As I stood in the crowded disembarkation hall, waiting to go through customs and begin an exciting week of tropical birding, I was struck by a colorful welcome mural on the wall:
“Somos tierra, somos mar, somos gente, somos corazón, … Somos Honduras.”
We are land, we are sea, we are people, we are heart, … We are Honduras.
As it cheerfully welcomed the two million or so tourists that visit the country each year, the mural celebrated Honduras’s famed coastal borders — the Caribbean Sea to its north and the Pacific Ocean to its south, its rich forests and farmlands, the warmth of its industrious people, and its location at the heart of Central America.
During a recent week of fast-paced birding, Honduras more than lived up to its proclamation and promise. With no time to visit its famed coastal and island resorts or its renowned Mayan ruins, my fellow birders and I immersed ourselves instead in its dazzling natural resources and enjoyed its rich biodiversity. Home to approximately 770 bird species, Honduras provides critical winter habitat for nearly 200 of “our” Neotropical migrants — the warblers and vireos, swallows and flycatchers, buntings and thrushes that leave us in fall for more favorable climes — as well as supporting over 500 breeding resident species.
Our group enjoyed the usual delightful tropical fare — iridescent motmots with pendulum-like tails, big-billed toucans and smaller toucanets, and vibrantly colored trogons perched silently amidst dense foliage. We visited Honduras’s largest inland lake — Lake Yojoa — located in a depression formed by ancient volcanoes and surrounded by tree-clad mountains. We relished large numbers of Snail Kites coursing over the adjacent marshes in search of their namesake prey, while tiny, cryptic Yellow-breasted Crakes called querulously from the undergrowth and delighted us with a lone, brief appearance. We saw aptly named Roseate Spoonbills, a flying Pinnated Bittern, and Purple Gallinules whose stunning plumage sparkled in sunlight.
We stood in wide-eyed astonishment as the diminutive Honduran Emerald — the country’s only endemic bird — buzzed in front of our faces, moving backward and forward as only hummingbirds can, investigating us as though we were strange tropical flowers. Our eyes feasted on the brilliant orange and yellow of tropical orioles — four different species in all — and thrilled at the velveteen brilliance of Crimson-collared Tanagers. We sought out quietly perched flycatchers and bright-plumaged warblers that fed frenziedly in the lush foliage of shadowy forests. We drove up and over innumerable pine-clad mountains and descended into impossibly green valleys, whose pastures and fields hosted herds of cattle and congregations of Wood Storks, Crested Caracaras, and flurries of snow-white egrets. We passed through countless typical Central American towns — a colorful chaos of fruit stalls, mechanic shops, and the hustle and bustle of hard-working lives.
Throughout, Hondurans were unfailingly gracious and welcoming. Those who traveled with us worked hard to ensure that we enjoyed the country’s beautiful birds and spectacular national parks. Those we met shared the preserves they had established to protect birds or grow coffee or produce chocolate. They fed us delicious meals, opened their homes and businesses to us, and shared Honduras’s heart with us, tolerating our avian obsession and our halting Spanish conversations with cheerful good humor. We stood on the side of the highway after dark listening to Mexican Whip-poor-wills and stared through binoculars at a tiny Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perched right in the middle of one of Honduras’s quaintest towns — Gracias — with no fear for our safety and no self-consciousness over our single-minded avian pursuit.
Since my return to the U.S., the news of Central American families being torn apart on our border has been particularly shocking and painful to absorb. The contrast between the welcome my fellow American visitors and I received and the way our country has treated those seeking asylum after fleeing life-threatening dangers could not have been starker. And as I’ve shared my stories and photos with family and friends, I’ve found myself desperately hoping that my country would soon reclaim its own big, generous heart and be, once again, the beacon of light and freedom and hope that has so long illuminated the world and fostered the warm welcome we receive from other nations’ peoples, whether we’re traveling in search of birds or other treasures. — Sophie A. H. Osborn
Sophie A. H. Osborn is a wildlife biologist and a natural history writer. She has worked on the conservation of more than a dozen bird species in the United States, Central America, and South America. She has written for Wyoming Wildlife and Sojourns magazines, and her first book, Condors in Canyon Country — The Return of the California Condor to the Grand Canyon Region, won the 2007 National Outdoor Book Award in the Nature and Environment category, among other national and regional awards. In the March/April 2018 issue of BirdWatching, she wrote about the Hooded Merganser in the essay “A Beautiful Beginning.”