Off the Rock: Honduras 2017 (Part 2)

Click here to read Part 1 of my Honduras adventure.

In March 2017, I joined Kisserup International Trade Roots and a handful of other Canadian birding and eco-tourism experts on an exploratory “mission” to Honduras. The goal of this mission was to experience some of this Central American country’s fantastic birds and nature; meet local tour guides; check out lodges, accommodations, restaurants, etc.; and explore the potential for its growing birding and eco-tourism industry. What I discovered was an incredibly beautiful place with wonderful people, amazing nature and especially birds, and so many opportunities for visiting birders and nature-lovers to soak it all in. One of the challenges for Honduras’ eco-tourism sector is that it remains largely undiscovered and tourism traffic is relatively low compared to neighbouring nations. This is also one of its draws — the experiences are authentic, the wilderness still wild, and no hordes of people and tour buses at every turn. I relished in not just the birds and wildlife, but also the opportunity to enjoy it in peace and quiet and with the full attention of our excellent local guides.

All that being said, the experience was far from rustic or lack-lustre in any way. The regions we visited had excellent lodges, hotels and other accommodations to choose from. Several of the eco-lodges exceeded my expectations when it came to their facilities and accommodations (while others already had excellent reputations and delivered on them). Local tour operators and especially the birding guides we met were knowledgeable, very friendly and enthusiastic – eager to share their lives and the amazing place they live with us. Restaurants and the food they served were great – with menus variable enough to fit the needs and wants of most visitors and tour groups. So while the tourism industry has a lot of growth and development ahead, Honduras is more than ready for us Canadian birders to start making it a destination. Quick – before the others catch on!

As described in Part 1 of this blog post, we spent the first few days of our visit in San Pedro Sula, followed by the Lake Yojoa region (including surrounding areas of Santa Barbara and Cerro Azul Meambar National Parks). So, we pick up now where we left off – at beautiful Lake Yojoa and its awesome birding!

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Lake Yojoa is the largest lake in Honduras, and at an altitude of 700m it is also relatively high. Not only is the birding on and around the lake itself excellent, but it is bordered on each side by National Parks (Santa Barbara to the west and Cerro Azul Meambar to the east) – making it an ideal base for birding expeditions.

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One of the trip highlights was seeing this very (very!) secretive Yellow-breasted Crake in the marsh at Lake Yojoa. We heard it calling when we arrived on the first evening but were unable to spot it. Two mornings later, several of us made an early morning return to try again — this time (after much waiting & patience), it gingerly strolled out from the grass and within a few feet of where we were standing on a little pier. At just 5 inches, this is one of the smallest and most difficult to spot rails you can imagine!

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While waiting for the crake to emerge, this White-tailed Kite did its best to distract us. Pretty amazing to watch it expertly hovering over the marsh for minutes at a time, as if suspended by string.

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We met several local (and very excellent) guides throughout the week. William Orellana and Katinka Domen (Beaks & Peaks Birding & Adventure Tours) were with us for several days, and were fabulous hosts. Their birding skills were world-class, topped only by their kind ways and hard work to make sure everyone saw as much as possible. Thanks, guys!

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Northern Jacana were common in the marshes of Lake Yojoa, and indeed wetlands throughout the regions we visited. But it’s impossible to get bored of their flashy colours and antics. Such entertaining birds!

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Also very common around the lake were Snail Kites, like this roosting female (above). Check out the long hooked bill, suited perfectly for extracting food from the large snail shells they collect around the marsh. (Male below)

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The lake has incredible biodiversity, and more than birds are plentiful here. Fishing is an important part of the local economy, and tilapia (like this one) is a staple. Local markets are a treat for the senses – full of colourful fruits and vegetables, wonderful aromas and something to whet every appetite!

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Leaving the wonders of Lake Yojoa behind, we headed north to La Ceiba in the Atlantida region. Here, the Nombre de Dios Mountains rise steeply from the Caribbean coast and habitats ranging from coastal mangroves to lowland forests and  lush, high elevation rainforests are all easily accessible. Our base for the next few days was the beautiful Lodge & Spa at Pico Bonito. While I might not have taken time to indulge in the spa services (not really my style!), the birding and wildlife experiences were incredible. I could spend weeks here alone, enjoying nature’s jewels – such as this Keel-billed Toucan.

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Pico Bonito also offered more opportunity for seeing other wildlife compared to other regions we visited. This Basilisk Lizard was sitting right alongside the verandah and basking in the sun after a a night of rain.

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Central American agoutis were often found taking advantage of fruit fallen from the lodge’s trees and feeders. Although a little harder to spot, other exotic mammals such as kinkajou, coatis and peccaries are regularly spotted around the lodge’s property and trails, and very lucky hikers might get to spot an ocelot or even one of the jaguar that are known to frequent the area.

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A short drive from the lodge is the beautiful Cuero y Salada Wildlife Refuge. As one of Honduras’ first protected areas, it encompasses a variety of habitats including lowland forest, old coconut plantations, and the huge mangrove swamps and waterways for which it is most famous. The reserve is accessed by a small trolley line – which not only adds great fun to the visit, but also provides some interesting birding and wildlife opportunities along the way!

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Our trolley drivers stopped several times for us to watch and enjoy the birds we spotted – including this Black-headed Trogon sitting quietly not far from the tracks.

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The coconut plantation was surprisingly hot for raptors, including Common Black Hawks, Crested Caracaras and (a personal highlight) this Laughing Falcon, among others.

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We also spotted this White-faced Capuchin during the trolley ride. It checked us out for just a few moments, then went back to eating fruit and ignoring us altogether. The mangroves are also home to Howler Monkeys, and while our group heard their eerie, guttural howls the others actually had a brief visit from one as they floated along the canal.

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The mangroves themselves are best visited by boat, and local tour operators are there to provide just that. Aboard small boats, we navigated the network of canals and calm waters, spotting a great variety of birds and wildlife along the way. The mangroves are also home to the endangered Caribbean manatee, which can be challenging to find and unfortunately eluded us on this visit.

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Numerous species of heron and egret can be found in the reserve, but my personal favourite was this Bare-throated Tiger Heron. Check out that funky patterning and “standing my ground” attitude!

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The mangroves are also a great place to find several species of kingfisher, including this Green Kingfisher. We also found Ringed, Belted and Amazon Kingfishers throughout our visit.

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Prothonotary Warblers are neotropical migrants – breeding in North America and wintering in the tropics. They are exciting to spot wherever you might be, but seeing them here in their winter digs was especially fun.

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It was also pretty fun to spot these White-lined Bats roosting on a large trunk at the edge of the mangroves. Just a few moments later, a Roadside Hawk came jetting through and nabbed one of the bats right off the tree! (Wish I’d been ready for that with the camera!)

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Our next stop was the amazing Rio Santiago Nature Resort, which borders both the Rio Santiago river and Pico Bonito National Park. It is a birder’s dream, with incredible biodiversity, excellent walking trails and one of the most amazing hummingbird spectacles you can imagine! We enjoyed dozens of hummingbirds and 11 species just during our short visit – all buzzing around the myriad of feeders and flowering plants around the property. This Crowned Woodnymph was an obvious crowd pleaser.

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Not all the hummingbirds are quite as flashy, but equally beautiful. The understated Scaly-breasted Hummingbird is local and far less common in Honduras, with Rio Santiago being among the best places to find it. Other hummingbird highlights during the afternoon included Brown Violetear, Stripe-throated Hermit and Band-tailed Barbthroat among others.

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This Slaty-tailed Trogon was a neat find during a hike along one of Rio Santiago’s trails. It sat obligingly but under the dark canopy of the surrounding rainforest, keeping an eye on us as we did the same with it.

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Perhaps the best part of our visit to Rio Santiago was spotting this Spectacled Owl – a species I had heard but never seen during my previous time in the tropics. What a fabulous looking bird!

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The Spectacled Owl was part of a resident pair at Rio Santiago, and was keeping a close eye on this juvenile sitting nearby. Initially hiding in the broad leaf trees, junior soon flew out to sit in the open and show off its overwhelming “cuteness”.

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We also enjoyed lunch at Rio Santiago, surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds (like this Long-billed Hermit) coming and going to the many feeders. This wonderful resort quickly joined my list of places to see again!

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And speaking of food … this ceviche (made with sea bass) at Pico Bonito was possibly my favourite dish of the entire trip. Overall the food was very good, and I took the opportunity to try local cuisine whenever I could.

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Back at Pico Bonito, we spent our last morning birding around the property and along a couple of its most popular trails. This White-collared Mannikin gave us a bit of a run-around but eventually sat still under cover of the forest canopy. Other highlights included distant views of the highly prized Lovely Cotinga, a pair of roosting Great Potoo, Violet-headed Hummingbird and Buff-throated Foliage-cleaner – just to name a few.

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We also enjoyed this Red-capped Mannikin, which despite being relatively common around the property was a challenge to see!

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The hardcores, birding at one of Pico Bonito’s observation towers. L-R Me, Jean Iron (Ontario), Oliver Komar (Honduras), Adolfo Fonseca (Kisserup International Trade Roots) and Angel Fong (Go Bird Honduras, Birding & Eco-Adventure Tours). A huge thanks to Angel who was a wonderful birding guide and host during our time in the Atlantida region. *The full group included several other Canadian tourism operators and representatives of Kisserup International Trade Roots.

By the end of our short week in Honduras, we had tallied 267 species of birds (!), along with other great wildlife and nature experiences and incredible scenery. We also met and made many new friends – both local Hondurans and the other Canadians I was lucky enough to travel with all week long.

I REALLY hope to get back soon, revisiting these places and people and exploring even more of this wonderful place – and especially its bird life. For now,  I hope you enjoyed my reflections. STAY TUNED as I am scheming a small-group tour that could be announced in a few months time!! If you’re interested in details, drop me a line.

Special thanks to Kisserup International Trade Roots for not only inviting me along on this excellent “mission”, but also for their hard work and planning to make it such an amazing adventure. It couldn’t have been more fun or eye-opening. I am especially thankful to our local birding guides Oliver Komar (professor, birder extraordinaire, and co-author of the essential “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Northern Central America”); William and Kotinka of Beaks & Peaks Birding and Adventure Tours; and Angel Fong of Go Honduras Birding & Eco-Adventure Tours. Their world-class birding skills, exceptional friendliness, and eagerness to share all things Honduras made this trip the wonderful experience that it was. It was a huge pleasure to meet James Adams at Pico Bonito Lodge – his help and generousity during my time there was outstanding, and the depth of both his knowledge of and respect for nature left a huge impression on me (and continues to do so as I follow his own adventures on social media!). We met many other wonderful people along the way – all of whom have left me with warm memories and a strong desire to return, revisit and explore some more. Thank you!

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Off The Rock: Honduras 2017 (Part 1)

It was March 2017, but instead of being bundled up and shoveling snow like I might usually be found at this time of year, I was adjusting to a tropical heat and enjoying the flurry of brightly coloured birds flitting around me.

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Motmots are iconic birds of Central and South America, and this Lesson’s Motmot was no exception. Relatively common in most of Honduras, the beautiful colours and flashy tails of this species is always worth a stop. We encountered three other species of Motmot during our week, including the Turquoise-browed, Keel-billed and Tody.

I was honoured this past winter to be invited on a Canadian “trade mission” to Honduras by the consulting firm “Kisserup International Trade Roots“. As part of their project, and the Canadian free trade agreement, the aim of this mission was to explore potential for growing the eco-tourism and birding tourism industry in Honduras – a country that has seen significant economic and political challenges over recent decades, and is now focused on rebuilding its economy. Like other Central American nations, Honduras has a wealth of stunning nature, wildlife and especially birds to showcase – but unlike several of their neighbours the tourism (and conservation) potential of this amazingly beautiful place remains grossly untapped. This is changing now, and I was excited to join a handful of other birding and eco-tourism experts from across Canada to experience some of its magic.

Honduras is a relatively large country, so our week-long “mission” focused on just two  regions – Lake Yojoa and surrounding areas (western Honduras), as well as La Ceiba in Atlantida (north/Caribbean coast). Both regions offer rich and dynamic birding opportunities and have great potential for a growing tourism industry.

This two-part blog series is a brief (mostly photographic) summary of what I can only describe as an amazing week in a beautiful country. I REALLY hope to get back soon, revisiting these places and people and exploring even more of this wonderful place – and especially its bird life. For now, enjoy my reflections and STAY TUNED as I am scheming a small-group tour that could be announced in a few months time!!

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Our visit began in San Pedro Sula – a sprawling city in northeast Honduras and described by locals as its economic (though not political) capital. Although we spent just one day here, local birding and a visit to the city centre were both eye-openers to this intriguing place that I admit to knowing very little about prior to this trip.

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We didn’t have to leave city limits to find some of Honduras’ most endearing and exotic species. This Collared Aracari was hanging out along one of San Pedro’s most popular walking trails (leading up to the city’s famous “Coca Cola” sign and some stunning views).

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Another common but jaw-dropping bird of the region is Blue-Gray Tanager – a species I was familiar with from visits to other parts of the Americas. This lovely fella was hanging out right in a city neighbourhood where our guide/driver lived and took us for some city birding.

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This trip also provided opportunities to experience local culture and traditions – and food happens to be one of my favourite lenses through which to see a new place! My first truly local food was this “baleada” – a traditional Honduran dish made with mashed red beans, cheese and spices folded in a flour tortilla. Hardy and delicious!

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Trogons are among the most prized species by birders, and always a treat. This Collared Trogon was one of many highlights of our visit to PANACAM Lodge. This beautiful eco-lodge is situated in a national park (Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meámbar) near Santa Cruz de Yojoa, and has incredible potential as a premiere birding stop. The lush rainforests, agricultural land and protected habitats right on its doorstep offer some amazing birds and wildlife. Great hiking trails, a wonderful observation tower and excellent on-site birding all add up to a birder’s dream. The lodge itself is not only beautiful but clean and modern. I could have spent a week at this location alone!

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This gorgeous Violet Sabrewing was one of several hummingbird species buzzing around the verandah feeders at PANACAM Lodge. The many natural perches provided excellent photo opportunities, and I certainly wish I had more time here to have enjoyed them. Other highlights on the PANACAM property included Mottled Owl, Crested Guan and a very unexpected Pheasant Cuckoo – among many others!

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Perhaps one of my more disappointing photos, but certainly NOT a disappointing experience, was this Black-crested Coquette at PANACAM Lodge. Since it doesn’t tend to visit feeders, finding one of these very tiny (but also very showy) hummingbirds in a big forest isn’t easy – but fortunately our guides had a good area in mind and with some patience we were able to track it down and enjoy excellent views through binoculars and scopes as it sat on high but open perches. Score!

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It was here that we first met up with Oliver Komar – not only one of the most talented birders I’ve ever met, but also the author of the (then) brand new “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Northern Central America” (this excellent field guide is the new essential for birders visiting or even living in the region). We were blessed to have Oliver join us for the remainder of the week – his birding expertise, amazing skill, fun personality (evident in this photo!) and strong drive to build and promote birding tourism in Honduras was perhaps the most enlightening part of the entire trip. Oliver is a Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Honduras’ Zamorano University.

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Another specialty of the PANACAM Lodge was the Keel-billed Motmot. Although not quite as confiding as the more common Lesson’s and Turquoise-browed Motmots, this one finally popped out for some excellent views in the early morning light as we prepared for the day’s outing.

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Beautiful scenery and lush habitats were not hard to find in Honduras, and this beautiful stop was just minutes away from PANACAM Lodge. Fabulous birding in unbelievable settings.

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Of course, not all of Honduras is “untouched” but the opportunity to see local industries and especially agriculture in action is always an important part of visiting new places. Farming is an integral part of the local economy, and continues to be amid the immense challenges and pressures of the times. Bananas and coffee represent Honduras’ main exports, along with pineapples and palm fruit/oil; while corn, rice and sorghum are among the most important subsistence crops.

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I always enjoy seeing birds with unique nesting behaviours – and oropendolas definitely have that! Here we came across a colony of Montezuma Oropendola showing off their ridiculously cool hanging (“pendulum”) nests.

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As a lover of both coffee and chocolate, I relished our chance to visit the wonderful EcoFinca Luna del Puente. This sustainable coffee and cacao plantation not only produces excellent treats (did I mention the coffee & chocolate?!?!), but has a strong environmental mandate and maintains a large nature preserve as part of its estate. The owners welcome birders and even offer guided bird walks along the trails. The diversity of birds found in the mixed forest and plantation habitats was astounding!

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This Northern Potoo was hands-down the highlight of my morning at EcoFinca de Luna Puente — what an insanely weird and wonderful bird! As nocturnal birds, potoos spend their day roosting quietly and use their uniquely camouflaged plumage to hide themselves in plain sight. I could easily have walked past this fella, who in real life looked just like part of the branch it was sitting on.

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On the other hand, these Green Jays were anything but quiet or camouflaged. Gaudy and raucous, these brightly coloured birds looked like decorations sitting in a bare treetop.

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This Brown-crested Flycatcher sat overlooking our group as we hiked through the cacao plantation. It was just one of 11 flycatcher species we enjoyed on the estate – including Yellow-bellied Eleania, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Piratic Flycatcher, and Boat-billed Flycatcher among others. Surprisingly, despite the abundance of insect-eating birds, I hardly noticed the presence of any bothersome flies during our travels.

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An added bonus to our EcoFinca visit was the experience of “making chocolate”. The owners walked us through the entire process of harvesting, fermenting, roasting and preparing cacao to produce chocolate. It was a fun, hands-on experience and we ended up with fresh hot cacao to celebrate the morning’s birds and the new friendships we were forging. Authentic experiences such as this are integral to growing a unique & successful eco-tourism sector – and this family is getting it right!

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One of our next adventures was in the Santa Barbara Mountains, where our excellent guides from Beaks & Peaks Birding Tours (more about them in the next post) took us for some higher elevation rain forest birding. Despite some early morning rain, it turned out to be a beautiful morning with LOTS of great birds and stunning scenery. We also met local community leaders who are working with farmers to try and conserve native forests and achieve a balance between the ever-important coffee growing industry and the blossoming eco-tourism sector.

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This Northern Emerald-Toucanette was one of the very first birds we encountered, keeping us entertained as we waited out a heavy rain shower under the shelter of a local farmer’s utility shed. Making the wait worth it, we also found our first Emerald-chinned Hummingbird at the same place!

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Although somewhat distant, this elusive Elegant Euphonia showed extremely well and was a huge treat to see. Residents of the higher elevations, they can be difficult to find and much of their movements within the area are poorly understood. This brightly coloured male stood out like a shining gem across the valley. Other regional endemics seen during this hike were Bushy-crested Jay and Blue-and-White Mockingbird, and other highlights included Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, Prevost’s Ground Sparrow and White-naped Brush-finch.

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With so many new and exciting birds, it was easy for me to overlook the abundance of butterflies that we encountered.

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The lovely scenery and opportunities (however brief) to see how local farming families lived  in this mountain region was a valuable addition to our visit. While life is undoubtedly challenging for these hard-working people, they are at the same time blessed to be living in such an amazing place.

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Our home base for the next two days was alongside beautiful, and birdy, Lake Yojoa. We took some time to explore the rich marshes and coastlines of this lake, and enjoy the great variety of birds that call it home. These Black-necked Stilts may spend the winter here, but would soon be heading north to breeding grounds in North America.

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One of the more secretive and cryptic species found at Lake Yojoa, we were fortunate to spot this Pinnated Bittern fly past and land in the tall grass. We watched it stalk slowly through the marsh for a few moments before disappearing completely right under our noses.

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Snail Kites, like this classy-looking male, are common around Lake Yojoa and always fun to watch.

Click here to check out Part 2 of my visit to Honduras. We pick up right where we leave off, here at Lake Yojoa, before heading north to the Atlantida region (including the famous Pico Bonito Lodge) for more awesome birding and wildlife experiences!