One of the coolest places I visited in 2016 also gave me one of the most unexpected experiences I've ever had in my life. While in Honduras we visited the bar at the Rio Santiago Nature Resort which is known for maintaining over 200 hummingbird feeders daily, including keeping them clean and full of fresh nectar throughout the day. The video above gives you a hint of what the hummingbird activity is like, but that really only scratches the surface. The sheer amount of hummingbird mass in the air and zipping around your head coupled with the wide variety of species is mind-blowing, especially for someone like me who lives in Minnesota with only one species regularly occurring.
But hummingbirds are not the only reason to visit and as much as we all wanted to plop down, have a beer and soak in some hot hummer action, our guide Elmer Escoto took us on a walk for something "very special if we are lucky." We meandered the trails on the resort property and found a few North American breeders that were just beginning their northward movement like wood thrush and gray catbird. But we also saw masked tityra, shining honeycreeper, brown jays and yellow-throated euphonias.
Elmer found us a young spectacled owl. They are just a little smaller than a great horned owl and eat a wide variety of small prey. This is a young bird that still had some white around the head but was already formidable in its adult size. And something as cool as an owl is definitely worth tearing some birders away from over 200 hummingbird feeders. We headed back down the trail and back to the bar...the better to work up a sweat for an ice cold beer.
So we settled down with our cameras and beers at the hummingbird feeders to take advantage of the dwindling daylight to get photos--though I was having more fun getting slow motion video of the hummers with my iPhone and my scope. Moments like this are one of my favorite parts of travel. We had already had a few days of glorious hiking and fabulous birds. The afternoon was a nicer relaxed moment to just sit and enjoy the colorful avian bounty around us. The air was hot, heavy with humidity (as welcome change from the still frigid Minnesota) and the beer was cool, You have the blissful moment of thinking how far from home you are, how different life is here and you still have a couple more days of adventure to go. I love moments where I can stop, be still and drink it all in, it's pure contentment.
And then a baby ocelot walked into the bar.
My mind went into overdrive. With mammals, especial predatory nocturnal ones, I never expect to ever see one outside of a zoo, I'm content to know that they are out there in the world. I never have to see them. That's something biologists and wildlife guides soaked in sweat, bug bites and intestinal parasites see--that's their reward. When I'm down at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas and see the ocelot crossing signs, I do keep watch but realize that I'm not going to see one. To have an ocelot show up and have it be an adorable young one to boot was over the top unexpected. It explored the bar, it killed and ate a mouse, it ran within feet of me.
The ocelot hopped on a table and we completely surrounded it. I asked the question that we all wanted to know but were afraid to ask.
"Can we touch it?"
What is it about us that we have to feel something with our hands to get a full and true experience? Seeing and hearing is wonderful, and I'll be honest smell is pretty up there with me (and yes, I sniffed the ocelot more than once). But touch...no observation is ever as deeply satisfying as the ability to touch the subject. I think with ocelots in particular since they are as masterful at camouflage as an owl, primarily nocturnal and will do whatever they can to avoid being seen by us, living their life on the their eating small mammals and birds. The colors and patterns of their fur hiding them from me in plain sight.
Since my Spanish is dodgier than my French, I asked Elmer what the back story was behind the young ocelot. He said that it had been found on a trail on the property as a small kitten, about the size of a human hand. It was brought and the decision was made to feed about house it until it was large enough to be on its own. The resort did this before with another ocelot several years ago. They raised a young female kitten and when she was old enough she roamed the yard and eventually disappeared when she was an adult. She returned a year later, denned up and and raised kittens.
The plan with this ocelot was to let it roam the property, learn to hunt--which it clearly was and keep inside at night until it was big enough to defend itself from larger predators.
As the group settled in to one more beer and talk of ocelots, I did what any modern woman does these days when something cool shows up--I took a selfie and immediately began posting it to social media.
But not all of them...
Some of my friends are well aware of the wild cat trade and they begged me to remove the photos because they felt they glorified wild animal ownership. When I pointed out that this was a not a pet but meant to be released to the wild when it was old enough, some of those friends were dubious of the young ocelot's origin. Was this truly found as an abandon kitten or was the mother killed so this kitten could be a tourist attraction?
All I know is that I know Elmer and I trust him so I trust the story of the ocelot's origin at the resort. The bar has over 200 hummingbird feeders and a steady birding clientele, why add a baby ocelot when the experience is already outstanding? The young ocelot appeared healthy, able to hunt mice on its own and had minimal interest in us apart from fingers it might chew on. In fact, compared to most of the animals I'd seen in Honduras, this was an exception because you could not see it's ribs. Several cows, horses, dogs and even pigs were emaciated by United States standards.
At the end of the day, Honduras is not the United States. It does not have the wildlife rehabilitation network and advancements we do here. People do the best they can with what they have and for many it is barely enough to take care of themselves and their children. I walked around that beautiful and wild country with a spotting scope that cost more than what many Hondurans make in a year.
To me travel is as much about learning as it is about experience. Sometimes you just have let an experience wash over you and learn from it. And when Life hands you a baby ocelot in a bar in Honduras, you go for it, douse yourself, revel in it.
Darkness descended and the hummingbirds disappeared. It was getting to be the time of night when the young ocelot would need to go inside and we had to head back to the Lodge at Pico Bonito for dinner. We escorted the ocelot to its night retreat. And we got another great look at a formidable predator.
The young spectacled owl had flown from its secluded spot to go hunting. It seemed quite interested in the small mammal in our midst. But soon that wild cat will be too big for the owl and join the nocturnal fray.
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