El Triunfo Mar 19—29, 2012
Posted by Brian Gibbons
The soaring limestone cliffs of Sumidero, the deeply incised beast of burden trail from Finca Prusia to El Triunfo, the Horned Guan and the Resplendent Quetzal, the amazing presence and voice of the Giant Wren, the Continental Divide, and finally the guides' relief after everyone arrives at Paval safely are just a few of the sights and thoughts that cross my mind during the El Triunfo tour.
Our first morning found us ascending the work-in-progress road of Sumidero Canyon. The dry thorn forest at the lowest elevations of the park produced a lovely Red-breasted Chat, White-lored Gnatcatcher, White-throated Magpie-Jays, and other beautiful birds of this woodland. The hunt for the Belted Flycatcher was an exercise in patience and distractions. The first distraction was the most obliging Pheasant Cuckoo ever. After he passed just feet overhead, Lori spotted him sitting out, looking for the intruder that was my iPod. Scope views for everyone, and back to our target bird, the Belted Flycatcher. Enter an inconspicuous flycatcher, the Flammulated Flycatcher—another tough bird to see with a group, but we had good looks. Back on target. It took us a couple of stops, but eventually a territorial Belted Flycatcher showed himself. Lunch on the edge of an amazing chasm was next. At the end of the road we found a few birds, but we were late and had to make the long drive to Jaltenango. This drive was broken up by just a single late evening birding stop, the agricultural fields short of Jaltenango. Here we found Scissor-tailed, Fork-tailed, and Vermilion flycatchers. Jaltenango was bustling with the spring fair, street vendors selling everything—sort of a Walmart on wheels.
The next morning we were off for the bumpy ride to Finca Prusia. Several birding stops allowed for great scope views of Prevost's Ground-Sparrow and many other species. A displaying pair of Common Black-Hawks was nice enough to fly over the truck for us, screaming and swooping at each other. We saw jays, vireos, orioles, saltators, and buntings. Finally reaching Finca Prusia, we saw the drying coffee on the platform and the acres of coffee that have sustained the place for a hundred years. As we struck out on the trail into the mountains, it was hard not to imagine the tons of coffee that traversed the path before us, or the unfortunate beasts. The warm late morning air cooled as we climbed; we labored for hours. The moss-draped trees and everything covered in green signified we had made it to the cloud forest. Tree ferns leaned over the trail and cooling clouds swept over the ridges. Our first great find was a Blue-throated Motmot. After he called from a secluded spot for 20 minutes, he finally jumped across an opening, giving himself away for scope views. As it got cloudier, just before the crest, we called a Fulvous Owl out of his afternoon slumber to delight us right over the trail. After cresting out, it was a pleasure to meander downwards towards the El Triunfo clearing; the clouds had made it so dark it was impossible to bird, so we plodded on.
During the next four mornings we would awaken to the sounds of the cloud forest: quetzals calling; Highland Guans whistling and then rattling their wings during display flights; the sweet ever-present song of the Yellow Grosbeak; and the amazing cascade of sound that is the Brown-backed Solitaire song were constants. Some mornings the Perlita fruit tree next to the kitchen bustled with activity. Hooded Grosbeaks, solitaires, Blue-and-white Mockingbirds, Black Thrushes, Flame-colored Tanagers, and Gray Silky-flycatchers were all regulars. Also around the clearing a Violet Sabrewing made appearances at the hibiscus flowers, Elegant Euphonias found fruits, and White-collared Swifts zipped overhead. One of the most productive spots was the compost pile. Spotted Nightingale-Thrushes, White-faced Quail-Doves, tanagers, grosbeaks, and the local gray fox pair could all be seen sneaking a free meal, while the birds tried to avoid becoming one. Venturing out from the clearing onto forest trails we found a variety of cloud forest birds: Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, Rufous-browed Wren, Mountain Thrush, Black-throated Jay, Black-capped Swallow, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, Highland Guan, Crescent-chested Warbler, Mountain Trogon, and the incomparable Golden-browed Warbler. We saw many of these birds while we were on the hunt for Horned Guan. Every day we would hear its subliminal hum. Eventually most folks saw the guan well as it scrambled over bromeliad-encrusted limbs in the forest. Another cloud forest specialty is the Resplendent Quetzal. Everyone had exceptional studies of this fine bird. The male was content to sit around while three or four females chased each other to see who the lucky gal would be. After four glorious mornings in El Triunfo we had to head down the Pacific slope where more birds awaited.
Shortly after crossing the Continental Divide, a vista overlooking the vast deforested coastal plain reminded us of how well-protected El Triunfo is. With our descent the forest quickly dried out, mosses shriveled, and leaf litter became crunchy. The Cipresal forest of pines and cypress trees is beautiful but not very birdy. Once we entered the montane forest near Sicilar we started to find new birds. The Rufous-and-white Wren belted out its amazing song for us many times over the next two days. Another song that was heard constantly all the way to Paval was the "toledo" of the Long-tailed Manakin. In the mountains we had a couple of brief sightings of Black Hawk-Eagle, as well as Great Black-Hawk. The most striking raptor of the Pacific side was the stunning White Hawk. Other denizens of the montane forest included Tody Motmots, Rufous Sabrewings at the Heliconias, Chestnut-capped Warblers, Emerald-chinned Hummingbirds, and Thicket Tinamous that serenaded us constantly and evaded visual detection completely. Cañada Honda yielded its enigma, the Azure-rumped Tanager. Eventually everyone got good scope views of this striking rare bird. Near Limonar and beyond, Blue-crowned Motmots hooted regularly, and closer to Paval the Turquoise-browed Motmots entertained us with their gaudy colors and exceptional racket-tails. White-eared Ground-Sparrows were seen several times along the trail, but were always a challenge for the group to see. Just before we arrived at Paval, a cooperative pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers greeted us.
Our last night brought some excitement. Just as our owlers were convening, a shower rolled in. Delayed 15 minutes, we tried again. Before we could even look for owls a Common Pauraque was discovered sitting on its nest, just off the trail. In the morning, without eyeshine, it was even harder to espy with its most amazing camouflage. The Mottled Owl came and sat overhead for 10 minutes, inspecting us, hooting and peering into the night—an excellent encounter. The Black-and-white Owl found a thick tree to call from overhead and remained unseen. The next morning birding was excellent; back in the tropical zone, we had parrots, parakeets, Striped Cuckoo, Northern Bentbill, Piratic Flycatcher, a young King Vulture spotted by Andy, Rose-throated Becards, Spot-breasted Orioles, Red-billed Pigeon, and even a Rufous-browed Peppershrike.
After packing up, we had a short trek to the road and ice-cold Cokes and water. The short trip in the truck brought us back to the 21st century with power lines, satellite dishes, and the internal combustion engine. We enjoyed the birds at the Arguetas: Orange-chinned Parakeets, Broad-winged Hawks, and magpie-jays were about. After a delightful lunch we bid the Arguetas farewell and headed to Tapachula. Our hotel Loma Real was a welcome relief from camping. The birds on the grounds were excellent—Giant Wren! White-bellied Chachalaca and Pacific Screech-Owl also put in appearances for a fitting end to a wonderful traverse of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas on foot!