Trip Report

Guatemalan Highlands

Nov 30-Dec 7, 2019

Guide: Aaron Steed

Our quick, week-long Guatemalan getaway was focused on birding the foothills and highlands, from the slopes of the Volcano Atitlán to the beautiful city of Antigua, for an assortment of range-restricted species and regional endemics including Pink-headed Warbler, Azure-rumped Tanager, and the absurd but amazing Horned Guan, among many others.

As it happened, we all arrived on the same flight into the oddly-crowded airport at Guatemala City, and after a little time spent standing in line at immigration, we at last were through and on the way to our hotel, a short 15 min drive away. Our small group got acquainted over dinner that evening and called it a night early with the hope of getting some rest before the early departure the following morning.

The excellent Los Andes Nature Reserve was our first destination and an early start to the day ensured that we would arrive with the entire day to spend here. Some quick stops on the main road in produced our first views of White-throated Magpie Jay, Gray Hawk, Black Phoebe, and Grayish Saltator. After re-energizing with a cup of coffee grown on the reserve, we were ready to explore the mix of coffee, quinine, tea, and macadamia crops and forested slopes and ravines. A fun 40-min ride standing in the back of a pick-up truck took us past the many crops to a nice patch of cloud forest higher up in the reserve. The main target for the afternoon was the Azure-rumped Tanager, but there were many other goodies in store for us as well. Soon after entering the forest we had numerous Townsend’s, Wilson’s, and Golden-crowned Warblers and Slate-throated Redstarts. The fantastic songs of Brown-backed Solitaires rang out from all around us while raucous flocks of Bushy-crested Jays moved through the forest. A Resplendent Quetzal called out near the observation area and although we did not get a visual, we enjoyed fine views of Green-throated Mountain-Gem, a hummingbird endemic to Northern Central America. After a few distant views in poor light, we at last saw a few Azure-rumped Tanagers a bit closer, along with a spectacular male Blue-crowned Chlorophonia and the abundant Yellow-winged Tanager. On the walk back down, a short jaunt off-trail with our excellent local guides got us incredible views of a male Resplendent Quetzal, another target on the group’s most wanted list.

Los Tarrales is only about an hour and a half away on the slopes of the same volcano as Los Andes, but being on a different side and at a lower elevation, we knew that Los Tarrales would have some different birds in store for us. An easy afternoon stroll up the main track took us past verbena flowers abuzz with Cinnamon Hummingbirds and treetops full of Blue-gray Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreepers, and Boat-billed Flycatchers. An inquisitive Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl gave us great views in the afternoon light and White-bellied Chachalacas gave their noisy calls around the grounds. The next morning we further explored the forest via the Rinconada Trail, which climbs up in elevation to a few different viewpoints. The forest was alive with birds – from the beautiful Long-tailed Manakin, Collared Trogon, and Green-breasted Mango, to the diminutive Tody Motmot, Northern Bentbill, and the boisterous Rufous-naped Wren. A soaring King Vulture was a nice addition, and it was worth noting the abundance of Tennessee Warblers – they were everywhere! Close encounters with Lesson’s Motmot, White-winged Tanager, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Rufous-browed Peppershrike and Common Tody-Flycatcher all added to the morning’s diverse experience.

After lunch, we left the Volcano Atitlan for the lake of the same name. A brief stop at the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP) turned up the only Slender Sheartail of the trip, a female perching in the reeds on the lakeshore. American Coots and Common Gallinules were abundant here, and we found a nice raft of Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and Redhead on the lake as well. A Sora called out from the reeds to our right while Green Herons stalked among the edges directly across from us. A short while later we arrived at our hotel in Santiago Atitlan with a bit of time to enjoy the gardens and take in the lake view before dinner.

The optional hike up Volcán Tolimán was planned for the next morning and a few of our group were just crazy enough to give it a shot – the allure of the Horned Guan was just too strong not to! We met shortly after 4 AM for some coffee and to grab our pack meals for the day, and we were off, on foot, straight out from our hotel. A path picked up in the middle of town soon led us steadily uphill into coffee and avocado plantations. Soon enough we were hearing the calls of Great Horned Owl, and we got good looks at a Whiskered Screech-Owl calling overhead. Mexican Whippoorwills, Fulvous Owls, and the Guatemalan subspecies of Northern Pygmy-Owls were all heard before first light, as were the high-pitched screams of Highland Guans. As the sun rose, we realized we’d already made good distance up the volcano and looking back toward the lake gave us a good perspective of just how far we’d come in the dark. A flock of about 45 Gray Silky Flycatchers moved from treetop to treetop on the hillside while Bar-winged Orioles and Blue-throated Motmots called around us. The locals had crops growing even this high up and we passed corn and red and black beans on our way to the primary forest a bit farther up the slope. Once under the eaves of the forest, our attention turned to finding the incredible Horned Guan. The trail had now become an unrelenting, continuous climb uphill, offering little to no respite and we could feel the air getting thinner as we climbed as well. Nonetheless we took our time and continued birding during our breaks, finding Hermit and Crescent-chested Warblers, Greater Pewee, Rufous-collared Robin, and Rose-throated Becard on the way. Just as we were reaching our limit, unsure if we could go any further, our local guide returned from a side trail to say he’d just heard a Horned Guan calling. Momentarily forgetting our exhaustion, we left the main trail and excitedly followed Freddy. The trail soon became non-existent and the footing on the soft volcanic soil more treacherous, but we soon were in position and all managed wonderful views of this absurd species. After obtaining a few photos and appreciating this ‘unicorn turkey’ to the fullest, we began to make our descent, now in excellent spirits. We had found the guans before 10 AM, and now had the rest of the day to bird our way back down the way we came. We found Mountain Trogons and Blue-and-white Mockingbirds, White-eared and Rivoli’s Hummingbirds, Ruddy-capped and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, and the beautiful White-faced Ground Sparrow. We got incredible looks at a rufous morph Northern (Guatemalan) Pygmy Owl being mobbed by a Rivoli’s Hummingbird and persisted for killer views of a pair of Rusty Sparrows near the end of our hike. The other half of our group which skipped the hike enjoyed a more leisurely day with a full breakfast and later start. Even still, they managed to get wonderful looks at a Blue-throated Motmot, something that the rest of us ended up missing this trip!

Finca Chichavac’s pine oak woodlands was our stop the next morning, which began cool and clear (we certainly needed our jackets!). Steller’s Jays greeted us as we stepped from the van, along with Black-vented Orioles, Blue-and-white Mockingbirds, and Hutton’s Vireo. On the cattle farm we enjoyed great looks at Rufous-collared Sparrow, Tufted Flycatcher, Red-faced Warbler and the only Spotted Towhee of the trip. Pink-headed Warbler, a species endemic to Mexico and Guatemala, was one of our main target birds for the day and eventually we got incredible views of this gorgeous species flitting about at eye-level. We also added a lovely male Amethyst-throated Mountain-Gem, Pine Flycatcher, and a couple of heard-but-not-seen Chestnut-capped Brush-Finches.

After a filling lunch and a delicious corn cheesecake (it’s way better than it sounds) at a restaurant built in the style of a Swiss chalet, we headed to Antigua with the afternoon free to shop and explore. Our hotel, the Posada Don Rodrigo, encompasses three historic houses dating back well over 300 years (it is said to be one of the oldest buildings in the Americas), and provides a convenient location from which to explore the cobblestone streets and picturesque Spanish Colonial architecture of this small and colorful Guatemalan city. The postcard view of the Santa Catalina Arch set amid the backdrop of the towering Volcán Agua was visible right outside the hotel entrance while Central Park and the La Merced Church were both less than a 5-minute walk away. The vibrant, bustling streets were quite the change from what we’d been experiencing on the trip so far, but it was nice to switch gears and take in the non-avian sights for a bit! We purchased souvenirs for loved ones, translated inscriptions on statues, and at last made our way back to our hotel, where we enjoyed a traditional dinner complete with music and dance.

Our final birding stop of the trip was at Finca El Pilar, located just 10 minutes from our Antigua hotel. Although the birding overall was a bit slow this morning, we still managed to find some new birds for the trip. At the observation area, several Black-headed Siskins joined a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the top of a bare tree while a small flock of colorful Hooded Grosbeaks flew overhead, and the overlook view of three volcanoes – Agua, Acatenango, and the smoking Fuego – was nothing short of spectacular. In the forest we managed decent looks at Golden-browed Warbler, and even better views of Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireos while the numerous calling Blue-throated Motmots never gave us more than a glimpse! A pair of Collared Forest-Falcons similarly were too well hid to lay eyes on but we enjoyed hearing their hilarious calls. Acorn Woodpeckers and Townsend’s Warblers were everywhere while a handful of Black-capped Swallows swooped above the trees. The hummingbird feeders were quite lacking (just one Azure-crowned Hummingbird present) but we had fun watching/photographing an assortment of colorful butterflies, dragonflies, and lizards.

After lunch, we enjoyed a short visit to the nearby Museo Santiago de los Caballeros, which offered a fascinating insight into Guatemala's colonial history. Soon enough though it was time to make our way back to Guatemala City, where we would have dinner and tally up our checklists for the final time. In just one short week our group encountered 221 species including all the big targets – Pink-headed Warbler, Azure-rumped Tanager, Horned Guan, and Resplendent Quetzal.

A special thanks goes out to Daniel Aldana and Operador Latino, as well as the other local guides Freddy, Chus, and Salvin, plus our amazing driver Luis, and last but not least our wonderful group of clients - for making this a fantastic and memorable trip.