Sunday, March 16, 2008

Birding the Temples of Tikal

An interesting twist of birding Guatemalan is the fascinating culture. The Department of Peten, in the northern reaches of the country, was a center of Mayan life, and the temples at Tikal are among the most spectacular of the surviving relicts of Mayan cities. Many tourists come here to marvel at the awe-inspiring structures that typified this advanced civiliation, and so did we. The temples at Tikal were built well some 2,000 years ago, and remarkably, the Mayans did not count the wheel among their tools when they built the temples. The largest, Temple IV, is over 20 stories tall and juts high above the tallest jungle trees.

But there is far more to see at Tikal than the temples, other buildings, and steles, although these certainly dominate the landscape. The birds are incredible! Nowhere have I seen so many parrots, toucans, and aracaris, among many others. As Tikal is sacred, and quite well protected by the Guatemalan government, poachers are not part of the scene and the bird life is safe. And they seem to know it. The minute you step foot in the parking lot, an acoustic bombardment of raucous parrot calls begins, and they are seemingly everywhere.



Temple 1, overlooking the Gran Plaza, as seen from near the summit of the nearly identical Temple 2. These structures, as impressive as they are, are dwarfed by Temple IV, which rises to 212 feet. Unfortunately for the visitor, this temple was undergoing some rehabilitation work and was cloaked in unsightly scaffolding.
Being the birders that we are, birds preempted the temples at times, and we probably gave more than a few tourists pause as we scoped out interesting birds in the busy central plaza. Not that we didn't appreciate the Mayan craftwork, mind you, it's just that there were some marvelous birds to be seen.

One of the heavy-hitters to be found at Tikal: Orange-breasted Falcon. These peregrine-sized tropical falcons nest high on one of the large temples, and are easily found around the main plaza. This is the female, who was constantly exhorting the hapless male to bring her more food. Excellent views of the falcons could be had from the top of Temple II, and we were able to show many a bird-illiterate tourist these very exciting birds through the scopes.

Here's some of our crew from the 4th International Bird Watching Encounter posing high on Temple II: Front, kneeling: Brian Bland, Jeff Bouton, Sharon Mackie. Back row, L to R: Tim Appleton, Jeff Gordon, Liz Gordon, Bill Thompson, Lisa White, Jim McCormac, Susumu Kumemura, and Terry Moore. This is the spot where we had the best looks at the Orange-breasted Falcons.

Sensational and unwary, Ocellated Turkeys can't be missed at Tikal. They are gaudy to the point of outrageousness, more so than Ohio's Wild Turkey, also in the genus Meleagris.

I greatly enjoyed watching the goings-on at this colony of Montezuma's Oropendolas, which was high in a tree overlooking the central plaza at Tikal. Like a small colony of avian Mayans, the birds engaged in all of the activities of a busy little city. Oropendolas busied themselves constructing or patching their intricate woven bag-like nests, seemingly talked and socialized amongst themselves, and uttered their incredible descending gurgles - a sound that totally seems as one with the jungle. Especially interesting was watching one of the crow-sized males doing his courtship acrobatics. The bird perches on an unobstructed horizontal branch - keep in mind this is some 80 feet above the ground - and slyly looks about to see if any suitable chicks are watching. When an attractive audience is assured, he jostles about on the perch, and lets loose with a splendid flute-like gurgling whistle. Simultaneously, the bird rocks forward with a slight outward flap of the wings, and plunges off the branch headfirst. Like a trapeze artist, he maintains a firm grip on the branch and quickly pirhouettes halfway around before lunging back to an erect position. All the while, his golden tail flashes a vivid arc as he spins around. Indeed, "oropendola" stems from the Spanish Oro (gold) and pendola (pendulum).

Watching the antics of the orpoendolas, I had to wonder if the Mayans who lived here were equally amused by these birds living high overhead their ancient city some 2,000 year prior.

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