18-19 March 2014
We first heard about Las Minas while we were volunteering at El Triunfo in Chiapas. The park guard, Ismael, told us that Las Minas is incredible, the best birding in Guatemala, and one of his favorite places outside of El Triunfo. With such high recommendations our curiosity was sparked. Where is this Las Minas place? The Biosphere Reserve and National Park of Sierra de las Minas is an independent mountain range, separate from Guatemala’s western highlands. It is further towards the Caribbean, located in eastern Guatemala above the very arid Rio Motagua Valley. When we arrived in Guatemala all we knew is that we wanted to visit Las Minas but we had no idea how to get up there. A bit of internet research pointed us at some leads, the possibility of a trailhead and a town where you could get a trail guide to take you up into the sierra. Then we met John Cahill and he told us more amazing things about Las Minas, the most fantastic being that he had just found a Slaty Finch, building a nest nonetheless. OK, now we were dead set on getting to Las Minas. And as it turns out, there is a road and, with good 4WD and some doing, you can actually drive up into the sierra.
John put us in touch with Israel Alvizures, an employee of Defensores de la Naturaleza in the small town of San Agustin Acasaguastlan. We gave Israel a jingle the morning we were ready to leave the western highlands, figuring that we would either figure out how to get up to Las Minas or we’d just cross to Honduras. Israel was very outgoing and happy to accommodate us, so we arranged and met at the central square in San Agustin later that afternoon. It turns out that there is a small private reserve adjacent to the core zone of the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve and defensores cares for the property and some semi-abandoned cabins on it. He lent us keys to the locked gate for access as well as giving us detailed instructions on how to wind our way up 20 km of unlabeled dirt roads to a tiny collection of houses called La Trinidad, and then instructions from there to meet local legend Don Carlos Mendez and get pointed on the correct road up into the forest. The road to Las Minas is very rough and gets incredibly slick when it is wet. Unsure if we would make it to the cabins at the top, we set out with directions in hand. As the afternoon progressed, many questions were asked of coffee workers and other locals on the roads as there are a LOT of forks to negotiate. Though steep, at least until Trinidad the road really didn’t seem all that terrible. However, after we crossed the gate to Don Carlos’s house, the road deteriorated quickly. We quickly were forced into low gear 4WD and we jostled and slid around on the road for quite some time, putting our truck to the test. We had a few spots that we barely made it through, but eventually we came to a steep, slick left hand turn where our long-in-the-tooth off-road tires met their match. A bit of digging and a lot of putting wood and brush over the mud later, we were still in the same place so we declared it a lovely campsite and there we stayed for two nights. Sometimes luck is with you, though, as we happened to camp in what appeared to be the territory of a Resplendent Quetzal and were treated to the male flying over our camp from time to time.
Fortunately we were less than a kilometer from the cabins, so in the morning we headed up the road to look for the Slaty Finch, a very rare bird that seems to time it’s breeding to seeding bamboo and seeding bamboo was everywhere at Las Minas. Slaty Finch ranges from Mexico to Boliva but its distribution is extremely fragmented and it is rare throughout its range. Fortunately John had given us good a good description of where he had found a nest-building Slaty Finch a few weeks earlier, and as soon as we got to the right spot, the buzzy song of not one but two Slaty Finches greeted us from the bamboo. Incredible! Finding this very rare bird is an accomplishment in itself, but we had two, and soon three, singing around us. We scrambled around seeking out the source of the buzz and despite thick fog and low morning light we finally managed to see, photograph, and record an adult male Slaty Finch. Success! In the midst of our excitement of seeing a Slaty Finch a pair of Pink-headed Warblers flew in within 5 m of us and posed for the camera like absolute supermodels. We had yet to get decent pictures or any recordings of the Pink-headed Warbler, so that worked out well. We continued birding up the road to the cabins and then a trail behind the old cabins. Pink-headed Warblers and Golden-browed Warblers were abundant, and we had a wide range of cloud-forest birds such as Barred Parakeet, White-faced Quail-Dove, Black-throated Jay, Unicolored Jay, Highland Guan, Garnet-throated Hummingbird, Emerald Toucanet, Black Thrush, and many more. Shortly down the trail behind the cabins we couldn’t believe our ears when we heard another singing Slaty Finch! As we started looking for the bird, it became apparent that there were actually two singing in this area! We quickly located the bird, and by this time in the morning the fog had lifted and we had incredible photo opportunities as well as getting recordings of a second individual. Even further down this trail we heard another singing Slaty Finch, bringing our morning total to an incredible 6 Slaty Finches. In the afternoon we birded the first bit of the Pinalon trail, and in the first huge thicket of bamboo we came to we were amazed to hear another singing Slaty Finch! While looking for this bird, we actually found a juvenile male who was not singing, meaning that there were at least two in this area as well. The juvenile male was a patchwork of the brown color of the juveniles and females and the slate gray of an adult male, similar to the patchwork of color that sub-adult male Indigo Buntings or Blue Grosbeaks display. It is known to us at least if Slaty Finches breed on a regular schedule or opportunistically when bamboo is seeding. We also lack information on molt schedules. Very little is known about Slaty Finches throughout their range.
With a stunning 8 Slaty Finches observed in one day, we stayed out late, hoping to add an Unspotted Saw-whet Owl to our incredible day but instead found at least 5 Fulvous Owls and no Saw-whets or Screeches of any sort with so many large owls vocalizing everywhere.
Just over a week prior we had had similarly spectacular luck, finding 9 Maroon-chested Ground-Doves in a short stretch of trail in the masses of seeding bamboo in cloud forest above Fuentes Georginas (Read our story). We had been on the lookout for Slaty Finch there but didn’t hear even a whisper of song. Now, in the Sierra de las Minas, at the same altitude, in a cloud forest bursting with seeding bamboo, we found 8 Slaty Finches in one day but didn’t hear a single Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. Is it just luck to encounter these birds or is there more to their habitat preferences that causes one to be congregated in one location and the other in a different location?
Also important to note, the Sierra de las Minas is the southernmost distribution of the Horned Guan, one of Meso-America’s most spectacular endemics. We weren’t lucky enough to cross paths with a Horned Guan in our one day up there but they are definitely there and the Sierra de las Minas is every bit as spectacular of a place as El Triunfo and would be a terrific location to look for the Highland Guan while enjoying the generally terrific cloud-forest birding!
This is a terrific birding destination for those with a 4WD and a taste for the path less traveled, and could be readily reached as well with a bit of help from John Cahill or other Guatemalan guides who could provide the vehicle and gear necessary to get into the area and up the road.