Four friends, Mike Brady, John Haddix, Dan Ellsworth and Brad Benter met up for a ten day trip to Chiapas. The main purpose of the trip was to visit the biosphere El Triunfo and to pick up a few endemics missed on past trips to Chiapas. We used the guia roji road maps and found them very accurate and helpful.
In this report I will list the target birds as well as some other good birds that we were able to find.
Our trip started and ended in Tuxtla Gutierrez where we met up with Dan Ellsworth, An Alaskan with a second home near Oaxaca City. Dan had a well travelled Ford Explorer that served as our transportation for the twelve day adventure. The main goal of the trip was to visit the El Triunfo biosphere in the highlands of south-western Chiapas.
February 23- Meet up with friends in Tuxtla and organize gear for the trip.
February 24- Travel to Sumidero Canyon and bird around the Tuxtla Zoo.
February 25- Travel to the El Ocote Biosphere to look for the highly localized
Nava’s Wren. Afternoon travel to San Cristobal and on to Jaltenengo (angel Albino Corzo)
February 26- Morning drive to the village of Santa Rita and hike into the research station in the heart of El Triunfo.
February 27- Morning birding near research station, Afternoon hike down to Canada Honda.
February 28- Morning birding at Canada Honda, Afternoon hike back to research station.
March 1- Birding trails around research station.
March 2- Early morning hike to Santa Rita and off to San Cristobal for owling.
March 3- Morning birding around San Cristobal then drive to Tapachula by way of Motozintla.
March 4- Bird the hotel grounds of Loma Real and off to the stream near the microwave towers near Motozintla, night in Puerto Arista.
March 5- Morning birding in mangrove areas around Boca de Cielo, afternoon in the Arriaga foothills.
March 6- Morning at Sumidero Canyon, flight back to Alaska.
February 23 - John was the first to arrive from Alaska and met up with Dan and his wife Maria. They drove to town and secured lodging at the Hotel Estrella in Tuxtla, and then went to the Tuxtla Zoo to bird until it was time to pick up Brad and Mike from the Airport. Highlights for John were Russet Crowned Motmot, Banded Wren and Yellow- winged Cicique. After nearly 20 hours of travel time from Alaska I met up with Mike, John, Dan and his wife Maria at the new Tuxtla airport. We made a quick stop at the river near the airport and had Vermiculated Screech and Ferruginous Pygmy-owl calling. During a very late dinner near the Tuxtla Zocolo we had several Tropical Kingbirds hawking insects around the streetlights. First time I have seen kingbirds feeding in the middle of the night. Night in the Hotel Estrella near the Tuxtla Zocolo.
February 24 - The gates to Sumidero Canyon open at 6:00am, just early enough to allow you to get to the upper miradors (lookouts) by first light during this time of year. Our first stop was the third to last mirador. Our target bird was the Belted Flycatcher. With the use of moderate playback I was able to pull one out of the bush inside of three minutes of closing the car door. After a few more minutes of birding this area we moved to the mirador Coyote as it has a nice trail and offers great birding away from the road, although we didn’t see another car until 7:30am. With the improved light I wanted to try to get a picture of a belted flycatcher so I again played the song just outside the car door for in short sessions for about a minute. We had three different Belted Flycatchers come out to investigate; no future attempts were made to locate this bird. Now we were on to other target birds. At El Roblar Mirador we located two Red-breasted Chats in a nice mixed warbler flock, our first Highland Guans, and a group of Blue-and-white Mockingbirds. A nice flowering tree next to the parking spot had a close range female Slender Sheartail. Not a bad morning of birding.
We birded the last mirador, during breakfast a male Slender Sheartail made a visit to a flowering tree next to the restaurant. On the way out we tried our best to pull a Flammulated Flycatcher out of the scrub without luck, just to dry I think. We then headed off to the Tuxtla Zoo to bird picking up Yellow-winged Cacique on the way. Our target bird for photography, Russet-crowned Motmot was located several times during our two hour walk around the zoo. This is also a great place to photograph the “feral” guans, currasows, and chachalacas, just hang out near the snack shacks. This night was spent again in the Hotel Estrella in Tuxtla.
February 25 - We decided to start early today for the hour plus drive to the boat launch for our trip in to El Ocote biosphere. We met up with our boat and guide at 6:45 am and set off for the headquarters, a 45 minute trip with our boat. After a stop for gas we arrived at 8:00am, much later than I was hoping for. The place was absolutely beautiful with the headquarters on the edge of the lake surrounded by limestone cliffs and dense jungle. We immediately started off into the limestone hill listening and watching for birds. The habitat is perfect for Nava’s wren and much more pristine than the Uxpanapa Region and the Tuxtla to Mexico City toll road sites. We were only able to locate one singing bird during our short hour and a half walk, most likely due to time of day. As I mentioned, the habitat is undisturbed and the birding potential is excellent. The species composition was very similar to the Uxpanapa Region on the Oaxaca Veracruz border. We missed Long-tailed Sabrewing, and saw very few flowering plants. I feel the area has great potential for birding with a night of camping at the headquarters. We arrived back at the launch by 11:00 and were off to Tuxtla to check out of the hotel. We decided to make a run to San Cristobal on the new toll road. It is a straight shot and only took us 50 minutes from the outskirts of Tuxtla. We did some shopping and then spent a few minutes setting up a night owling trip for the following week into Cerro Heutepic reserve. We spent the rest of the afternoon driving to Jaltenengo and checked in to the El Triunfo Lodge. We had a nice dinner with Fredirico from The El Triunfo Biosphere. He got us all situated and introduced us to Ishmael, our guide for the next five days.
February 26 - We slept in until 6:30am and then went out for breakfast, what a change from normal birding routine. We started off on the drive to Santa Rita with Ishmael and food for the week. We birded along the way during the two hour drive, on what I would consider not bad dirt roads. Upon arrival at Finca Prussia our horsemen took all our food and gear and loaded it up for the trek up the mountain. We continued a few more kilometers on to Santa Rita and parked our car at the school. We started out hiking at noon with very light packs and beautiful weather. The birding was excellent on the way up with several new trip birds including the first of what must have been two dozen Blue-crowned Chlorophonias. Ismael is an excellent guide and was able point out the call of Azure-rumped Tanager to us. We would not get a good look at this bird for a few days. After five hours of slow climbing (the trail is excellent with a 10 to 15% grade most of the way, steeper down low) we reached the cloud forest habitat and started to listen for our target birds, Highland Guans, Brown-backed Solitaires and Golden-browed Warbles were everywhere. The next two hours of birding were some of the best I have had in Mexico. We had reached an area call Bandera that allows for excellent views out over the forest. Instantly we started hearing, then seeing Resplendent Quetzals with a high count of five in one tree. We then ticked off Black Thrush, Blue-throated Motmot, Rufous-browed Wren and White-faced Quail-Dove. A few feet further down the trail Ishmael pointed out the grunting of a Horned Guan. Within a few minutes we pinpointed the tree it was coming from. I was directly under the tree when I first saw it move. This is no lie, in the same field of view (with my bins) thirty feet above me were two quetzals and a horned guan. We watched and photographed this bird for 15 minutes as it hummed and grunted and generally acted quite excited. The bird then flew over to another tree fifty meters away and copulated with a female and the pair remained out in the open for the next several minutes. The low hum of the horned guan was common sound over the next four days. Light was fading as we approached camp to the duet of a pair of Fulvous Owls, and Highland Guans were calling from all directions. We then met up with Ishmaels’ sister Rosie, our cook and their brother Ortin. The food was excellent and prepared with a smile and friendly stories, our crew was in heaven. After dinner we found our gear was set out for us in the entry of one of the bunk houses. We each had showers and worked on our lists before settling in.
February 27 - Rosie was up early and had breakfast ready for us at 5:30 am. We were back out to bandera for first light, about 6:00am. The night before I asked Ishmael about a few key birds we wanted to see. He said we needed to be standing by a small wooden sign near where we saw the first quetzals, at first light. Like clockwork we had Wine-throated Hummingbirds coming in to the flowering plants at regular intervals. In the same general area we had several Green-throated Mountain-gems along with the occasional Amethyst-throated and Emerald-chinned Hummingbirds. Our first of several flocks of Black-capped Swallows worked the tree-tops around the overlook and Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers stole the nectar from the abundant flowering plants, while several singing quail were calling in the forest. We met up for lunch, from the window of the kitchen area we had Yellow Grosbeak and Flame-colored Tanager calling. During lunch we all decided to make a trip down to Canada Honda for an overnight. The trails were still in very bad shape from heavy rains that occurred a year before. Ishmael told us we were only the third birding group to make the hike in two years. We spent several hours removing trees and cutting in new trails on the way down (Michael Carmody you owe us one), but we all seemed to enjoy this and didn’t want to turn back. Birding was excellent all the way picking up most of the same birds with Black and White Hawk-Eagle, Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo and our first of many Rufous Sabrewings. There was also a pair of very cooperative Blue-Crowned Chlorophonia that we were able to watch from just a few feet away building a nest. Once we reached the camp we found Rufous and White Wren and Sparkling-Tailed Hummingbird before it was dark.
February 28 - The game plan for the morning was to spread out over the different overlooks off the trail for the first 500m down from the camp at Canada Honda. I stayed at the creek not 10m from the camping area and started watching for our target tanager. At first light I had a new hummingbird eating midges not 5 meters out, it was an unexpected Blue-tailed Hummingbird. The location was good for hummingbirds with several sightings of Rufous Sabrewing and Sparkling-Tailed Woodstar. Other good birds seen from my log included Green Shrike-Vireo, Spectacled Foliage Gleaner and Green Parakeet. It was 8:30am when I spotted two blue colored birds flying overhead, at that same moment I heard Ishmael yelling from the trail 100m away that he too had the birds, Cabanis’ Tanager, finally. The birds landed in the canopy above the trail, allowing good views. We now decided to work the trail down from Canada Honda for the next few hours. The highlight was a lek of no less than four male Long-tailed Manakins about a kilometer down. Other good birds included Tawny-throated Leaftosser, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Collared Trogron and several Red-legged Honeycreepers. We packed up camp at noon and started back to El Triunfo. The trip back was much easier than the way in with the improved trail. We picked up several more good birds with Mountain Thrush, Blue and White Mockingbirds, Yellow-Throated Brushfinch and our first group of Black-throated jays near the clearing of El Triunfo camp. With all the hiking over the past few days we actually took it easy around camp and called it a night after a wonderful dinner.
March 1 - On our last full day at El Triunfo we decided to take it easy and do some photography and pick up any species we were looking for. With Ishmaels knowledge of the area and birds we knew had great luck. Spotted Nightingale Thrush was near the compost pile at dawn, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner near the first clearing on the Finca trail and Barred Parakeets flying over the clearing at camp in the afternoon. I found a small ant swarm on the first 50 m of the Canada Honda trail. It was nice to just sit off to the side and watch as the birds worked the swarm. Followers included Ruddy-capped and spotted Nightingale-thrushes, Yellow-olive Flycatchers, Golden-browed warblers, Slate-throated Redstart, and Swainson’s Thrush. In the distance I could hear Singing Quail and Unicolored Jays to round out a pleasant hour of sitting still. That afternoon was spent on photography of Horned Guans and Quetzals near Bandera and a very cooperative group of Chestnut-capped Brushfinch near the next overlook. On the way back I heard a pair of Fulvous Owls not far from the trail. I attempted a crude imitation of their call and almost immediately had the pair land in the tree directly in front of me. There was still enough light to focus on them and take a few images for the crew to see.
March 2 - We had a big day planned so we asked the horse crew to leave as early as possible, no problem, with a smile. Mike, John and I left before 5:00am and Dan opted to hang back and hike down with the gear. Dan is fluent in Spanish and enjoys learning as much as possible about an area and the people living there, an opportunity for a three hour conversation. By first light the three of us were about 2 km above the highest coffee plants. Birding was excellent; we picked up dozens of new species including Tody Motmot, Brown-capped Vireo, White-winged and Yellow-winged Tanagers. We met up with the horses at 9:30 am and loaded up our gear for the five hour drive to San Cristobal. We ended up with car problems just outside of the city so we decided to bird the weedy fields off the side of the toll road while we waited for a tow. We searched hard for Black-capped Siskin, without luck. Dan found a mechanic who said the water pump went out and would not be ready until tomorrow morning. We found a room and dinner before we took a collectivo to Cerro Heuitpec. We hiked off the road a ways into what looked like good forest looking for Bearded Screech-Owl. Played the MP3 as we walked up into the forest, after 30 minutes we were about to turn back when we heard the faintest reply. We planted ourselves and waited. The owl came right in and we could see it fly through the openings in the canopy. We tried for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl but were denied until the following morning.
March 3 - We woke early and found a taxi to take us back up Cerro Heuitpec on the microdonas road. We had heard that it is possible to find Black-capped Siskin here. We never did find this species but managed to have a most memorable morning birding along the road. Some of the highlights included Cresent-chested Warbler, Blue and white Mockingbird, Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, Garnet-throated, Amethyst-throated, White-eared and Magnificent Hummingbirds, Blue-throated Motmot, Black-capped Swallow, Rufous-collared Thrush, Grey-silky Flycatchers, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Band Backed Wren and White-naped Brushfinch. I also had a fly over bird that I instantly called Hooded Grosbeak, which I have seen in several other locations in Mexico and would be curious if anyone else has seen it here. We finished up a wonderful morning and jumped into the car for a drive to Comitan to pick up Maria and off to Tapachula for the night. This was six hour drive and it was dark by the time we reached Motozintla so no birding was done on the drive. We had a good meal at the Zocolo before heading out to the convention center on the outskirts of town. Here we played the MP3 for Pacific Screech-Owl and had an immediate response bring in a curious bird. We stayed in a cheap hotel near the Zocolo for 25 dollars.
March 4 - The next morning found us at the Hotel Loma Real near the convention center. The management and guards seem to understand birders and we found several of the guards to have an excellent knowledge of the local birds. Within minutes of walking onto the property we had our first Giant Wren building a nest near the far room. We saw no less than a dozen Giant Wrens this morning. I asked one of the guards about White-bellied Chachalacas and he took us to an overlook where we instantly had several different birds. Other good birds form the grounds included Spot-breasted Orioles and Rose-throated Becards. We had an excellent buffet style breakfast and on towards Mapatepec. We have not been able to pick up Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow yet in Mexico so this became our target bird. We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon birding the river valley near the Microwave towers outside Mapastepec. The area was heavily cut over but the mixed habitats offered excellent birding. We were amazed at the diversity and numbers of birds in the areas we birded. Our list for the area pushed 80 species in a few hours with Giant Wren and Chestnut-capped Warbler topping off the list. It was also neat to compare the race of Rufous-naped Wren to the Giant Wren feeding side by side. It was hard to head north without Prevost’s Ground- Sparrow but you need a reason to come back. We explored the side roads in the area trying to find a road that leads to the ocean. We had little luck but managed to meet several very nice country folk. On the next leg we again had car troubles about 50 km out from Tonala. We jumped on a bus and went looking for a mechanic again. After a few blocks of walking Maria located a mechanic that was willing to drive back to the car and try to repair it, which he ended up doing the next day. We headed off to Puerto Arista for the night and stayed in the first Hotel we found. The beech scene was nice and the beers were cheep. The town was a little rowdy but we managed to sleep until 5:30am.
March 5 - This morning Dan and Maria returned from Tonala with the news about the car, the mechanic need a few more hours. We hired a collective to take us down to Boca De Cielo for the morning. We rented a boat to take us out to the mangroves for 8 dollars. The birding was a little slow but we managed a few new waterbirds for the trip. We headed back to Tonala at noon and picked up the car. We drove through Arriaga into the riparian forest area about 15 km out. We made several stops at different pull outs with the most productive being on a small creek off to the right on a big left hand turn. Here we located Greeen-fronted Hummingbird, Canivett’s Emerald, Plain-capped Starthroat, Spot-breasted Wren and several Rosita’s Buntings We found this bird quite common and were surprised not to see any Orange-breasted Buntings. In Oaxaca we always have Orange breasted come in with Rosita’s when we imitate a Pygmy Owl. The rest of the evening was spent driving towards Tuxtla for the flight home the next day. We spent another night at the Hotel Estrella.
March 6 - This morning we headed to El Sumidero canyon for some birding before our flights back to the US, We again tried for the Flammulated Flycatcher with no more luck than before. We headed back down to the first mirador where there were numerous birds including Red-breasted Chats, Streaked-Backed Orioles, Varied Buntings, and Plain Wrens. It was hard to leave with all of the activity but I had a flight to catch. After dropping me off at the Airport, Mike and John Still had another day before their flights departed.
March 7 - Mike had an early morning flight today 5 hours before John’s flight so Dan and John decided to do some exploring. They found a wide river near the airport with many farm fields next to it. At first light they were parked next to the river awaiting the morning chorus. Wading in the river were many Black Necked Stilts and several Ferruginous Pygmy Owls were calling from the trees along the river. They decided to head up and explore the farm fields which held hundreds of Indigo Buntings and one Blue-Black Grassquit were observed. A flock of quite tame Orange-fronted Parakeets were observed feeding in the fruit trees bordering the fields. Then it was time to head back to the airport for John to catch his flight.