El Triunfo, March, 2005 Mar 19—29, 2005

Posted by Brad Boyle


Brad Boyle

Brad Boyle is an ecologist who has done extensive research on cloud forest ecosystems. He holds a B.Sc. in zoology from the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D. in ec...

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El Triunfo

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We were nearing the end of our first day on the trail. Having gained nearly 4,500 feet of elevation, first by truck and then on foot, we were thankful for the coolness of the forest and the gently descending trail. Soon we would be at El Triunfo! We had already seen great birds along the way—migrating Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Russet-crowned and Tody motmots, Elegant Euphonia, Brown-capped Vireo, and Emerald-chinned Hummingbird to name just a few—and expectations were high as we entered this strange world of misty half-light, towering treeferns, and massive, moss-draped oaks and wild avocado trees. Still, we were feeling the miles, and thoughts of hot showers and a hearty meal were beginning to overshadow our enthusiasm for natural wonders. But all fatigue was banished by the words that came crackling over my radio.

“Pavón…encontramos pavones”…Horned Guan…we’ve found Horned Guans!

Scouting ahead, our local guides had heard and then spotted not one, but two Horned Guans feeding in a tree overhead. Their discovery sent us speeding down the trail at a pace no one would have thought possible just minutes before.

We arrived in plenty of time. The guans were in no hurry. We watched entranced as what appeared to be a mated pair preened, stretched, and ate, plucking berries and following each other from branch to branch in ponderous flapping hops. We could see every beautiful and improbable detail, from the black pin-striping on the white bib and the bare orange throat patch, to long yellow legs and broad white band across the tail. And best of all, the marvelous orange-red “horn”—a sort of ridiculous party hat of unknown function, worn identically by both sexes. Unlike any other member of the family Cracidae in appearance and behavior, the Horned Guan is restricted to isolated cloud forests in southwestern Chiapas and adjacent Guatemala. We felt fortunate indeed to have had such excellent views of this remarkable bird.

Over the next few days we had close encounters with Horned Guans on virtually every trail, setting a record unequalled by any previous El Triunfo tour. Even in the relatively small area covered we saw at least 13-14 individuals. Let us hope our experience reflects a trend throughout the range of this highly endangered species.

Other memorable experiences include a close-up inspection (of us!) by an endemic Fulvous Owl, a Black-crested Coquette diligently working the tree Fuschias, a diminutive Mazama deer stepping delicately into view at the edge of the clearing, and a puma growling somewhere just off the trail, fortunately more interested in females (pumas, that is) than us. And who could forget the sight of Resplendent Quetzals chasing through the forest canopy, their iridescent tails trailing like kite streamers? This was a bumper year for Spotted Nightingale-Thrush, and many of us were treated to the sight of this most lovely of all thrushes deliberately hopping along the edges of the clearing.

The hike down the Pacific slope of the Sierra Sur traverses a rich diversity of tropical habitats and, as with previous years, each new forest type presented featured its own distinctive complement of birds: widespread tropical species, long-distance migrants, and highly local endemics. In the beautiful cypress zone, we found the Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo. In Cañada Honda, a flock of Azure-rumped Tanagers flew in above our heads to feed on the fruits of an endemic fig tree. In the oaks zone: hundreds of migrating warblers, a lone Gray-collared Becard, and overhead a calling Great Black-Hawk. The foothills near Paval brought numerous parrots, trogons, flycatchers, vireos, warblers, and sparrows, including the enigmatic Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow—different in both voice and plumage, and almost certainly specifically-distinct, from the Prevost’s (Cabanis’s?) Gound-Sparrow of southern Central America. During the final daylight hours of the tour: Giant Wren, White-bellied Chachalaca, Yellow-winged Cacique, and three species of owl on the grounds of our hotel in Tapachula—including a star performance by a pair of Pacific Screech-Owls. And then there’s Sumidero Canyon, 3,000-foot cliffs, Azure-crowned Hummingbirds, and ten species of oriole.

In addition to breaking records for Horned Guan sightings, we also recorded a record high number of species for the tour, thanks to an exceptionally skilled and diligent group of participants. New species added to the tour include Spotted Rail (no kidding—in a roadside pond on the way to Jaltenango), Dickcissel (no doubt on their way home from Argentina to Nebraska), and a fly-over of the El Triunfo clearing by a Brown Pelican (go figure!).

View Brad Boyle’s El Triunfo photo gallery.