Friday 26 February 2016

MEXICO 2016: El Triunfo (22-26 February)

This is the second of four postings covering a recent trip to Southern Mexico with Jon Hornbuckle, Brian Foster and Rod Martins. Eric Antonio Martinez of Mexico-Birding Tours ( expertly guided us around in his Jeep Compass although it was left behind for this section of the trip - the much anticipated visit to El Truinfo - the Giant. 

I remember in the mid to late 1970s my grandmother giving me an article from a magazine about an expedition to see the mythical and somewhat bizarre Horned Guan in a very remote mountain range. It seemed very unobtainable for ordinary birders and I put it out of my mind for many years. Recently things have changed. Birdquest visited El Triunfo and saw it, the 10,001st species to be seen (recorded?) on their tours. permits to visit were limited (and expensive) but Eric had the contacts and despite the short notice managed to get us on a trip there. The downside was it was that the guides Jorge and Amy were also taking 5 other people, most were pleasant enough but few could be deemed birders.

22 February. We were picked up by a small bus at our hotel (San Carlos) at 05:15 before going on to collect our guides Jorge and Amy and the rest of the group at the posher Tuxtla Best Western. The bus took us to Jaltenango where the decent road finished, a journey of three or so hours. Birding from a moving vehicle is often very frustrating with potentially interesting half glimpsed sightings although 3 Russet-crowned Motmots on telephone wires were seen well enough to be sure of.  At Jaltenango we loaded into an old cattle truck and set off along the dirt road to Finca Prusia, the trailhead for El Triunfo. We had only been going about 20 minutes and hardly cleared the town when the truck's engine died as we crossed a small ford. It wouldn't restart but the driver was confident it would so we set off walking. A male MacGillivray's Warbler and a Rusty Sparrow, both new for me, made it a very fortuitous breakdown although it did not feel that way an hour later when the truck still hadn't reappeared. We saw both Yellow-throated and Grace's Warblers and then heard the truck was going and only a few minutes away. We climbed back on board and continued to Finca Prusia. Here some horses were waiting to take up our bags and food for our stay. We started to climb at 13:20 and made steady progress up a series of zig-zags to a ridge which we then continued along to a saddle, arriving at 2100m at 16:50, an ascent of about 700m (2300 ft). It was an easier climb than I had anticipated, being not slippery or exceptionally steep. It was also more frustrating as I heard several new birds we did not have time to stop for although we did make an effort to see Emerald-throated Hummingbird. The group soon split into two on the climb with Jorge, us and a couple of the others going ahead of Amy and the rest. This seemed fine as our main target, Horned Guan, occurred from the saddle to the clearing at El Triunfo and we were keen to get into habitat while the light lasted. It didn't work out that way as Jorge insisted that we wait for the others who were apparently not that far behind. They caught up about 20 minutes later, time we could have better spent looking for birds on the way up. We continued and after 15 minutes Jorge heard the low booming call of a Horned Guan. We approached but could not locate it. I hung back still looking when Rod called to say they'd found one. I dashed over but there were too many people on the trail for me to readily get to a position to view it and by the time I did I only saw it drop out of the bottom of the tree. Very very frustrating. As we dropped down to the clearing another guan was seen. I had not heard properly and thought it was horned and saw its red legs but couldn't see the horn or yellow bill. It was a Highland Guan, a new bird but not the one I wanted. We then heard but did not follow up a Fulvous Owl before arriving at the clearing at dusk. We were allocated a room in the dormitory block and given a decent meal. It was a very nice set up and looked to be excellent forest but 12 on a trail was far too many for enjoyable (or successful) birding.

not the best start, but unbeknown to me there was a MacGillivray's Warbler waiting to be seen around the corner 
Grace's Warbler

the trail up to El Triunfo
a vocal male Emerald-chinned Hummingbird
a rare viewpoint
some of our bags and supplies going past
another Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, just as dull in the shade

23 February. We were up just before dawn and spent an hour birding in the clearing. It was dull, cold and breezy but seeing Brown-backed Solitaires which I had previously only heard was excellent. We had a decent breakfast at 07:15 then at 08:00 Jorge took our group back along the main trail, first seeing displaying Wine-throated Hummingbird behind the kitchen. Jorge heard a Horned Guan calling further along the trail and we approached cautiously. I then saw a movement in a tree directly above us and had a rather obscured view of it. It flew a short distance and we retraced our steps to a small clearing by a gulley and saw it in a tree opposite. It really was superb and much better than I had expected. We birded along the trail all morning, returning for lunch at 13:00. We stayed around the clearing until 15:30 when we went back along the main trail, unfortunately with a slightly enlarged group. We tried for Fulvous Owl and Mexican Whip-poor-will at dusk in deteriorating conditions without success. Despite this it had been an excellent day, especially compared to the previous one! I had seen 2 Horned Guans, 2 Highland Guans, White-faced Quail Dove, Violet Sabrewing, Blue-throated Motmot, female Resplendent Quetzal, Emerald Toucanet, Spotted and Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrushes and Elegant Euphonias.

a tiny male Wire-throated Hummingbird
it became a different bird when its throat caught the light
an early view of Horned Guan, much to my relief
an absolutely stunning bird
and quite comical too

well worth the visit
Golden-browed Warbler
mainly unspoiled forest as far as one could see
not that one could see very far very often
unoccupied Horned Guan dust bath
the male Wine-throated Hummingbird was still advertising itself
a Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush was much more secretive
me, much happier than the previous evening!
a very superficially similar Highland Guan - dark back and red legs are the same - had me going for a moment
later another Horned Guan was calling near the trail
it gave even better views than the first

24 February. We were on call for an early night bird session but overnight rain persisted until after dawn. The cloud was low and threatening and the wind had picked up making a pre-breakfast look around the clearing hard work. It was not ideal weather for a long day's walk down to Canada Honda and back but we would hopefully be sheltered. We had breakfast at 07:00 and at 07;40 Jorge, Eric, us and two others set off for Canada Honda. We climbed up to a ridge at 2200m and then dropped down steeply to a lookout with views to the Pacific, and much better a resident Garnet-throated Hummingbird. The resident Palty Tyrannulet, apparently Birdquest's 10,000 species, wasn't so obliging and did a bunk just as I got my bins onto it. We continued to descend seeing a male Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird in a clearing and then a small flock of Cabanis's Tanagers before dropping down to Canada Honda at 1420m where we arrived at 11:50. We had lunch in the clearing at Canada Honda but only Rod was aware enough to look for a hummingbird that had been seen briefly on some nearby heliconias. I joined him as he saw it again, a Rufous Sabrewing, but I looked at the wrong red flowers and it had gone before I could get onto it. We continued a short way along the trail and flushed a motmot but it was Blue-throated rather than the hoped for Tody. Jorge heard Rufous Sabrewings lekking some way below the path but sadly we didn't leave the trail to investigate. A pair of Rufous and White Wrens somewhat salvaged our visit to Canada Honda and at 13:00 we left for the long walk back. The Sparkling-tailed Woodstar was still singing in his clearing and we reached the pass at 16:45. The weather had deteriorated with heavy clouds and drizzle putting paid to any hopes of owling. The wind had picked up too although we had been sheltered for most of the day. We were back in our room after having eaten, me fresh from a shower, when Amy banged on the door to say there was a Baird's Tapir at the salt-lick by the kitchen. We piled out, me forgetting to take a camera, and had superb views before it slowly walked away. It was a juvenile but was much bigger than I was expecting. We were very fortunate as it only visited once every week or two. Disappointments of Canada Honda were soon forgotten ...

early morning in El Triunfo clearing, the far building is the kitchen and the nearer one where the staff stayed
the left hand building is the dormitory block
American Dipper
only the second I have seen and my first for 31 years!
nice, but I prefer ours
El Triunfo forest
it was a bit hazy but the Pacific was just about visible from the viewpoint

Garnet-throated Hummingbird
I thought it one of the smartest hummers we saw
Green-throated Mountaingem, the green throat only showed very fleetingly when it caught the sun
a tangle of Central American Spider Monkeys


there is always one show-off
Sparkling-tailed Woodstar
obscured waterfall on the Canada Honda trail
looking back up towards the ridge we had crossed
an inviting pool by the trail

back near the ridge

25 February. We were up at 06:00 to find a clear sky, in the clearing to 07:00 then after breakfast walked the main trail and the quetzal loop until lunchtime. A Horned Guan on the track early on and later a male Resplendent Quetzal made for an enjoyable morning. While we were eating a Hog-nosed Skunk visited the compost pit and seemed unconcerned by our presence. Afterwards we had a bit of free time and I walked most of the loop again, bumping into Eric as a Horned Guan appeared and then Jon who had seen 6 White-faced Quail Doves. I followed Jon's directions and thought I had missed them but flushed one into a tree on the way back. From mid afternoon Jorge took us up to the ridge on the Canada Honda trail, hoping to see a roosting Fulvous Owl. No luck but a Collared Pecari was some compensation. Fortunately the weather was holding and we tried the main trail where Jorge had heard an owl when we arrived. Before the light started to fade we saw Rufous-browed Wren and a singing Black Thrush (both new for me) and then a Fulvous Owl silently flew in in response to some judicious taping. It gave good but brief views before slipping away. An excellent end to our final day at El Triunfo.
Horned Guan on the trail
unfortunately the light was poor
male Resplendent Quetzal. The longest tailed race, the tip of one feather is just visible near the lower right of the image
only about half the tail length showing

Green-throated Mountaingem

Hog-nosed Skunk near the compost pit
impressive claws

Wilson's Warbler
the commonest wintering warbler at Triunfo

several Hammond's Flycatchers were around the clearing
perhaps the most endearing looking empidomax we saw
this one frequently dipped its tail

Wood Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Kestrel
kitchen trail at El Triunfo
White-faced Quail Dove

note the Baird's Tapir photo 

26 February. We birded around the clearing to 08:00 (Magnificent Hummingbird, Brown-backed Solitaire, Wood Thrush) when we reluctantly left El Triunfo. We were at the saddle at 09:00, Jorge and Eric having seen a Scaled Antpitta briefly on the trail before it disappeared. Fortunately I had seen one before but still annoying and not something all of a large group would be likely to see. We reached the trailhead at 12:00 where the truck was waiting. We were in Jaltenango by 14:00 where an extended lunch was laid on, sadly no nearby birding options were available instead. It was then three hours by bus into Tuxtla Gutierrez and Hotel San Carlos. What turned out to be almost entirely a travel day with a male Flame-coloured Tanager on the walk out keeping going my run of at least one new bird seen each day - a run I was pleased to continue throughout the trip. 
A sad farewell to El Triunfo, a true wilderness it was a real privilege to have visited
Emerald-chinned Hummingbird still performing

approaching Tuxtla Gutierrez with El Sumidero in the background