Sunday 9 April 2023

El Salvador...untamed

I started writing this blog post last year but never got it finished. I finally decided it was time to to do so but haven’t altered the original text below, hence references to travelling towards the end of the Covid pandemic…

Finally, after two long years without work due to the Covid pandemic, we recently found ourselves heading off on the first of two trips to start filming for a new project,  'El Salvador Untamed'. It won't be on our screens for another *year or so but having not visited the country before I was excited at the prospect of seeing new places, meeting new people and enjoying new wildlife.

Going anywhere further afield still isn't much fun though, a last minute cancellation to our British Airways flight to Madrid (due to lack of staff because of Covid) meant a hurried re-booking to a United flight via the States instead. For us the US is always a pain in the arse. Not only because there were ESTAs to purchase and lateral flow tests to arrange before leaving but because it is also one of the few countries where you have to offload and collect all of your bags and go through security again, (even though you cleared security in London just hours before). Transiting is difficult, tiring and requires an expensive carnet (a detailed list of all equipment including serial numbers, country of manufacture and retail purchase price). When you have ten cases of excess baggage full of equipment, that's no small thing and the main reason we always try and avoid routing through the US. We travelled via Newark on the way out and Washington on the return, with a total journey time of just over 14 hours from London to San Salvador.

About El Salvador
El Salvador is the smallest of the Central American countries (about the size of Wales) and is bordered to the north by Guatemala and Honduras and the Pacific Ocean to the south. It's relatively small size makes it an easy place to explore by car (4x4 recommended to get to the really good bits) allowing access to a wide variety of habitats and micro climates.

Safety...the reality
El Salvador has a reputation (as do many Central American countries) of being dangerous. That's an image that it's trying very hard to clean up. The media relishes on reporting about the violence, drug cartels, murders and corruption - indeed a week before we left to start filming the country was plunged into a 'National State of Emergency' following a particularly harrowing weekend of drug related gang violence in which 62 people were murdered in a 24 hour period. The violence (and all the victims) were between cartel gangs. The average El Salvadorian will never be touched by these problems directly and it's a shame that the reputation of the country is tarnished by gangs like MS13. The government are now cracking down on gangs with over 2000 arrests and incarcerations in the past 6 months. 

Clearly there are problems but that said, we found nothing but beautiful scenery, magnificent wildlife and the friendliest people in Central America. I can honestly say I've made some great friends that I will keep in touch with, not least our brilliant guide and local contact Julio Acosta who runs El Salvador Birding. If you ever plan a visit, he is the guy to get in touch with. Not only is he a knowledgeable wildlife guide but he can tell you about the history of the country past and present and he's a barista. So if you're a coffee loving wildlife watcher, he's the guy to book with. He'll be attending the UK Birdfair this year (2023) for the first time if you want to meet him.

Julio Acosta (El Salvador Birding) centre, with government representatives either side.

Filming is always a well organised event, it has to be. Months of research is needed to know when and where to visit and what species you will be able to see and film. This trip was no different. With the help of local scouts we were able to locate a nesting colony of Torogoz, El Salvador's National Bird, in advance of our arrival. These stunning birds form noisy nesting groups in bare, sandy, cliff faces where they excavate tunnels up to 2 m into the wall.

Torogoz country - seasonally dry forests are a unique landscape

Torogoz or Turquoise-browed Mot-mot

Interlopers hang around the nesting colony to try and take advantage of the work carried out by the mot-mots - here a female Ringed Kingfisher waits her turn. If she can find an abandoned tunnel or oust a bird who’s just finished excavating, she can save herself a lot of work.

Ringed Kingfisher

Torogoz keeping a close eye on us.

Cattle Egret

The dry forest also holds specialist plant life, including many varieties of cactus.

Back in the lowlands, riverside vegetation is home to Central American Spider Monkeys, Boat-billed Herons and many warblers, including the beautiful Mangrove Warbler, a race of Yellow Warbler. 

Riverside vegetation is rich in life.

Mangrove (Yellow) Warbler

White-winged Dove

Barra de Santiago in the southwest of the country, is an idealistic resort boasting long sandy beaches, mangrove-lined waterways and small plantations of mixed mango and coconut. This is where wealthy Salvadorans own expensive waterside, second homes and we spent a few days filming American crocodiles and endangered (in El Salvador) Yellow-crowned parrots. Naturally there were many other species to see too.

Luxury beach side home facing the Pacific Ocean
Barra de Santiago

A more rustic riverside property

Breakfast straight from the tree!
Sun warmed mangos were the best
I've ever tasted.

American Redstart, male

Miles of pristine empty beach - except for birds like Willet,
Franklins gulls, Wilson's Plover, Sanderling and Royal Tern

Huge flocks of Franklins Gulls 
constantly streamed along the coast.


Royal Tern

Wilson's Plover

Away from the beach we headed to the river and into the mangrove swamps.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Hudsonian Whimbrel

Fiddler Crabs can be seen in their hundreds

Fiddler Crab

White Ibis

The mangroves make for some good birding including Boat-billed, Little Blue, Tri-coloured and Green herons, Green and American Pygmy kingfishers, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-crowned Parrot and, of course, American crocodiles!

Green Kingfisher

American Pygmy Kingfisher

Pair of Inca Doves - these are THE common
small dove here.

Another Inca Dove

Lineated Woodpecker taking advantage of an open coconut.

There's an amazing conservation program in place to help save the Yellow-crowned Parrot. Nest boxes are being placed high up in their preferred nesting locations with a very high success rate. These magnificent but very shy birds are starting to increase in numbers again after many years of decline due to habitat loss and poaching.

Yellow-crowned Parrot

Black Spiny-tailed Iguana

America Crocodiles have also suffered from over hunting and nest destruction and are now protected and actively conserved in El Salvador. Crazy to think these impressive reptiles, that have been around since the dinosaurs, can be nearly wiped out by humans - we are such a destructive species.

American Crocodile

After enduring the 40 degree heat of the lowlands, we headed higher to cooler conditions and coffee plantations. These provide important foraging grounds for many migratory species of birds and are home to award winning coffee of the highest standard. Coffee from here can reach $80-100 a kilo!

An American owned Coffee finca near the town of Juayua

Coffee beans at various stages of drying.

Piles of damp, discarded coffee husks are one of the best places to find the Mexican Burrowing Caecilian Dermorphis mexicanus. These strange 'snake-like' creatures are in fact amphibians and look more like giant earthworms. They do in fact feed primarily on earthworms and can grow quite large. Having only vestigial eyes, they detect prey using small tentacles (the whitish dots near the snout), which are sensitive to movement.

Mexican Burrowing Caecilian

Rufous-naped Wren is a fairly common sighting.

Yellow Warbler

Our final destination on this trip were to the cloud forests bordering Honduras and Guatemala. It is MUCH cooler at altitude and gets close to freezing at night. This region is home to some of the rarest amphibians in the world though our focus was a high altitude reptile.

Our home for two-nights, El Pital Eco Lodge

A harmless little Fischer's Snail-Eating Snake
Tropidodipsas fischeri

Our biologist guide, Will Merino, discovered this incredible fungus the day before we arrived. As you can probably guess, it stank of rotting flesh to attract flies and other small insects. It is believed this was the first record of this particular fungus in El Salvador.

The view at sunset was captivating

The snake we were after lives at higher altitudes and feeds on frogs, salamanders, lizards and small mammals. Godman's Montane Pit Viper is a specialist of this habitat and is found across the border into southern Guatemala, north to Mexico. Unlike vipers at lower altitudes. it only breeds every other year. It's venom is a potent hemotoxin and a bite would cause painful, local swelling and bruising and potentially some necrosis.

Our target species - Godman's Montane Pit viper
Cerrophidion godmani

The hills just a short distance away are in Honduras.

Hopefully I'll have more time to Blog again this year but with new films in the pipeline it's unlikely to be on a regular basis. However, I will have some exiting posts to come.

EDIT: The finished film can now be seen on Magellan TV.

Tuesday 10 August 2021

Barba Amarilla...

Known locally as the Barba Amarilla (yellow beard), Terciopelo or Fer-de-lance, Bothrops asper is a member of the lancehead family of pitvipers and is without doubt the most dangerous snake in Central and South America. It causes more human fatalities each year than any other species found in the region. Injecting an average 105 mg of venom with each bite, just 50 mg is considered a fatal dose for humans. The venom causes pain and swelling and has cytotoxic and hemotoxic qualities. If the bite doesn't kill it causes significant pain and tissue damage often resulting in the loss of limbs or severe disfigurement. 

6ft female Bothrops asper showing why it gets its
local name Barba amarilla

This snake is surprisingly common and is found throughout humid lowland forests up to approx 2000+ m from southern Mexico through Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama to Colombia, Venezuela and western Ecuador in South America.

Juvenile Bothrops asper.
Only 12 inches long but just as deadly as the parent.
Tapirus Lodge, Costa Rica

Being common certainly contributes to the number of encounters with people but it is also a highly irascible snake. It usually sits tight when disturbed and is often trodden on, it becomes easily aggravated and confrontational if interacted with. At Tapirus Lodge in Costa Rica, it was the most frequently encountered snake and we had several close encounters whilst walking to the restaurant in the evenings, including the juvenile above. The cameraman Mike Hutchinson, almost trod on this one in the dark between the restaurant and the accommodation.

Bothrops asper, male
Osa Biological Station, Costa Rica

Male Bothrops asper, Tapirus Lodge, CR
This one was sitting next to the path
outside my accommodation!

Same individual as above. This view clearly
shows the 'lancehead' formed by the
large venom glands behind the eyes.

Despite their terrifying reputation, bites can be mitigated if you are aware of their presence and take simple precautions - using a head torch/torch at night, wearing stout footwear and avoiding stepping blindly over logs and fallen trees across footpaths (their favourite ambush cover) will all help. Personally I can't wait to see these incredible reptiles again when travel allows.



For those in any doubt as to the seriousness of the effects of Terciopelo venom, the following image from Google clearly illustrate what happens to human flesh after a bite.