El Triunfo: Chiapas, Mexico Bird Tour Musings

Guest post by Jim Gessaman

From March 19--31, 2015, I was among six other participants and three guides on a bird tour of El Triunfo, Sumidero Canyon, and the Pacific coastal plain of Chiapas, Mexico, organized and led by David MacKay (www.solipaso.com). The trip started in Tuxtla Gutierrez (capital city of Chiapas), where we drove into the Atlantic Rainforest near Laguna Beligica for the morning, then moved to Sumidero Canyon National Park for afternoon birding. On the second day we birded our way to Jaltenango for a motel overnight and, on the third day, drove and birded about 35 miles on a dirt road to a coffee plantation that marks the start of the narrow path leading about eight miles to the El Triunfo Field Station clearing (about 7.5 acres). This station, comprised of four buildings (a dormitory, mess hall, security guard’s house, and a shed to house horse caretakers), is located 7,200 feet above sea level and surrounded by dense cloud forest. We spent four nights there, birding every day and changed to tent camping the next three nights as we walked over the Continental Divide and down to the Pacific coastal plain. Once out of the mountains, we added to our trip list by birding the area around Arriaga before heading back to Tuxtla Gutierrez.

El Triunfo Field Station clearing
Bromeliads in rainforest

Exploring the roadless El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in southern Sierra Madre of Chiapas for seven days was the highlight of this trip. Open to birders/tourists only three consecutive months each year, about 50 tourists visit per year. Scientists with approved research projects have access year-round. The El Triunfo cloud forest is not only one of the largest in Mexico but also the most diverse in tree species in North and Central America, with more than 2,330 species of flora having been documented. Because it rains here more than 120 inches per year, we visited in the dry season. An enormous variety of oak, wild avocado trees, and liquidambars flourish in uplifting moisture coming off the Pacific. Arborescent ferns, orchids, and bromeliads in the cloud forest share habitat with the highlight birds, Horned Guans and Resplendent Quetzals.

Our three bird guides were excellent. David MacKay has been guiding in Mexico for 17 years; and Jorge Montajo, a native of Mexico, and his wife, Amy McAndrews, a Kingston, Canada native (the best resident birders in Chiapas) have compiled the official list of Chiapas birds. Each was friendly and patient, had acute hearing, could identify nearly all species by call, spotted minimal bird movement, quickly pointing out the location of a spotted bird with the aid of a green laser. On a lagoon near the Pacific Ocean, our group saw a Surf Scoter, a first sighting for Chiapas; Jorge was ecstatic with this find.

At Field Station, left to right: James Huntington, Jorge Montajo,
Amy McAndrews, Dave Hursh, and Dave Porter.
My fellow participants included James Huntington, who has been to Attu and Gambel Islands in Alaska many times as a bird guide and participant and has 880 species on his NA bird list; Dave Porter, who lives in Patagonia, AZ, in winter and Alaska in summer, has been a bird guide with Huntington for nearly 20 seasons on Gambel Island; Richard Webster, who lives in Cave Creek Canyon, AZ , guides part-time with Field Guides, focusing on Columbia and Bhutan birding tours; Dave Hursh, who had been on 15 previous trips led by David MacKay and carried on his back harness a top-of-the-line Swarovski spotting scope that revealed brilliant images of the forest birds, which everyone enjoyed; Neil Lamb, a retired Air Force medical entomologist on his third MacKay-led trip; and Harry LeGrande, an ecological data processor from North Carolina and a world traveler.

Supper at tent camp: David MacKay is third from left.

Birding in the forest along a trail was challenging. Sometimes we’d wait in a favorable location on the trail for 15 minutes playing recordings and searching the canopy before the bird appeared or was heard calling; often, the bird was in an awkward spot so the entire bird was not visible or was flitting to and fro among the thick vegetation. Patience is the key for birding in tropical forests.

As a group, we saw and/or heard about 360 species including 35 species of flycatchers, 29 wood warbler species, 26 hummingbird species, seven woodcreeper species, and 16 species of tanagers and allies. My list of birds definitively seen and/or heard was 284 species. I added 107 new species to my Mexico bird list (for a current total of 508), including 57 Lifers. James Huntington added more than 100 Lifers on this trip, and even David MacKay added four Lifers.

Spotted Nightingale-Thrush

Azure-rumped Tanager
Fulvous Owl

I highly recommend this chance-of-a-life-time trip for birders who would enjoy hiking, camping, and viewing birds in montane tropical forests and coastal plains. In review, our overnight accommodations included five nights at motels/hotels, four nights at the Field Station, and three nights of tent camping; our total hiking covered about 75 miles. I was never exhausted at the end of any trip day, even after hiking about eight miles with an elevation gain of 1,500 feet on our five-hour ascent to the El Triunfo Field Station. On the trail, all camping equipment and food was carried by horses, while participants carried only light day packs. All meals on the trail and at the Field Station were prepared by natives from communities bordering El Triunfo. My total cost for this trip was about $4,000. In 2016, Solipaso will visit El Triunfo for the third consecutive year. Information about next year’s trip will become available at www.solipaso.com in future months.

Jim Gessaman, Tucson