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November 17th TOUCHDOWN IN GUATEMALA
Last night I had arrived in Guatemala City where I was greeted by my dad Kees Dwarshuis and Guatemala’s top birder John Cahill. With only 20 years of age, this guy has already set the Guatemalan big year and big day record and found over 15 new bird species for the country. Naturally I was looking forward to being shown around in this fascinating country by this local legend.
We had set the alarm at 3:30 AM and after just a couple of hours of sleep we were on our way to El Espinero, a Christmas tree-farm admits high altitude Guatemalan pine forest.
Birding was productive at this site despite the misty conditions and we easily found our main target, the exquisite looking Pink-headed Warbler. Other good finds here were the uncommon and near-endemic Black-capped Siskin, a White-breasted Hawk, a male Wine-throated Hummingbird and several Pine Flycatchers, a highly localized breeder in north-western Mexico that winters here in Guatemala. Best however was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, one of the first records for Guatemala and a Guatemalan lifer for John.
In the oak forest lower down we continued our run of new Biggest Year birds and I was especially pleased with a splendid Blue-throated Motmot. This means that I’m well on my way to complete this awesome family.
After leaving El Espinero we headed for Panajachel, a touristic little town at the shore of Lake Atitlan. Here we had another productive afternoon birding session in the mixture of dry scrub and agricultural fields near town. I especially enjoyed our sighting of Blue-and-white Mockingbird, what a crisp looking bird! We ended with 42 new birds for my Biggest Year.
Blue-throated Motmot Aspatha gularis (Arjan Dwarshuis)
Fulvous Owl Strix fulvescens (Arjan Dwarshuis)
November 18th BIRDING AMIDST ACTIVE VOLCANOS
We woke up early to look for Whiskered Screech-owl near Reserve Natural Atitlan, but the only owl that responded was a fantastically showy Mottled Owl. After having breakfast we went into the reserve to look for the uncommon Bar-winged Oriole and thanks to John’s excellent hearing we soon found a pair that quietly foraged in the canopy.
Next we visited the gardens of the beautiful colonial style Hotel Atitlan. The garden – with a backdrop of Lake Atitlan and several active volcanoes – is by far the best place to find the beautiful Sparkling-tailed Woodstar and indeed, while having a coffee, we found two female birds.
Slender Sheartail took a lot more time and effort, but finally at the last possible stakeout we got lucky with two stunning males.
We had lunch in the scenic town of Quetzal Tenango and from there we headed for Fuentes Georginas Thermal Hot Springs where John had booked a cabin for us in advance. As we drove up to the hot springs we were soon surrounded by thick mist which made birding next to impossible. However we got lucky by bumping into a pair of White-faced Quail-doves feeding on some roadside trash.
We ended the day like we started, with a fantastic owl. This time not a widespread Mottled Owl, but the rare and localized Fulvous Owl. After that we took a dip in the thermal hot springs where we had the place completely to ourselves since they close off the place to the general public at night. They make an exception for people that overnight in one of their eight cabins.
Mottled Owl Strix virgata (Arjan Dwarshuis)
Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius (Arjan Dwarshuis)
November 19th HEADING DOWN THE PACIFIC SLOPE
We had an early rise and soon found ourselves on the parking lot of Fuentes Georginas hoping to find a Horned Guan. This mythical bird is very rarely reported from this site so we knew our chances were slim and indeed we found no Guan. We did see several Grey Silky Flycatchers and Hooded Grosbeaks.
After a quick breakfast we headed down the mountain to try for the very rare Cabanis’s Tanager at one of Johns’ stakeouts near a large dam. It was windy and sunny so I had very little hope that we would actually find the bird. John proved me wrong when minutes after our arrival at their favourite fruiting three he located several birds on call. After pinpointing the sound in one of the adjacent trees we soon had great views of this rarely reported species.
Even lower down we did some birding around an abandoned town to look for migratory passerines. People had deserted the place because of an active volcano that could cover the town in ash at any moment. Birds probably had the same idea since we didn’t find much at this location.
After having lunch and a careful drive on a road that had more potholes and speed bumps than actual tarmac, we finally arrived at Los Tarralis Just in time for a quick round of birding with local guide Lester de Leon We booked quite a lot of success in that last hour till sunset. We managed 7 new birds for my big year and even better, I finally got to see the diminutive Tody Motmot!
We went to bed early since tomorrow at 2:15 AM the quest for the mythical Horned Guan would start.
Cabanis's Tanager Tangara cabanisi (Arjan Dwarshuis)
November 20th AN EPIC JOURNEY TO SEE AN EPIC BIRD
This morning the alarm went off at 2:15 AM. I had good reasons to get up so early since today we would embark on a quest to find Central-Americas most mythical beast, the Horned Guan. This extraordinary bird can almost exclusively be found in remote cloud forests in the highlands of Guatemala and the extreme southwestern part of Mexico. It is rare, endangered and utterly bizarre looking and few birders ever get a chance to come face to face with this bird.
At 2:30 AM we said goodbye the comfortable Los Tarralis Lodge - this lodge is part of the privately owned Los Tarralis Reserve which protects a cloudforest in which the Guan finds a save heaven - and we set of in a 4x4 with John Cahill and local guide Lester De Leon. My dad unfortunately had to stay back at the lodge because of a leg injury.
Around 4 AM we arrived at the starting point of the 'Sendero de las Lagrimas' which literaly means the Trail of Tears. The trail bears this name for good reasons... The starting point is at 1400 meters, on the lower east slope of the famous Atitlan Volcano. The Guan is found at an altitude of about 2500 meters, more than a kilometer higher up. With our headlights on we followed Mr.. Jerardo 'Lalo' Sipriano Lopez, the local trail guide, up the mountain. At first I thought 'this is not too bad', but of course a volcano becomes steeper towards the crater. An hour later I was pouring with sweat and almost crying. The name 'Trail of Tears' suddenly made a lot of sense to me.
Finally, just before daybreak, Johns altimeter said 2500 meters; we were right on the money. Since I was pouring with sweat, only wore a T-shirt and it was about five degrees up here I was soon shivering. After a very welcome sunrise the waiting game began, but after three hours nothing had happened. I knew that if you don't find the Guan within the first two hours after dawn your chances decrease dramatically. We decided to split up to increase the odds. John went higher up, Jerardo went off-trail to check out a steep ravine and lester and I went downhill. We had little success downhill and I was just telling myself 'this is never goanna happen' when suddenly I heard somebody whistling from higher up. This could of course only mean one thing, somebody had found the beast! I raced up and soon ran into Lalo. He had indeed found a Guan! I followed the little man - with the stamina of a racehorse -uphill thereby almost passing out from sheer exertion. After going uphill for a while Lalo took a hard left and plummeted straight down into a ravine. I followed him blindly down the abyss, half falling, half running and half gliding. There was only one thing on my mind and that was Horned Guan. Suddenly Lalo stopped and pointed at a fruiting tree and there, totally oblivious to its perplexed observer, sat the most awesome creature I'd ever seen. Well I guess the photo tells the rest of this story. I love it when a plan comes together.
After this endeavour and taking a very welcome cold shower down at the lodge we packed our bags and headed for the Central Highlands. A long drive across pothole riddled concrete roads. We arrived at the Posada del Quetzal after dark.
Horned Guan Oreophasis derbianus (Arjan Dwarshuis)
November 21st MY DAD HAS HIS MOMENT OF GLORY
We had a long day with a lot of different birding sites ahead of us. Right at daybreak we arrived at the wonderful Los Ranchitos Lodge to hopefully see the family of Azure-hooded Jays that regularly drops in top feed on moths that are attracted to the lights at the parking lot. We were lucky, as if staged a family of Jays dropped in right at the crack of dawn.
After a great breakfast at Los Ranchitos we headed to the small Reserva Natural Privada Rio Escondido. This privately owned reserve was created to protect the wintering grounds of the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler. This beautiful bird breeds only in a tiny area in Texas and winters almost exclusively in the Guatemalan pine forests.
After meeting the friendly owners of this little reserve and a short introduction from their side we took a small trail into the pine forest. We quickly found a small flock that contained a male Hermit Warbler and Grace’s Warbler, but no sign of the Golden-cheeked yet. After 1,5 hours of searching it was my dad who became the matchmaker. While John and I were already a long way ahead he suddenly called out that he had found the Warbler and indeed there were two beautiful male Golden-cheeked Warblers showing nicely! Awesome!
Next we headed towards Laguna Chichoj, a small lake near the city of Coban. Here we were joined by John’s father Rob and his brother Peter who are also keen birders. At the small reserve we had great views of Sora and Ruddy Crake and we found the rather localized White-throated Flycatcher. Best however was the fourth or fifth record of Gadwall for Central-America. After the fourth Pacific Swift for the Emirates, the second Siberian Blue Robin for the island of Java, the 29th record of Long-tailed Jeager for New Zealand, the second documented record of Little Ground Tyrant for Ecuador and one of the first records of Rubby-crowned Kinglet, this is yet another country vagrant during this Biggest Year.
We had one more stop in the late afternoon at Riserva Privada Chajbaoc, which is owned by fanatic Guatemalan birder Max Noack. Here we heard both Middle American Screech-owl and Scaled Antpitta. Unfortunately we couldn’t get a view of either species.
We had been invited by John’s lovely family to spend the night and have dinner at their place. ‘Their place’ was not just your ordinary home. It turned out that they run a huge conservation and education programme on their fully sustainable and ecologically friendly range. We walked in while more than 120 young girls from remote native communities were having class in one of the buildings. They were getting lectured on migrant warblers that winter here in Guatemala. You see, Johns mother Tara and his father Rob started the Community Cloudforest Conservation (cloudforestconservation.org) through which they engage remote native communities in conservation. They bring this in to practice by offering a free week long course on conservation and ecology on their range. They focus on young girls since this is the most marginalised group in Guatemala. Through this ground-breaking programme they build a promising future for already thousands of these girls. What fantastic people. My dad and I feel privileged that we were invited at your home.
The fourth Gadwall Anas strepera for Central America (Arjan Dwarshuis)
Conservation lessons! (Arjan Dwarshuis)
'Paps' Kees Dwarshuis birding (Arjan Dwarshuis)
November 22th GOODBYE GUATEMALA
Already our last morning in Guatemala. We said goodbye to Rob and Tara and wished them all the best with their incredible conservation and education programme. Together with John, Peter and my dad we headed to one last site to try for the incredibly secretive Belted Flycatcher. At daybreak we stopped at a gas station were we were joined by Max and in his 4x4 we headed up a small track.
We head a great start with a Guatemalan Pygmy-owl that gave excellent views. The Belted Flycatcher however didn’t even give a squeak and at 8 AM it was time to head off to Guatemala City to catch my 3 PM flight to Cancun.
En route we made one last stop in the dry intermontane thorn-forest. This produced Russet-crowned Motmot and a couple of other dry forest specialties.
We had a great trip in Guatemala thanks to the fantastic guiding by John Cahill. I can highly recommend hiring this incredibly sharp young birder to organize and guide your birding trip in Guatemala. This will give you a fair chance to come face to face with one of the most incredible birds in the world, the Horned Guan.
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Russet-crowned Motmot Momotus mexicanus (Arjan Dwarshuis)