Honduras: The Lodge at Pico Bonito Feb 22—29, 2012

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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Time was running out. 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, but we arrived to find the Pico Bonito region unusually dry, and the fruiting cycles of many trees appeared to be "off." Despite this, we still managed several scope views (albeit somewhat distant ones) of stunning male Lovely Cotingas from atop Tower #1 on our first morning of birding.

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 one previous climb in search of the motmot, but that effort ended in a "heard only" encounter. Now, it was our next-to-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. In theory, we still had one more shot on the last day, but I knew that there would be no one masochistic enough to make the hike a third time after striking out twice.

So, while the majority of our 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 (stopping only for some displaying White-collared Manakins), huffing and puffing our way to my desired spot in about 45 minutes. Once there, we settled in and alternated long periods of listening with periodic brief bursts of playback. Nothing. Finally, just before 5:00 p.m., came an answer. The motmot called four or five times from the same place (somewhat distant) where we had heard him on Day #2, but then, abruptly, quit. It was really hard to stomach the thought of hearing this bird on three different days (we had heard another on a different trail on Day #3) without seeing it, but that's exactly the scenario that we were facing. After a very tense five minutes, I finally got the motmot calling again. But he was clearly glued to one spot. And then, I heard the calls of a couple of Tawny-faced Quail, and they sounded enticingly close to the trail. We were being tag-teamed by these birds, and in very real danger of not seeing either species. I would have to choose, and the motmot was my pick. Our bright, sunny afternoon had vanished, and the gloom of the forest interior was palpable. The motmot had seemingly not budged, but at least it was still engaged. I tried every trick in the book:  changing position, intermittent playback, playback of different types of vocalizations, and still, the motmot had not budged. Then, without warning, the response was issuing from much closer, and the motmot was giving a different call. "He's come in, and he's mad," I said. "Judging from the sound, he has to be in this grove of trees directly below us." In short order, both Sharon and Dale were calling that they had the bird. It was not in the easiest place to see, and our position on a knife-ridge left us no options for moving closer, so it was a bit of a frantic scramble to get everyone on the bird. It was now 5:40 p.m., and we had pulled out the Keel-billed Motmot at the 11th hour once again. We soaked in the details of the rufous forehead, the blue eyebrow and chin spot, the olive back, the large black chest spots, and the broad bill, reveling in the thought that we had just scored one of the biggest "Quest" birds of Central America. Then, after 10 minutes without further vocal challenge, the motmot abruptly quit calling and flew off downslope, secure in having driven off the phantom intruder. After a brief and ultimately futile attempt at bringing back the quail (which by now had moved some distance downslope), and, with light fading fast, we made our way back down the mountain—mission accomplished!

The motmot provided a most dramatic finish to what had been another successful tour to The Lodge at 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 (17 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. 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 one of the prizes on our first morning, while a day-roosting Great Potoo farther along the entrance road gave us yet another night bird that didn't require going out at night. A pair of wild-crested Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers feeding within 50 m of Reception on low-hanging oranges was a near daily treat, as were the Collared Aracaris, Keel-billed Toucans, and noisy Brown Jays and Montezuma Oropendolas that seemed to be everywhere on the property.

The forest trails produced a number of goodies, from Royal Flycatcher and Rufous Mourner to both species (Red-crowned and Red-throated) of ant-tanager, and a too-close-to-focus-on pair of Black-throated Trogons, here, at the northwestern limit of their range. Best of all was a breathtakingly elegant pair of White Hawks that soared in concert, tracing lazy circles against the verdant backdrop of the jagged forested slopes. Lower down, near the Butterfly Gardens, we were treated to pairs of Black-headed Trogons, stunning Turquoise-browed Motmots, a bathing male Great Antshrike, and, on one afternoon, a tree decorated with euphonias of 4 species (Scrub, Yellow-throated, Olive-backed, and White-vented), with some Blue-crowned Chlorophonias thrown in for good measure. On one excursion, German succeeded in herding a Little Tinamou toward us, offering rare great views of a bird whose quavering calls could be heard from our cabins each day at dusk. As always, it was a particular treat to observe good numbers of migrant passerines (although, disturbingly, several species were much less common than usual), from skulking Gray Catbirds and Ovenbirds to attention-grabbing Magnolia Warblers and American Redstarts, and to trees full of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that seemed not to care what we were doing. A nighttime search for Black-and-white Owl failed to produce so much as a whiff of the bird, but it did treat us to an arrestingly comical vocal performance from some nocturnal tree frogs whose bicycle-horn imitations appeared to be directly stimulated by me playing the owl calls!

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 Rufous-tailed Jacamars and Black-headed Trogons to Cocoa Woodcreepers and an Olivaceous Piculet. In that same morning we watched Giant Cowbirds skulking around the fringes of an active colony of Montezuma Oropendolas, enjoyed scope views of Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, successfully taped in the usually elusive Ruddy Crake, watched orioles of three species swarming to a flowering Erythrina tree, and ran the gamut on the raptor color spectrum, seeing White Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Great Black-Hawk. 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, and loads of White-collared Seedeaters, Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, and other birds mobbing the pygmy-owl tape. Among the latter were Cinnamon Hummingbirds and a few wintering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Seeing a pair of White-fronted Parrots nest prospecting was a treat, as were our prolonged studies of a couple of gorgeous Lesser Roadrunners (great spotting Richard!).

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 Limpkin, Bat Falcon, White-tailed Kite, 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 Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, all five possible kingfishers (highlighted by close views of a perched American Pygmy Kingfisher) and Sungrebe, as well as proboscis bats, mantled howler monkey, white-faced capuchin monkey, and American crocodile to add taxonomic balance. Campamento Curla provided us with some memorable mob-scenes, with Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls (and/or my recordings thereof) 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 Elaenias and Cinnamon Hummingbirds, as the mobbers. Particularly memorable were the Spot-breasted, Black-cowled, and Yellow-backed orioles that were all seen from the same spot, the exceptionally responsive Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and the lovely pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons.

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.