Panama Birds & Butterflies: A New Nature Tour

It goes without saying that birds are what brought us together here at Whitehawk. From our individual backgrounds as bird enthusiasts, educators and field biologists, we all met because of birds. We worked together on various bird conservation projects in Central America long before Whitehawk was formed. Though we were all originally drawn to birds for different reasons – their beauty, their ability to fly, and their unique biology and amazing behaviors, we all had the same goal in mind: help conserve the world’s avifauna and wildlife. That is why we built Whitehawk Birding and Conservation!

But we are not exclusive to birds. In fact, we love all things nature! Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, fungi and plants of many kinds are all seen and enjoyed on our tours. When we began in 2011 we offered exclusively birding tours, but have since expanded and now offer tours that include a focus on mammals such as our India: Birding & Tigers tour, and our In Search of the Elusive Snow Leopard tour, both which offer the excitement of seeing many amazing large mammals while also enjoying the plethora of bird species that share the landscape with these amazing cats – truly a spectacular experience!

Delicate clearwing butterflies, like this Paula’s Clearwing, are captivating!

A New Nature Focus for Whitehawk: Butterflies

In 2018, we welcomed biologist and naturalist Jenn Sinasac on board our team. Jenn has been a long-time friend and past field colleague on bird conservation projects in Panama and Belize and brings a new facet to our combined knowledge base: butterflies & skippers. In addition to her passion for birds, Jenn has focused on Panama’s diurnal lepidopterans over the past several years. She is familiar with hundreds of species and is always learning more about their biology and distribution in Panama. With Jenn’s expertise in this area, we are excited to introduce a new tour combining these two winged wonders: Panama Birds & Butterflies nature tour.

Tailed Orange Butterfly Panama Whitehawk
The Tailed Orange stays close to the ground, offering great photo ops as they sit in low foliage

Birds and Butterflies: Harmony in Nature

For nature enthusiasts, birds and butterflies complement each other very well. First thing, they both have the amazing ability to fly and have adapted to a great diversity of environments. For those interested in learning species’ names and identifying everything they see, both birds and butterflies offer that opportunity. Field guides are readily available for both inPanama/Central America, and many birders are taking on the new challenge of learning the resident butterflies in this region. Birds and butterflies also complement each other when it comes to peak activity time. In general, birds tend to be most active early and then again later in the day, while many species of butterflies like the hottest, sunniest part of the day to forage. Therefore, there is always something flying to delight our eyes and our souls.

Proxenus Blue-Skipper Panama Whitehawk
Proxenus Blue-Skipper. Skippers of the tropics are beautiful and not as intimidating as they may seem!

Butterflying in the Tropics: Where to Start

Just like with birds, there is no need to have any experience when it comes to enjoying butterflies in the field. You do not need to know even one species! Over 1,800 species of butterflies and skippers are found in Panama. They are indeed plentiful, and we’ll admit, even a little intimidating! But once you start to familiarize yourself with the main groups of butterflies, and, with help from a local guide, begin to notice the different wing patterns, shapes and sizes you will start to see and recognize some common species over and over again. Don’t be surprised to find yourself wanting to see more and more! The pace of a Butterfly tour is slow, even slower than a birding pace. Watching butterflies can even be calmingly therapeutic, good for our minds and our souls, similar to what you can experience on our ornitherapy tours.

Common Morpho Panama Nature Tour Whitehawk
The Common Blue Morpho is an iconic butterfly of the American tropics

Panama Birds and Butterflies Tour

It is time! We are introducing our Panama: Birds and Butterflies nature tour because we want to get out and enjoy birds, and other winged creatures too! With Jenn and Edwin as our guides, we can ensure you a fantastic experience exploring Panama’s winged creatures – birds and butterflies! Our first tour will run September 4-13, 2020, so consider joining us for this fun, educative and exceptional nature-filled tour! Contact us for more details.

Looking for more about Panama’s butterflies? Check out some of our favorite butterfly websites, Neotropical Butterflies and Butterflies of America.

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!

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 28 endemics and 15 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.  28 endemic species of birds

Islands in general are known for having endemic species but Cuba possibly tops it all with 28 endemic bird species, of which 26 are possible to find on our tour (as there haven’t been any confirmed records of the Zapata Rail for decades!). Also, a big handful of regional Caribbean endemics can be found too. 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 one that can be the most difficult to find, 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 two-country tour: Honduras & Guatemala

Keel-billed Motmot sit quietly in the forest understory
Keel-billed Motmots sit quietly in the forest understory.

Central America is full of natural beauty and cultural richness, and it is difficult for many to choose a favorite place within this special area of the world – each country has its own natural marvels, but two countries stand out from the rest – Honduras and Guatemala. In the heart of the ancient Mayan world, these two countries host incredible biodiversity and geological and cultural attractions, often right on top of each other! From grandiose Mayan temples to lava-spewing volcanos, from dense tropical rainforests and cool highland cloud forest and hot, dry open savanna, and such impressive species as the Resplendent Quetzal and endemic Honduran Emerald, they should rise to the top of any nature lover’s list of places to visit.

The Resplendent Quetzal, Guatemala's national bird can be seen on our Honduras and Guatemala tour
Resplendent Quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird

We are excited to introduce our first tour exploring and birding Honduras and Guatemala in a pleasant manner – focusing on the great bird and wildlife diversity while enjoying comfortable lodging, intriguing ecosystems and breathtaking scenery, awe-inspiring Mayan ruins and inviting local culture, from the Caribbean lowlands of Honduras to the cool highlands of southern Guatemala.

This 16-day tour is tailored with the best birding in mind – starting with seeking out Lovely Cotingas and Keel-billed Motmots at the ultra-luxurious Lodge at Pico Bonito, followed by the remainder of the tour in Guatemala, where we walk among ancient Mayan temples at Tikal where Ocellated Turkeys strut on the grounds, to experience local culture in Antigua and Atitlán, climbing to the highland haunts of the near-mythical Horned Guan. Along the way, we hope to find such fantastic species as Pink-headed Warbler, the endemic Goldman’s Warbler, Wine-throated Hummingbird, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer, Mountain Trogon, Resplendent Quetzal, Bushy-crested Jay, White-bellied Chachalaca and so many others. You won’t want to miss out on this exciting Central American birding adventure!

Mayan temples peak above the rainforest canopy at Tikal
Mayan temples peak above the rainforest canopy at Tikal

Honduras and Guatemala: Jewels of Central America tour will run from February 15 to March 2, 2019, 16 days from $4885 per person (price based on 8 participants). Eight places are available, please contact us for more information.