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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