Birding Without Borders

Day 117: Languages and a Lake

Guatemala’s culture is as varied as its birds.

April 27, 2015, Xela, Guatemala — I spent the morning near Lake Atitlan with John Cahill and three Guatemalan birders from the nearby town of Panajachel: Carlos Aguilar (an architect), Pablo Chumil (a naturalist and local tour guide), and Juan Chocoy (who works at a hotel). The five of us hit a patch of dry forest after breakfast and found some good stuff, including Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Rufous Sabrewing, Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, and Black-vented Oriole. The surrounding valley felt lifted out of the Andes, with brightly-dressed indigenous farmers working terraced fields of vegetables. 

Sixty percent of Guatemala’s population is indigenous, a higher proportion than any other Latin American country. Although Spanish is widely spoken, many people still use their native languages here, descended from the Maya, and there are a lot of them. Within our small group this morning, John (having grown up in Coban) speaks fluent Q’eq’chi; Pablo speaks Kakchikel; and Juan speaks Tzutujil, none of which are similar enough to cross-understand more than a few words (they all speak Spanish, too). And this is within a country smaller than Tennessee!

John had to get the power steering fixed on his pickup, so for a few minutes before lunch, he dropped the rest of us off at a scenic viewpoint of Lake Atitlan, an 18-kilometer-wide body of water backdropped by volcanoes. Today, the lake was more notable for its lack of birds than for anything visible. Guatemala’s only endemic bird, the Atitlan Grebe (which looks similar to a Pied-billed Grebe), was confined to Lake Atitlan but is presumed extinct; the last confirmed sighting was in 1986. As far as anyone knows, several factors were involved in its quiet disappearance (introduction of largemouth bass for sport fishing; water pollution; an earthquake which dropped the water level in the late ‘70s; destruction of reed beds; and hybridization with Pied-billed Grebes). It was strange to think that, just 30 years ago at this very same spot, I might have been watching a bird that no longer exists.

New birds today: 41

Year list: 2306

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