Wildlife Holiday News

Montezuma Oropendola in a coach park

An entry to our 2019 Writing Competition, Terry Jones travelled on our 'Belize & Tikal' tour.

In Britain, birders sometimes go looking for winter migrants in car parks because they are often planted with Rowans and berrying bushes which throw a lifeline to fatigued Redwings and Fieldfares (and if you are lucky, Waxwings).  

But we were in the old realm of the Maya in Guatemala’s northern province of Peten, at the ancient site of Mutul, now known as Tikal.

Although a car park in Britain in February and a coach park in Guatemala are about as similar as a piece of cheese and a swimming pool, the principle remains: if it’s got what animals need, animals will be there. 

The morning of our visit was misty, clearing to the usual sticky heat, mercifully cut short now and then by cloud and plenty of tree cover. 

Peter, our Belizean Naturetrek guide, took us out about 5:30 am. Ocellated Turkeys, with their iridescent feathers and endearing orange warts on a blue head, wandered in front of us. Like much of the wildlife we’d seen, they seemed oblivious to our presence. A group of spider monkeys shook the treetops nearby. Smaller birds whizzed past; grackles patrolled the ground with the turkeys. Groups of ungainly black Crested Guans clustered in trees near a hotel’s breakfast patio. 

“Wait till you see the oropendolas,” I had said to my husband as I studied The Birds of Belize. He preferred arriving unprepared, ready to be surprised by it all. “Better still, wait till you hear them.”

Soon we heard a soft but penetrating call, a sort of gloopy swallowing backwards kind of sound, ascending then falling, ending with a mellow squeak, like tapping a hollow log. Or maybe like somebody trying to gargle and giggle at the same time. Or maybe… no, you can’t really describe it. Standing in the parking lot, a group of large birds flew straight across, flapping heavily. About the size of a crow, they had rich chestnut brown and tan wings, which looked closer to black at a distance. Their large heads had white patches and big grey beaks tapering to sharp red points, and long, straight bright yellow tails, showing well even in the morning fog.

“Montezuma Oropendola!” said Peter. There were more sitting in the treetops. “They’re in the scope! They’re in the scope!” We all took turns to admire their intricate head markings and glossy plumage up close while their strange call resounded around the area. Peter told us it was found from Mexico to Costa Rica.

The rest of the day we explored the ruins, keeping an eye out for any birds. The following morning, we were leaving Tikal soon after breakfast, so my husband and I decided to do a little birding of our own. In the coach park. 

“Masked Tityra! There in the sun!” (One of my must-see birds, best view yet.)

“Three Crested Guans!”

“Two toucanets!”

“One Social Fly.” (We called them anti-social flycatchers because they were always alone.)

Four preposterous turkeys.

And then, heading back, having missed the toucans yet again, we heard the call right over our heads: and there sat a male oropendola, not more than five feet above, on a bare branch.

Then he did his courtship trick: lean forward, lift your wings, let yourself fall straight down, tail straight up, open your beak as if to throw up, vomit your song, flick the tail right down hard and flap a bit to haul yourself back upright. And repeat. And repeat.

“He’s saying goodbye to us”, my husband murmured. He was still showing off as we turned to go.

As we watched the jungle scenery from our mini-bus, I wondered how the bird got its name. Did Montezuma keep an oropendola in an elaborate cage, amused by how it bowed down before him? 

Read more about our 'Belize & Tikal' holiday.