Copan, Honduras, February 2009

A word of warning: this is going to be a rather long post so go grab a snack and make yourself comfortable before you start reading.  Normally, the birding I did on the morning of February 28, 2009, would be enough to fill up a week’s worth of posts but seeing as I’ve been back from Honduras for over a month and have only gotten through the first half of the birding experiences there, well, I have to pick up the pace a little bit before I forget what I saw and end up with a bunch of pictures of birds whose names I need a field guide to remember seen in circumstances I can’t recall.  Anyway, it was some ungodly hour that we all awakened from our beds at Hotel Don Udo’s in Copan Ruinas and piled into the back of two trucks for our four-wheel drive excursion high into the hilly terrain near the border with Guatemala.  We didn’t even drink coffee before we left: Robert’s plan was to have a field breakfast so we could bird while we ate, thus saving precious early-morning birding time.

I must admit that I was leery of the idea of heading out into the wilds without at least one cup of coffee causing caffeine to course through my veins, a leeriness not lessened, by the way, by a look at our rather spartan back-of-the-truck wooden plank seats.  Fortunately, I was happy to discover that seeing life birds from the side of the road on the side of a hill that rose from fields, with more fields behind us, scrubby habitat to our left, and dead snags galore for perching, released a nice load of adrenalin which is a decent substitute for caffeine.  Besides, I had only managed to get three lifers (Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Rusty Sparrow, and Barred Antshrike), the first of a ton of lifers for the day, by the time I had sucked down my first cup of coffee, so it’s not like I was deprived for long.

The sheer volume of birds we spotted while drinking our coffee and juice and eating our yogurt, granola, and bananas was absurd.  White-throated Magpie Jays competed with Spot-breasted Orioles, which competed with a host of Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks, which competed with Blue-black Grassquits, which competed with several species of flycatchers.  What were these birds competing for?  Why, our attention, of course, and it was so hard to decide where to devote it!  For the umpteenth time on the trip I just didn’t know what to look at when.  I would no sooner get my binoculars focused on an oriole when I would hear someone say something like “Would you look at the light on that grosbeak?” and I would be gazing at the grosbeak when I would hear “What is that little brown job creeping through the brush over there?” and no sooner would I have given up on finding the little brown job than someone else would ask “What are those parrots flying right to left just over the treeline?” and then I would ignore all of them because a whole bunch o’ birds was teed up right in front of me!

Talk about a wonderful breakfast!  And my life Plain Chachalaca was a great dessert (bet you didn’t know you could have dessert after breakfast, did you?).  Soon though, our focus was narrowed down to a single elusive species, a bird that we could hear on occasion but that apparently didn’t want to be seen, a bird that I hadn’t even known we had a chance to see, a bird we spent well over half an hour trying to get a look at before succeeding.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you that bird!

if you look at my year list you can figure out what the bird is…and, trust me, there is a bird up there

After the cool, skulking, secretive lifer my overwhelmed brain decided that the nearby perched raptor was a falcon and ordered my mouth to let all within earshot know that I had a falcon.  Of course, it was a Roadside Hawk that several had already seen and identified, perhaps my worst identification mix-up of the whole trip to Honduras.  All I can say in my defense is that I suck at raptors.

Then we continued uphill, alternating driving for a couple miles and getting out and walking, gradually moving from the more open fields and scrub to pine-oak wood and then more just straight pine.  Of course, as our elevation changed and we moved through different habitat the birds changed too!  I was especially excited when we came upon a flock of Bushy-crested Jays, a Central American specialty that I had been eager to see despite the fact that their name seems to be one that comes from holding them in the hand because bush crests were not very noticeable.  They also were a devil to photograph, constantly taking off whenever I got the digiscoping rig pointed their way!

It was around the Bushy-crested Jay spot that Grace’s Warblers started to be heard but I could not, for the life of me, get my binoculars on one.  Julie was having the same problem.  Whenever a little warbler-shaped-and-sized bird would let us get it in the binoculars it would turn out to be a Black-throated Green Warbler or a Magnolia Warbler or a Northern Parula, or, when we were really lucky, a Golden-winged Warbler.  Granted, these are all nice birds but not a Grace’s Warbler, which would be a lifer for me.  My life Streak-backed Oriole made up for the lack of a look at a Grace’s Warbler to some degree, as did the Hepatic Tanager that stayed perched on the top of a pine tree as every person in our birding group got looks one at a time through a spotting scope was cool, especially because it stayed put long enough for me to get shots of it as well (I love getting shots of the actual individual bird that is a lifer).

Onwards we went, more and more uphill, and a good thing too because the sun was out and bright but our elevation gain kept us ahead of and above the blast furnace-like heat that was down below.  And we needed the cool temperatures because there were many more birds to see, like at our next stop where euphonias galore were hanging out, including this lovely male Yellow-throated Euphonia.

Now, that isn’t my best picture ever, but euphonias seem to dislike doing things like flying down to eye level and giving nice long unobstructed looks so one has to make do.  And when an Elegant Euphonia (I’m sorry but calling a bird this gorgeous Blue-hooded Euphonia is just stupid (not only that the scientific name, Euphonia elegantissima, is easier to remember when one uses Elegant Euphonia)) even deigns to make an appearance it is a good day and when one actually lets one get a recognizable picture it is an even better day and when one gets a picture like the one below, well, let’s just say I was one happy birder!

What a bird!  And seeing a whole family group of at least six birds that included juvenile-plumaged males, adult males, and females was amazing.  Unfortunately, my very long range shots of the flock came out rather poorly, but a single female bird did pose nicely for me so you can get an idea as to the plumage differences.

A nice mixed-species flock of birds moving through the underbrush got me my second life wood-warbler of the day, a Slate-throated Redstart, which, I must say, is another absolutely amazing bird!  I wish I had managed a shot but, well, I guess you can’t get them all.  Oh, and have I mentioned that as we got higher and higher up the views got nicer and nicer?

Eventually, as all good things must, our journey up came to an end.  We parked the trucks one last time in the midst of a bunch of pine trees and had our minds blown by a single tree that included not just my life Olive Warblers, and not just my life Hermit Warbler, but also a Yellow-throated Warbler, and a cursed Grace’s Warbler that would have been my life Grace’s Warbler if the darn thing had let me see it!  I again managed to seem kind of foolish when I called the male Olive Warbler a Blackburnian Warbler after my first, fleeting glimpse, but at least this mistake sense because both have orange chests.  The birds really made this last stop before our trip back down a great one, especially the Olive Warblers

All too soon it was time to pile back into the trucks and head back down to Copan Ruinas because we did all want to explore the Mayan ruins which makes the town such a tourist destination (though if more people would try the birding in the hills around town the birds might manage to supplant the temples as the area’s number one tourist trap).  But there was one more bird left to get and as our pickup truck started down the hill I spotted it and we pounded on the roof to get our driver to stop the truck: a Grace’s Warbler had flown down into view and I had my fifth life warbler of the morning!  Whoo-hoo!  I didn’t even care when further down the hill I completely missed my life Black-headed Siskins because I was as happy as this little boy after such a great morning’s birding!

More information on the birds of Honduras’s western and southwestern highlands can be found on Robert Gallardo’s informative site here.  If you ever go I hope you have as good an experience as I did.  But make sure to come back tomorrow for a report on touring the Mayan ruins!

This post was first published in April of 2009 but an outing like this is too cool to keep hidden in the archives!

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 and Desmond Shearwater. 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.