Birding the Francisco Marroquín Campus

It’s one of the commonest of commonplaces when you’re birding the American tropics: “This place looks like an exotic plant nursery!”

Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City

Especially this place, because it is … an exotic plant nursery, a quiet corner of Guatemala City’s Universidad Francisco Marroquín where palms and bamboos and other tropical fancies are being raised in pots for use in campus landscaping.

Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City

It’s a spectacularly beautiful site, nestled into a steep canyon just a few minutes by taxi from the city’s international airport. I’d meant to have a quick look this morning while I was waiting for the Popol Vul Museum to open, but that look turned into nearly four hours of slow walking and exciting birding.

acorn woodpecker, Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City

I found about 40 species on my walk–and surely would have come up with more if I’d had my ear in better.

It’s a blast to see Lesson motmots, rufous-browed peppershrikes, and boat-billed flycatchers, but my favorite thing about visiting Guatemala this time of year has always been the combination of tropical novelties with so many wintering birds from the north. A motmot perched quietly above a path with a feeding wood thrush, a peppershrike hunting at eye level while a yellow-bellied sapsucker studies the tree trunk, a boat-bill striking righteous fear into a little flock of Townsend warblers and warbling vireos: that’s the Guatemala highlands in winter.

magnolia warbler

My favorite constellation this morning came late in my walk, when a couple of white-naped brush finches drew my attention to the weedy edge of a compost area. I love atlapetes, but there was no way I could ignore the magnolia and MacGillivray warblers and stunning yellow-throated vireo feeding alongside them, now was there? 

clay-colored thrush, Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City

Eventually it was time for me to do some indoor stuff. The museum was well worth the visit, though it wasn’t always entirely clear which objects were real and which were replicas (I’m guessing that I didn’t luck into the one single day in the history of the world when most of the most famous and most often reproduced pieces of Maya art were on loan here together).


I was especially impressed by this curassow-headed whistling vessel. And I think I’ve found my new VENT leader portrait, too.

Popol Vuh museum

Like it?

Too late to join us in Guatemala this year, alas, but keep an eye on the new VENT website


Guatemala 2019

El Pilar

One of my favorite lines in the entire North American ornithological literature:

[Jonathan] Dwight never abandoned his hope of acquiring an adequate collection of Guatemalan birds, fully aware that this country was a far richer field than Costa Rica.

At the moment, looking at snow through the windows at Newark airport, I’m at least as eager for some clement weather as I am for the birds.

Our VENT Birds and Art tour starts tomorrow, and I can’t wait to meet up with old friends and new in the group.


Disco Potoo

February 22: It started to rain as we returned to Chimino for our lunch, but we were too full of the morning’s excitement to care. Fortunately, the weather cleared just as we were loading our things onto the boat for the return trip to Sayaxche, where our van once again awaited us, and the ride back on the Pasin was as birdful as the ride out had been.

Birding time knows only its own clocks, of course, and so darkness fell well before we were in Tikal that evening. But night time in the tropics has its own allures, and at one point two great saucers of yellow light flashed across the road in front of the van. A bird! We screeched to a stop and looked out the windows to find a Northern Potoo perched on a stump just feet away from our vehicle.

Our security escort, a few car lengths behind us, had obviously not seen the bird, and a second later they were pulled up beside us, frantically asking what was wrong, what had happened, what we were doing. Beside us, that is to say, blocking the bird. Our answers were even more frantic, and when we were finally able to make them understand what we were seeing, they generously offered to put a light on the potoo for us.

Regrettably, the only illumination they found to cast on the scene was the blue-and-reds on the roof of their SUV, so for precious seconds we saw the bird in the strobe flashes of police lights. At least the siren didn’t come on, though if it had, at least I wouldn’t have been able to hear someone, unnamed, humming an ABBA tune from the back seat.