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Big Day (Bird Race)

22 October 2000

by Peter Kaestner


This is the first attempt at a Serious Big Day in Highlands /South Coast of Guatemala.  There are more to come.

For some time, I have believed that the record Big Day for Guatemala set in April 1998 in the Peten was vulnerable.  Even though it is hard to find a place where you can get good lowland forest and coastal habitat in a day's drive, the magnificent topography of this mountainous country presents many life-zones in easy each.  Taking advantage of two visiting birders from Costa Rica, I decided to take a first stab at a serious Big Day to see what the potential was.  October is a fair time for the effort, as many migrants are in town, but it is also the rainy season--a slow time for the local species.  Most of the route was fairly well known, but I had just found some good high elevation forest that I had never birded.  Since my regular high altitude forest patch could only be relied upon for 20 or so species, I decided to take a chance on the new area.

The new area paid off with over 60 species, and we were able to improve the previous Big Day record by almost 30 species.  In the dry season (March-April) with a bit of tinkering, we should be able to get as many as 175 species along this route.  If we can do better in the mid levels and find a good low-level humid forest on the Pacific slope, we may just be able to crack 200 for the country.  The blow-by blow follows:

At four o'clock in the morning on October 22, 2000, Dennis Rogers (a birder from Costa Rica), Dave Klauber (a visitor from the USA), and I roared out of Guatemala City, bound for a stretch of road NE of San Jose Pinula about an hour out of town. With no traffic, we arrived in the habitat at about 4:30 to be greeted with an extraordinary starry sky.  At about 7000', the air was cool, but not as cold as we had feared.  At our first stop, I thought I heard a Bearded Screech Owl, but when we focused on the sound, it never called again.  A similarly ephemeral Stygian Owl called once.  Dennis thought that he heard a Fulvous Owl, but the rest of us could not get on it.  Yikes!  Three strikes!   Since we did not use tapes, and it was not the breeding season, we were stuck.  As we continued to work our way along the mountain road, a pale rose color grew in the East.  All of a sudden (Mexican) Whip-poor-wills started calling all around us.  A full 45 minutes of birding had passed before we scored our first countable species!

The dawn chorus started in earnest, and we were soon twitching off Brown-backed Solitaire, Mountain Trogon, Blue-throated Motmot, Rufous-bowed Wren, and other representatives of the Guatemalan highlands.  We could see many warblers flitting overhead, but had to wait until the sun came up to put names on them.  Green Violet-Ears were chirping all over the place.  We walked up around a bend where the sun was shining and the birding really picked up.  Quickly, we got White-eared Hummingbird, MacGillivray's and Red-faced Warblers, and Painted Redstart.  Soon, we had added Townsend's and Hermit Warblers, and Black-headed Siskin.  A mixed flock of Steller's and Unicolored Jays made their presence felt and overhead a Western Pewee and Hammond's Flycatcher filled in the list.  Our mountain habitat was really paying off.  As it was approaching 7:30AM, however, we needed to start down.

In the lower part of the forest, we stopped a couple of times and added several more warblers (Black-throated Green, Black-and-White, Golden-browed), Bushy-crested Jay, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Rose-throated Becard, Wine-throated Hummingbird, and a very cooperative couple of Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireos.  By the time we dropped out of the forest, we had almost 60 species on our list, a super start.  As we drove towards the Parque Ecologio at San Jose Pinula, we stopped a pasture with a nice hedgerow.  In a couple of minutes, we added Buff-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Rusty Sparrow, White-collared Seedeater, and what would be the bird of the day, a Prairie Warbler (probably only Guatemala's second record, frantically flicking its tail in a bush).   Another quick stop along some scrubby cultivation yielded Tennessee and Grace's Warblers, and a Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer that only Dennis saw.

Along the backside of the ecological park we birded a stream and picked up several new species, including Rufous-collared Robin and Sparrow.  Unfortunately, only Dennis got a Mountain Elaenia on call and I saw a female Common Yellowthroat that eluded the others.  (Oddly, she did not even call when we tried to spish her out of the bushes.) From San Jose Pinula, where we heard a local House Sparrow, we drove 40 minutes (with a one-minute stop at a gas station for a morning snack) to Lake Amatitlan, 4000 feet below the mountain forest where we started.  Our first stop, a beautiful overlook above this attractive volcanic lake, has completely devoid of birds.  Continuing down to the lake, we picked up a couple of roadside species -- Social and Boat-billed Flycatchers.  Scoping the lake got the expected Spotted Sandpiper, Black Phoebe, and Coots.  Another rarity was an Eared Grebe.  We were too early to see any of the wintering ducks, however.

Disappointed in the land birds near the lake, we headed up a rough dirt road that skirts Pacaya Volcano and then drops down towards Palin.  At a ridge, we stopped and saw Vaux's and White-throated Swifts and the Red-shafted Flicker.  A tiny volcanic lake yielded a surprise flock of Ruddy Ducks.  As it was getting towards midday, I pushed on towards the tropical Pacific lowlands.  With about 80 birds under our belts, we were doing well.

We passed Esquintla and took the old road towards the coast.  In the searing midday heat, everything was quiet.  Roadside species, like Kiskadee and Baltimore Oriole obliged, but I was concerned that we were not getting more.  At one stop, I noticed several large flocks of Turkey Vultures, apparently migrating south over the flat coastal plain.  On closer inspection, there were other hawks mixed in.  The birds were very high, however, and with just one scope, we were not able to get them all.  We did add Osprey, Swainson's, Broad-winged, and Red-tailed Hawks to the total.  Interestingly, we began to come upon large areas that had been recently flooded. In the residual lakes and ponds, herons abounded.  We soon had respectable list of big waders and had ticked off Ringed, Belted, and Green Kingfishers.  A kettle of 50 or so Wood Storks helped.  In one shallow pond, there were a dozen species of shore birds, and we filled in all the expected sandpipers.  As we hit Puerto San Jose, we turned to stop briefly for a cold drink.  Next to the convenience store was another pond, filled with birds.  We added Violet-Green Swallow, Least and Pied-billed Grebe, a couple more shorebirds, and finally a Great Blue Heron.  The highlight, however, was a group of three Wilson's Phalaropes, which Dave spotted, doing their dizzying dance in the pond.

Our next stop was Puerto Ixtapa, best known the base for a superb Pacific Sailfish fishery.  We hired a small boat to go across the river to the beach and look for gulls and terns.  We only saw a Royal Tern and Brown Pelican on the beach, but the exposed mudflats of the river yielded Wilson's and Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpiper (close enough to see the toe webbing!), Willet, and Whimbrel.  We then drove down to the end of the road beyond Puerto Ixtapa and hired another boat to finish the day. Along the river were dozens of egrets and herons, and flocks Orange-fronted Parakeets and White-winged Doves flew over.  The trip up the river was absolutely extraordinary, as literally thousands of egrets and herons flew fed along the river or flew over our heads.  White-fronted Parrots flew over in pairs and large groups of migrating Scissor-tailed Flycatchers glowed pink in the evening light.

As it got darker, hoards of Lesser Nighthawks left their perches in the mangroves and started hawking insects of the river.  Pauraques called in the distance, and a Sungrebe disappeared in the mangrove roots before we could all get on him.  Our last birds of the day were Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and Boat-billed Heron.  In keeping with the plethora of herons, we saw almost 20 of the odd nocturnal beasts.  Finally, we spotlighted a opossum and saw many Fishing Bats.  The super abundance of wildlife along the river was an extraordinary ending to a fantastic day. We headed for a restaurant in Esquintla and finished the paperwork.  Out final total was 164 species, but the 95 per cent rule brought the group's total down to 157. We arrived at Guatemala City at 10:00PM, 18 hours and 204 miles after we began.

Day List:

  Least Grebe                           Tachybaptus dominicus
  Pied-billed Grebe                     Podilymbus podiceps
  Eared Grebe                           Podiceps nigricollis
  Brown Pelican                         Pelecanus occidentalis
  Great Blue Heron                      Ardea herodias
  Great Egret                           Ardea alba
  Tricolored Heron                      Egretta tricolor
  Little Blue Heron                     Egretta caerulea
  Snowy Egret                           Egretta thula
  Cattle Egret                          Bubulcus ibis
  Green Heron                           Butorides virescens
  Black-crowned Night-Heron             Nycticorax nycticorax
  Boat-billed Heron                     Cochlearius cochlearius
  Wood Stork                            Mycteria americana
  White Ibis                            Eudocimus albus
  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck          Dendrocygna autumnalis
  Blue-winged Teal                      Anas discors
  Ruddy Duck                            Oxyura jamaicensis
  Black Vulture                         Coragyps atratus
  Turkey Vulture                        Cathartes aura
  Osprey                                Pandion haliaetus
  White-tailed Kite                     Elanus leucurus
  Plumbeous Kite                        Ictinia plumbea
  Cooper's Hawk                         Accipiter cooperii
  Gray Hawk                             Asturina nitida
  Roadside Hawk                         Buteo magnirostris
  Broad-winged Hawk                     Buteo platypterus
  Swainson's Hawk                       Buteo swainsoni
  Red-tailed Hawk                       Buteo jamaicensis
  American Kestrel                      Falco sparverius
  American Coot                         Fulica americana
  Sungrebe                              Heliornis fulica
  Northern Jacana                       Jacana spinosa
  Black-necked Stilt                    Himantopus mexicanus
  Black-bellied Plover                  Pluvialis squatarola
  Semipalmated Plover                   Charadrius semipalmatus
  Wilson's Plover                       Charadrius wilsonia
  Long-billed Dowitcher                 Limnodromus scolopaceus
  Whimbrel                              Numenius phaeopus
  Greater Yellowlegs                    Tringa melanoleuca
  Lesser Yellowlegs                     Tringa flavipes
  Solitary Sandpiper                    Tringa solitaria
  Spotted Sandpiper                     Actitis macularia
  Willet                                Catoptrophorus semipalmatus
  Ruddy Turnstone                       Arenaria interpres
  Sanderling                            Calidris alba
  Semipalmated Sandpiper                Calidris pusilla
  Western Sandpiper                     Calidris mauri
  Least Sandpiper                       Calidris minutilla
  Pectoral Sandpiper                    Calidris melanotos
  Wilson's Phalarope                    Phalaropus tricolor
  Royal Tern                            Sterna maxima
  Rock Dove                             Columba livia
  Band-tailed Pigeon                    Columba fasciata
  White-winged Dove                     Zenaida asiatica
  Common Ground-Dove                    Columbina passerina
  Ruddy Ground-Dove                     Columbina talpacoti
  Inca Dove                             Columbina inca
  White-tipped Dove                     Leptotila verreauxi
  Orange-fronted Parakeet               Aratinga canicularis
  White-fronted Parrot                  Amazona albifrons
  Groove-billed Ani                     Crotophaga sulcirostris
  Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl                 Glaucidium brasilianum
  Lesser Nighthawk                      Chordeiles acutipennis
  Pauraque                              Nyctidromus albicollis
  Whip-poor-will                        Caprimulgus vociferus
  Vaux's Swift                          Chaetura vauxi
  White-throated Swift                  Aeronautes saxatalis
  Green Violet-ear                      Colibri thalassinus
  White-eared Hummingbird               Hylocharis leucotis
  Cinnamon Hummingbird                  Amazilia rutila
  Berylline Hummingbird                 Saucerottia beryllina
  Green-throated Mountain-gem           Lampornis viridipallens
  Ruby-throated Hummingbird             Archilochus colubris
  Wine-throated Hummingbird             Atthis ellioti
  Mountain Trogon                       Trogon mexicanus
  Belted Kingfisher                     Ceryle alcyon
  Ringed Kingfisher                     Ceryle torquata
  Green Kingfisher                      Chloroceryle americana
  Blue-throated Motmot                  Aspatha gularis
  Acorn Woodpecker                      Melanerpes formicivorus
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker             Melanerpes aurifrons
  Hairy Woodpecker                      Picoides villosus
  Northern Flicker                      Colaptes auratus
  Spot-crowned Woodcreeper              Lepidocolaptes affinis
  Yellow-bellied Elaenia                Elaenia flavogaster
  Mountain Elaenia                      Elaenia frantzii
  Paltry Tyrannulet                     Zimmerius vilissimus
  Greater Pewee                         Contopus pertinax
  Western Wood-Pewee                    Contopus sordidulus
  Tropical Pewee                        Contopus cinereus
  Hammond's Flycatcher                  Empidonax hammondii
  Yellowish Flycatcher                  Empidonax flavescens
  Buff-breasted Flycatcher              Empidonax fulvifrons
  Black Phoebe                          Sayornis nigricans
  Great Kiskadee                        Pitangus sulphuratus
  Boat-billed Flycatcher                Megarynchus pitangua
  Social Flycatcher                     Myiozetetes similis
  Tropical Kingbird                     Tyrannus melancholicus
  Western Kingbird                      Tyrannus verticalis
  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher             Tyrannus forficatus
  Rose-throated Becard                  Pachyramphus aglaiae
  Gray-breasted Martin                  Progne chalybea
  Mangrove Swallow                      Tachycineta albilinea
  Violet-green Swallow                  Tachycineta thalassina
  Northern Rough-winged Swallow         Stelgidopteryx serripennis
  Barn Swallow                          Hirundo rustica
  Gray Silky-flycatcher                 Ptilogonys cinereus
  Band-backed Wren                      Campylorhynchus zonatus
  Rufous-naped Wren                     Campylorhynchus rufinucha
  Plain Wren                            Thryothorus modestus
  House Wren                            Troglodytes aedon
  Rufous-browed Wren                    Troglodytes rufociliatus
  Gray-breasted Wood-Wren               Henicorhina leucophrys
  Brown-backed Solitaire                Myadestes occidentalis
  Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush      Catharus aurantiirostris
  Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush       Catharus frantzii
  Clay-colored Robin                    Turdus grayi
  Rufous-collared Robin                 Turdus rufitorques
  Steller's Jay                         Cyanocitta stelleri
  White-throated Magpie-Jay             Calocitta formosa
  Bushy-crested Jay                     Cyanocorax melanocyaneus
  Unicolored Jay                        Aphelocoma unicolor
  House Sparrow                         Passer domesticus
  Plumbeous Vireo                       Vireo plumbeus
  Brown-capped Vireo                    Vireo leucophrys
  Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo           Vireolanius melitophrys
  Rufous-browed Peppershrike            Cyclarhis gujanensis
  Black-headed Siskin                   Carduelis notata
  Olive Warbler                         Peucedramus taeniatus
  Tennessee Warbler                     Vermivora peregrina
  Crescent-chested Warbler              Parula superciliosa
  Yellow Warbler                        Dendroica petechia
  Magnolia Warbler                      Dendroica magnolia
  Black-throated Green Warbler          Dendroica virens
  Townsend's Warbler                    Dendroica townsendi
  Hermit Warbler                        Dendroica occidentalis
  Grace's Warbler                       Dendroica graciae
  Prairie Warbler                       Dendroica discolor
  Black-and-white Warbler               Mniotilta varia
  Northern Waterthrush                  Seiurus noveboracensis
  MacGillivray's Warbler                Oporornis tolmiei
  Common Yellowthroat                   Geothlypis trichas
  Wilson's Warbler                      Wilsonia pusilla
  Red-faced Warbler                     Cardellina rubrifrons
  Painted Redstart                      Myioborus pictus
  Slate-throated Redstart               Myioborus miniatus
  Rufous-capped Warbler                 Basileuterus rufifrons
  Golden-browed Warbler                 Basileuterus belli
  Common Bush-Tanager                   Chlorospingus ophthalmicus
  Blue-gray Tanager                     Thraupis episcopus
  White-collared Seedeater              Sporophila torqueola
  Yellow-faced Grassquit                Tiaris olivacea
  Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer        Diglossa baritula
  White-naped Brush-Finch               Atlapetes albinucha
  Rusty Sparrow                         Aimophila rufescens
  Lincoln's Sparrow                     Melospiza lincolnii
  Rufous-collared Sparrow               Zonotrichia capensis
  Indigo Bunting                        Passerina cyanea
  Melodious Blackbird                   Dives dives
  Great-tailed Grackle                  Quiscalus mexicanus
  Spot-breasted Oriole                  Icterus pectoralis
  Baltimore Oriole                      Icterus galbula
  Orchard Oriole                        Icterus spurius

164 Species total