grounds. All our sightings were of unbanded birds and most appeared to be females or first-year birds. It is surprising to me that we didn’t find any males, but perhaps males prefer a slightly different habitat type or maybe we just missed them. Adult male warblers typically leave the wintering grounds before females, but early April is still probably too early for migration of either sex.

It is exciting when tour leading and science can mix. I know our participants enjoy being a part of something that is not well studied—a feeling that every little photo or written note is helping us to learn a bit more about a species, in this case the Kirtland’s Warbler.

See our Bahamas tour page for more information on our upcoming tours, or visit Jesse’s guide page for his complete tour schedule.

Colombia: Recurve-billed Bushbird

I was playing tic-tac-toe with the bushbird’s head. Cross branches of bamboo several feet deep between me and a lifer look. Something is crawling up my pant leg (don’t scratch), sweat dripping down my forehead (don’t swipe), don’t move I told myself. The black object had made progress towards our small group, calling much of the time, now it was perched just in front of us. Easy, easy, take a step slowly to one side…

Success! Guide Richard Webster captured this evocative image of the bushbird he and Jesse spotted with their group on a recent Field Guides Colombia tour.

The Recurve-billed Bushbird (Clytoctantes alixii), as it is awkwardly (for me, anyways) called, went nearly 40 years without a single documented record. C. alixii was once thought to be endemic to northern Colombia, but it was rediscovered in the Sierra de Perija of Venezuela near the Colombian border in April 2004. That find was part of a Rapid Assessment Program team involving Venezuelan Audubon, the Phelps Collection, with financial support from Conservation International. With this confirmed sighting, interest shifted back to Colombia, a country quietly but steadfastly healing after years of internal conflict and neglect by the birding community. Sure enough, a year later, Colombia had its rediscovery by Oscar Laverde at Agua de la Virgen, near the bustling city of Ocaña. Thankfully, for us and the bushbird, it has now been recorded at several more sites.

My expectations of this bird were that the bill was going to be bigger than the bird. I think in part because every photo I had seen of it was taken at an angle, bill on and bird-in-hand, which exaggerates its size in comparison to the head. So, when I finally did see this bird my first impression was, “Well, cool, the bill is much smaller than I thought.” However, the bill is big, the culmen nearly straight, with the mandible curving up to meet the bill tip. Why does it have such a bill structure? Gusanos, amigo. Worms and bamboo, dude. The bushbird uses its bill to slice open thin bamboo shoots, like slicing open a can of cranberry sauce with a pocket knife. However, once the bill is inserted it is forced upward using the straight-edge to cut the bamboo stalk. Inside, it works to dig out larvae of beetles and other arthropods. Interestingly enough, not all bushbirds have been found within thick bamboo stands (“bushbird” is more appropriate than “bamboobird”), so they are obviously able to survive searching for prey in other ways. So, why have that strange bill?

As Jesse demonstrates, the bushbird uses its bill on bamboo like a can opener, with the resulting tell-tale signs in the image at right above. (Photos by Jesse Fagan)

This bird is truly spectacular. Not a let down. It lives up to all expectations. Rare, certainly local, loud and vocal, and that bizarre bill, this is a bird to see (or try to). Deep within the bamboo, I managed to get one decent photo of the bird. Not great, but it captured a split second in a memorable experience for our group on the recent Field Guides BOGOTA, THE MAGDALENA VALLEY & SANTA MARTA tour I co-led with Richard Webster, who scouted and developed this exciting itinerary.

Use the player below to listen to my recording of the bushbird:

[If you have trouble using the player, here’s the direct mp3 file link.]

And did you know? Currently, Clytoctantes is not monotypic. The Rondonia Bushbird (C. atrogularis), equally rare and local, was only recently discovered in 1984 from a small area of southwest Brazil. There are currently just four reports of this species, and no male specimens. Despite outward similarities and behavior with C. alixii, the vocalizations of Rondonia Bushbird appear closer to Black Bushbird (Neoctanes niger) and according to Bret Whitney would keep C. alixii “within a monotypic genus despite similarities to Rondonia Bushbird.” You can discover additional information about the Recurve-billed Bushbird at Birdlife International.

We have a whole lot of Colombia coming up in our 2011 schedule, with 3 distinct itineraries and 4 departures.  Jesse will be returning for COLOMBIA: BOGOTA, THE MAGDALENA VALLEY & SANTA MARTA while Richard will guide both our COLOMBIA: THE CAUCA VALLEY, WESTERN & CENTRAL ANDES and COLOMBIA: SANTA MARTA ESCAPE tours. A few spaces remain open as of this posting.

Guatemala Thanksgiving: Coffee, Tikal, and the Pink-headed Warbler

What makes a good cup of coffee? What makes a good birding destination? Ah, the key questions of life! Surprisingly, the two are not independent of each other…at least, not in Guatemala, where sipping a delicious cup of Antiguan joe can easily be synonymous with Spotted Nightingale-Thrushes probing rank leaf-litter or Azure-rumped Tanagers searching for fruiting fig trees in a sun-rich canopy.

In Guatemala and other parts of Central America, delicious coffee and bird conservation develop in two ways: either by careful management of shade-grown coffee preserving a diverse canopy overhead, or by growing the more traditional “sun” coffee but protecting surrounding native habitat in its original state. Most coffee in Guatemala is at least partially shade-grown. Each method has its drawbacks for wildlife–the reality of this bold brew. However, as with many other agricultural commodities, striking the right balance of production with education and awareness can minimize the impact on our environment.

Finca Los Andes, by guide Alvaro Jaramillo
Finca Los Andes, by guide Alvaro Jaramillo

At Field Guides we work with several coffee fincas to offer participants on our two distinct itineraries (Thanksgiving and February/March) a unique “bed-and-breakfast” style experience complete with excellent birding. The finca owners take great pride in sharing with our groups the history of their properties, many of which have been family-run for generations–Finca Los Tarrales and Finca Los Andes are two such examples on our February tour.

2009 participants Gail Kirch and Tom Lewis at the Las Nubes gate (Photo by guide Jesse Fagan)
2009 participants Gail Kirch and Tom Lewis at the Las Nubes gate (Photo by guide Jesse Fagan)

Finca Las Nubes, which we visit on both itineraries, is one of the oldest operational coffee fincas in Guatemala, dating back more than 150 years and made famous in the early photos of Eadweard Muybridge (wild first name, eh?–read more about his work here). Sitting on the deck of the original plantation home at Las Nubes, one can’t help but feel transported back to the days when coffee was moved from the plantation on the backs of mules to steamships waiting in port. Whether you drink it or not, coffee’s impact on world politics and economies (dating back centuries) is also an interesting history lesson. On each finca, we explore the growing, processing, shipping, roasting, and tasting (in a cupping session) of the golden bean. And if you want to be truly informed, feel free to discuss with the owners issues of quality, distribution, trading and buying, Starbucks or The Rainforest Alliance, and more.

Just a small selection of Guatemala's many great birds: from left, Bar-winged Oriole, Creste Guan, Resplendent Quetzal, Emerald Toucanet, and Spot-breasted Oriole. (Photos by guides Jesse Fagan, Chris Benesh, Jay VanderGaast, and Alvaro Jaramillo)
Just a small selection of Guatemala’s many great birds: from left, Bar-winged Oriole, Crested Guan, Resplendent Quetzal, Emerald Toucanet, and Spot-breasted Oriole. (Photos by guides Jesse Fagan, Chris Benesh, Jay VanderGaast, and Alvaro Jaramillo)
Our new Thanksgiving itinerary combines the best of the highlands and coffee finca birding with a visit to the spectacular Mayan ruins of Tikal, in the northernmost part of the country.
Our new Thanksgiving itinerary combines the best of the highlands and coffee finca birding with a visit to the spectacular Mayan ruins of Tikal, in the northernmost part of the country. (Click on the map for a larger view.)

Coffee grows well on the fertile volcanic soils of the Pacific Slope, but not so well in the humid tropical lowlands of the Petén, the vast, largely forested northern lowlands of Guatemala. It is here we also visit on our new Thanksgiving tour one of the premier cultural destinations in the world: Tikal. Tikal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 and is one of the best preserved (and studied) of the Classic Mayan sites. It goes without saying that seeing the ruins of Tikal is an experience akin to visiting the pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China. Images of Temple I or II are etched in all our minds from perusing the pages of National Geographic or watching a documentary on The Discovery Channel. We understand the importance of a site such as Tikal, which is why we will spend time with a local guide to learn as much as possible about its history and importance in Mayan and current Guatemalan culture. Granted, as we walk between the temples and ponder a game in the ball court, it will be hard to not be distracted by the calls of Ocellated Turkey, croaking Keel-billed Toucans, or a darting Orange-breasted Falcon–for Tikal certainly is a great birding destination, too. After all, Tikal National Park was one of the first such reserves established in Guatemala and covers a vast expanse of more than 142,100 acres of tropical lowland forest.

Pink-headed Warbler, by guide Alvaro Jaramillo
Pink-headed Warbler, by guide Alvaro Jaramillo

To round out our experience in Guatemala, one both educational and informative, we’ll be targeting a select group of very special birds of the region. One is endemic to northern Central America: the Pink-headed Warbler (Ergaticus versicolor) is found in the pine-oak highlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala. Its appearance is highly unusual among Parulids–only the Red Warbler of Mexico is comparable, but the Pink-headed’s reddish hue is tastefully tinseled with silver on the head. Fellow Field Guide Alvaro Jaramillo has called this species the “Frosty-headed” Warbler, a good name for it, and we know of several spots where we can find this special bird.

What makes a good Thanksgiving? We think our unique new birding adventure to Guatemala this November with birds, coffee, and Tikal has all the fixings! Let’s celebrate together!

[And how about this for a Las Nubes Thanksgiving menu: slow-roasted turkey, homemade stuffing, fresh cranberry sauce, mashed sweet potatoes, local steamed corn, and the best pumpkin pie in Guatemala–mmmm!]

Two beauties to watch for: the splendid Ocellated Turkey and, ever and eyeful, Keel-billed Toucan--both are regulars at Tikal. (Photos by guides Richard Webster & Jay VanderGaast)
Two beauties to watch for: the splendid Ocellated Turkey and, ever an eyeful, Keel-billed Toucan–both are regulars at Tikal. (Photos by guides Richard Webster & Jay VanderGaast)