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Birding Honduras—a Riot of Beauty, a Gift Bag of Birds and Mysterious Landscapes

by Julie Zickefoose

Article Sections

Birding and Beyond

I came here to bird watch, but it is the people who fascinate me. Coming here is a trip back in time, farther back than I am ready to go. Everyone, it seems, walks to wherever they need to go; the lucky ones riding a bike, the even luckier ones piled into the back of a pickup, hanging on, crushed like cigars in a box. Their homes are often hovels by any standard: no electricity, no running water, no toilet paper. Traveling, you learn to carry Kleenex in your pocket; you squeeze hand cleanser from a bottle if you thought to bring it. Everywhere dust and diesel, brief downpours spattering the windshield. Everywhere ditches full of water; roadside puddles, often with a heron or northern jacana as decoration. Everywhere are children, tiny ones, sitting in mud, a boy aiming a squirt gun at two enormous Brahma cattle, which to my amazement run from him.

I wonder as I ride the bus how anyone decides they want to live here, coming from the States especially; how one forsakes the abundance we take for granted and comes to live among those for whom a car and house and shower and electric lights are distant dreams. I suppose one could live very well here with the kind of money we toss around in the States. I don't know. I feel crushed under the enormity of it all, the poverty that is the norm for most everyone, the lack, the things they don't have. I look at a toddler wearing tiny shorts, standing in a dirt yard along the road, and wonder at the lot he's been dealt; wonder what is to become of him, if he'll be free to do anything of note or importance, free to do anything other than simply survive. How is he to make his mark in a world without possibility?

I keep pulling myself back to the main purpose of the trip, forcing my distracted eyes to look through binoculars. It all feels so superfluous, and yet I know that it's important to celebrate the birds that are everywhere in this verdant, rumpled, impossibly beautiful place. I want to urge others to come here and stay for a while, to walk through forest and plantation, collecting toucans and euphonias for a little paper list. It's a pleasant diversion, but I can't help feeling a little silly as I go about it.

I've felt it before, in Guatemala and the Yucatán, picturing myself as someone's dotty aunt who goes off on birding jaunts, because that's how it feels when I come to an undeveloped country just to lift my binoculars to the birds, then write about the experience. Standing in lines in airports, I'm surrounded by medical volunteers who are coming here to fix harelips, teeth, or skin conditions in people who can't afford medical care; by evangelists in matching neon T-shirts who are bound to witness their faith to the downtrodden, perhaps to build a school. All right. I'm here for the birds.

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Verdant and mysterious

Because Honduras's terrain is coastal plain and valley cut by range after range of cordilleras, diverse birding experiences are concentrated in comparatively small geographic areas.

In the vicinity of Lake Yojoa, several topflight birding destinations await within an hour's drive—several only a few minutes away. Los Naranjos Archaeological Site, a Lenca Indian ruin, includes beautifully landscaped gardens popping with orioles, tityras, and tanagers and a flooded forest traversable by a boardwalk that has to be experienced to be believed. Built with money from a French NGO, it is a fine, sturdy structure, elevated on concrete pilings above the shallow water, opening a long and varied gallery of flooded forest. Iridescent green muscovy ducks glide in on white-patched wings, while rare sungrebes paddle silently through the tree trunks, playing hide-and-seek with eager bird watchers.

Golden-winged, hooded, Tennessee, and Kentucky warblers flit overhead, along with big, floppy squirrel cuckoos and aracaris. Again and again I'm struck by the pleasure of seeing familiar birds in exotic settings; of watching hooded warblers forage nonchalantly through philodendron leaves 100 times their size. I leave Los Naranjos knowing that I could traverse this boardwalk a dozen times and see a completely different set of birds with each excursion. Anything seems possible, and as one and then two bare-throated tiger-herons take sudden wing, as a muscovy drake preens his viridian wing, a perfect reflection in the dark water beneath him, I already long to come back.

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The Forest Region

For the intrepid, hiking into Honduras's montane forests—whether tropical broadleaf or pine-oak—can bring satisfying encounters with mixed-species flocks of tanagers, euphonias, orioles, shrike-vireos, honeycreepers, and flycatchers, to name just a few. Cerro Azul Meambar, a 478-square-kilometer park high above Lake Yojoa, offers tantalizing hikes through evergreen broadleaf forest along tumbling mountain streams, with a stunning variety of montane species awaiting. A row of feeders hanging from the veranda attracts white-bellied emeralds, rufous-tailed hummingbirds, long-tailed hermits, and the unutterably spectacular, oversized violet sabrewing, a king-size hummingbird I had glimpsed only briefly in Guatemala. Like a great purple chimney swift, it thrums into the Cerro Azul feeders on slowly beating wings, dwarfing all the other hummers. By some trick of iridescence, it is gloriously, undeniably violet from all angles, and its regular appearance at the feeders always elicits gasps of appreciation from bird watchers waiting in lawn chairs for just that moment. Just a stone's throw away perches a black-crested coquette, a hummingbird so fabulously ornate that I laugh out loud upon finding it in the scope.

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The Highlands

Quite another experience characterizes the highlands above Copan. Here, a much drier ecotone supports pine-oak forests reminiscent of the New Mexican highlands; I had to constantly remind myself that the jays I'd see would be not Steller's, but brown and bushy-crested jays. The penetrating silence of a tall pine forest, the fragrance and stillness, the sigh of the wind through needles, brought us a day of birding that I'll always remember. What a delight it was to watch olive, Grace's, and hermit warblers—our western migrants—and then to hear white-fronted Amazon parrots go shrieking by; to revel in the blue-caped beauty of elegant euphonias while azure-crowned hummingbirds buzzed among flowering vines. Honduras scrambles your expectations as a bird watcher; you don't know what will pop up next, and the juxtapositions of familiar North American migrants with the extravagant exotica of resident tropical birds keep a birder buzzing with anticipation.

A fruiting tree can be a buffet for both bird and watcher. The element of unpredictability is delicious, epitomized by the sighting of a pair of rufous-winged tanagers, an unexpected life bird for me and for several others in our group. This unprepossessing name hangs on a bird of exquisite beauty—brilliant lime green, with a yellow back, an apron of vivid cerulean, and a chestnut head and wings. Even as we admired it, we cast an eye to the sky, for through the steep mountain passes hawk-eagles, kites, bat falcons, and white-collared swifts may glide by unnoticed.

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Motmots

Motmots are spectacular birds that most visitors to Honduras are sure to see even without looking. Honduras boasts more species of motmot than any other country. The amazingly common blue-crowned and turquoise-browed motmots are easily seen together, and often in the most unexpected places—a village park, an archaeological ruin, a picnic site. Possessed of the same vibrant blues and serene greens as their gorgeous habitat, with a quirky humor all their own, motmots seem to epitomize Honduras's verdant charm. They switch their long racket-tipped tails like pendulums, coo softly, and take flight in a fanfare of turquoise and green.

Our guide, Robert Gallardo, renowned for his expertise in birds, butterflies, and orchids, gave us a rare gift when he played the call of a tody motmot high on the flank of a forested hill above The Lodge at Pico Bonito. First to respond was a keel-billed motmot, a rare mountain prize, cloaked in muted blue and green. Within seconds a tody motmot popped up too. Small and chunky with a tiny turquoise diadem, the tody motmot perched just yards apart from the heavy-headed keel-billed motmot, giving most of our group a life motmot double-header. The muddy climb we'd made seemed a small price for such a phenomenon. Pico Bonito Reserve is the place to do that. Sliding back down the mountain, we thoroughly muddied our luxurious accommodations, the five-star cabins and restaurant drowning in verdant tropical flowers and ringing with the calls of tinamous, bat falcons, and woodcreepers.

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The Aguan Valley

Any birding excursion to Honduras should include a side trip to the Aguan Valley to find the critically endangered Honduran emerald hummingbird, Amazilia luciae, the country's only endemic species. With perhaps fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining, it is still easy to locate the species in its very dry tropical forest habitat—a forbidding mesh of thorn scrub and organ pipe cactus. We visited the only preserve dedicated to the Honduran emerald, a former Honduran Air Force base that once supplied the Nicaraguan contras during the Cold War. Just off the runway, jewel-like male emeralds sat and chipped out their dry courting songs from thin vermilion bills, their heads and throats hooded in shimmering turquoise. Rarely can one look an endangered bird right in the eye.

Ricardo "Fito" Steiner, an ardent conservationist who is the Honduran emerald's chief champion, works to protect the bird on a shoestring, and in 2008 discovered another population in Santa Barbara. This bird was thought to be extinct from 1950 to 1988, and it clings to existence largely through Steiner's efforts to prevent further destruction of its habitat through agriculture, road development, and grazing. Such is the fate of a creature dependent on a specialized habitat viewed as worthless by humans, yet teeming with fragile life. It was sobering to think that but for a few caring people, this lovely little bird could disappear altogether along with its cactus-studded habitat.

A visit to an agricultural station where African zebu cattle are being crossed with Asian water buffalo—producing an enormous hybrid well suited to tropical climes—also netted a stunning variety of raptors, waterfowl, and parrots. A boat trip through the mangrove swamp at Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge got us eyeball to eyeball with that weirdest of herons, the boat-billed—by all appearances a google-eyed cross between a night-heron and a duck, with the crazed hooting voice of a kookaburra. Finca El Paraiso, a shade-grown coffee plantation, produced emerald toucanets, ferruginous pygmy-owls, and the jaw-dropping crimson-collared tanager, along with more electric-blue motmots.

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Tangles of Color

Color: That's what I remember when I remember Honduras. Color in the birds and color in the landscape, brilliant bursts of magenta against steel blue mountains, silver streams cascading down their flanks. Valleys clothed in lime green so vivid it hurt my eyes after the drab monochrome of my temperate winter habitat. I remember people walking; horses, dogs, and cattle ambling across the road; I remember thundershowers and dripping leaves, giant weird insects and even more bizarre flowers, and through it all the colors and songs of so many birds I sometimes spluttered in frustration at my inability to take it all in. No larger than Tennessee but infinitely more rumpled and thus diverse, Honduras is a riot of beauty, a gift bag of birds and glorious landscapes, towering clouds and color. Twelve days, 296 species—10 of them life birds. Visiting this underbirded and underappreciated country, I marveled that North American tourists continue to travel the well-worn ruts throughout the rest of Central America, while verdant, mysterious Honduras rests, waiting to unfurl its wings and be discovered.

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If You Go

Any trip to Honduras should start with a visit to Robert Gallardo's website, birdsofhonduras.com. Here you'll find tour contacts, habitat descriptions, a bird species list to drool over, and photo galleries. With his artist wife, Irma, Robert runs the new eco-lodge La Chorcha Lodge (lachorchalodge.com). Its three verdant acres in the Copan highlands include forest and conservatories for butterflies and orchids—an excellent introduction to some of Honduras's amazing biodiversity. From here, you can bird the highlands and visit the Mayan ruins of Copan. Hacienda San Lucas is a nice restaurant nearby with terrific bird watching on the drive up.

From Copan, you may wish to travel to Pico Bonito, where luxury and terrific humid-forest birding await. It's an easy trip from there to Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, an exquisite mangrove swamp navigated in skiffs. The Lodge at Pico Bonito (picobonito.com) is exquisite, from its gardens to its open-air lounge to its private luxury cabins and terrific food. And crested owls and keel-billed and tody motmots await in the cloud-shrouded hills above. Raptors, owls, woodpeckers, toucans, tanagers, crazy moths on UV-lit bedsheets, the strangest Heliconia flowers ever—they had to pry me out of Pico Bonito. Manager James Adams is an expert naturalist and hotelier, and it shows in every detail.

A great number of good bird-watching sites are easily accessible in the area of Lake Yojoa. Hotel Finca Las Glorias—with beautiful, birdy grounds, excellent food, and basic accommodations—is situated on a lakeshore teeming with water and shorebirds, while its shade-coffee plantations are dripping with North American migrants as well as toucans, parrots, jays, pygmy-owls, and other raptors. From this hotel, you can have great morning birding, then drive to the spectacular trogon-, motmot-, and hummingbird-infested Cerro Azul Meambar National Park; Los Naranjos Archaeological Site with its mega-boardwalk through flooded forest—think sungrebes, tiger-herons, woodcreepers, and wild muscovy ducks; Finca El Paraiso plantation for tanagers and toucanets; and, about an hour away, Santa Barbara National Park, a true cloud forest with resplendent quetzals.

For the lister, it would be a shame to visit Honduras without bagging its only endemic, the Honduran emerald hummingbird in its dry tropical forest reserve near Olanchito. If you go, it might be wise to solicit recommendations from the proprietors of La Chorcha Lodge and The Lodge at Pico Bonito on your route, birding stops, and accommodations.

A few things to pack: In addition to good raingear, a mini folding umbrella comes in very handy for the frequent showers. Pack a warm fleece, good socks, and long pants—it can get cold in the highlands. If you haven't discovered the joys of a headlamp, do it for this trip. They're indispensable. Sun hat, sunscreen, and light tropical-weight long-sleeved shirts and pants are mostly what you'll wear. Bring Immodium for the (almost inevitable) travelers' gut, and ask your doctor to supply you with medication for malaria—you may not need it, but it's good to have doxycycline along should you come down with an unexplained fever. Hand sanitizer and several purse packs of Kleenex should round out your preparations nicely.

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Julie Zickefoose is eagerly awaiting her next book, due out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in spring 2012.

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