Sunday, November 30, 2014

Birding Tikal National Park

Slaty-backed Trogon
 As birders, we tend to enjoy areas away from the major tourist attractions. But sometimes a tourist location is so epic that it can't be avoided. Today, we're going to take a trek into the magical Tikal National Park outside of Flores, Guatemala.  So bring your camelbak and snack bars as we explore this incredible tourist and ebird hotspot!

A Spider Monkey lazily collects dew drops from the leaves
 The first time I visited this park was back in 2006.  But I had a problem.  I wasn't a birder! So back in 2013, I returned with my wildlife training.  What would I discover with my new abilities?

Red-brocket Deer
 Tikal is a high tourist/birder traffic spot and the secret to visiting this Mayan gem is to go early before all the tourists get there.  When the loud tourists arrive later, move opposite from the crowd.  That's where you'll find all the birds.  Some don't mind the people, but there are others that do. Or another strategy is to join the crowd later on and explore the historic landmarks. 

Emerald Toucanet-one of THE MOST DIFFICULT BIRDS to spot because of its coloring!
 Not only will you learn about the ancient Mayan civilization, you'll also discover one of Guatemala's protected wild spaces.  

Prepare for mosquitoes and some muddy hikes if you go during the wet season.  This park is well worth the visit.  If you have a bucket list, this place should be on it. I felt safe hiking with all my camera gear out, and I was able to relax a bit with other park officials around the area who could help me out with bird ID questions.   

Montezuma Oropendula
 Back in 2013, I discovered the benefits of researching areas before visiting them. Before I would just go and see what there was to see. But as I've been adding new life birds to my list over the past several years, I've really had to focus my searches.  My passion for birding becomes an obsession! 

Howler Monkey
 There are two types of similar looking falcons that reside in this park.  A birder may find the more common Bat Falcon and if they study up on their falcons well, they may also discover the rarest of falcons...the Orange-breasted Falcon. Keep your eyes open for these extremely rare birds while you walk around the sacred pyramids.  

I noticed several falcons going after the hanging Montezuma Oropendula's nests.   Tourists walked past me not even caring.  I had no idea how rare this bird was in the wild.  I stood and watched it go back and forth thinking to myself, "This isn't a Bat Falcon."  A park official noticed me observing the bird and was kind enough to share with me some park data they had on the OBFA.  

Juvenile Orange-breasted Falcon
I was thrilled to chance upon this unexpected bird, but the find didn't hit me until after I got home and did more research on my newly acquired life birds. Unfortunately, this falcon is losing much of its habitat.  Illegal poaching, by falconers who steal the nest eggs, has also reduced the numbers of this bird in the wild.  I won't go into much detail, but it was a several month process verifying this bird with Ebird. And I'll leave it at that. I had the pic examined by several professional bird guides from the area to make sure that I ID'd the bird correctly. When an unknown bird pops up on my list, it really gets exciting.  This was probably my best discovery last year.  I hope that Tikal National Park continues to provide a safe haven for this bird for years to come. 

We continued to trek through the rain forest.  I was answering my friend's questions about the Mayans and Tikal, when I felt my spider sense go off.  Something was watching us from the canopy of the forest. 

Crested Guan
 What in the world was THAT bird??!!!!  Was it the infamous "other" turkey of the world found in Tikal National Park?  No, no....just a Crested Guan!!!!  Then my eyes noticed another colorful bird clinging to the branches next to the Guan......

Keel-billed Toucan
It's amazing how this large park will go from quiet to noisy within a few hours of the tourists arriving. Again, the rule was to counter opposite the large crowd. People are talkative pack animals! I bird by ear and if I can't hear, I get frustrated. This understanding has helped me out a lot while birding in congested areas like Southern California or the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Thankfully, Tikal is a big place so it's easy to escape the crazy. Anyhow, there were some very LOUD tourists that numbered in a pack of about 40 people coming our way.  All of them of course were yammering at the top of their lungs.  So here's my two cents....

White-nosed Coati

 If you've done some independent travel before and don't mind reading the signs, following the paper map they give you etc, skip the tour guide and group that goes with it. If you'd like a little wildlife with the history, get yourself the guide.  All of us bird differently and this should be an experience you will enjoy. Just keep track of your time.  You don't want to miss that last shuttle back to Flores:) 

We chose the independent route. I never get any of my "work" done with people around because I too can be social and distracted easily:)  Bring plenty of water.  I had my camelbak on the entire time. I think that was my only real concern while on this trek. 

So here's another tip.  Go during the cooler times(which is now until April).  Now I know the word "cooler" means various things for each of you in your own part of the world, but generally the summer (June-August) is a balmy cool in the morning to a lovely hot moist by afternoon. It can be downright uncomfortable. Rain happens mid to late morning in the summer.  Sometimes it will come and go....and come again.  Photography can be a real trick in Central America. I had to change my ISO settings often due to poor lighting conditions. I should also mention that my camera lens liked to fog up while exiting the A/C run shuttles or hotels while entering the humid world outside. This was one of the greatest challenges of our trip during the summer months. Tropical bird activity also adapted to the constant weather fluctuations making the birding a challenge.  There's nothing quite like getting stuck in the middle of a rain forest with your camera gear exposed:)  A rain poncho is important but should be lightweight so it doesn't weigh down the hike. 

Collared Aracari
Finally as we exited the park, my buddy and I felt like yet another bird was following us.  And indeed, when we turned around, this inquisitive Collared Aracari had been spying on us. Then came the loud yappy tourists and off the bird went. 

White-collared Seedeater
 And while eating lunch at their restaurant, we watched this White-collared Seedeater in the grasses flutter up and down. Where would we like to eat?  Outside of course!  You miss all the good birds if you eat inside:)

Social Flycatcher
 The Social Flycatcher was of course very social.  And just to make sure we didn't miss out on any life bird, the infamous Ocellated Turkeys showed up around the parking lot.  There are only two turkey species in the world.....the North American Wild Turkey(which includes the various subspecies like Gould's and Merriam's, etc) and the near threatened Ocellated Turkey from the Yucatán Pennisula. 

Ocellated Turkey
Tikal is a magnificent place to bird.  Just get there early and beat the tourist traffic.  You're going to love it!  Our next stop will take us into the Río Dulce region along the Caribbean side of Guatemala. For my latest birding treks, you can find me at my own blog Las Aventuras.  Until next time friends.....


  1. Amazing experiences, well captured!

    Gr. John

  2. Greetings from Dubai! Really enjoyed going through your blog. Have a great week ahead! Will be back soon...


  3. Chris, thank you for being our Tikal National Park tour guide. It looks like a marvelous place to bird, if one can avoid the crowds. I appreciate all the tips you offered in navigating the park while in search of birds. So many beautiful wildlife sightings you documented! Gorgeous birds, stunning photographs! What an outstanding experience this must have been for you. I believ I will have to add this location to my bucket list!

  4. Very nice and informative, Chris! I have never heard of most of these birds!