Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Horned Guans and the Volcano

Wow! Freshly back from the jungles of Guatemala, and what a trip it was! Magnifico in nearly every aspect, and a bit of a shock to arrive back to Ohio and some 21 inches of white stuff blanketing the ground.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the 4th International Bird Watching Encounter, organized and sponsored by Inguat, the tourism arm of the Guatemalan government. They are proactively - and wisely - marketing the great natural resources of their country to the ecotourism crowd, and I suspect Guatemala will be increasingly known as one of the must-see places in Central America.

Scads of photos here, still in a bit of disarray, but I wanted to slap something up right quick, and what better way to begin than with the marvelous Horned Guan. These pheasant-sized oddities are quite rare, with an estimated 1,000 birds surving in scattered locales of Guatemala and adjacent Mexico. And one must work to see one. No free lunches here. Story below.

The mighty San Pedro volcano looms from the shore of Lake Atitlan. The lake is about 5,100 feet elevation, the summit of the volcano juts to around 10,000 feet. Horned Guans? Just below the summit, and that's where we went.

Our party heads for the clouds. It took several hour to ascend to Guan country, uphill the entire way. These Ohio-adapted lungs struggled with the thinner air. Leading the pack is the absolutely indefatigable and irrepressible Tim Appleton, a topnotch Brit who is a driving force behind Bird Fair, the world's largest birding festival. About 19,000 people attended last year. Although Tim claimed to be 60, he neither looked nor acted it. He was up the volcano nearly faster than our local guides.

Great birding abounded on the slopes of San Pedro, and we nailed nearly all of the heavy-hitters like Blue-throated Motmot and Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo. This is Lesser Roadrunner, one of a pair that treated our party to wonderful looks, and in the process became perhaps the most photographed Lesser Roadrunners in history. Of equal interest to these tropical gems, at least to me, were the scores of neotropical birds. For instance, nearly incalcuable numbers of Tennessee Warblers created mini avian blizzards in the treetops, and there were more Western Tanagers than I've ever seen in one place.

There were other interesting animals on the volcano, and this is one of them. Jeff Bouton is an ambassador for Leica Optics, and I doubt they could find anyone better-suited to promote their gear. Jeff is also an extraordinary birder, and we were continually amazed by his incredible eyes and ID skills. I often felt like a semi-blind, illiterate piker around some of the people on this trip, although everyone was more than gracious about sharing their knowledge. Now, look closely at this photo. Jeff is sporting the latest in jungle chic...

Anole earrings! That's right, these reptilian adornments are sure to impress the crowd at the pub, or in Jeff's case, the girls at the disco. Just be quick on the draw, snatch an anole from the jungle floor, and stick its mouth to your ear. On it will clip, and off you go. Just like Mike Tyson nipping into Evander Holyfield.

Enough fiddling around with lizards. This was the primary beast we had climbed for hours to see. Horned Guan! These rather massive, arboreal fruit-eaters lurk at mid-levels of large trees, generally in areas densely cloaked with vines. They can be rather difficult to spot, if they remain still. When they get to clambering about, guans are rather clumsy and a bit like bulls in a china shop, though. This is one of four that we saw, and although my photos aren't the best, we were treated to absolutely stunning views through binos and scope. With their whitish bills and sparkling white eyes, topped by that bizarre red tubular cap on their crowns, Horned Guans are, well, odd-looking. Well worth a lengthy hike, and I hope that efforts increase to protect this wonderful and imperiled bird.

A guan's-eye view from the San Pedro volcano, looking down on Lake Atitlan and the village of San Pedro La Laguna. Guatemala is truly a fascinating country that is full of surprises, wonderful people, and great birding. I'll hope to post some more photos and reports later.



BT3 said...

Jambo Jimbo:

Glad you got the guan. That's exactly where i saw it two years ago.
Great having you along for the trip. Now we need to take an OOS group down there!

Julie Zickefoose said...

I gotta say, that image of Bouton with anole earrings is going to keep me up at night.