21 February - 3 March 1999
by Richard Stern
I took part in a medical and dental team operating a clinic in several villages in S. Guatemala from Feb 21 to 28, followed by a few days vacation. I was the only birder in a group of 19 Nova Scotian and Ontarians. The clinic operated from dawn to dusk, but I was able to get a little birding in for a short period most mornings, and during breaks. I have little previous experience of Central American birding, so I armed myself with Peterson's Mexico field guide in my pocket, and Howell and Webb back at the clinic for reference. After a quick look at a Rufous-collared Robin and a Buff-breasted Flycatcher as we left San Lucas, in the hills above Guatemala City, we headed to our base at Escuintla, a polluted, busy city at the base of the Pacaya Volcano on the edge of the agricultural plain forming the Pacific slope. Each morning at dawn I visited the local cemetery, which seemed to be the most convenient productive site. Tropical kingbirds were all around, and there were flocks of Bronzed Cowbirds. White-throated Magpie-Jays, Rufous-naped Wrens and Baltimore Orioles were common, and Altamira orioles somewhat less so. I also saw Masked Tityra and Cinnamon Hummingbird. Roadside Hawks were common, and of course the air was full of Black and Turkey Vultures by 8 a.m.
One of the local helpers (thank you Lester) took a few of us out to the Monterrico nature reserve, up the coast by van, and we booked into an excellent and cheap hotel, the Baule Beach, run by an expatriate American. We took a boat trip into the Mangrove swamp, where there were large numbers of Heron (7 species), Am. White Pelican, Wood Stork and Black-necked Stilts, as well as Am. Jacana, Purple Gallinule and Some Western Sandpipers. Other birds of interest in the area included Mangrove Swallows, Great Kiskadees, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Rose-throated Becard.
After the work had finished, 7 of us arranged a trip to Tikal, in the Peten province in the north of the country. This was booked locally (thank you Keturah) and a few days in advance through one of the many travel agencies in Antigua, and we obtained an all-inclusive package - return flight from Guatemala City to Flores, 2 days entrance to the park, 2 nights at the Jungle Lodge, all meals, and an English- speaking guide, for $260 U.S. each. This was the birding highlight, of course, and I think my enthusiasm even infected the 6 hardened non-birders with me! Over the 2 days we wandered around the site while our excellent and knowledgable guide explained the archeology and culture of the Mayas and the Tikal site (thank you Antonio), while I had one ear and eye on the archeological wonders, and the other in the trees and sky! For those who haven't been, the site is a partly excavated Mayan city of the Classical period, at its cultural height from about 600 B.C.. to 900 A.D., and probably the most spectacular of all the Mayan sites in central America. There is an excellent visitor center with explanations about Mayan life, history and religion (and Gray- breasted martins nesting under the eaves). The whole site has easy paths throughout the tropical dry- forest. There are 3 hotels, all of which appear comfortable and pleasant, but need reservations in advance. For me, it was like being a new birder again, and with more experience or more concentrated birding I could probably have doubled the number of species I saw. I was, however, able to spend an hour or so with a tour leader from Belize, who was very helpful (thank you Sam). Particularly memorable highlights there included -- sunset from the "Lost World" pyramid, with Keel-billed Toucans, Collared Aracaris, Montezuma Oropendolas and Parrots flying into the canopy below -- 3 Trogon species -- laying in the hotel pool watching Swallow-tailed Kites overhead -- a male Red-capped Manakin displaying -- and the spine-chilling roar of Howler Monkeys at night.
Guatemala has a somewhat unsavoury reputation in the tourist industry, but apart from having some cash lifted by a pick-pocket on a "chicken bus" we never had any sense of danger, and found everyone to be extremely pleasant and helpful. We did, however, heed the generally given advice of not wandering alone off the beaten path after dark. Working with the people there gave us a unique opportunity to experience this spectacular and fascinating country.
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Bare-throated Tiger Heron
Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeet
Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
Great Crested Flycatcher
-- and many others unidentified!