The Motmot Messenger

A bimonthly newsletter from the

Guatemalan Birding Resource Center

The Motmot Messenger is a free bimonthly newsletter about Guatemalan birdlife from both scientific and recreational points of view. Each edition offers interviews, birding tales, Q&A, news from the conservation and research fronts, as well as profiles of specific regions and birds. If you want to subscribe to The Motmot Messenger, contact us at: Please include the words: "Motmot Subscription."

Vol. I, no.1:

Laguna de Chicabal: A Wet Volcano!

In early December a few friends and I took a day-trip to Laguna de Chicabal, located in the Western Highlands, an hour from GBRC headquarters in Quetzaltenango. Leaving mid-morning, we passed through much pine-oak forest on our way, although we were especially looking forward to the cloud forest environs of the Laguna! On the way we passed a number of interesting Mayan villages, but were very impressed by the last village, San Martín Chile Verde. This village, at the foot of Volcano Chicabal, is one of the few Mayan villages where the men still wear traditional dress.

We dropped the pickup off and headed up the dirt road through dry pine-oak forests. A number of warblers (Townsend’s, Wilson’s, and Audubon’s) flitted around the canopy, while Rufous-browed Wrens, Yellow-throated Brushfinches, and Blue-and-white Mockingbirds bounced around in the underbrush. As we made it to the top of the volcano (8,000 ft / 2,600 m), the air became more humid, and the vegetation more lush; we were now in cloud forest! While a lone White-breasted hawk soared overhead, the vast view of the water-filled crater lay in front of us – begging to be explored! We found a very nice, newly-built trail of steps that led down to the lake.

As we descended, thick clouds began rolling down into the crater, creating a very eerie effect. Traditional Mayan religious rites are still practiced here, and we soon found little shrines with offerings! After eating lunch at the lake, we walked around the lake and came across more "tropical" warblers such as the Pink-headed, Crescent-chested, and Golden-browed, as well as Painted and Slate-throated Redstarts. Two lifer sightings of Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush got people going! Three Great Blue Herons, probably from the U.S., flew circles over the lake before settling into huge old growth trees by the lakeside.

It was now 3:00 p.m. and time to start heading back. On the way down, everyone frequently saw Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges except me. What a disappointment! But my luck changed when a Mountain Trogon decided to let us see him, flying across the path. We did get to see about 45 species even though we did not bird intensively (not all of us were birders). Needless to say, everyone – birders and nonbirders alike – had a great time. We got to the car as the sun was shining through the deep-red clouds on the summit of the volcano. "We have to come back soon!" was the constant refrain the whole way back to Quetzaltenango!

Trip Highlights:

- White-breasted Hawk

- Pink-headed Warbler

- Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge

- Slate-throated Redstart

- Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush

- Mountain Trogon

- Garnet-throated Hummingbird

- Hermit Warbler

Submitted by Jason Berry, GBRC founder.

Endemic Profile:

Cabanis’ (Azure - rumped) Tanager
Tangara de Cabanis
Tangara cabanisi

This stunning tanager is found only in three departments of Guatemala: Sololá, Quetzaltenango and San Marcos (as well as the adjacent, Mexican state of Chiapas). Within this small area, it is further restricted to the Pacific Foothills (Boca Costa) between 1000 and 1700 meters above sea level. Due to its habit of staying quiet for long periods of time high in the canopy, it was considered very rare by Roger Tory Petersen. It has since been found to be more abundant, but is still considered uncommon. Finding the Cabanis’ Tanager is best accomplished by listening for its high, thin ssi or ssit calls, given while moving from tree to tree. Fortunately, these calls are rather loud and raucous until the new tree is found! Some of the best places on the Boca Costa are coffee plantations bordering rivers with humid evergreen forest edge. Many of these areas are conveniently located less than an hour by car from GBRC in Quetzaltenango!

Resident Profile:

Unspotted Saw-whet Owl
Tecolote-abetero Sureño
Aegolinus ridgwayi

The range of this tiny owl (8 inches tall) is limited to the highlands of Chiapas, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and western Panama. The Guatemalan Western Highlands probably host the largest population within this range! Home for this striking little owl is humid pine-oak and oak forests above 1650 meters. Its presence is best detected by voice (a whistled hoo hoo hoo…), similar to its cousin, the Northern Saw-whet Owl. Although it is very similar to a juvenile Northern Saw-whet in appearance, the juvenile form of the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, ironically, still remains undescribed. The best time to go after this owl is between December and March.

"Who You Wouldn’t Expect To See!"

Hermit Warbler
Chipe Cabeciblanco
Dendroica occidentalis

While birding the pine-oak forests near Quetzaltenango, we noted a particularly beautiful warbler we hadn’t seen before among a mixed-species flock of Painted Redstarts, Pink-headed, Crescent-chested, and Rufous-capped Warblers. It was a chunky, black and white bird, with a golden, yellow-orange head, keeping to the abundant pines but following close behind the roving flock. It was, of course, a Hermit Warbler!

For Eastern birders this could easily be a lifer, and you don’t have to make a separate trip to California or Oregon to get it! Hermit Warblers regularly winter in pine-oak and conifer forests above 2000 meters from central Mexico to Guatemala. They often associate with Townsend’s Warblers, but seem to stick to the pines. Hermits begin to filter into Guatemala by the end of August and leave towards the end of May. Due to competition from Townsend’s Warblers, Hermits may be declining and so are an extra treat to see!

P.S. While checking out Hermits, keep in mind possible Townsend’s / Hermit hybrids and the similar-looking (at least in winter!) Golden-cheeked Warblers. Please report any Golden-cheeked (if you are sure about your ID) to GBRC!!

Bird-Brain Q&A

Our B.B. reporter took a little unexpected vacation (Caribbean coast), so, we’ll need to wait and see where he’s been poking around, and with whom he’s been birding with! Please punish him with extra hard questions for the next edition of The Motmot Messenger!


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