I had never been to Mexico before and I had never been on a birding tour with a group before I signed up to go to El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico with Legacy Tours. What attracted me to this trip was that it involved hiking and camping two things I enjoy in addition to birding. I didn’t really have any targets or expectations but the experience I had while there was extraordinary and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to enjoy this very special place with Legacy Tours’ delightful trip leaders Michael Karmody and Jorge and the incredibly nice participants Ron, Bob and Pearl, Bob, Marvin, and Joyce. I highly recommend Legacy Tours to anyone wanting a special birding experience. Jorge, the local guide was incredibly skilled at identifying the birds and finding them in thick forest canopy. But more than that I was so impressed with his commitment to conservation. He was very gifted at making the whole group comfortable, knowing the pace, and meeting the needs of the participants but always first was protection of the very birds we had come to see. Michael was also very skilled at knowing the birds and their behavior, drawing them out, and finding them in dense forest. He was very enthusiastic and patient and a pleasure to be around. I cannot say enough good things about Michael Karmody, Legacy Tours, and the guide Jorge. I enjoyed myself so much and the memories will be with me forever.
Saturday, March 10, 2012
It did not start so auspiciously though. I was supposed to land in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico around 2:30 PM on March 9 and then relax around the hotel looking for parakeets or something before meeting the group for a pre-trip meeting. Unfortunately the plane in Atlanta had mechanical problems and was delayed two hours. I missed my connection in Mexico City and when I finally got on a flight from Mexico City to Tuxtla Gutierrez and landed there my bag wasn’t there. Aero Mexico offered to deliver it to the hotel “in the morning” sometime but I knew that birders would be up very early and I might miss them so I decided to just wait the five hours at the airport until the next plane was due from Mexico City. Aero Mexico gave me $1000 pesos for my trouble. There was little to do but sit and have a few beers until the plane and my bag finally arrived at 11:00 PM. I didn’t get to the Hotel Parmareca until after midnight. I asked at the front desk about the group and the attendant said they were leaving at 6:30 AM. So I asked for a wake up call at 6:15 AM. At 6:15 there was a call from somebody asking where I was and if I was coming. I said yes. Then 10 minutes later somebody rudely knocked on my door. This big guy was standing there glaring at me. I said “are you Michael?” He barely shook my hand and said let’s go. We were supposed to leave at 6:00 AM. I said sorry my luggage didn’t come and the guy at the front desk said 6:30, not 6:00. Then he relaxed a little and was nicer. What a bad start! I was exhausted to boot. We all got in a van and drove out of town a little way to El Sumidero National Park. We drove up the park road getting out at various spots to look for birds. My first bird of Mexico was a Great-tailed Grackle at the Oxxo, Mexico’s version of 7-11 where we stopped to get junk food for breakfast. Once inside the park things got better. At the first stop I saw a White-tipped Dove, Streaked-backed Oriole, and Banded Wren. I was so happy to see a Streaked-backed Oriole. Now I don’t have to chase one in Arizona. Then we drove some more and stopped at another stop and saw Cabanis Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat, Red-billed Pigeon, Yellow-throated Euphonia. The best sighting though was a Belted Flycatcher in plain view and perfect lighting. We drove all the way up and walked a short trail where I saw a Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Boat-billed Flycatcher, White-collared Swift, Ridgeway Swallows, Lesser Greenlet, and Greenish Elaenia. We went to an overlook down into a very steep canyon with a river flowing far below. We walked around there and saw the pretty Yellow-winged Tanager. It was starting to heat up and so we left the park and returned to the Hotel Palmareca for the buffet brunch. Then we departed for a five hour drive from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Jaltanango. Our driver was extremely reticent. In fact, he never said a word. We stopped at numerous stops along the way looking for birds. The road was pocked with potholes and it was slow going. Tuxtla Gutierrez is a large city of 500,000 people but as soon as you leave town you are back in the countryside. There was a lot of open space with mountain views and bridges over rivers to explore for birds. We saw Ringed Kingfisher, Amazon Kingfisher, Crested Caracaras, Ruddy Ground-Dove (another bird I have looked for numerous times in AZ with no luck), Green-breasted Mango, White-tailed Hawk, Tropical Mockingbird, White-collared Seadeater, Long-billed Starthroat. At the last stop we found several Fork-tailed Flycatchers in a field with a few Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. It was hotter than hell in Jaltanango. We checked into the Hotel El Triunfo and had dinner in the restaurant there. Joyce was pretty interesting. She confided in me that she and her husband were nudists. She also told me that she liked my outfit and that I should be on the cover of Birding Magazine. Wow, thanks. It was so hot in my room. All night long trucks were in and out of the parking lot. There was a noisy party on the first floor with loud Mexican music all night. I didn’t sleep much.
Sunday, March 11, 2012.
A truck picked us up in front of the Hotel El Triunfo. We all piled into the back like the Mexicans do for the three hour drive to the base of the Sierra Madres. We stopped several times and saw Guarded Trogon, Grayish Saltator, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Slate-throated Restart, Golden-crowed Warbler, Barred Antshrike, and some other neat birds. Then we parked, got out and had lunch and began our eight mile hike up 1800 feet on the Finca Prussia Trail into the reserve. We hiked very slowly and stopped frequently to look for birds. The slow pace and constant standing took a toll on my body. The trees were full of epiphytes and there were many orchids and lichens growing. When we would come to an opening in the canopy we had outstanding views into the Sierra Madre Mountains. Many Brown-backed Solitares were singing in the trees. We stopped at one point and saw the cute little Tody Motmot. We heard the exotic Pheasant Cuckoo very close. Michael said it was dead meat but despited repeated “toots” on the ipod the little rat would not reveal himself. However, we had better luck with the Fulvous Owl which popped right out and perched above our heads. Gorgeous owl. While admiring the owl some Black-throated Jays flew in but I missed those. We saw three different Motmots– Russet-crowned Motmot, Blue-crowned Motmot, and Tody Motmot and heard the Blue-throated Motmot. We would have to come back for that one later. As we approached the reserve Jorge told everyone to be quiet as he listened intently for the Horned Guan’s low moan. We heard one high up on a hill but it was getting late and we still had three KM to go. So Jorge insisted we proceed. Up ahead of us on the path was Rusty Sparrow, Chestnut-capped Brush-finch, and then right out in the open a beautiful male Spotted Nightingale-thrush! Damn I tried so hard to see one of these little cuties at Wildsumaco with no luck at all and here was this one five feet away on the trial. Beautiful! It was starting to get late and Jorge was getting anxious as the others appeared to have stopped at the hillside trying to see the Horned Guan. He called them repeatedly on the walkie-talkie to come on. We finally made it to the edge of the research station when we got a call from the head of our staff, Lico, telling us to come back up the trail. He had a Quetzal! I practically ran back. I looked for one of these marvelous birds with my sister in 2000 in Monteverde Cloud Forest with no luck. When I got back to where Jorge was there it was ten feet off the trail in fantastic lighting– the most beautiful bird in the western hemisphere– the Resplendent Quetzal. It was stunning and beautiful and I was so moved that I cried. I was a little embarrassed but Jorge assured me I was not the first person to cry upon seeing a Quetzal for the first time. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my whole life. We made it to camp, had a hot shower, and Rosie our cook made us dinner. After going over the checklist everyone headed off to bed. The stars were magnificent. We were in the middle of nowhere in the cloud forest. What a great place; what a great idea! I shared a room with Joyce and slept well. I could sort of hear Michael snoring in the next room.
Monday, March 12
At breakfast the guys were complaining about how loudly Michael snored. Michael complained about how loudly Marvin snored. I was happy I had my own room with Joyce. We hiked the Palo Gordo Trail in the morning. In the meadow outside of the bunkhouses we saw a Violet Sabrewing. Standing beside the stream we saw lots of Yellow Grosbeaks, Gray Silky Flycatchers, Rufous-collared Sparrows, and Common Bush-tanagers. A White-naped Brush-finch scurried along the stream. And some Hooded Grosbeaks flew over. Black Robin and Melodious Blackbirds were at the edge of the meadow. On the trail we saw Tufted Flycatcher, Yellowish Flycatcher, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Unicolored Jay, and Blue-and-white Mockingbird. About mid-morning we heard a guan very close. Michael told everyone to stop and there it was the exotic looking Horned Guan right over our heads in plain view. There are only 2000 of these magnificent creatures left in the world and you have to hike up into El Triunfo to see them. In fact, the Horned Guan is why most people go to El Triunfo. It sat quietly moaning for at least 20 minutes. While we were admiring it a beautiful Blue-crowned Chlorophonia flew in close as well giving admiring views. After enjoying these incredible treasures to our hearts content we headed back to camp. On the way we passed under a few Central American Spider Monkeys who tried to defecate on the others. Beside the trail was an accommodating Sierra Madre Arboreal Alligator Lizard. During a break Marvin told me that he had been in the Peace Corps in the first set of volunteers after President Kennedy set it up. I said I was in first grade. After lunch I was lounging around the meadow trying to film butterflies when Jorge advised me that some Mexican researchers and the head of the research station had arrived unexpectedly and Joyce and I would have to move into the bunk room with the men! Oh my god. We at least had a separate room with no door on it but it was right next to a large room with several mattresses on the floor. Ron had also been displaced but he begged off and slept outside in a tent. He was smart. That night after dinner Michael insisted that we all go to bed at 8:00 PM. I was not in the least bit tired. I talked with Joyce for a while until Michael yelled at us. Then the lights went out and the loudest snoring I have ever heard began. My god even Joyce was snoring at an insane decibel. Marvin, Joyce, and Michael vied with each other to snore the loudest. It was incredibly noisy. I did not sleep at all. I have never heard a woman snore that loudly. My god it was louder than a truck stop.
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
First thing in the morning I was standing with Marvin when a group of Barred Parakeets flew silently overhead. After a delicious breakfast fixed by Rosie we headed down the Finca Prussia trail. We soon saw a Singing Quail in the trail. Later we also saw a White-faced Quail perched on a horizontal branch over the trail. Black-capped Swallows soared overhead. Then we spent hours trying to get everyone on a Blue-crowned Motmot way the hell up in a tree. Seeing it required you to snap your neck completely back in the whiplash position. The Rufous-browed Wren was much easier. As we headed back to camp and were almost to the meadow I found a Brown-capped Vireo. That night as soon as lights were out I stayed up as late as possible with my headlamp reading in hopes of falling asleep from exhaustion. It was no use the snoring was insanely loud again.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
We hiked the Bandera Trail very briefly until Jorge made us turn around and go back because Resplendent Quetzals were nesting there. While looking at a bush with flowers on it we finally found a female Wine-throated Hummingbird. Across the stream three Quetzals flew into the trees. I got a better look at the males bright red breast. We also saw Paltry Tyrannulet, Spectacled Foliage-gleaner, and Rose-throated Becard– another reason I don’t need to go back to AZ. After lunch I got permission from Jorge to go on the Finca Prussia trail by myself. It was my best day. I hiked as fast as I wanted and went almost back to the beginning of the trail. I stopped where we had the owl on the first day and was finally able to see the Black-throated Jay very well. On my hike back I flushed several White-faced Quail-doves. While walking along two Collared Pecaries ran through the woods. Then I came across a small brown snake– a Highland Viper! That night the stars were shining bright and the Milky Way was splashed across the sky but best of all was the pairing of Venus and Jupiter.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
We packed our bags after breakfast. The horses and staff would carry our bags for us as we hiked down the Coast Trail out of El Triunfo. Rosie and the other staff hiked ahead of us to camp. I was so sad to leave. We hiked about eight miles. Jorge asked if there was anything I would like to see. I just randomly said the first bird that came to my mind— Bare-throated Tiger-heron. I only said it because it seemed so improbable. Along the way we stopped to look for birds and found a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Orange-billed Nightgale-thrush, Rufous Sabrewing, White-throated Robin, Golden-crowned Warbler, and Collared Aracari. After descending nearly to camp we finally came upon a flock of Azure-rumped Tanagers found by Ron. We spent several minutes drawing out a White-eared Ground-Sparrow and a Rufous-and-white Wren. Michael tried to get everyone on the exotic looking Long-tailed Manakin but I never saw it. I did see the boring female though later. Once we got to Limonar the staff had already set up our tents for us and we just had to get our bags and put our tents inside. While others were showering at the make shift shower (a pipe running ice cold water from the creek) Jorge, Ron, and I hiked for a little while on the Coast Trail. We found a probable Blue-tailed Hummingbird and a flock of eastern warblers. We had a very strange dinner of spaghetti and refried beans. Marvin joked that he and Rosie would be getting married. Even though he is twice her age, he is already married, and she doesn’t speak a word of English and he speaks no Spanish. It became the big joke of the trip between the participants. I was a little surprised when Jorge who was bilingual shared with Rosie our little joke but everyone went along because at Marvin’s age it was obviously a joke. Michael became uncomfortable around it though because he said the truth was that somebody like Rosie would marry an old guy like that just to get out of the country. I felt bad after that for Rosie. She was very sweet and worked very hard for us. And she made delicious tortillas. We went to bed incredibly early but I had my own tent so I could stay up as late as I wanted. Michael instructed the staff to put my tent and Ron’s tent as far away from the snorers as possible and they did.
Friday, March 16, 2012
We got up early and after breakfast packed our bags again and left Limonar Camp. We hiked about 10 KMs to El Paval Camp. Along the way I finally saw the Fan-tailed Warbler. What a dandy. We also saw Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and the beautiful Turquoise-browed Motmot. I was getting close to 100 new species on my life list. While looking for the Long-tailed Manakin (Michael said I could not count the female because she is so boring) I found a gorgeous bright yellow and green bird — a Green Shrike-vireo— Number 100! Wow. After everyone had outstanding looks at the Long-tailed Manakin and Green Shrike-vireo we stopped along the trail looking out at the mountain side for lunch. While eating our sandwiches a White Hawk flew by and a Black Hawk-eagle. Then we continued down the trail. After lunch we saw Olivacious Woodcreeper, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Plain Wren, and Emerald-chinned Hummingbird. Best sighting though was the crazy looking Long-billed Gnat-wren. The last bird we found on the coast trail was a Pale-billed Woodpecker. About 100 yard from camp it began to rain hard. Ron and I ran to camp and got under a tin roof to dry off. The others soon arrived as well. The staff brought out moon pies and Horchata. It doesn’t get any better than that! After about an hour the rain stopped and the sun came out. We looked for birds around the camp site. In the borders we saw many Spot-breasted Orioles, Yellow-green Vireos, and Scrub Euphonia. In the trees around camp were Orange-fronted Parakeet and White-fronted Parrot. We walked down a trail with Jorge and he found the very boring Tropical Pee-wee. That night there was more snoring into the night.
Saturday, March 17, 2012
After breakfast we looked around the trails surrounding the campsite and Michael got us all onto a Prevost’s Ground-sparrow and White-breasted Wood-wren. There were also some Red-throated Ant-tanagers and Great Black-hawk. Then we began our short hike out of El Triunfo to a waiting van and our driver, David. We said good-bye to our wonderful staff, Lico, Eli, Rosie, and all the guys who toted our bags and carried our things for us. They were all so wonderful. I cannot say enough good things about them. David loaded up our bags, the mules and staff rode away and then were off down the road to Arriaga where we would have lunch and a much needed beer at a restaurant. Along the road we saw a Laughing Falcon. After lunch we drove into Arriaga and checked into the Hotel Ik-Lumaal. It was very hot in Arriaga. After it cooled a bit David drove us up the road to Mapastatec. Along the river bank we found a Citreoline Trogon. We saw Hook-billed Kite, Golden-crowned Emeral, Spot-breasted Wren, Yellow-winged Cacique, and Green-fronted Hummingbird. Then we drove even higher and found the gorgeously appointed Rosita’s Bunting and Orange-breasted Bunting. At a look out we got out and scanned the skies until finally a bunch of Great Swallow-tailed Swifts flew over. We had dinner at the Ik-Lumaal and then went to bed. Bob from Calgary wasn’t feeling bed and skipped dinner. My dinner choices were narrow. I could have the dried out fish again or the vegetarian option– cheese in a tortilla.
Sunday, March 18, 2012
We got up at 4:30 AM and drove in the dark down some noisy roads looking for the Pacific Screech-owl. It was the only missed bird of the whole trip. I was amazed at how many Mexicans were up and at em at 4:30 AM. Scooters and cars drove by constantly. We tried and tried but never even heard a screech owl. When it was still dark we saw a Boat-billed Heron. After the sun rose we drove up Point Arista to Boca del Cielo and saw Roadside Hawk, White-bellied Chachalaca, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. Ron was so excited to point out the Tiger-heron. Actually I have already seen one in Costa Rica in 2000. I had to pretend to be excited. We parked at a bridge on the road to Coazalcos and walked the busy noisy road looking for birds. Michael was shocked to see a Giant Cowbird. He said it is never seen on the Pacific side. It was perched on a cow. On a telephone wire in the middle of town we found a Giant Wren. Weird. We walked the road and found more Swallow-tailed Flycatchers, Brown-crested Flycatchers, and a Nuttings Flycatcher, Band-backed White-throated Flycatcher, and as Michael and I were walking back to the car some Orange-chinned Parakeets. It was getting hot as hell. We checked out of the hotel and headed back up the road out of Arriaga. Along the way we saw Cinnamon Hummingbird, Ruddy-breasted Seadeater, and White-lored Gnatcatcher. We pulled off the well manicured toll road onto a rancher’s driveway and walked the drive. There we found Stripe-headed Sparrow, Couch’s Kingbird, Rufous-naped Wren, Black-headed Saltator, and Black-cowled Oriole. There was one Brown Jay. The owner came and told Michael to call ahead of time next time he wanted to bird there. It was time to go. We got back in the car and drove back to Tuxtla Gutierrez. We checked back into the Hotel Palmareca. After dinner at the hotel we went through the bird list and I counted up my new birds– 144! Wow. What a great experience. After dinner I thanked Michael. He told me he thought I was a class act for never bringing up that odious asshole who shall remain nameless. That night I dreamed about fresh vegetables, chard, brocoli, and red-leaf lettuce.
Monday, March 19, 2012
It was the end of the trip. David agreed to drive everyone to the airport for 10 each. I was more than happy to pay him. I flew from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Mexico City to Atlanta where I said goodbye to Bob and Pearl from Minnesota, and then to San Francisco. I had had a wonderful trip but I was never so glad as when the plane touched down in my own country where you can drink the water without fear of Montezuma’s revenge and you can eat the vegetables and fruits.