Mar 4-6, 2014
The Sierra de los Cuchumatanes in the district of Huehuetenango are a world apart from Chiapas and all the various ecosystems that occur anywhere south of the central volcanic belt of Mexico. The Cuchumatanes is really a high, cold, rocky, and arid plateau ranging from 3000 – 3700 meters elevation (roughly 10,000 – 12,000 feet above sea level). The dominant vegetation is bunchgrass with sparse pines. A few valleys and canyons around the edges have a bit more moisture and you encounter some denser areas of forest with firs, oaks, and alders mixed in. There are a few upland grassland areas in the interior of Chiapas (ranging from San Cristóbal to Lagunas de Montebello, roughly), but they are neither this high nor extensive.
The Cuchumatanes is the place to go to look for some of the hardest birds in the Chiapas/Guatemala region, namely the Black-capped Siskin, the perplexus (aka “plain”) form of Pine Siskin which may well be a separate species of its own, the Goldman’s Warbler (still considered to be a subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler but recent genetic studies seem to point towards the Goldman’s being specifically distinct from the Audubon’s/Myrtle group of Yellow-rumped Warblers), the alticola (aka “Guatemalan”) subspecies of Yellow-eyed Junco, and even a disjunct population of Common Raven(!), though the Raven is extremely rare. Other great birds up here include Pine Flycatcher, “Guatemalan” Northern Flicker (this may well be a separate species as well), Red Crossbill and Pink-headed Warbler (which is far more abundant in Guatemala than in Chiapas).
In general, the greater distribution and more common status of many of these birds in Guatemala, than in Chiapas, is due to the simple fact that there is far more terrain above 2000-2500 meters in Guatemala than in Chiapas, despite the fact that the state of conservation in Guatemala is equally as deplorable as it is in Chiapas on the whole.
Despite Guatemala’s high population density, the Cuchumatanes still has a good bit of open space and good habitat. Ascending from the town of Chiantla, you enter patches of good habitat for the above species at the town of Capellania. From here you continue to a Y in the road, signed for Todos Santos to the left. Todos Santos is the one real tourist draw in the region, with much traditional dress still on display. Good birding can be had in either direction from this Y. We found some good spots by stopping at pine patches descending towards Todos Santos, particularly at a trail on the right signed “Sendero Ecológico La Maceta.” This steep trail ascends a narrow, rocky valley at 2800 meters in excellent pine/fir forest with scattered alders and oaks. We found Black-capped Siskin here (very high overhead in mature pines; the scope was very useful) as well as Garnet-throated Hummingbird, Coronata type Steller’s Jays, many Pink-headed Warblers as well as many Audubon’s type Yellow-rumped Warblers. Back up on the plateau near Capellania, if you were to keep right instead of left at the fork to Todos Santos, after a few more miles you’d come to a signed left turn for Cerro de los Cuervos. Turning left here puts you on a dirt road, and after another mile or two you come to another signed left turn for Cerro de los Cuervos. If you turn left here, then make your first right after going up a slight rise, you’ll be on a road leading back into great open pine and bunchgrass habitat. We drove around a chain across the road and camped in a secluded little draw here (GPS 15.51287, -91.51606). Birding in this area was great with Coronata type Steller’s Jay, Eastern Meadowlark, Perplexus/Plain Pine Siskin, Black-capped Siskin (again distant and mixed in with Pine Siskin), Goldman’s Warbler (very abundant), Pine Flycatcher, Eastern Bluebird, “Guatemalan” Yellow-eyed Junco, “Guatemalan” Northern Flicker, Rufous-collared Robin, and Golden-crowned Kinglet (a disjunct population occurs in the highlands of Guatemala). In the general area there are many dirt roads to explore and many places to stop and bird. Any area with flowers (particularly the local Ribes) should have Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Common Raven and Red Crossbill are both rare but possible here, though we didn’t find them in 2 days of birding.
Many thanks go to John Cahill for showing us this place and the great spot to camp, we really enjoyed our time here and it was a great reward to find Black-capped Siskin after about 3 months of looking for them, they can be quite the difficult bird!