El Triunfo Mar 21—31, 2009

Posted by Brad Boyle

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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Not that I have ever missed it, but every year I worry. Will this be the year I fail to find one of the strangest, most charismatic birds on earth? Of course, there is more to this tour than just the Horned Guan. Two-thousand-foot-deep Sumidero Canyon, for example, with its White-lored Gnatcatchers, Canivet's Emeralds, and the highly local Belted Flycatcher. Or the cloud forests of El Triunfo, their brooding groves of oaks and tree ferns echoing with the calls of Resplendent Quetzals and Fulvous Owls, whistling Highland Guans, and the glassy jumble of Brown-backed Solitaires. Or the incomparable Cañada Honda, a green oasis far from the nearest town, truck, or road, where flocks of Azure-rumped Tanagers forage on figs and Blue-throated Motmots yodel across the canyon.

Still, I worry. Imagine the avian equivalent of a panda bear, black with a white pin-striped bib and single white band across its tail, staring eyes, and disdainful bill. And then there's the "horn"—more like a traffic cone, or an unfortunate orange party hat from some New Year's gala. And as if the Horned Guan's appearance weren't enough, it hums, it coughs, and it clacks its beak like castanets. You can't travel that far and not see such a bird.

It turned out I needn't have worried.

By the end of the long hike up to El Triunfo, we had already had a wonderful day of birding: Black Hawk-Eagle during the truck ride, Tody Motmot seen well by all during the first hour on the trail, and scope views of an Emerald Toucanet that refused to quit. So wonderful, in fact, that I forgot about the Horned Guan.

Jorge heard it first: a low-pitched, double hum, inaudible to some. We hurried down the trail until the sound suddenly seemed close. Or was it far? Then we saw it, directly over the trail just a short distance away. Snapping its bill disapprovingly, it flapped and hopped to an even better perch where everyone saw it well. Finally, it worked its way up into the canopy and disappeared. Wow!

The Horned Guan is one of many remarkable species restricted or nearly restricted to the mountains of Chiapas and Guatemala. Other endemics seen include Fulvous Owl, Blue-throated Motmot, Rufous Sabrewing, Green-throated Mountain-gem, Wine-throated Hummingbird, Yellowish Flycatcher, Black-throated Jay, Black-capped Swallow, and Azure-rumped Tanager.

Equally remarkable is the great diversity of regions, climates, and vegetation we traversed, much of it on foot. The montane thorn forests above Sumidero Canyon produced a number of Gulf-slope species not found elsewhere on the tour (Plain Chachalaca, Buff-bellied Hummingbird), as well as the highly local Belted Flycatcher. On the way to Jaltenango, agricultural areas yielded many widespread tropical birds and migrants (such as Scissor-tailed Flycatcher), while around Jaltenango we found species characteristic of Pacific slope dry forests, for example, Plain-capped Starthroat and Russet-crowned Motmot. These species follow the dry forest inland up into the Río Grijalva valley.

Three full days in the cloud forest enabled us to see most of the special highland species, including Resplendent Quetzal (the long-tailed northern subspecies), Fulvous Owl, and of course the Horned Guan. Some species, such as Yellowish Flycatcher and Green-throated Mountain-gem, were so common we had to remind ourselves that they were highly local endemics. Other sightings of note in the cloud forest included a large troop of spider monkeys seen well and close up (almost too close, if you know what I mean) by some of us.

After leaving El Triunfo we worked our way down the Pacific slope of the mountains over the course of three days, traveling on foot through one of the last great wilderness regions of Mexico. The contrasts were striking: only a few hours after leaving El Triunfo and crossing the Continental Divide, we abruptly left the cloud forest and descended through a zone of tall pines and cypresses before entering the verdant subtropical Cañada Honda, with its towering fig trees and Azure-rumped Tanagers.

Though only about five trail miles away, our next camp at Limonal is outside the "cloud trap" of Cañada Honda and therefore much drier and warmer. One remarkable sighting here, spotted by Inocente, was a southern ring-tailed cat, or cacomixtle, foraging in a tree almost directly over our camp. I have heard this species (and indeed, been kept awake by its yowling) many times before, but had never seen it on this tour.

Down at Paval, we encountered a rich diversity of lowland tropical birds…not to mention roosters, barking dogs, chickens, pigs, and our first road in many days. Fortunately, chilled drinks and a delicious fresh lunch at the Arguetas helped compensate for the less appealing aspects of "civilization."

Finally, just when we thought the fun was over, we found yet more endemics right on the grounds of our hotel in Tapachula, including my favorite, the Giant Wren: largest, and certainly loudest, in the world.