SOUTHERN MEXICO BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Southern Mexico: Day 1 The main part of our tour begins this evening at Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas State, where we will spend two nights.
Southern Mexico: Day 2 The great canyon of El Sumidero, just north of Tuxtla, is an awe-inspiring sight. As we gaze down at the Rio Grijalva, far below, we may hear the sound of some distant songbird carried up to us by the wind or we may see a Short-tailed Hawk join the vultures soaring against the massive 1000m (roughly 3300ft) cliffs. The main ornithological attractions of the area lie along the road which bisects the woods of the canyon rim. At lower altitude we find bamboo-cloaked dry thorn bush, which changes to evergreen woodland at higher elevations.
A series of rare and localized regional endemics are to be found in this wonderful place. The elegant Belted Flycatcher and Bar-winged Oriole can regularly be found here, but most prized of all is the gorgeous Red-breasted Chat. Actually a warbler, a good view of this skulking slate, white and red bird moving quietly through the thorny bush, tail cocked, is ample reward for a persistent search. The handsome Blue-and-white Mockingbird is another skulker, but fortunately a proud singer, which may well help us find it. The delightful Fan-tailed Warbler is usually encountered near army ant swarms, where it will feed, undisturbed by our presence, on the insects that have been flushed by the marauding ants. Its intricate tail movements will remind us of Asian fantails. The fabulous Slender Sheartail is one of the great prizes here. At this time of year their favourite flowers are available and so we have a good chance of getting good looks at this lovely, but often unobtrusive hummingbird. Ridgway’s Rough-winged Swallows sometimes perch on overhead wires and the inconspicuous Flammulated Flycatcher betrays its presence with its piercing song.
Other restricted-range specialities of the area include the raucous Plain Chachalaca, the smart Highland Guan (which betrays its presence by its loud whistles), the near-endemic Buff-collared Nightjar, Canivet’s Emerald, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, the impressive Great Swallow-tailed Swift, Couch’s Kingbird and Olive Sparrow.
At this time of year the widely-distributed but usually very hard to see Pheasant Cuckoo relentlessly utters its call from the patches of evergreen forest and hopefully we will be able to feast our eyes on this much-wanted species.
Other widespread species include Brown Pelican (here far away from its more typical coastal habitat), Black and Turkey Vultures, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Bobwhite, Inca and White-tipped Doves, Squirrel Cuckoo, White-collared and Vaux’s Swifts, Buff-bellied and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Plain-capped Starthroat, Gartered and Collared Trogons, Velasquez’s Woodpecker, Lineated Woodpecker, Barred Antshrike, Greenish Elaenia, Yellow-olive Flatbill, Dusky-capped, Brown-crested, Sulphur-bellied, Boat-billed and Social Flycatchers, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Violet-green Barn and Cave Swallows, the secretive Banded and Cabanis’s (or Plain) Wrens, Swainson’s and Clay-colored Thrushes, Tropical Mockingbird, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Black-and-white, Tennessee, Magnolia and Wilson’s Warblers, American Redstart, Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias, Western Tanager, the amazing Yellow Grosbeak, appealing Varied and Blue Buntings, Rusty Sparrow, Great-tailed Grackle and Bronzed Cowbird.
Southern Mexico: Day 3 This morning we will visit an area of limestone karst habitat where we stand a good chance of finding the most enigmatic of Mexico’s 32 species of wren. The striking Nava’s Wren favours bare limestone rocks, pinnacles and small cliffs, infested with an impenetrable tangle of vines and trees. Its beautiful and far-carrying song will lure us inside this amazing habitat where, with a bit of luck, we will be able to admire this little-known endemic at close range as it clambers over rocks before disappearing into its strange environment.
Other species we may well find here include the very localized endemic Long-tailed Sabrewing, as well as Grey-headed Dove, Stripe-throated Hermit, Stripe-tailed and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Blackburnian and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Bananaquit, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Black-faced Grosbeak and Yellow-faced Grassquit.
Later we will drive to the lovely town of San Cristobal de las Casas for a two nights stay in the highlands of Chiapas.
Southern Mexico: Day 4 San Cristobal de las Casas is situated at an altitude of 2100m (roughly 6900ft) in a pine-clad mountain valley and was founded in 1528. It exudes a distinctive colonial atmosphere with its arcaded palaces, red-tiled dwellings with charming patios and many old churches. The colourful craftwork markets are famous and the area is inhabited by several Indian tribes with eloquent names like Tenejapan, Chamulan and Zinacanteco. The whole region has long been neglected by the Mexican government and this led to an independence movement that has come to terms with the Mexican government only relatively recently. There is still a strong military presence in the area.
The main habitat here is mixed evergreen pine-oak woodland, interspersed with small fields and brushy flower banks. This habitat is home to a series of exciting regional endemics. Far-carrying low hoots will betray the presence of the shy Blue-throated Motmot, but the prize bird here is the extraordinary Pink-headed Warbler. This near-threatened gem of a bird is confined to Chiapas and adjoining Guatemala and has recently declined quite dramatically. Rufous-collared Thrushes lead a unassuming existence and the tiny Rufous-browed Wren will call from the dense undergrowth, while if we are in luck we will encounter a group of Black-throated Jays sneaking through the canopy. We will also keep an eye open for Black-capped Swallows, which are sometimes to be seen perched on overhead wires. Mixed warbler flocks very occasionally hold the rare Golden-cheeked Warbler, which migrates here from its breeding haunts in central Texas. Another good bird hear is Olive Warbler, nowadays a monotypic bird family.
If we are really lucky we will find White-breasted Hawk (a member of the Sharp-shinned Hawk complex) or Black-capped Siskin, both of which are regional endemics.
Birds of wider distribution we are likely to encounter in the San Cristobal area include White-throated Swift, Northern Flicker (of the distinctive Guatemalan race, sometimes split as Guatemalan Flicker), Greater Pewee, Band-backed Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Mountain Thrush, Nashville, Townsend’s and Hermit Warblers, Slate-throated Whitestart, Common Bush Tanager, Rufous-collared Sparrow and Black-headed Siskin.
Nocturnal outings may produce goodies like the regional-endemic Bearded Screech-Owl, the responsive Mottled Owl and, if the goddess of birders will allow, the very rarely seen Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.
Southern Mexico: Day 5 We will set out early today in order to be in the hill country of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec fairly early in the day. Here we will search the tangled vegetation of the foothill gullies for two of Mexico’s most dazzling endemics. The Orange-breasted Bunting, whose shimmering turquoise upperparts, bright yellow-green cap and golden underparts have to be seen to be believed, is a true Mexican gem. Every bit as good as Orange-breasted Bunting, and with a tiny range, is the fabulous Rosita’s (or Rose-bellied) Bunting. The male is a vivid blue bird with a shocking pink belly, and seeing, admiring and enjoying this spectacular avian jewel will no doubt be yet another of the highlights of this remarkable tour. Raucous screams may reveal the presence of the endemic West Mexican Chachalaca, while the endemic Green-fronted Hummingbird and the endemic Sclater’s Wren also make a living here. Colourful endemic Citreoline Trogons and Russet-crowned Motmots perch stolidly in the sub-canopy. Other species we should encounter include Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, the spectacular, restricted-range White-throated Magpie-Jay and Streak-backed Oriole.
After this enjoyable interlude we will continue to the small town of Arriaga for an overnight stay.
Southern Mexico: Day 6 In the varied habitats surrounding the small coastal village of Puerto Arista we will experience the birdiest day of the tour. Mangrove-lined lagoons, a wide sandy shore along the peaceful Pacific Ocean, wide mudflats bordering a meandering tidal arm, extensive groves of small thorny trees, spiny thickets, pastures, fields with brushy edges, copses of mangoes and huge ceibo trees offering shade to the small farms will allow us to notch up a bird list featuring both quality and quantity.
Before dawn we will be waiting under an impressive kapok tree for the distinctive rather gruff call of the Pacific Screech Owl and hope to catch this tiny nocturnal critter in the beam of our spotlight. The dawn chorus here is dominated by the loud chattering of regional-endemic White-bellied Chachalacas and the chortling, rollicking song of the Giant Wren. The latter is endemic to a narrow coastal strip of the state of Chiapas, but luckily this impressive bird is quite common here and the noisy and showy family groups are a feature of this area. The White-bellied Chachalaca, here at the extreme western end of its area of distribution, is often hunted and so the birds keep a low profile deep in the thickets after their vociferous morning display is over. Boisterous and flashy regional-endemic Yellow-winged (or Mexican) Caciques flit through the flowering trees, where we also hope to see the localized Spot-breasted Oriole.
Other species we could well find in this habitat include White-tailed and Hook-billed Kites, Sharp-shinned, Grey, Harris’s, Crane and White-tailed Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Red-billed Pigeon, Ruddy Ground Dove, Orange-fronted and Pacific Parakeets, White-fronted Parrot, Pauraque, Lesser Nighthawk, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Common Tody Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, the endearing Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, the exquisite Painted Bunting, White-collared Seedeater, Melodious Blackbird, the attractive Orchard, Altamira and Baltimore Orioles, and Blue-black Grassquit.
Later in the morning, when bird activity has ebbed away with the increased heat, we will divert to the nearby coastal lagoons, where a rewarding assortment of waterbirds can be found, including American White Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricolored and Green Herons, Great, Snowy, Western Cattle and Reddish Egrets, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Blue-winged Teal, Western Osprey, Snail Kite, Northern Jacana, Grey (or Black-bellied), Semipalmated, Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Western, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, Sanderling, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Short-billed Dowitcher, Laughing Gull, Gull-billed, Sandwich and Caspian Terns, Black Skimmer, Ringed, Belted and Green Kingfishers, Mangrove Swallow and Northern Waterthrush.
From the Arriaga region we will travel westwards along the southern edge of the windswept Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the city of Tehuantepec, where we will overnight.
Southern Mexico: Day 7 The almost impenetrable, low, xerophytic, thorny scrub near Tehuantepec is home to the well marked Cinnamon-tailed (or Sumichrast’s) Sparrow. Known only from this tiny corner of Mexico (just around the Oaxaca-Chiapas state border) this is an inveterate skulker inhabiting grassy edges in this restricted habitat. Doubleday’s Hummingbird is another endemic we may well encounter here amongst the flowering shrubs, and we will surely see some more Orange-breasted Buntings.
Other species we may well encounter include the charismatic Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, the enigmatic, regional-endemic Lesser Roadrunner, Grey-breasted Martin, Yellow Warbler and Stripe-headed Sparrow. After birding here we will continue westwards to Puerto Angel for a two nights stay. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Southern Mexico: Day 8 During our time at Puerto Angel we will explore the nearby foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur where shade coffee groves provide an alternative environment for two endemic and extremely localized hummingbirds: the magnificent Oaxaca (or Blue-capped) Hummingbird and the attractive Cinnamon-sided Hummingbird. Other endemics in this area include Colima Pygmy Owl, Grey-crowned Woodpecker, Happy Wren and Golden Vireo. Additional species we may find today include Cooper’s, Broad-winged and Zone-tailed Hawks, Bright-rumped Attila, House Wren, Hepatic Tanager, the gorgeous Red-headed Tanager, Summer Tanager, and Greyish Saltator.
Further into the mountains we will explore mixed pine-oak forest where the stunning little White-throated Jay, another extremely localized endemic, can sometimes be found making its way through the forest understorey.
We will also take a boat trip offshore in search of seabirds. Pink-footed Shearwater, Black Storm Petrel, Brown Booby and Magnificent Frigatebird are all regularly encountered and with a modicum of luck and the right weather conditions we could encounter some of the scarcer species, which include the rare endemic Townsend’s Shearwater (which breeds on the remote Islas Revillagigedo), Galapagos Shearwater, Least Storm Petrel (a Mexican breeding endemic), Nazca Booby, Pomarine Jaeger, Franklin’s and Sabine’s Gulls, and Black, Royal and Common Terns.
Southern Mexico: Day 9 After some final birding in the Puerto Angel region we will climb up through the spectacular scenery of the Sierra Madre del Sur and continue to Oaxaca for a three nights stay.
Southern Mexico: Days 10-11 One’s first impression of Oaxaca is of a pleasant town of airy patios and pink arcades, famous for its Indian markets, surrounded by a desert plain amidst barren mountains. On closer examination we find that this area was once the bed of a vast lake and careful irrigation by the Oaxaqueño farmers led to lush green vegetable and flower fields growing alongside desert cacti and scrub. Above the city clear streams tumble down from pine-clad peaks.
The Oaxaca basin and the surrounding uplands are home to some rare and localized species: more Mexican endemics can be found in this area than anywhere else in the country. During our time here we will visit the undisturbed mixed pine-oak forests on Cerro San Felipe, looking for interesting endemics including Mexican Whip-poor-will, the rare Dwarf Jay, Russet Nightingale-Thrush, Rufous-capped Brush Finch and the skulking Collared Towhee. In addition we may well encounter Mountain Trogon, Pine Flycatcher, the stunning Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, the dazzling Crescent-chested Warbler and Black-vented Oriole, all of which are restricted to the highland forests of Mexico and northern Central America. The truly exquisite Red Warbler, with its shiny silver cheeks, eclipses even the brightest of its northern cousins and often travels with them in mixed flocks.
We will also search an area of dense thorn scrub and oak thickets for such endemics as Dusky and Beautiful Hummingbirds, the rare Pileated Flycatcher, Nutting’s Flycatcher, Boucard’s Wren, the unusual Ocellated Thrasher, Blue Mockingbird, White-throated Towhee and Oaxaca Sparrow.
In a desert area with many organpipe cacti we will find the endemic Grey-breasted Woodpecker and the boldly marked and endearing Bridled Sparrow. Rocky outcrops and inspiring Zapotec ruins are inhabited by curious Canyon and Rock Wrens. A small lake often holds a nice selection of water-loving birds including Ruddy Duck, American Coot, Killdeer, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, Black Phoebe and Buff-bellied (or American) Pipit.
Other specialities in this area include the near-endemic Thick-billed Kingbird, the strange-sounding, regional-endemic Brown-backed Solitaire and the near-endemic Audubon’s Oriole. If we are very fortunate we will even come across the outstanding and highly-prized endemic Aztec Thrush or the unpretentious, regional-endemic Grey-collared Becard.
Other more widespread species we may well encounter in this marvellous area include Northern Crested Caracara, Band-tailed Pigeon, Common Ground Dove, Mourning and White-winged Doves, Groove-billed Ani, the angry-looking Mountain Pygmy Owl, Rivoli’s (or Magnificent) Hummingbird, Elegant Trogon, Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers, Vermilion and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Western and Cassin’s Kingbirds, Northern Raven, Steller’s Jay, Grey-breasted Wood Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, Cedar Waxwing, Plumbeous Vireo, Orange-crowned, Virginia’s, Audubon’s, Black-throated Grey and MacGillivray’s Warblers, the striking Golden-browed Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Lark and Lincoln’s Sparrows, and Scott’s and Hooded Orioles.
Southern Mexico: Day 12 Today we will drive to the bustling little town of Tuxtepec for a two nights stay. We will have our first chance to explore the Sierra de Juarez this afternoon.
Southern Mexico: Day 13 On the Atlantic slope of the Sierra de Juarez a diversity of habitats range from lowland and montane rainforests through cloud forest to lovely mixed pine-oak woodland on the higher ridges. As a result of this diversity a wide variety of birds can be expected, but we will of course focus on Mexican/Central American endemics and specialities.
Early in the morning we may flush a shy White-faced Quail-Dove from the roadside or chance upon a secretive White-naped Brush Finch feeding at the edge of a track. The most characteristic sound of these forests is the ethereal, haunting song of the self-effacing Slate-colored Solitaire, but finding the songster itself can be quite tricky. The localized Unicolored Jay is often found in roving bands and we may also find the diminutive Dwarf Jay rummaging around in the pines.
Imitating the song of the Central American Pygmy Owl (a member of the Least Pygmy-Owl complex) often attracts mobbing passerines that may include Yellow-winged Tanager and the enchanting Blue-crowned Chlorophonia (both regional endemics), and hopefully also the owl itself. Tiny regional-endemic Bumblebee and Amethyst-throated Hummingbirds, as well as Berylline Hummingbirds, are attracted to the rich flower banks where we should also encounter regional-endemic Cinnamon-bellied Flower-piercers doing their thing. Other regional endemics we hope to find here include the shy Long-tailed Wood Partridge, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, the furtive Mexican Antthrush and the large Grey-barred Wren.
Other species of more widespread distribution include the lovely White Hawk, Roadside and Red-tailed Hawks, Barred Forest Falcon, American Kestrel, Crested Guan, Brown-hooded Parrot, Striped Cuckoo, Chestnut-collared Swift, Long-tailed Hermit, Keel-billed Toucan, Smoky-brown and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, Olivaceous, Strong-billed, Spotted and Spot-crowned Woodcreepers, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Northern Tufted, Hammond’s, Olive-sided and Piratic Flycatchers, the pretty Rose-throated Becard, Spot-breasted Wren, noisy but unobtrusive White-breasted Wood Wren, Long-billed Gnatwren, the secretive Black-headed and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, Hermit, Black and White-throated Thrushes, Blue-headed, Cassin’s and Warbling Vireos, Golden-crowned Warbler, Crimson-collared and White-winged Tanagers, Buff-throated and Black-headed Saltators, Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks, Black-cowled Oriole and the retiring Yellow-billed Cacique.
Southern Mexico: Day 14 After some final birding in the Sierra de Juarez we will drive to Cordoba for an overnight stay. Short stops at wetlands along the way may well produce Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Limpkin and Northern Jacana. We should arrive in Cordoba in time for some initial exploration.
Southern Mexico: Day 15 The area surrounding the town of Cordoba in the state of Veracruz is the centre of Mexico’s coffee-growing industry and it is here, on limestone outcrops where coffee is grown under shade trees, that we will be wanting to find the rare Sumichrast’s (or Slender-billed) Wren. This elusive endemic species is only known from karst outcroppings in central Veracruz and adjoining northern Oaxaca, where it plays hide and seek in the many nooks and crannies of this distinctive habitat.
The mournful calls of secretive Thicket Tinamous and the quavering whistles of cautious Singing Quails, both of which are regional endemics, emanate from the forested hills. We will keep an eye out for fruiting trees that are often visited by Red-lored Parrots, colourful Keel-billed Toucans, Emerald Toucanets (now restricted to Mexico and northern Central America after taxonomic revision), Collared Aracaris and feisty Montezuma Oropendolas, whilst the regional-endemic Curve-winged (or Wedge-tailed) Sabrewing and White-bellied Emerald flit about in flowering bushes.
Other species we hope to find here include such regional-endemics as Olive-throated Parakeet, Lesson’s (or Blue-diademed) Motmot, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, as well as well as White-crowned Parrot, Masked Tityra, the vociferous Brown Jay, the handsome Green Jay, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and Tropical Parula. During the afternoon we will head for Mexico City, where we will stay at the southern edge of one of the largest cities on earth for two nights.
Southern Mexico: Day 16 The huge, bustling metropolis of Mexico City is situated at an altitude of around 2250m (7400ft) and is surrounded by cool pine forests which cling to the slopes of the many extinct and active volcanoes. The most famous of these, the mighty Popocatepetl (5452m or 17,887ft) can often be seen smoking threateningly in the far distance. At this time of year bird song enriches the crisp morning air, in marked contrast to the noisy urban bustle of the valley below. Underfoot are thick clumps of bunch grass covering uneven volcanic rock, interspersed with outcrops of sharp lava, and this is the home of two handsome endemic sparrows. The exceedingly rare Sierra Madre Sparrow is nowadays known only from a small area south of the capital and from an area in distant Durango. The buzzing song is the best clue as to the whereabouts of this small, secretive bird. The pot-bellied Striped Sparrow is a more conspicuous creature, often found in noisy groups, and we shall make a concerted effort to find both of these restricted-range species.
A mix of verdant pine-oak forests, brushy thickets and small fertile fields adds to the diversity of this interesting area which is home to several other Mexican specialities. The attractive but often unobtrusive Strickland’s Woodpecker is endemic to a tiny area of central Mexico. The fetching Buff-breasted Flycatcher is the most distinctive member of that nightmare genus Empidonax. This group of flycatchers is often considered to be the bane of New World birders, because they can be so difficult to identify. Other regional endemics include White-eared Hummingbird and the attractive Grey Silky-flycatcher.
Amongst the many other species we may well encounter during our time in the area are Broad-billed and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Northern Flicker (of the red-shafted form), Dusky Flycatcher, Mexican Chickadee, American Bushtit, Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creeper, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Western Bluebird, American Robin, Curve-billed Thrasher, Hutton’s Vireo, Elegant (or Blue-hooded) Euphonia (usually found in mistletoe), Canyon and Spotted Towhees, Chipping Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Junco, Eastern Meadowlark, House Finch and Red (or Common) Crossbill.
We shall also visit a vast reedbed where the endemic Black-polled Yellowthroat can be found. It is known only from a few marshes in Mexico’s central belt, drainage of which now threatens the continuing survival of the species. With luck we will be able to compare its head pattern with that of the Common Yellowthroat, which can also be found here. These once extensive marshes were inhabited by the Slender-billed Grackle, a colonial icterid that was last observed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Unrelenting drainage of the Lerma marshes have led to the extirpation of this reed-loving species. Secretive Soras forage along the reed edges, where Song Sparrows scratch in the soil. Flocks of Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds swoosh over the reeds and amongst them we will try to find the localized ‘Bicolored Blackbird’. The latter is usually considered to be a race of the more widespread Red-winged Blackbird, but is a local breeding species that can easily be identified by the lack of a pale border to the red wing coverts in the male.
Other species of the area include Least, Pied-billed and Eared (or Black-necked) Grebes, Black-crowned Night Heron, White-faced Ibis, Mexican Duck, Northern Shoveler, Northern Harrier, Common Gallinule, Wilson’s Snipe, Horned Lark, Tree and Cliff Swallows, and Brown-headed Cowbird.
Southern Mexico: Day 17 This morning we will visit an area of natural arid oak scrub at the edge of Mexico City. Here we will try to locate the endemic Hooded Yellowthroat, which unlike most other members of the genus Geothlypis favours dry brushy habitat. Flowering trees and bushes sometimes attract Lucifer Hummingbirds and endemic Black-backed (or Abeille’s) Orioles (until recently considered a race of Bullock’s Oriole), and we may also find the lovely, regional-endemic Rufous-capped Warbler, as well as Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Rufous-crowned and Black-chinned Sparrows, Northern Cardinal, Bronzed Cowbird and Lesser Goldfinch. Afterwards we will head for Mexico City airport, where our Southern Mexico tour ends no later than early evening.
EL TRIUNFO (HORNED GUAN AND MORE)
El Triunfo: Day 1 Our El Triunfo tour begins this morning at Tuxtla Guttierez airport. We will rapidly leave the burgeoning capital of Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas behind and drive southeast into the Sierra Madre de Chiapas to the village of Jaltenango for an overnight stay.
We will make several stops en route at river bridges, bushy areas and at the edge of rough meadows, where we should encounter the gorgeous, restricted-range Russet-crowned Motmot and the restricted-range White-throated Magpie-Jay, as well as a selection of more widespread species like Green and Little Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, Blue-winged Teal, Neotropic Cormorant, Turkey and Black Vultures, Western Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Roadside and Grey Hawks, Northern Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Black-necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-billed Pigeon, White-winged and Inca Doves, Common and Ruddy Ground Doves, Groove-billed Ani, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Lesser Nighthawk, Green and Ringed Kingfishers, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Black Phoebe, Least, Vermilion and Social Flycatchers, Great Kiskadee, Tropical and Western Kingbirds, the elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the striking Rose-throated Becard, Grey-breasted Martin, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Tropical Mockingbird, Clay-colored Thrush, Lesser Goldfinch, Scrub Euphonia, Grey-crowned and Common Yellowthroats, Streak-backed Oriole, Bronzed Cowbird, Melodious and Red-winged Blackbirds, the vociferous Great-tailed Grackle, Blue-grey and Yellow-winged Tanagers, Blue-black Grassquit, White-collared Seedeater and Western and Summer Tanagers.
El Triunfo: Day 2 After an early breakfast we will board an open truck with seats and drive to Finca Prusia, a large, semi-neglected coffee plantation. We will make several extended stops in disused fields and dry woodland. Eroded banks often hold isolated pairs of the restricted-range Black-capped Swallow, while another major speciality is the retiring, restricted-range Prevost’s Ground Sparrow. We will also be on the lookout for the restricted-range Green Parakeet, Azure-crowned Hummingbird and Velasquez’s Woodpecker.
We should also pick up species like Zone-tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon, White-tipped Dove, White-crowned Parrot, Red-lored Amazon, Striped Cuckoo, Vaux’s Swift, Green-breasted Mango, Hairy Woodpecker, Barred Antshrike, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-olive Flatbill, Masked Tityra, Green Jay, Cabanis’s (or Plain Wren), Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Rufous-capped Warbler, Rusty Sparrow and Greyish and boisterous Black-headed Saltators.
Northern migrants are often obvious and may include MacGillivray’s, Magnolia, American Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers, the skulking Yellow-breasted Chat, bright Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks and gaudy Indigo and Painted Buntings.
At the Finca Prusia trailhead our luggage and the provisions for our stay will be tied to several sturdy pack horses and mules, and we will start our walk along a wide, well laid out, winding trail, which will lead us upwards through patches of coffee and stretches of excellent broadleaf forest, over a pass and down to the El Triunfo clearing.
High pitched notes will alert us to a lek of the unobtrusive, tiny, restricted-range Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, males of which will sit on open twigs in the mid canopy, ardently advertising their presence. The loud glissading songs of the Singing Quail can sometimes be heard and with a bit of luck we will obtain good looks at this retiring forest inhabitant. The ethereal, squeaky, jangling song of the subtly-hued Brown-backed Solitaire will escort us on our walk and fruiting trees often hold vibrant Flame-colored and White-winged Tanagers. In the late afternoon we will finally reach the famous El Triunfo clearing, where we will stay for four nights in a comfortable bunkhouse in a truly glorious setting.
El Triunfo: Days 3-5 The El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve is located among the peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains in southern Chiapas. It spans an altitudinal range between about 400–2700m (roughly 1300–8850ft) and separates the warm, humid coastal lowlands from the drier interior. The higher levels are enveloped in a blanket of mist for much of the time (although there are usually a few hours of sunshine early in the day) and El Triunfo is considered one of the most unspoiled and diverse natural areas remaining in Mexico.
The Sierra Madre de Chiapas is a transition zone between the Nearctic and Neotropical biogeographical regions. As such, its flora and fauna are enriched by the northern and southernmost range extensions of many species. The Reserve features no fewer than ten different vegetation types, including humid tropical evergreen forest, tropical deciduous forest and pine-oak forest, but its unique cloud forest is by far the most appealing and threatened. El Triunfo’s cloud forest is reported to host one of the most diverse arrays of tree species in Central America. Some of the evergreen trees here reach an amazing 90m above the forest floor and are covered in trailing vines, gigantic ferns, carpets of mosses, magnificent bromeliads, smelly arum lilies and luxuriant orchids. Amidst the often mist-enshrouded mountains are giant tree ferns, sweetgum (Liquidamabar), towering Mexican alders, wild fuschias, several species of oaks, wild avocado and mulberry trees.
The varied and complex vegetation types of El Triunfo are home to about 400 species of birds, 14 species of amphibians, 63 species of reptiles and 113 kinds of mammal. Ecotourism is quite well developed here, even if involving very low numbers of people each year, and is aimed at generating income to support and strengthen the reserve’s management activities as well as benefitting local communities.
The prime bird we will have travelled so far for is the spectacular Horned Guan, without a doubt one of the most mystifying, dramatic and fabulous species in existence. This stunning bird could almost be considered the unicorn of the bird worId. It only occurs in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas of Mexico and throughout west-central Guatemala, and needs extensive areas of untouched cloud forest, a habitat that is now rapidly vanishing. The most unusual feature of this endangered and retiring species is its well developed red ‘horn’ of bare skin that projects from the top of its head. The surviving population consists of just about 2000 to 2500 individuals and it usually betrays its presence by its very low-pitched booming call or by its snorts, clicking and bill-clacking.
The other icon of El Triunfo is the incomparable Resplendent Quetzal, considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the world. The race here (the nominate) has an even longer tail than the better known form in Costa Rica, so getting cracking views of this ‘ultimate quetzal’ will be one of the priorities of the tour.
Highland Guans (or Black Penelopinas) favour the mid levels of large trees. Their clear whistles and ‘crashing tree’ display calls are amongst the most regularly heard sounds of these Tolkienesque forests. The jangling song of the unassuming Brown-backed Solitaire will be a distinctive background sound as we quietly walk along the narrow trails looking for timid forest denizens like White-faced Quail-Dove, Ruddy-capped and Spotted Nightingale-Thrushes and Rufous-browed Wren.
Mixed species flocks often hold marvels like Grey Silky-flycatcher, smart Crescent-chested and Golden-browed Warblers, and the lovely Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer. Parties of sneaky Black-throated Jays travel quickly through the tree crowns and from the mid canopy the yodeling hoots of the restricted-range Blue-throated Motmot reverberate. The arresting Yellow Grosbeak is represented here by the appealing, isolated orange race aurantiacus, which is sometimes treated as a separate species, the ‘Guatemalan Yellow Grosbeak’.
At dawn the barks of Barred Forest Falcons and the quavering whistles of Singing Quails will waken the forest and later in the day we will search for the restricted-range Green-throated Mountaingem, the exquisite Violet Sabrewing, Mexican Violetear, Rivoli’s (or Magnificent) Hummingbird and the tiny and so adorable, restricted-range Wine-throated Hummingbird in flowering bushes. The restricted-range White-breasted Hawk and flocks of Chestnut-collared and White-collared Swifts often fly over the clearing and in the nearby fruiting trees we should find multi-coloured, intriguing species like Hooded Grosbeak, Elegant Euphonia and Blue-crowned Chlorophonia.
Parties of migratory warblers from North America are regularly encountered and may hold Tennessee, Black-throated Green, Townsend’s, Black-and-white and Wilson’s Warblers.
At night we will go in search of the splendid, restricted-range Fulvous Owl and the endearing Cacomistle (or Southern Ring-tailed Cat). The wailing squeals of this arboreal, catlike relative of the raccoon are often heard from the forest surrounding the clearing.
Other species we could well encounter in these outstanding, primeval forests include Red-tailed Hawk, Band-tailed Pigeon, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Mountain Trogon, Emerald Toucanet, Acorn and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Scaly-throated and Ruddy Foliage-gleaners, the inconspicuous Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Olivaceous, Spotted and Spot-crowned Woodcreepers, the near-endemic Paltry Tyrannulet, Northern Tufted, Hammond’s and Yellowish Flycatchers, Plumbeous Vireo (of the different-looking race notius), Blue-headed and Brown-capped Vireos, Unicolored Jay, Grey-breasted Wood Wren, the migrant Hermit and Wood Thrushes, Black, Mountain and White-throated Thrushes, Louisiana Waterthrush, Slate-throated Whitestart, Lincoln’s and Rufous-collared Sparrows, Chestnut-capped and White-naped Brush Finches, and Common Bush Tanager. With luck we will observe a stunning Black-crested Coquette or a shy Scaled Antpitta.
Mammals, apart from the Cacomistles, are not very obvious, but we should encounter Deppe’s Squirrels on a regular basis. If we are really lucky we will observe a lumbering Baird’s Tapir.
On one of our days at El Triunfo those who want to will be able to hike to Cañada Honda. The walk will first take us up a short incline to the Continental Divide, a ridge covered in beautiful cloud forest, and then we will start to descend the Pacific slope. The character of the forest will soon change as we leave the cloud forest behind and enter evergreen forest interspersed with patches of isolated pines.
Once we reach the humid, broadleaf evergreen forest of famous Cañada Honda (which means ‘deep canyon’) we will be wanting to see the endangered, sky-blue Cabanis’s (or Azure-rumped) Tanager. This social species is restricted to the Pacific foothills of Chiapas and Guatemala and is only known from a handful of localities. It shows a distinct preference for fig trees.
On the path we may well surprise the harlequinesque, restricted-range White-eared Ground-Sparrow and Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, while Berylline Hummingbirds and the restricted-range Rufous Sabrewing visit flowering trees and bushes. We will also listen for the distinctive loud, resonant notes of the delightful, but localized Tody Motmot and we will try to obtain good views of this lovely little critter. Troops of highly acrobatic, endearing Central American Spider Monkeys also roam these great forests.
Above the canyon the brushy, flower-rich clearings usually hold a territory of the lovely, restricted-range Sparkling-tailed Woodstar. This attractive hummingbird often perches on exposed branches and feeds with its tail cocked up in its bee-like flight. The far-carrying three note whistle of the secretive Pheasant Cuckoo sometimes resounds through the nearby forest and with luck we will be able to see this parasitic species in all its glory. The very smart, but discreet Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo draws attention to itself by its raptor-like, rather plaintive calls, but again we will need a bit of luck to observe this jewel.
El Triunfo: Day 6 This morning we will walk back to Finca La Prusia and drive back to Tuxtla Guttierez, stopping for anything of interest that we encounter. Our El Triunfo tour ends this evening at Tuxtla Guttierez.