Thursday, July 2, 2015

Honduras Birding: Day 2, Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge

Parides sp.

For our second full day in Honduras, German took us out to Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge for a boat ride through mangrove forest. To get there, the lodge shuttled us to La Unión, where we'd catch a train to take us the remaining 9 km, although "train" may seem a bit of an overstatement. Whatever you call it, we had a blast during the 45 minutes it took to complete the route. Tall grasses lined the tracks on either side, and we continually flushed White-collared and Variable Seedeaters, Thick-billed Seed-finches, and Blue-black Grassquits. German called out their names to us, but we could only register blurs before they were already behind us. It was easier to distinguish the Inca Doves from the Ruddy Ground-doves, and there was no mistaking a lone Northern Jacana. A pair Black-headed Trogons staked-out a termite mound, and after we shouted out in excitement and gestured wildly at the birds, the conductor very generously stopped the train and let us get some photos.

Spot-breasted Oriole nest

Black-headed Trogon

At Cuero y Salado, the three of us loaded into a small motorized boat along with our pilot, and set off along the red, white, and black mangroves. It's been years since we've been in mangrove forest, and it almost felt like we were back in south Florida, except that the here the Great Egrets, Green Herons, and Yellow-crowned Night-herons shared the habitat with awesome birds like Bare-throated Tiger-heron and Boat-billed Heron. For all that they resemble Black-crowned Night-herons, Boat-billed Heron is about as strange a bird as you're likely to see. At rest its massive bill is supported by a bulbous, protruding chest. It's eye is a cold, black marble, proportionately huge for a heron that size.

Boat-billed Heron

The first kingfisher we saw was a Ringed Kingfisher, more than twice the size of a Belted Kingfisher. We hadn't realized just how big they are. Not long afterward, our pilot would (somehow) spot an American Pygmy Kingfisher, roughly the size of a sparrow. These kingfisher species, two very different sizes. Belted Kingfisher is one of our favorite birds, but it seems so unfair to have only one kingfisher species on hand. To rub it in further, we'd pick up two additional species the following day.

Ringed Kingfisher

American Pygmy Kingfisher

At another spot, the boat pulled toward the trees and stopped. German asked slyly, "do you see anything?" Maureen's keen eyes had scrutinized every branch since we first stepped on the boat, and found it right away. "Potoo!" She'd known we might see a potoo today, and she was ready. This was a great look at an adult Northern Potoo, so unlike the juvenile Great Potoo from the day before. Eyes shut tightly, head extended upward, and camouflaged to look exactly like the branch it perched on, I marveled that anyone had seen it at all.

Northern Potoo

Soldiers, aka Tropical Queens (Danaus eresimus)

Lots of other amazing birds were seen and heard to various extents, but they weren't always the most cooperative. We picked up Cocoa Woodcreeper, Lesser Greenlet, Squirrel Cuckoo, Linneated Woodpecker, and White-necked Puffbird. Up in a snag we spotted a Common Black Hawk, not a new bird for the trip, but this one belonged to a subspecies that's specialized to live in mangrove forests, feeding on crabs, instead of soft-bodied prey.

Common Black Hawk

Calephelis sp.

Thousands of tiny bubbles rose to the surface of the water, like it was boiling just in one concentrated area. A crocodile has submerged itself a few feet from the boat and left this telltale trace along the length of its entire body. As we investigated, German pointed out some Proboscis Bats, clinging upside-down, one right above the other on a tree trunk. They were all in plain sight, but it was a challenge to get a handle on the number: "8. No, 10… 11!"

Proboscis Bats

But the ultimate mammals were the monkeys. We're big fans of the primates, and we've long dreamed of meeting monkeys in the wild. Three species are possible in this part of Honduras, but we didn't know which, if any, we would actually get to see. A co-worker of Maureen's had warned her that howler monkeys are nasty. First they'll spit at you, then pee on you, and then they'll throw their shit at you. Thankfully, it didn't come to that, but the family of Mantled Howlers did look mildly put out that there were spies in their midst. It's hard to say how many there were (maybe half a dozen?), but at least one of them was a baby monkey. Amazing! The next stop German navigated us to was colonized by White-faced Capuchins. These were a lot more active than the howlers, and wouldn't pose for us, or even sit still for half a second. Still, we had TWO species of monkey under our belts, and couldn't have been more excited about it.

Mantled Howler

Back on land, we snacked on some fresh fruit and went for a short walk while we killed time waiting for the train to pick us back up. The short trail we took led to the ocean, but there were no shorebirds, and no gulls. We decided that a distant tern was probably a Royal. Turning to head back the way we came, we had an amazing look at a female Barred Antshrike, normally a skulker, but right out in the open in front of us. German tried to impress on us just how good a bird that was, and we weren't about to disagree. On the train ride back, Maureen caught a glimpse of a Roadside Hawk hanging out just at the edge of the track. I missed it, but our van driver located one on the drive back to the lodge and pulled over so I could get a look.

Barred Antshrike

Social Flycatcher

Olive-throated Parakeet

We spend the afternoon birding the trails around the lodge, refusing to let the drizzle slow us down. I spotted a raptor through an opening in the canopy and asked, "what's the one that looks exactly like a Turkey Vulture, but it's a hawk?" German caught the direction of my gaze: "Ah, a Zone-tailed Hawk." Next, we'd get an even better look at a White Hawk than we had the day before, and the hawk seemed to glare back at us menacingly (although I'm sure it can't help but look menacing).

White Hawk

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Great Kiskadee

One bird we would quickly learn to identify by ear, even though I couldn't tell you what its song sounds like. That's because White-collared Manakins will make a loud snapping sound with their wings, that was like no other sounds we heard in the jungle. We hiked to an observation tower and unsuccessfully tried to call up Long-billed Gnatwren and some other secretive birds. But we did get decent looks at a Red-legged Honeycreeper and a Spot-breasted Wren.

White-collared Manakin (male)

White-collared Manakin (female)

Togarna Hairstreak (Arawacus togarna)

The rain started to pick up, but that didn't stop us from picking up even more ridiculous lifers as we made our way back to the lodge. Blue-black Grosbeak was a nice addition. We laughed at our good fortune, but we were about to take laughing to another level. One of my target birds for the trip, a gorgeous bird, and another example of our incredible luck with raptors was sitting, waiting for us in the rain. Even though we never got to hear the Laughing Falcon's distinctive voice, this was a definite highlight for us, and the best possible way to end another epic day of birding. As we now know for certain: he who Laughs last, laughs best.

Laughing Falcon


  1. Shee-it this is another level. These gorgeous and crushable birds seem to be dropping out of the trees!
    As a reader I'm removed from the excitement by however many dimensions and degrees but it's still pretty palpable, as is the envy.

    1. Muchas gracias! The birds there were completely ridiculous, and they really were practically dropping out of the trees. The lodge manager (James Adams, who I believe you're Facebook friends with) said that during the peak season there are honeycreepers practically everywhere you look, but it seems to us we were there at exactly the right time!