By Alberto Lobato
(translated by Jennie Duberstein)
The El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, located in the south of the Mexican state of Chiapas and decreed in 1990, encompasses an area of approximately 119,117 hectares (about 294,345 acres). Although the Reserve has diverse habitats, one of the most important is the cloud forest.
I had the opportunity to visit this cloud forest for three days (and a little more) during January 2013 with a group of biologists and researchers from INECOL (the Institute of Ecology) to conduct Horned Guan and Resplendent Quetzal monitoring. And since I’m also a birder, I took advantage of the trip to be able to see not only these species, but more. Here I am going to share a few of my experiences.
To get to El Triunfo you have to travel through a number of different towns. The last one that we passed through was called Jaltenango La Paz. Afterwards, the highway changed into a dirt road and the trees began to be bigger. We passed little by little from tropical lowland forest into cloud forest. I took note of this because I saw more and more water as we traveled, as well as orchids.
After traveling for a time on the very curvy road, we arrived at Finca Prusia, where we prepared to continue the climb on foot. To get to the field camp in El Triunfo, you have to climb approximately 12 kilometers on foot.
The landscape changed as we climbed. First we passed some coffee plantations; then, little by little, the cloud forest began to overtake the terrain. There were little patches of pine forest and as we climbed, it began to feel a little cool. The views from the trail were incredible: the tops of the hills were getting closer and closer (well, I suppose we were getting closer and closer to them, actually).
Finally, after several hours of hiking, we arrived at the camp. It was already getting dark and we heard some Fulvous Owls calling, a common species here. Once it was dark, it began to get colder. We were almost 2000 meters above sea level (over 6,500 feet), and the temperature can get as low as 32 degrees F during the night.
The following morning, we got up before sunrise to eat something and begin monitoring. The methodology consisted of walking a pre-determined distance and looking for the target species (Resplendent Quetzal, Horned Guan, or Highland Guan). If we spotted one, we noted the location and the bird’s behavior. The study is trying to improve our understanding of these species and their populations.
Inside the cloud forest it was cold and very humid. The water ran down from the crowns of enormous trees. Grey-breasted Wood Wrens were singing loudly. We heard various individuals, although there wasn’t much else. The forest was filled with a heavy stillness. But as we moved on, birds began to appear. Suddenly before us was a Spectacled Foliage-Gleaner, foraging with its head underneath the fallen leaves. Several Brown-backed Solitaires began to sing, a becard that didn’t give us a very good view made a brief appearance, and a Spotted Woodcreeper made its way up a nearby tree. But we still hadn’t seen any of the species we were trying to monitor.
After walking about 2 kilometers, we heard the Horned Guan: it makes a truly strange sound, as if you were blowing across the mouth of an empty bottle about seven times. It is a really low-frequency sound, which can be confused with the sounds of the wings of a hummingbird, but this was definitely a Horned Guan. We collected the necessary data about where we’d heard it and we tried to get a visual, but this is a very stealthy bird and it probably its song can travel distances; we didn’t actually get to see it.
We kept walking through the quickly-warming forest to complete the transect. Suddenly a Green-throated Mountain-Gem came buzzing by. They feed on the nectar of the flowers of certain bromeliads. There were orchids in the trees, moss-covered trunks, a Horned Guan, some lianas, and…WAIT A MINUTE!! There was the bird we were looking for! It was an immature individual, with the red horn, so characteristic of the species, shorter than it would be on an adult. We were concentrating so hard on observing the bird that we didn’t immediately notice that there was another guan hidden nearby—the mother of the young bird. She approached her offspring and fed it. The observation of these behaviors was really important, in part because we don’t know much about the Horned Guan and every observation of them is potentially teaching us something that we didn’t know before.
Slowly the birds began to move off. They were very calm and didn’t’ seem to be at all disturbed by our presence. We were nearly at the end of our transect, so we finished up the final meters and then returned to the campsite.
But another surprise was waiting for us, because on our return, in the spot where we’d heard the first guan of the day, we found another two birds! These were two adults displaying courtship behavior. This is an incredible thing to observe. The male calls from a high perch and the female responds (the calls of the males and females are distinct). The male is stimulated to eat by the call of the female and afterwards he feeds the female as if she were a nestling.
The guans continued their courtship directly above our heads before slowly beginning to move deeper into the forest…
Stay tuned for part 2 of Alberto’s story, coming soon!
About the author: Alberto Lobato is a 16-year-old birder who was born in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. He has been birding since he was 5 years old and is an active member of the Xalapa Birding Club (Club de Observadores de Aves de Xalapa, or COAX). He has traveled with COAX to various parts of Mexico. In addition to birding, he is a musician, with an interest in traditional music. Alberto’s favorite bird is the Bearded Wood-Partridge.