• Bearded Screech-Owls in the mist

    Birding in cloud forest is a mystical experience, the delicate mosses, ferns and orchids seem to melt, motionless into the fog. Drops form on every bit of vegetation as a result of condensation, though it is not raining, there is a huge amount of water coming down out of the trees making the trail muddy and feeding clear mountain streams.

    Here in this still forest were nothing can be heard but the steady dripping from the cloud-catching trees and the occasional Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush saying goodnight, is the home of the Bearded Screech-Owl. It gets dark early in the cloud forest, sunset is around five-thirty but at four forty-five it is already dark. The lush vegetation overhead and the thick cloud clinging to the mountain-top make for a gloomy, almost eerie, understory, shapes melt into one-another.

    The first screech-owl is heard, not suddenly but gradually as if it had always been singing. A very quiet, purred trill, rising slightly in volume. A minute later, in the misty understory, a bird flies in and perches on a moss covered branch. Little more than a dark outline in the fog. Then there are two of them. Perched side-by-side, rufous morph and gray morph.

    The pair look up at two tall shapes in the mist holding cameras with big lenses. The first images are taken in natural light, high ISO, low speed, wide aperture, to capture every last available photon.

    They remain motionless, very cooperative. After several minutes the gray bird moves up to a new perch and continues to sing. Meanwhile the rufous morph bird stays put and gives a high-pitched cricket-like trill in response to the song of its mate, flashlights are produced to shed some light on the bird and capture more images.

    After a few more minutes it is time to leave, the pair of screech-owls watch as the tall shapes of the intruding birders retreat up the hill and disappear into the fog.

  • Birding the Montezuma Road

    The famous birding hotspot known as the Montezuma Road is easily one of the best birding destinations in Colombia. With nearly 600 species of birds recorded along the 14 km track from the Montezuma Rainforest Lodge to the top of Cerro Montezuma. The elevational gradient from the Lodge at 1300m to the mountaintop at 2550m is simply spectacular for birding. Located on the Pacific Slope of the Western Andes, Montezuma is part of a broader region known as the Chocó, one of the most biodiverse areas on earth.

    When I first visited Montezuma, back in 2016, I fell in love with the incredible diversity. Having spent only three days on site I knew this place was magical. Shortly after my first visit I began working as a local guide at the Lodge. The birding has never ceased to amaze me. So far I’ve seen/heard roughly 400 species of birds at Montezuma.

    After being closed for much of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lodge at Montezuma is now receiving visitors. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come down and get back into the intense birding this place has to offer.

    Montezuma has not disappointed. The birding is crazy good. Hummingbird feeders bustling with activity, fruit feeders with colorful tanagers and barbets, and most important of all, the cloud forest itself, concealing countless secrets.

    I started my birding adventure on the mountaintop and worked my way down to the lodge, separating the road into sections, each section can be birded in a day. At higher elevations the endemic Munchique Wood-Wren and Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer are rather abundant and relatively easy to see. Other goodies include Tanager Finch, Barred Fruiteater, Grass-green Tanager, Purplish-mantled Tanager and an assortment of hummingbirds. Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant and Black-throated Tody-Tyrant are skulkers, but I was able to get a visual of both.

    The middle section of the Montezuma Road is home to some spectacular birds as well, Golden-headed Quetzal, Gold-ringed Tanager, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Golden-collared Honeycreeper, Orange-breasted Fruiteater and Beautiful Jay, to mention a few. With some luck I managed to spot an Indigo Flowerpiercer, a shy species that can be readily detected by its far-carrying high-pitched song, but is a needle in a haystack when trying get a visual. The stunning Velvet-purple Coronet is wildly abundant and highly territorial in this middle section, a glowing gem in the dark Cloud Forest understory.

    A leisurely morning stroll on the lower Montezuma Road produced 150 species, including Olive Finch, Ornate Flycatcher, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Toucan Barbet, Choco Tapaculo, Chestnut-crowned Gnateater, Plain-backed Antpitta, Andean Cock-of-the-rock, White-chinned Swift and Buffy Tuftedcheek. Noisy flocks of Crested Ant-Tanagers and Dusky-faced Tanagers move through the vine tangles in the dense jungle accompanied by Golden-bellied and Three-striped Warblers.

    Back at the Lodge, the feeders are a constant source of entertainment, a pair of Red-headed Barbets make an appearance, noisy flocks of Chesnut-headed and Russet-backed Oropendolas take part in the feeding frenzy momentarily. A serious number of hummingbirds hover around the feeders, over thirty species visit regularly.

    It is great to be back and I definitely don’t want to leave. The good news is, I will be at the Montezuma Lodge for another month and hope to share some more discoveries soon enough. Until then, stay safe.

    Best birding,

    John Cahill

  • John hits 700 sp. milestone for Guatemala
    John Cahill of Xikanel finds Southern Lapwing, his 700th species for Guatemala.

    At 4 o’clock, Friday afternoon, John Cahill and Michelle Tapasco encountered a Southern Lapwing. As they were scouting a route at Laguna Chichoj for the October Big Day, John spotted the contrasting plumage of the Lapwing in a field clear on the other side of the Lake. After snapping a quick ID shot, they notified the Pajareros de Verapaz local birding group, and within the hour five of the regions top birders showed up to marvel at the spectacle.

    To date John has now observed, 92% of the country’s total bird species.

    From all of us at Xikanel, we would like to congratulate John on reaching species number 700 for Guatemala! This is a huge accomplishment, especially given that there are 762 species recorded in the country. Meaning that to date John has now observed, nearly 92% of the country’s total bird species.

    The Southern Lapwing, is a rare species for Guatemala, being at the northern boundary of its range. Most range maps show this species only as far north as Costa Rica or southern Nicaragua, and eBird records list only six locations north of Honduras. In 2014, our friend Maynor Ovando encountered this species as a first record on eBird for Guatemala. John who was on his second Big Year at the time, unsuccessfully attempted to twitch this bird, which disappeared by the next day.

    Farther south in Central and South America, this Lapwing is quite a common sighting in pastures and especially near water. Lapwings often will announce their presence with raucus far-carrying calls, in drier climates people sometimes follow them to find water.

    John is very familiar with this striking species from his years spent birding in Colombia. However, has been attempting to find the Southern Lapwing in Guatemala since 2014. The individual they encountered on Friday stuck around for the October Big Day and through the Global Bird Weekend, offering spectacular views to all of the local birders who were able to show up to see it.

    Rudy, Erwin, John, Luisa, Samuel, and Rob watching Southern Lapwing at Laguna Chichoj, San Cristobal Verapaz. photo: Tara Cahill

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