Review of Birds of Central America

On this review of Birds of Central America, we go over the different sections of the book and compare it to other publications that treat with bird identification on the region.

Birds of Central America Cover
Birds of Central America Cover

The Authors

This is an impressive book by Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer, and the first field guide to encompass the entire Central American region, comprising seven countries: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Both authors have traveled and have extensive experience in Central America. Dyer has published numerous illustrations in Neotropical bird guides, such as ‘Birds of Peru’ and ‘Bird Guide of Trinidad and Tobago’. Additionally, both authors work for the Department of Ornithology of the American Museum of Natural History. This has facilitated their prolonged access to a large collection of specimens and has facilitated contact with many other collections.

The authors’ experiences have served this book well. Within its main section, ‘Birds of Central America’ covers 1,194 bird species in great detail through concise texts on identification and behavior, distribution maps and illustrations. It also includes 67 additional species, of which there are only some citations, in an annex.

Other field guides for the region

The fact that this book covers an area as large and diverse as Central America is both a strength and a weakness. While there are three other books that have covered parts of this region: ‘A Guide to the Birds of Panama, with Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras’ (Ridgely and Gwinne, 1989), ‘A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America’ (Howell and Webb, 1995) and, more recently, ‘Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America’ (Fagan and Comar, 2016), there is currently no other book out there that includes all of the species distributed throughout the width and length of the region. This makes the ‘Birds of Central America’ a unique find.

However, it probably isn’t very often that anyone would need one guide that brings all these countries together for a single trip. In fact, the book is quite bulky for a field guide. It weighs 1.4kg and measures 22.86 x 15.24cm; a size and weight to consider if we want to have the book tucked in our backpack when we climb a muddy hill during a tropical downpour. As for other physical characteristics of the book, the quality of the paper and the flexible cover certainly suggests a resistant, highly durable product.

Review of Birds of Central America: size comparison of some Central America bird books
Size comparison of some Central America bird books. Birds of Central America is the one at the bottom, and its the largest of them all

Introductory section

The book begins with an introduction to Central America and a detailed description of how the book is organized, including the different sections included for each of the treated species. Of particular interest is the section that describes the different biogeographic zones of the region.

The main part of the book, as you would expect from a bird identification guide, includes information related to each species: a small distribution map to the left of the text accompanied by a short description, and further details on its identification, habitat, behavior and vocalizations. The plates with illustrations corresponding to each species can be found on the opposing page. In some cases, notes on the taxonomy are added, particularly if there have been recent changes, as well as geographical variations.

The texts are precise and concise, especially when describing the identifying characteristics of each species. At times, one would hope for a greater abundance of details, and more comparisons with similar species. In this regard, other guides in the region contain more detailed texts, like the aforementioned Howell & Webb.

The order of the species follows the list of Birds of North America published by the American Ornithology Union in 2017, with some variations that facilitate the comparison of similar birds that, otherwise, may be confusing. A handy feature is the index of the different bird groups listed on the inside flaps of the book. This is of great help when it comes to quickly finding the species that one is looking for.

The illustrations

A highlight of this work is the high quality of the illustrations. These are, for the most part, excellent. They show the birds in their typical postures, with a high degree of fidelity to the expression of the bird as well as meticulous detail of the plumage and bare parts. There are some exceptions however: Illustrations of some groups of birds, such as raptors, shorebirds, and gulls, are not of the same high quality. At other times, it appears that the magnificent illustrator, Dale Dyer, may have been painting from museum specimens and not from observations made of live birds. In some illustrations the birds appear somewhat rigid and unnatural. However, the majority of the illustrations are superb. This is especially meritorious, considering that all them have been made by a single artist, an unusual feat in a guide of this scope.

While the plates are beautifully rendered, at first glance, they appear a bit washed out, making the illustrations look too pale. Other readers have commented on this as well, ruling out the possibility that it could be just our copy. It is possible, however, that this is an effect sought by the authors. And, the truth is, after spending a while contemplating the illustrations in this book, the impresson that there is a lack of contrast disappears and, by comparison, the rest of the guides suddenly seem to have an exaggerated contrast, with excessively dark contours and colors that are way too saturated.

In general, the illustrations are generously sized, occupying as much of each page as possible. In the upper right margin of each page, the authors have indicated the proportion of the illustrations with respect to the actual size of the bird – all the species on the same page are in the same proportion. Generally the distribution of illustrations is clear and does not give rise to confusion, although sometimes a clearer separation would be desirable, as we are used to seeing in guides such as ‘The Sibley Guide to Birds’ by David Sibley, and ’Birds of Europe and North Africa’ by Svensson, Mullarney and Zetterström.

The age classes, as well as the different sexes in those species that present sexual dimorphism, are mostly reflected in the illustrations. Also, as mentioned, illustrations of many of the subspecies and geographic variants are frequently shown. This is remarkable since this is the first time many of these variants are represented in an identification guide. This feature allows us to appreciate at a glance the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences between individuals from different populations

Another added value is the inclusion of some relatively recent ‘splits’. For example, the wrens of the genus Cantorchilus (Cabanis’s, Canebrake and Isthmian Wren), formerly included in another genus as Plain Wren, each receive their corresponding illustration which reflects the differences between them, helping us to better appreciate the variations among these species. Likewise, the maps show how they are distributed with little overlap throughout the region. Another good example is that of Lesson’s Motmot and Whooping Motmot. Until recently, they were considered the same species, but in this book, each one has its corresponding illustration, showing the small differences that will allow us to distinguish between these parapatric species. These and other taxonomic novelties (31) are collected in the Taxonomic Notes, in the final part of the book.

If something is missing from the illustrations, it is the lack of depictions of birds in flight. This is the case for many of the pigeons and thrushes, and some raptor species, which is a pity since, in the field, birds of prey are most often observed in flight. However, this seems to be a detail missing from most field guides, which lack an illustration that shows the top of the bird in flight. Another aspect that would enrich the book further would be the use of arrows, as in the Peterson Identification System (as in the aforementioned Birds of Europe guide), to point out the most relevant identification features that separate similar species, age classes or sex.

Maps and final sections

The distribution maps are fully updated with the available information. They are detailed and include isolated observations of interest, as well as small populations. However, there does appear to be one error. It appears that the maps of Blue-throated Motmot and Turquoise-browed Motmot have been interspersed.

Following the main part of the book comes the section corresponding to those species that have been cited on few occasions in the region or about which it has not been possible to confirm their presence. This section consists of a two-page list of species with a brief description of the records. Below this, are the Taxonomic Notes of those species on which recent changes have been made. It is followed by a brief glossary of terms used during the text and, finally, the extensive bibliography (677 references) and the index.

Conclusion

As mentioned at the beginning, one of the greatest virtues of this guide is also its biggest problem. Covering a region as wide and rich in species as Central America affects the size and weight of the volume. This makes it, perhaps, uninteresting as a guide to take into the field, thus relegating it, in most cases, to a reference book once we are back home.

It is important to keep in mind that most trips made by amateur or professional birders usually take place in a single country at a time, so it may be more convenient to have field books specific to that country. There are several high quality works to choose from including Richard Garrigues’ ‘The Birds of Costa Rica’ (2007) and George R. Angehr’s ‘Birds of Panama’ (2010).

Though it isn’t conveniently taken into the field, so many other aspects of this work make ‘Birds of Central America’ indispensable for anyone with a minimum interest in the birds of the region. The updated taxonomy and maps, the inclusion of illustrations of geographical variants, different age and sex classes, as well as the high quality of the plates, make this guide the prime bibliographic reference on Central American birds. And that’s not a small thing!

Ornitherapy in Panama: Birds, Beaches and Yoga

Whitehawk’s first ornitherapy tour is set in the tranquil forests and white sand beaches of Belize.  Now we are excited to introduce our second tour in this style, in our home-base country of Panama.

Imagine waking up to a spectacular view of Pacific dry forest from the front porch of your private cabin, just a five-minute walk away from the soothing waves of the Pacific Ocean. You hear the familiar “whoop” of the Whooping Motmot outside your cabin, the comical buzzy notes of the Lance-tailed Manakins lekking in the forest nearby, and a screech of a Yellow-headed Caracara flying above. Take a deep breath and fill your lungs with the fresh, salty air. The morning bird activity will no doubt attract your attention – take a moment to watch the movements of the motmot as it flicks its tail like a pendulum from side to side, waiting for the perfect moment to dart to the ground to snatch up an insect.

Yellow-headed Caracara Panama
Yellow-headed Caracara are abundant in central Panama

Connecting with birds

An ornitherapy tour is all about indulging in a connection with birds and nature. The first five nights of the tour are set in the dry forest of the Pacific lowlands. Our friends at Istmo Yoga and Adventure Retreat will graciously host us at their beautiful oasis just a couple hundred meters away from the sandy beach and warm Pacific waters. The birds of the Pacific lowlands and lower foothills of El Valle de Anton nearby will charm us with their charismatic behaviors and ease of observation. Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds, Lance-tailed Manakins, Flame-rumped Tanagers, Crested Bobwhites, Collared Aracaris, Red-legged Honeycreepers, Tody Motmots, Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, Gray-headed Chachalacas and so many more will inspire us.

The final two nights take us to the banks of the Panama Canal where over 500 species of birds have been recorded. Toucans, trogons, manakins, antbirds, cotingas – all will dazzle and stimulate our minds and souls. From the forest understory to the canopy above, we will celebrate Panama’s great bird life. We will also take in some of the local sights, including the famous Panama Canal.

Stand Up Paddleboarding Panama
Stand-up paddleboarding in the calm waters of the Pacific

Connection with yourself

This tour also gives us the opportunity to relax, reflect and perhaps try out something new! While at Istmo, join us for a daily Yoga class and/or meditation session. Or get out on the calm waters of the Pacific and try Stand-Up Paddleboarding through the calm mangroves. You may even see a Straight-billed Woodcreeper or Mangrove Cuckoo, two mangrove specialties, while on the board! At any time, feel free to pull out some pencils and give sketching a hummingbird a go, or spend a few minutes coloring a mandala for some sweet relaxation in nature. Share these moments with others in the group or keep them to yourself to enjoy. Let ornitherapy and birds help you find this great connection!

Meditation on the beach Panama
Meditation on the beach

Nature prescriptions and Ornitherapy

Birds and nature have the incredible ability to greatly aid a wide variety of conditions, or at least put our minds at ease and sooth us. So much so, GPs are starting to prescribe birdwatching and beach walks to people suffering from chronic and debilitating illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stress and mental illness. We recently came across this article and couldn’t help but see the connection to the benefits of our ornitherapy tours – it’s worth a read.

“There’s no wi-fi out here, but we promise you will find a better connection”

For those looking for a birding and nature getaway that embraces relaxation, join us in December 2019 for Whitehawk’s Panama Ornitherapy: Intro to Birding and Yoga. Perhaps this is a great way to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, and truly enjoy a gift of nature. Contact us for more information and to reserve your spot now!

Ornitherapy: Birding for the Soul

Looking back to some of our blog posts from 2013, this one caught our attention and is worth reposting. What is ornitherapy? How can birds help us to mentally, emotionally and physically thrive in today’s busy society? Read on and be inspired:

I recently came across a print ad by the US Fish and Wildlife Service showing beautiful snow-capped mountains against an orange sky and a foreground of wetlands filled with what look like hundreds of snow geese resting on the water.  The ad reads, “There is no wi-fi out here, but we promise you will find a better connection.”

Butterfly Falls, Mountain Pine Ridge Belize
Butterfly Falls, tucked away in the Mountain Pine Ridge, is a beautiful oasis

Connecting with birds

I have been thinking a lot lately about that ad; about what it really means to be “connected” and what things in this life are truly worth “connecting” to. On the surface, we, as a society tend to form fleeting connections that do little to feed us emotionally or nurture us physically. Even we birders are often so connected to our life lists that we sometimes forget about the birds themselves. How often have we seen a new species only to immediately check it off the list and move on to the next one, without taking the time to really marvel at the beauty of its feathers, or the grace of its flight?

When was the last time you immersed yourself, if only for a moment, in the secret lives of birds – watching them forage for food, preen, or simply perch quietly in the shade? Do we truly “connect” with the species we are watching? Even when we learn their calls it is usually for purposes of identification, and not to enjoy the unique melodious music that deserves as much appreciation as a fine aria.

A male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem in Costa Rica
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Connecting with ourselves

I can’t help but wonder… as a society, have we lost our connectedness, our mindfulness – our ability to be in present in each moment as it occurs and experience all the joy, beauty, sorrow or disappointment that moment brings? While Yoga and meditation strive to teach us how to do just that, those new to these practices might find them overwhelming and out of their realm or interest. But the truth is that neither Yoga nor meditation has to be done on a mat, sitting quietly in a room. In fact, our best moments of mindfulness are achieved off the mat.  One way to accomplish this is by immersing ourselves in nature. Yes, even while birding, we can achieve a feeling of peacefulness, tranquility, and joy.

Yoga in nature Belize
Yoga in the most serene rainforest setting, photo courtesy of Hidden Valley Inn

Whitehawk and Ornitherapy

We at Whitehawk want to offer our clients such an experience. Through our ornitherapy tours we practice birding in a mindful way – learning about the natural history of the species and spending time with each bird that we see. These tours also provide other optional mindful and relaxation activities such as gentle yoga  classes, both for beginners and for those who have been practicing for years. Our first ornitherapy tour brings us to the beautiful forests and colorful coral reefs of Belize. Our second ornitherapy tour will inspire us in Panama – stay tuned to our blog for more details coming very soon. Won’t you join us?

Top 10 Reasons to Love Vultures

Hooded Vulture, Rüppell’s Griffon, Eurasian Griffon and White-backed Vulture in Senegal

We admit it, we are big fans of vultures. And why not?! Long thought of as being dirty, ugly, garbage eaters, they are actually very beautiful birds and more importantly, play a major role in the environment. In the light of International Vulture Awareness Day 2018 which took place on September 1, we thought we would compile our list of the top 10 reasons to love vultures.

1. Bald heads

Of course, a bald bird is not the most appealing at first and may render the image of vultures as being ugly, but vultures are bald for at least two good reasons. Vultures are carrion eaters and in order to get into the good parts of a carcass, they need to get their heads deep in there! If they had feathers all over their heads, it would be very difficult to clean off (imagine plunging your head into a bowl of spaghetti and then imagine the cleanup afterwards – ugh!). But, with a bald head, all the vulture needs to do is splash around in a puddle, wait for it to rain or just let the sun dry it off and they have a nice clean head. Love it! But that’s not the whole story. New research suggests that vultures are bald because of the weather – being bald helps them stay cool in hot temperatures and by tucking their necks and heads in, they can stay a bit warmer in cold temperatures.

Having a bald head, like on this Black Vulture, helps it to stay clean and cool

2. Nature’s clean-up crew

Vultures are scavengers and feed primarily on carrion – dead animals. They are not well-equipped to kill prey and require their food to be dead or mostly dead. They play a major role in the environment by cleaning up roadsides, fields and the forest floor of dead animals. By doing this, they help  stop the spread of diseases. The stomach acids of a Turkey Vulture are so strong they can kill rabies, anthrax and other serious mammalian diseases. Nature’s most efficient clean-up crew!

3. More than just carrion-eaters

Did you know that some vultures specialize in eating some rather unique things? The Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture of Europe, Africa and Asia is one of these specialists – up to 90% of its diet consists of bone marrow. It carries bones to great heights over rocky hillsides and drops them to break them open and access the marrow inside. The Palm-Nut Vulture of Africa specializes in eating the fruit husks of oil palms and the palm-fruits of Raphia Palms. It also eats a wide variety of live animals, including crabs and mollusks, fish and turtle eggs and hatchlings. A number of vulture species are known to eat vegetable matter, and even some that will consume animal feces! See the Lammergeier in action on our India: In Search of the Snow Leopard tour.

Lammergeier
The Lammergeier specializes in eating bone marrow.

4. Sense of smell

The well-known Turkey Vulture, along with its close cousins the Greater Yellow-headed and Lesser Yellow-headed vultures of the Americas, are among only a few species of birds that has a highly-developed sense of smell. Their olfactory abilities are so good that they can find rotting meat on the forest floor covered in leaf litter from soaring above the canopy. Most vultures lack a sense of smell and, instead, use their keen eyesight to find food. Intelligent birds that they are, other species like Black and King Vultures will follow these keen-nosed vultures to where the food is. The Turkey Vulture has been used to locate leaks in natural gas lines – gas companies inject a chemical that smells like decaying flesh, and where there are leaks, Turkey Vultures will be found congregating in the area!

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
The large, open nostrils of this Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and its close cousins help it to smell its food

5. They’re beautiful

Despite first impressions of vultures and their unique habits, they are beautiful birds. Nobody can deny that they are incredibly graceful in flight, gliding for hours on outstretched wings. Some species, like the King Vulture and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture of tropical America, are beautifully adorned with bright colors on their bare heads. And several species have pure-white plumage that shines in the sun when they soar overhead. Get up close with King Vultures in the Mountain Pine Ridge in Belize. How could you not love these beautiful birds?

A King Vulture spreads its wings, showing off its beautiful plumage and brightly colored head

6. Long-distance travelers

Some species of vultures are migratory. They make long journeys each year from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds where food is abundant. Turkey Vultures are well-known migrants; they fill the skies each spring and fall over North and Central America, in groups called kettles, sometimes numbering up to 10,000 individuals! Vultures migrate using thermals as a means of conserving energy; they can soar for hours this way without barely a flap of the wings. Turkey Vultures migrate from Canada well into South America, and they do so in record time, covering up to 200 miles per day! Panama is one of the best migratory hot spots for Turkey Vultures—over 1.5 million Turkey Vultures pass over the isthmus each fall. Ask us about experiencing the fantastic raptor migration of Panama.

Even non-migratory vultures can be long-distance travelers on a daily basis, soaring over 100 miles in a day in search of food. Their broad wings designed for soaring help them do this effortlessly, and they can move at speeds up to 60 miles per hour!

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture in flight

7. Find them almost everywhere

Another reason to love vultures:  they are a cosmopolitan group of birds. They are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. Seven species can be found in the Americas from Canada down to Tierra del Fuego. There are 16 species of Old World vultures that soar the skies of Europe, Africa and Asia. Vultures are found in a wide variety of habitats, from tropical rainforest to high Andean plateaus, African savanna to the staggering rocky cliffs of the Himalayas. Wherever you may find yourself in your travels, there are likely vultures to be found. Ask us about seeing vultures on our Whitehawk tours.

8. Stars of ancient mythology

Vultures are a prominent feature in ancient mythology all over the world. They are revered as consumers of death and bringers of rebirth. They are present in Greek legends: Egyptian Vultures were known as the “cuckoo’s horse” because when they arrived in the Spring they carried migrating cuckoos on their backs. The Egyptian Vulture is also well-known in Greek tradition as the “cheese maker” because it regularly forages near dairy farms and feeds on dairy product waste. Another legend states that the poet Aeschylus died because a Lammergeier dropped a bone on his head. The stories go on and on.

Vulture heads are abundant in ancient imagery from various cultures. Vulture bodies have long been used in folk medicine. The term “griffon” is used to describe lazy, uncouth and gluttonous people, referring to the Griffon vultures. Generally, vultures are connected with shepherds and pastoral life and are typically viewed positively due to their rebirth powers.

The Egyptian Vulture is a prominent bird in ancient Greek mythology

9. Record wingspans & heavyweight fliers

Vultures are among the largest flighted birds on Earth. The Andean Condor of South America is one of the heaviest flying birds. It weighs up to 33 lbs. and has an immense wingspan of over 10 feet – the largest wingspan of any raptor. This makes the Andean Condor the largest raptor on Earth. Of the Old World Vultures, the largest species is the Cinereous Vulture, just slightly smaller than its American cousin, at 31 lbs., with a similar wingspan. Lifting off the ground requires great force of their strong wings which are built for soaring and thus help conserve their energy. If you like seeing big birds, you’ll love vultures!

Andean Condor
The Andean Condor of South America is the largest raptor in the world

10. Bio-indicators

Vultures are excellent environmental indicators and alert us to changes in ecosystem health. Being a scavenger near the top of the food chain, vultures are subject to bioaccumulation of toxins, such as DDT and lead. Vultures and other raptors showed early indication of environmental contamination and sparked action to ban DDT in North America. When vultures in Asia began to decline significantly in the early 2000s, it brought about attention that something was happening in the environment. A veterinary drug was being used to treat injured livestock, and when the vultures ingested the meat after the animal died, the vultures suffered from kidney failure and also perished. The sad reality is that several species of vultures are now critically endangered in Asia, though this drug has been banned in some countries. Vultures are indicators of poaching activity since they travel long distances to find animal carcasses and congregate in large groups. Sadly, many vultures are targets of poisoning events by poachers trying to hide the evidence of their actions.

We love vultures!

We enjoy vultures whenever we see them – on our travels or in our own backyards. Vultures also need our help – several species are severely declining in numbers and are critically endangered. Next time you see a vulture, consider some of the reasons why they are so special and so important in our environment. Ask us about vultures on our tours. We love talking about them, and perhaps you will come to love vultures, too!

Top 10 mammals to see in India

India is a very colorful country and its biodiversity stands out as much as the textiles and dyes that highlight the streets and hillsides do. While India has over 1,250 species of birds to admire, some of the mammals of are unique and rare. Large cats, unusual bears, stealthy canids, huge bats, clever primates and impressive ungulates can all be found in this wonderfully biodiverse country. Here is our list of the top 10 mammals to see in India.

1. Bengal Tiger

The Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is the queen of the dry forests of India. Highly endangered, there are 6 extant subspecies of tiger (one of which only exists in captivity). The tiger is the largest cat in the world, and the Bengal Tiger is the second largest subspecies, next to the Siberian Tiger. The Bengal Tiger is also the most widespread of the tiger subspecies, with a spotty distribution throughout India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. This powerful cat preys on large mammals and birds, using its stealth to catch its prey. There is nothing quite like staring into the green eyes of a tiger. This is, without a doubt, on the very top of the list of mammals to see in India by most of the people. We invite you to experience it for yourself during our Discover India: Birding and Tiger Safari.

Top 10 mammals to see in India: Bengal Tiger at Ranthambore National Park - by Marta Curti
Bengal Tiger at Ranthambore National Park

2. Asiatic Lion

Lions are the well-known pride of Africa, but the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo leo) is much less known. Once spread throughout the Middle East and India, it is now restricted to only one state in northwestern India, specifically in the dry forests of Gir Forest National Park. Asiatic Lions are generally a little smaller than African Lions. They have a larger tail tuft and a less developed mane, and a distinct fold of skin along their belly. Endangered due to its tiny population, and numerous unsuccessful reintroduction attempts, the Asiatic Lion relies on the effective protection of its habitat where it currently lives. It is estimated that only around 500 Asiatic Lions exist in the wild. There is no better time to see this mighty cat. Ask us about our upcoming Asiatic Lion tour.

Asiatic Lion in India: Lioness in Gir Forest National Park - by Yeray Seminario
Lioness in Gir Forest National Park

3. Sloth Bear

Though not even closely related, the Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) does share some characteristics with its Neotropical namesake. This medium-sized bear has a shaggy, black coat of thick fur and long, sickle-shaped claws for digging into nests of its favorite food, termites. It is generally slow moving, but like other bears, can run faster than humans if needed. It is the most widespread bear species in India, but due to habitat loss is considered vulnerable. Sloth Bears can be found doing well in the reserves that protect tigers, lions and other key species.

4. Sambar Deer

The Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor) is widespread across India and Southeast Asia. While India may be full of powerful predators, the Sambar Deer plays an important role as well. A favorite prey species for tigers and Asiatic lions, it is one of the largest species of deer, only rivaled in size by Elk and Moose. It is highly variable in appearance, and males sport large, 3-pronged antlers. Seeing Sambar Deer on our Discover India: Birding and Tiger Safari tour gives us hope that just maybe, a tiger or lion is stalking it in the distance.

Sambar Deer in India - by Yeray Seminario
Sambar Deer at Bandhavgarh

5. Southern Plains Gray Langur

India has its share of primates, and the Southern Plains Gray Langur (Semnopithecus dussumieri) is the most widespread langur species on the Subcontinent. They can be found foraging in groups in forested areas of southwest and west central India. They also make themselves at home in cities. These primates intrigue us with their expressive faces and gregarious nature, and are a favorite sighting on our India tours.

Southern Plains Gray Langur India
Southern Plains Gray Langur mother and child

6. Indian Flying Fox

The Indian Flying Fox (Pteropus giganteus) is one of the largest bats in the world. It weighs up to 3½ pounds and has a wingspan up to nearly 5 feet! It is best encountered at its daytime roosts, which could consist of thousands of individuals, usually in tall trees in urban areas. They groom, stretch, chatter and quarrel at their roosts. At night, they head out to feed on fruits and nectar in the nearby forests. Their diet changes depending on the season, and are known to also eat insects and leaves, flowers, seed pods and twigs. We look for Indian Flying Fox roosts on our India tours.

Indian Flying Fox
Indian Flying Fox is one of the world’s largest bats

7. Snow Leopard

Together with the Bengal Tiger, this is probably on the top of the list of mammals to see in India. One of the rarest cats in the world, seeing a Snow Leopard is a surreal moment. Roaming the rocky slopes of the Himalayas of northern India and Nepal, this dusty-colored cat blends in perfectly with its barren landscape. It hunts Bharal and other large mammals. Finding one requires great patience and a little bit of luck. But once you set eyes on this elusive feline, the world seems to pause for a moment. The global population is estimated at less than 10,000 individuals, so now is the time to see a Snow Leopard! Join us on our India: In search of the Snow Leopard tour.

Snow Leopard India
A beautiful male Snow Leopard we observed in Hozing Valley, Hemis National Park

8. Indian Jackal

The Indian Jackal (Canis aureus indicus) is a subspecies of the Golden Jackal, the only species of jackal found outside of Africa. Jackals are medium-sized canids; they are similar in appearance to wolves but smaller and slimmer. Adults grow up to a meter in length and nearly half a meter in height. They are social and live in family groups and are most often found around water courses in valleys, and along seashores. Indian Jackals are omnivorous and tolerate a wide variety of habitats. They are fairly easy to see on our India tours.

Indian Jackal India
Indian Jackal

9. Nilgai

Endemic to the Indian Subcontinent, the Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) is the largest antelope in Asia. It stands up to a meter and a half at the shoulder and can be over 2 meters in length. Males can appear brownish-gray to bluish in color, giving it the name “Blue Bull.” Females are an orange-tawny color. Both male and female have a distinct white throat. Males sport a pair of short, un-ringed horns, unique among the bovids. Nilgai roam the grassy plains and scrubby forests of India, where their tall stature allows them to reach higher branches to browse leaves and vegetation.

Nilgai calf at Bandhavgarh National Park - By Yeray Seminario
Nilgai calf at Bandhavgarh National Park

10. Bharal

High in the Himalayan mountains of India and Nepal, Bharal (Pseudois nayaur) roam the rocky and grassy mountainsides. Also known as the Himalayan Blue Sheep, this is the favored prey of the Snow Leopard. Like the Sambar Deer, finding Bharal on our India: In search of the Snow Leopard tour means that an elusive cat may be lurking nearby.

Bharal Blue Sheep India
Bharal – one of the main food sources of the Snow Leopard

There are many more mammals to see in India!

Of course, there are many more amazing mammals to see in India – Leopard, Indian Elephant, Himalayan Wolf, Dhole, Red Panda, Rhesus Macaque, Muntjac, Indian Pangolin, Fishing Cat and much more. This is just a little teaser of some of the mammals we see on our India tours. Join us in India and relish the great biodiversity the Indian Subcontinent has to offer!

Ocellated birds: what they are and why they have that name

While guiding in the humid forest of Colombia, I spotted an Ocellated Tapaculo,  a beautiful but elusive bird. Upon hearing this species’ name, one of the birders asked  “Where do these names come from? What does that name mean?” At the time, I had no answer to give him. But I wanted to be able to answer this question for the next person who asked. So I did some research.

Ocellated Tapaculo in the Andean forest of Colombia

It turns out that the name comes from ocellus, a modern Latin word derivate and diminutive of oculus (‘eye’). So, ocellus literally means ‘small eye’. In this case, the name refers to the eye-like spots on the bird’s plumage. Therefore, the white ocelli (the plural of ocellus) that cover the body of the Tapaculo were the inspiration for its name.

We can find this bird from Peru to Colombia, within the Andean montane forest. If you are interested in seeing it, there will be good opportunities on our tour, Colombia: Three Andean Mountain Ranges.

The adjective is not exclusive of the Tapaculo

Many other species, curiously all in the Neotropics, also have  this adjective in their names.  Among the most interesting is the Yucatan Peninsula endemic, the amazing Ocellated Turkey. This bird – with a mixture of green and bronze colors and a bare, blue head, received its name from the astonishing blue and rufous ocelli on its tail.

Ocellated Turkey - Meleagris ocellata

During our tour, Honduras and Guatemala: Jewels of Central America, we will visit El Tikal National Park in the Peten region of Guatemala. This will be a great chance to spot this jewel. But,  if you would prefer a shorter tour,  our Belize: Birds of the Caribbean tour offers another good opportunity to see this species.

Finally, I should highlight one more spotted bird, which is widely distributed in Central America – the Ocellated Antbird. The black ocelli on its belly and back stand out against its otherwise brown plumage, making it look as if they were  painted on. That’s why this species  is one of the targets on Pipeline Road in Panama; and in La Selva Biological Station, which we visit on our new birding tour: Costa Rica: Wild Nature

Ocellated Antbird in Pipeline Road, Panama

Other Ocellated birds in the Neotropics

  • In the Oak-pine forest from southern Mexico to Nicaragua – Ocellated Quail.
  • A dark nightjar that we can find in many places in South America , and in Central America (Honduras to Costa Rica), we can also find a regional subspecies –  Ocellated Poorwill.
  • Found in Costa Rica and several countries in South America – Ocellated Crake.
  • The Mexican endemic  – Ocellated Thrasher.
  • One of the smallest woodpeckers found in Peru and Bolivia – Ocellated Piculet.
  • Found in the Northwest of the Amazonia – Ocellated Woodcreeper.

Common names aren’t the only ones use the word “ocellus”. Some scientific names also incorporate this word, such as ocellate, ocellatus, and ocellatum. For example, Podargus ocellatus and Leipoa ocellate are the scientific names of Marbled Frogmouth and Malleefowl, respectively.  The two species are in Australia – another upcoming destination for Whitehawk.

Top 10 reasons to visit Cuba for birders

Cuba is one of the most unique places in the Americas. It is the largest island in the Caribbean and has lots of natural habitat to support hundreds of species of birds including at least 26 endemics and even more regional endemics. It also features a rich and thriving culture that seems to propel us back in time. There are many reasons to visit Cuba. Here is our list of the top 10, though not in any particular order, because all are worth boasting about!

1.  26 endemic species of birds

Islands in general are known for having endemic species but Cuba possibly tops it all with 26 viable endemic bird species, plus a big handful of regional Caribbean endemics. Cuba’s endemics are incredibly unique; many species are placed in their own genera and even in their own families – Cuban Trogon (Cuba’s national bird), Oriente Warbler, Fernandina’s Flicker, Cuban Tody, Blue-headed Quail-Dove and Cuban Solitaire, just to name a few. We have had great luck seeing all 26 viable endemics during our previous tours, including the rarest endemic, Gundlach’s Hawk. Check out our 2018 trip report.

Cuban Trogon the Cuba's national bird
Cuban Trogon, Cuba’s National bird

2.  Zapata Swamp

Located on the Zapata peninsula 93 miles southeast of Havana, the Zapata Swamp is one of the key habitats to visit during any birding trip to Cuba. It is home to three key endemic species that bear its name, the Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow and the virtually flightless and critically endangered Zapata Rail (by some, presumably extinct). The Zapata Swamp itself is comprised of one million acres of lowland wetlands. It is part of the Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in the year 2000, and is the largest protected area in all of the Caribbean.

The Zapata Wren is the most restricted endemic bird in Cuba
The Zapata Wren is the most restricted endemic bird in Cuba

3.  Old Havana

Founded in 1519, Old Havana is the old town city center of Havana. Full of fortresses, cathedrals and plazas, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is not to be missed. Draped in baroque and neoclassical architecture everywhere you look, the old cobblestone streets are full of color and culture. Old cars add even more color to the landscape, and you’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time. Take a stroll down the Malecón on the waterfront or visit the National Capitol; enjoy a concert or ballet in the Great Theater or go museum-hopping to experience Cuba’s art and history. There is much to see here!

4.  Cuban Food

Latin America has a tropical flare in just about all aspects, and food is a major part of that. Like other things in Cuba, the country has great Spanish, African and Caribbean influences when it comes to food. When visiting Cuba, get ready for delicious dishes of arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), ropa vieja (shredded pork), boliche (Cuban pot roast), black beans cooked to perfection, or indulge in a frita (Cuban hamburger – shoestring fries come on the burger!). Tropical fruits are abundant here – guava, plantain, papaya, pineapple, coconut – and are served fresh and are included in many recipes. Be sure to leave room for dessert – arroz con leche (Spanish rice pudding), coconut flan, tres leches cake, Cuban pastries and more!

5.  Casas particulares

There are hotels and resorts in Cuba, but to really immerse yourself in Cuban culture, a stay at a casa particular provides a truly rewarding experience. Casas particulares are houses run by local people that rent the rooms or houses where they live. It is a grand experience of family hospitality, a great opportunity to share stories and learn about the life experiences of local Cubans. It promotes tourism within community and has mutualistic rewards for both the home owner and visitor. We stay in casas particulares for most of our Endemic Birds of Cuba tour.

6.  Smallest bird in the world

Cuba is home to many unique species of birds, including the Bee Hummingbird. Weighing in at only 2.6 grams and a mere 6.1 cm long, it holds the record as the smallest living bird in the world! Both male and female show iridescent plumage, and the male is adorned with a brilliant gorget showing a rainbow of fiery reds and oranges fading to yellows and greens in the right light. It is found throughout the Cuban archipelago but can be best found at the mogotes and Zapata Swamp. The Bee Hummingbird is locally known as zunzuncito – an incredibly cute name for a hummingbird, we think!

Bee Hummingbird the smallest hummingbird in the world
Male Bee Hummingbird, the smallest hummingbird in the world

7.  So many flamingos

Cuba boasts one of the best spectacles of flamingo­­s in the world. American Flamingo (also known as the Caribbean Flamingo) is found here in great numbers, with an estimated 70,000 breeding adults. Cuba is home to the largest breeding colony of flamingos in the western hemisphere. These salmon-colored waders are always a highlight when we visit Cuba. We’ll look for them at Cayo Coco and in the Zapata Peninsula.

American Flamingos at Salinas de Brito, Zapata Peninsula
American Flamingos at Salinas de Brito, Zapata Peninsula

8.  The Mogotes

In the plains of the Viñales Valley, odd rounded mountains called mogotes pop out of the rural landscape. These vertical-walled hills are made of hard limestone left over after millennia of erosion. Cuban Trogon, Fernandina’s Flicker, Cuban Solitaire, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Gundlach’s Hawk, Yellow-headed Warbler and Cuban Bullfinch can be found in the area, among others.

Mogotes in Cuba, Valley of Viñales
Mogotes, in the Valley of Viñales

9.  Excellent Botanical Gardens

A natural gem in the heart of Havana is the National Botanical Gardens. Founded in 1968, the gardens feature collections of Cuban plants, orchids, succulents, palms, ferns, and other plants from all over the world. Knowledgeable guides share information about the ecosystems of Cuba and Cuba’s plant life. The botanical gardens are quite large, and there is much to explore. The variety of habitats here provides a great home for birds and other wildlife, and we kick off our Endemic Birds of Cuba tour here as Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Blackbird, Cuban Kestrel, Cuban Emerald, Antillean Palm-Swift and West Indian Woodpecker, among others, are common here. There are other beautiful botanical gardens to visit in other regions of Cuba as well.

10.  Meet leading Cuban Ornithologist

We feel one of the best parts of our Endemic Birds of Cuba tour,  in addition to indulging in the exquisite birding and culture during, is meeting Nils Navarro, Cuba’s leading ornithologist. Nils is the author of Endemic Birds of Cuba, a revolutionary field guide and the first of its kind focused on Cuba’s endemic birds. It was 10 years in the making. Nils is also an accomplished wildlife artist and did all the illustrations for the field guide. We’ll meet Nils in his studio in the Viñales Valley and delight as he shares his expertise and stories of birding in Cuba.

Nils Navarro talking with our group in Viñales
Nils Navarro talking with our group in Viñales

There you have it! Of course, we feel there are many more reasons to visit Cuba, especially if you are a birder or nature lover. Join us January 25 to February 4, 2019 for our popular Endemic Birds of Cuba tour and relish in all that Cuba has to offer!

 

New Tour for 2019! Costa Rica: Wild Nature

When one thinks about the tropics and tropical birds and animals, the first place that usually comes to mind is Costa Rica. Costa Rica means “Rich Coast” in Spanish, and refers to the wealth of natural beauty found along its coastlines. This small Central American nation has been on the map as the prime ecotourism destination for nearly 30 years now, and they take this honor quite seriously. With 26 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 major wetland areas, 11 forest reserves and 8 biological reserves –  26% of Costa Rican land is protected for environmental conservation. It has been the traditional hub for tropical studies for decades, and much of the flora and fauna is well-documented. That means that for the nature lover, there is much to feed the eyes and soul in Costa Rica.

Fiery-throated Hummingbird in Costa Rica - by Yeray Seminario
Fiery-throated Hummingbird

Smaller than the state of West Virginia, Costa Rica is home to approximately 850 species of birds, found in a wide variety of habitats from coastal mangroves to highland volcano peaks, and everything in between. Protected areas offer safe havens for rare and endangered species, such as Scarlet Macaw, Great Curassow, Baird’s Tapir and Jaguar, and a plethora of beautiful common birds and animals. Costa Rica also has an extensive network of ecolodges to delight birders and eco-travelers.

Female Great Curassow at La Selva, Costa Rica - by Yeray Seminario
Female Great Curassow

Costa Rica is a birder’s paradise. As specialists in Central America, it is a no-brainer that we feature an all-encompassing tour to this enchanting country! Whitehawk is introducing our COSTA RICA: WILD NATURE tour in 2019, and we are excited to experience some of the best birding and nature it has to offer us. During the 10-day tour, we will visit a variety of ecosystems and seek out some of Costa Rica’s extraordinary bird life – from long-tailed quetzals to tiny hummingbirds, and from colorful tanagers to secretive owls – anything is possible here!

During this tour we will bird among the mangroves of Guacalillo in search of specialties such as the Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Vireo and national endemic Mangrove Hummingbird; we will explore lush cloud forests of Savegre Valley, where Resplendent Quetzals, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers and Black-faced Solitaires adorn the mossy branches; and we will travel to the highest peaks in Cerro de la Muerte, in search of highland species including Volcano Junco, Timberline Wren and Volcano Hummingbird. Other hopefuls on this tour include Snowcap, Slaty-breasted Tinamou, Ocellated Antbird, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Black Guan, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo and the adorable Ochre-breasted Antpitta! While national endemics are few in Costa Rica, we will look for Coppery-headed Emerald and Cabanis’ Ground-Sparrow, and dozens of regional endemics will keep our hearts and checklists full of local birds found primarily in Costa Rica.

Passerini's Tanager in Costa Rica - by Yeray Seminario
Passerini’s Tanager

Join us for this enticing tour to experience Central America’s biodiversity and exquisite birding. COSTA RICA: WILD NATURE will run April 6-15, 2019, starting and finishing in San Jose. Contact us to reserve your spot on this tour, spaces will fill up quickly!

Colombia: New Tour, New Country, New Continent

It’s so hot right now – Colombia, that is, in terms of birding. One of the birdiest countries on Earth, Colombia has for decades been off the radar in terms of general tourism for security reasons. Now, as this celebrated South American nation becomes safer by the day, Colombia has risen to the top of the charts of places to visit for birding, and rightly so. Boasting nearly 1900 species of birds and over 80 endemics, with just about every tropical habitat imaginable, Colombia is not to be missed for any serious birder.

One of our favorite birds in Colombia - the Blue-naped Chlorophonia
Blue-naped Chlorophonia

The northern section of the mighty Andes is broken into three ranges (western, central and eastern), each offering birds unique to their peaks and slopes. The Inter-Andean valleys, Cauca and Magdalena, likewise are hotspots for bird endemism. The biodiversity here can be overwhelming! Such fantastic species as the Golden-crowned Tanager, Andean Lapwing, Andean Tit-Spinetail and Buffy Helmetcrest hail from the high-Andean paramo, while specialties including the Yellow-eared Parrot, Cauca Guan, White-mantled Barbet and Crested Ant-Tanager can be found in the slopes and valleys.

Los Nevados National Park in Colombia
Los Nevados National Park

Whitehawk is introducing COLOMBIA: THREE ANDEAN MOUNTAIN RANGES and we couldn’t be more excited about it. This tour features all three of the aforementioned Andean ranges, as well as both Cauca and Magdalena valleys. We will seek out Colombia’s most exotic and special birds, with the possibility to see over 25 endemic species. The tour starts in Cali and finishes in Bogota, taking us from the paramo and high-Andean lakes to the lush inter-Andean cloud forests. We will also visit some great sites for water birds such as the Northern Screamer and Black-capped Donacobius. Along the way we will be awed by antpittas, and the arrays of colorful tanagers, fruiteaters, and trogons. Turquoise Dacnis, Golden-winged Manakin, Crested Quetzal, Golden-breasted Fruiteater and the endemic Multicolored Tanager await us! What’s more, we will enjoy all of these birds with the breathtaking backdrop of the Andes.

Another beauty found in Colombia - the Masked Trogon
Masked Trogon

This tour also features dozens of species of hummingbirds, both at natural sites and fantastic feeder locations. After all, Colombia boasts the highest number of hummingbird species of any country – 165 species can be found here, nearly 50% of all hummingbirds! Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, White-tailed Hillstar, Indigo-capped Hummingbird, Lazuline Sabrewing, Empress Brilliant, Violet-tailed Sylph and Tolima Blossomcrown are just a few species we will likely encounter.

Once of Colombia's many hummingbird species - the Velvet-purple Coronet
Velvet-purple Coronet

Join us for our COLOMBIA: THREE ANDEAN MOUNTAIN RANGES tour coming up July 2-14, 2019. This tour is not to be missed! Contact us to reserve your spot and be part of a new adventure, this time to experience the sensational birds of Colombia.

National birds of Central America

Bird facts are always of interest to any birder, so cool facts about national birds are no exception! Most countries have officially (or at least unofficially) selected a national bird to best represent their local avifauna, and the Central American countries have done a great job of boasting some of the most beautiful and powerful birds that the region has to offer. So, without further ado, here we go!

Guatemala – Resplendent Quetzal

Guatemala has taken the prize for selecting one of the most iconic and most beautiful birds on Earth as its national bird – the Resplendent Quetzal. It is found throughout the highlands of Guatemala and is revered for its shimmery green plumage contrasting with its bright red belly, and its most outstanding feature, the long trailing upper tail coverts of the male. The Resplendent Quetzal has played an important role in Mesoamerican mythology – the name “quetzal” is an Ancient Mayan term for tail feather, and the Mayans were said to have used the long tail feathers for currency. The Resplendent Quetzal is found on the Guatemalan flag and coat of arms, and the country’s currency is also called, you guessed it, the Quetzal.

Resplendent Quetzal, Guatemala's national bird
Resplendent Quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird

Belize – Keel-billed Toucan

The Keel-billed Toucan, with its large, multicolored bill, is another emblematic bird of Central America. It was declared the national bird of Belize along with the country’s other national symbols when the country declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1981. Widespread throughout Belize (and through most of Central America, for that matter), it is a welcome sight to anyone, and easily distinguishable with that huge colorful bill. Being easily recognizable, common and beautiful makes the Keel-billed Toucan a great choice for Belize’s national bird.

Keel-billed Toucan, national bird of Belize
Keel-billed Toucan, national bird of Belize

El Salvador and Nicaragua – Turquoise-browed Motmot

One of the most beautiful species of the motmot family, it’s no surprise that two Central American countries have chosen the Turquoise-browed Motmot as their national birds. Found throughout El Salvador and the Pacific slope of Nicaragua, this elegant bird of Mesoamerica sports rich olive-rufous plumage highlighted with bright turquoise blue, and a long racquet-tipped tail – it is a bird not to be missed in either of these countries. It is known locally as Torogoz in El Salvador and Guardabarranco in Nicaragua.

Turquoise-browed Motmot, national bird of El Salvador and Nicaragua
Turquoise-browed Motmot, national bird of El Salvador and Nicaragua

Honduras – Scarlet Macaw

Another brightly-colored and well-known bird associated with the Neotropics, the Scarlet Macaw was declared the national bird of Honduras in 1993. This threatened species, rare in the country, was chosen to raise awareness of Honduras’ bird life among its population and beyond. Like other Central American national birds, it is attractive and calls attention easily, in hopes of sparking conservation interest globally to assist the small population in Honduras and throughout its extensive yet fragmented range. The Scarlet Macaw is locally known as La Guara Roja in Honduras, and a small population thrives in the La Mosquitia reserve in the eastern part of the country, and can be seen along the northern Caribbean coast.

Scarlet Macaw, national bird of Honduras
Scarlet Macaw, national bird of Honduras

Costa Rica – Clay-colored Thrush

Instead of choosing a more recognizable, colorful, beautiful bird associated with the tropics like many Central American countries have, Costa Rica took a different approach to selecting their national bird. Instead, they decided to honor a bird that can be seen by everyone who lives in and visits this highly biodiverse country – the ubiquitous Clay-colored Thrush! Costa Rica reveres this bird for its abundance and ease of observation, its charismatic nature in suburban gardens and most of all, its melodic song. The dawn song of the Clay-colored Thrush during its breeding season is sweet music to everyone’s ears, definitely making up for its drab brown plumage. A close cousin of the American Robin, the Clay-colored Thrush ranges from extreme southern US (Texas) throughout all of Central America and into northern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela.

Clay-colored Thrush, national bird of Costa Rica
Clay-colored Thrush, national bird of Costa Rica

Panama – Harpy Eagle

In such a small country, Panama has the greatest biodiversity of all of Central America. With over 1000 species of birds to choose a national bird from, Panama made a great decision by making the largest and most powerful eagle, the Harpy Eagle, its official national bird. Panama’s easternmost province, Darién, supports the largest population of Harpy Eagles in Central America, and sightings of this elusive forest eagle are uncommon but more frequent here than in the rest of the region. The Harpy Eagle represents sovereignty and is an indicator of a healthy environment. The Harpy Eagle was designated as Panama’s national bird in 2002 and is on the top of the coat of arms of the Republic of Panama.

Harpy Eagle, national bird of Panama
Harpy Eagle, national bird of Panama

Well, there you have it, the full list of national birds from the beautiful Central American countries. We challenge you to join us to see all these birds on our tours!