Rare Emeralds and Other Gems of the Aguan Valley

Guest post by Stephan Lorenz

Our small group walked carefully through the thorn scrub of the Aguan Valley, following narrow paths and occasional clearings, passing columnar cacti towering above the low trees. It was only mid-morning, but the heat was already rising. The birds though were still in full song and we soon found a pair of White-bellied Wrens, their tiny bodies nearly exploding every time they belched forth their disproportionate loud phrases. We wandered further and movement drew our attention to a pair of hyperactive White-lored Gnatcatchers, hastily snapping up insects. A Brown-crested Flycatcher that had been incessantly calling in the background landed in view.

The dry habitat preferred by the Honduran Emerald are visible in the foreground with the Sierra Nombre de Dios rising in the background ©Stephan Lorenz

The dry habitat preferred by the Honduran Emerald are visible in the foreground with the Sierra Nombre de Dios rising in the background. ©Stephan Lorenz

I spotted something small jet from a dense shrub and disappear. We froze in place and waited. I was sure it was a hummingbird and within moments the bird returned, flew a short loop and then settled onto a thin branch in the shady center of a bush. I carefully maneuvered the scope into place and it focused on an emerald with malachite back, azure throat, and candy-colored base of the bill. We had found the Honduran Emerald, one of the rarest birds in the world. The excitement of seeing such a precious marvel is always mixed with some anxiety, since this particular hummingbird faces a perilous future.

The Honduran Emerald is Honduras’ only endemic bird species and remains one of the most endangered hummingbirds in the world with population estimates in the low thousands. In fact, the species was essentially unknown in life for many decades until its rediscovery in 1988. The Honduran Emerald occurs in arid, intermontane valleys in the northeast of Honduras with a recently discovered population in the west. The highest numbers live in the dry forest and thorn scrub of the upper Rio Aguan Valley near the small town of Olanchito. Despite the recent acquisition and protection of land for the Honduran Emerald preserve, a big step in the right direction, the species still suffers from habitat loss and fragmentation.

Honduran Emerald ©Stephan Lorenz

Honduran Emerald ©Stephan Lorenz

The Rio Aguan Valley in northern Honduras lies in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nombre de Dios and while the Caribbean slope is cloaked in lush rainforest, the valley is dominated by dry, deciduous shrubs and cacti. The Aguan Valley can be visited during a long day trip from the famous Lodge and Spa at Pico Bonito or accommodations in La Ceiba. I always dread the early morning start, but by the time the van rolls into Olanchito at sunrise I am excited to see a dozen bird species restricted to this drier region.

The Aguan Valley is arid and dominated by shrub and cacti. ©Stephan Lorenz

The Aguan Valley is arid and dominated by shrub and cacti. ©Stephan Lorenz

A well-maintained road leads through the valley towards the Honduran Emerald preserve, crossing smaller rivers with extensive riparian vegetation and bisecting pastures with scattered trees and small wetlands. The birding starts well before reaching the preserve and some of the most productive stops lie a few miles past the town of Olanchito. The pastures harbor a variety of open-country species like Tropical Mockingbird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and even Eastern Meadowlark. The distinctive calls of Spot-bellied Bobwhites are frequently heard, but seeing one of these wary quails requires a good amount of luck. White-fronted Parrots commonly perch on larger trees scattered about the fields and the hefty Lineated Woodpecker frequents snags and even fence posts.

Tributary of the Rio Aguan and productive birding spot ©Stephan Lorenz

Tributary of the Rio Aguan and productive birding spot ©Stephan Lorenz

Small wetlands lie interspersed among the pastures and fields, often harboring ducks, herons, and other water birds. Each pond is worth checking carefully and during one visit I even located the uncommon White-throated Flycatcher in a flooded, weedy patch. The new highway bridge crosses a prominent tributary of the Rio Aguan and the riparian woodland and grassy flats usually host an excellent diversity of birds. A careful scan of low branches or barbed wire fences could reveal the stunning Turquoise-browed Motmot, swinging its racquet-shaped tail like a grandfather clock.

The largest trees have nesting Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Common Tody-Flycatchers, and Altamira Orioles, while noisy Brown Jays pass by in small flocks. The feisty, diurnal Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is very common in this area. The river itself should not be overlooked and a patient vigil here often reveals Amazon and Green Kingfishers, while Mangrove Swallows and Gray-breasted Martins snatch insects above. As the morning begins to warm the open views across the valley allow birders to see a variety of raptors, including Roadside, Zone-tailed, and Gray Hawks, and rarely Gray-headed Kite.

The habitat turns increasingly arid as the highway heads west into the dry forest. The views of the mountains to the north become more dramatic and with binoculars it is possible to see the pine and oak forest covering the higher slopes, an inaccessible area essentially unexplored by bird watchers. At first, the parched scrub, sandy clearings, and dusty roadsides may not look particularly productive, but this unique forest also protects the rare spiny-tailed iguana alongside the Honduran Emerald. On entering the drier sections it is worth keeping a careful eye out for the Lesser Roadrunner, which like its cousin the Greater Roadrunner, sports a long tail and small crest, but in general is shier in nature, dashing from one shady spot to the next. With patient searching it is possible to find the Double-striped Thick-knee, although these crepuscular birds tend to stay out of sight.

Lesser Roadrunner ©Stephan Lorenz

Lesser Roadrunner ©Stephan Lorenz

The Honduran Emerald preserve, supported by the American Bird Conservancy, and nearby private haciendas harbor some of the best remaining habitat. The search for the rare hummingbird starts in earnest in the reserve and the trail system here allows easy access to the thorn forest. It usually does not take too long to find this stunning hummingbird, which prefers the edges of clearings and often feeds on flowering succulents or cacti.

Care must be taken to identify the emerald correctly, but the green upper parts, grayish belly, blue throat, and dark tail are fairly distinct. Cinnamon Hummingbirds are not uncommon here and Green-breasted Mangos are often seen en route. Another hummingbird species that frequents the dry forest is the fork-tailed Canivet’s Emerald and this population is sometimes considered a distinct species. Birders can also hope for some species that are absent from the wetter slopes on the north side of the mountains, including Elegant Trogon and the secretive Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. With a bag full of new birds and after fantastic views of the emerald the long drive back to the lodge often zips by like a hummingbird.

Cacti and scrub habitat in the Honduran Emerald Preserve ©Stephan Lorenz

Cacti and scrub habitat in the Honduran Emerald Preserve ©Stephan Lorenz

The Aguan Valley is fairly remote and has limited options for visitors. It is best to visit during a long day trip, starting at four in the morning, from The Lodge and Spa at Pico Bonito or the town of La Ceiba.

The High Lonesome Bird Tours trip to the world-famous Lodge at Pico Bonito includes a full day in the productive Aguan Valley and offers great photographic opportunities of the endangered Honduran Emerald.