Off the Beaten Path: Birding on Lake Suchitlán

For Christmas this year, my husband gave me an experience: a bird tour with guide Julio Acosta.  I've been following Julio's social media posts (found on various platforms as El Salvador Birds - Julio Acosta) for a while, in an effort to learn more about the birds we hear and see as we go about daily life in El Salvador.

We decided to do a boat tour of Lago Suchitlán. Over the past 23 years, our Mission of Healing itineraries periodically included a boat ride on the lake as a way to relax after expending lots of energy teaching and providing care for families. Although a few local pastors and boat drivers shared stories along the way, we never learned much about the multitude of bird species we encountered and enthusiastically tried to photograph. A tour with a professional guide, in a boat, on a lovely lake, at sunrise seemed like a most excellent opportunity to learn.

Lago Suchitlán at sunset from Suchitoto (©2023 Linda Muth)

The Embalse Cerrón Grande (Cerrón Grande Reservoir) is the largest fresh water lake in El Salvador. A local, renowned filmmaker Alejandro Cotto gave the reservoir its common name, Lago Suchitlán - a  Nahuatl name which means "place of flowers." The artificial lake was filled as the result of the construction of the Cerrón Grande hydroelectric dam (1974-1976), which spans the width of the Río Lempa (Lempa River) about 48 miles north of San Salvador. The inflow to the lake comes from the Lempa and Acelhuate rivers. The lake is terribly contaminated with insecticides, cyanide, heavy metals, fecal material and toxic algae. Every time there is a heavy rain, tons of solid waste and garbage flow into the lake, much of it from San Salvador via the Río Acelhuate. In 2005, the lake and the surrounding lands were designated as protected wetlands. The Salvadoran government Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment has made some efforts, along with conservation groups, to clean the lake and eliminate sources of contamination. It is an overwhelming task.

The costruction of the dam created both the largest source of electric energy production in El Salvador (which is clean energy) and a reservoir for fresh water (despite the pollution). Fish do thrive in the lake and it is a site for fish farming. Most of the land surrounding the lake is owned by the government, but people can access the lake for fishing and are allowed to graze their cattle. Of course, the process of removing families from homes, farms and villages which surrounded the banks of the Lempa River was fraught with inequity and sadness. Julio told us that the government paid families for their land according to the price listed on the original deed. Naturally, property which was purchased for a small price in 1910 had increased greatly in value by 1974. In addition, valuable archeological sites pertaining to the Lenca culture were inundated and lost forever. 

Local fisherman sharing the little fish which were stuck in the net with his faithful entourage of white pelicans (©2023 Tim Muth)

Back in the day, Julio told us, families on the opposite side of the river from Suchitoto would travel over and around the surrounding hills, down to the narrow part of the river. There, a raft would carry them across the river, and they would have to travel up and down and around to get to the town. The creation of the lake actually lengthened the travel time to get from one side to the other. There is a small ferry which people and cars can take across the lake - cutting the travel time in half. Because this is a mountainous and hilly region, the depth of the lake varies greatly. Its deepest spots are between 80 and 100 meters deep. Along the northwest shore, land which is under water during the rainy season becomes a fertile plain, and local farmers plant corn and other grain crops.

Our guide, Julio, sent us this map depicting our route. By the end of our tour, Julio said we had traveled about 60 km.

We spent the night before our tour in Suchitoto, so we could be at Puerto San Juan (the boat landing a short drive downhill from the center of town) by 5:30am. We met up with Julio and the boat driver and then headed out onto the water in the darkness before sunrise. My previous experiences on the lake had been afternoon rides, when the sun was hot and the lake was sometimes choppy. In contrast, the pre-dawn air was refreshingly cool, and the water was smooth like the sky. The sun provided quite a backdrop for most of our nearly 5 hour excursion.

First light (©2023 Linda Muth)

A little further into our journey - with a few waves from the early morning fishing boats (©2023 Linda Muth)

Our first avian conversation was about the Neotropic Cormorant. The population of this black waterfowl has grown to a point where it has become a nuisance. Locals and culinary experts have experimented with recipes to determine if this pesky bird, whose voracious appetite threatens the fish population and whose guano destroys forest trees, could be eaten. Alas, not even the finest chef from the Intercontinental Hotel was able to make this bird edible. People are able to hunt it for sport, only in this region to try to control its population and preserve a balance in the ecosystem. 

This tree illustrates the impact of the Neotropical Cormorants which roost here, and despite the seemingly bright light, the sun had not yet risen. (©2023 Linda Muth)

As the light increased, the cormorants began to flock (or at least we could see them). They fly in a V-formation like geese. Unlike ducks and many other species of waterfowl, they do not have oily skin. After a few dives they need to perch and spread their wings to dry their feathers. Throughout the entire morning, the cormorants flew, dove, swam, and perched wherever we were. Many of the birds at Lago Suchitlán are migratory and spend the winter months in warm El Salvador and the summer months in North America. As the landscape gets drier over January through February, the lake reduces in size and the bird populations are more densely concentrated. 

I know we came for the birds, but this sunrise! (©2023 Linda Muth)

©2023 Linda Muth

Once we had enough light, we sped along, chatting about the different species we might see and lifting our magnifying devices to our eyes frequently to scan the shoreline or try to identify a bird in flight. Taking photos was part of the fun, and certainly the images will help us to remember some of the things we saw, the bird facts we learned and the stories we shared. 

Birds in flight - I think these are American White Pelicans. (©2023 Linda Muth)

There are actually multiple species of birds in this photo, including Snowy Egrets. If you really want to get high quality bird photos, you need a camera with a quality zoom lens. We recorded our experience with an older iPhone and basic point and shoot with 10X magnification. (©2023 Linda Muth)

The sun, humidity, particulates in the air and water depth provided great variations in nature's color palette.  (©2023 Linda Muth)

The floats for fishnets (which run across long stretches of the lake,  particularly in the shallow water and require the boat to trim the motor)  provide good perching points for bird buddies like this Great Blue Heron and the Neotropic Cormorant. (©2023 Tim Muth)

Ducks! This group was mostly Fulvous Whistling Ducks, but we also spotted Blue-winged Teal and Northern Pintail and American Coot (©2023 Tim Muth)

Great Blue Heron and cormorant friends. We spotted many great blues, but also Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron (and have blurry photographic proof!) (©2023 Tim Muth)

A flock of about 60 American White Pelicans - a fresh water species and constant companion of the fishing folk (©2023 Tim Muth)

As we drifted in the shallows at the northwest end of the lake, a pair of Roseate Spoonbills flew over us. A third joined the pair. Julio was quick with the camera and captured this image which he shared with us. (©2023 Julio Acosta)

Sun time was probably about 9:30am as we headed out of the shallows back into deeper water. ((©2023 Linda Muth)

Neotropic Cormorants and Great Egret (©2023 Tim Muth)

The vastness of this lake is really amazing. Think about how tall these mountains were before the river valley was flooded. (©2023 Tim Muth)

We took a little side trip up a small stream that feeds into the lake. We observed several different species of egret along the shore, and plenty of swallows. (©2023 Linda Muth)

This is not the clearest photo, but a pretty good catch with a phone camera. Mangrove Swallow (©2023 Linda Muth)

Black Vultures, up close and personal. This is probably one of the  most commonly seen and easily identified birds everywhere in El Salvador. We also saw Turkey Vultures. These guys are really not that cute, but they do a good service cleaning up the planet. (©2023 Tim Muth)

Two of the last birds we spotted were a Common Black Hawk and this Osprey (©2023 Tim Muth)

Julio is an extremely responsible guide, and works with scientists and the lake wardens to report bird counts and sightings of new or unusual species. For example, he took a photo of some brown pelicans which we saw both perched and in flight. Brown pelicans are saltwater birds, so it was very unusual to see them at a freshwater site. The photographic evidence backs up his report of the sighting. 

We asked Julio if the pollution in the water impacted the birds. He said the additional microbes in the water in some way benefit the birds, creating more plant matter and small creatures for them to eat. We also asked if the fish in the lake is safe to eat. He said it is. Certainly we saw many fishing operations and farming of tilapia. The fish is an important source of food and income for many.

We really did enjoy our birding tour. Local guides like Julio are now much more widely available than when we began visiting El Salvador. As a delegation leader, I highly recommend using local, guides as much as possible, to enhance the learning experience and to support the local economy. I think the best way to find a good guide is via recommendation. 


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