After having traveled in most of west Mexico's states, I had my eyes on a trip to El Triunfo in southern Chiapas for several years. In addition to stories of the area's pristine nature and the attractiveness of a place reached only by foot, it was the only place in Mexico where I could still see many new bird species, including some of the most range-restricted on Earth. After a scouting trip with friends in April of 2007, I've had the good fortune to be able to return with several groups. The following report is a composite of these trips, from 2007 to 2015, which were some of the greatest neotropical birding and wilderness adventures I've experienced.
The 300,000-acre El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve is located in the southern part of the state in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas where it spans an altitudinal range of roughly 1200 to 8000 feet and separates the warm, humid coastal lowlands from the drier interior. El Triunfo contains a great variety of habitats including humid tropical evergreen, tropical deciduous, and pine-oak forests, and perhaps the crown jewel of them all, cloud forest. El Triunfo’s cloud forest hosts one of the most diverse arrays of tree species in North and Central America. Amidst the often mist-enshrouded mountains are tree ferns, towering sweet-gums, Mexican alder, wild Fuchsia, grand oaks with golf ball-sized acorns, wild avocado (a key food source for resplendent quetzals), and mulberry trees. Many of these are dripping with epiphytic mosses, lichens, bromeliads, orchids, ferns, Clusia, arums, and cacti.
The approximately 2300 species of plants found within the reserve form a rich background for tremendous faunal diversity. In addition to the 90 species of reptiles and amphibians known from the area, over 100 species of mammals (most of which are bats) and about 360 species of birds have been recorded. Several of the birds are either very range restricted (horned guan, azure-rumped tanager, rufous sabrewing, and wine-throated hummingbird) or rare through out their ranges (resplendent quetzal and Prevost's ground-sparrow). Jaguar, Baird's tapir, red brocket deer, Central American spider monkey, peccaries, coatis, hundreds of species of colorful butterflies, and countless other invertebrates also make El Triunfo home.
establishment of El Triunfo as a biosphere reserve began with studies in the
1940s by one of
My groups have felt very fortunate to be among the very few tourists that visit the area each year, and we've simply been blown away by the beauty, richness, intactness, and incredible birding and wildlife that El Triunfo offers. My trip dates have varied over the years, starting as early as March 1 and ending as late as the end of April. While we usually see between 230 and 250 species of birds, the composition varies a little with the timing, particularly with migratory birds, and especially those that winter mainly in Central and South America. We've always enjoyed the expertise and friendship of Jorge Montejo, a Mexican biologist and guide who has done the El Triunfo trip more than anyone else and knows the landscape and birds better than anyone.
Our spring journeys
have begun in Tuxtla Gutierrez where we
spend a half-day visiting the dramatic Parque Nacional Canon del Sumidero.
From Sumidero, we head south to the town of Jaltenango, our take-off point for the El Triunfo trailhead. While this is mostly a drive through cut-over habitat, we do find a few interesting things along the way. Once we encountered a northward-traveling flock of Swainson's hawks in the dry interior valley which was a bit of an odd location considering their usual coastal migration route. At first we saw just a few birds, but these quickly materialized into several hundred, which, it turned out, were hunting grasshoppers in a recently burnt and regenerating area. The hawks were darting down towards the ground to flush the large insects into the air from where they were then picking them off with their talons! Impressive stuff. Along this route, which includes a stop at the Rio Acatengo and at a remnant marshy area, we've also seen a large variety of birds including least grebe, Amazon kingfisher, northern jacana, fork-tailed and vermilion flycatchers, crested caracara, zone-tailed hawk, orchard and Baltimore orioles, blue grosbeak, plain wren, and lots more.
From Jaltenango, the heart of the adventure begins with a 30-mile, back-of-the-truck ride through habitat that goes from fairly cut over to largely intact. The birding, in tandem with the habitat, just gets better as we approach EL Triunfo. While widespread birds such as black-headed saltator, clay-colored thrush, and rufous-browed peppershrike are fairly common at the start, we quickly transition into more interesting and intact habitat where we've found laughing falcon, black hawk-eagle, king vulture, azure-crowned hummingbird, white-winged tanager, orange-billed nightingale thrush, green parakeet, collared aracari (hanging out in pine trees of all places), chestnut-collared swift, gray-collared becard, blue-headed vireo, yellow-billed cacique, and gray-crowned yellowthroat. Though it's rare in the area, Jorge has found a spot for Prevost's ground-sparrow, and we've been fortunate to see it here. As we get closer to the mountains a rushing stream beside the road sometimes has American dipper which is a treat anywhere, but particularly at this latitude where you're also seeing parrots and trogons. Eventually we arrive at Finca Prusia, an old but still active coffee hacienda established by Germans in the late 1800s. Here we have lunch and then start the 7-mile, gradual uphill walk to the high camp at El Triunfo. Within minutes we feel as though we've stepped through the looking-glass and entered an enchanted wonderland of spectacular forest. For the next five hours, we pass under enormous trees, search the canopy for emerald toucanets, catch good views of emerald-chinned hummingbirds and striking blue-crowned chlorophonias at eye level, find a pair of tawny-throated leaftossers in the understory, enjoy the sweet songs of brown-capped vireos, see collared trogons and black thrushes feeding at fruiting trees, and enjoy the quiet power of a landscape that, except for the trail, shows no obvious sign of humans having ever been there. Within about a mile of the camp, we arrive at the only section of trail where I've seen the horned guan, one of the oddest and most beautiful cracids in the Americas. On my first trip, we arrived to hear the low-pitched, almost subliminal calls of the guans. Though they were right above us, it took us about 20 minutes to locate them in the dense canopy. Another time, we were stopped on the trail by the amazing appearance of a scaled antpitta out in the open (this was one of three that we saw in 2013). While watching the antpitta for a while, we suddenly heard the distinctive bill clacking of the guan, again right above us. On another visit, we had a guan in the open in superb light feeding on Mulberry fruits. After enjoying it doing its thing for a long time, we eventually had to move on to search for other forest treasures. Though they can be a bit skulky for such a large animal, we've always enjoyed great views this bird, and they and their interesting biology are always trip highlights.
With our hunger and fatigue momentarily erased by the guan sightings, we enter the high camp clearing where we're welcomed by a parade of color and song from the many yellow grosbeaks, gray silky-flycatchers, flame-colored tanagers, brown-backed solitaires, and mountain thrushs flying around. Knowing that we'll spend every waking moment in this wilderness paradise over the next few days has us beaming, but it turns out that there's even more magic in store. The local Mexicans in charge of logistics (which are difficult to say the least) simply outdo themselves and impress us to no end with their graciousness, smiling service, delicious food, and camaraderie on the adventure. Hot soups, heaping plates of pasta, steamed veggies, pollo en mole, enchiladas, and fresh tortillas every day are almost as satisfying as the nature experience!
We spend just over two days at the high camp, seeing, enjoying, and learning about some great birds and natural history while savoring the ambiance of this vast tract of intact and unique forest. Here, at the highest point of the journey, we're treated to a suite of birds that we're unlikely to encounter again once we begin our descent. Along the trails we've found the gorgeous spotted nightingale-thrush (which in recent years has been more tame with at least one bird out in the open at the camp), its more subdued cousin, ruddy-capped nightingale-thrush, white-faced quail-doves, the diminutive rufous-browed wren, furtive but noisy black-throated jays, stunning unicolored jays in perfect late-morning light, pairs of yellow-throated and chestnut-capped brush-finches, singing hooded grosbeaks (one year they were all over the grass at the edge of the forest practically at our feet), nest-building paltry tyrannulets, skulky gray-breasted wood-wrens, barred forest-falcon, and very active spectacled and ruddy foliage-gleaners. One unexpected bird was red-faced warbler, a first in the reserve for Jorge. Several species of flowering plants, especially Wigandia, a hibiscus, and several species of Ericaceae, attract a nice diversity of hummingbirds as well as cinnamon-bellied flowerpiercer. Hummers include green-throated mountain-gem, violet sabrewing, green violet-ear, white-eared hummingbird, wine-throated hummingbird (one of the smallest in the world), black-crested coquette, and sparkling-tailed woodstar. Over the high-camp clearing we've enjoyed great views of black-capped swallows, a regional endemic, and, once, after years of hoping, had a nice fly-by of about a dozen barred parakeets, a bird I was starting to think existed only in the guide books. While there is usually a pair of red-tailed hawks around, less common from the clearing is white hawk which is usually a lowland species, but we once had a photographed fly-by at almost 7000 feet. The light, the cool air, and the bird song and activity in the early morning at the edge of the high camp are magical. Early morning at the clearing is also a good time for seeing blue-and-white mockingbird, the yellow-throated race of white-naped brush-finch, crescent-chested warbler, and several wintering migrants including Hammond's flycatcher, Townsend's and Wilson's warblers, hermit and Swainson's thrushes, and others.
Highland guans are, at least by voice, one of the most common species at El Triunfo. The high, loud, ascending whistle of the males, followed by a bizarre wing-rattle made in a short flight display are heard throughout the day and sometimes at night. Seeing these birds, however, even when they seem to be so close, is unusually challenging. Fortunately, however, patience pays off (with occasional help from fruiting Mulberry trees), and we've had many wonderful looks at calling and displaying males as well as a few females, some with young. Of course, one of the other big highlights are the resplendent quetzals. In March and April, the birds are fairly active, and we've enjoyed some spectacular males (of the northernmost race with the longest tail coverts) feeding, calling, and displaying throughout the forest. Many people have called this species the most beautiful bird in the world, and though that's an impossible call for me to make (because there are just so many show-stopping birds out there), I can certainly see why. Though we've never failed to see the quetzals, and while we always hear them, they are shy and can be a challenge at El Triunfo.
A new surprise in 2013 was hearing about the occasional (roughly once-a-week) appearance of a Baird's tapir at the high camp where the staff had been putting out a bit of salt next to the dining room. While I usually think of this species as a lowland resident, it's found here, as are Central American spider monkey and Deppe's squirrel, at 6500-7000 feet in the cool cloud forest. Sure enough, on our last night, just after we had returned to the dorm, Federico comes running over to tell us that the tapir has come..........and there it was, right next to the dining room. We all enjoyed prolonged looks at an animal that seemed unconcerned with the onlookers before it finished its salt-licking and walked pretty much right in front of us and back into the forest. Wow!
With a memorable sense of satisfaction, we leave the high camp and start our three-day descent to the lowlands of the Pacific coast. The relatively easy five-mile walk to our first camp at Canada Honda takes us out of the cloud forest, through a narrow band of pines and cypress, and finally into tropical evergreen forest at the cozy streamside camp. As we cross the Continental Divide at 7150 feet, we begin to emerge from the thick cloud forest and are treated to the first of countless vistas of sharp ridges and deep valleys, all covered with lush forest. One of the birds we sometimes encounter near the high camp but also on the descending trail is the "must see" blue-throated motmot. At first sight, and compared to other species of motmots, the blue-throated may seem a somewhat subdued bird, but with patience, some luck, and the right viewing geometry, the bird becomes as spectacular as its cousins. Over the years, we've been fortunate to enjoy many fine sightings not just of the blue-throated motmot but of four other motmot species as well. The El Triunfo transect may be the most motmot-rich place on Earth. In the pines we have the opportunity to see some of our only Grace's, hermit, and olive warblers of the trip as well as hepatic tanagers which are also limited to the pines. As we get closer to Canada Honda, we've had great eye-level views of one of my favorite neotropical birds, the green shrike-vireo. While this canopy specialist is often seen from a tower, in our case we were once lucky to be on a hillside trail that put us at eye level with the down-slope treetops where the bird was perched in great light. At the camp, a few large fig trees can be magnets for azure-rumped tanagers, a very range restricted and beautiful bird that we've found to be fairly common here and at a few spots further down the trail. Also in the camp are white-eared ground sparrows and a bird that had serenaded us, as if in welcome, upon our approach to the camp, the rufous-and-white wren. Like many of its relatives, the rufous-and-white, too, has a loud, rich, and sweet song, in this case one that we'd hear for a few days before dropping out of its preferred habitat. Around Canada Honda, we've found territorial rufous sabrewings, a noisy pair of tawny-throated leaftossers, ruddy foliage-gleaners, and close-up, eye-level views of pairs of blue-crowned chlorophonias and elegant euphonias. These latter two birds provide justification for why I just can't pick a "most beautiful bird in the world". Yes, they're small, but, man, what colors. At night we've seen mottled owl and heard crested owl here.
From Canada Honda, we continue on to El Limonar, another beautifully situated camp close to a number of a long-tailed manakin leks. Our encounters with these amazing little birds usually starts with fleeting glimpses of both males and females, followed by great views of calling males on the trail or near the camp. Once we had a pair of males (the female requires that there are two males doing the full song and dance) displaying for a female right next to the trail and even had the opportunity to make a short video. Except for the long, hair-like central tail feathers, I was struck by the similarity of these birds in look, vocalizations, and display behavior to their cousins - the lance-tailed manakin of Central America, the blue-backed manakin of Amazonia, and the blue manakin of the Atlantic Forest. In addition to emerald-chinned hummingbirds in and around the camp, there can be three species of motmot. Sometimes tody motmots seem almost common outside our tents, while turquoise-browed and blue-crowned motmots aren't far behind. About 100 yards back up the trail at Limonar is a large fig and a sometimes flowering Inga tree. While the Inga has been a good spot to see rufous sabrewing, the fig has been excellent for azure-rumped tanager, chlorophonias, and, in the evening or early morning, crested guans. One evening, we had seven of these showy birds near the fig, with crests fully raised and squawking up a storm. Their presence, as well as that of great curassow, which we once saw nearby, is a testimony to the extent and quality of the habitat in El Triunfo. One of the special things about Limonar is the large number of Sumichrast's ringtails in the area. We've been fortunate to have had several out and about by day a few times, while at night the calls of multiple animals can be heard until morning.
From Limonar to our last camp at Paval, the birding, amazingly, can get even richer. The trail can seem to be lined with fan-tailed warblers while, depending on the timing, the trees are almost dripping with migrating Tennessee warblers and yellow-green vireos. King vulture, great black-hawk, and white hawks soar overhead, collared and gartered trogons sit still on their perches, and mixed flocks with black-faced grosbeak, black-headed saltator, white-winged tanager, sulphur-bellied flycatcher, and Blackburnian warbler pass by. At the Paval camp, it can be "speed birding" with spot-breasted, Altamira and streak-backed orioles, tropical pewee, piratic flycatcher, rufous-breasted spinetail, stub-tailed spadebill, rose-throated becard, golden-olive and smoky-brown woodpeckers, masked tityra, and a nice mix of psittacines (orange-fronted parakeet, mealy parrot, and yellow-naped parrots), are among the many birds usually seen. Another of my "most wanted" birds on our 2007 trip, and one that nests in the eastern U.S. where I've never been, was, of all things, Eastern kingbird. Several large flocks of these birds are usually seen at Paval on their northward migration in April. At night, we've had great views of common pauraque and black-and-white-owl. On most of our final mornings, and once just before being picked up by the truck at the last possible moment, we've found another highlight species, the Prevost's ground sparrow. One of the rarer species endemic to southern Mexico and northern Central America, these odd and beautiful little birds are often the perfect avian exclamation point at the end of the most amazing birding hike any of us has ever done. Though they aren't common, and while some views have been brief, the Paval camp has almost never failed to provide us with good views of these birds.
In 2013, after having never before seen army ants along this route, we had five swarms!! Good luck and right timing are the key elements to seeing birds at antswarms, and on this trip ours were remarkably fortuitous. The first swarm was unusually high at about 7000 feet near the high camp. The very small ants, similar to Labidus sp., attracted chestnut-capped brushfinch, spotted and ruddy-capped nightingale thrushes, and golden-browed and Wilson's warblers. Further down near Canada Honda and Limonar, we had two more swarms right next to the trail with excellent viewing for all. The bird parade included golden-crowned and fan-tailed warblers, orange-billed and spotted nightingale thrushes. ruddy woodcreeper, scaly-throated foliage-gleaner, close-up tody motmots, gray-breasted wood-wren, spot-breasted wren, white-eared ground-sparrow, and a few unexpected birds - western tanager and common bush-tanager. In 2015, a nice ant swarm near Paval was attended by no less than eight familes (yes, familes) of birds including white-eared ground-sparrow, white-throated thrush, red-crowned ant-tanager, streak-headed and ivory-billed woodcreepers, many fan-tailed warblers, long-billed gnatwren, rufous-and-white wren, and tody motmot. While you can find some great birds at an ant swarm in Amazonia, which is antbird central, you rarely see more than two or three families represented.
After a great lunch in Mapastepec, near the coast, we head to Tapachula where we end our trip at a hotel with some decent habitat that provides homes for many birds, some of which are among those that illustrate so well the unique evolutionary history and biogeography of the region. Almost as soon as we exit the van, we often hear the raucous and unmistakable calls of giant wrens, which are rather tame around the hotel. Known only from a narrow strip of coastal Chiapas and adjacent Guatemala, these birds, which appear to be generalists and well adapted to altered habitats (we've seen as many as four pairs on the hotel grounds), present some interesing puzzles regarding their very limited range Also around the hotel are white-bellied chachalacas, one of the four Mexican species of chachalacas whose ranges fit together like pieces of a puzzle of lowland tropical Mexico. A day roosting Pacific screech owl right on the grounds was once a nice bonus as was a northern potoo at close range. There are good numbers of parrots in the area, and we almost always enjoy nice views of perched orange-chinned and Pacific parakeets and white-fronted parrot. But for me, probably the highlight of Tapachula, particularly since I've never been to Hawk Mountain, Cape May, Veracruz, or other "river of raptor" sites, has been the streams of tens of thousands of turkey vultures, heading west along the coast towards the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, directly over the hotel for several hours in mid April (they pass by in the hundreds in late March). Amidst the vultures are handfuls of diminutive, especially at that altitude, Swainson's and broad-winged hawks. Seeing this spectacle and thinking about the evolution of the long migrations of these birds as they relate to land forms is always an inspiring and humbling experience.
In addition to the great birds and impressive plant diversity of the trip, we've been lucky in the mammal, herp, and insect departments, too. Mammals we've had great views of include Central American spider monkey (at 7000' at the high camp as well as at lower elevations), Sumichrast's ringtail foraging by day in the Limonar camp, Deppe's and Mexican tree squirrels, gray fox, white-tailed deer, red brocket deer, the Baird's tapir mentioned above, collared peccary, and white-nosed coati. We've found beautiful Godman's pit vipers on three out of five trips, Fer-de-lance, olive-backed parrot snake, a coral snake, a large and unusually pale-gray boa constrictor, a stunning green arboreal lizard in the cloud forest (Abronia smithi - a relative of the alligator lizards in the family Anguidae), Morelet's alligator lizard, rainbow ameiva, spiny-tailed iguana, brown basilisk, various anoles, and Boicourt's spiny lizards. Though dry season butterflies aren't numerous, we usually see the more common species such as blue morpho, mapwings, beauties, daggerwings, mountain and other heliconians, malachite, queen, and others.
The El Triunfo experience is unlike anything I've done in the world of birds and natural history. The combination of superb hospitality and logistics in the "middle of nowhere", the vast tract of unaltered forest, the fascinating biogeography, the success of the area's conservation efforts, and the abundance of show-stopping birds and other wildlife create an adventure that I hope to relive many times in the future.
white-winged tanager, long-tailed manakin, highland guan, Prevost's
brushfinch by Misty Vaughn