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Operation RubyThroat
Hummingbird Expedition To

14-21 November 2015

Hit Count

(Trip info & pricing updated 5 Feb 2015;
inclusive land costs $1,595, plus air)

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (above),
captured for banding


Based upon 24 very successful Operation RubyThroat citizen science expeditions to Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua from 2004 through 2012, Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History--in conjunction with Holbrook Travel--is offering in November 2015 an exciting and educational autumn field trip to study Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on their wintering grounds in Guatemala. This will be our first group excursion to Guatemala in autuimn, and our first with a group to San Pedro on Lake Atitlán. (NOTE: This expedition precedes one to Ujarrás in eastern Costa Rica in December 2015; participants may sign up for both trips at a reduced rate.)

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Archilochus colubris--which occur in 38 U.S. states and across southern Canada from March through October--are the most widely distributed hummingbird species. Nonetheless, they are poorly studied in Mexico and Central America where they spend their non-breeding months. During our 2011 nine-day mid-winter field trip to Guastatoya in Guatemala's Progreso Province, Center director Dr. Bill Hilton Jr. taught participants how hummingbirds are observed, captured, banded, and released. As "citizen scientists," participants will play integral roles in conducting field work, will visit diverse habitats, and will learn about fascinating aspects of Guatemalan natural history and culture--from cloud forests to agricultural land, from nocturnal mammals to tropical insects.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Lake Atitlán is in southwestern Guatemala (see map above) about three hours west of Guatemala City. The little Mayan town of San Pedro La Laguna (photo of main thoroughfare, below) is on the western shore of the lake and accessible by boat from Panajachel.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

San Pedro has a population of nearly 13,000, about 90% indigenous Tz'utujil people; it lies in the shadow of Volcan San Pedro. The town is at an elevation of exactly one mile above sea level (5,280 feet) and is a popular backpacker destination.

Lake Atitlán (above) is interesting for many reasons, including:

  • Formed by an enormous volcanic eruption 84,000 years ago, when an area the size of Washington DC and one mile deep exploded into the air
  • Caldera is the deepest lake in Central America at more than 1,000 feet
  • Flanked by three volcanoes
  • Lake was stocked in 1958 with Black Bass; these predators soon eliminated two-thirds of native fish species and drove the indigenous Atitlán Grebe to extinction

Our eight-day Guatemala expedition is based at Villa Cuba Hotel, used by international travelers and researchers because of its accommodations and proximity to Guatemalan nature locales. Rooms are simple but comfortable with air conditioning, hot & cold running water, clean towels daily, indoor toilets & showers, single and/or double beds, and TV--and with GREAT views of the lake. Meals will be prepared on-site by a local cook or will be taken at local restaurants and cafes.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Hotel Villa Cuba is about a half-mile east of San Pedro along a gravel road. Banks, ATMs, restaurants, Internet cafes, and drug stores are within walking distance--as are numerous nice spots for observing birds and other wildlife.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Our Guatemalan study site is on the grounds of the hotel, where in November 2008 trip leader Hilton captured nearly 60 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds--the first ever banded in that country. Hummingbird feeders will be hung each morning at the hotel's windows and traps will be monitored closely; we also will deploy mist nets (above) in open areas around the hotel. Traps are selective but nets are not, so we'll capture and band other North American migrants such as orioles and warblers--plus get chances to photograph exotic, non-migratory tropical species in-the-hand. Guatemala is host to 39 hummingbird species, some of which we'll undoubtedly catch in addition to ruby-throats--perhaps even an uncommon and elusive male Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird (below).

Temperatures at the site in November can range from the upper 50s to the low 80s, depending on weather patterns and wind. We will spend mornings catching and observing hummingbirds, usually stopping about noon when we quit for the day. On successful days we can't rule out the possibility of some afternoon or evening banding sessions that replace or supplement our morning work. In any case, participants will have sufficient time to eat, rest, and explore. Most days will include walking tours along the rural roads south of the lake for exceptional views of tropical birds and exotic wildflowers such as the three-inch pink composite below. Well also take field trips to nearby cultural or natural history locations.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The Guatemala trip is open to ANY adult interested in studying and reporting observations of hummingbirds in the tropics (and--after the trip--in the rest of Central America, Mexico, Canada, and/or the U.S.). You do NOT have to be an experienced birder or scientist or have advanced training; we will teach you everything you need to know to participate in the project.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Because making you a hummingbird bander is NOT the purpose of this particular trip, you will not actually be banding birds or removing them from nets. However, you WILL be involved in every other way: Handling and releasing multiple hummers (above) and other colorful tropical birds, deploying mist nets and traps, collecting and recording data, making valuable field observations, photographing flora and fauna, etc. You will NOT be disappointed!

Our Fall 2015 expedition to Guatemalan wintering grounds of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds is scheduled for 14-21 November and precedes our nine-day trip to Ujarrás in eastern Costa Rica (5-13 December). Participants may wish to sign up for these trips jointly at a reduced rate. We especially encourage participation by K-12 teachers in all of our excursions and will be happy to collaborate with them on efforts to find grants to help underwrite trip costs and/or to work with home institutions if they seek graduate credit for the experience. (NOTE: There's also an option for a U.S. or Canadian teacher to travel and participate for FREE by recruiting 14 high school or college students for a special 7-, 8-, or 9-day trip; student trips to Central America can be scheduled anytime November through late February. Please contact us for details.)

After reading the itinerary and requirements below, please contact Debbie Sturdivant Jordan at Holbrook Travel (1-866-748-6146) with any questions. You can even register today via the Holbrook Web site to guarantee your slot!

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center


  • Observation and humane trapping/netting, handling, banding & release of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the field
  • Up-close in-hand examination of many migrant & resident Neotropical bird species (Azure-crowned Hummingbird, above)
  • Afternoon shopping trip via boat to Panajachel
  • Afternoon trip to discover colonial & baroque architecture of Antigua
  • Afternoon trip to Santiago Atitlán to observe Mayan god ritual
  • Opportunities for independent exploration, plus observation & photography of fascinating tropical plants & animals

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center


  • Hummingbird Observation & Banding
  • Neotropical Migrant Bird Behavior
  • In-hand Views of Non-migratory Tropical Birds
  • Nocturnal Animal Behavior
  • Biodiversity
  • Cloud Forest Ecology (above)
  • Landforms
  • Vulcanology
  • Conservation
  • Nature Photography
  • Pedagogical Field Techniques
  • Research Field Techniques
  • Guatemalan History & Culture
  • Optional graduate credit is available through University of the Pacific (some trip costs may be deductible as educational expenses and/or be eligible for loans or scholarships from outside sources; teachers should ask principals and district offices if partial funding is available locally)

(all optional; other opportunities may arise)

  • Day hiking
  • Nature exploring & photography
  • Night hike
  • Horseback riding

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

14-21 November 2015
(Saturday thru Saturday)

DAY 1: November 14 (Saturday)--Arrival & Hotel Villa Cuba

  • Early Afternoon: Arrive at the recently renovated international airport in Guatemala City (above), greeted by trip leaders and guide; lunch en route. Transported by air-conditioned tour bus to Panajachel, then boat ride across Lake Atitlán to San Pedro la Laguna and Hotel Villa Cuba. (NOTE: All flights must arrive by about 1 p.m.; otherwise, plan to arrive a day early and overnight in Guatemala City.)
  • Supper: At Hotel Villa Cuba (occurs daily, unless otherwise noted).
  • Evening: Introductions & Overview of Operation RubyThroat and methodologies to be used while monitoring, capturing & banding Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Archilochus colubris.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 2: November 15 (Sunday)--Hotel Villa Cuba & Day of Discovery

  • Early Morning: Breakfast at Hotel Villa Cuba (occurs daily, unless otherwise noted). Day One of field work; make observations; scout for concentrations of hummingbirds; set traps (below right) and/or mist nets at various sites that may important local habitats for wintering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds; record data; band and release hummingbirds as captured. Observe other in-hand species such as the male Red-legged Honeycreeper (above). (NOTE: Most days we will be banding by 6:30 a.m. and finished by about noon; depending on weather and capture success, we may also do some afternoon or evening banding,)
  • Lunch: At the hotel (occurs daily, unless otherwise noted).
  • Afternoon: Explore area around Lake Atitlán.
  • Late Afternoon: Social gathering ("human flocking behavior") for sunset
  • Evening: Continuation of Operation RubyThroat discussions. Introduction to Guatemalan culture. Informal presentations by trip participants. (On at least one evening we hope to have opportunity for an optional night hike to observe nocturnal inhabitants of the region.)

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 3: November 16 (Monday)--Hotel Villa Cuba

  • Early Morning: Day Two of hummingbird observations and banding at study site(s).
  • Afternoon: Explore area around Lake Atitlán for great views of such things as wild-growing Poinsettias and their complements of butterflies (above)
  • Evening: Continuation of Operation RubyThroat discussions. Informal presentations.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 4:November 17 (Tuesday)--Hotel Villa Cuba & Santiago Atitlán

  • Early Morning: Day Three of hummingbird observations and banding at study site(s).
  • Afternoon: Field trip to Santiago Atitlán to observe Mayan god ceremony (above).
  • Evening: Continuation of Operation RubyThroat discussions. Informal presentations. Possible night hike.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 5: November 18 (Wednesday)--Hotel Villa Cuba & Panajachel

  • Early Morning: Day Four of hummingbird observations and banding at study site(s).
  • Afternoon: Shopping trip to markets in Panajachel (above).
  • Evening: Continuation of Operation RubyThroat discussions. Informal presentations.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 6: November 19 (Thursday)--Hotel Villa Cuba

  • Early Morning: Day Five of hummingbird observations and banding at study site(s).
  • Afternoon: Explore area around Lake Atitlán (looking east, above, from hotel), including San Pedro volcano.
  • Late Afternoon: Social gathering.
  • Evening: Continuation of Operation RubyThroat discussions. Informal presentations.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 7: November 20 (Friday)--Hotel Villa Cuba & Antigua

  • Early Morning: Day Six of hummingbird observations and banding at study site(s).
  • Late Morning: Field trip to Antigua (above) with its central park, shops, ethnic restaurants, and colonial-era churches.
  • Late Afternoon: Begin packing for next day's departure.
  • Evening: Final analysis of hummingbird data & "Farewell Fiesta."

DAY 8: November 21 (Saturday)--Hotel Villa Cuba & Depart

  • Morning: Depart for Guatemala City airport for flight home (hugs optional but likely among new friends).
  • Evening: Dream in your own hometown bed about hummingbirds (such as the adult male Slender Sheartail, above) and warm, sunny Guatemala!

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Sunset view of volcano (above) from Hotel Vuilla Cuba


The main purpose of any Operation RubyThroat expedition to the Neotropics is to learn about Ruby-throated Hummingbird "winter" behavior; thus, your active participation in making daily observations and collecting data is critical to the trip's success. A working pair of good binoculars is the only required equipment. We expect you to take initiative, carry your share of the load, and listen to and follow instructions carefully. We also expect you to look out for each other's needs and to be considerate of the hummingbirds we work with. We will have many wonderful and enjoyable experiences together, but this is NOT a pleasure trip--even though you'll have plenty of "down" time and are certain to have fun.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

If you are NOT willing to work hard in the field all week and follow the expedition's research and education goals, this is not a trip for you; we NEED your help and our success will depend on you. Days typically involve early through late-morning field activity under warm to windy conditions and after-supper meetings, with most afternoons are less-structured. Scheduled activities are subject to change due to weather or to take advantage of unexpected learning and research opportunities, but we'll do everything we can to make sure we offer all non-research activities described above.


Dr. BILL HILTON JR. (below left), internationally known educator-naturalist, was twice named South Carolina Science Teacher of the Year and was honored as the state's Outstanding Biology Teacher. In 1998, The Charlotte Observer named him a Carolinas "Guardian of the Environment" for a lifetime of trend-setting work in conservation and environmental education. He has led 24 highly successful hummingbird expeditions to Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. In 2008 Discover magazine cited Hilton as one of the top ten amateur scientists in America and one of the nation's 50 Best Brains in Science. In 2013 Newberry College--Hilton's undergraduate alma mater--awarded him an honorary Doctorate in Science for trend-setting work in environmental education, natural history research, and conservation.

Hilton is executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History. As principal investigator for "Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project," he received a 42-month grant from the National Science Foundation to integrate Operation RubyThroat with The GLOBE Program. Since 1982, Hilton has banded more than 61,000 birds at Hilton Pond, including 5,000-plus Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. In addition, Hilton and his citizen science teams have banded more than 1,200 ruby-throats in the Neotropics--a remarkable number when compared to the 46 that had been banded in all of Central America and Mexico before he began his research there in 2004.

Hilton taught in Rock Hill and Fort Mill SC high schools, and at the University of Minnesota, St. Olaf College, and Winthrop University. He helped start the residential South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics in Hartsville, which he served as biology instructor and director of student research.

Hilton is a nationally sought-after speaker on diverse natural history topics. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Newberry College, which he served as president of the Alumni Association. In this role, he organized a major international symposium on John Bachman, founder of Newberry College and a contemporary of John James Audubon. Hilton earned a Master of Arts in Biology Teaching from Winthrop University, and a Master of Science in Ecology & Behavioral Biology from the University of Minnesota, where he conducted a four-year field study of the behavioral ecology of Blue Jays, Cyanocitta cristata. For a complete resume, see his Biographical Sketch.

Hilton and the citizen science group will be assisted by ERNESTO M. CARMAN of Talamanca Hawkwatch and Programa Conservacion de Aves. Ernesto (at right), a native-born Costa Rican (tico), speaks fluent English and Spanish, and is one of only a few naturalists with extensive experience observing Ruby-throated Hummingbirds within Costa Rica. Ernesto's sharp eyes and ears, comprehensive knowledge, and terrific personality greatly enrich our time in the field. After a decade of involvement with the project he is a true collaborator and not just an in-country guide. Ernesto's family runs Finca Cristina, an environmentally friendly coffee farm that uses shade-grown organic techniques and recycles processing materials.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Approach to Lake Atitlán with Panajachel in foreground; our study site is across the lake at the volcano's base

(Please e-mail Laurie McLaughlin, Holbrook Travel's air specialist, for international airfare rates from your city. Holbrook often has access to "add-on" airfare at rates cheaper than those available to the general public. Holbrook can also arrange trip extensions before or after the Operation RubyThroat expedition.)

NOTE: Alumni of any Holbrook Professional Development Expedition including past Operation RubyThroat trips to Costa Rica & Belize
are eligible for a $100 discount for any and all of the
2015-16 Operation RubyThroat excursions.

--Rates are based on: Double occupancy with a full roster of 12 participants and subject to increase with fewer participants. (Any participant may select a single room for an additional $65, but we recommend doubling as part of the community experience.)

--Participants must be: At least 21 years of age by the time the trip begins, and willing and able to participate in field work and all education and research activities. (Special consideration may be given on a case-by-case basis for college students and for advanced, mature senior high school students accompanied by a parent. We also can offer a full week in Central America for a class of 12-14 responsible high school or college students almost any time between November and late February; the sponsoring teacher earns a FREE trip. Please contact us for details.)

--Each participant must: Bring and know how to use a decent pair of binoculars with which to make field observations. Sharing binoculars doesn't work.

--Participants must be: In good physical & mental health and able to walk at slow to moderate pace for short distances (usually less than a half mile) over level to hilly terrain at the study site, and be able to carry light objects in the field (mist net poles, banding tools, day pack, etc.). Participants may need to stand for extended periods (up to 60 minutes) to monitor nets under sunny conditions, with opportunities for water breaks in the shade. On past expeditions, participants as old as 80 have had no problems with the minimal physical demands of the project.

--Program cost includes: All in-country transportation, accommodations, meals, expert local guide (bilingual), learning activities and field trips, and Operation RubyThroat instructional materials, as stated above.

--Program cost does not include: International airfare (about $600-$800, depending on departure point; use frequent flyer miles if you can); meals, if any, away from the hotel; any additional optional activities not described above; non-mealtime beverages or snacks; estimated $30 deparure tax is usually included in ticket cost (ask your airline); gratuities for guide, driver, and local personnel ($150 total per participant); or optional graduate credit costs. (Please note that because of difficulty with international connections and depending on your point of origin, it may be necessary for you to spend an extra night traveling to and/or from Guatemala City. You must arrive there by about 1 p.m. on 14 November.)

--Payment policy: To confirm your space, by 17 July 2015 send $200 deposit per person to Holbrook Travel along with your enrollment form(s). We suggest earlier deposit to guarantee your space. Each deposit is refundable minus a $100 processing fee if cancellation is received by 17 July 2015; there will be no refunds for cancellations after that date. Final payment of $1,395 is due on 11 August 2015. NOTE: New enrollees may be accepted as late as mid-October ONLY if space is still available. (We strongly advise inexpensive third-party trip insurance to cover unexpected circumstances that could cause you to cancel after your final payment is made; such insurance can also cover flight delays and related land transportation, in-country medical care, etc.)

--Pre-trip activities: We will communicate with you frequently via e-mail in the weeks leading up to your trip. You'll also receive suggested readings and resources that will enhance your trip experience. We anticipate you will study and learn all important information related to the trip's research goals.

--Optional graduate credit: Contact Holbrook Travel's Debbie Sturdivant for information about how to apply and pay for graduate credit through University of the Pacific. You may also elect to work with your local college to earn credit there. K-12 educators may file for continuing education credits.

--Tax deductions: Because Operation RubyThroat expeditions are service projects in support of a non-profit, an estimated $300 of your fees should be tax-deductible on your 2015 tax forms. If you are participating as part of a college degree program or are a classroom teacher, additional tax deductions may be taken--in fact, the FULL COST of the trip may be deductible. (In some cases, this means after taxes the trip actually will end up costing you nothing!)

Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History and Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project expeditions are non-profit trips offered as outreach activities through which we learn more about winter behavior of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. If you're interested in making a separate contribution to the Center and/or Operation RubyThroat, please see Supporting the Work of Hilton Pond Center.

After reading the information above, contact Debbie Sturdivant Jordan at Holbrook Travel by E-mail or phone (1-866-748-6146) if you have any questions about enrolling and/or to request enrollment forms. NOTE: On-line registration is now available at the Holbrook Travel Web site. See you in Guatemala!

Adult female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (above),
captured for banding

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

All contributions are tax-deductible


(click on logo above for a complete list)

To register contact Debbie Sturdivant Jordan at Holbrook Travel toll-free at (866) 748-6146

Multi-trip discounts are available as we move northward in Central America, following Ruby-throated Hummingbirds while they prepare for and embark on spring migration. Information, maps, pricing, and day-by-day itineraries for additional trips are linked from: Follow The Hummingbirds North.

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Dr. Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.

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