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26 February - 10 March 2004

by Mike Mulligan

Chiapas is Mexico's southernmost and economically poorest state, in many ways more similar to neighboring Guatemala than to the rest of the country.  It's also much less birded than Yucatan, Quintana Roo or Oaxaca states, or the famed Durango Highway east of Mazatlan---in spite its rich and varied birdlife.  Kim Risen and I had never birded here, and had discussed and planned this adventure for a couple years.  We were most excited about the prospect of finding the mythical Horned Guan and Cabanis's (Azure-rumped) Tanager at El Triunfo as well as other Chiapas specialties.

Our group of seven birders flies to Tuxtla Gutierrez (Chiapas) from Mexico City on February 26 where we're met by Kim.  The group: Marilynn Burke (Portland OR), David Davidson (San Antonio) and son Daniel (Seattle), Doug Johnson (Bemidji MN), Steve Knight (Edmonton AB), Peter Neubeck (Minneapolis) and myself.  Most of us are old tropical birding comrades.

Before making the El Triunfo trek we check out some other locations.  On our first full day (with a 5:30 start of course) we make our way to Arriaga, exploring Laguna Belgica educational reserve, La Cima de las Cotorras sinkhole and the surrounding foothills.  Today's birds (excluding most North American species) are Least Grebe, White-tailed Hawk, Short-billed Pigeon, Green Parakeet, Squirrel Cuckoo, Groove-billed Ani, Central American Pygmy-Owl, Canivet's Emerald, Green-fronted Hummingbird, Citreoline Trogon, Collared Aracari, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Buff-throated and Ruddy Foliage-gleaners, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Bright-rumped Attila (heard), Boat-billed and Social Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbird, Masked Tityra, our only Green Shrike-Vireo, Brown Jay, Spot-breasted and Banded Wrens, Tropical Mockingbird, Golden-crowned and Rufous-capped Warblers, both Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, White-winged Tanager, Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias, Spot-breasted and Hooded Orioles, Black-headed Saltator and several stunning Rose-bellied Buntings.

The next day we cover the road through Cabeza del Toro to Boca del Cielo, a small coastal fishing village.  After a lunch stop at Puerto Arista we check out nearby lagoons and mangroves.  A bit of evening owling is not productive; we overnight at Arriaga.  Lots of common waterbirds and shorebirds today, but we also pick up Reddish Egret, Boat-billed Heron in the mangroves, Wood Stork, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Magnificent Frigatebird, Mangrove Black-Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Crested Caracara, Laughing Gull, several terns (Gull-billed, Caspian, Royal, Sandwich), Black Skimmer, White-winged Dove, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Pacific and Orange-fronted Parakeets, White-fronted and Yellow-naped Parrots, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Golden-fronted and Lineated Woodpeckers, Common Tody-Flycatcher; Vermilion, Dusky-capped and Nutting's Flycatchers, Great Kiskadee, Mangrove Vireo, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Mangrove Swallow, Giant Wren, Rufous-backed (Rufous-naped) Wren, Mangrove Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Altamira Oriole and Yellow-winged Cacique.

On Day Three we drive west, crossing briefly into Oaxaca, and bird the Tapanatepec foothills.  Then on to Tuxtla Gutierrez and the comfortable Best Western Motel for overnight.  We add White Ibis, King Vulture, Double-toothed Kite; Gray, Short-tailed and Zone-tailed Hawks, West Mexican Chachalaca, Northern Jacana, Golden-crowned Emerald, Doubleday's (Broad-billed) Hummingbird, Long-billed Starthroat, a Russet-crowned Motmot pair, Brown-crested and Flammulated Flycatchers, Rufous-naped Wren, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Streak-backed Oriole (many), at least ten Orange-breasted Buntings and sixteen Rose-bellied Buntings.  The bunting display, at times both species together, is spectacular.

At 6:00 am we're on our way to nearby Sumidero Canyon.  Birding is slow but we locate a rare male Blue Seedeater, a life bird for me.  After refreshments at the park's restaurant---with a view of one of the world's deepest canyons---we drive southeast to the village of Jaltenango.  Also called Angel Albino Corzo, it's the gateway to El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve.  We stay the night at the only place in town, aptly named Hotel El Triunfo.  New birds this day are White-tailed Kite, Red-billed Pigeon, White-throated Swift, Azure-crowned and Berylline Hummingbirds, Violaceous Trogon (heard), Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Black-capped Swallow from the canyon restaurant, Ridgeway's (Northern) Rough-winged Swallow, Clay-colored Robin, Yellow-winged Tanager, Olive Sparrow and Blue Bunting.

Well before sun-up on Day Five we're sort of enjoying a breakfast of eggs, beans and tortillas and meeting Jorge Uribe, the "park ranger" assigned to our group.  The Reserve closely monitors visitors and provides a ranger, a couple cooks, food and mules to haul in supplies (for a fee).  Jorge, a graduate biologist and excellent birder, will stay with us the entire week.  An indication of the remoteness of El Triunfo: Jorge tells us that they average about 250 visitors a year, and of those less than 50 are birders.  We 're transported to the trailhead in a four-wheel-drive cattle truck, about a two-hour endurance test over a primitive road.  Food and gear are loaded onto the mules (nine of them!) and we set out up the trail.  It's a tough hike, generally uphill (750-meter altitude gain) but with lots of ups and downs.  The distance is either 10 or 14 kilometers depending on whom you ask.  It feels like 30, but we manage some good birding on the way. 

Six hours later we arrive at El Triunfo Camp, and it looks real good to us.  The camp consists of a dormitory with running water (actually hot for an hour daily), a kitchen-dining building, and a research-dorm structure.  "Kitchen-dining" means an open-air structure with a couple tables and benches, an open wood fire (it's smoky in there) and a small propane stove.  Our dormitory contains actual beds with mattresses, but Kim is so excited that he pitches his tent outside and sleeps in it each night---with the mules loose in the yard.  Today we record Black-Hawk-Eagle, Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Pheasant Cuckoo is heard only, Lesser Roadrunner, White-collared Swift, Plain-capped Starthroat, Collared Trogon, both Tody and Blue-throated Motmots, Black-banded and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Barred Antshrike, Paltry Tyrannulet, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Greater Pewee, Black Phoebe, Gray-collared Becard, Brown-capped Vireo, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Green Jay, Plain Wren, Brown-backed Solitaire, White-throated and Black Robins, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue-gray Tanager, Green and Red-legged Honeycreepers, Blue-black Grassquit, Rusty Sparrow, Grayish Saltator and Melodious Blackbird.  A Fulvous Owl is heard during the night.

The next three days (Six, Seven, Eight) we work the trails around El Triunfo Camp: Finca Prussia trail, Bandera, Last Refuge and Palo Gordo trails, Finca Prussia again---also the open camp area itself.  Long hikes, short walks.  The birding is marvelous, the weather holds, and the crew feeds us well.  We're thrilled with several fine views of Horned Guan and note all the marks: white finely streaked breast, white tail band, bright red "horn" on top of head.  We even hear the call several times, a low hoot which reminds me of a Great Curassow.  Steve Howell (author, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America) calls this guan a "bizarre cracid," and it truly is that. 

One day we spot eight Highland Guans, another of the cracid family, plus Singing Quail (heard), Band-tailed Pigeon, Green Violet-ear, Black-crested Coquette (male, well-seen in bush near our dormitory), Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Amethyst-throated and Wine-throated Hummingbirds, Mountain Trogon, a displaying Resplendent Quetzal pair near the dining building, Emerald Toucanet, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Scaled Antpitta (I snooze one morning and miss this jewel), Tufted and Yellowish Flycatchers, Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, daily Black-throated Jays, Unicolored Jay, Rufous-browed Wren, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Ruddy-capped and Spotted Nightingale-Thrushes, Mountain Robin, Crescent-chested and Golden-browed Warblers, Slate-throated Redstart, Common Bush-Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager, a Blue-crowned Chlorophonia pair, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer, Yellow-throated Brush-Finch, Rufous-collared Sparrow and the endemic orange race of Yellow Grosbeak.  White-faced Quail-Doves are heard by all, seen by some right in the camp yard.

Day Nine begins with an early breakfast.  Mules are loaded and we pack up and set off on La Costa trail.  This takes us over the Continental Divide (2100 meters) and down the Pacific side, a shorter but steeper route than the one we ascended.  Mid-afternoon we arrive at Canada Honda camp and pitch our tents in the tropical evergreen forest.  En route we admire our last Horned Guan and add Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, Sparkling-tailed Woodstar (Hummingbird), Rufous-and-white Wren, Gray Silky-flycatcher, "Chestnut-capped" subspecies of Rufous-capped Warbler, Elegant Euphonia and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch.  Our target bird at this location is the rare and quite local Cabanis's (Azure-rumped) Tanager, but our search is unsuccessful.  We retire early---I'm always surprised that I actually enjoy sleeping in a tent.

Following a fine field breakfast we look once more for our tanager.  It's finally spotted by a few.  Today's walk is about eight kilometers; downhill hiking is certainly easier!  We find the largest pit viper I've ever seen, probably a fer-de-lance---and remain a respectful distance from it.  Our goal is Limonar camp, where we once again set up for overnight.  The day's highlight is a flock of approximately 35 Fan-tailed Warblers following an antswarm.  Many of these lovely birds remain on the trail in full view, seemingly oblivious of our presence.  Also new today are Long-tailed Manakin, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush and White-eared Ground-Sparrow.  Near the campsite we find both Rufous and Violet Sabrewings.  Kim hears a Mottled Owl calling in the night.

It's a windy morning as we head for Paval camp near the village of Tres de Mayo.  Paval sits at 550 meters, a long downhill from Limonar.  The lower montane forest is warmer and more humid than we've been accustomed to.  After supper the stream near our campsite hosts some birders discreetly scrubbing up---needed or not.  We find some good birds today: a total of six(!) King Vultures, "White-breasted" Sharp-shinned Hawk, White Hawk, a striking Solitary Eagle, a second look at a Black Hawk-Eagle, Highland Guan for the sixth consecutive day, Pauraque, Blue-tailed Hummingbird, a final Tody Motmot, Green Kingfisher at our bathing spot, Yellow-green Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager and "White-faced" Prevost's Ground-Sparrow near the campsite.

Day Twelve and it's time to go home.  Take down tents, bird around campsite (White-bellied Chachalaca noted by some, dozens of Vaux's Swifts, Rose-throated Becard, Long-billed Gnatwren, White-collared Seedeater).  We walk a couple kilometers to trailhead, ride in back of truck for two hours to Mapastepec, transfer to van, drive to Tapachula.  Overnight at pleasant Hotel Cabildo.  Next day fly to Mexico City, say good-byes, fly home.

Wonderful birding adventure! 

Mike Mulligan