Honduras: Pico Bonito Lodge Feb 25—Mar 04, 2010
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
My first tour to Pico Bonito not only lived up to expectations, it exceeded them. I knew we could count on first-rate accommodations, excellent food, and an attentive lodge staff. I also knew the potential for seeing a nice cross section of lowland Central American birds and Neotropical migrants was great, and that we had an excellent chance of picking up a few truly special target species. But until you've actually done it with a group, there remains a nagging uncertainty.
If one were forced to name a "signature bird" to identify with The Lodge at Pico Bonito, it would come down to a tossup between the stunningly beautiful Lovely Cotinga and the enigmatic Keel-billed Motmot. Both of these iconic species are among the most sought-after specialties of Central America, and in a short period of time Pico Bonito has become synonymous with each. But that is not to say that either species is necessarily easy, at least not in all seasons. Our December scouting trip to the Lodge produced both species, but on that occasion the cotingas seen were always distant, and the motmot required a fairly long and moderately steep hike. Truth-be-told, I was a bit apprehensive about both species.
Any such apprehensions were erased on our first full day in the field. We started with a very short walk to the first observation platform, and it wasn't long before we had spotted both male and female cotingas, although once again, they weren't particularly close. More impressively, we found a perched adult King Vulture, which allowed rare, prolonged scope studies. Leaving the tower, we paused to call in a Bright-rumped Attila and an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, both of which allowed exceptional views. It was then that German spotted what would prove to be the first of multiple close Lovely Cotingas not 30 feet away in a Cecropia. Even with its back to us, the handsome bird was stunning. But it paled in comparison to the views we were treated to a couple of hours later when we came across a fruiting tree teeming with birds, including multiple cotingas. One particularly splendid male returned to the same low branches multiple times, allowing full-frontal scope views. Although I had seen Lovely Cotingas many times before in Mexico, Belize, and Honduras, never had I seen one as well as this! By the end of the morning we had seen at least 8 Lovely Cotingas, with scope views from every angle. In between, we thrilled to close Black-headed and Slaty-tailed trogons, nest-prospecting Red-lored Parrots, nest-attending Pale-billed Woodpeckers, male Red-capped and White-collared manakins in the same tree, and a feisty Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet that I called in for eye level views.
I decided to go for the Keel-billed Motmot that afternoon. I knew it would be a long and somewhat steep hike on a narrow forest trail, and I really didn't want to spend a morning in pursuit of one bird, no matter how special, unless I had to. Besides, motmots are typically vocal and responsive in the late afternoon, perhaps even more so than in the morning. So, we went for it, huffing and puffing our way up the slope, with inevitable stops for birds—a soaring Black Hawk-Eagle here, a noisy flock of Black-faced Grosbeaks there, even a friend from home in the form of an Olive-sided Flycatcher. By the time we finally reached the spot, the forest interior was already becoming gloomy, signaling the lateness of the hour. This would have to be a surgical strike. I played the tape, and within seconds had a distant response from far down slope. The bird gradually worked its way up the knife-ridge toward us, calling steadily. I played the tape one more time, and the bird abruptly went quiet. "He's gone quiet, which probably means he's headed right for us," I cautioned. Suddenly, the bird was calling again, and this time he sounded as if he were on top of us. "He's here," said German, who was pointing a finger with only a partially extended hand. It took a second to find, mainly because it seemed incomprehensible that the motmot could be as close to German as it was. It was perched so close that German could have reached out and grabbed it off the branch had he been so inclined! The nearly mythical bird held its ground for a minute, then flew up to a more open perch that at least allowed us room to focus our binoculars. And there it sat, one of the rarest, most localized, and seldom-seen birds in Central America—in the open, just above eye level, at minimum-focus range, and calling away. He was still there 20 minutes later when we regretfully had to turn our backs and walk away.
With the two biggest target birds under our belts, we could relax for the remainder of the week and enjoy the ample birding opportunities available on the Lodge property. Hummingbird feeders off the back deck treated us to point-blank views of White-necked Jacobin, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Green-breasted Mango, Violet Sabrewing, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and Long-billed and Stripe-throated hermits. A fruiting palm right off the same deck attracted a steady procession of birds, from parrots to toucans to noisy family groups of Brown Jays. Wood Thrushes and Hooded Warblers patrolled the lawns, while Yellow-bellied Flycatchers called persistently from the shaded understory lining the paths between cabins. A Vermiculated Screech-Owl stuck to a favorite roosting site next to one of the cabins, allowing unlimited daytime viewing. And a brief nightbirding excursion resulted in excellent views of a calling Mottled Owl. A responsive Chestnut-colored Woodpecker along the front drive ended up being voted Favorite Bird of the Trip, and a day-roosting Great Potoo farther down the driveway gave us yet another night bird that didn’t require going out at night.
In between birding the Lodge grounds, we made a number of excursions to a variety of off-site locations, each with its own special set of birds. The entrance road to the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens produced lots of goodies, from too-close-to-focus-on Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet to snazzy Violaceous Trogons, skulking Great Antshrikes, and flowering trees bursting with hummers and tanagers. An all-day excursion to the arid, rain-shadow thorn-forest of the Aguan Valley produced stellar views of the Honduran Emerald, the only bird species endemic to Honduras. Along with seeing multiple Emeralds, we were treated to screaming pairs of Gray Hawks, inquisitive pairs of White-bellied Wrens, dazzling Spot-breasted Orioles, and multiple pugnacious Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, each with many attendant smaller birds looking to drive the owls from the neighborhood. Among the latter were both Cinnamon Hummingbirds and glittering Salvin's Emeralds. A morning at Cuero y Salado refuge allowed us the rare opportunity to bird off a train (that would actually stop for such goodies as Jabiru, White-tailed Kite, Laughing Falcon, and the like), as well as a fascinating boat trip through some of the most beautiful mangrove forest I have ever seen, the latter replete with Boat-billed Herons, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, roosting Northern Potoo and long-nosed bats, and white-faced capuchin monkeys and a boa constrictor to add taxonomic balance. Campimento Curla gave us some of our most colorful birds, from Turquoise-browed Motmots to Crimson-collared Tanagers and a couple of smart-looking male Painted Buntings. It also provided us with some memorable mob scenes, in which my pygmy-owl tape brought in more than 20 species of smaller birds, from Yellow-throated Warblers to Indigo and Painted buntings, to orioles, flycatchers, and saltators. Curla also produced well on raptors, including nice views of soaring White Hawk and Black Hawk-Eagle, as well as perched Zone-tailed Hawk. In fact, we achieved something akin to hitting the color-spectrum trifecta on hawks, with White Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Common Black-Hawk all seen in one morning!
All in all, it was a most enjoyable week of Central American birding, with a nice mix of typical tropical birds such as parrots, motmots, toucans, tanagers, hummingbirds, and oropendolas, along with an excellent assortment of wintering and migrant species that would soon be on their way north to breed in the U.S. and Canada. Along the way, we had close encounters with Honduras' only endemic bird, as well as two of the most iconic and sought-after of Central American birds, in the form of the Lovely Cotinga and the Keel-billed Motmot. You all were a lot of fun, and I hope to see you again on future trips.