1 April 2014
This is the day we dubbed the wing-banded goose chase. The name was coined long before the day was over and long before we’d found the bird we were looking for, but before we’d gotten too tired and defeated to joke about it.
The Wing-banded Antbird has a disparate distribution, being known from a few locales in Nicaragua, a few in Panama, a few in Amazonian Ecuador, and then again sparsely at a few locations in the eastern Amazon basin, mostly in Brazil. It is seemingly always rare and local in the places where it is found. However, having heard of Lili and Georges Duriaux–Chavarría having found this bird in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve as well as on Cerro Musún in Nicaragua, and given our love of exploring the less traveled, less known destinations, we were absolutely keyed to track it down in Nicaragua. During our visit to the Reserva El Jaguar in northern Nicaragua we had a wonderful dinner with Georges, during which he told us of their discovering this bird in Nicaragua – repeatedly seeing a mysterious, secretive bird that was not quite a Leaftosser in the dim understory, but not well enough to ID it, then having one turn up in their mist nets while banding! Georges kindly gave us enough information to set us on the right track towards Cerro Musún. Our psyche was higher than ever, and we were keen for the chase, so off we went!
Arriving in Rio Blanco, we asked around a bit and got pointed in the right direction to head up a dirt road that we were told we wouldn’t be able to drive all the way up. We weren’t too concerned, we have a pretty decent 4WD truck and we recalled Georges saying something like you get to the old biological station and then hike an hour up into the forest. How bad could it be? We crossed a small river and got some more local advice on which road to take, were forced into low gear 4WD, and continued up a quickly worsening road. Less than a kilometer up the road, it was apparent that the bit about “you won’t be able to drive up there” was spot on. The road went from readily passable with 4WD in low gear to passable on foot or horseback only. None of the locals knew anything about a biological station but they said there was a park office and a park guard up at the end of the road, at most 30 minutes, or perhaps 45, or no it’s more like an hour, but it’s just straight up the road, easy to find, just go straight. Satisfied that we were probably in the right place or at least on the way to the right place, we made camp more or less in the middle of the road, much to the entertainment of the passing locals. We settled into our camp chairs, opened a couple of beers, and made sure we had the vocalization for the Wing-banded Antbird wired in our brains as a steady stream of the local ranchers alternatively walked or rode by on horseback, all giving us fairly bemused looks. Keen on the day to come we went to bed early, planning to be up in time to hike the road in the dark to be in the forest for dawn chorus.
4:15 rolled around and the alarm went off. Amped with excitement we had a quick breakfast and, laden with all of our water bottles, some lunch, our camera and recording equipment, started hiking up the road. It wasn’t really all that hot but it was still in the mid 70’s and carrying what we were and trying to hurry, we were working up a good pre-dawn sweat. We came to a major split in the road (that was supposed to go straight to the park office), and the only person around to offer advice about where to go was a 6-year old so we took his advice and went right. This shortly led to another split in the road, with a smaller but well-worn trail heading down and a larger but grassier road cut heading up. Fresh out of six year olds to guide us to the station, we chose to head uphill, as that was where we eventually needed to be and seemed a logical choice. About 20 minutes and a good bit of sweat later, dawn was well upon us and we were forced to admit that we had hiked up cattle trails to the top of a nice, steep pasture with no park entrance or buildings in sight, so back down we headed. Back at the scene of our poor choice, we debated whether the 6 year old had even pointed us in the right direction on the PRIOR fork in the road and I convinced Kathi that he might be 6 but that gave him 6 more years knowledge of where these roads went than we had at our disposal. The other option from where we were standing headed down, though roughly in the direction of the forest, which we could see much better now as the sun was well up. Almost deciding to go back and find someone else to ask, we instead followed the smaller trail down to give it a chance. This led, after a bit, to a broken sign laying on the ground along a fence between two cattle pastures that read “Welcome to the protected area of Cerro Musun,” more or less. We’ve seen plenty of protected areas where reserve borders are ignored and cattle, corn or other agriculture continues well past the signs, so we took this as a pretty good omen and continued on. After a bit more, we indeed did come to the park buildings. Let’s hear it for 6 year olds! By now it was at least an hour after dawn but we could see we were close to healthy forest and were keen to find the trail(s) to get into the woods and find a Wing-banded Antbird!
There were a small smattering of buildings, which, at first glance (and at second and third, for that matter), appeared pretty abandoned, but we wandered amid them until we heard a faint radio and tracked it down to coming from behind a door. A knock on the door elicited a completely unintelligible garble of Spanish from within so I hollered back and said that we were keen to visit the reserve and would love some information. I managed to understand the next response to be along the lines of “just a second let me get some clothes on I’m coming,” and soon enough a half dressed man opened the door and offered his elbow for a handshake (not sure about why, as later his hands would prove amply able in machete wielding). Speaking through zero front teeth at high speed without much annunciation, his was some of the most challenging Spanish we’ve encountered on the trip yet, and I, perhaps not so kindly, dubbed it “authentic frontier gibberish” in honor of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. After a good bit of going back and forth and repeating, we got across the point that we wanted to go hiking, looking for birds, up in the mountains, where there is forest, and we’d love it if he could show us where the trail or trails start. Of course he would, “Como no?” but first, how about some coffee and breakfast? We explained that we wanted to get into the forest early while birds were still singing, to which he agreed, just let him get some clothes on. A few minutes later he returned with boots and shirt on and his machete, appearing ready to go. He headed for the hearth to start a fire, which rekindled the discussion of coffee and wanting to hurry. We felt bad rousing the park guard and denying him his coffee but really we just wanted him to point out a trail to us quickly before he made a fire to make breakfast. Ok, we’d be on our way right away, just let him lock up and get the keys. So he locked some doors, had the keys, and led us around to the visitor’s center door, which he un-padlocked and ushered me into. Great, there are some maps on the wall, we might figure out where in the maze of cow fields we are and where the trails go. The maps were crude outlines of park boundaries with no trails, roads, or geographic features, and it was very dark inside, so there wasn’t much help there. In the meanwhile, the park guard had gotten a jar of snakes preserved in alcohol and a small mammal skull and taken them outside and was not going to hear no for an answer when he suggested that first Kathi take a picture of it, then that I do the same. I had to back up about 60’ from him to take a picture with my 400mm lens but it satisfied him. I tried again, gently, to suggest that we were more interested in getting into the forest. He was intent on showing us the visitor’s center though, so I suggested that there would be more light coming in the doorway later and we could visit the visitor’s center on our way down, to which he agreed.
A bit more shuffling and checking things and we were finally off. Having suggested that we were trying to hurry a bit, he finally took this to heart and jogged ahead of us swinging his machete with zeal at the slightest twig that strayed into a quite open and nice trail. We bombed downhill, Kathi asking if this was correct, as we wanted to go up. I didn’t know, but we had talked at length about wanting to go up into the mountains and into the forest and he said he would take us to the start of that trail, so I assumed we had to go down the little valley to cross the creek and be on our way. Sure enough, we soon came to a creek crossing. He skipped across the shallow creek as it flowed over some rocks and we did the same, getting our shoes and socks wet in the process. (With it not having rained much in at least two weeks we didn’t think we’d need waterproof boots, oops). Across the creek, he pointed ahead and said “Look, there’s the waterfall, and come over here to the edge of this rock, you can see the channel the creek cuts down there, it’s dangerous though don’t get to close.” Cool, definitely pretty, “and where does the trail continue?” I asked. “The trail? This is what you come here for, everyone wants to see this” he said. Kathi groaned and I asked, again, where the trail was that heads up into the mountains, into the forest. “Oooooh that trail, you want to go up into the mountains?” was more or less his response.
A few minutes of go-round over this subject again and we were off at breakneck speed, re-crossing the creek, getting the other foot wet this time, and heading back the way we had come and back uphill. Soon we stopped by an antique wooden bit of equipment, a remnant of an antiquated sugar mill, it was explained. We couldn’t possibly be on our way again without both touching the wood to feel how OLD it was! Didn’t we want to take a picture of it? Blasting through the overgrown fields and brush again, we came soon to a trail junction where it was explained that to the left, the way we hadn’t come, was the much faster way to get here. Awesome! Uphill we head again, finally appearing to head up into the forest. We asked him if this was the trail to get up into the reserve and he said, yup, it sure was. We said we could follow it from here, were there any more junctions or anything to worry about? Oh yeah there’s another junction, he tells us. So which way do you go? He motions with a broad sweep of his arm and says, “that way.” I asked again and got the same sweep of the arm, from left to right. So I said “ok, at the next junction, you go right?” His response, “Oh no, you go left, come on I’ll show you” and he turned around and bounded up the trail. At the next junction, he quickly turned right and motioned us to follow him. Hrmm. As it turns out, this was the next waterfall view point. Kathi nearly lost her cool. I calmly, again, explained that we didn’t want to see the waterfalls yet, that we would enjoy them on the way down, that we really just wanted to get up into the forest before we lost all of the morning bird activity. At this point it was about 8:00 and the sun had been up for about 2 ½ hours and it was getting pretty warm and pretty windy already. More discussion ensued, and he told us that, definitely, for sure, the trail we wanted was uphill from here. We would come to a clearing, a cow pasture, along the trail, but just keep going up, and on the way down, it was faster to go out the other side of the pasture. Ok, doesn’t sound too bad. And there aren’t any more trail junctions from here? Nope, just go straight up. Ok, so we thanked him profusely, gave him a generous tip for his efforts, and set off on our own.
The trail climbed very steeply more or less paralleling the creek and a series of waterfalls. Morning activity had already fallen off dramatically and the wind and the creek were making a bit of noise but we birded our way up the trail, not turning up much more than the ubiquitous Lesser Greenlets, Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, a singing Buff-rumped Warbler,and a smattering of warblers. One very cool sighting, however, was a Blue Jeans (aka Strawberry Poison-dart) Frog along the creek. After about 30 minutes of following this trail, it came abruptly to a barbed wire fence with no gate and the (very large) previously described cleared pasture on the other side. The trail just ended at barbed wire and an absolutely enormous swath of denuded hillside. We climbed over the fence and debated what to do. The “pasture that would be alongside the trail” was enormous and there were no footpaths or other discernable routes across it, nor obvious exits from it, in view in any direction. We walked up into the middle of it a bit to get a better look around. By now it was probably about 8:30 and the sun was pretty intense. We didn’t have a clue where the trail supposedly continued, but there we were so we decided to walk the perimeter of the pasture and look for it. Splitting up to cover both sides, we met again at the top after about 30 minutes of both having labored up the 45 degree slopes in the glaring sun without finding any glimmer of a trail leaving the pasture. A bit defeated, and feeling increasingly like we were on a wild goose chase, we weren’t sure what to do. We knew that Georges and Lili had been here, had gotten up into the reserve, and had enjoyed some amazing birding up there. There had to be a trail, but where? Had our insistence that we wanted to go “up into the hills” translated into the park guard just pointing us at the steepest trail around? We decided to go back down the way we’d come, watching for any other trails we had missed and then to further investigate the other trails at the bottom. Arriving back down to where we’d parted ways with the park guard in the morning, we headed down the only trail we hadn’t explored yet which quickly led to another crossing of the same creek. Another cool sighting at this creek crossing was a beautiful Ebony Keelback snake that was well over a meter long. Beautiful! We crossed the creek and the trail quickly led to another pasture, this one overgrown, with a large sign standing in the middle of it proclaiming it a municipal reserve. The trail petered out at this pasture and there were no others in sight but we followed the most trail-appearing thing we could find across the pasture and through the woods a bit. After trying about 15 sort-of-trails, we concluded that we couldn’t find a viable trail and that this was another dead end, so back we headed.
It was about 10AM by the time we ended up back at the ranger station. Our zealous friend the park guard wanted to know how we had enjoyed the forest? With a bit of frustration we told him that we had found the pasture he had described, as well as others, but couldn’t find a route up into the reserve. His response was classic “Ahhhhh hay que buscarlo” which means, basically, “oooooh, you’ve got to look for it.” A lot of back and forth, a lot of questions about if the trail really exists (each of which resulted in a “¿Como no?”, basically “of course”), and a lot of him gesturing up in the hills, ensued. We were ensured that all of the gringos go up there, BOOM, arm extended, into the mountains! We asked him, again, where this trail to go, BOOM, up into the mountains, was? “Ahhh, hay que buscarlo.” We weren’t sure whether to believe him, and we weren’t sure he even understood where we were trying to go, but he was eager to throw his arm out at length and say “¡en la montaña!” We asked if there were other trails or other ways to access the forest, which resulted in an offer to lead us up the adjoining drainage. When asked if there was a trail there, he said, no, but you could follow the creek readily enough and, grabbing his machete, he’d be happy to open a trail for us. Directing the conversation back to the trail that leaves the massive pasture, the one to go “BOOM up into the mountains where all the gringos go” he said you just have to go up there, cross the creek then ¡buscarlo! (look for it!). He offered to go back up with us and help us look for it, assuring us we’d find it and we could go, BOOM, arm extended, up into the mountains. Asking one more time if the trail really existed, he told us that the last group that was there had left early in the morning and were back in time for lunch! It was near lunchtime now and we still hadn’t found the trail so that anecdote didn’t necessarily help our mood or situation, but he offered again to take us up there and find the trail, or, if we wanted to, tomorrow he’d have coffee early and be ready and take his machete and open us a trail in the other direction. We said we’d think about it and, hot, tired and dejected, pondered whether it was worth hiking back up the hill again with the morning completely gone, or if we should try again the following day, or if we should give up completely. I was pretty done at this point but Kathi’s mood was rebounding. She convinced me that we were already there and going back up one more time to try was a better option than hanging out at our campsite in the road all through the heat of the day so that we could try again the following day, or punting completely after 5 hours of driving to get here.
So, with our eager guide again showing the way, off we headed for our third climb up the cattle pastures. This time we took the faster way up, which was via the adjoining pasture, in its mid-day blazing-sun glory. We hadn’t put on sunscreen in the morning as we thought we’d be in the forest at dawn, and we hadn’t later when we were tromping up the pasture because trying to put on sunscreen when you’re sweating that much is like trying to rub mayonnaise into your skin while in the sauna. For our third trip up the hillside, we again hadn’t put sunscreen on, which at this point was just due to stupidity and exhaustion I’m pretty sure. Hopping several more barbed wire fences and sweating like mad and pretty flushed from the sun, we soon enough arrived back exactly where we had been hours before, wondering where the trail was. We were assured it was “right over there” and headed right to the edge of the pasture that we had explored once already. We told him we had walked the edge of the pasture already and didn’t find the trail, to which the response was, again, “¡hay que buscarlo!” What ensued was a half hour of beating our way all the way up the top of the pasture again, without finding the trail, our zealous friend insisting all the while that it was just ahead, right around here somewhere. Kathi was turning all shades of red and completely flushed from the heat, and shaky from hunger, and I was getting kind of slap-happy and goofy. Hey, at least it was exercise, a hell of a sunburn, and an absolutely world-class collection of ticks and chiggers we were enjoying for the morning. Arriving at the top of the pasture without having found the trail, and pretty well signing off on the chance of finding a Wing-banded Antbird, or anything beyond more cattle, we had some water and a breather. Sensing our dejection, the park guard again grabbed his machete and pointed at absolutely impenetrable second growth scrub and offered to open a path so we could go up into the mountain! I asked again just where the trail was that all the others had taken and he said “yeah, it’s hard to find, it’s probably back down below, where we came from.” Kathi’s response to that isn’t fit to print on this blog, but we followed him back down the way we had come, enjoying this particular stretch of hillside for the fourth time of the morning.
Miraculously, however, as we got all the way back down to the very bottom of the pasture, a way through the thickets was discovered leading down to the creek and he excitedly started yelling for us to come quick, he’d found the trail! Well, actually, I couldn’t understand a word of what he was yelling but had a good idea of what he was trying to communicate nonetheless. Sure enough, there was a trail leaving the other side of the creek, and a pretty good, open trail it was! Not satisfied, he bounded up the trail swinging his machete saying he’d open it for us the whole way! We were both beet-red from the heat and ready for lunch and a bit of rest. It took a bit of jogging after him and explaining that we were going to stop for a bit. He asked if he should go ahead and open the trail some more and I assured him, again, that that wouldn’t be necessary, and that too much noise and commotion scares wildlife away. Finally coming to agreement that we were eternally thankful and that he needn’t go any further, he headed up one last time to make sure it was clear for a ways before bounding back down. At this point we had taken off our packs and shoes and gotten out our lunch. Seeing my shoes off, we got a very serious warning NOT to swim in the creek as this was THE MUNICIPAL WATER SUPPLY and we might dirty it. Never mind the hundreds of acres of cattle pasture that drained cow shit and urine directly into the creek, and never mind that we assured him over and over again that we weren’t getting in the creek, it was duly impressed upon us that it was his DUTY to protect the water supply and we were NOT to touch it.
Trying to pass a bit of the mid-day heat and rest a bit, we had a nice lunch on the streamside boulders and pondered our dwindling drinking water. An hour or so later, despite the early afternoon heat and little water left, we headed up. Initially the trail climbed very steeply through thickets of second growth into which you couldn’t see at all. It didn’t matter too much, though, as with the mid-day heat there was zero bird activity. As we got into healthier forest we passed through a huge White-collared Manakin lek where we logged about 10 individuals and probably undercounted by a lot.By about 3pm we made it up into really nice primary rainforest around 900-1000 meters elevation. The temperature in the forest was much more tolerable and there were even little bits of bird activity from time to time! Continuing on, eyes on the forest floor at all times for a secretive terrestrial antbird, and futilely trying playback a few times, we climbed higher and higher into beautiful forest. After a while of this, with still overall very little activity, we finally heard a good bit of commotion further ahead and came to a gorgeous patch of massive trees with open understory and a troop of White-faced Capuchin Monkeys making quite a disturbance and a large number of birds around as well. Russet Antshrikes sang overhead, White-ruffed Manakins and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes called from deep inside the forest, Olive-backed Euphonias and Tawny-crowned Greenlets could be heard all around, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers were making their typical raucous calls among many other birds we were working to sort out. With the burst of activity, and with the open views into the understory, I decided to try playing the Wing-banded Antbird’s song for chuckles, despite the fact that this bird is not typically a mixed-flock species. The moment the song started playing, though, I saw motion on the forest floor. I called it out to Kathi and we started scanning around the area I had seen movement. 20 seconds passed, 30, 40, and we couldn’t pick up any motion or find a bird on the forest floor or perched low. I played the song again briefly and instantly a dark lump zipped through the understory. Fixing my bins where it stopped, I was staring at a Wing-banded Antbird! We managed some quick, poor photos, before it flew in closer and perched in a reasonably open situation allowing even better photos. What fantastic luck! A day we had long since written off suddenly was working out splendidly, we found our target in the middle of the afternoon and it posed for photos no less! Soon more flock activity caught our attention as a Spotted Antbird started singing it’s fantastically excited song close by and soon came into view. The Wing-banded Antbird sang very softly a couple times but eluded recording. While tracking it and the Spotted Antbird, we recorded an odd nasal call, presumably from an Antbird, that we didn’t recognize. A Rufous Mourner sang and a Rufous-tailed Jacamar called more distantly. A Black-faced Grosbeak put in a quick appearance, we tracked down a White-ruffed Manakin for a quick photo op, and as fast as that the activity subsided, the Capuchin Monkeys calmed down and faded into the forest and we were left in silence. A very long day, a lot of hiking, a lot of frustration, but in the end we had 15 minutes of amazing birding and, in the form of the Wing-banded Antbird, one of the absolutely most awesome birds of the trip and a heck of a lifer for both of us! We had a couple sips of water left and, despite sore knees and exhaustion, we pressed on uphill a bit. However, not encountering any further activity and soon coming up to a windy ridge we decided to call it a day. We descended back to where we’d had the mixed flock and paused for a few minutes to eat a bit and see if we could re-located the Wing-banded Antbird. We failed to relocate the Antbird but were treated to a female-plumaged Snowcap dancing overhead repeatedly and even managed some decent recordings of its call notes between bouts of wind! That final little success in hand, we started the long hike down, first descending back to the creek, then another hot and sunny hike down the endless cutover cattle pastures, then the long hike back down the road. It was nearly 6PM when we finally got back to the truck, about 13 hours after we started, and the last two beers in the refrigerator were perhaps the finest beers ever brewed.
How to get to Cerro Musun and actually get into the forest!
First, get to Rio Blanco, east of Matagalpa, by way of the towns of Muy Muy and Matiguás. In Rio Blanco, arriving in town, there’s a prominent left turn into town from the highway across from the gas station. Take this and head past the central square. On the far corner of the central square, there is a police station and a sign for Cerro Musún. Turn left here, and at the end of the block, turn right. After turning right, you just continue straight several blocks then through some fields. Arriving at a river, you cross the river and take the righthand, steeper, and better looking of the two roads. This is followable with 4WD and clearance for a kilometer or two before you’ll get to a point that is pretty flat and a good place to park as it will be clear when you cannot continue any further. From here, walk about 20 minutes uphill to a big wooden gate at a ranch house. Through the gate you have an immediate fork in the road, go right! After a ways and after another wooden gate (with the broken sign for the reserve lying on the ground on the right), there is another fork. Take the more well-trodden but smaller path that heads slightly downhill to the right. This leads to the ranger station. The ranger can help you find the trails, but to be sure here are better directions! When you arrive, the ranger’s station is across a fence to your right. If you were to continue along this fence line rather than cross into the ranger’s station, it would lead to a cleared field that heads downhill. At the bottom of the field are two gates that exit the field. You want the left-hand gate that is in better repair that leads to a wide open track. Take this track a few hundred fairly flat meters to an intersection. Left leads uphill, right leads downhill (to the old sugar mill and the lower waterfall and canyon), and straight leads to a creek crossing but then peters out. Go left here, climbing steeply on a narrow trail alongside the creek with some nice waterfalls. When you suddenly come to a barbed wire fence and huge cow field, cross the fence and make note of where you crossed the fence to find it later. From here, you could either climb steeply up the pasture or wind your way to the right. Head right, and you’ll come to kind of a canyon or draw. Head uphill enough to skirt this draw, and you can get around the corner of the little canyon and into a further away “bottom-right” corner of the field. I realize this is a difficult description so we’ve included a picture that should help clarify. Just head up and right to get around the steep draw, then follow the bottom edge of the field to the very bottom right corner. A small path can be found through the scrub here and some rock hopping leads across the creek to the small but open and easy to follow trail. GPS coordinates for the bottom corner of the pasture and the creek crossing are 12.9628, -85.23341. Once on this trail, it is a steep but short climb up through thickets of second growth to arrive in healthy forest and get at the good birds! If you know what you’re doing it’s probably 75-90 minutes of hiking from where you cannot drive any further to the creek crossing and the trail you finally want. Or, if you are us, it was about 6 hours!