19-28 Mar 2014
Pico Bonito, Rio Santiago, Aguan Valley, Parque Nacional La Muralla, and La Tigra
Pico Bonito and Rio Santiago
Pico Bonito National Park is probably the most widely known birding destination in Honduras, though information on access is pretty slim online, as most of the fame goes to the excellent, though very expensive, Lodge at Pico Bonito. For the independent birder who doesn’t fancy several hundred dollars/night, there is still great birding in the area with easy access. We had the fortune to make friends with a couple of local birders who showed us around a bit and with whom we birded a bit. Access to Pico Bonito is centered around the town of El Pino, approximately 10-15 minutes west of La Ceiba. There is a well-signed turn for the Lodge in El Pino as well. Although there isn’t technically any camping in the area, there is a popular swimming pool, soccer field and restaurant/bar complex called Natural View (signed from the highway) and, thanks to local help from our friend Esdras Lopez, we were pointed in this direction and were able to camp in our vehicle and use the restrooms/showers for a very modest fee. Behind a gate and with a night watchman this is a quite safe place to camp for a visit to the area. Just be sure to show up by 4-5pm as the staff leave early and finding the site and arranging camping after dark would be difficult if you haven’t been there before. With Natural View as our base and in the company of another local birder and artist, Older Mauricio, we birded the Rio Zacate trail into Pico Bonito National Park our first morning. Finding this trail, if you’ve not been there, would be a bit of a trick. GPS coordinates for the parking area and start of the trail are 15.69502,-86.93139. Getting there requires finding a dirt road that heads south (turn left if coming from El Pino) from the highway across a Dole pineapple plantation. There is a sign at the entrance to the pineapple field about private property but it doesn’t mean you cannot drive across the field. When heading along the dirt road stay to the right at the fork until you arrive at a small house and gate where you can park. Park at the gate and pay a park entrance fee ($6 US dollars per person) to the folks in the house and then go through the large gate with the Dole sign on it, a couple hundred yards later you will come to the trailhead and restrooms (it might be possible to camp at the trailhead but we didn’t inquire). Rio Zacate is a popular spot for locals and most anyone should be able to help you find your way to the trailhead. The trail itself climbs a bit then roughly follows the gorgeous cascading and boulder hopping Rio Zacate (where Sunbittern is a very real possibility) up into the park for about 2km. These 2km provide fantastic birding, we found a pair of day roosting Crested Owls, White-collared Manakin, Tody Motmot, Great Tinamou, Streak-headed, Spotted, and Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Green Shrike-Vireo, Rufous Mourner, Crowned Woodnymph, White-necked Jacobin and a lot more in what was still somewhat of a “slow” morning, actually. After a fantastic lunch at a local comedor, we headed a short ways up the road toward the Lodge at Pico Bonito to a staked out day-roosting Great Potoo and a fruiting tree that is apparently quite the magnet for Lovely Cotinga. Upon arriving we briefly asked for permission (it’s along a driveway and right in front of the house of a delightful expat birder), which was quickly given. In the 30 seconds it took us to locate the Great Potoo in the appropriate tree, we also found THREE Lovely Cotingas in the same tree, feasting on fruit. With this amazing show we didn’t even bother heading for the “regular” cotinga tree which apparently at times of March and April draws upwards of 10 or more Lovely Cotingas at one time – incredible given how rare and difficult this bird is in most of it’s range! From here we headed for a third destination for the day, Rio Santiago. This is another fine destination in the area, a nice piece of regenerating forest, a swimming pool, a bar and restaurant, and an absolute cloud of hummingbirds coming to dozens and dozens of feeders. Access is not hard but not signed well. From La Ceiba/El Pino head back west on the highway ~20 minutes until you reach the Rio Santiago. Just on the east side of the bridge (the side closer to La Ceiba/El Pino), turn left (south, upstream) onto a dirt track beside the river. Follow this to a gate, ask for permission to cross to visit Rio Santiago, then drive up to the obvious parking area. The owner, Terry is a character and an expat Canadian, but he has created the best hummingbird show north of Costa Rica with up to 16 species possible and feeders everywhere that, on our visit, were frequented by White-necked Jacobin, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, White-bellied Emerald, Violet Sabrewing, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Long-billed Hermit, Stripe-throated Hermit and Green-breasted Mango. Apparently Brown Violetear, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette and more are possible here as well. A nice trail system provides access to good forest of various ages as well as some really good raptor lookouts. Despite midafternoon heat we turned up Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Northern Barred Woodcreeper and a soaring Black Hawk-Eagle. There are cabins available for about $75 and dorm beds for something like $15, though we didn’t look into staying here. More information about Rio Santiago can be found on their website. All things considered, we barely scratched the surface of birding at Pico Bonito but it is clear why it has such a great reputation and we wish we had stayed longer!
If you are visiting the Pico Bonito area be sure to check out the local artisan shop and guide service, which is located on the road to the Natural View restaurant/bar where we camped. This is a local collective where many young people are learning to paint and illustrate birds while training to be bird guides. You can pick up some handmade art as well as arrange guide service in the area if needed.
We made a very brief visit to the Aguan Valley (centered around the town of Olanchito) to track down Honduras’s only national endemic – the Honduran Emerald.A species previously known from a handful of museum specimens, Steve Howell and Sophie Webb discovered that this species is still extant, and in fact quite common, but only in a few patches of remaining dry thorn forest in the Aguan Valley. It has since been discovered at similar habitat in a couple other areas of Honduras, but nonetheless is considered to be fairly endangered due to a tiny distribution that consists of remnant patches of habitat in areas that have otherwise been completely converted to grazing. There is a Honduran Emerald preserve that has been established in the Aguan Valley, though access is a bit complicated, requiring that you arrive the day prior and make arrangements to enter the preserve. It is not really necessary to enter the preserve, however, as you can readily find this hummingbird from the roadside. Leaving La Ceiba/Pico Bonito early, we got to Olanchito by about 8AM and headed west on the highway, checking likely looking spots, heading towards the reserve. Within about 40 minutes and after checking a few good looking patches without success, we saw the first Honduran Emerald preserve signs along the roadside amid some good looking thorn forest and stopped (GPS 15.42578,-86.76416). Within just a few minutes we heard distinctive hummingbird chirping and quickly tracked down a pair of feisty Honduran Emeralds. It’s not exactly glorious to bird from the highway across a barbed-wire fence but, depending on your desires, it might beat spending a full day in the blazing sun. There are other good arid thorn forest birds to be had here – Lesser Roadrunner, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, White-bellied Wren, White-lored Gnatcatcher for starters, but having seen these birds multiple times in the past and with the temperature climbing very quickly, we decided to make it a quick stop and hurried on, comfortably making it to La Muralla by late afternoon.
Parque Nacional La Muralla
Hiding a decent ways from anywhere, technically in western Olancho province but basically south of La Ceiba, is an isolated patch of upland tropical forest and cloud forest that thankfully is preserved as a 25,000 hectare (60,000 acre) national park. La Muralla is not that hard to get to but it’s not close to anything – we logged over 100 miles on dirt roads getting in and out of the park, and it’s several hours of highway as well to either La Ceiba or Tegucigalpa. However, once there, the birding is fantastic with a very interesting mixture of highland and lowland species as well as some real standout species.
The road that connects from Limones up to the Aguan Valley by way of the town of La Union has a well deserved reputation for being fairly dangerous, as there have been a lot of robberies and assaults along the road. We drove the road north to south and passed a military checkpoint coming from the Aguan Valley. We were warned that it’s a very dangerous road but they said that it would be ok to drive during the day but that we should not stop for anyone or anything. We saw a military patrol on the way to La Union and then a couple days later on the way to Limones as well. Additionally, the park guard at La Muralla told us that although the road is still dangerous the new government is cracking down and improving security in remote areas and things are definitely improving. Once you arrive at La Union and start climbing north out of town towards the park, there is another military checkpoint and we were told that the road up to the park from there is much safer.
From La Union you climb through agriculture and pine savannah then coffee fincas until finally entering forest near the park. The park entrance is at about 1500 meters elevation, and there is a small parking area, a bunkhouse, a guard’s house and a couple of picnic tables. We paid our 50 Lempira/person (about $2.50) entry fee and were allowed to camp for free in our truck in the little lot, with access to the restrooms and cold shower. You can also stay in the mildly run down but fine looking bunkhouse for 300 Lempira/night (about $15 – not clear if that was per person or per room).
It is quite a contrast coming from the arid valleys where we had a Lesser Roadrunner cross in front of the truck, up into pines full of Grace’s and Hermit Warblers, Northern Flickers and Brown Creepers, then climb further to arrive at tropical forest at 1500m and be greeted by Pheasant Cuckoo, Red-capped Manakin, Great Tinamou and Plain Antvireo, which were some of the first birds we got around the parking area. However, in the exact same habitat, which is still broadleaf tropical forest and just barely below the start of what feels more like oak dominated cloud forest, we also had typical cloud forest birds such as Green-breasted Mountain-Gem, Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, Slate-colored Solitaire, Black-headed Nightingale Thrush, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, Scaly-throated Foliage-Gleaner and Yellowish Flycatcher. It was quite an interesting mixture! There are a handful of trails that leave from the visitor’s center that provide good birding, though they are in various states of neglect. They are never too hard to follow, but there are a lot of down trees to negotiate and the clearings are quite overgrown with bamboo and herbaceous plants. Lots of leaf litter on the trails makes it hard to move about stealthily, which is unfortunately as this is apparently a great site for Spotted Wood-Quail. We spent a day and a half birding the road and the trails. La Muralla is a wonderful location not just for a couple of endemics (Red-throated Parakeet, Green-breasted Mountain-Gem) but also for some generally rare or otherwise interesting species such as Nightingale Wren (we recorded several each day and found one perched in the relatively open undergrowth of the El Pizote trail), Spotted Wood-Quail and Great Swallow-tailed Swift (though we didn’t get this swift here, others have). Additionally we turned up Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, Brown-capped Vireo, Flame-colored Tanager, Black-throated Jay, Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, Ruddy Wood-creeper, Rufous-browed Wren, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Short-billed Pigeon, Crested Guan, Black-faced (Mexican) Antthrush, Highland Guan, Spotted Woodcreeper and Red-tailed Hawk. Our best find was a flushed pair of what were with about 90% certainty Spotted Wood-Quail, as well as a heard only Spotted Wood-Quail later. Unfortunately good looks at this elusive bird still elude us but getting great looks at a perched Nightingale Wren makes up for that!
Per the park guards, if you follow the Monte Escondido trail higher up into the mountains you get into higher cloud forest that gets up around 2000m elevation and there are more cloud-forest species possible including Resplendent Quetzal. They also told us that there has been some recent investment in the park and they will be cleaning up the dorms, building a new cabaña, and cleaning up the trails starting in April. All told, this is a great birding destination and, as with all of Honduras, we wish we had had a bit more time and could have stayed longer, there are undoubtedly many more great finds lurking in the rarely birded woods of La Muralla.
Our final stop in Honduras was Parque Nacional La Tigra. This is the best-known and most popular national park in the country, though that doesn’t mean a ton in Honduras, and Pico Bonito and Rio Platano are probably better known to international birders. La Tigra is accessed by a quite steep, narrow dirt road that is in good condition and does not require 4WD or excessive clearance, in fact Tuk-tuks (motorcycle rickshaws, basically) make it up the hill. There are two main park entrances, we entered via the east where there are theoretically better services – essentially camping on the side of a narrow dirt road that villagers use and access to a bathroom. Access to this eastern entrance is via the town of San Juancito, from which anyone can point you in the correct direction up the hill. From where the visitor’s center/hostel/parking lot is, it is still a good ½ hour of hiking up the road to reach good forest, though this ½ hour is productive for hummingbirds with the endemic Green-breasted Mountain-Gem and White-eared Hummingbird being by far the most common, though we also had a Wine-throated Hummingbird and brief looks at what was probably a Blue-throated Goldentail. Other birds in this initial stretch include Bushy-crested Jay, Yellow-backed Oriole, Band-backed Wren, Plain Wren, Cinnamon-bellied Flower-Piercer, Singing Quail as well as Emerald Toucanet. Above the scrubby vegetation you enter nice 2nd growth cloud forest but, on our visit, the forest was very quiet, with very little activity. What we did find included Mountain Trogon, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush and Mountain Elaenia. Despite how quiet it was on our visit, La Tigra does have a pretty full suite of the anticipated cloud forest birds, and is a very accessible location for the endemic Green-breasted Mountain-Gem. Overall, however, we felt that the combination of accommodation, trails and birding were not as enticing as La Muralla or numerous other high elevation sites in Guatemala and Chiapas that hold largely the same group of species.