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Big Day (Bird Race)

01 April 2001

by Peter Kaestner

Big Day Statistics:

One Bird Per Mile

After our successful run at the Guatemala Big Day record last year, I opined that we could beat 200 if we could find some decent habitat between the high-altitude forest and the coastal areas.  During the off season, I scouted a bit and found some good dry woods along the road from Cuilapa to Chiquimulilla. The problem was that the new route bypassed our only fresh-water lake and took us almost two hours out of our way.  I needed to find a short cut to the coast to make up one of the lost hours.  The weekend before the big day, I went to the coast along a back road from the Safari Park down to Puerto Ixtapa.  The road was so bad that I broke a shock on my Jeep, but there was some decent habitat.  Amazingly, there was even a small patch of lowland humid forest, an unexpected treat.

So the big day dawns and I am again trying a new route that I have never birded all at once.  My goal was just to break the old record of 178.  When I added up the parts, however, I had recorded over 227 species on the route, raising expectations that a 200-day was possible.  The weather was perfect, nearctic/neotropical migrants were plentiful, and local singing was at a fever pitch in anticipation of the rainy season.  My companion was a Dutch diplomat, Wouter Plomp, whose solid birding skills were only surpassed by his excellent company.  As it turned out, Wouter was suffering from a knee ailment that slowed him down all day.  His indomitable spirit prevailed, however, and he made the entire day and was a real key to our success.

 Like last year, we started off at 0400 from my house in Guatemala City.  The night sky was clear, as usual, and a cool nip was in the air.  Our run up to the mountains was uneventful, and we began spotlighting by 0430.  The first bird was a (Mexican) Whip-poor-will sitting along the side of the road.  When we arrived in the highland forest, there were no owl sounds (we don’t use tapes), but we did spotlight a mammal (probably a opossum) high in a tree.  Several satellites streaked across the starry sky.  As the first light of dawn appeared in the east, we headed to Las Nubes, a new locality just ten minutes up the road.  There we had fabulous luck hearing Buffy-fronted Wood-Partridge and White-faced Quail-Dove, two shy highland specialties.

We quickly added more expected highland birds like Rufous-browed Wren, Black, Mountain, and Rufous-collared Robins, Blue-and-white Mockingbirds, Steller’s Jays, and a fleeting flock of Cedar Waxwings that Wouter could not localize.  One of the best birds at the first stop was the local Mountain Elaenia, which was very common.  (I had found them previously there while studying the Wood-Partridge.)

Working back down the mountain, we noticed that one of the most productive areas from October had not been clear-cut and was an ecological wasteland.  Fortunately, there is plenty of other forest around, and we quickly started picking up the highland stuff that record days are made of.  We heard the recently split Guatemalan Pygmy Owl at one stop and Wouter evened the score with a Red-faced Warbler in the canopy that I missed.  The regular highland warblers such as Olive, Hermit, Grace’s, Golden-browed, and Townsend’s all cooperated, however.

One flock was full of vireos, and we added Hutton’s, Brown-capped, Warbling, and Plumbeous to the list.  The birding was so good that we were starting to get behind schedule.  By the time we had gotten back to the spot where we had begun last year, we were over 30 minutes late.  Oddly, the many hummingbirds that we had seen in October were completely absent.  Our concern was alleviated, however, when we heard Mountain Trogon, Emerald Toucanet, and Highland Guan--quality birds all--from that spot.  Feeling great, although somewhat behind schedule, we forced our way down the hill.

The first stop was the Parque Ecologico, where the Barred Antshrike and both White-throated and Buff-breasted Flycatchers cooperated.  Our next stop was a field where I had hoped to get Tropical Mockingbird, Eastern Bluebird, American Kestrel, and Eastern Meadowlark.  Sadly, in the meantime a huge gate had been erected and we were relegated to looking in from the outside.  We struck out there, but got all four target species elsewhere.  Our next stop was similarly gated, and we missed a chance to look for the Prairie Warbler that was the highlight of the October record big day.  Our next, quick, stop had produced the local Rufous Saberwing the week before, but we were very pleasantly surprised to get Orange-crowned and Mourning Warblers as a consolation.  (MacGillivray’s is MUCH commoner here.)

On the way back to the car, we had to scramble down a very steep but short slope.  As I went down it, I kicked a rock out of the way so Wouter would not have to negotiate around it with is sore knee.  Unfortunately, I slipped when I kicked, and tore my shirt on a nasty piece of rusty barbed wire that was next to me.  I was cursing the loss of my new and favorite shirt when I reached into to pocket to grab my car keys.  The keys were all bloody!  I looked down as saw that my hand had been shredded by the same barbed wire that had caught the sleeve of my shirt!  We lost about 15 more minutes as I cleaned up my hand, stopped the bleeding, and bandaged the wounds.  (Living overseas, I keep current on tetanus shots.)

A bit chastened by the accident, we kept heading down the Caraterra El Salvador towards Lago de Pino.  A quick roadside stop got us a Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, and several swallows including Bank.  Lago de Pino was a substitute for Lake Amatitlan, which had given us our second best bird last year, Eared Grebe.  Since the big day was being done on Sunday, we had the misfortune to run into a huge religious gathering at the lake, with about 100 people participating and witnessing a full-immersion Baptism—right in front of the reed beds where we usually got our best birds.  Because of all the commotion, we missed the Limpkin that I had seen regularly, but two grebes, coot, American Widgeon, Common Moorhen, and a couple of orioles made up for it.  By now, Wouter’s knee was really slowing him down, and we had to keep it iced down.  We must have looked a sight with Wouter limping and my hand all bandaged up!

Heading for the lowlands, we headed for the key Culilapa-Chiquimulilla road.  It did not disappoint.  Even though it was midday and the tropical sun was intense, we scored such goodies as White-bellied Chachalaca, Squirrel Cuckoo, Collared Aracari, three migrating hawks, and Yellow-breasted Chat.  By the time we got to the end of the road we were almost an hour late and out of ice for Wouter’s knee.  We lost almost 20 minutes finding someone in Chiquimulilla who could sell us ice on a Sunday afternoon.  Finally replenished, we continued down to the costal plain and the remnant humid forest.  Wouter, who had been spending our transit time tending his increasing swelling knees, finally had a chance to tally our court, and came up with about 140 species, a super result so far.

Because we were so late, we just stopped for a minute in the tiny patch of humid forest, and picked a couple of birds for the list, including Streak-headed Woodcreeper.  Pushing ahead, we came to an area of wetlands near the coast that had to produce.  At one drained shrimp pond we walked out to a new area and found a marvelous mudflat, which added some 25 species of water birds to the list.  I had a hard time getting Wouter on a Snowy Plover because it was so flighty.  I finally realized why when a Peregrine Falcon flew in and sat down on the mud!

Our next hurdle was logistical, as our new route put us on the wrong side of an important river near the coast.  The week before I had found a small ferry, but I was not 100% sure that we’d be able to use it.  As we approached the crossing, I quickly passed several cars on the dusty road to get first in line at the crossing.  It turned out to be a good move since the ferry took forever.  The river was so low that the ferry could hardly make it. The ferry looked like an oversized baking pan, a shallow metal contraption into which a single car was pushed across the 200meter-wide river by six men wading in the knee-deep water.  As it turned out, our car was too heavy and the ferry ran aground half way over.

Once we hit bottom, I was instructed to move the car up to the far end of the craft.  Then the free end was swiveled around in front of the end where the car was.  Then I drove ten feet back to the other end of the vessel and the other end was pivoted around.  In this way we were manhandled across the river in about 15 minutes!  We added overhead Magnificent Frigatebird and Brown Pelicans while slowly spinning across the river.

The coast was excellent, as beautiful Franklin’s Gulls in full breeding dress were migrating up the coast.  They were joined by almost a half dozen other larids, making up for a huge gap in our October effort.  Our final stop was the mangroves at Puerto Ixtapa, our traditional end.  We were not disappointed.  We completed our heron list with goodies like the Boat-billed and Yellow-crowned Night Heron.  The usual Lesser Nighthawks were supplemented with a nice Chuck-Wills-Widow and a calling Ferruginous Pygmy Owl as it got dark.  The most fun bird of the day was four Northern Potoos, sitting conspicuously on the tops of four separated trees.  A lifer for Wouter, they were a fitting end to the super day.  The day, however, was not yet over, as the boatmen ran out of gas in the middle of the mangrove swamp.  But how we got out is another story…

At our wrap-up over dinner, we both felt that we had beaten the old record, but neither of us would have predicted that we had exceeded the magical 200 barrier.  I’m sure we can do better, but I’ll not predict how many more species we can find here.  This day we added 50 species to my scouting lists, so there is clearly potential.  Maybe we need to drive farther next time!