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February 2001

by Richard Stern

I visited the port city of La Ceiba (population around 150,000) on the Caribbean coast of Honduras for a week in February 2001 with a team of non-birders to do some medical work at a clinic in the village of El Cacao, about 45 minutes by van along the coast to the west.  I live in Nova Scotia, eastern Canada, and have birded elsewhere in N. America, Europe, and 2 previous visits to Central America.  The area was devastated by Hurricane "Mitch" in 1998, but has made a remarkable recovery.

Honduras is a poor country, with typical Central American climate and terrain, and the economy largely dependent on bananas and other fruit growing, and textiles, but with as yet little in the way of a tourist industry.  It is politically stable.  The local currency is the Lempira, easily exchanged for U.S. dollars at airports and major banks in the city.

La Ceiba is a lively, busy small city served by several local airlines, with connections through San Pedro Sula to the USA and Mexico.  For people visiting the city who are, e.g. on business, we noticed several hotels that appeared cheap yet clean.  Most of our daylight hours were spent working, but I was able to do some birding in the little spare time that I had.  At the end, we were able to take a day trip out to the offshore island of Roatan, and then a night and a day in the hills of the Pico Bonito National Park behind La Ceiba, where we were taken for a guided hike.  The area is not well known to birders, although there is a newly opened luxury lodge for eco-tourists in the Park, with a list of over 300 species.  The purpose of this report is therefore more of an introduction to the area than a major birding trip report.

We flew with Continental Airlines from Halifax, Nova Scotia via Newark, N.Y. to Houston, Tx, and then onto San Pedro Sula, Honduras.  We then transferred to Sosa, a local arline operating Antonov twin-prop. aircraft for the final leg of the journey.  We stayed at a house in a heavily built-up suburb of La Ceiba, but lush with trees and other vegetation.  From the backyard and street after dawn before we set out to work there were brilliant BALTIMORE and ALTAMIRA ORIOLES, a singing male SUMMER TANAGER, BLUE-GRAY TANAGERS, YELLOW and MAGNOLIA WARBLERS, GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKERS, INCA DOVES, and there always seemed to be a pair of TROPICAL KINGBIRDS perched on the wire right in front of the house.  Small flocks of GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES flew by, and there was often the odd GREAT EGRET overhead.  However, after I was told that there was a nest of deadly Fer-de-Lance in the backyard I avoided it after the first morning!  From dawn to dusk, here and everywhere else we went, were BLACK and TURKEY VULTURES circling endlessly.  It remained aound 32 degrees C.  (90 deg. F) most of the day, but there was usually a breeze, and there was a heavy but brief downpour most evenings.

One morning before work I walked through the town to the old jetty, still used by crab fishermen heading out into the Caribbean.  Off the jetty were a NEOTROPIC CORMORANT, BROWN PELICANS, LAUGHING GULLS, SANDWICH TERNS and a large flock of 100+ ROYAL TERNS.  CLAY-COLORED THRUSHES and more TROPICAL KINGBIRDS were foraging in the streets in the bustling and rather run-down downtown core.  This was the only time I was in the downtown area with just 2 other people, but it was daylight, I kept my wits about me, I can speak a little Spanish, and I never felt hassled or in the slightest danger.

Each day we drove by van to the village of El Cacao to work in a small purpose-built clinic, along the main highway, with a constant view of the spectacular Pico Bonito mountains inland along the route.  The tops were often shrouded in cloud.  There was a colony of MONTEZUMA OROPENDOLA nests in a dead tree by the road, which we were able to stop and photograph.  Also present were more Orioles, and a GIANT COWBIRD.  The village itself was a delight, and in the odd few moments when I surfaced to get some fresh air, the clinic was surrounded by trees full of GREAT KISKADEES, SOCIAL FLYCATCHERS, GROOVE-BILLED ANIS, MELODOUS BLACKBIRDS, and some of the other species already mentioned, to say nothing of the constant crowd of children who had never seen binoculars before, and who were amazed that a "gringo doctor" should be interested in their commonplace birds.

One evening we made a brief stop at a beach on the way back to La Ceiba, and saw BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, WHIMBREL,and 5 species of HERON.  The highlights of the day at the end at Roatan were largely seen through a mask and snorkel, as the island is at the end of the vast coral reef extending from Cozumel southwards past Belize, and a mecca for Scuba divers.  But interesting birds included several more shorebirds, MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS cruising overhead as we were snorkelling, 8 species of HERON, several YELLOW-THROATED WARBLERS, MANGROVE VIREOS and the local Hummer, endemic to the area and north as far as Cozumel, CANIVET'S EMERALD.

On the last day of our visit we arranged to stay at some cabins along the Cangrejal River just into the mountains behind La Ceiba, run by Udo Witteman of Omega Tours - very cheap and basic, but comfortable, with wonderful home-cooked Honduran food and a spectacular location, surrounded by rugged but tree-covered mountains.  The grounds were full of orange and lime trees, and numerous flowering trees and shrubs.  More of the same birds were present, with the addition of a pair of BLACK-HEADED TROGONS, BLUE-CROWNED MOTMOT, OLIVACEOUS WOODCREEPER, MASKED TITYRA, HOUSE WREN, BROWN JAY and WHITE-COLLARED SEADEATER.  Best of all was the experience of sitting on the hillside at dusk as the fireflies came out and flashed like stars on the ground all around us, and PARAUQUES started their weird cries and were occasionally visible as they glided silently by.   The next morning we were taken by Udo on a guided hike along the river and up a steep trail to a spectacular waterfall, with few birds, but a most interesting explanation of the local forest ecology.  The total cost of the day at Roatan and the day in the mountains, including local flights to and from the island, and the accommodation, was around $250 U.S.  per person.

On the way back we overnighted in Houston, Texas, and a quick stroll behind the Quality Inn Hotel near the airport the next morning yielded 16 common N.American species, including VESPER SPARROW.

I suspect that a birder who has visited Belize may not find much new in this area, but it felt safe, the people were delightful, and off the beaten track certainly looks as though it has great potential as a birding area, which has yet to be realised.  I'm sure that if I had had more time for birding, I would have easily had a list of 150 - 200 species, but under the circumstances I could only muster up 55.  It would have helped if I had known the local bird songs and calls!

The 2 essential books I took were A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, by Howell and Webb, which by virtue of its size tended to stay in the house for reference in the evening, and A Field Guide to Mexican Birds, by R.T.Peterson, which was less detailed but fitted into a large pocket.

Useful Web sites include:

Tips for the city of La Ceiba

Tips for the Bay Islands of Honduras

Tips for Rio Maria, near La Ceiba

all of which have detailed but slightly different information about the area.

Richard Stern,
Nova Scotia, Canada.

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