Guatemala’s Holy Grail Birds: the warblers

Feb. 8 to 12, 2020

Every country that has unique or endemic bird species has a few Holy Grail species. The ones that everyone wants to see. They usually are spectacular birds with a reputation for being hard to see, or at the very least, are only from a small area that’s hard to get to. As example, Cuba has the Cuban Trogon while Peru has the Marvelous Spatuletail, and Mexico has the Red Warbler.

Guatemala has its own list of ‘megas’, and each comes with its own set of challenges. For us, the immediate challenge was getting to Huehuetenango; the city at the base of the Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes. Huehuetenango (‘Huehue’ for short) acts as the gateway to the high plateau of the Cuchumatanes where two of Guatemala’s holy grail birds are found: Pink-headed Warbler and Goldman’s Warbler.

“There are no direct buses to Huehue from Cobán.” The man at our hostel told us, which makes things tricky since we were in Cobán and wanted to go to Huehue!
I believed that there must be a way to get there from Cobán. No way were we going to go the long way around through Guatemala City and burn two whole days doing so.
I started reading through the Lonely Planet’s Guatemala travel guide I had downloaded on my phone. From what I could piece together, there are continuous minibuses that run between a few key cities along our prospective route. If we took one from Cobán to the next interchange, switched buses to the next stop and repeated that once again, we could piece together our route to Huehue. A route that would mean taking 3 different minibuses on rugged dirt roads and winding paved ones for more than 7 hours. All of this just as I was getting over my impressively hard-hitting sickness that left me feeling drained of all energy. But there were birds to see, and not just any birds, but some of Guatemala’s holy grail birds!

We tried to start early, getting to the bus station Transportes Del Norte around 9:00am, delayed a bit by spending too much time at breakfast. As soon as we stepped out of the taxi, a man asked us where we were going in the usual attempt to get us to buy tickets for his bus and not the next guy’s. He was particularly helpful though, because when we told him we needed to go to Uspantán, he quickly showed us the bus that was literally about to leave! We hurried to get our bags on board and find seats as the bus was pulling out of the station. Just like that, we were on our way in less than 2 minutes from the moment we stepped foot on the ground outside the bus station.

This leg of the route was the worst of them all. Almost immediately outside of town, the road turned to dirt and dust. We bounced down the road cut out of the side of the mountain as the fine dust filled the inside of the bus. Using the sleeve of my sweater, Stephanie and I covered our faces in an attempt to filter out the dust. Quite surprisingly it worked! Looking at the outside of the sleeve, we could see tan-colored dusty spots where our mouths were drawing in air. After 2 hours, we hit pavement again. I never was so glad to be on a pothole-riddled road before in my life! In no time we were in Uspantán and getting ready to transfer buses.

Miraculously, the minibus that our bus parked next to at this tiny bus stop was going to Sacapulas, our next destination. Before we even physically exited the first bus, the attendant was moving our backpacks to the next minibus! The drivers shouting encouragingly for us to hurry up, as they usually do in Latin America, but this time we literally made this connection with seconds to spare! After a quick one and a half hour ride being squished in our minibus with far too many passengers, we arrived in Sacapulas.

This next transfer was almost as instantaneous as the last! The driver shouted and pointed at the next minibus which was headed to Huehuetenango, and we hurried over to get our backpacks loaded up on top of the vehicle and claim a seat on the inside. This time, there seemed to be a delay and we had a few minutes to use a much-needed bathroom. Two hours after leaving the crazy bus stop full of pushy venders, garbage-filled streets, and one sketchy bathroom of Sacapulas, we finally made it to Huehuetenango.

starting in Cobán, we took a bus to Uspantan, then to Sacapulas, then finally to Huehuetenango.

Finding a place to stay in Huehue was fairly simple, mostly because there is only one hostel in the whole city. El Marquesote is a beautiful place, with a perfect open patio in the middle of the building where you can sit in the sun and enjoy a morning cup of local coffee. The owner, Carlos, was incredibly nice and welcoming. He spent the afternoon talking about coffee with us, and even made us some of his homemade espresso! In return, Stephanie showed him how she creates latte art. We had a great first evening in Huehue.

We planned to spend the next day exploring the city, but with a change of plans, I was on a bus towards Todos Santos instead. Esteban Matias, the birder who lives near there and guide who I was going birding with, met me in the village of Chiabal. During the days leading up to this, we messaged back and forth to set up this “birding getaway”. While Stephanie stayed in Huehue and explored the local coffee scene, I met Esteban and got ready for our 24 hours of birding on the Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes plateau.

In Chiabal, a tiny village along the road towards Todos Santos, there is a community cabin perfectly positioned for birders who want to stay right near the birding action. Many thanks to Esteban for setting me up in the cabin. After I got my stuff situated, we went birding!

I was eager to see what birds we could find, and Esteban was excited to show me around the area he calls home. We walked down the dirt road past a small cemetery, and turned up a small gully. It was already 4pm, and the sinking sun was casting a rich warm glow on everything. The hillsides were vibrant and alive with birds. We found big flocks of Bronzed Cowbirds, and my lifer Rufous-collared Robins! The robins are big thrushes, about the same size as the familiar American Robin from farther north and apparently fairly common in the Guatemalan highlands.

male Rufous-collared Robin

Walking up the path further, we passed into the shadow of the close hill. The air was quite crisp now that the sun was low and hidden from our view. It always surprises me how fast the mountain air cools down at high elevation, and we were truly at high elevation. 3,360 meters above sea level, or about 11,000 feet, was plenty high enough to feel the effects of the altitude. Short quick breaths and a slight headache are the symptoms that I usually experience, along with a weird sense of lightness. Almost as if I would float off into space if I were to trip while walking.

We came across a small flock of birds, mostly Townsend’s and Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers, moving through the shrubs along the trail. Esteban felt good about this flock, and played the song of Goldman’s Warbler on his little bluetooth speaker. In just moments, a small dark warbler flew up into view.

Goldman’s! Goldman’s!” He whispered with the familiar intensity that quickens the pulse of birders everywhere.

immature male Goldman’s Warbler

With smiles on our faces, we watched as the immature male Goldman’s Warbler flitted from bush to bush about 15 meters from us. With no time to spare, another warbler popped up into view on a shrub just behind the Goldman’s. I switched my focus and was struck in the chest by what I saw.

PINK-HEADED WARBLER!” I nearly shouted in excitement!

With some careful pishing, we pulled the Pink-headed Warbler in closer for spectacular looks. I had poured over photos of this warbler in the months leading to this trip, and none had done it justice. Even in the shadow of the mountain, the silvery-pink hood glistened, and the red-pink body was as rich as the brightest wild rose. I snapped a few photos, and just like the dozens I had looked at before, they did not do it justice.

adult Pink-headed Warbler

I was smiling the entire walk back to the cabin. Just one hour into my birding trip with Esteban and we already found two of my targets, and they are two of the three most saught-after birds in Guatemala; two of Guatemala’s “holy grail birds” were now mine.

I have to clarify Goldman’s Warbler. This bird is, for right now, considered a subspecies of the abundant Yellow-rumped Warbler species. Yellow-rumps range from Alaska to Florida, and down the mountains of Mexico to Guatemala. The population that breeds in Guatemala is call the Goldman’s Warbler. They are almost all black with striking patches of yellow; quite different from their North American counterparts. Even though they are still considered by some to be one species with Yellow-rumped Warblers, many believe they are a true and valid separate species – including me – so that’s why I am referring to the bird as Goldman’s Warbler rather than Goldman’s Yellow-rumped Warbler.

That evening Esteban and I prepared to go after one of my most-wanted birds of the whole trip, and unsurprisingly it’s an owl.
Esteban picked me up at 7:00pm and we started our drive downslope to the small village of Todos Santos. His friend and fellow local birder Rodrigo jumped in the truck and we weaved our way up a maze of small dirt roads that climbed the hills outside of town.

Arriving at “the spot”, we quietly got out of the truck and before we could put our backpacks on, we heard it. The constant and high-pitched hooting of an Unspotted Saw-whet Owl!
We set off hiking up a wide path that seemed to be used as a road, although I’m not sure what kind of person would attempt to drive up such a narrow, steep, and muddy road! Stopping every minute or so to listen (and to let me catch my breath!), we quickly made our way up the slope closer to the singing owl. A few Mexican Whip-poor-wills sang in the distance. That nightjar was a lifer for me as well, but getting a look at one had to wait. We were almost to the owl!

Turning off our headlamps, we crept in the darkness up the trail a final 50 meters. Esteban readied his speaker, and I set my camera to “owl mode”. With a quick play from Esteban’s speaker, an owl came screaming in to the tree right above us! Rodrigo helped aim the flashlight as I soaked in my first looks at that mega bird! Lowering my binoculars, I aimed my camera and snapped a few shots before the owl flew off back into the dark forest.

It all happened so fast. But I was in heaven. We exchanged exclamations and high-fived in celebration. Felicidades, amigo!
What a surreal experience for me. I believe it’s important and healthy to take a step back and look at where you are at from a different perspective to really appreciate how far you’ve come. I was standing on a mountainside with two new Guatemalan friends, in the night above a tiny town tucked deep in the highlands away from any other tourist, while in the presence of a rare and poorly understood owl species. How extremely and utterly awesome!

The long truck ride back to the cabin was mostly silent between Esteban and I, mostly for the fact that we were both tired, but I was also deep in thought. Replaying the night and seeing the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl over and over in order to cement it in my mind.

It was nearly 11:00pm when I was back at the cabin, and we made a plan to start before dawn on our next day of birding. The morning was going to come quick, and it did. I was up at 5:30am in order to leave by 6:15am. Some 40 minutes of bumpy dirt roads later and we arrived at our first stop of the morning.

the early morning sun on the Juniper and Pines of our first stop of the day.

The crisp cold mountain air felt good on my lungs. The first light of morning had started illuminating the hill in front of us with bright yellows and golds. Esteban really knows where to go for these birds because within minutes we had an adult male Goldman’s Warbler come within 10 meters of us! He really put on a show and I soaked it all up. Who knows when I will be back in up there to see another Goldman’s, so Esteban and I spent a 15 minutes just watching the warblers.

As the male Goldman’s wandered back to the trees on the hill, our attention shifted to the rest of the bird life in front of us. Steller’s Jays screamed familiar calls, but look like a fashionable Steller’s Jay from back home had a makeover for the runway! The typical sooty black hood was almost totally blue, and the white accents around the eyes were much more obvious. Really good looking birds! A pair of Olive Warblers showed up as well, and I managed to snap a photo of the male singing. The last time I saw an Olive Warbler was nearly 4 years earlier in Arizona. Although it wasn’t a lifer, I was just as happy to see it.

singing male Olive Warbler; which is neither a warbler or olive in color…

We spent the next few hours driving further and further into the Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes plateau. We stopped a few times to look for Ocellated Quail, but with no luck. More Steller’s Jays, a group of Pine Siskins, several Yellow-eyed Juncos, Rufous-collared Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds added to the list of birds for the day. We stopped to take in the views from our high perch and make an early lunch…at 8:30am. We talked about birding in Guatemala and birding in Montana. I told him how similar the landscape and trees were to Montana. We have the same dry pine/juniper scrubby hillsides in Montana, complete with Spotted Towhees, Pine Siskins, and Bluebirds (although Mountain not Eastern). The birdlife similarities were much stronger than I had assumed!

After the delicious breakfast of hard-boiled eggs with salsa, coffee, and sweet biscuits called champuradas, we started our drive across the high elevation grassland known as the Plano del Diablo, the Devil’s plains.
Driving along a barely discernible two-track through the grass allowed us to find a few Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks, both if which have isolated breeding populations there cut off from the rest of the North America’s grasslands.

We finally reached the western edge of the plateau, at a place called La Puerta del Cielo, the door to the sky. Off the western edge of the plateau grows a huge forest of Guatemalan Fir trees (Abies guatemalensis). There is just enough moisture in the air rising from the lower elevations to allow moss and ferns to grow in this forest, creating a rich environment that’s quite different from the dry plains just a couple kilometers away.

I was struck at how similar the whole place was to the forests from my home in Montana! Even the birds were largely the same, with Steller’s Jays, Wilson’s Warblers, Townsend’s Warblers, Brown Creepers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Violet-green Swallows, and Northern Flickers. If it wasn’t for the few spectacular reminders that I was in Latin America, I would have been completely fooled. Those sparkling reminders of my true geographical location included over a dozen Pink-headed Warblers, and my lifer Crescent-chested Warbler and lifer Amethyst-throated Mountain-gem among others.

female Amethyst-throated Mountain-gem

After a beautiful and relaxing 2 hours spent birding and talking with Esteban in the forest, we embarked our long dusty drive back to the community cabins. His little Toyota truck from the 1980’s had the stiffest suspension and so every little pebble we rode over jarred the whole vehicle. All day of that kind of rough roads had jiggled my insides and by the time we reached the cabins I felt like was going to hurl! Fortunately, more water, a little bit of food, and solid ground did wonders to settle my stomach.

I said my goodbyes to Esteban, and I flagged down a minibus headed back to Huehuetenango. I had almost exactly 24 hours up there, and we nailed my most-wanted birds, including two of Guatemala’s holy grail birds: Goldman’s and Pink-headed Warblers.
I saw some high elevation corners of Guatemala that I doubt any other non-birder tourist has ever seen. I can’t fathom a reason someone would put themselves through the long drives it takes to get to such a high and dry place other than for the raw and magical birding.

I was back to the El Marquesote around 4:00pm. Just in time to get some dinner and shower before I crashed. Stephanie and I spent the next day checking out the few cafes in town and catching up on journaling, photo editing, and planning our next move. We were headed to Quetzaltenango, or Xela (SHAY-luh) for short.
Xela was about to be our home for the next 3 weeks as we started one-on-one Spanish lessons in Guatemala’s second largest city. Good thing it has some truly phenomenal birding right outside of the bustling city to compliment the excellent cafes and fantastic Spanish schools. I was deeply excited to start the next leg of our Guatemala trip!

eBird checklist for Chiabal foothills:

eBird checklist for the night of owling:

eBird checklist for morning Goldman’s Warbler:

eBird checklist for birding mid-morning Quail stop:

eBird checklist for driving the grassland:

eBird checklist for Puerta del Cielo hike:

Cost and logistics

Getting to Huehuetenango

From Cobán:
Bus station Transportes del Norte in Cobán is where you start with a bus to Uspatan and switch there to a bus headed to Sacapulas. Switch there for a bus to Huehue.
Bus to Uspantan – Q30 / $3.85 USD – 3 1/4 hours
Minibus to Sacapulas – Q20 / $2.60 USD – 1 1/2 hours
Minibus to Huehue – Q20 / $2.60 USD – 2 hours

From Xela/Atitlan/Guatemala City:
Getting to Xela is the first step. In Xela, find a bus to Huehue at the main terminal or at the roundabout on the east side of town. Looking for “la Rotunda” or Monumento a la Marimba” will get you to the roundabout where a lot of buses stop to pick up passengers. Fares should be Q20 – Q30 and the trip to Huehue should take about 2.5 hours.

Getting to Chiabal / Todos Santos

In Huehue, the buses that go to Todos Santos leave from the El Calvario park. Asking for the El Calvario will get you to the right spot. It’s a gas station at the corner of 1st Street and 1st Ave.
The ride to Todos Santos takes 2 hours and costs Q20 / $2.60 USD but if you get off at Chiabal for the community cabins, it only takes 1 hour and Q10 / $1.30 USD.

Chiabal Community Cabins: (15.458439, -91.51429) Google Maps,
Q90 / $11.50 USD per person per night. I am not sure how to set up a stay there, but asking Esteban to arrange it for you would be the best and simplest way to go about it.


El Marquesote hostel
We paid Q90 / $11.50 per person per night for a dorm bed. Lovely place and Carlos really helps you feel at home! He also cooks and serves coffee to order, so if you don’t feel like leaving to find lunch or dinner, you can have it right there!

Cafe Museo:
Breakfast and lunch food
Excellent fried tacos and coffee!
The fried tacos cost about Q25 / 3.25 USD and comes as 3 delicious tacos!

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