Photo: Joe Townsend, Pine Savanna
From the archives (2003)
Honduras — Known as the fabled Mosquitia, the region is otherwise known as the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in Central America.
The Mosquitia includes prime examples of lowland tropical rain forest, coastal lagoons, undisturbed beaches, mangroves, and patches of pine savanna. It’s also the most uninhabited area in Central America but continues to be home to the Mosquitia and Peche Indians, and the Garifuna, the black caribs. Not many visitors have found their way to this harsh world with the exception of cowboys, loggers, hunters, squatters, and suspicious entrepreneurs who continue to scar this so-called protected area. The Reserve continues to exist mainly because of its size and isolation. The Biosphere is a vast wilderness which has only recently begun to be investigated.
My husband, Dennis Beall, and I were going to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in the middle of the Mosquitia with two other bird watching friends , Ann Shadwick, and Linda Petrulias. With the help of our friend, Robert Gallardo, who would lead the trip, we planned to take the first organized birding tour into the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in Central America.
And as we boarded our small plane to fly from La Ceiba to Palacios to begin a week’s long adventure into this rugged land, I thought I must be out of my mind for planning this trip during Dennis’ and my 20th wedding anniversary. The flight was 50 minutes long and the runway was just short of a large river where we crossed and came to a bumpy touch down and hard landing.
We loaded all our gear in the front of a long dug-out canoe. Today was to be the short day crossing the Laguna de Ibans, entering the Rio Platano River where we would be stopping for the night at Raista. We entered a narrow swampy area where the pilot slowed so we could see spotted sandpipers, jacana, and little blue herons. Huge red and greenish yellow grasshoppers in large concentrations mated near the muddy water’s edge. At last we entered the lagoon and felt invigorated by the high speed and loud thumping of the boat on water.
The boat slowed to a stop and turned to the front of a small hut on stilts. Our boatman began to yell in a rich bubbly Indian dialect. A man and young boy strolled out of the hut and it turned out that our pilot was also the Pizza Hut delivery man. The pizza had been carried from La Ceiba on the airplane. I handed the boy the pizza, a much appreciated delicacy in these parts, I’m sure.
We passed long dug-out canoes with families and children. One canoe was so overloaded with bananas and family, that the father flagged us to slow us down as he was bailing fast. Children stood several hundred feet out in the shallow river swimming and playing games, always waving. Women continued the endless job of laundering near the shore. It was easy to see that the river is their extension to everything: transportation, communication, bathing, and freedom.
Raista had changed Robert said. It had changed so much that we missed the place because it had a new pier. It also has airplane service about to begin, and more people. Raista was where Robert Gallardo, our leader, had stayed while in the Peace Corps and where he built Honduras’ first Butterfly Farm that is still bringing money today to the family he stayed with. His second Mosquitia family, Eddy and Elma Bodden, warmly welcomed us.
The next morning I stared in dismay at my plate. All the others in our group were delighted. Breakfast was pancakes with some kind of sickening sweet thick syrup made of prunes. Since pancakes usually hit my stomach like lead, I slowly began to eat one pancake without the goop.
Robert and Ann disappeared and came back with a surprise. There was an Anniversary card signed by all and a seriously strong Garifuna’s homemade brew filled with peppers, cinnamon, seeds, twigs, and some other things I’m sure I’d rather not know what and where they came from. We all toasted at 7:00 am with a shot before boarding the boat. A powerful pleasant and pungent peppery taste exploded in my mouth and caught my breath as it burned going down mixing with the lead pancake.
Perhaps it was short on romance but not adventure. I had friends along to share Dennis with, no double bed, and Gurifity instead of champagne to dust the tortillas, refried beans, and rice down instead of caviar. At least there would be candlelight since there wasn’t any electricity.
Our sailing vessel was a long dug out canoe, but fortunately, Robert using his connections, had absconded with the European group’s canoe with the largest outboard motor making the trip much faster, and less noisy. We were off at 8:00 am flying across the Laguna de Ibans at high speed. Then we entered a narrow canal and watched jacanas tiptoe on lily pads and little blue herons, the color of twilight take off as the boat got near.
Shortly, we reached the Rio Platano River and began our long day’s journey up the river. Mangrove swallows sipped and skimmed the water like a graceful ballet. Purple gallinules sparkled lapis blue and turquoise with yellow feet and red bills. Spotted sandpipers bobbed their butts, and the largest of the kingfishers, the ringed kingfisher sailed passed us showing off their rufous breast bands. Snowy egrets flapped their wings like starched white sheets in the wind. Social flycatchers teased us with their flirtatious flutters, and kiskadees keeled their songs that gave them their name, kiskaddeee.
We stopped at a small community with a few thatched huts, where our pilot lived and went to get a few things for the trip. His home was on a small isthmus where the river was on one side and the ocean was on the other. We walked over to the ocean and watched a large flock of mixed Forster’s and royal terns twirl in the sky while a few laughing gulls joined in the frenzy. Several pelican patrols cruised by close and low to the water. Suddenly, a strange large visitor appeared close to the shore swooping and stealing fish from the gulls. Dennis yelled with excitement. The bird was identified as a South Polar Skua. Definitely closer to shore than usual, but a first ever recorded in Honduras.
Yellow butterflies, the color of lemon parfaits fluttered in swarms near the water’s edge perching on top of each other. Robert said they were after sulfur and other minerals, probably where a cow had urinated recently.
We saw several glossy Ibis, with their maroon bodies and deep purple heads, long curved beaks. But the best surprise was finding a couple of green ibis with acid green bills and feet. This was one of two new life birds that day. The other being two sun grebes, small with white striped faces. Just before we arrived at Las Marias at 3:00 pm in the afternoon after having traveled for seven hours, a pair of scarlet macaws flew overhead, A perfect ending to a special day.
Breakfast the next morning was rice pudding, refried beans, fried bread, and chocolate cake, definitely not my usual food, but I had learned to eat what was put in front of me, as the days were long and vigorous, and sometimes the rations seemed thin. It was Easter week, and not only was the family we stayed with feeding their own large visiting families, but us as well.
We departed at 7:00 am in the boat and headed up stream watching several of the usual water birds fly by, adding one new crimson collared tanager to our list. Then we took a trail into the deep thick jungle. A bird flew in front of us and perched on a branch close by. It was a stunning rufous-tailed jacamar bathed in glorious light with its bronzy breast worn as shining armor, and acid olive green belly and back.
Puffbirds and Ant Swarms
Robert signaled me. On a branch about 12 feet away, a white whiskered puffbird sat quietly for all to see. White whiskers surrounding its round mouth helps this bird catch large moths which it kills by whacking them to death before devouring the moth whole in it’s giant cave of a mouth.
Suddenly, Robert became extremely excited. He had found an ant swarm. Ant swarms are when the ants cover the earth like a black blanket of movement attracting many birds to the area. We watched spotted antbird, bi-colored antbird, bare-crowned antbird, gray headed tanager, rufous mourner, dot-winged antwrens, and fasciated antshrikes all actively participating in the feast. We had to stoop low to see the birds, and it was only when the black blanket of ants began to move in our direction, that we decided to move on.
In the late afternoon, we found our next surprise; a black-throated trogan sitting on her nest. It’s amazing to see a trogan with its long tail feathers curled up sitting in the hole of a nest. This one’s choice for a nest was not a good one though, as it was in the middle of the trail and only about six feet up.
A male red-capped manakin sat quietly in the sunlight directly in the middle of the trail. Manakins are usually quite active and to see this tiny round bird with a blazing red cap on a black body sitting still for us to admire was a great delight.
While waiting for the boat to return, we found a large flock of birds there: streak-headed woodcreeper, yellow olive flycatcher, scarlet and summer, and golden-hooded tanagers. There were several excellent warblers too: Townsend’s, black-throated green, and the bay breasted warblers that was new to both Dennis and myself. But the best bird of the day for Robert, our leader, was the blue dacnis, a new life bird for him. That evening I sat listening to sweet voices singing religious songs in Indian dialect as the sound drifted across the river while writing on my laptop.
Rain water was valuable and conservation a necessity. We were given a room in back where we could take a bath with one scoop of water to soap up with and another to rinse. A few of us decided to swim in the river like the kids instead.
Linda pointed out brown spiders the size of my hand that were living under our beds. I was relieved when I realized that our mosquito netting we had brought would not only keep the mosquitoes out, but the spiders too.
At 4:00 am, the resonating sound of a bell rang through the forest. It sounded as though it was coming from inside our cabin and continued for about 20 rings. After it had stopped, Linda asked in the darkness, “Does that mean it’s time to get up?” I answered, “Not unless you care to go to Catholic Mass. It’s Good Friday.” Someone groaned, “good grief.”
We left that morning to go up river to the same spot as the day before, stopping to pick up our quiet and shy Peche Indian guide. But before arriving we saw a laughing falcon sitting up high in a tree appearing as a sentinel. A pair of scarlet macaws flew overhead and a large flock of chachalaca called loudly across the river.
On the trail
We took a new trail that lead us deeper into the forest than the day before. The trail was no more than a foot wide in most places with tall and thick plants on each side. The smell of rotten vegetation was ripe like a giant compost pile.
The trails we’d wandered on the past few days have been there for centuries and still used by the Miskito and Peche Indians. Robert said they can go on forever, and they are only maintained by those who travel on them. One could get lost easily and it was comforting to know that we had our Peche Indian guide with us. Leading with a machete in case of any surprise snakes we might find, our guide was extremely silent and was fast to see a movement helping us spot birds. An explosion of huge wing beats burst from the high canopy giving me an adrenalin rush. Robert grabbed me and pointed upwards and whispered, “great curasow.”
For many years Dennis and I have pursued this mysterious giant of the deep forest with no luck. It has always been one of our target birds; illusive, a fantasy bird that we could only hope to see one day. I could feel the excitement starting to build when the bird exploded once again and I saw an enormous bird take flight. Disappointment was immediate.
Then I heard Linda say, “I’ve got her.” All of us crowded next to her and I looked up and saw a dark bundle high in the canopy above us. Placing the binoculars to my eyes, I was able to make her tail and body out, but her head was hidden. Holding my breath for what seemed several minutes, she finally moved her head to the side. I could see a large rufous colored bird larger than a turkey with black and white etchings on her wings. Her black and white fine striped face and large crest with the same striped pattern was magnificent. She peered down at us with large eyes.
But slowly our exhilaration began to turn sad. Robert found a pile of long black feathers of what probably belonged to her mate. The male of this species is glossy black with a white belly and a bright yellow cere. The curasow needs deep rain forest and its habitat is being reduced. This was the southern most edge of its range near civilization. The Indians hunt everything they can find including monkeys and a big bird like this probably would end up in someone’s soup pot living too close to civilization. Sadly, the female was probably hanging around waiting for her mate who disappeared and in doing so was endangering herself.
Later that night coming out of the outhouse I met Robert and he asked me if I had heard the owl. I told him it was coming from behind the latrine. He said, “let’s go find it.”
He had a big flashlight, and we spent several minutes trying to get a reflection of its eyes but with no luck as it continued to call. Dennis and Ann joined us shortly. Dennis got lucky and saw the owl turn its head and caught a glimpse of its eyes. It had been sitting with his back facing us making it difficult to get an eye reflection. A big black and white owl blinked at the light with its red eyes. It’s facial disk was dark and his bill was bright yellow. His collar and body was finely barred. We went down to the water edge and spotted a yellow-crowned night heron but the huge white bull frogs with their bulging milky eyes were what held my attention.
The day we were to depart Las Marias, the sun came out and steam poured off the trees and the huts. The sudden temperature change from the cool shower to a sauna environment was intoxicating. We watched a white-necked jacobin hummingbird do its mating dance in front of the female. The white tail feathers were extended in an arch and the bird buzzed up and down in an undulating dance. The female never moved away whirring her wings in one spot approximately 3 feet from the ground as he continued to woo her. We stood frozen watching the beauty of the dance for several minutes before loading our gear, paying for our rent and food, and waving goodbye, heading back to Raista after several days in Las Marias, Honduras.
We made only one stop to stretch our legs, and at that stop we added bronze cowbird, yellowthroat, thick-billed finch, and a swallowtail kite which was a life bird for Dennis and me.
The next day back at Raista, Eddie, Robert’s friend, took us out in his dugout canoe across the lagoon to a place called Caram. The birds were extremely quiet, however, we did see a seven foot rat snake in the middle of the trail that had half digested some poor victim. As Dennis took video footage, the snake began to move its tail back and forth in a fast whipping movement to distract us. Slowly it backed up went off the trail and climbed up a tree. We also saw a big lone howler monkey hanging from a tree.
The wind had come up and the water on the lagoon was choppy. Robert said we would get wet. But nothing prepared us for the perfect storm and it wasn’t even raining. The wind was coming from the opposite direction and every swell brought a wave of water down on us for the 45 minutes crossing. I kept listening to the rhythm of the small boy bailing water fast. When we got out of the dug out, water poured down us through our pants. We poured water out of our boots. As Ann said, “It’s been two days up and down the river, 3 forced marches through the forest, and the perfect storm.”
Being Easter Sunday, and Robert’s last day with his Miskitia family, dinner was something special. We had cooked cabbage, rice and beans cooked together with spices, and small chunks of lobster in a sauce. Dessert was chocolate cake with icing. However, as it had been most of the week, the rations were small for our huge appetites after such long days walking.
Although Honduras has only one endemic bird the (Honduran emerald) it harbors more than 730 species with many not being found in countries to the south. Honduras continues to be seen as “off the beaten track” with exorbitant airline fares, and the lack of park infrastructure. But the thrill of the going to a new destination to find new bird species to add to the Honduras bird list, made all the preparation and discomforts worth it. Little did we know that in the six days visiting there, we would record 20 new bird species for the Biosphere bringing the total list up to 355. Our group ended up with an amazing 270 bird species (39% of Honduras’ total). Between the five of us, we saw a total of 76 “Life” birds, birds not seen before.
The best time to visit the Mosquitia is during the dry season in April and May. The best way to get there is to fly to the La Ceiba International Airport. Plan to stay overnight getting some rest before departing on a small plane to Palacios. The price for the flight is approximately $50 one way. The Lodge at Pico Bonito is Honduras’ first luxury eco-lodge and is situated at the base of the mountains in Pico Bonito National Park. Plan your itinerary to include a few days staying at this lovely new lodge and birding the area surrounding the lodge. For more information about the Lodge, visit their web site at picobonito.com.
This trip into the jungle is for the most adventurous souls and visitors should plan to take their own water purification or filtered water, lightweight sheets or sleeping bag, mosquito netting, malaria pills, plenty of snacks, insect repellent and sun block, light hiking boots, lightweight long-sleeve clothes and pants, shorts, swimsuits, flashlights, and a brimmed hat besides camera and binoculars.