Lago de Yojoa, Honduras, February 2009

Let’s say that you are a serious birder on your first trip to the neotropics and are hoping to see as many species as possible.  And let’s also say that you’ve already had a great morning field trip where you saw a ton of new birds and a filling lunch that left you in no need of any refreshment until dinner time.  And, just for the heck of it, let’s add that there is a serious amount of rain falling from the sky.  What would you do?  If you answered “Go Birding” than you and I are an awful lot alike…

After the morning trip to Los Naranjos and a delicious lunch at the Hotel Las Glorias it was a bit of a bummer that the rain would not stop falling.  I was going to be out birding even if an earthquake hit and a civil war broke out simultaneously (neither very likely in Honduras) so it was just a matter of figuring out exactly how I would go about seeing the birds without getting too soaked.  Fortunately, Julie Zickefoose is nothing if not inventive, and she came up with the ingenious idea of walking down to the small peninsula that jutted out into the lake, sitting in the moored pontoon boat, and birding the marsh from under the boat’s roof.  Brilliant!

So there I was with one of North America’s most famous birders, safely out of the rain, with a cold beer, my binoculars, and my camera.  Attached to the camera was my mom’s Canon EF 70-300mm zoom lens which I had borrowed for situations where digiscoping wouldn’t be possible, like when one is sitting in the back of a boat in a rainstorm.  And what did we see?  Well, for starters, a Snail Kite was hunting the marsh for snails:

This kite was easily recognizable as an individual by virtue of the fact that it was missing a couple tail feathers.  Ol’ split tail was a regular sight down by the marsh, and it was fun to not only be able to recognize the bird to species, but as an individual bird making a living in the marshes.  Once and awhile, ol’ split tail would make a relatively close pass, and I was pleased to get this relatively decent flight shot.

Snail Kites are called Snail Kites because they live almost entirely (entirely?) on Apple Snails, for which they have a nicely-hooked, long beak that is just right for digging succulent snails out of the safety of their shells.

In addition to ol’ split tail there were a host of other birds around, and the joy of birding with the Science Chimp, as Julie is sometimes called, is that she notices and appreciates behaviors that a less attentive birder might have missed.  For example, a pair of Common Moorhens were hanging out in the marsh nearby and I barely gave them a second glance because, let’s face it, I was in search of new birds and Common Moorhens, though cool, were certainly not new to me.  But Julie noticed that this pair seemed very close, and drew my attention to the fact that they were allopreening, or preening each other’s plumage.  How cool is that?  Neither of us had ever seen moorhens allopreen before and it was a nice reminder that even the common can sometimes exhibit a behavior that is not common, or at least not commonly observed.

Of course, when a Northern Jacana flushed and flew in front of us all thought of interesting behavior flew out the window for a few moments as we strove to capture the flashing yellow wings of a jacana in flight.  Success!

We watched Purple Gallinules, Pied-billed Grebes, several species of swallow, Great-tailed Grackles, and every other bird that crossed our paths.  None of them did anything as cool as the Green Heron that we watched trying to decapitate a snake before swallowing it, an event which Julie managed to document far more thoroughly than I did (so I will leave it to her to blog about).

We also spent a ton of time trying to identify the small passerines that would appear and disappear from view without giving very good looks.  After numerous sightings of several birds we finally decided that we were seeing male and female Common Yellowthroats, but I was still bothered by the bird that had briefly appeared in my bins that seemed to be entirely black and white.  We finally realized that in addition to the Common Yellowthroats there were also White-collared Seedeaters foraging in the marsh, a bird we should have identified much more quickly considering that we had seen them the day before at the airport.

Sometimes we swung around in our seats to see if anything was happening on the peninsula behind us, and once we were pleased to spot the bird in the bush below.  Can you find and identify it?

Eventually, as all good things must, our time in the boat came to an end.  The roof did not do a very good job keeping the rain off, especially when the wind blew, and we were actually getting chilly.  We walked back up to the hotel and birded a bit more from under a pavilion before giving up on birding for the day because of the rain and approaching dark.

It was a great pleasure spending a few hours birding with Julie, and it would be even more of a pleasure over the next week as we saw many more birds together.

This post was originally published on 08 March 2009, but we hate to keep posts this good buried in the archives!

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.