VIDEO: Birding in Cuba with Whitehawk

We can’t seem to get enough of Cuba these days. Our birding tours in this vibrant country always amaze us in so many ways. Cuba is a destination for everyone – with stunning scenery, incredible bird life, endemics galore, cultural integrity and delicious food, to say the least. In Cuba, there seem to be surprises to our delight around every corner. Check out our new video featuring birding in this amazing Caribbean destination!

As you can see, not only is Cuba a top destination for birders, but is an excellent place for wildlife photographers. There are fantastic photographic opportunities throughout the entire tour – for birds and wildlife, and also beautiful scenery, both in the city and in Cuba’s diverse natural habitats.

Looking for more information about Cuba? Check out the following links:

Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cuba for Birders
Birding Cuba: Culture, Community and Conservation

Cuban Pygmy-Owl Whitehawk Birding
Cuban Pygmy-Owl, one of Cuba’s 24 viable endemics

Our next trip to Cuba is set for January 30 to February 9, 2020. Join us for the ultimate Cuba birding experience! Contact us for more details.

~ Your friends at Whitehawk Birding

Birding Cuba: Community, Culture and Conservation

The endemic Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world, found only in Cuba

With nearly 400 bird species (25 of which are endemic, according to the Clements Checklist ), a welcoming culture, good food, and year-round warm temperatures, Cuba is one of our favorite destinations. We are offering our next tour to this tropical island in January 2020.

The Birding: Endemics Galore

Islands in general are hotspots for endemic species, and Cuba is no exception. The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba has a great diversity of habitats, some like no other on Earth, and has supported endemism and is home to 25 endemic species. There are even endemic extinct species (Cuban Macaw), and another which is critically endangered (Zapata Rail). It also supports a number of endemic subspecies and regional endemics as well. Not only are Cuba’s viable endemics attractive but they are among some of the most notable birds in the world. The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird on Earth, and it is only found in Cuba! Likewise, the Zapata Wren from Cuba’s Zapata swamp is known to have one of the smallest global ranges in the world. While some species are rare, such as the Gundlach’s Hawk and Cuban Solitaire, other colorful endemics are easy to come across – Cuban Trogon (Cuba’s National bird), Cuban Tody, Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Green Woodpecker and Cuban Parakeet. In fact, we have had great luck on all of our past trips (check out our past trip reports) to Cuba to see all of the viable Cuban endemic birds.

The stunning Blue-headed Quail-Dove is always a highlight of our tours

Culture and Conservation: A Community Connection

But there’s more to Cuba than just the birding. Cuba is long-known as a cultural destination, where Old Havana’s lively atmosphere and great food attract people from all over the world as a unique travel destination. While Cuba’s political history has had a large impact over the years on the country’s economic and travel situation, Cubans still remain as welcoming and friendly as ever.

Getting out to explore the island and its different environments, we come across mogotes, bays, marshes, dry forest, beaches and more. Being an island, all of these habitats are sensitive to disturbance. By visiting and placing direct funds in the country through ecotourism, we are supporting the conservation of these habitats and species that live there.

And there’s so much more to love about Cuba – check out our Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cuba for Birders list!

Cuban scientist, author and wildlife illustrator Nils Navarro talking with our group

Cuba Travel Update – Yes, US Citizens can go there!

Though travel regulations have changed for US Citizens hoping to visit Cuba, it is still legal to travel there. For our tour, we will be traveling under the OFAC designated category of “support for the Cuban people.” Under this category travelers must engage in meaningful activities that support locals. During our tours, we always stay in “casas particulares” – Cuban-owned private homes, and we eat in locally owned restaurants. Additionally, we are accompanied 100% of the time by our amazing local guide, Maikel, and work with other local guides in specific areas. As part of our “Bins for Locals” program clients have the option of donating used binoculars to local guides and biologists who are unable to obtain some otherwise. We also make a visit to a local school to donate books (in Spanish) and other supplies (we encourage our clients to bring along any materials to donate)! The information we collect on bird sightings throughout the country will be uploaded to eBird and will help further knowledge about the local avifauna and, in the long term, population trends and other important information for conservation. Finally, at the end of the tour, we will provide you with a document that includes our itinerary activities and names of the casas particulares and restaurants where we visited during the tour. 

Come escape the cold US winters with us. Join us on our next Endemic Birds of Cuba tour, January 30 to February 9, 2020.

Top 10 Birds to See in Panama

Panama, as you probably know from us by now, is a birding paradise. We couldn’t have chosen a better place to make our home, and this small Central American country thrives with its incredible natural assets. Over 1000 species of birds have been recorded here, owing to Panama’s varied habitats, elevational reaches, tropical climate and geographic position as an important migratory flyway for shorebirds, raptors and songbirds.

While it is extremely hard to choose a top 10 birds among over 1000 species found in Panama, we thought we would take a stab at the task! We feel that these top 10 are some of Panama’s most sought-after, beautiful and unique bird species. Perhaps after reading about them, you may be enticed to book a trip and come see them for yourself!

In no special order, here are what we consider Panama’s top 10 birds:

Harpy Eagle

Ok, perhaps we are biased here as our entire team has worked with Harpy Eagles in Panama for some time, but we are enamored by our National Bird. The Harpy Eagle is not only one of the most powerful birds on Earth, but is graced with such incredible beauty, delicately entwined with formidable features causing our hearts to skip a beat every time we see one. Harpy Eagles are considered rare, even endangered in some places, throughout its range. Here in Panama, the vast, highly biodiverse region of Darien in eastern panama is where Harpy Eagles roam. While sightings are never guaranteed, known nest sites in Darien give us good chances to see adults and juveniles in the wild year-round, since their breeding cycles last at least 2 years. Ask us about Harpy Eagles!

Harpy Eagle Panama
Harpy Eagle, Panama’s national bird

Resplendent Quetzal

Dubbed with the title of being “the most beautiful bird on Earth,” the Resplendent Quetzal surely lives up to its name, and it’s no surprise that it makes our top 10 birds to see in Panama list. The male’s emerald-green, shimmery feathers, contrasting bright red belly, fanned crest and its most adorning feature – long, wispy feathers that trail from its lower back long past the tip of its tail – attract even the most casual passerby. This bird is truly resplendent! The Resplendent Quetzal is found in Panama’s Chiriqui highlands, where it lives in the tranquil cloud forests, feeds on little avocado fruits and nests in cavities – hard to believe it can contain its tail inside a hole in a tree (it usually sticks out of the opening!). The best time of year to see the Resplendent Quetzal in Panama is during their breeding season from January through April, conveniently coinciding with Panama’s dry season. Book a trip to see Resplendent Quetzals in Panama!

Resplendent Quetzal
The Resplendent Quetzal resides in the highland cloud forests of Chiriqui, western Panama

Ocellated Antbird

For any birder exploring the American tropics, antbirds are always on the top of the list for birds to see. While Panama has over 30 species of antbirds and their relatives to dazzle our sights over, there is one species that truly stands out of the crowd: the Ocellated Antbird. Its (relatively) large size, shaggy hairdo, bright blue facial skin, and ornately scalloped pattern all over its body makes this antbird a most-wanted bird to find in Panama. But there’s a trick to finding them – in order to find an Ocellated Antbird, look for swarming army ants in Panama’s lowland rainforests. Ocellated Antbirds are “professional” army ant followers and are rarely found away from a swarm. A big ant swarm may have up to half a dozen Ocellated Antbirds attending it, and they dominate over all other antbird species at the swarm. Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park is an excellent place to find Ocellated Antbirds!

Ocellated Antbird Panama
Ocellated Antbird in Pipeline Road, Panama

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

Searching for ground-cuckoos brings us to a whole other level of birding in the Neotropics, that relies very much on luck and good birding karma! The Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, although widespread, is the “holy grail” bird to find in Panama. Never common and hard to predict, this roadrunner of the tropical rainforests attends large army ant swarms in central and eastern Panama. Like the Ocellated Antbird, it stays on or close to the ground, and eats up larger animals (small lizards, large arthropods) that army ants disturb while swarming. Ground-cuckoos are indeed cuckoos, but on the contrary to typical cuckoo behavior, they build their own nests and raise their own young, rather than parasitizing other bird nests. There is always the possibility to see one on our Panama tours, and if lucky enough to find one, you deserve a celebratory drink at the end of the day for adding this spectacular bird to your list!

A true “holy grail” bird, the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo can be seen with luck at army ant swarms

Black-crowned Antpitta

Antpitta-like in many aspects, the Black-crowned Antpitta is actually a rather remarkable member of the gnateater family, Conopophagidae. It fits the standard, antpitta “eggs with legs” appearance, and its two subspecies are both decorated with rich dark plumage and striking scalloping on their breast. Black-crowned Antpittas are only found in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, making them a key target species in this area of the Neotropics. They are best detected by their distinct songs and sharp chucking alarm calls. We can find Black-crowned Antpittas in the foothills of western and central Panama, and into the lowlands of Darién. 

The Black-crowned Antpitta lurks in the dark forest understory of Panama’s lowlands and foothills

Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker

Unlike some other countries in tropical America, Panama is not known as being a hotspot for national endemics (regional endemics YES). We have a small number of endemic species, less than 10, and due to range extensions and more exploration into remote areas, some of our previously endemic species are being found in our neighbor nations. But that’s ok! Birds don’t have boundaries. The Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker is one of our national endemics, found only here in Panama. This small, attractive woodpecker is found in the foothills of eastern Panama – Cerro Azul is a great place to seek out this bird.

Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker
Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, one of Panama’s endemic species

Tody Motmot

The Tody Motmot is a denizen of the dark nooks of the foothills of Central America. This motmot represents its own genus Hylomanes, and definitely stands out from the crowd within the motmot family. It is smaller and lacks the racket tips on the tail and gets its name for its resemblance to the todies of the Caribbean. The foothills forests of El Valle de Anton, as well as further into Darién, are excellent places to find the Tody Motmot in Panama, and it is always most-loved bird on any of our trips where we are fortunate to see it. It is always a target on our full day trips to El Valle de Anton.

Tody Motmot, as seen in the shady understory in El Valle
Tody Motmot, as seen in the shady understory in El Valle

Spectacled Owl

Of all the amazing birds we find while birding in Panama, the widespread Spectacled Owl is most often voted “bird of the trip” and for good reason: those large eyes surrounded by white “spectacles” and that piercing glare we experience every time we see one is beyond memorable! It is one of our largest owls in Panama, and luckily, we know of a few reliable roosts in some of our most popular birding areas where established pairs raise their young every year. They are superb subjects for bird and wildlife photographers, often allowing fairly close approach.

Spectacled Owl, the largest owl species in Panama
Spectacled Owl, the largest owl species in Panama

Sapayoa

For decades, the Sapayoa has remained a true mystery to birders and bird taxonomists. While it is nothing remarkable in appearance, it’s the appeal of its odd evolutionary history, along with its rather small global range, that makes it one of the most wanted birds to find in Panama. While it resembles a flycatcher or a manakin, ornithologists and taxonomists have long pondered over its taxonomic placement, as its closest living relatives appear to be the Old World broadbills. It is now generally accepted to be placed in its own family, Sapayoidae. For birders seeking to see representatives from each family of birds, this is a number one target! Panama is perhaps one of the best places to see the Sapayoa – it can be found in the eastern foothills and lowlands, almost always near forest streams. Ask us about finding the Sapayoa in Panama!

Sapayoa Panama
Sapayoa, a truly unique and puzzling bird

Blue Cotinga

Last but definitely not least, the Blue Cotinga definitely merits a spot in our top 10 birds to see in Panama list – how could it not! The electric blue plumage of the male is like no other in central and eastern Panama, where it is fairly common in the treetops of the lowland rainforest. With that color it easily stands out from the crowd! Even the scalloped plumage of the dull brown female is attractive. Panama is the only place to find the Blue Cotinga in Central America, and its small range to extreme northwestern Ecuador makes it a special bird to find. Blue Cotingas are usually solitary or found in small groups and are best found by visiting fruiting trees that they frequent. Seeing a male always produces an awe-inspiring reaction!

The male Blue Cotinga is a spectacular bird

Ask us about finding these top 10 birds and other incredible avifauna in Panama. Whitehawk offers tours all over the country, targeting these species and others that draw us to our beautiful country. Book your trip with us now!

Our Newest Destination: BHUTAN

FIre-tailed Myzornis Bhutan
Bhutan is home to many colorful birds, such as this Fire-tailed Myzornis

Asia’s big up-and-coming birding destination is the land-locked country of Bhutan. Bhutan appeals to us for several reasons. The small country is home to over 600 species of birds, some of which are more easily found here than anywhere else in the world. This is the case of the striking and rare Rufous-necked Hornbill, Beautiful Nuthatch and near-endemic Bhutan Laughingthrush, as well as some fantastic pheasants, including Blood Pheasant, Himalayan Monal and Satyr Tragopan. Situated north of India and nestled in the shadows of the mighty Himalayas, Bhutan boasts a multitude of elevational ranges and thus great diversity of habitats, from tropical and sub-tropical forest, cloud forest, and up to high elevation passes. Bhutan is culturally beautiful – extravagant Buddhist temples, dzongs, monasteries draped with colorful prayer flags, intriguing relics and stunning architecture call to us, and are set in the most scenic of landscapes one could ever imagine.

Satyr Tragopan Bhutan
The Satyr Tragopan is one of the several beautiful pheasants we will look for during the tour

Bhutan: Birding in the Himalayas

For these reasons and many more, we are excited to announce Whitehawk’s first birding tour to Bhutan. Bhutan: Birding in the Himalayas is a 16-day, cross-country journey through this spectacular country. With our highly experienced local guides, we will visit the best areas for birding along the way, many still begging to be explored. This tour takes us through a wide range of elevations, maximizing the different species of birds we will find during the tour, from lowland tropical and subtropical forests to high elevation passes with mesmerizing views of the Himalayas. Cultural stops along the way will complement our days of birding, and there will no doubt be birds to see around the enchanting monasteries and monuments, bringing us the best of both worlds. Additional birds we will seek out during the tour include Ward’s Trogon, Himalayan Cutia, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Ibisbill, Long-tailed Minivet, Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Hooded Pitta, and Crimson Sunbird, among many others.

TIger's Nest Monastery Bhutan
Tiger’s Nest Monastery, near Paro

A Glimpse at the Tour

This tour begins in Guwahati and finishes in Paro, with short connecting flights to and from the larger cities in India (Delhi and Calcutta). We traverse the rugged landscape, traveling in a comfortable van from southeast to western Bhutan. Each night we stay in local hotels and nature resorts, accredited by the Bhutan bureau of tourism. Our local guides, as well as our Whitehawk tour leaders, have a wealth of knowledge on the birdlife and wildlife of Bhutan; there will be opportunities to learn and see plenty of new species around every curve of the mountain. Our first Bhutan: Birding in the Himalayas tour will run April 12-27, 2020. Please contact us for more information about this new and exciting tour!

Rufous-necked Hornbill Bhutan
Bhutan is one of the best places to find the rare Rufous-necked Hornbill

2019 Discover India: Birding & Tiger Safari Trip Report Online!

One of 12 individual tigers we were lucky to see during our 2019 tour in India

Well, our long-awaited tiger safari and birding tour came and went, leaving 7 people in complete awe of the spectacular wildlife we saw during the 2-week excursion into the wilds of India. We had great sightings of not one, not two, but rather TWELVE Bengal Tigers in the wild, observed their behaviors, studied their perfection as top predators and gained an even greater respect for the incredible animals that they are and their importance in their diminishing habitat.

As we ventured through the national parks and reserves of northern India, we were lucky to see plenty of other wildlife that was nothing short of marvelous. Like Africa, India is a fantastic place for large mammals in general, and during the tour we had great views of, among others, Dhole (Wild Dog), Jungle Cat, Leopard, Common Palm Civet, Indian Gazelle, Blackbuck, Northern Red Muntjac and Nilgai.

Jungle Owlet seen at Bandhavgarh National Park

Finally, the birding! The wide variety of habitats we visited during the tour were worthy of some world-class birding, with memorable sightings of Brown Fish-Owl, Dusky Eagle-Owl, Indian Courser, Sarus Crane, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Short-toed Snake-Eagle, Plum-headed Parakeet, Savanna Nightjar, Chestnut-breasted Bunting, Orange-headed Thrush,Crested Treeswift, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Jungle Owlet, Malabar Pied-Hornbill, Indian Skimmer and so much more.

Orange-headed Thrush foraging on the ground in Tadoba National Park

Overall, we wrapped up our tour with 246 species of birds and 26 species of mammals. Without further ado, check out our Discover India: Birding & Tiger Safari trip report for the full account of our most memorable moments, tour highlights and a full list of the birds and mammals seen and enjoyed during the tour. We are already planning for our next Indian adventure, check back soon for dates for our future tours in this highly biodiverse country, or get in touch with us for more information.

A Leopard carrying away a fresh kill in Ranthanbore National Park, one of this tour’s many amazing moments

Central American Hummingbirds – the gems of the region

The snowcap - one of the endemic Central American Hummingbirds
The Snowcap – one of the endemic Central American Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are one of the most diverse groups of birds in the New World. There are more than 345 species from Alaska (Rufous Hummingbird) to Tierra del Fuego (Green-backed Firecrown), including the Caribbean islands.

It’s no surprise that the greatest number of hummingbirds are in the tropical region, including a large number in Central America. Here, we may encounter about 30% of the hummingbird species, of which 20 species can be found only in Central America. Additionally, some hummingbird genera are unique to this region, such as Panterpe (Fiery-throated Hummingbird), Microchera (Snowcap) and Elvira  (Coppery-headed and White-tailed Emeralds),  which have apparently diversified in this region recently. Similarly, the genus Lampornis originated in Central America and then expanded into North America, along with the Amethyst-throated Hummingbird and Blue-throated Hummingbird. Excluding these two species, the other hummingbirds of the genus Lampornis, the mountain-gems, are a mostly Central American group found only in Mesoamerica.

Which hummingbirds can you find only in Central America?

This region is home to 20 endemic Central American hummingbirds according to the Clement Checklist. Of these, only two have large ranges in the region. The tiny Snowcap delights us in the humid forests from Honduras to Panama; and the Purple-throated Mountain-gem, with a smaller distribution, is found from the hilly areas of Nicaragua to Panama.

Other Central American hummingbirds are shared between two countries. Such is the case of the Green-breasted Mountain-gem which we can come across in both northwestern Nicaragua and Honduras. The same happens between Costa Rica and Panama with an extraordinary number of Central American endemic hummingbirds. Between these two countries are two endemic bird areas (EBAs): the Costa Rica and Panama highlands and the South Central American Pacific slope, which is home to 13 endemic hummingbirds:

  • Veraguan Mango
  • White-crested Coquette
  • Talamanca Hummingbird
  • Fiery-throated Hummingbird
  • White-bellied Mountain-gem
  • White-throated Mountain-gem
  • Magenta-throated Woodstar
  • Volcano Hummingbird
  • Scintillant Hummingbird
  • Garden Emerald
  • Black-bellied Hummingbird
  • White-tailed Emerald
  • Charming Hummingbird

Volcano Hummingbird - one of the endemic Central American hummingbirds of the highland of Costa Rican and Panama
Volcano Hummingbird – one of the endemic Central American hummingbirds of the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama

Central American hummingbirds of a single country 

Only Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama have hummingbirds restricted to their political boundaries. Costa Rica is the most favored country with two endemic hummingbirds.

Honduran Emerald – This hummingbird is the only endemic bird of Honduras. For 38 years the species had not been reported because it was presumed to be a forest inhabitant and no one was searching for it in the right place! However, after plotting the locations from where this species had been collected in the past, it was clear that this species inhabits dry forest and scrub, mainly arid, open-canopy deciduous thorn-forest. Thanks to this clue, six emeralds were rediscovered in the upper Aguan River basin in about an hour during an expedition in 1988. Since then, at least half a dozen sites of this emerald population have been discovered.

Coppery-headed Emerald – One of the members of the aforementioned Central American genus Elvira, this small hummingbird is fairly common in Costa Rica. It is found at middle elevations on the Caribbean slope, north of the Reventazon river, and reaches the Pacific slope in the northern parts of the Guanacaste and Tilaran Cordilleras.

The Coppery-headed Emerald a Central American hummingbird endemic to Costa Rica
The Coppery-headed Emerald a Central American hummingbird endemic to Costa Rica

Mangrove Hummingbird – This hummingbird is found only in the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It is mostly associated with mangrove forest and is occasionally observed in adjacent, non-mangrove habitats. It feeds primarily on the flowers of the Tea Mangrove (Pelliciera rhizophorae).

Glow-throated Hummingbird – This is a very poorly known endemic hummingbird of Panama. It is restricted to a small area in the Tabasara mountain range.

More endemic Central American hummingbirds by different taxonomy

If we follow the IOC taxonomy, we will gain two other endemic hummingbirds of Central America: Blue-vented Hummingbird and Gray-tailed Mountain-gem. Some taxonomic authorities, like the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, consider these hummingbirds as subspecies. The first one is a subspecies of Steely-vented Hummingbird, which can be found from the arid zones of western Nicaragua to central Costa Rica. The Mountain-gem is endemic to the Talamanca mountain range of Costa Rica and it is the subspecies of the White-throated Mountain-gem.

This is important to keep in mind, since one never knows when new research will split a subspecies into an entirely new species. This has been the case recently, when two Central American hummingbirds were split. The former Magnificent Hummingbird was split into Rivoli’s Hummingbird and the Central American endemic Talamanca Hummingbird. Similarly, the Green Violetear was split into Mexican Violetear and Lesser Violetear. Both species can be found in Central America. The most curious thing of all is that Lesser Violetear has an exclusive subspecies in our region, a highland endemic from Costa Rica and Panama.

It is clear that for unrivaled hummingbirds viewing, Central America is a great destination. The fact that it is home to thirty percent of the hummingbird species and about 20 endemics is sufficient enough reason to visit this part of the world. Join us on our next birding trip to one of several Central American countries and enjoy an incredible birding experience with these little avian gems!

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!