Birding in Suchitoto
In January 2019, I traveled to Central America with Intrepid Tours. I had a great time, as there were plenty opportunities for free time exploration, choices of things to do, and included group activities. One of the highlights of the tour was time spent in Suchitoto, El Salvador. The time spent there was marked by an extensive walking tour, visit to the columnar basalt formations of Los Tercios, and a hiking and historical tour of Cinquera Rain Forest Park to learn more about the civil war in El Salvador from an ex-FMLN fighter turned park ranger. Suchitoto is a great place to learn about history, see colonial architecture, go for a stroll, spend time in nature, enjoy local art, eat pupusas, and learn about the history of indigo. If that isn’t enough, another highlight of Suchitoto was two birding tours that I participated in!
The two birding tours that I enjoyed were organized through Intrepid with a local tour operator. I believe the local tour operator was called Suchitoto Adventure Outfitters. One tour involved a birding boat trip around Lake Suchitlan and the other was a kayaking birding trip also on the lake. It is important to note that Lake Suchitlan is an artificial lake which was created in the mid-1970s to serve as a reservoir for the Cerron Grande Hydroelectric dam. The lake bed was once served as a home and farmland to over 13,000 people who were displaced by the project. Thousands of acres of land were flooded in a project that the government claimed would solve the country’s energy problem. The life of these farmers was meager to begin with, as they worked subsistence plots in an area dominated by large sugar cane estates. They attempted to organize for land distribution, price controls on agricultural inputs, and better wages during the 1960s and early 1970s. Organizers were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes murdered. The thousands of displaced peasants were compensated poorly or not at all, so it is little wonder that the area became a stronghold for the FMLN. During my visit, many houses and streets in Suchitoto waved FMLN flags. Thus, although Lake Suchitlan is a tranquil haven for birds, it is not a natural lake and is a lake connected to the political and economic struggles of El Salvador.
Decades later, Lake Suchitlan is the largest freshwater body in El Salvador and consists of over 100 miles of inlet pocked of shoreline and 33,360 acres of water surface area. It provides habitat for many native and migratory birds, including the largest duck populations in El Salvador. The first tour that I participated in left early in the morning. Participants were offered coffee, juice, and a light snack, as well as binoculars, life vests, bilingual guides and access to bird guide books. I kept a list of the birds that we saw during our journey around the lake. Among the first birds that I saw were a large number of barn swallows, mangrove swallows, and a few Gray breasted martins. It is honestly difficult for me to differentiate these quick moving birds, which perched on a line across the lake. The branches hanging over the lake hosted a few species of kingfishers, including Amazon kingfishers and the more familiar Belted kingfishers. Several species of flycatchers also made an appearance, such as the Great kiskadee, Tropical kingbird, and Scissor tailed flycatcher. I have seen Scissor tailed flycatchers in the southern United States and they are always an amazing bird to see. Various species of herons were also easily spotted along the shoreline, including Green herons, Great blue herons, Cattle egrets, Snowy egrets, and Great egrets. The lake is home to twelve of the fourteen species of native fish found in El Salvador, which provide a tasty meal to many of these birds.
There were also many raptors spotted during the boat ride. A Laughing falcon, ospreys, Black hawk, and Roadside hawk were among the raptors we saw. Innumerable Neo-tropical cormorants, Black vultures, and turkey vultures were also seen. Another highlight was a White-bellied chachalaca. As a matter of reference, I brought the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America with me. This was one of the same guides that the birding guides used in the tour. The guides were very knowledgeable about birds and seemed to be glad to have someone who was excited about birds on their tour. The other guests on the tour were not avid birders nor as interested in birds, but seemed to enjoy helping me spot birds and the opportunity to enjoy nature. As for myself, I had tried to study the bird guide before and during the tour, so I was happy that I was able to identify some birds I had never seen before. In all, we were on the lake from before 6am to nearly 10 am.
A not so great photo of a Laughing falcon
The second tour included another early morning adventure, this time combining bird watching and kayaking. I found this a little harder to balance, as it was hard to paddle, use my binoculars, take photos, and take notes of the birds that I saw. We used tandem kayaks and explored a different area of the lake. I was unable to multitask. Again, this was a morning tour. Highlights of this tour included large numbers of Red winged blackbirds. Although this is a common bird in Minnesota, it was a treat to see and hear these familiar birds in early January. While Minnesota was enveloped in the silent cold of winter, the beloved birds of spring and summer were enjoying their winter in the warmth of El Salvador. Trees of wood storks, orioles, warblers, flocks of pelicans, shy Northern jacanas, and many of the birds seen the previous day marked the morning journey. The kayaking adventure ended with a trip to a hot spring, where I searched for more birds as others in the group enjoyed the springs. Near the springs, I found a Turquoise-browed motmot, Golden fronted woodpecker, Ruddy ground doves, and parakeets. The Turquoise-browed motmot is the national bird of El Salvador.
Lake Suchitlan is an important wetland area, but it is also heavily polluted. Several rivers empty wastewater and sewage into the reservoir, including the Suquiapa, Sucio and Acelhuate rivers. Untreated sewage from at least 154 municipalities flow into the lake, resulting in an astonishing monthly flow of 8.5 million tons of fecal matter. This is a sad testament to the underdeveloped water and sewage management systems in El Salvador, where this waste typically flows into bodies of water. Scientists have found mercury, copper, cadmium, and aluminum in the water, plants, and fish. According to The Social Life of Water, 90% of rivers in El Salvador are polluted with industrial waste. Water issues, such as insufficient waste management, lack of access to clean water, and industrial waste are connected to neoliberal policies imposed upon El Salvador by the World Bank and Inter-American Development bank since the 1990s. Neo-liberal policies seek to reduce the role of the government in providing and regulating socially important services in the interest of privatization and corporate profits. Lake Suchitlan is one of the most contaminated bodies of water in Central America. The pollution has resulted in overgrowth of invasive water hyacinth and algae. I would also be suspicious of the safety of swimming and fishing in the lake, even though locals do fish on the lake. Investment in the infrastructure and regulations that can keep the water clean, provide ongoing habitat for wildlife, and secure a healthy life and potable water for residents means challenging to the dominance of the neoliberal policies and institutions which advance U.S. imperialism.
Birding in Suchitoto was a wonderful experience. The area is abundant with bird life. At the same time, it is a location of resistance. From farmers who were removed from their land to FMLN fighters who hid in the local mountains, the area is a geography of exclusion. Today, it is a tourist destination and upcoming birding destination, but submerged beneath the surface of fun and recreation is struggle. In 2007, Suchitoto residents peacefully protested the privatization of water and demonstrators were attacked with rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas. Seventy five people were injured. In 2008, a local water rights activist named Hector Ventura was stabbed to death after meeting with the mayor. This is always the dilemma of being a tourist. A tourist passes through the world, enjoying nature, birds, historical sites, art, foods, or any number of the wonders this world offers. But for all the wonders the world offers those who can enjoy them, it is also a world of suffering and struggle.