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Birding the Highlands of Honduras
by Pamela Conley

June/Junio 1999

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After a grueling 48 hours awake, we arrived in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, exhausted once again. Our plan this time was not to head for the beaches, but to head for the highlands of Honduras. We were first to be guests of Harold Prowse who had invited us to visit him at his family's finca near Puerto Cortes.

We departed early the next morning and easily found the white arch entry to the finca. Standing in a robe and pajamas, he was obviously surprised to see us. He thought we were supposed to arrive the day before. We birded the grounds while he dressed and then he showed us to our cabin where we would be staying. Harold hired a friend and his fishing boat to take us birding the channels of Laguna de Alverado near Puerto Cortes. The day was bright and sunny and after the long confinement and exhaustion of jet travel, we found it exhilarating to be on a boat floating gently through a marshy area. We drifted lazily past great blue, tricolored, little blue, and green-backed herons that took off in flight as we passed. Snowy, great and cattle egrets were numerous white reflections on the water. We also saw belted and ringed kingfishers fly ahead of the boat, and we watched jacana tip-toe across giant lily pads. A large squawk of protest surprised us, as a purple gallinule took off near the boat. A pair of hook-billed kites sat preening their feathers in a tree. Our first sunny day in Honduras was to be our last sunny day. It began raining that night and I thought I was back home in the redwoods. Hard pounding rain pulverized tropical plants to the earth. We woke at 6:00 A.M. and it still continued to rain. We were supposed to ride horses up into the interior of the rain forest of the finca. As we expected, it was canceled. Iris, a black Garifuna woman came in at 7:00 A.M. to make our breakfast which consisted of a huge plate each of papaya and banana, home-baked bread, scrambled eggs and ham, and rich black coffee with cream.

The new plan was to head for Celaque National Park, the highest point in Honduras, via a longer route through the interior of Honduras. This proved to be a big mistake. The shorter route would have been to head for Copan and then towards Santa Rosa, but we wanted adventure, and had miscalculated the distance, roads, and time.

Celaque is the highest point in Honduras with the highest peak being around 11,000 feet. We piled our equipment and Harold into the back seat of our truck and left about 9:00 am. My husband, Dennis, drove over eight hours that day. High rugged mountain pine country and beautiful vistas dominated our views most of the day. We made few stops for birds.

However, we did find a few North American warblers, such as Wilson's, Townsend's, and olive warblers along the way. The thrill of the day was when a noisy flock of bushy-crested jays attracted our attention, a new life bird. White-collared swifts were another attraction.

We spent the night in a small town of Esperanza, located in the high mountains. We were now deep in the interior of Honduras. The hotel cost us $8.00 for the night, a shabby room with electricity and a cold shower. We set off for Celaque at 7:00 A.M. stopping for a few minutes at the hot springs above the city where we found a slaty-collared redstart and a black-throated green warbler.

We found the dirt road and turnoff to Gracias, the village of entrance to Celaque, and we began one of the longest and most strenuous days of driving in our lives. The road was comparable to many roads we have been on in Baja California with washboard ripples and pot holes. There were few birds seen on the way. We did make one stop near a spring and found eastern bluebirds, Audubon's warblers, and a western tanager.

We continued to pass through small villages and the weather matched my mood, bringing no sunshine, mostly clouds, and an occasional sprinkle. It was 12:30 P.M. when we finally arrived in Gracias. With no coffee or breakfast, we stopped at a 'puperia' (a Latin Seven-Eleven store) and stocked up on cokes, cookies, and the international travelers consistent when-all-else-fails, Vienna sausages.

The road up to Celaque was next to the white church and had to be as ancient as the Spanish colonial rock walls that lined the road. Dennis put the truck into four wheel drive and we grunted our way to the end of the long road, where we parked the car and proceeded to the interpretive center on foot.

The interpretive center was a shack with a few rooms, a guest book, and a care taker. This new national park is not advertised, hard to find, and not easily accessible, yet we met a few hikers on the way up and found a few tent campers at the top. There were several trails to take from the center; the longest and most difficult being the one that leads to the top of the mountain and is a two day trip. We had arrived to the highest national park in Honduras and could only spend three hours before having to depart for the finca, because Harold had to catch an airplane the next day to begin his next journey to Antarctica. In those three hours, we saw northern flicker, bushy-crested jay, black-cowled oriole, yellow-backed oriole, Baltimore oriole, solitary vireo, Townsend's warbler, white-eared hummingbird, and slate-throated redstart.

Coming down the mountain, Dennis and I found a small flock of birds. A painted redstart brightened our mood as it flitted around two tufted flycatchers, and we added a greater pewee to our pathetic small list of birds of Celaque.

It was 3:30 P.M. when we began our bumpy ride back down the road, and one more hour on a dirt road to Santa Rosa where we caught the major paved road towards Copan. We sat in silence for another three hours from there to San Pedro Sula in the dark and rain, stopping at last for a quick dinner at a fast food Chinese restaurant. Then carried on to Puerto Cortes and the finca arriving late and exhausted after two long days of driving and little birding.

Celaque National Park encompasses the largest and richest cloud forest in Honduras. It has been protected by the steep slopes that have resisted cut-and-burn agriculture over the centuries. Among the endangered animals that make Celaque their home are ocelots, peccaries, pumas, and jaguars. There are even wild cattle that reside here and of course, many species of birds. Camping is permitted and simple basic hotels are located in Gracias.

After saying our farewells to our friend the next morning, we headed back to San Pedro Sula. We decided that after our poor attempt at trying to bird Celaque National Park, we would turn our sights towards Cusuco National Park. We inched our way through the town of Cofradia, following bicycles, avoiding pedestrians and skinny nervous dogs. The people were extremely polite and helpful, not jaded by tourists yet, as so many other poor countries. The brown, ragged and usually dirty children were always grinning and waving, and warmed my heart.

We stopped to put the truck in four-wheel drive and found two black-headed, and two violaceous trogans sitting quietly in some trees above us. The drive up seemed to be endless and we began to wonder if there would be an interpretive center at the top.

The second stop produced a squirrel cuckoo and masked tityra. It was early and the birds were up. As we entered a forest of young pine trees, we stopped to look down a slope. Perched on a tree limb close to the truck sat a white-necked puffbird. We were at the cloud range and the weather was damp and cool . Suddenly, he took flight and caught a huge red katydid. We watched as he tried to swallow it whole and then finally giving up, he began pounding it against the tree limb, breaking it up into smaller pieces before consuming it.

The drive up was narrow with many curves and in some places impassable for two cars. We came around one corner and had to stop because of an accident with two trucks full of people. One had tried to pass the other one and had hit the truck in front. Dennis and I walked up to see what was going on. Neither one of us could find a dent. However, there was much conversation back and forth involving everyone in the truck that had tried to pass. Finally money was collected from everyone in the truck that had tried to pass and paid to the driver of the front truck.

Eventually, they moved and we were on the road again.

Grinding our way to the top, we at last arrived at the small village of Buenos Aires and a sign pointed the way to Cusuco, only six more kilometers. However, the road had become a mud slide and was extremely dug up from other trucks. We slid across it like we were on ice with little control, almost going into a ditch. The thought of abandoning the quest at this point was unthinkable and so we pressed onward. At last we rounded a corner and saw a sign and a few buildings that announced that we had arrived. There really was an interpretive center with an impressive collection of specimens, photographs and maps.

We hired a guide to take us on a trail. There is always an element of excitement of the unknown, and the primitive instinct of the hunt while birding a rain forest. However, it is also the most frustrating and difficult birding. We welcomed Danilo's third pair of eyes. As it turned out, he was an excellent spotter.

There is a power that exists and is felt when entering an untouched mature tropical forest. It is felt in the most primeval sense and stimulates all the senses. It is not just the individual giant trees with hundreds of bromeliads and orchids that live in them, nor is it the vines that twist their way through the forest claiming everything in their paths. It is the knowing that a jaguar or snake may never be seen, but that they too are a part of this collective wildness and that they are here, whether we see them or not.

A large rufous woodcreeper worked at the base of a tree, and we were able to take the time to identify it as the spot-crowned woodcreeper, before the bird flew away. A flock of white-fronted parrots noisily announced their arrival, as they landed high up in a tree and disappeared camouflaging perfectly with the leaves. Tufted flycatchers were numerous, and brown jays chasing something, clamored through the vines causing a racket. Our North American warblers kept showing up, such as: blue-winged, black-throated green, black and white, and hooded warblers. A scarlet tanager was a bright surprise. Danilo found a scrub euphonia and an altimira oriole for us to add to our Cusuco bird list.

We came to an edge of the forest where an old orchard stood in the sudden bright light. To our amazement, a small house was there and an older woman and two little boys came out to greet us. Tables of succulents, geraniums, impatiens, and many other plants were neatly organized in plastic wrappings. So remote, living in a circle of sunshine, surrounded by dark jungle, growing her plants, it was obvious that she took much pride in her nursery. As we waved goodbye, a blue-crowned motmot landed in one of the gnarled and bare orchard trees. We watched as his feathers shimmered bright blue and green in the sunlight as he sat twitching his tail rackets back and forth.

Towards the end of our walk, Danilo suddenly gasped and pointed a finger upwards. There in bright light, high in a tree, sat a resplendent quetzal. A cape of brilliant emerald green surrounded a ruby red stomach. A green head with huge eyes slowly moved in our direction and blinked. To our astonishment, another male quetzal flew into a tree nearby, like a colorful vivid kite with two feet long blue shiny streamers. The bird perched directly above us. We looked up and saw the red and green underparts, and two blue plumes of feathers streaming like two long sapphire ribbons. Quetzals have short feet and when perched, they appear to be lying on the limb resting rather than perched. A third male flew in close by. In those few short minutes, the entire trip up the mountain, coated with mud and apprehension had become worth it.

We learned from Danilo that quetzals prefer the fruit from the aguacatilla tree. The fruit is a brown hard nut the size of a golf ball. The shell looks impenetrable. You find the quetzals by locating this fruit on the floor of the rain forest.

A Canadian couple had camped the night before and when we emerged from the forest, came over and asked us for a ride down the mountain. We put the Canadian couple and Danilo in the back seat of the car and proceeded down to Buenos Aires, where we dropped Danilo off after having been introduced to his mother and invited in for a cup of coffee which we declined. We took the Canadian couple down the hill with us back to San Pedro Sula, stopping to share good looks at orange-chinned parakeets in the wild. We checked the mileage coming down the mountain from the top to the highway where you turn to the village and it was 25 kilometers. The longest 16 miles of road I have ever been on.

Birding the Highlands of Honduras is not easy. Four-wheel drive is a must for the mud-slick and rock-pitted roads that lead the more adventurous visitors upwards to the rain forest peaks that are higher than the clouds. Camping gear is a must if a bird watcher wants to spend more than a day visiting Cusuco. Cusuco is located 20 kilometers west of San Pedro Sula. Information on trails and current conditions in the park is available from Cohdefor (Honduran Forestry Corporation), 10 Avenida, 5 Calle NW, San Pedro Sula, tel. 534959. Tours are operated to the park by Cambio C.A. The best time to see the quetzals is in April and May.

My last entry in my journal that night reads, 'It is the last day of the year and I am listening to fire crackers exploding outside our window in San Pedro Sula. May the next year bring the brightness, the mystery, and the sense of wonder that the quetzals brought us today.'

 

Pamela Conley was an international flight attendant for 18 years and an international travel consultant for a major insurance company for eight years. She is now a freelance travel writer and has a weekly nature column in a regional newspaper, The Bodega Bay Navigator. For Planeta.com, she has written the following articles: Birding the Banana Republic, Birding the Highlands of Honduras, Birding Two Diverse Rain Forests in Costa Rica, The Garifuna: A Changing Future. She can be reached via email: chukartales@thegrid.net.

Her husband's book, Field Checklist of the Birds of Honduras is a great asset for any birder and a bargain at only $3.50. You can get a copy from the American Birding Association Book Store or direct from the author.

 

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