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Phenomenal birding and other wildlife in Nicaragua, February 2017

By Jay Carlisle

Golden-hooded Tanager at El Jaguar by Heidi Ware Carlisle

I’m lucky in that I am able to fulfill my passions for birding and international travel most years and it’s always fun to visit new places.  This started with a birding trip with friends to western Mexico almost 20 years ago, then Panama and Peru the next 2 winters, and I’ve been addicted since.  In recent years I’ve started co-leading 1 or 2 group trips each year, starting with trips to Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago in which I served as an “apprentice guide” assisting my friend Alvaro Jaramillo of Alvaro’s Adventures.  Alvaro taught me many key aspects of guiding and we’ve continued to collaborate since, which has included me running most of “my” trips through his company, sometimes piloting new itineraries and other times benefitting from trips he’s already planned.

In April 2016, I met Liliana Chavaria-Duriaux (Lili) and Georges Duriaux, owners of the El Jaguar coffee farm and private forest preserve in Nicaragua, at a bird conservation meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico.  We quickly hit it off, especially while on a birding field trip, and we soon decided to collaborate on a birding trip for some of my Idaho birding friends to visit Nicaragua – a country I’ve long wanted to visit, especially after flying over the extensive forests on the Atlantic/Caribbean slope on return trips from Panama and Costa Rica.

El Jaguar Reserve

Georges and Lili worked with Alvaro and I to create a diverse and exciting itinerary to explore four key regions of Nicaragua: (1) the north-central highlands, (2) the shores of Lake Cocibolca (aka Lake Nicaragua), (3) the Caribbean lowland forests, and (4) the Pacific slope.

The lush tropical forest at Refugio Bartola was destroyed in some areas by Hurricane Otto

One twist worth noting is that Hurricane Otto made landfall in November 2016 and affected many forest areas in southeastern Nicaragua, including blowdown of canopy trees and this affected areas of Refugio Bartola and the nearby Reserva Biologica Indio Maiz.  Lili and Georges initially worried that we’d struggle with forest species there but patches of intact forest remain within relatively short walking distance of the lodge and we still found amazing diversity there.

Pale-billed Woodpecker at Bartola. Photo by Heidi Ware Carlisle

Though we didn’t see every bird we hoped for (does this ever happen? :-), the trip far exceeded my expectations in terms of bird diversity and was a great experience overall.  Lili and Georges were great to travel and bird with, we employed knowledgeable local guides, we stayed in comfortable lodges/hotels, we ate great food, and the group made for a fun and cohesive birding team!

Enjoying the view of Rio San Juan during breakfast at the remote Bartola lodge


We recorded 366 bird species during 10 birding days – of these, 14 species were “heard only” (i.e., owls, Great Tinamou, and a torturously distant Three-wattled Bellbird) and 15 were only seen by 1 or 2 observers but 337 were species that were seen by all or most of the group!

The forests of El Jaguar support a rich bird community, including wintering Golden-winged Warblers!

Some of the most exciting/interesting species included:

  • Nicaraguan Seed-finch (distant views from moving boat; Rio San Juan)
  • Scarlet Macaw (Rio Bartola)
  • Green Ibis (Bartola)
  • Pacific Parakeets coming to roost near a waterfall in El Chocoyero
Pacific Parakeets
Paired-up Pacific Parakeets coming in to roost. Photo by Heidi Ware Carlisle
  • a Golden-crowned Spadebill that visited our lunch table at Bartola!
  • Great and Northern Potoos (daytime views of both)
Great Potoo at Bartola. Photo by Heidi Ware Carlisle
  • 20 hummingbird species – all gorgeous but I was most excited about the Black-crested Coquette (El Jaguar), a too-brief view of a male Snowcap (Bartola), and the range-restricted Green-breasted Mountain-gem (El Jaguar)
  • Several antbird species including brief but exciting views of a small group of Ocellated Antbirds (Bartola)

Other highlights:

  • Unexpected (inland) sightings of a Magnificent Frigatebird over San Carlos, a Red Phalarope floating (well, spinning) downstream past Refugio Bartola, and 3 Brown Pelicans heading southeast over the forest in Bartola
  • 7 species of kite, including sightings of Swallow-tailed on the first 8 days of the trip!
  • Great views of 3 motmot and 5 kingfisher species
Rufous Motmot (an orange bird) at Bartola
Rufous Motmot at Bartola. Photo by Heidi Ware Carlisle
Turquoise-browed Motmot, the national bird of Nicaragua–Photo by Heidi Ware Carlisle
  • 27 warbler species including Golden-winged and Golden-cheeked as well as a pair of Buff-rumped and singing Olive-crowned Yellowthroats
  • 5 Euphonia species plus the Blue-crowned Chlorophonia

    Olive-backed Euphonia. Photo by Heidi Ware Carlisle
  • A close Long-billed Gnatwren (Montibelli) and good views of Green Shrike-vireo in a small flock (Bartola)
  • A mixed-species flock comprised entirely of medium-sized landbirds, including nunbirds, woodpeckers, woodcreepers, and mourners (Bartola)

    Cinnamon Woodpecker at Bartola. Photo by Heidi Ware Carlisle

Non-avian highlights:

  • Jaguarundi (Montibelli)
  • 3 monkey species in 1 afternoon hike (Bartola)
  • False coral snake (El Jaguar)
  • Sloths (El Jaguar & Rio San Juan)
  • Numerous bats, squirrels, and frogs/toads
roosting bats (saccopteryx sp.)
  • 1 small army ant swarm (Bartola)

Places we stayed/birded:

Managua airport area (1st night after evening arrivals)

El Jaguar Natural Reserve (4 nights)

Hotel San Francisco in San Miguelito (1 night)

  • Afternoon boat trip along the lake shore and morning birding on the malecón

Refugio Bartola (3 nights, 2 full days)

  • Trails at Bartola plus 2 boat trips up smaller rivers flowing into the Rio San Juan (in the Reserva Biologica Indio Maiz)

    It’s not often you get to bird from the middle of a river! Birding in Rio Bartola

Montibelli Private Reserve (2 nights, 1 full day)

The itinerary required relatively extensive travel, including a couple of long travel days moving between regions, but we timed it to be able to bird at least the morning and/or late afternoon of the travel days – and the boat trips on the Rio San Juan (to/from Bartola) provided many good sightings.  And, we tried to balance the travel with multiple night stays at several places.  Importantly, we continued to find multiple new species on each day of the trip and the group stayed excited/engaged throughout.

All in all, I highly recommend Nicaragua for birding exploration!  It hosts an impressive diversity of habitats and birds, including a great mix of Neotropical migrants and species characteristic of both further north and south in Central America, and some great birding destinations.  Ask Alvaro if you’d be interested in going to Nicaragua :)