Guatespecialties... the journey for the best Big Year in Central America takes me to western highlan

Much is said about the birding in the countries of northern Central America... for better or for worse. Once you get there certainly a lot of what you hear is true. Especially for good.

Talking about endemics, Guatemala might not show the most impressive list at first, but then you move your target arrow toward something maybe equally important from the listing perspective, specialties for the region. By this I mean, birds that are only found there and nowhere else in the area. For my case, the Central America area as this year I am trying to set a world record on most birds seen in a calendar year in the Central America region, more about this can be seen here

With the rules on the game you have the northern most range of many species (as most authors, including ebird, do not include Mexico as part of Central America).

But before I start showing pictures of the spectacular birds I got at this particular hotspot and brought me up to 730 species for my current Big Year in Central America I would like to mention that the most amazing surprise I found in Guatemala is the most organized and altruist birding community I have ever seen in Latin America.

I have never seen a birding community so well organized and with such a strong friendship link among them. They keep close communication, share observations, they all have their own local birding clubs (i.e. Peten Birders Club, San Marcos Birding Club, Atitlan... etc), they even plan field trips together and workshops together to explore new areas and help each other to find new birds they need for their Guatemalan bird list... and of course they are all willing to help the foreigner traveler that visits the country (that is me!). I especially have to mention the great help of my new friend Moises Rodriguez a young musician that has incredible skills as a birdwatcher and knows his local patch very well, also Edgardo O. Diaz, José Monzón, Hector Xep and Josue de León from Tarrales Reserve who knows his birds exceptionally well and is able to very professionally put you in front of them with patience and skill.

I got several invitations to bird together with several other well-known Guatemalan birders, but unfortunately I have to prioritized the area where most of the Central American targets are potentially found. That was the western part of the country, especially the highlands near the Mexican border with the estate of Chiapas.

These highlands are home of some of the most range-restricted birds of all the Central America that you will never find unless you drive up these highlands.

When I was originally planning this trip I put together a list of around 80 specialities of Central America that I was missing after been birding extensively in Costa Rica and (not so extensively) in Panama.

After only 7 days chasing my targets I wrapped up a grand total of 134 species and from them nailed 61 specialties of northern Central America and 65 new species for my current Big Year. More than what I have got in the same amount of time in the Darien of Panama. Showing how productive this area can be when it comes to your Central America bird list.

Below is a detailed account of every species with some photos on the ones I think it worth to show. Also notes in some others in where interesting observations were made. The location refers to the first site or easier site where I found the bird.

Row # - Species (in bold year lifer) - First location found

1 White-bellied Chachalaca - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

Amazingly been one of the most common specialties of Los Tarrales it ended up requiring some work at the end of my last day at the reserve. But I was lucky enough to find a nest been assaulted by White-throated Magpie Jay and the desperate Chachalaca started calling and chasing the Jays away.

2 Crested Guan - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

3 Horned Guan- Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

Of course one of the big highlights of all Central America region. Amazing cracid that despite the big size and noisy call its very range restricted and extremely shy due to possibly over hunting and inaccessible habitat. Always staying over 2000 meters above sea level in the steep slopes of the high Mountains and Volcanos along a relatively small range.

We started hiking at 3am at around 1700 meters above sea level and found the bird by 8:30am at a elevation of 2500 meters above sea level. Below you can see the photos even if they are not good, when I first saw this bird I realized this is one of the birds you only have two choices if you want a photo (with some few exceptions), either horrible blurry photo of the bird through the vegetation or no photo at all. My advice is, if you ever get there and find the bird, just take the photo through the trees... don't wait until you get a better angle... believe me, this a really shy bird, and is not going to pose and once it flies is not going to come back. So I am happy to have something to show here.

4 Spotted Wood-Quail - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

5 Singing Quail - Astillero De San Marcos

6 Black Vulture - Astillero De San Marcos

7 Black Hawk-Eagle - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

8 Sharp-shinned (White-breasted) Hawk - Restaurante Rincón Suizo--sendero en bosque de pino-encino

Ok, this an interesting case that curiously occurs in northern Central America more that I have notice it occurs in southern Central America. Several classic North America birds tend to have resident populations in this area and some of them eventually are staying enough to be considered a different subspecies and at one point authorities will split them. That is the case for Mexican Whip-poor-will, Goldmans Warbler (known for some as resident Yellow-rumped Warbler) and this resident Sharp-shinned Hawk that is widely accepted to be a new species under the name White-breasted Hawk. Unfortunately for my listing purposes ebird haven't consider it a full species. For instance counts only as resident form of Sharp-shinned Hawk. Hopefully they recognize it as a full species before the Big Year ends.

9 Short-tailed Hawk - Astillero De San Marcos

10 Purple Gallinule - San Lucas Toliman--Bahía El Relleno

11 Common Gallinule - San Lucas Toliman--Bahía El Relleno

12 American Coot - San Lucas Toliman--Bahía El Relleno

13 Band-tailed Pigeon - Astillero De San Marcos

14 White-tipped Dove - Finca El Pilar

15 Mourning Dove - Bosque Natural Santiaguito (detrás del basurero de Xela)

16 Squirrel Cuckoo - Finca El Pilar

17 Northern Pygmy-Owl - Astillero De San Marcos

18 Fulvous Owl - Astillero De San Marcos

When you refer to montane humid forest Owls normally you picture yourself on a cold rainy night trying to call a distant Owl in the darkness while you hold your small umbrella. Certainly that it is the case most of the time. But no with this Fulvous Owl and not in Astillero San Marcos (in big part thanks to my friends Moises and Edgardo). After 30 seconds of play back this big monster flew in from nowhere and showed itself clear and fresh, cooperating for almost one hour. Ignoring completely our presence and just standing on a naked branch until we left the place.

19 Stygian Owl - Reserva Natural Privada Los Andes

Fortunately for me, my friend Moises was kind enough to show me where a pair is been roosting in Los Andes Private reserve. We went straight there and with the help of a local farm worker we located right away this spectacular Owl. I am a happy camper.

20 Common Pauraque - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

21 Mexican Whip-poor-will - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

It was great to hear this bird clearly in the hike up to Atitlan volcano in search of Horned Guan. Clear emphatic, chanted "whip-poor-will" call, repeated constantly and somehow shorter and faster than that of its close cousin the Eastern Whip-poor-will. It responded well to playback at 1850 meters above sea level.

22 Chestnut-collared Swift - Astillero De San Marcos

23 White-collared Swift - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

24 Mexican Violetear - Astillero De San Marcos

25 Magnificent (Rivolis) Hummingbird - Parque Regional Municipal El Refugio del Quetzal

Well, this a extremely recent split and a nice one as I am sure it will be soon added to ebird database. I got photos of this bird and clearly notice the much darker belly of Rivals as the photos show.

26 Green-throated Mountain-gem - Finca El Pilar

Nice and common near endemic. Maybe this was the very first new bird I got in this trip. Quite common at the hummingbird feeders of Finca El Pilar.

27 Amethyst-throated Hummingbird - Astillero De San Marcos

This species in Astillero de San Marcos (upper trail) seems to be feeding on the same flowers as the following species. Both are striking, colorful and unique hummingbirds that can give a perception to be abundant or scarce depending as the numbers of wild flowers available at a given location. Understory bushy purple flowers were their favorite the time I spent in there. Great photo opportunities if you are patience enough.

Same bird but looking directly at me. Boom! Now you know why is called Amethyst!

In the two photos above you get a little bit of what was going on in this patch of flowers, hummingbirds were chasing each other and showing their flashing colors of their throat and crown constantly to let the others know who's the owner on the flower patch...

28 Garnet-throated Hummingbird - Astillero De San Marcos

29 Slender Sheartail - San Lucas Toliman--Bahia El Relleno

Fortunately for me I got help of a great local guide here. Hector Xep, and he perfectly knows of this open perch on a lake island in where the Sheartail likes to perch. We got to the place and wait. The lighting storm started and with it the rain. And our hopes were banishing quickly. Just a few minutes later a nice male was suddenly sitting in front of my eyes. Spectacular bird. Is like watching a bumble bee with long spiky tail.

30 Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird - Ana Cristina house (hummingbird feeders)

This a ver interesting case of a small hummingbird that at first it remind me so much the genus Calliphlox of southern Central America and Caribbean islands (Woodstarts). This one was particularly easy attracted by hummingbird feeders at the house of the mother of a good birder friend in Guatemala, José Monzón. All of his family was kind enough to let me go in and take photos of this and other hummingbirds that get to his yard.

Is interesting to note if there is any other site in its range in where this bird visits artificial hummingbird feeders. Because one thing of this extremely productive hummingbird feeder near Guatemala city is that all artificial feeders are placed up on a second floor balcony and that might explain the constant visit of the Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird (we saw three different individuals) that probably is used to visit flowers up in tall trees more that flowers down near the ground.

31 Wine-throated Hummingbird - Astillero De San Marcos

32 Rufous Sabrewing - Finca El Pilar

33 Violet Sabrewing - Finca El Pilar

34 Azure-crowned Hummingbird - Finca El Pilar

35 Berylline Hummingbird - Finca El Pilar

36 Blue-tailed Hummingbird - Reserva Natural Privada Los Trails

37 Cinnamon Hummingbird - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

38 White-eared Hummingbird - Finca El Pilar

39 Resplendent Quetzal - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

40 Gartered Trogon - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

41 Mountain Trogon - Astillero De San Marcos

42 Collared Trogon - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

43 Blue-throated Motmot - Finca El Pilar

One of the most elusive birds of Guatemala and a relatively common in the areas I visited too. I heard it in several places but didn't get photos until the last day at Rincón Suizo restaurant. Is interesting to note that by been a Motmot is very unique as is the only member in the genus Aspatha and is the ONLY Motmot to have relatively long tail but no distinctive racket-like tip at the end (Tody Motmot does not have racket-like tip but is does not have a long tail either).

44 Lesson's Motmot - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

45 (Northern) Emerald Toucanet - Finca El Pilar

46 Acorn Woodpecker - Caserio Oratorio--Gimnasio Municipal

47 Golden-fronted Woodpecker - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

48 Hairy Woodpecker - Astillero De San Marcos

49 Golden-olive Woodpecker - Finca El Pilar

50 Northern Flicker - Astillero De San Marcos

51 Orange-chinned Parakeet - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

52 Pacific Parakeet - Finca El Pilar

53 Spotted Woodcreeper - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

54 Spot-crowned Woodcreeper - Parque Regional Municipal El Refugio del Quetzal

55 Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner - Parque Regional Municipal El Refugio del Quetzal

56 Ruddy Foliage-gleaner - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

57 Rufous-breasted Spinetail - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

The only native Synallaxis Spinetail to Central America and for me the most beautiful of all three that occur in the region. As this bird family is widely distributed in south america is nice to encounter the northern most member of the genus here in Guatemala. From one perspective we can see this is Rufous-breasted Spinetail as the bravest member of their genus that had gone farther from their core on their expansion northward.

58 Paltry Tyrannulet - Astillero De San Marcos

59 Tufted Flycatcher - Restaurante Rincón Suizo--sendero en bosque de pino-encino

60 Greater Pewee - Finca El Pilar

61 Yellowish Flycatcher - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

62 Buff-breasted Flycatcher - Caserio Oratorio--Gimnasio Municipal

63 Boat-billed Flycatcher - Finca El Pilar

64 Tropical Kingbird - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

65 Gray-collared Becard - Parque Regional Municipal El Refugio del Quetzal

66 Rose-throated Becard - Restaurante Rincón Suizo--sendero en bosque de pino-encino

67 Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo - Finca El Pilar

Probably the bird I wanted the most to get photos. Is absolutely amazing the similarities of this bird with the breeding plumage of the NA migrant Chestnut-sided Warbler! which is absolutely ridiculous to think they have anything in common... but is just like seen a Chestnut-sided Warbler on steroids...

68 Green Shrike-Vireo - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

69 Hutton's Vireo - Astillero De San Marcos

70 Brown-capped Vireo - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

71 Black-throated Jay - Astillero De San Marcos

If there is a nice example to compare what happened here in the highlands of Guatemala-Mexico with what happened in the highlands in Panama-Costa Rica is this bird. Vocally and morphologically is just like the very local endemic Silvery-throated Jay of Costa Rica and Panama. They behave the same way and even have about the same habitat restrictions. Just different types of forest composition.

72 White-throated Magpie-Jay - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

73 Bushy-crested Jay - Finca El Pilar

74 Steller's Jay - Astillero De San Marcos

75 Black-capped Swallow - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

76 Bushtit - Caserio Oratorio--Gimnasio Municipal

77 Brown Creeper - Restaurante Rincón Suizo--sendero en bosque de pino-encino

Always fun to watch a classic north america bird in Central America (same as with the previous bird, the Bushtit). And this is particularly interesting as it is the only member of the Certhiidae family in America, and Certhia creepers are known as THE CREEPER for the rest of the world. In my case as a Central American citizen I was born knowing that Woodcreepers (Dendrocolaptinae) are the typical brown bird that climb up trees. So watching this in Central America is a lot fun.

78 House Wren - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

79 Rufous-browed Wren - Astillero De San Marcos

80 Sedge Wren - Bosque Natural Santiaguito (detrás del basurero de Xela)

81 Band-backed Wren - Finca El Pilar

82 Rufous-naped Wren - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

83 Spot-breasted Wren - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

84 Rufous-and-white Wren - Finca El Pilar

85 Cabanis's Wren - Finca El Pilar

86 Gray-breasted Wood-Wren - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

87 Golden-crowned Kinglet - Astillero De San Marcos

88 Eastern Bluebird - Bosque Natural Santiaguito (detrás del basurero de Xela)

89 Brown-backed Solitaire - Parque Regional Municipal El Refugio del Quetzal

90 Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush - Finca El Pilar

91 Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush - Astillero De San Marcos

92 Spotted Nightingale-Thrush - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

93 Black Thrush - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

94 Clay-colored Thrush - Finca El Pilar

95 Rufous-collared Robin - Caserio Oratorio--Gimnasio Municipal

96 Blue-and-white Mockingbird - Caserio Oratorio--Gimnasio Municipal

97 Tropical Mockingbird - Bosque Natural Santiaguito (detrás del basurero de Xela)

98 Gray Silky-flycatcher - Bosque Natural Santiaguito (detrás del basurero de Xela)

99 Olive Warbler - Restaurante Rincón Suizo--sendero en bosque de pino-encino

100 Crescent-chested Warbler - Astillero De San Marcos

101 Golden-browed Warbler - Astillero De San Marcos

102 Golden-crowned Warbler - Finca El Pilar

103 Pink-headed Warbler - Astillero De San Marcos

When I was first looking to bird specialties that are really hard to get, Pink-headed was up in the list... as it is in almost every website as the rare bird to chase in Guatemala... And apparently it was that way many years ago when less birding hotspots were available. Nowadays with more birders reporting and more sites becoming accessible this bird seems to be quite common and almost guarantee... and that was my case as the first day I saw my first Pink-headed Warbler I saw other 16 individuals and hear some more at Astillero San Marcos. Later on I saw it in other stops as well. So its great when the specialties are common! Although I tried to get photos (maybe have 300 but all blurry or too distant) I was unable to get a decent one. Maybe next time.

104 Slate-throated Redstart - Astillero De San Marcos

105 Yellow-winged Tanager - Finca El Pilar

106 Azure-rumped Tanager - Parque Regional Municipal El Refugio del Quetzal

Ok, another great example of a bird that despite being in a number of publications named as one of the "unicorns of Central America" is not that rare now that the birders are so skillful and the great network they have allow them to keep track of the birds. I saw small groups of this beautiful tanager in at least 5 different sites (we even found a nest in Tarrales) being the best the "House of Doña Elo" near San Marcos, a really nice property in where I saw two nice monotypical flocks of this spectacular endemic. Maybe one of the fanciest of all Guatemalan birds.

Even a nest of Azure-rumped Tanager was found on a cypress tree used as a living fence, 5-6 meters above ground on a gravel road. Easy to access, for more information about the nest for research purposes contact Josue de Leon of Tarrales Nature Reserve (contact info at the end of this text)

107 Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer - Astillero De San Marcos

108 Blue-black Grassquit - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

109 White-collared Seedeater - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

110 Black-headed Saltator - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

111 Grayish Saltator - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

112 Common Chlorospingus - Astillero De San Marcos

113 Chestnut-capped Brushfinch - Finca El Pilar

114 Yellow-eyed Junco - Astillero De San Marcos

115 Rufous-collared Sparrow - Caserio Oratorio--Gimnasio Municipal

116 White-eared Ground-Sparrow - Finca El Pilar

117 Prevost's (White-faced) Ground-Sparrow - Finca El Pilar

118 Spotted Towhee - Caserio Oratorio--Gimnasio Municipal

119 White-naped Brushfinch - Astillero De San Marcos

120 White-winged Tanager - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

121 Melodious Blackbird - Parque Regional Municipal El Refugio del Quetzal

122 Great-tailed Grackle - Parque Regional Municipal El Refugio del Quetzal

123 Bronzed Cowbird - Bosque Natural Santiaguito (detrás del basurero de Xela)

124 Black-vented Oriole - Finca El Pilar

125 Bar-winged Oriole - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

This a bird you better don't miss if you go to Guatemala, a very nice endemic and fun example of how strong is the radiation on Icterids and Jays up in the highlands of northern Central America. Is like watching an endemic Baltimore Oriole with wing bars!

126 Spot-breasted Oriole - Reserva Natural Privada Los Tarrales

127 Altamira Oriole - Finca El Pilar

128 Elegant Euphonia - Finca El Pilar

129 Blue-crowned Chlorophonia - Finca El Pilar

130 Black-capped Siskin - Bosque Natural Santiaguito (detrás del basurero de Xela)

There is a special situation on this Siskin, after some conversations with friends from Guatemala we found there is an innocent mistake on the new bird book of northern Central America (Fagan & Komar). Particularly on Pine Siskin. One illustration of Pine actually belongs to dark morph Black-capped, or that is what resembles more.

But I don't blame the book as after digging deeper on this problematic Siskins we start understanding that species limits in the Spinus atriceps / Spinus pinus perplexus complex remain poorly understood, and many authorities are still not sure how to treat them. To the date I will call the bird on this photo a Black-capped Siskin based on a discussion with John Cahill and Moises Rodriguez and all I can tell you by now about Pine Siskin is that if you see something that look like (Chiapas) Pine Siskin in Guatemala make sure to get a photo as nobody is sure how to tell them apart.

Bellow you can see a page of the Peterson Field Guide of Northern Central America and as we read we are finding that apparently the drawings inside the circle all belong to what is know to be Black-capped Siskin according literature... its is VERY confusing.

131 Black-headed Siskin - Bosque Natural Santiaguito (detrás del basurero de Xela)

132 Hooded Grosbeak - Astillero De San Marcos

133 House Sparrow - Caserio Oratorio--Gimnasio Municipal

Finally just have to say thanks again to all good birders and now good friends that help me in the western part of Guatemala as without them I would never get all the range-restricted species I got...

Here are the FB contacts to some of my friends in Guatemala if anyone out there is looking for some effective and professional local assistance in the fun task of finding birds in these two general areas:

San Marcos, Retalhuleu, Quetzaltenango:

Moises Rodriguez, musician by profession but a fun and really knowledgeable birder:

https://www.facebook.com/moises.rodriguez.5680?ref=br_rs

San Marcos:

Edgardo O. Diaz, young birder very patient and skillful:

https://www.facebook.com/justiohdiaz

Tarrales reserve and environs:

Josue de Leon, a professional guide with over 15 years of experience although he is the full time local guide at Tarrales Reserve he occasionally can help with other sites near by and of course in his patch at Tarrales

https://www.facebook.com/josue.deleon.589

Atitlan Lake

Hector Xep, plus being a really good birder he also drives his own boat in perfect conditions for doing birding tours on the lake and environs:

https://www.facebook.com/omtur.ma.7

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© 2020. All photographs and text by Juan Diego Vargas. 
 

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