The particular geographic situation of Nicaragua provides this Central American country with some unique characteristics. Being located between the vast continents of North and South America, Nicaragua can be seen as an ecological bridge that connects north and south. Consequently, Nicaragua – just like other Central American countries – enjoys an extraordinary level of biodiversity. Harboring not only Central America's largest protected area (the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve) but also providing a rich variety of habitats and vast expanses of natural areas, Nicaragua stands out from its neighboring countries when it comes to possibilities for a much-enjoyed but locally not intensively practiced activity: birdwatching. In this special we outline some aspects of this interesting activity, including descriptions of the best birding sites and information regarding the species that can be found throughout the country.
In several countries birdwatching, or birding, is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities, and not without a reason. Birdwatching can be practiced by people from all ages, in virtually every area, and with only few equipment. Anybody interested in nature and wildlife will find that birdwatching can be a relaxing and easy-to-practice recreational activity. Birdwatching does not require specific, off-road natural reserves; it can even be practiced within urban limits, and in many natural areas birds often can be encountered without intensive hiking, making birdwatching an activity suitable for virtually everybody!
Birdwatching activities are mainly focused at the observation and identification of wild birds. Although every birder can adopt a different style, some general types of birders can be distinguished. There are people who just like to observe birds and enjoy the natural setting, and they generally do not keep track of all the species they have seen. Other, more serious birders will be able to identify the species by their appearance or song, and they frequently keep a list of the birds they have seen (called a life list), stating date and place. Birderwatchers who maintain an extensive list of all birds they have seen - and frequently focus at identifying only new birds that are not yet on their list - are called listers. Another group of birders preferres to identify only rare birds. This activity, spotting rare birds, is often referred to as twitching (U.K.) or chasing (U.S.).
The most fundamental piece of equipment for birdwatching is a set of binoculars. Birds can often be found perched high up in the trees, and without binoculars they are difficult to spot or identify. Any binoculars will help in better spotting birds, and there are plenty of options for every type of birder. Beginners can start with a simple set of binoculars, whereas experts frequently carry advanced, high-quality instruments.
When purchasing binoculars there are a couple details one should pay attention to. Two important aspects are the magnifying power and the diameter of the objective lenses. The magnifying power tells how much bigger the image will appear. For example, 8x magnifying power means that the image will look 8x bigger through the binoculars than with the naked eye. Although very high magnification might seem appealing, it is recommended to select a magnification within the range of 7x-10x. Magnification larger than 10x is generally too much to keep the image stable when handholding the binoculars (except when using Image Stabilization, see below). There are also binoculars that have a zoom option; they can be manually set to magnify anywhere between a certain range (8x-25x, for example). The high magnification power can be used to occasionally zoom in birds located far away, for example.
The diameter of the objective lenses affects the quantity of light that enters the binoculars. The more light enters the lenses, the clearer the image will be. However, larger diameters will cause the binoculars to be bigger and heavier as well. For birding, a diameter of at least 25 mm is recommended, preferable higher than 32 mm. A balance should therefore be found between size, weight, image quality, and price (larger-diameter binoculars are generally more expensive). For travelers that practice birdwatching only ocassionally, a pair of small, lightweight binoculars will be perfectly suitable whereas more serious birders do not frequently go out with objective lenses smaller than 35 mm.
Finding the aforementioned values is not hard; every set of binoculars has two numbers printed somewhere on the outside. This is stated in a format similar to this: 8x40. These particular binoculars feature 8x zoom with lenses that have a diameter of 40 mm. Zoom lenses have three values (e.g. 7-29x50), with the first two values depicting the zoom range (7x-29x in this case).
A recent development that is predicted by some to revolutionize the market of binoculars is the introduction of a technique called Image Stabilization. This involves the integration of a mechanism that stabilizes the shaking image that is common when hand-holding binoculars. Consequently, birds or objects that are located far away can be seen in much more detail. The larger brands already offer a wide variety of Image Stabilized (IS) binoculars, with prices for birding binoculars starting at around US$250 (like these Canon 8x25 binoculars), increasing to over US$1,000 for the most advanced, powerful models (see these Canon 10x42 L Waterproof binoculars). On the other hand, a simple, no-frills set of binoculars can be found for a price as low as US$25 (e.g. the Bushnell 7x35 Falcon binoculars).
In addition to binoculars birders often carry around a field guide to identify birds along the way. There are several useful bird guides that can be used, although unfortunately there is no extensive Nicaraguan bird guide as of yet. However, the book A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America by Howell and Webb contains most of the birds living in Nicaragua, and the Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch also covers most of Nicaragua's birds. A Guide to the Birds of Panama by Ridgely and Gwynne is another extensive guide, albeit written mostly focused on more southern regions in Central America.
These two items, binoculars and a field guide, are the most important tools that should be carried around. Obviously a photo camera can be nice to take pictures of the birds. A good zoom lens is of great value when taking pictures from a large distance, which is often the only option. Finally, it is important to wear anything but bright, colorful clothes. Opaque colors will do fine. Also avoid wearing anything that is strongly scented. Not only deodorants and colognes but also scented insect repellent, for instance, could be noticed by and drive away birds.
Unscented, armed with binoculars and field guide, ready for spotting all these beautiful birds there is only one fundamental word of advice that should be taken into consideration: be as quiet as possible! Many birds are shy and will easily fly away or hide when they hear people approaching. Also, by being quiet the often beautiful bird songs can be heard and used to localize or identify birds. Therefore, be sure to talk at a low volume and move through the area without making much noise to optimize the bird sightings.
Birdwatching in Nicaragua
In Nicaragua birdwatching is not yet practiced on a large scale, despite the favorable circumstances. It is, however, becoming more and more popular and birding has been identified one of the possible major ecotourism attractions in the future. Among the positive aspects of birdwatching as tourist activity are the low environmental impact (silently walking down a trail in a natural reserve causes little disturbance), and several social-economical consequences. In addition to job creation (tourist guides, park guards, etc.), the development of birdwatching as a tourist attraction will also stimulate the protection of natural reserves and important ecological habitats. Finally, it will encourage environmental education among the local community, which is another important step towards better conservation of natural areas.
Currently, on the official list of identified birds in Nicaragua there are 703 different species. This list is not static; in the year 2000 there were 644 species identified. As more research is conducted and birdwatching is done more extensively throughout the country, this list will most likely continue to grow. Experts estimate it to reach probably around 800 species. This great variety of birds demonstrates the high biodiversity in the country.
A certain part of the Nicaraguan bird population does not permanently reside in Nicaragua. These so-called migratory birds spend part of their time in other regions, generally North America. Most of these species would originally stay in Nicaragua year-round, but they coincidentally noticed the abundance of food in the spring season in the more northern part of the continent. Taking advantage of these favorable conditions, these birds started to migrate north for a couple months during the year to nest and take care of their chicks, before returning south. Generally, migrating birds reside most of their time in Nicaragua, roughly from September until April.
Many birds can be seen year-round, though, and there are large numbers of bird species in every department of Nicaragua. There are certain – generally more forested – areas that are home to extraordinary numbers of bird species. A list of the best birding sites in Nicaragua follows below, but an important aspect of the country is the fact that great birding sites are never far away or difficult to encounter. Certainly, exploring some of the most spectacular sites like the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve or the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve requires a fair share of time and effort, but there are many other locations that are very accessible and also inhabited by a great variety of birds.
The high biodiversity is made possible by the large variation of natural habitats present throughout Nicaragua. Among the different ecosystems are tropical dry forests, cloud forests, rain forests (also referred to as wet tropical forests), mangroves, wetlands, and savanna zones. Some bird species are limited to only one type of ecosystem, whereas other gladly reside in several types of environmental regions.
Below follows a brief description of the particularities of some of the different ecosystems.
Tropical dry forest is found from southern Mexico to northern Costa Rica. In Nicaragua this type of forest is found at the Pacific side, where it forms an important ecological habitat for many animals. Lack of rain during the dry season causes trees to shed their leaves during part of the year (roughly from February until May). During this season the forest is less densely vegetated and birders can consequently see more of the environment. Typical dry-forest birds include Long-tailed Manakins, White-throated Magpie-Jays, Hoffman's Woodpeckers (Melanerpes hoffmannii), Lesser Ground-Cuckoos (Morococcyx erythropygus), and Pacific Parakeets (Aratinga strenua).
Rain forest is one of the richest ecological habitats on earth, housing worldwide two thirds of all living animal and plant species. In Nicaragua this type of forest is mostly found at the northeastern and southeastern regions, principally in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve and the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Similarly humid and harboring a high biodiversity as well, cloud forests share many of the bird species with tropical rain forests. This type of forest exists at high elevations (normally 1000 meters m.a.s.l. and above). Cloud forests are found in the same Bosawás region, but also on the summit of the Mombacho and the Maderas Volcano. Some particular birds residing in cloud or rain forests include Slaty-tailed Trogons (Trogon massena) and Three-wattled Bellbirds (Procnias tricarunculata), the latter being famous for having a distinct, unique song. The Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) generally inhabits cloud forests.
Mangroves are found at estuaries and marine shorelines, mostly at the Pacific Coast. Roots of mangrove trees are partially submerged and provide a great place for organisms like barnacles, oysters and algae, consequently attracting fish and therefore providing a great feeding ground for birds. A bird species only found at mangroves is the Mangrove Warbler (Dendroica petechia erihachorides).
Tropical Dry Forest
Due to Nicaragua's particular location, the country forms the northernmost or southernmost limit for several different bird species. For example, the Purple-throated Mountain-gem is not found further north of Nicaragua. The opposite applies to another hummingbird; the Green-breasted Mountain-gem (Lampornis sybillae) has its southern limit in Nicaragua (this bird is found only in the mountainous north of Nicaragua). Another bird that has its southern limit in Nicaragua is the Yellow-winged Tanager (Thraupis abbas). Although certain species might have their particular range, there are great birding sites throughout the country. An overview of some of the best birding sites in Nicaragua follows below.
The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is one of Nicaragua's most impressive natural reserves. This area, measuring over 3,000 square kilometers, harbors some of Nicaragua's most spectacular animal species. The reserve is home to jaguars, peccaries, pumas, and even manatees. Birds are plentiful and include fascinating species like toucans, hummingbirds, trogons, and a large variety of aquatic birds, residing along the coast of the rivers bordering or crossing the reserve. Among the birds at the Indio Maíz reserve are also two endangered species: the spectacular Great Green Macaw and the Great Curassow (Crax rubra). There are over 400 bird species living in this region, making it one of the best birding sites of Nicaragua. The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is situated in the southeastern corner of the country, bordering Costa Rica and the Caribbean Sea. Access is only possible by boat, and although it takes a little effort to reach this area it is definitely worth it for anybody interested in nature. There are sufficient hotels in neighboring communities, and in addition to the Indio Maíz reserve there are also many other spectacular attractions in the Río San Juan department. More information can be found in our Activity Guide.
Within the same department two other sites stand out as great birding areas. Los Guatuzos is a natural reserve located on the southern shore of Lake Nicaragua. This wetland area is home to a wide range of aquatic bird, including the beautiful Roseate Spoonbill and several Kingfisher species. There is a research center on-site, and there are trails and even hanging bridges for great observation of the flora and fauna. The other hotspot is Isla El Zapote, one of the islands of the Solentiname Archipelago, located inside Lake Nicaragua, some 15 kilometers from San Carlos. This uninhabited island is home to large bird colonies, and although the island lacks tourism infrastructure, exploring this primitive natural area can be a very rewarding experience. Thousands of birds, including cormorants, herons, and even spoonbills nest on this island. Large quantities of bird are present year-round, but the most spectacular month to visit is April, when even more activity takes place. The best option to watch the birds is to cruise around Isla El Zapote by boat. Within the Solentiname Archipelago there are other islands that do offer lodging options, and there are plenty of other natural and cultural attractions, making this unexplored area an interesting destination.
As stunning as the Indio Maíz reserve is the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, located in the northeastern corner of the country. Here, cloud and rain forest provide an equally rich habitat, also harboring over 400 bird species in what is Central America's largest protected natural reserve. Despite its great natural attractiveness, the Bosawás reserve has few tourism infrastructure and it is rather difficult to just get there, let stand find lodging options in the area. Hopefully the region will be made more accessible in the future, while conserving its great natural treasures.
At the Pacific side of Nicaragua there are several great birding sites, generally rather easy to access. The Montibelli Private Wildlife Reserve is one of the principal birding sites at the Pacific, located only 30 minutes from Managua. Due to its varying altitude levels the area – measuring over 160 hectares – includes both tropical dry forest and semideciduous tropical forest. A total of 152 bird species have been identified, including parrots, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, trogons, and also Nicaragua's national bird, the Turquoise-browed Motmot. Long-tailed Manakins can also be seen here. Montibelli has different trails, varying in duration from 30 minute hikes to 3½ hour walks. The reserve also offers lodging options, and there is food served on-site, making it a great natural attraction in the vicinity of Nicaragua's capital city.
In the same municipality (Ticuantepe) there is another natural reserve with interesting birding options. The Chocoyero-El Brujo Natural Reserve is known for the large population of Pacific Parakeets (Aratinga strenua) that roosts at one particular site in the reserve. The parakeets can be seen every morning around sunrise when they leave their nests, and in the afternoon (this is the best time to see them) before sunset when they return to roost. The reserve has several trails and also offers night-hikes and camping possibilities.
Set on the departmental borders of Masaya and Granada and just south of the municipality of Tipitapa in the department of Managua, a fairly unexplored lagoon situated between Nicaragua's two largest lakes (Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua) provides shelter to a variety of aquatic and terrestrial animals. The Tisma Lagoon is part of a protected wetland area that encompasses 168.5 km². This area, called the Tisma Lagoon System (Sistema Lagunar de Tisma), harbors frogs, caymans, snakes, iguanas, deer, agouti, and many other animals. Birds include herons, redwinged blackbirds, doves, kingfishers, and a bird that is endemic to Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica (mainly the Río Frío area) only, the Nicaraguan Grackle (Quiscalus nicaraguensis). This bird is mainly found around lakes and lagoons.
One of Nicaragua's most important mangrove birding sites is found in the department of León, in front of the fisherman's village of Las Peñitas. The mangroves grow on the sandy shores of an island right in front of the coast called Isla Juan Venado. Birds abound here, especially in the morning and afternoon. Among the birds that can be seen here are several heron varieties as well as stilts, pelicans, and the Mangrove Warbler. The mangroves can be easily explored by boat or kayak, and it is possible to explore the uninhabited island itself as well. Other animals that live within the limits of this protected reserve include caymans, iguanas, crabs, and lobster, among others. Isla Juan Venado is also a nesting site for Olive Ridley Turtles.
Heading north there are several great birding sites, generally located at higher altitudes and therefore inhabited by bird populations that are different from the Pacific lowlands. One of the best birding areas in the north is the El Jaguar Private Wildlife Reserve, located at an elevation of 1,350 meters above sea level. With over 200 different bird species visitors can expect to see over 50 different species in a single day in the reserve's cloud forest. Birds that can be encountered in El Jaguar include tanagers, hummingbirds, toucans, euphonias, warblers, woodpeckers, finches, and trogons. It was in the El Jaguar reserve that researchers re-discovered the Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) for the first time in Nicaragua since 1891. There are lodging options available at El Jaguar.
Finca Esperanza Verde is a reserve and ecological coffee farm located in the northern department of Matagalpa. Two interesting species that can be found here are the White-ruffed Manakin (Corapipo leucorrhoa) and the Keel-billed Toucan. In total, over 150 bird species have been identified including trogons, warblers, wrens, oropendolas, wrens, hawks, parrots, toucans, and woodpeckers, among others. Visitors can also undertake other activities like horseback riding, participating in the coffee harvesting, and visiting the butterfly garden. Lodging options are available.
The Selva Negra Mountain Resort lies between 13000 and 1500 meters above the sea level, in Northern Nicaragua. The reserve protects 100 hectares of premontane rain forest and cloud forest, which are part of the Cerro Arenal Natural Reserve. Here, a great variety of local and migratory birds, commonly seen in the Pacific and the Atlantic lowlands, inhabit the area. Also, mountain species whose ranges extend South from Mexico use the reserve as their migratory route.
When walking through the 20 kilometers of trails Selva Negra, tourists will listen to the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Tropical Kingbird and Bushy-crested Jay. It is worth to mention that flocks of North American migrants occur in winter, both in the forest and at flowering trees around the farm. The Wood Thrush, Black-throated Green and Baltimore Oriole are part of this migrations. Other common species are the Three Wattled Belbird, White-Breasted Wood-Wren and Slate-colored Solitaire, who dominate the dawn chorus.
Despite the fact that Selva Negra´s specialties take a little more effort to find, it is wonderful to listen to the Highland Guan, White-faced Quail-Dove, Green-breasted Mountain-Gem, Long-tailed Manakin and White eared Ground-Sparrow, after a good hike.
The northern region of Nicaragua is home to one of the world's most famous and fascinating birds: the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). This bird, part of the Trogon family, is surrounded by legends and myths, many of which date back to Pre-Colombian times. Both the Mayas and the Aztecs considered the Quetzal a sacred bird, a symbol for goodness and light. The Resplendent Quetzal has a bright green body and a red breast and the males have unusually long tail covert plumes which can measure over 60 centimeters – more than twice the size of the bird itself. This stunning appearance also fascinated the Spaniards, who unsuccessfully tried to ship caged birds back to Europe. Birds soon died in captivity, which also made it a symbol for liberty. There are several places in Nicaragua where this magnificent bird can be found. The largest Quetzal population is found in Kilambé, a natural reserve in the department of Jinotega. Located in the same department, the Datanlí-El Diablo Reserve also gives shelter to this bird, and Quetzals can furthermore be found in the department of Estelí in the Miraflor Reserve. Finding this rare bird takes some time and effort, but it is certainly a unique experience to encounter this beautiful bird that captivated the Aztecs and the Mayas hundreds if not thousands of years ago.
Concluding this Birding Special, we would like to invite our visitors to browse our recently published online Animal Guide. Already including hundreds of Nicaraguan animals, we aim to set up the most extensive database containing detailed information of Nicaragua's spectacular wildlife. This is a challenging task and support of our visitors is indispensable! We ask experts and nature enthusiasts to help us identify the animals, and photographers can help us by contributing animal photos. For more information, and to check out the animals that we have listed so far, be sure to visit our Nicaragua Animal Guide.
With this special, we hope not only to have familiarized and intrigued visitors that were previously unaware of the interesting aspects of birding, but we also hope to have encouraged experienced birders to visit Nicaragua, a birding paradise unknown to many!
If there is information missing in this special, be sure to let us know using this feedback form.
A special thanks goes out to Pomares Salmerón, bird expert from the Montibelli Private Wildlife Reserve. Not only did his extensive knowledge of birds and birdwatching greatly assist us in writing this special, but his enthusiasm also motivated us to learn more and get acquainted with this fascinating activity!
Photos courtesy of Pomares Salmerón, MARENA, Hotel Sábalos Lodge, and Steve Bird - www.birdseekers.co.uk (Quetzal picture).