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)

Bret’s Brazil Book

I have now birded or relaxed in, and have led Field Guides tours through, most of the enormous Republic of Brazil, and there remain just a handful of Brazil’s nearly 1900 species of birds I haven’t yet met in the field (aarrrgh, I missed the only Kinglet Calyptura in a hundred years by just a couple of days in October, 1996—my friend and Brazilian colleague Fernando Pacheco was the second of five amigos to see it!).

Bret (l.) and Fernando just before they got their lifer Stresemann’s Bristlefront (an ultrarare, endemic tapaculo-thing) in Minas Gerais, Oct. 2005 (you should have been there just after!).
Bret (l.) and Fernando just before they got their lifer Stresemann’s Bristlefront (an ultrarare, endemic tapaculo-thing) in Minas Gerais, Oct. 2005 (you should have been there just after!). (Photo by Paulo Sergio Fonseca)

In the process of getting around to find and learn about all of those species, even describing some new to science, Fernando and I decided that what Brazil needed was a good guide to field identification of its birds. And as I have continued to spend half of every year in Brazil over the past decade, it has become increasingly apparent that the very best thing that I personally could give back to Brazil, with all its wealth of ecosystems and challenges to protect them, would be to produce an authoritative, beautifully illustrated, yet very inexpensive bilingual series of regional field guides to the country’s birds.

Our project, to be published by Lynx Edicions (publishers of the Handbook of the Birds of the World series), and those of colleagues working with Princeton University Press, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and others producing field guides for Brazil are together soon going to result in a huge surge forward in the interest and fervor that an already growing number of Brazilians feel for enjoying and protecting their birds and other wildlife. Our first volume will focus on the Atlantic Forest biome of southeast and southern Brazil, where the majority of Brazilians live, where an unequaled number of endemic species have evolved, and where conservation problems are severe. I am 100% confident and optimistic that the conservation tide can and will be turned to an increasingly positive direction largely through the accessibility of birds to the Brazilian people.

Peter Burke, surrounded at far right by some of his fabulous work for the project, is, in addition to everything else in his life, one of the main artists for the Brazil field guides. He’s currently hard at work finishing the 12 raptor plates for Volume 1, all to be auctioned off to help with funding for subsequent volumes (stay tuned!).
Peter Burke, shown with some of his fabulous work for the project, is, in addition to everything else in his life, one of the main artists for the Brazil field guides. He’s currently hard at work finishing the 12 raptor plates for Volume 1, all to be auctioned off to help with funding for subsequent volumes (stay tuned!).

My co-authors are my excellent friends Luís Fábio Silveira of the University of São Paulo and, of course, Fernando, both of them incredibly knowledgeable Brazilian ornithologists and committed conservationists. As we head into the final two years of work to publish this first volume (three others will follow at much shorter intervals!), we invite all of you to contribute to our IRS-accredited, tax-deductible account at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Through low-key, unpracticed fund-raising and online investing of personal resources, I’ve gathered enough to pay artists, mapmakers, and sound-digitizers for these 10-plus years. I am deeply appreciative of all of you out there who have already contributed (and to timely picks with APPL, JBLU, and especially EWZ)!

Lynx has generously provided to me as much of their excellent HBW art as I can use, and they’re tremendously supportive of helping to produce an inexpensive Brazilian edition of the books for which none of us will receive royalties, commissions, reimbursements, or other monies—it’s truly a labor of love, and truly a conservation-enabling gift to Brazil.

Please help us make great things happen with your kind contribution to an everlasting celebration of Brazilian birds!

Contributions may be sent to:
Kristen Kepics
Science Administration
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
215.299.1065 (phone)
215.299.1079 (fax)
kepics at ansp.org (email — change ” at ” to the @ symbol to complete the address…we’ve omitted it here to avoid spam)

Checks should be made payable to “The Academy of Natural Sciences,” with “Whitney Birds of Brazil Book Project” on the memo line or in an attached note.

Brazil Tours: An Overview

Ten itineraries from Amazonia to the Atlantic Forest to Iguazu Falls to the Pantanal? Sort through them all on our new overview page by Bret Whitney.  Bret’s suggestions will help you choose among our various tours to this wonderful and richly diverse country.  Perhaps Northeast Brazil in January or Rainforest & Savanna in June, Manaus in September or Southeastern Brazil in November?  Yes, Brazil is an amazing and rewarding birding destination! Read on

Nobel <em>Araucaria angustifolia</em> frame spectacular canyons in far southern Brazil.  (photo by Bret Whitney)
Noble Araucaria angustifolia frame spectacular canyons in far southern Brazil. (photo by Bret Whitney)
A  spectacular rockscape in the badlands of interior Bahia in northeastern Brazil (photo by Bret Whitney)
A spectacular rockscape in the badlands of interior Bahia state in northeastern Brazil (photo by Bret Whitney)
Rosy-fingered dawn on the glassy surface of the Rio Jequitinhonha in Minas Gerais state. (photo by  BretWhitney)
Rosy-fingered dawn on the glassy surface of the Rio Jequitinhonha in Minas Gerais state (photo by Bret Whitney)

Peru Tours: An Overview

How do you choose among 8 itineraries to a country with more than 1800 species of birds? To give you a little help, we’ve put together a new overview page covering northern and southern Amazonian Peru as well as the Andes. Even if you’re not quite ready this year, it makes for some great virtual birding!  Read on

Early morning at the river's edge at Reserva Amazonica in southeastern Peru
Early morning at the river's edge at Reserva Amazonica in southeastern Peru, on our "Peruvian Rainforests of the Tambopata" tour, photographed by guide Rose Ann Rowlett

NE Brazil: Last-chance Pickup, Part I

If you’ve traveled with us before, I’m sure you’ve heard tall tales and humorous anecdotes from your guides. Over nearly 25 years of Field Guiding, we’ve accumulated quite a few! Every year at our late-August business meeting, with as many of us as possible gathered together from the field and our Austin office, our Field Guides step forward to add new ones to the archives. But we don’t forget the past…

If you’ve traveled with us before, I’m sure you’ve heard tall tales and humorous anecdotes from your guides. Over nearly 25 years of Field Guiding, we’ve accumulated quite a few! Every year at our late-August business meeting, with as many of us as possible gathered together from the field and our Austin office, our Field Guides step forward to add new ones to the archives. But we don’t forget the past — often there’s a call for an encore telling of an especially memorable or funny tale that we treasure and can relate to from our collective experiences in the field. Here’s one by Bret, from way back, with a little history, a few rocks, some bum tires, a little booze, a little good luck, and a whole lotta bird. Bret’s updated a few key bits with recent info, but even with the passing of ten years and more the story’s still current for birding adventures in places far off the beaten path. Enjoy!
—Jan Pierson

nebbretIt was the Ides of March 1996. I was leading a small group of birders through the hinterland of northeastern Brazil on our fourth Field Guides tour to that fascinating region. Having spent much of the previous ten years in Brazil, and living in Rio at the time, my pork-n-cheese, I mean Portuguese, was getting pretty good. I would need it that memorable day, the day we set out for Lear’s Macaw in the arid outback of the vast state of Bahia.

You see, the Lear’s (or Indigo) Macaw is a mighty rare bird. For most of ornithological history it was known from only a few specimens that had come to light through the cage-bird trade. Then, in late 1978, a few months after I graduated from Earlham College, Helmut Sick (the German “father of Brazilian ornithology”) and two students set off from Rio de Janeiro to traverse the northeast in hopes of discovering the secluded stronghold of Lear’s Macaw. At the time, this ranked among the top ornithological mysteries yet to be unlocked, and the team had to start from near “zero.” But luck and a healthy dose of perseverance were with them. At dusk on 31 December 1978, they became the first ornithologists to encounter these magnificent macaws in nature. In the following days, they discovered the breeding area in the remote Raso da Catarina of interior Bahia where the birds nested on high cliffs in rugged canyon country. What an incredible thrill it all must have been! Imagine a spectacular bird like this being discovered alive in the wild as recently as 1978!

neblearsmacaws
A pair of fabulous Lear’s Macaws on their favored food source, the licuri palm

Today, there are probably fewer than 500 individual Lear’s Macaws surviving in this same core area of north-central Bahia. The birds receive reasonably effective protection (at least in the main breeding area), but their natural reproductive level is low and their numbers are easily decimated by hardships of the environment exacerbated by ongoing attempts to capture and smuggle out young and adults for sale on the black market. Finding Lear’s Macaws in the wild, hearing their strange voices and admiring their beautiful indigo plumage set off by striking yellow patches on the cheeks, orbital skin, and tip of the tongue, is one of the great quests we expect to realize on every Northeastern Brazil tour we offer. And we have been successful all 17 years now, but that 1996 trip was a close call…

Dry habitat with bromeliads and cacti near Petrolina
Dry habitat with bromeliads and cacti near Petrolina

We departed that day pre-dawn from Petrolina, Pernambuco, a busy town of some 250,000 on the great Rio São Francisco. I had a small group that year, only seven participants, and our vehicle was a “12-passenger” van. That translates to room for 8 adult gringos and their usual massive amount of luggage — and nothing else. Consider that a couple of the boys in the backfield were pretty big fellas, Jim Plyler and David Galinat, with skyscraping Jane Brooks cheerleading all the way, and you get the picture: we were loaded to the max! Tom Raque, John and Barbara Ribble, and Polly Rothstein rounded out the group. We were in exceptionally high spirits, because we had found a pair of Buff-fronted Owls a few days earlier and had seen the last wild Spix’s Macaw only yesterday (that bird sadly disappeared in late 1999). Our route would take us across the river and eastward along that little black line you can still see on today’s maps, through Poço de Fora, Uauá, Bendegó, and Canudos all the way to Jeremoabo. It’s 250 km of rocky dirt road, narrow and potentially muddy in places; one impasse along the way (serious mud, broken-down vehicle blocking the road, bridge washout…worse yet, your vehicle dying), and you backtrack to make the swing over the top of the São Francisco and down through Paulo Afonso — in other words “game over,” you missed Lear’s Macaw and you have to use another day in hopes of getting it right (but see Note 1 at the end of Part II).

nebgroup1Our day seemed to be going well enough, albeit slow and steady as we kicked up a rolling cloud of dust and braced against the constant bashing of rocks on the floorboards. Goats and sheep trotted ahead of us, scampering off the road just before we bumped them off, bells clanging on all sides. A veritable plague in northeast Brazil, these animals eat everything from the roots up allowing essentially no regeneration of native vegetation — but they are the lifeline of many poor families in northeast Brazil, the only livestock able to survive the harsh dry seasons. We took advantage of the cool, early hours for a couple of birding stops. Then, just 60 km into the drive near Poço de Fora, we blew a tire. The spare got us another 50 km to Uauá. Uauá is on the map, but just barely. I am here to tell you that Uauá had a borracharia, and thank goodness for it (Spanish-speakers, see Note 2 at the end of Part II!). The greasy-armed, smiling little man who came out to greet us was the usual, hard-working Bahian soul who resolves problems with genuine interest and hospitality, and we were soon on our way with all five tires. But the road was merciless. I gritted my teeth against sharp rocks and tried not to think about our weight and low clearance. We made it the 40 km to Bendegó, but blew another tire halfway to Canudos, this time irreparably. The spare again did its job, getting us to Canche. But we had no “spare” at that point, and the way things had been going, I saw little chance of us making it to Jeremoabo that night. Unless, that is, we could somehow get another tire…

( continued in Part II )

NE Brazil: Last-chance Pickup, Part II

(Did you miss Part I?)

cactus-garden-neb-09
Wild cactus ‘gardens’ are characteristic sights in NE Brazil.

Limping gingerly through Canche, a place with apparently no wheeled vehicles larger than wheelbarrows, we came to a bar at the far edge of town. There were three pickup trucks parked at odd angles in front of the place. Our driver pointed out excitedly that one of them had tires just the size we needed. “Graças a deus,” I thought to myself as I asked the group to wait a moment and I went in to find the owner of that last-chance pickup. The sun was still about 30 degrees above the horizon, and it took my eyes a minute to adjust to the hot, dark interior of the bar. Waving flies out of my face but not the smell of drying cachaça (Brazilian aguardiente) from my nose, I asked loudly (“polite” would not be appropriate in this setting), “Opa! Quem é o dono daquele pickapy verde?” (“Hey! Whose is that green pickup out there?”). Faces stayed down on tables, not a sign of life in the joint. I gave three loud claps and repeated the question. A head came up and a red-eyed, scraggly-bearded guy about 30 or 50 said, “Quem quer saber?” (“Who wants to know?”). Time to get a little more polite. I said that I was passing through town and needed to buy his spare tire, and could we go look at it. He slumped back down and said he didn’t have a spare. I said no matter, any tire in decent shape would do. He thought about that for a minute, then raised up to exclaim in no uncertain terms, “Look, dumb___, I DO NOT HAVE A SPARE!” Time to get quite polite. I sat down and introduced myself to this deeply drunken man, explaining that I had a group of innocent and aged tourists out there needing to make it to Jeremoabo in the worst way (nothing about the macaw to muddy the picture; apologies to all of you who were there with me that day). He was unimpressed, and reiterated that there was not a thing he could do about it.

All tour leaders the world over will now chime in in agreement that there is indeed one thing that will resolve an issue such as this one (as well as almost anything else of material worth): money. I offered him the equivalent of about $60 for the tire of my choice. Unbelieving, I guess, he looked at me for a long, cross-eyed moment as he processed this new information, and grinned as he stood up. We walked (staggered, more like it) out into the blinding sunlight. Leaning on the truck, he paused (I feared he was going to hurl) then raised his arms silently as if to say, “Go ahead, she’s yours, just take it!” Our driver had the best tire off that truck and on to our van (bad tire already off) in a flash. We left the pickup on a block of wood and I shook hands with the guy as I gave him his money. He expressed no apprehension at having so handcuffed himself to that bar; his world hadn’t changed significantly (yet). I thought to myself that I envied him being able to do that, to just let things play out as they would “amanhã” (mañana). And I entertained the idea that he might be one heckuva nice guy even as it occurred to me that he had very few brain cells firing forward.

first Lear's Macaws in sight...
We’ve got the first Lear’s Macaws in sight…

But forward, onward, it was for us. With renewed but not replenished confidence, we continued our eastward way from Canche. The sun was getting low as we pulled up to the reliable feeding area of Lear’s Macaws that I had come to know over the past several years. I’d prepared folks for the possibility that we were too late that day, that we might well have to take tomorrow morning to retrace a long section of bad road from Jeremoabo to have a chance at finding the macaws. Our ears were ringing from the pummeling of that relentlessly rocky road. We walked into a dry, yellow pasture studded with low licuri palms, the favored food plant of the macaws. Several long minutes elapsed. A Burrowing Owl gazed lazily in our direction. We scanned the palms and tall shade trees for dark, long-tailed shapes within…then it happened. First calls of distant birds, then Tom picked up a pair flying through a gap in the trees. Minutes later, we had the scopes on several brilliant Lear’s Macaws as they preened in treetops and flew around calling loudly just before departing the feeding area for the distant cliffs of Raso da Catarina. We’d made it!! The day was an overwhelming success despite a heavy dose of frustration along the way — but isn’t that so often the way on a birding trip? Just when you fear all is lost, the best pulls through and what was a desperate mess becomes a good story.

A pair of Lear's Macaws in flight...a spectacular sight!
…and what a spectacular sight they are!

Now, I wish that were the end of the story for that day. But we had 50 km of nasty road between us and our simple little hotel in Jeremoabo and, all agreed, little chance of making it on the rubber we had. We optimistically resolved to take it really slowly and just “think light.” But only about 10 km along the way, we lost another tire which sent us from orange to red alert (despite the world being a lot more peaceful place back then). As our tour itinerary says to this day, “…if the tire and radiator gods are with us, we will see Lear’s Macaw, not a moment too soon.” Well, the gods fortunately were with us, though working in mysterious ways, and we did make it to the hotel for a good, home-cooked dinner washed down with lots of cold beer. We toasted the Lear’s Macaws heartily that night, “Long may they live!” And I quietly toasted the drunk in Canche, as I have done a number of times since.

O Fim (The End)

————————

A couple of notes
nebbus (1) The road through Uauá and Canudos is in much better shape these days, and our huge (Greyhound-sized), comfortable bus lets the miles slide by painlessly. Yes, some things do improve over the years!

(2) You Spanish-speakers out there are no doubt raising an eyebrow (“borracho” meaning “drunk”), but rest assured that this is merely the equivalent of a vulcanizadora, a tire-repair shop (“borracha” in Portuguese is “rubber”).

If you’re pondering a Lear’s Macaw in your future,
see our Northeast Brazil: Long Live the Lear’s page.