Monday, February 19, 2007

Lost in the Cloud Forest

Monday, February 19, 2007
I love the cloud forest. Sure it's wet, rains a lot, can be freezing cold or faintingly hot and humid. It's not nearly as diverse birdwise as, say, humid lowland forest. There are snakes and other things that are dangerous, and yet I cannot get enough of watching birds in cloud forest habitat. This morning, without taking more than a few dozen steps, I was lost in the cloud forest.

Not literally lost.

But I was transported to another world.

Our Guatemalan birding group headed out in las horas pequeñas to the nearby cloud forest adjacent to the Biotop del Quetzal, a precious piece of habitat that's been set aside to preserve the local population of the resplendent quetzal. My group (we were in three small buses) stopped at Ranchitos del Quetzal just up the road from the entrance to the Biotopo. The very second we stepped out of the bus into the cool pre-dawn air, we heard birds and saw their dark shapes flitting through the underbrush.

Warning, storyline tangent ahead....

It's been like old home week here in Guatemala, seeing old friends, both human and avian. Keith Hansen is here, as is Alvaro Jaramillo, Peter Burke, Don DesJardin, plus my Guatemalan amigos y amigas de los pajaros, Ana, Marco, Hugo, Kenneth, Maynor, Claire, Claudia.

Among the friends with feathers are more than 20 species of "our" warblers, including Wilson's, black-throated green, hooded, Kentucky, worm-eating, yellow, black-and-white, yellow-rumped, orange-crowned. And there are many western warblers: Grace's, olive, Townsend's, hermit, and black-throated gray. The warbler highlight of yesterday was several sightings of GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLER (a lifer for me) that rare breeder in Texas. Many individuals of the species winter here in Guatemala, in the pine-oak forests just below the cloud forest. We found our birds at Rio Escondido, a private reserve not far from Cobán. What a kick to see this bird in the habitat where it spends most of its year.

But back to the cloud forest...we ticked off several species immediately: slate-throated redstart, unicolored jay, emerald toucanet, and a small feeding flock of warblers. Four or five common bush tanagers hawked insects on the ground beneath a street light.

Common bush tanager.

I had been to Ranchitos two years ago, on the First International Bird Watching Encounter and the kind folks hosting the event very much wanted me to find the resplendent quetzal. But it was not to be. We spent most of two days sitting out rain showers at Ranchitos and hearing the quetzals but not seeing them. This experience, and my eventual success more than a year later at a different Guatemalan site, was recounted in BOTB here.

Cloud forest view from Ram Tzul, an eco-lodge near the Biotopo.

It wasn't more than a few minutes after the first streaks of sun kissed the treetops that the shout of "Quetzal!" was heard. We all scampered up the driveway at Ranchitos, while craning our necks skyward for a glimpse of this majestic bird in the canopy. An adult female and what we think was a young male spent much of the next hour eating avocados and other fruits from the nearby trees. How completely captivating to see this, the national bird of Guatemala, in its natural state, seemingly at ease.

Conditions for photography were tough, but I managed a few shots when the birds worked their way lower, into the sub-canopy.

Resplendent quetzal resting between foraging flights.

Time for another avocado, the quetzal swooped up, grabbed a fruit, and found another perch.

All too soon it was time to leave. We never did see El Macho, the male resplendent quetzal. And by the way, did you know that the resplendent plumes on the adult male quetzal are not tail feathers or streamers? Instead they are long feathers that come from the wings, over the tail. He uses them to great effect in his courtship flights, which I've sworn to myself that I HAVE to see.

Perhaps I'll see El Macho perform the next time I'm lost in the cloud forest.


On February 19, 2007 at 7:22 PM Andy said...

Hi Bill - the lovely long streamers on a Resplendent Quetzal are actually uppertail coverts, not from the wings. The wing coverts are, instead, elongated and overlap the sides of the breast, giving the birds that great jagged appearance when seen from the side (which basically never happens in nature!).

(sorry if you get multiple comments from me; blogger is hiccuping)

On February 19, 2007 at 9:45 PM Anonymous said...

It is finally above freezing, but the only birds I have gotten photos of are the bajillion gulls on the river. Your lifers are spectacular. Your photos are too! Have more fun than possible.

On February 20, 2007 at 12:58 AM BWJones said...

Awesome. I particularly loved the red capped manakin in a previous entry, but I am wondering what you are doing (if anything) for weather protection for your camera gear? The 30d is not weather sealed, so are you taking any particular measures to prevent moisture from getting to the camera/lens?

On February 23, 2007 at 3:32 PM claudia said...

Hola Bill, fue un gusto tenerlos de vuelta en Guatemala, ahora ya tienes un Doctorado en Encuentros de Aviturismo en Guatemala.. je!. Espero que en tu proxima visita puedas venir y tener tu deseado encuentro con el Quetzal. Estaremos esperando por ustedes