The birds of Tikal: exotic birding among the ruins


Tikal, the ancient Mayan city in the jungles of Guatemala, is one of the wonders of the ancient world.  But like many archaeological sites, it’s also a refuge for wildlife, including a spectacular array of bird life. I was aware of this on my recent trip to Guatemala, so I brought along a telephoto lens and spent an extra day there capturing some of its colourful inhabitants.

I hadn’t been at Tikal more than a half-hour on the first day when my tour guide pointed up into the forest canopy, where a mealy Amazon parrot was busily chowing down on some fruit. Not the best angle, but I managed to get a few shots like the one at the top of this post (if you’re reading this by e-mail, click the headline to go to the website in order to see it).

Not long afterward, we arrived at the grand plaza, and while others climbed one of the pyramids, my attention was on some nearby trees where a pair of orange-breasted falcons was roosting. I’ve spent a lot of time watching peregrine falcons and other hawks, but I’d never heard of this species before. And while most falcons are some combination of grey and white, these ones were pretty colourful.

Orange-fronted falcon female

Orange-fronted falcon male

While I was shooting the falcons, I looked down to see an amazing sight — one of Tikal’s resident band of oscellated turkeys strolling right up to me, so close I thought it was going to peck at my shoelaces. In fact, it came so close I didn’t even manage to get a shot with my long telephoto.

On my second day I managed to get some pictures that attempt to do justice to the amazing splash of colour on these birds. Like most wild turkeys, they have rich tones of green and bronze in their feathers, but these ones feature incredible light blue faces with speckles of other colours.

Oscellated turkey

Oscellated turkey at Tikal

I also spotted a second type of parrot, the red-lored variety, relaxing on a tree while the tourists looked on. These colourful parrots seemed to always look like their eyes were half shut — or maybe they were just being shy.

Parrot at Tikal

But the real treasure of Tikal is a favourite of mine — toucans! The park has three varieties: the chestnut-mandibled, the small emerald toucanet, and the big, showy keel-billed toucans we’ve all seen on the fruit loops box.

So I was delighted, on my second day at Tikal, to find a pair of keel-billed toucans close to the entrance, roosting in a tree beside one of the Mayan ruins. They were content to sit tight while I shot away, and I was in birder’s heaven capturing these birds with their amazing, rainbow-coloured beaks.

Keel-billed toucans

Keel-billed toucan Tikal

Not long after, I came upon a northern visitor, a wood thrush spending its winter in warmer climes (much like myself). Thrushes are shy birds, and hard to photograph up north. But that shyness seems to fade away when northern birds fly south — hey, we’re all on vacation here.

Wood thrush at Tikal

The day was almost done when I heard a barrage of raucous bird calls echoing through the forest. I went to check, but the birds competing in a crazy call-and-answer duel were nowhere to be seen. Roosting quietly nearby, however, was another one of Tikal’s specialties, a crested guan.

These large, fruit-eating birds are a common inhabitant of Central American woodlands, and like the oscellated turkeys, seem to thrive in a lush environment like Tikal’s national park. And there was just enough light to get a picture of this one, a fine end to my Tikal photo safari.

Tikal crested guan

I wasn’t disappointed with my birding trip to Tikal, especially since it included a visit to one of the world’s great archaeological sites. But there are more than 300 bird species I didn’t manage to photograph, including exotic ones like trogons, motmots and Montezuma oropendolas.

In retrospect, I’m sorry I didn’t stay in one of the lodges on the site so I could do some early-morning birding too. The lodges aren’t cheap but they’re quite comfortable, and even have swimming pools. Beware extra fees once you get there, and bring some bug spray — the mosquitos come out when the sun goes down. Go here for information on the lodges at Tikal.



About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.


    • Thanks, Lyn. That was the first time I managed to photograph these amazing-looking toucans — another one crossed off the bucket list. The bird life is great pretty much throughout Central and South America, but oddly enough, the archaeological sites are some of the best places to see it. They’re usually surrounded by forest, with open areas that make it easier to see the birds. The orange-breasted falcons I photographed were in a tree right beside the famous central plaza. While everyone else was admiring the temples, I was firing away with my telephoto lens. (I did take time to admire the temples too.)

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