Birding Guatemala: The Petén Lowlands and the Legendary Ruins of Tikal

When the Maya ruled the their empire, Tikal was one of its greatest city states. Wars and overcrowding led to its downfall, and the jungle soon swallowed it up. When the ruins were discovered hiding under a mat of tropical jungle trees, the once great city was unearthed, revealing the sprawling mass of the then largest Central American city ever seen. Today the region remains covered in jungle, and the peaks of the once massive temple spires still peak out from a thick carpet of greenery.

Within this mythical and mystical place reside some of Central America’s most sought-after bird species, like Pheasant Cuckoo, Yucatan Poorwill, Tody Motmot, Ocellated Turkey, Orangebreasted Falcon, and Mayan Antthrush, to name just a few. Birding in Tikal is like birding nowhere else in the world. The closest I can equate it to was visiting Ta Prohm in Cambodia, with all the strangler figs crawling all over the ruins, while I was listening to barbets in the trees above. But the scale here is like nothing I’ve ever birded. The ruins are huge. The central temple complex with temple I and II and the north acropolis present you with an overview of what the city must have looked like before the forest crept back in to claim it.

Pheasant Cuckoo © Mike Nelson

Pheasant Cuckoo © Mike Nelson

One of the great treats of visiting Tikal is its sunsets. You can climb up to the top of Temple IV, which is the highest of the four main temples, and look out over the vast expanse of the Petén lowlands, seeing nothing but forest and the tops of the three other temples with their now naked roof combs, which were once painted in bright colors, reflecting now the warmth of a deep orange setting sun. The rich shades of greens and browns are echoed back against the rock of the temples, and below you the last calls of the forest reach up as cool breezes whip the tops of the
trees. It is truly one of the most majestic sites on the planet. It is also up here that you can find the Orange-breasted Falcon coming in to roost. There has been one here for years, and it’s one of the few reliable places to see this rare falcon.

It’s not just the huge temples but other smaller buildings and complexes spread throughout the huge city that you stumble upon as you emerge from a narrow trail overcrowded with enveloping trees, and suddenly there is a grassy lawn with a small wall surrounding it and several small grey stone buildings huddled in the center. Raucous calls from Mealy Amazon echo around, while flycatchers hawk for insects from any available snag.

Lunch at the lodge is always a good time to check out the flowers for hummingbirds, and both Long-tailed and Stripe-throated Hermits, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and Wedge-tailed Sabrewing can all be seen eking out a living on nectar.

Stripe-throated Hermit © Mike Nelson

Stripe-throated Hermit © Mike Nelson

Another close park that is worth visiting is Biotopo Cerro Cahuí. The forest here is a bit more open, and on our birding tour we found Blue Bunting, Mayan Antthrush, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Long-billed Gnatwren, Red-throated Ant Tanager, and Grey-throated Chat here. Both the chat and the antthrush are specialties of this little park.

Several surrounding lakes are also great for waterbirds, and if you arrive in late winter or early spring you will be treated to many Neotropical migrants. It was funny to see such species as Hooded Warbler and Wood Thrush milling about in the understory with Sepia-capped Flycatcher and Red-crowned Ant Tanager, or Baltimore Oriole in the canopy with Yellow-olive Flatbill.

Red-crowned Ant Tanager © Mike Nelson

Red-crowned Ant Tanager © Mike Nelson

Night birding can be great as well for species like Pauraque, Yucatan Poorwill, Middle American Screech Owl, and Mottled Owl. Any birding tour to Guatemala should always include Tikal, not just for the stunning birds but also for the stunning atmosphere.

Mike Nelson

Mike Nelson is a tour leader, sound recordist, wildlife photographer and wine enthusiast. He has been a birder since he was 6 years old, when he became fascinated with the birds in his English garden. Read More

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