Sunday, December 20, 2015

Guatemala - Guatemala City and back via Los Tarrales

Feb 10

Not wanting to wander around Zona 1 (the most dangerous area of town) in the pre-dawn darkness, we hopped a cab whose driver knew where our next bus would be leaving from. It ended up being about a half-hour drive away, on the other side of the city, but our driver was nice enough to point out which bus we needed. The ride was rather interesting, with the driver's assistant constantly hanging out the door calling to pedestrians to get on the bus (also added House Sparrow for the trip). Most of them ignored him and eventually we were on the highway. The ride west through Escuintla to Cocales, our jumping-off point, was quite scenic, with mountains, plains of farmland and a few volcanoes to look at, along with the locals to keep us entertained (also Barn Swallow, Bronzed Cowbird and White-throated Magpie-Jay for the trip list). Arriving in Cocales, we walked to a restaurant on the west side of town, grabbed breakfast and checked our emails (as we wouldn't have any internet for a couple days, also added Cooper's Hawk here) before hopping a bus up to Los Tarrales. Our bus from GCity out to Cocales turned out to be one of the fancier express buses and cost something like 120Q ($15), our bus up to LT was one of the old pimped-out school buses known as chicken buses, and it was extremely crowded, noisy and bumpy, but also cheap (something like 5Q)! It was certainly an interesting experience being jammed into a seat with two other guys, with my pack on as we flew down the winding, bumpy roads! We did end up getting dropped at the right place though, and after a bit of confusion (they upgraded us to fancier rooms at no additional charge as a tour group needed the room we had originally booked) we dropped our gear and went for a walk around the lodge grounds. One thing I should note about LT is that you need to pay everything in cash at the end of your stay, which can be a bit of an issue, especially if you are travelling around by public transit and are uncomfortable carrying large-ish sums of cash.

 We have arrived!

Heading up to the lodge - Volcan Atitlán in the back, our quest for the next day

In planning the trip I had looked for somewhere near Guatemala City where we could pick up a good number of the Mexico/Guatemala regional endemics and found Los Tarrales as a reliable place for two of the most highly-sought after of these specialties: Horned Guan and Azure-rumped Tanager. It also hosts a huge diversity of other species, as the habitat within the reserve ranges from mid-elevation farmland, through coffee plantations, up to high-elevation cloud forest and even beyond to pine forest near the top of the volcano. Anyway, our afternoon walk around the gardens and coffee areas near the lodge yielded 25 new trip birds for us! I will let the eBird checklist do the talking once again here, but highlights were White-bellied Chachalaca, Black Hawk-Eagle, Long-billed Starthroat, Berylline Hummingbird, Yellow-naped Parrot, Pacific Parakeet, Black-capped Swallow, Spot-breasted Oriole and Scrub Euphonia. We called it an early night after an amazing home-cooked dinner as we had a very early morning the next day!

Black Hawk-Eagle
Running trip total: 341

Feb 11

After sleeping through our 230am alarm, we somehow woke up at 240 and met our guide Aaron at 245 for breakfast and some much-needed coffee (note: I am not a coffee drinker!). A guide is required to get up into the cloud forest here, and is well worth the cost, especially if you don't bother studying the vocalizations before you go. Josue is the normal guide but he was out for the day as his wife was expecting a baby, so his younger brother (who turned out to be the same age as me) filled in. Aaron's English and birding knowledge were maybe not as good as his older brother's but he made up for it with good spirits and attempting to teach us some Spanish as we taught him some English. At the end of a long and bumpy jeep ride up to 1400m elevation (the lodge is at around 900m), we picked up our cloud forest guide, Lalo (a local native who spoke very little Spanish let alone English!) and were off to start our hike at about 4am. On the way up we had Mottled and Fulvous Owls, Pauraque, Mexican Whip-poor-will, Highland Guan, and most frustratingly, an Azure-rumped Tanager in the darkness! I pointed it out to the local guide but he didn't really understand what I was saying, until I said tangara (tanager) and he nodded and pointed to where the sound was coming from. Janice and Aaron were way back down the trail at this point and by the time they got there the bird had moved on, unseen by any of us! We ended up not seeing the bird anywhere else on the hike - one to go back for I guess. On the way up we basically beelined to the guan area, and apparently ended up going much higher than they normally take visitors - up to around 2300-2400m elevation (the guans are sometimes found as low as 1800m). Along the way the new birds were thick (Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, Collared Trogon, Emerald Toucanet, Crested Guan, Scaly-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Golden-browed Warbler, Spotted Wood-Quail, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, Black-throated Jay, White-faced Quail-Dove, Green-throated Mountain-Gem and even more that I think I am running out of room to list!), but our sights were set on that one almost mythical beast that we had come especially to see. Around 9am we all stopped in our tracks when we heard a distant, deep noise that is really hard to describe (and none of the recordings do it justice) - pretty much the lowest frequency a bird can make. Within half an hour we were face-to-face with a pair of HORNED GUANS, and spent the next half-hour or so observing one that stuck around for us as it called, fed and was generally curious as to what the land-bound creatures watching it were.

The beast itself - Horned Guan (more photos in checklist)

Guan country

We eventually let it be and slowly made our way back down the mountain, elated with our success! On the way back down we had better views of a number of species mentioned earlier, as well as a whole bunch of birds we had missed on our trek up. Highlights included Rufous-browed Wren, Singing Quail, White-naped Brush-Finch, Olive Warbler, Hooded Grosbeak, Rufous-collared Thrush, Elegant Euphonia, Spotted Nightingale-Thrush, and Resplendent Quetzal. Once we were out of the cloud forest we wandered through some of the higher-elevation coffee plantations, picking up species like Rufous Sabrewing, Blue-tailed Hummingbird, Bushy-crested Jay, Greater Pewee and Plain Wren. After dropping Lalo off and making a stop at some hummingbird feeders we slowly drove back down to the lodge, stopping at a few of the better birding sites (Tody Motmot, Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, Flame-colored Tanager, White-throated Thrush, Long-tailed Manakin). We thanked Aaron for the amazing day and went for a short walk around the lodge to add to the day list, mostly picking up species that we had seen the day before but also seeing a Crested Caracara which is apparently a rarity for the lodge. After that it was time to call it a day, and we went to bed early to the sounds of White-bellied Chachalacas outside our window.

The view on the way down
Running trip total: 389

Feb 12

Despite our successes the day before, and my rather sore legs (hiking up and down 1000m of elevation will do that!), there were still some holes in our list and so I went for a hike back up the mountain to a trail Aaron had showed me the day before where they sometimes see the tanager, at around 1200m elevation. The trail was awesome, as it was just a little-used road that went down through a valley and back up the other side after crossing a small river, and full of birds. Unfortunately the tanager didn't show but there were plenty of highlights to make up for it with Bar-winged Oriole, Blue-and-White Mockingbird, Gray-collared Becard, Plumbeous and Brown-capped Vireos, Green Shrike-Vireo, Blue-throated Goldentail, Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird, Greenish Elaenia, Rufous-and-White Wren and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush being new for the trip.

The disused road with all the birds

All too soon it was time to head back, pack, grab some food and start our journey back to GCity. One of the lodge workers was kind enough to wait for the bus with us, to ensure we got on the right one and as he didn't speak any English we had a good chance to practice our Spanish during the hour we had to wait. We ended up getting one of the chicken buses back to Guatemala City, which was (thankfully) MUCH less crowded than the one we'd had from Cocales to LT. I think it only cost something like 25Q as well ($3) so was much cheaper than the fancy bus we'd had on the way there, and took us all the way back to the station we had started at (rather than having to switch in Cocales). From there we caught a cab to our hostel (Guatefriends) near the airport, where we ended up waiting around on the street as the owner wasn't in! Eventually someone showed up to let us in, and we went for dinner with one of the other guests. We ended up going to a sandwich shop not far from the hostel, where for $5 I bought two massive wraps and a beer - I think this was my favourite meal of the entire trip as the wraps were loaded with seasoned pork, caramelized onions, guacamole and cheese! Then it was once again early to bed as we had to be up for our flights in the morning. Our time in Guatemala had been successful, with 176 species at Los Tarrales alone! We still missed a few targets but you can't get everything in such a short time anyway, I'll have to go to Chiapas at some point to clean up the remaining species! With just over 400 species in 16 days, I was amazed at how well we actually did on this leg (I was expecting ~350), and looking forward to what the next leg of my journey would bring.
Running trip total: 403 (225MX, 171BZ, 239GT)

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