Guatemala – a Little bit of everything – Fuentes Georginas, Los Tarrales, Finca el Pilar, and Cayalá
8 – 16 March 2014
A little bird (named John Cahill) told us that he had heard several Maroon-chested Ground-doves at Fuentes Georginas, and that there was a lot of seeding bamboo there, so we pretty much had to go check it out. In 8 months on the road we had thus far found essentially zero seeding bamboo, which is where rare, elusive, nomadic birds such as Maroon-chested Ground-Dove, Slaty Finch, and Blue Seedeater hang out.
We arrived at Fuentes Georginas in the late afternoon and made a bee line to the trail that heads up the ridge. As soon as we got away from the noise of the hot springs we heard several Maroon-chested Ground-doves calling deep in the forest. We did some meandering and bush-whacking on the steep hillside, attempting to track a few of the closer sounding doves down, but we couldn’t seem to get very close to them and didn’t see so much as a leaf move. With intermittent drizzle turning to steady rain we headed back to shelter and dinner. After the crowds of day visitors left we enjoyed a most wonderful soak in the hot springs. Even though all the cabins were booked, no one else was soaking in the evening light… absolute paradise.
After a relaxing evening and a great sleep we hit the trails early in the morning to try to see the Ground-Dove this time. We hiked up to the ridge on a rather steep and muddy trail with seeding bamboo and Maroon-chested Ground-doves calling from all directions.
Their calls echoed through the forest all morning, but as the morning progressed we were becoming increasingly worried that this one would go down as heard only. A very rare bird and still a treat to hear it, but with so many of them clearly present, we were hankering for a look. Having proceeded further up the ridge we finally heard a Maroon-chested Ground-Dove calling that was reasonably close so we walked ever so quietly towards the dove. We only moved while the bird was calling, using it’s song as cover for our leaf rustling, to avoid spooking it. Very slowly we managed to get closer and closer. Being a Ground-Dove, and following what guidebooks suggest, we were expecting the bird to be on the ground but it was becoming clear as we got closer that it was calling from a good ways up in a tree. We both scanned the forest floor and the nearby tangles of trees constantly but found nothing. Now that we were quite close to the dove but still couldn’t see it, we played it’s call softly and, with great fortune, heard a bird fly closer to us but still in thick cover. The dove started to call again and now it was perhaps only 20 feet away but completely hidden in impenetrable brush. We scanned for a good while, then played it’s call again briefly and this time we luckily we saw it fly to an open branch overhead. We both slowly picked up our bins and got fabulous looks at the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove before it walked down the branch into more cover, unfortunately before we could get a good photo. Ground-Doves aren’t typically the most colorful or exotic birds, but this one is a real looker, a deep maroon chest, striking deep purple wing bars, and a pale, pearly head with a large, striking dark eye. It seems that the key to actually seeing secretive forest doves in general is being very still and sneaking ever so quietly towards the bird while it’s calling, or while playing it’s song, so that the noise of your movement is obscured. Although we were lucky to have the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove fly in for us, most forest doves (and tinamous for that matter) are found with very stealthy tracking and very patient scanning of what is usually a very dark and obscured environment. Another thing that frequently occurs is that when a bird like this stops calling, people give up or assume it has moved on, but frequently it is still moving and it may well be moving towards you, with large gaps between its calls.
Fuentes Georginas is located south of Queztaltenago (aka Xela) and 8 km east of Zunil. In addition to being a great birding destination Fuentes Georginas is a hot spring with developed pools, a restaurant, and cabins. After 50Q per person to enter and 10Q to park, we were able to camp in the parking lot for and additional 50Q per person, for a total of 210Q or about $27. A bit expensive for camping in Latin America but the pools are terrific and so is the birding! They also have cabins but they were full when we were there, but we’ve heard that they are reasonably priced.
We had a good list of birds in addition to the ground-dove at Fuentes Georginas including Mountain Trogon, Highland Guan, Black Thrush, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, Blue-throated Motmot, and more (see eBird for a complete list).
After leaving Fuentes Georginas, we stopped for a short break at Panajachel along the shores of Lake Atitlan to enjoy the breath-taking views, the excellent crafts market, and a little R&R before we headed to the famed Los Tarrales.
Los Tarrales is a private reserve and active coffee plantation located in the shadows of Volcan Atitlan south of the lake. Los Tarrales is perhaps most famous as the location to make the arduous trek up Volcan Atitlan to see the Horned Guan, but having had such great views of the Horned Guan in El Triunfo we decided to enjoy birding the middle elevation foothills at Los Tarrales well as the slightly higher area around el Vesubio (from which the Volcan Atitlan trail starts). The first morning we went for a casual hike on the Rinconada Trail and the birding was none other than spectacular – 64 species and a whole lot of fun – Long-tailed Manakin, Rufous-and-white Wren, Crested Guan, Highland Guan, Long-billed Starthroat, Black-and-white Owl, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Painted Bunting, Blue-crowned Motmot and much more (eBird list).
The next day we drove up the bumpy road to el Vesubio, thanks to special permission granted by Andy, the fabulously kind and accommodating owner of Los Tarrales (Normally it is necessary to have a guide to go up the mountain). While the morning was a bit slow, with clouds rolling in and obscuring views, we did have a nice siting and recording of Hooded Grosbeak and managed to spot a nice soaring Ornate-hawk Eagle, as well as make a couple more decent recordings of other species. We were really, though, on the lookout for the Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge and the Azure-rumped Tanager. We had seen the Azure-rumped Tanager in El Triunfo but our views were very distant and brief, and we had heard the Wood-Partridge plenty but not been able to even get close to any calling birds. Unfortunately we had no luck with either, other than yet again hearing the Wood-Partridge calling from deep within the forest. On the way back down we stopped at a small bench along the roadside with a nice view of several flowering trees. This spot was hummingbird bonanza! We had great looks at a male Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, Blue-tailed Hummingbird, Black-crested Coquette, Green Violetear, and a bonus Blue-throated Goldentail.
It would have been a fabulous opportunity to record singing Blue-tailed Hummingbird as well as the Emerald-chinned and the Blue-throated Goldentail, but there was a fine symphony of chainsaws, roosters, dogs, and apparent trombone practice coming from a village in the valley below. The next morning we rose early to head back up to El Vesubio and try again to try for the Wood-Partridge and the tanager. This time we not only saw three beautiful Azure-rumped Tanagers but we also recorded them! Azure-rumped Tanager has a tiny range (2500 km2) and occurs on the Pacific slope of Guatemala and Chiapas in a narrow elevation belt from 800-1900 m. Azure-rumped Tanager is listed as an endangered species primarily due to conversion of its favored broad-leaf forests to coffee plantations. The restricted range of the Azure-rumped Tanager makes it even more at risk as the vast majority of it’s habitat has already been converted to coffee.
Our next stop brought us to Finca el Pilar on the outskirts of Antiqua. For information on how to get to Finca el Pilar click here. We had heard that at Finca el Pilar the elusive (to us at least) Black Thrush is common. Despite having seen a number of rare and hard to find birds in Guatemala, the Black Thrush had been eluding us. We had heard Black Thrush at Fuentes Georginas, but never managed to actually see them, so we were hoping for better luck at El Pilar. Finca el Pilar (a private coffee farm) opens their doors to birders and offers camping and cabins (although you cannot leave the grounds after 4 pm – not an ideal place to stay if you wish to explore Antiqua). We headed straight towards the cloud forest to bird Cerro el Cucurucho. Our first evening we hiked up a ways until we heard a singing Black Thrush and spent a good 90 minutes not seeing it as it moved from tree to tree around us, but at least they were there. The following morning we made the nice hike up towards the peak again with good pine-oak forest becoming cloud forest as your gain a bit more altitude. The early morning brought us singing Singing Quail, Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, Emerald Toucanet (at a nest), Bushy-crested Jay, Rufous-browed Wren, and more (e-Bird list). We heard another singing Black Thrush but only managed a frustratingly distant, partially obscured view of the bird perched in the crown of a distant pine. Who would have thought that Black Thrush would be that hard to see – harder than Maroon-chested Ground-Dove or Ocellated Quail? We were kicking ourselves for not having brought the scope up the trail to get a better view of this perched bird. Determined to try again, we continued upwards, hoping that we would get a better view. Hearing another bird singing in a location where the trail allowed good views over the valley below, and with some diligent scanning, we finally got excellent views of a Black Thrush who was singing his heart out. To me, they almost sound more like mockingbirds as they have paired or tripled phrases, giving a true mimic quality to their song. After a quick happy dance we took our time birding back down the trail and encountered two singing Mountain Elaenia, not a very common bird in Guatemala. The song threw us for a while, we were pretty certain it was a flycatcher and sounded like an Elaenia, but had a much buzzier and more vibrato quality than the Mountain Elaenia recordings we had from Costa Rica to compare it too. Eventually we got good looks at a singing bird to confirm it’s identity and were able to get an excellent recording as well. Birding at Finca el Pilar is really enjoyable and is a great spot to stop en route to lovely Antigua, though it’s unfortunately not a good campsite to base yourself in to enjoy Antigua due to the gate being locked at 4 pm.
Antigua is a cute colonial town the sits in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes.
The town is filled with old churches, convents, cobblestone streets, every type of modern convenience you could ask for, great food, and a LOT of tourists. And by a LOT I mean that gringos outnumber locals on the streets and English is the dominant language heard.
Despite the throngs of tourists we had a couple of really enjoyable days wandering the streets of Antigua enjoying all the delectable food and chocolate available. We also enjoyed some amazing macadamia-nut pancakes at Valhalla Macadamia farm on the outskirts of Antigua, who also allow free vehicle based camping as long as you buy breakfast there. They were very kind and very accommodating, and the breakfast was superb, but the camping is a little loud as they have 5 very friendly but also kind of barky dogs.
Still determined to see the Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge we headed to Cayalá an urban park on the outskirts of Guatemala City where despite it’s location and small size Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges are quite common. When we arrived there was a very noisy scout group there and we thought we would never see the wood-partridge as the scouts marched and chanted through the forest. However, within a 1/2 hour we spotted two Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges foraging quietly in the undergrowth.
It’s really hard to believe that we saw them in an urban park considering how long we spent looking for them in other places. If you are looking to see a Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge Cayalá is the place to go. They open their doors at 8 am but special arrangements can be made in advance to get there earlier, although we found the wood-partridges to be active most of the day. Cayalá is also closed on Mondays.