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Operation RubyThroat
Hummingbird Expeditions:
22 February thru 2 March 2014

dream weaver tracking

(Trip info & pricing updated 18 Nov 2013)


All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center


Based upon 21 very successful Neotropical expeditions from 2004 through early 2013, Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History--in conjunction with Holbrook Travel--is again offering field trips to study Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on their wintering grounds in Central America. After a long search we've located comfortable lodges with good food near our ruby-throat study sites in Nicaragua, so we're pleased to announce Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project is for the second time taking a group of hummingbird enthusiasts in February 2014 to Montibelli Forest Reserve near Nicaragua's capital city of Managua; after three days there we'll move for the second half of our trip to new lodging in Granada, which will give us better access to our alternate study site at Mombacho Volcano Natural Preserve.

Until our Nicaraguan expedition in 2013 no one had ever systematically banded and studied ruby-throats in that country, so we're recruiting now among birders, hummingbird fanciers, teachers, senior citizens, and other nature enthusiasts to join us in making additional discoveries in Nicaragua as we "Follow the Hummingbirds North" in spring migration.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Immature (above, second-year, with gorget molt) male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, captured for banding in the Neotropics

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Archilochus colubris--which occur in 38 U.S. states and across southern Canada March through October--are the most widely distributed hummer species. Nonetheless, they are poorly studied in Mexico and Central America where they spend their non-breeding months. During our 2014 expedition to southwestern Nicaragua, Center director Bill Hilton Jr. will teach participants how hummingbirds are observed, captured, banded, and released. As "citizen scientists," participants will play integral roles in catching and observing birds, will visit diverse habitats, and will learn about fascinating aspects of Nicaraguan natural history and culture--from volcanoes to cloud forest ecosystems, from orchids to tropical butterflies, from ethnic foods to native ceremonies. No experience is necessary; we'll teach you everything you need to be a productive field assistant!

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Nicaragua is rich in biodiversity with tropical rain forests, a huge inland lake, and tall volcanic ranges (Mombacho Volcano, above). It has 76 protected regions, including 23 privately owned natural reserves; the total protected area represents an impressive 18% of the country. Private reserves are accessible to visitors and offer an introduction to sustainable development and environmentally friendly projects that help the local economy--including organic shade-grown coffee farming.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Our two field sites are in Managua Province. One is at Montibelli in the municipality of Ticuantepe ("Hill of the Fierce"), which has Nicaragua's largest freshwater aquifer and is the country's largest pineapple producer. The second site is in high-altitude coffee farms at 4,400' on Mombacho Volcano--a locale where we have not worked before but that reportedly has good numbers of our Ruby-throated Hummingbird target species.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Flights into the Nicaraguan capital of Managua (see map at top of page) arrive in the afternoon, after which we'll head out in an air-conditioned bus through tropical Nicaraguan landscapes--looking for birds and wildlife and arriving soon thereafter at Montibelli Private Forest Reserve (above). This extensive private mixed-use property includes great food and comfortable accommodations. Montibelli is a tropical dry forest and home to a wide variety of tropical plants from epiphytic orchids to towering trees--and more than 150 bird species.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Our base station at Montibelli has comfortable and airy single- and double-occupancy cabins (above) and private hot-water baths--plus a group dining patio (below) with fresh fruit, meats, and vegetables at every meal.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

After breakfast at Montibelli we'll simply walk into the nearby forest (below) and spend morning hours running mist nets and traps to capture Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Afternoons will be devoted to independent exploration or to field trips to cultural and natural sites. February weather in Nicaragua--as might be expected--can be warm and muggy; it can also get a tad chilly at night, but not so much so that we can't spend pleasant evenings on Montibelli's spacious outdoor porches enjoying sounds of the surrounding forest. Owls and other night birds, monkeys, insects, and amphibians all add to the nighttime chorus.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We expect to catch lots of other migrant and resident bird species at Montibelli, perhaps a Crimson-collared Tanager (male below). We'll band, measure, color mark, and release all Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, of course, but also have permission to band other Neotropical migrants that may show up back in the U.S. or Canada. Because other ornithologists conduct research nearby we also may catch some of their banded birds and vice versa--which makes for a very nice collaborative effort.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

After three days of field work at Montibelli we'll take an all-day "hump day" excursion to the cloud forest atop Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve, where in 2013 we observed many bird species, unusual insects, and even a Three-toed Sloth. That afternoon we'll make a short drive to Granada and change accommodations to Plaza Colon (below)--an elegant colonial-style hotel on the edge of the main city park.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Moving to Hotel Plaza Colon will give us much better access to Mombacho Volcano, where we'll conduct three additional days of field investigations.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Plaza Colon's modern rooms (above) are plush, with air conditioning, spacious bathrooms, cable TV, Internet connection, and an outdoor swimming pool. Both single and double accommodations are available.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Upstairs verandas (above) look out over the park and provide a pleasant place from which to watch horse-drawn carriages and other passers-by. As the schedule allows, trip participants will have opportunity to explore the park and nearby shops.

Afternoon activities include field trips to El Chocoyero-El Brujo Reserve (observe the spectacle of thousands of parrots and parakeets coming in to roost); Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve & field station (explore a vegetation-covered extinct volcano); Masaya Volcano National Park (view active calderas & craters); the typical Nicaraguan small town of Catarina (buy handicrafts and enjoy wandering musicians); and a boat tour (glide past volcanic islets that host bird rookeries).

The trip is open to ANY adult interested in studying and reporting observations of hummingbirds in Nicaragua (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 2014 expedition to the Nicaraguan wintering grounds of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds is scheduled for 16-24 February. We especially encourage participation by K-12 teachers 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 to one of our Central American study sites; student trips can be scheduled anytime November through late February. Please contact us for details.)

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

After reading the detailed itinerary and requirements below, please contact Debbie Sturdivant at Holbrook Travel (1-866-748-6146) if you have any questions about enrolling and/or to request enrollment forms. Register early to guarantee you can participate!

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center


  • Observation, trapping/netting, and handling, banding & release of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the field
  • In-hand examination of many migrant and resident Neotropical bird species
  • Field study within a tropical reserve
  • Half-day visits to local towns & cities, national parks, a parrot preserve, etc.
  • Plenty of opportunities for independent exploration and observation and photography of fascinating tropical plants and animals (native pink orchid, above)

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center


  • Hummingbird Observation & Banding
  • Neotropical Migrant Bird Behavior
  • In-hand Views of Non-migratory Tropical Birds
  • Tropical Cloud Forest Ecology
  • Nocturnal Animal Behavior
  • Biodiversity
  • Volcanology & Landforms (Mombacho Volcano & Lake Nicaragua, above)
  • Conservation
  • Nature Photography
  • Pedagogical Field Techniques
  • Research Field Techniques
  • Nicaraguan 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 text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center


Nicaragua is host to up to 54 hummingbird species (Trochilidae). In addition to banding our target birds--migratory Ruby-throated Hummingbirds--we're likely to capture such resident species as Canivet's Emerald (male above) and Plain-capped Starthroat (below).

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Click for Managua, Nicaragua Forecast 

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

22 February thru 2 March 2014
(Nine days; Saturday thru Sunday of the following week)

DAY 1: February 22 (Saturday)--Arrival In Managua, Overnight At Montibelli

  • Late Afternoon: Arrive at Sandino International Airport in Managua (above), greeted by local personnel. Transported by air-conditioned tour bus to Montibelli Private Nature Reserve (below) for supper and overnight lodging. (NOTE: All flights must arrive by mid-afternoon; otherwise, plan to arrive a day early and overnight in Managua.)
  • 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: February 23 (Sunday)--Montibelli & Day of Discovery

  • Early Morning: Breakfast at the Lodge (occurs daily, unless otherwise noted). Introduction to tropical dry forest. Day One of field work: Make observations; scout for concentrations of wintering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds; set traps and/or nets within various local habitats; record data; band and release hummingbirds (and other Neotropical migrants) as captured. (NOTE: Most days we are at the study site by 6:15 a.m. and depart by 11:45 a.m.)
  • Lunch: Back at the Lodge (occurs daily, unless otherwise noted).
  • Afternoon: Explore local habitats at Montibelli on your own; great chances for observations and photos of tropical flora and fauna.
  • Late Afternoon: Gather to watch sunset.
  • Supper: At the Lodge (occurs daily, unless otherwise noted).
  • Evening: Informal Operation RubyThroat meeting to discuss the day's events and outline plans for the day following.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 3: February 24 (Monday)--Montibelli & Mombacho

  • Early Morning: Day Two of field work
  • Late Afternoon: Field trip to El Chocoyera-El Brujo Natural Reserve to watch hundreds of Pacific Parakeets come in to roost at clay licks & waterfalls (above)
  • Evening: Continuation of Operation RubyThroat discussions. Informal presentations by trip participants. (On at least one evening we will have opportunity for an optional night hike to observe nocturnal inhabitants of the Montibelli reserve.)

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 4: February 25 (Tuesday)--Montibelli

  • Early Morning: Day Three of hummingbird observations and banding at study site(s).
  • Afternoon: Field trip to view active calderas & lava at Masaya Volcano National Park (above)
  • Late Afternoon: Gather to watch sunset at Montibelli
  • Evening: Continuation of Operation RubyThroat discussions. Informal presentations and introduction to Nicaraguan culture.

DAY 5: February 26 (Wednesday)--"Hump Day" on Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve; Hotel Plaza Colon in Granada

  • Morning: Pack and check out from Montibelli; depart for all-day field trip to Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve (above)
  • Lunch: Mombacho Field Station restaurant
  • Late afternoon: Check in at Hotel Plaza Colon in Granada
  • Supper: Plaza Colon
  • Evening: Continuation of Operation RubyThroat discussions. Informal presentations.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 6: February 27 (Thursday)--Mombacho

  • Early Morning: Day Four of field work; first day at Mombacho coffee plantations.
  • Lunch: Box lunch in the field.
  • Early Afternoon: Explore Mombacho on your own for observations of such colorful creatures as the butterfly above.
  • Late Afternoon: Gather to watch sunset.
  • Supper: Las Flores Restaurant.
  • Evening: Continuation of Operation RubyThroat discussions. Informal presentations and introduction to Nicaraguan culture.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 7: February 28 (Friday)--Mombacho & Lake Nicaragua

  • Early Morning: Day Five of hummingbird observations and banding; second day at Mombacho.
  • Lunch: Plaza Colon
  • Afternoon: Boat ride around Lake Nicaragua to see small lava islands (above) formed during volcanic eruptions.
  • Late Afternoon: Gather to watch sunset.
  • Supper: Plaza Colon
  • Evening: Continuation of Operation RubyThroat discussions. Informal presentations and introduction to Nicaraguan culture.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 8: March 1 (Saturday)--Mombacho, Catarina & Granada

  • Early Morning: Day Six of hummingbird observations and banding; final day at Mombacho.
  • Lunch: Plaza Colon
  • Afternoon: Shopping for handcrafts at small lagoon-side town of Catarina (above and below).
  • Late Afternoon: Return to hotel. Begin packing for next day's departure. Gather to watch sunset.
  • Supper: Plaza Colon
  • Evening: Final analysis of hummingbird data & "Farewell Fiesta."

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

DAY 9: March 2 (Sunday)--Managua & Departure

  • Early Morning: Depart for Managua airport via air conditioned bus for flights home (hugs optional but likely among new friends).
  • Evening: Dream in your own hometown bed about hummingbirds and the cloud forests of Nicaragua!

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: 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 free 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 our success will depend on you. Most days involve early through late-morning field activity under warm to hot conditions and after-supper meetings, with afternoons open for you to do as you wish. 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.

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The Turquoise-browed Motmot is Nicaragua's national bird and a species we're sure to see. An eater of large insects, it often wags its pendular tail when perched.


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 22 highly successful hummingbird expeditions to Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, where he has banded more than 1,000 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. 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 of 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 nearly 60,000 birds at Hilton Pond, including 4,700-plus Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

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 JR. 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 & photos © Hilton Pond Center

(plus air)
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.

--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 $370 extra, 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 or college students accompanied by a parent. We also can offer a full week for a class of 12-14 responsible high school students 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 diverse terrain--sometimes hilly--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 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(s); any additional optional activities not described above; non-mealtime beverages or snacks; gratuities for guide, driver, and local personnel (estimated $100-$125 total per participant); estimated $32 departure tax; 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 Nicaragua.)

--Payment policy: To confirm your space, send $200 deposit per person to Holbrook Travel along with your enrollment form(s); deposit for all trips is due on or before 25 November 2013. We suggest early deposit to guarantee your space. Each deposit is refundable minus a $100 processing fee if cancellation is received by 24 November 2013; there will be no refunds for cancellations after that date. Final balance of $1,895 is due on 25 November 2013. NOTE: New enrollees may be accepted as late as mid-January 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 $400 of your fees should be tax-deductible on your 2014 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 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. You can also ENROLL ON-LINE. See you in Nicaragua!

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

All text, maps & photos © Hilton Pond Center

(click on logo above for a complete list)

To register contact Debbie Sturdivant 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.

For complete reports on all of Operation RubyThroat's successful Neotropical Hummingbird Banding Expeditions, please visit
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