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