Honduras: Pico Bonito Lodge Feb 23—Mar 02, 2011
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
Time was running out. We had just semi-succeeded in luring a male Tawny-faced Quail into the trail. I say "semi" because the quail materialized in the trail without most people in the group seeing it. It was only when I called out, "It's in the trail!" that binoculars were raised, and, in that moment, the bird half-hopped, half-flew across the trail, not to be seen again. I was suddenly aware that the afternoon light was fading fast within the interior of the forest. It was now or never for our quest bird, the Keel-billed Motmot.
If one were forced to name a "signature bird" to identify with The Lodge at Pico Bonito, it would come down to a toss-up 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. The cotinga is much easier when its preferred food trees are fruiting near the lodge. Such is usually the case at this season, and, indeed, we found three stunning males on our first morning. The motmot is a horse of a different color. It seems to prefer primary forest, leaving the second-growth and edge, in this region at least, to its cousins the Blue-crowned and Turquoise-browed motmots. In this part of Honduras, getting into primary forest generally means a climb, because most of the remaining forest is in the Pico Bonito National Park, whose jagged peaks rise steeply from the abutting lowlands. We had already made two previous attempts at seeing the motmot on the lower fringes, and neither attempt had produced even so much as a heard bird. Now, it was our last afternoon, and our large group had been pared to those determined souls who were hardy enough for the rather steep climb needed to reach prime Keel-billed Motmot terrain.
So, while about half of the group opted for birding on relatively level ground with our local guide, German Martinez, along the entrance road, I led the rest on the "motmot-or-bust" expedition. We made excellent time, huffing and puffing our way to my desired spot in 43 minutes. Once there, we settled in and alternated long periods of listening with periodic brief bursts of playback. Nothing. And then I heard the calls of some very close Tawny-faced Quail, which commanded our attention for the next 20 minutes or so. But by the time the quail had vanished, so had our bright, sunny afternoon. The gloom of the forest interior was palpable, and still, we had not even heard our quarry. I began moving up and down the trail, broadcasting motmot calls more frequently. And soon I had an answer, from far down in the valley below us. Within moments, I could hear three Keel-billed Motmots calling—what seemed to be a pair of birds and then another individual much farther up the valley. Over the next 10 minutes I slowly teased the responding pair closer, until, at last, I spotted one of the calling birds. It was not in the easiest place to see, and our position on a knife-ridge left us few options for moving closer, so it was a bit of a frantic scramble to get everyone on the bird. Once that had been achieved, I tried just a bit more playback, and suddenly both members of the pair flew up to much more open perches that were not only closer, but which were also virtually at eye level. For the next 15 minutes we admired these beautiful and decidedly rare birds from every angle, noting the rufous forehead, blue-green chin, broad bill, and large black chest spots that distinguish it from other members of the family. Finally, with light fading fast, we turned our backs on the motmot pair and made our way back down the mountain—mission accomplished!
The motmots provided a most dramatic finish to what had been a very successful tour to Pico Bonito. As usual, we were treated to first-rate accommodations, excellent food, and an attentive lodge staff. We also enjoyed the usual nice cross section of lowland Central American birds and Neotropical migrants (18 species of warblers, plus various migrant flycatchers, tanagers, buntings, grosbeaks, and orioles), all while experiencing nearly perfect weather.
Much of our birding was done right around the lodge grounds, or along the entrance road. Hummingbird feeders off the back deck treated us to point-blank views of White-necked Jacobin, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and Long-billed and Stripe-throated hermits. Wood Thrushes, Gray Catbirds, and Hooded Warblers patrolled the lawns, while noisy pairs of Great Kiskadees and Social Flycatchers constructed nests in plain view from the deck, and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers alternated with Yellow-winged Tanagers at the fruit feeders. A lovely rufous-morph Vermiculated Screech-Owl on a daytime roost was the prize one afternoon, nicely complementing the pair of gray/brown-morph birds spotlighted before dinner later that evening. Three different day-roosting Great Potoos (one right near the cabins; one along the entrance road; and one across the valley that we scoped from the observation platform) gave us yet another night bird that didn't require going out at night. An Emerald Toucanet feeding on a fruiting Cecropia was a real treat, as were a bathing Kentucky Warbler and a calling Turquoise-browed Motmot at almost the same spot on other days. Nesting Red-lored Parrots along the entrance road showed off nicely, and noisy Brown Jays and Montezuma Oropendolas seemed to be everywhere on the property. The forest trails produced a number of goodies, from Royal Flycatcher and Rufous Mourner to Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, and some spectacular male White-collared and Red-capped manakins.
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 treats, from a responsive pair of snazzy Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers, to nesting Gray Hawks, Cocoa and Streak-headed woodcreepers, close views of Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, four Shining Honeycreepers mobbing the pygmy-owl tape, and ridiculous numbers of Gray Catbirds. 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 inquisitive pairs of White-bellied Wrens, feisty White-lored Gnatcatchers, dazzling Spot-breasted Orioles, Painted Bunting and loads of White-collared Seedeaters, Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, and other birds mobbing the pygmy-owl tape. Among the latter were Cinnamon Hummingbirds and glittering "Salvin's" Emeralds, as well as a few wintering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. We also scored nice scope views of a singing Striped Cuckoo, and the folks in one van managed quick looks at a perched female Hook-billed Kite. An afternoon at Cuero y Salado refuge allowed us the rare opportunity to bird off a train (that would actually stop for such goodies as Short-tailed Hawk, 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, and Sungrebe, as well as long-nosed bats, mantled howler monkey, white-faced capuchin monkey, and American crocodile to add taxonomic balance. Campamento Curla provided us with some memorable mob scenes, the best of which featured a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls (one rufous, the other gray-brown) as the targets, as well as more than a dozen species of small birds ranging from Yellow-throated Warblers and White-eyed Vireos to Yellow-bellied and Greenish elaenias, as the mobbers. Particularly memorable was the family group of Spot-breasted Orioles that allowed such close studies.
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.