Nov 11 – Nov 18
Kathi and I had the terrific fortune to visit El Triunfo for a week in November as volunteers for a Horned Guan, Highland Guan and Resplendent Quetzal monitoring project conducted by INECOL (Instituto de Ecología) and ECOSUR (El Colegio de la Frontera Sur). Researchers at INECOL and ECOSUR have been monitoring these species for over 20 years and have accumulated a wealth of knowledge that will aid in the conservation of these species.
El Triunfo is justly famous as the home of the Horned Guan, a relict species of Cracid that today exists only in a few mountain-top cloud forest patches in southern Chiapas and in Guatemala. While tropical forest once covered most of Chiapas and Central America, it isn’t exactly news that deforestation is rampant and very little forest remains in much of the area. Ismael Valdez-Valdez, 33 year ranger at El Triunfo, who grew up in the same clearing where the park camp is now located, told us stories of the extent of tropical forest on the pacific slope of Chiapas when he was a boy, of seeing a Harpy Eagle feed a Howler Monkey to its chick. Today, tropical forest and Harpy Eagles are nothing more than a very dim memory in the Pacific lowlands, but fortunately a large portion of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas has been conserved in the form of the Reserva de la Biosfera El Triunfo, protecting 300,000+ acres of old growth montane tropical forest with large patches of cloud forest at the summits. While Tapir, Puma, Jaguar, Ocelot and Margay prowl the forest and Resplendent Quetzal, Horned Guan and more amazing birds find refuge in the trees, perhaps the greatest single aspect of El Triunfo is the sheer size of the reserve and quality of the forest. Throughout Mexico, habitat is highly fractured and divided and large intact forests are few and far between. Standing on the summits of Bandera Peak and Triunfo Peak, however, old-growth forest extends for miles in every direction and the signs of human use of the land are few and far between. After birding tiny patches of forest around San Cristóbal (as well as in many other areas in Mexico, unfortunately), places like El Triunfo, the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in the Chiapan lowlands, the wilds of western Jalisco, or the wild Oaxacan coast are absolutely marvelous to behold, the last few large, wild and relatively unspoiled areas we’ve visited in Mexico’s otherwise extensively cut-over and converted to agriculture landscape.
Cloud forest covers the peaks of El Triunfo where clouds envelop the mountain tops. Cloud forest only occurs in moist montaine environments in tropical regions of the world. Cloud forest is a type of evergreen forest that occurs along a narrow elevation band, above the heat of the rainforest but below the harshest high altitudes of the mountains. Trees are engulfed in numerous bromeliads, ferns, mosses and other epiphytes. Cloud forests are a unique ecosystem that support tremendous numbers of unique, specialized and rare species, though unfortunately cloud forests are also rare; 0.14% of the planet is covered in cloud forest (http://www.canopyintheclouds.com/learn/).
While we were with the monitoring team in El Triunfo, we had two days of steady rain, which set back the monitoring project. Fortunately, we had planned to stay a couple extra days in the reserve on our own. As a result, were able to complete the monitoring effort enjoying a couple of peaceful mornings in the company of Ismael (arguably the single most knowledgeable person on earth regarding El Triunfo), and learned a tremendous amount about the place. Over the course of the week, we had the good fortune to monitor/and or bird on every one of the trails at the main camp (Prusia, Bandera, Costa, Monos, Palo Gordo, and Cerro Triunfo), several more than once, as well as hiking down the Costa trail to Cañada Honda for a long day trip. We also enjoyed tremendously the company and knowledge of Fernando Gonzalez-Garcia, who has been studying the Horned Guan in El Triunfo for over 25 years and is the world expert on the bird, as well as a handful of Jose-Luis Rangel’s grad students from ECOSUR who are working on their own projects as well as the Guan and Quetzal monitoring project in El Triunfo.
Certainly the very local and endangered Horned Guan is the highlight bird at El Triunfo, and we were fortunate to encounter at least 8 Horned Guans, getting great looks at 5 of them. We found at least 10 Resplendent Quetzals throughout the week, seeing several quite well. Highland Guan is quite common in El Triunfo, though far more frequently heard than seen, but we were able to get good looks at about 5 of them. Our day hike down to Cañada Honda proved to be one of the most spectacular days of the trip yet. We left the high camp well before dawn and not more than 100 meters into the forest Kathi saw eye-shine just off the trail ahead of us. Using just our headlamps we were able to see an Ocelot sitting calmly for at least 30 seconds before it turned and disappeared back into the forest. Further along the trail, as day broke we found a Horned Guan silhouetted in a bare tree against the dawn sky, a truly magical sight. Not further along the trail we found another Horned Guan perched just above us and giving its odd low grunting calls. In the same area we also managed to get good if quick looks at a pair of Spotted Nightingale-Thrushes. As we continued descending we had terrific luck photographing and recording hummingbirds, obtaining great photos and recordings of Wine-throated Hummingbird, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Rufous Sabrewing, and Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird. Down in Cañada Honda we managed to find a group of 3 distant but well seen Azure-rumped Tanagers, another extremely localized bird endemic to southern Chiapas and Guatemala. As we climbed back up to the continental divide, afternoon bird activity picked up and the pacific slope portion of cloud forest just below the divide was absolutely bouncing with birds. We enjoyed the evening sun surrounded by more Wine-throated Hummingbirds and Green-throated Mountain-Gems, Ruddy Foliage-Gleaners, and were lucky to get great eye level views of the incomparable Blue-crowned Chlorophonia in fantastic late afternoon light. We enjoyed a magnificent sunset looking out over the Pacific lowlands towards the sea, and soon Fulvous Owls started calling, including a male and two females that were quite close (they can be readily told by voice, the males being much lower. Horned Guans can be readily told by voice as well, a fact discovered by Fernando Gonzalez-Garcia). With not much searching at all we were lucky to find a perched female Fulvous Owl over the trail with the last bit of daylight, a tremendous finish to a tremendous day. Other great birds throughout the week included numerous White-faced Quail-Doves, Singing Quail, Black-throated and Unicolored Jays, Tawny-throated Leaf-Tosser, Scaled Antpitta, and a lucky evening flyover of about 25 Barred Parakeets.
For many a birder, El Triunfo seems a very expensive proposition to visit. However, there are options aside from organized western tours if you speak some Spanish and are comfortable travelling independently. For starters, Ecobiosfera (http://www.ecobiosfera.org.mx/) is the organization that organizes almost all trips to El Triunfo. Contacting them directly to arrange a private group would be a less expensive option. If you can sort out some of the logistics and organize your own group, they can arrange transport, as well as food, mules, cooks, and more as necessary. Still more independent yet, if your Spanish is good and you’re willing to sort out your own food, cooking, and transport (the dirt roads aren’t terrible but they’re long, you’ll need to ask directions, and you probably want some clearance, i.e. no budget model rental car), you can contact the CONANP office in Angel Albino Corzo (also known as Jaltenango) and pursue the option of an independent trip with Janet, the office director and biologist in charge of the Triunfo area, at least at the time of writing! If you do this, it would be wise to plan on 10 or more total days to accomplish the trip, as it takes a day or two to get from Tuxtla to the trail head including stopping at the CONANP office in Angel Albino Corzo, after which you’ll be required to ascend and descend with rangers, who change shifts once/week, which effectively means you’ll need to go up on a Monday and return the Monday of the week following, then spend a day or more getting back to Tuxtla.