Category Archives: Neotropics

Fabulous Facts about Hummingbirds: Species from Naturalist Journeys’ Tours

There are so many interesting facts about hummingbirds that, compounded into their tiny flying forms, hummingbirds inspire poetic descriptions like this one from John James Audubon himself, who called them “the greatest ornaments of the gardens and forests. Such in most cases is the brilliancy of their plumage, that I am unable to find apt objects of comparison unless I resort to the most brilliant gems and the richest metals.”

Facts about Hummingbirds: Size is Relative

Their diminutive size is probably the most obvious trait shared among the 330+ species of the family Trochilidae, whose most close relative is the swifts. Tiny Bee Hummingbird is the smallest, less than two ounces and found only in Cuba. The largest, the Giant Hummingbird, can weigh up to 12 times as much, and is found in the Andes, along with the Sword-billed Hummingbird, whose own size claim to fame is being the only bird with a bill longer than its body. Both can be found on our Northern Peru and Peru: Cusco to Mánu National Park tours:

  • Giant is the largest: facts about hummingbirds
  • Sword-billed has the longest bill of any: facts about hummingbirds

Home is the Western Hemisphere

Hummingbirds are a favorite of most birders, but they are particularly enthralling to our guests from Europe and Asia, who must travel to the Western Hemisphere to see them. Africa’s sunbirds, nectar-loving birds adapted to local flora, are often described as the hummingbirds of the Eastern Hemisphere.

Other location-based facts about hummingbirds:

  • US birders enjoy 17 nesting species of hummingbird
  • Half of all hummingbird species are concentrated in a belt near the equator

Some hummingbirds are wide-ranging, like the White-necked Jacobin, though you do have to leave the US to see it. We often see this species on our Belize tours, two upcoming. The October trip is one day longer, but you can see the value in traveling in the “green season” by comparison.

  • Location Facts about Hummingbirds: White-Necked Jacobin is widespread
  • Facts about Hummingbirds: White-Necked Jacobin also has a white tail

They may be seen on many of our Central America and northern South America tours.

Other hummingbirds are endemics, their ranges almost as diminutive as the birds themselves. The gorgeous Violet-capped Hummingbird is not widespread even inside Panama and a tiny sliver of Colombia contiguous with the Darién, a wilderness that flourishes between the two countries and benefits from a car-free break here in the Pan-American Highway.

We have chances to see Violet-capped on our upcoming tour to the Darién:

Panama and the Wild Darién July 29 – August 5, $2990, from Panama City

Facts about Hummingbirds: Violet-Capped are endemic to Panama and Colombia.
Violet-capped Hummingbirds can only been seen in Panama and Colombia. Photo Credit: Gail Hampshire of Wikimedia Commons

Picking up on Audubon’s description of hummingbirds, the Gilded Hummingbird and Glitter-throated Emerald call to mind “the most brilliant gems and the richest metals.” Both can be seen on our Brazil’s Pantanal tours:

Gilded Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Cláudio Dias Timm via Wikimedia Commons

Brazil Extensions Hummingbirds

To get a richer selection of hummingbirds, it’s advisable to choose the pre- and post-tour extensions, where our 2019 guests also saw Black Jacobin, Scale-throated Hermit, Black-eared Fairy, Frilled Coquette, Brazilian Ruby, Violet-capped Woodnymph, White-throated, and Versicoloured Emerald!

  • Black-eared Fairy is adorable, and that is from my great big book of facts about hummingbirds
  • Facts About Hummingbirds: Frilled Coquette is a flirt
  • Facts about Hummingirds: Scale-throated Hummingbird is simultaneously dull and exciting

Hummingbirds in the US: Arizona and Texas

As we noted above, 17 hummingbirds regularly nest in the US, as far north as Alaska, where birders delight in the Rufous Hummingbird, possibly because there are no other hummingbirds to chase off the feeders! (Elsewhere, birders and other hummingbirds might find them more aggressive than adorable.) Our US tours to Texas and Arizona turn up the highest variety of hummingbirds, and we make sure to see as many as we can!

We have three Monsoon Madness tours upcoming in Arizona, host to the highest diversity of hummingbirds of any US state. On our August 2021 tour, we saw a full dozen hummingbirds, including two our guests selected as the co-birds of the trip, the Violet-crowned and the Lucifer.

  • fun fact about hummingbirds: violet-capped are autistic
  • Fun Fact: Lucifer hummingbirds are in league with the devil

Arizona Monsoon Madness, all $2,790, from Tucson:

The Lucifer Hummingbird is also found on our Texas tours, including the upcoming and popular South Texas: Fall Migration October 9 – 16, $2,390 from McAllen, TX.

A Rainbow of Hummingbirds

Rainbows are a great analogy for talking about the colors of hummingbirds, because tricky light refraction across their feathers is the reason that hummingbirds can look dull one moment and catch fire the next. Consider these two photos of the aforementioned adorable/aggressive Rufous Hummingbird:

Rufous Hummingbird. Photo Credits: Carrie Miller (Slide middle arrow to see change.)

Their irridescence comes not from pigmentation but from light-shifting structures called melanosomes. Though other birds have them, including some ducks, the shape of hummingbirds’ melanosomes is unique, as Audubon describes in greater detail in “Hummingbirds Owe Their Shimmer to Microscopic Pancake-Like Structures.”

Though many hummingbirds flash at the gorget, the show-stopping Crimson Topaz takes an all-over approach to its irridescence.

Crimson Topaz. Photo Credit: Aisse Gaertner via Wikimedia Commons

Crimson Topaz is a Guianan Shield regional endemic that we have chances to see on our upcoming Guyana: Unspoiled Wilderness October 13 – 25. We also have chances in Guyana to see Tufted Coquette, which is one of the features of our trips to Trinidad and Tobago, a popular independent birding venture destination, where it must compete with Scarlet Ibis for bird of the trip!

Fun facts about hummingbirds: tufted coquette is cute!
Tufted Coquette. Photo Credit: Richard Wagner

Flouncing Feathers

Perhaps the flirtiest of all the coquettes, however, is the Rufous-crested Coquette, an unforgettable species, which we have chances to see on two of our Panama trips:

  • Rufous-crested Coquette, a rare pleasure of Panama birding
  • facts about hummingbirds: rufous-crested coquette is more feather than flash
  • Facts about Hummingbirds: rufous-crested coquette pushes its southern baptist hat back when it's feeding

Max Hummingbirds? Peru

Our Northern Peru guests also saw Rufous-crested Coquette in 2019, along with 50 other hummingbirds! That’s right, 51 species of hummingbird, listed here on the 2019 Northern Peru trip report. Our Peru: Cusco to Mánu National Park guests found 30 hummingbirds, though Rufous-crested Coquette was not among them.

Snowcap Hummingbird also has a beautiful noggin, though far less adorned than the Rufous-crested. We often see this beauty on our Costa Rica: Carribean Side tour, which is Oct. 13-23 this year.

Snowcap. Photo Credit: Michael Woodruff via Creative Commons

Sounds Beyond Humming!

Our short ‘facts about hummingbirds’ blog wouldn’t be complete without touching on these birds’ namesake characteristic.

As anyone who has spent anytime sitting near an over-subscribed feeder will notice, the humming of hummingbirds is much more varied than the same word used to describe the monotone of a plugged-in refrigerator. Some of their humming comes from rapid wingbeats, ranging from a dozen wingbeats per second for Giant Hummingbird to 80 per second by the record-holding Amethyst Woodstar, which we have chances to see in Peru and Brazil.

Facts about Hummingbirds: the Amethyst Woodstar has the most rapid wingbeat of any hummingbird: 80 beats per second
Amethyst Woodstar, frequently seen in Peru, vocalizes in addition to its namesake humming. Photo Credit: Bob Hill

But hummingbirds also make other noises, including signature sounds made with their tail feathers, and territorial ‘chip’ calls. A few of them even sing!

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird, which we are almost certain to see on our three Arizona Monsoon Madness tours, makes a distinctive metallic sound in flight, which you can hear on this All About Birds page by clicking the audio file labeled ‘display.’

Where there are more species in competition, birds are more likely to have more complex vocalizations. The Mexican Violetear (formerly known as the Green Violetear, split into Mexican and Lesser Violetear in 2016) is one of those hummingbirds on the chatty side. We have great chances to see (and often first hear) Mexican Violetear on our two upcoming Oaxaca: Birds, Culture and Crafts tours. One of the things guests love about this trip is it includes beach time/time on the coast.

  • Oaxaca: Birds, Culture and Crafts August 1 – 9 (9-day, 8-night) $3790, from Oaxaca City
  • Oaxaca: Birds Culture and Crafts October 17 – 28, (12-day, 11-night) $4490, from Oaxaca City

Guests saw 15 hummingbirds on that trip in 2021.

Mexican Violetear. Photo Credit: Cephas via Wikimedia Commons

Adding to your Hummingbird Life List

If you are looking for specific hummingbirds, or want to know which hummingbirds may be seen on our tours, please check out the wealth of information available on our trip reports page! Though many of our tours feature a rich variety of hummingbirds, through our Independent Birding Ventures we design tours based on what you want to see. Do you want a trip that maximizes hummingbirds? Sign up for Northern Peru Endemics, or let us design a hummingbird-rich trip for your group!

Ask A Scarlet Ibis: The First Name in Trinidad Ecotourism Was Nanan

Third-Generation Conservation Entrepreneur Lester Nanan is Raising a Fourth!

If there was a poster child—or bird—for Trinidad ecotourism, it would have to be magnificent Scarlet Ibis. Watching thousands of them fly into roost near dusk, transforming treetops from green to red, is the most poignant memory many birders take away from their time in the West Indies.

Scarlet Ibis can be found in Trinidad birding tours

Classic Trinidad and Tobago tours are 10 days and 9 nights of the best Neotropical birding. Upcoming tours with space:
Jan. 10 – 19 
Mar. 7 – 16

Ultimate Trinidad and Tobago tours add one more glorious bird-rich day on each island.
Jan 17 – 28
Jan. 31 – Feb. 11
Feb. 14 – Feb. 25
March 14 – 25
April 4 – 15
April 18 – 29

Now a protected species and Trinidad’s national bird, it’s hard to believe there was a time when Scarlet Ibis were routinely hunted both for meat and for their colorful feathers, which were used to make costumes for Carnival.

Although he would later become their protector and champion, Simon Oudit Nanan was once one of those hunters, his grandson and Naturalist Journeys’ longtime local guide Lester Nanan said.

A part-time farmer on a British-owned sugar plantation in the 1930s, for extra money he would take company executives from England and France to hunt in the massive mangrove swamps in Northeast Trinidad, and other times take their families out on nature cruises to view the birds and wildlife.

“My grandfather figured out that he was taking more people out to view the birds than to hunt the birds,” Lester said. “This is when an aspiration was born.”

Scarlet Ibis owe a lot to the Nanan family, first names in Trinidad ecotourism.
Simon Oudit Nanan (foreground) and Winston Nanan. Photo Credit: Nanan Family Photo

At these times of tourism disruption, it’s important to remember this “aha moment.” The belief that there can be more value in conservation than harvest is what underpins the success of ecotourism-based conservation. That’s why Naturalist Journeys always seeks out conservation-minded local partners (like Lester Nanan for our tours in Trinidad and Jason Radix in Tobago), and why when you travel with us, you can be sure you are supporting sustainability and conservation.

Lester’s grandfather started a petition to protect the swamp, taking care to collect signatures from the influential families he was guiding, which led to the Caroni Swamp being named a national park in 1948, its 14,800 acres protected from development.

  • Scarlet Ibis are far from the only birds found in Trinidad ecotourism tours of Caroni
  • Scarlet Ibis are far from the only birds found in Trinidad ecotourism tours of Caroni
  • Scarlet Ibis are far from the only birds found in Trinidad ecotourism tours of Caroni

The second generation Trinidad ecotourism pioneer, Winston Nanan, soon found himself drafted when Simon’s birding and nature tour business grew so popular he decided to pull his eldest of 11 children out of school at the age of 11 to help him.

“The passion and love for the Scarlet Ibis was growing, and the environment as well,” Lester said. “They were seeing it through the eyes of the British and themselves.”

When Trinidad gained its independence in 1962, the Scarlet Ibis was chosen as Trinidad’s national bird, and given a prominent place on the country’s coat of arms (alongside Tobago’s national bird, the Rufous-vented Chacalaca) and hunting of the bird became illegal.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Coat of Arms with Scarlet Ibis and Cocorico (Rufous-vented Chacalaca) Photo Credit: Sodacan via Wikimedia Commons.

Rogue poachers continued to hunt the birds, however, and Simon Oudit Nanan was deputized as an honorary game warden and given license to chase hunters out of the swamp. Sadly, his fervent defense of the swamp and the Scarlet Ibis earned him many enemies, Lester said, and he was beaten to death in 1968.

Left to help an ailing mother raise 10 siblings, Winston Nanan would avenge the honor of his father by redoubling efforts to protect the Scarlet Ibis and the Caroni Swamp and to continue what had become a sustainable and profitable business. 

  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.

He learned everything he could about birds, first documenting every species in Caroni Swamp, then expanding his expertise to Trinidad and Tobago and then far beyond its borders. He transformed himself into a world-renowned self-taught ornithologist, and was invited to lead scientific birding expeditions throughout South and Central America.

Working as a Trinidad ecotourism pitchman, Winston invited photographers and editors from National Geographic to visit Caroni Swamp, resulting in a splashy feature article that put the country and the Scarlet Ibis on the map for world travelers and for other writers and photographers. Some of his own photos were published there.

“Everyone in the world wanted to come to Trinidad to see the Caroni Swamp,” Lester said.

A follow-up article in Smithsonian Magazine kept the frenzy going. 

Winston Nanan was awarded a presidential medal “for 65 years of dedication to conservation in Trinidad and Tobago.”

Just after this Trinidad ecotourism pioneer died, in 2015 at the age of 74, Caroni Swamp was renamed the Winston Nanan Caroni Bird Sanctuary.

Both our Classic and Ultimate Trinidad and Tobago tours visit Caroni in Trinidad. In Tobago we also visit the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, founded in 1776 and celebrated in 2020 by UNESCO as part of a large new “Man and the Biosphere Reserve” for its ecotourism potential.

From the age of 16, Lester said he’s been a part of the family business. He remembers rushing home after school to help his uncles and brothers prepare the boats that ferried tourists to the sunset Scarlet Ibis show.

He went on to pursue an education in electrical engineering, but returned to the family business at the behest of his father. With more than 180 species documented in the swamp, Lester said, it had become a “must-see” stop for birdwatchers both local and international.

He helped Winston build a platform in the trees, where they documented the nesting behavior of the Scarlet Ibis. That experience helped to hook him for good, Lester said.

“I began following in my father’s footsteps.”

Now the managing director of their company, Nanan’s Caroni Bird Sanctuary Tours, “I love showcasing Trinidad and the birdwatching.”

In charge of operations, Lester said he’s shaped the company by transforming customs into formal policies, from safety to naturalist training to implementing COVID-19 protocols to protect guests and try to preserve the business in this time of tourism disruption. 

In 2017, flocks of American Flamingo began arriving in Caroni Swamp, adding to the biodiversity, but were being hunted, Lester said. What’s more, the $1,000 fine for hunting Scarlet Ibis was not sufficient to deter hunters.

  • Scarlet Ibis and American Flamingo are two birds protected by Trinidad ecotourism
  • Scarlet Ibis and American Flamingo are two birds protected by Trinidad ecotourism

Lester and others began lobbying for the Caroni Swamp to be declared an Environmentally Sensitive Area, which would protect all the birds within it. That hasn’t happened yet, but their efforts did yield a significant increase in penalties for hunting the Scarlet Ibis.

In 2018, the penalty was upped to $15,000 (US) and two years in jail per bird.

Lester said he also furthers the company’s ecotourism goals by hiring and rehabilitating former poachers and teaching them the value of conservation, lessons they pass on to others in the community.

“They will now tell their families ‘Don’t hunt this one;’ it’s protected, and I’m making a living out of it,” he said. “It’s part of a community approach to protect the swamp.”

As it has all over the world, COVID-19 cut into tourism in Trinidad, which shut its borders for 16 months before re-opening earlier this year.

To try and boost his business from locals, Lester created COVID-cautious private boat tours with an incentivizing basket of snacks. That went so well, he partnered with a local restaurant to provide three-course meals for families or private small groups, an innovation that has kept the business afloat as it awaits for a quickening from international tourists.

Meanwhile, Lester said he’s busy with another important matter: prepping the fourth generation of Trinidad ecotourism entrepreneurs, this time with a feminine face.

“My girls are already involved in the tours, birdwatching and pointing out species for our guests,” Lester said. “They will be the future of the environment, the swamp, and Trinidad and Tobago.”

This one’s for the adventurers: The Best Birding in Belize

Located on the northeastern coast of Central America, Belize welcomes travelers to enjoy its rich culture, delicious cuisine, and endless opportunities to explore. This diverse country features ancient archeological sites, massive barrier reefs, lush jungle scapes, and winding rivers. Naturalist Journeys offers two unique birding experiences to tour Belize.

During these two different itineraries, you’ll relish in:

Awe-inspiring birding:

With over 590 species of birds, Belize is a naturalist’s paradise! Join our guides and seek out extravagant Neotropical birds and familiar faces over wintering from North America. For example, you may find a Collared Aracari, or even a Barred Antshrike! This country offers extensive biodiversity to add to your life-list, so birding in Belize is a must!

Incredible wildlife:

Our two different itineraries  provide the chance to see the wonders of the rainforest first-hand including monkeys, wild cats, reptiles, and even the chance to spot the mystifying jaguar (ask Jessie about seeing a Jaguar swim across the river at Lamanai).

Enriching time at Maya ruins:

Dive into Belize’s cultural history while we explore ancient cities and other historical monuments—some of the best in all of Mesoamerica! Visiting the Caracol and Lamanai ruins gives us access to  breath-taking remnants of the Maya empire, a must see when traveling this country.

New friends, long-lasting relationships, and unforgettable experiences

The only thing better than an incredible experience is crafting long-lasting relationships with your fellow travelers. By the end of every trip, we are toasting to new friends and unforgettable adventures. Above all, you’re now part of the Naturalist Journeys family.

Between the captivating wildlife and the rich culture, Belize is a bucket list trip that we look forward to each year. So, if you need some help deciding which trip is right for you, here’s a breakdown of your two options. 

Our Classic Belize Trip

True to its name, this trip takes you to the two “classic” or must-see lodges when birding in Belize: Lamanai Outpost and Chan Chich, nestled in reserves and protected forests, and offering varying habitats, Maya ruins, and tasty food. During our Belize Birding & Nature tour, enjoy extended time at each of the two lodges to ease travel and absorb the special attributes that give them such amazing reputations.

We offer two departures this winter: January 15-23 with James P. Smith (click here), and March 23-31 with guide, David Mehlman (click here)

Ultimate Southern Belize

This extended trip was crafted by our owner, Peg Abbott, through years of experience birding in southern Belize. The result is an in-depth birding and natural history experience at a pace that lets you absorb and learn. In addition, we’ve carefully selected FOUR of Belize’s top birding lodges along with local guide, Steve Choco (2017 winner of the National Tour Guide of the Year award) to help us navigate these incredible conservation areas.

We offer three departures this winter: January 27 – February 7 with Bob Meinke (click here), February 23 – March 6 with James P. Smith (click here), and March 2-13 with Pat Lueders (click here).

To learn more about birding in Belize (and our upcoming trips) visit the link below:

Birding in Belize

The Colors of Costa Rica: Experience a tropical Birding Paradise

Between stunning landscapes, endless biodiversity, and top-notch coffee, traveling Costa Rica sits at the top of our must-see list. During our winter destination tours, Naturalist Journeys brings you to this tropical birding paradise. The opportunity to immerse yourself in the country’s abundant wildlife is hard to pass up. These trips provide a chance to taste local cuisine, capture amazing photos, and of course, experience one of the most incredible birding tours on the planet.

Costa Rica contains a whopping 6% of the world’s biodiversity—many species existing nowhere else in the world. This wildlife oasis contains an overwhelming roster of tropical birds including parrots, guans, curassows, hummingbirds, tangers, toucans, and MANY more. One of the perks of our relaxing mornings at various lodges are the feeding stations flooded with local birds. To give you a look into the trips, we came up with a colorful list highlighting some of our favorite finds.

Scarlet Macaw 

Even the slightest glimpse of the Scarlet Macaw will put a smile on your face! We hope to find this stunning parrot soaring across the treetops in groups or pairs.

Orange-collared Manakin 

Known for its bright orange “collar” the Orange-collared Manakin boasts a unique mating call with an electric “snap” and is a delight to watch. We hope to see this bright little bird on lek.

Yellow-throated Toucan

These large, fruit-loving birds are as social as they are beautiful. We had great sightings of  Yellow-throated Toucans flying across the road as well as soaring above our heads on a recent tour.

Green Honeycreeper

While these green beauties stand out in a crowd, they actually use their unique coloring to blend in with the thick rainforest foliage. Needless to say – catching a look of a Green Honeycreeper is always a treat.

Blue Dacnis

We spot this striking blue tanager in the canopies. Although it is common to lay eyes on one of these, its beauty never disappoints.

Purple Gallinule

The Purple Gallinule dazzles with its purple feathers and blue-green wings. It even has a unique talent! This nimble waterbird uses its long, yellow legs to tip-toe across lily pads – a sight worth seeing!

It only seems right to acknowledge the two birds that deserve the award for most colorful. The Fiery-throated Hummingbird features a wide variety of colors resembling an oil-slick rainbow. Wildly designed, the Resplendent Quetzal is found in tropical rainforests ranging from Mexico to Panama and is the subject of various Mesoamerican myths. Its vibrant feathers are unmistakable and on our winter tours, we expect to see the males in full breeding plumage (hello, tail feathers).

Noteworthy Neutrals

Finally, it feels necessary to give our flightless friends some recognition. Although Costa Rica is a tropical birding paradise, there are many sights to be seen. Here are some animals you just might spot on your trip: 

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth

The slow-moving Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth is loved by many. Our favorite attribute of this animal is its upturned mouth, giving them a constant smile.

Mantled Howler Monkey

These monkeys are local to South and Central America and known for their loud calls (that can be heard up to three miles away!) and beard-like facial features. While they prefer the rainforest, we spotted several young howlers in someone’s yard on a recent tour. Mantled Howler Monkeys are one of many endangered species in Costa Rica being displaced by habitat destruction—so it is an honor to witness them in the wild.

Whether you’re a seasoned birder, looking to add to your life list, or seeking a perfectly crafted adventure, our Costa Rica birding tour package has something for everyone. Click here to find out more about taking a winter trip to this tropical birding paradise with Naturalist Journeys.

And before you go, click the link below to get instant access to trip announcements and the latest birding news!

Naturalist Journeys Email List

8 Reasons to Take a Guyana Nature Tour

Find out why YOU should take a Guyana Nature Tour with Naturalist Journeys. One of our favorite trips, Guyana is a country that is off the radar for many travelers, but oh so rich in biodiversity.

Discover “South America’s hidden gem.”

Continue reading 8 Reasons to Take a Guyana Nature Tour

Birding Belize … Why We Love It!

At Naturalist Journeys we are thrilled to offer a grand array of Neotropical birding tours. Our expert guides vie for the chance to lead groups in Belize. For many reasons, we love birding Belize! Find out ….

Deciding where to bird in the Neotropics, which includes both Central and South America, can seem like a daunting task, and rightfully so. There are many lodges to choose from, and each country has its own draw. We suggest a stair-step approach in which you gain skills and knowledge with each visit, making the most of your time and budget.

Birding Belize
Violaceous Trogon by Peg Abbott

Continue reading Birding Belize … Why We Love It!

Highlights from Our Belize Birding Tour

Every winter, Naturalist Journeys heads to Belize for a number of fun-filled trips. Here are highlights from a 2016 Belize birding tour.

Belize Birding Tour
Group at Pook’s Hill Ruins, Naturalist Journeys Stock

The highlights detailed in this blog post were from a February 2016 Belize birding tour …  and this trip was extra special: Naturalist Journeys‘ owner Peg Abbott celebrated her 60th birthday on the trip; it was a bit of a reunion with long-time travel companions, which made for a whole lot of fun. You can read the full trip report here.

Without further ado, here are the highlights, day by day. Continue reading Highlights from Our Belize Birding Tour