Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Horned Guan - finding an enigma

High in the cloud forests on the slopes of the mountains and volcanoes of southwest Mexico and Guatemala, hides a bizarre endemic species that has long been considered one of the great enigmas of ornithology – the Horned Guan. Said to be the sole survivor of a unique and ancient radiation in the cracid family, hence with no other living close relatives, the Horned Guan has puzzled ornithologists since their discovery in 1844. On Christmas day last year, a small group of us made the pilgrimage to climb a Guatemalan volcano, departing in the pitch black well before dawn so as to be at elevation by early morning. The trail was narrow and muddy and, above all, steep. The reward was the lure of seeing this bizarre, little known, seldom seen creature in their natural habitat. Imagine something like a turkey with a large fleshy horn running around, not on the ground, but mostly through the large branches of the tallest cloud forest trees. That might be the best way to describe a Horned Guan to someone who hasn’t seen this amazing animal.

The habitat of the Horned Guan is of course part of the mystique – the glorious cloud forest ion the remotest areas of western Chiapas, Mexico and western Guatemala. The slopes of several Guatemalan volcanoes, may be the best place to look for this species. So the day before our big climb, we found ourselves taking a boat across Lago Atitlan to get to the foot of the volcano. This Lake sits at the base of several volcanoes and once held an endemic subspecies (or possibly species) of grebe, the Atitlan Grebe, a relative of the Pied-billed Grebe. As you cross the lake by boat you see the task ahead – steep volcanoes clad in dense forest – beautiful, inspiring, but also challenging! My friend Melanie tried to capture the mood with this photo of the lake – and one of me for good measure!

That evening we arrived at the base of the volcano – here is the view looking up! The ridge you see in the center of the volcano is the ridge we would climb the following day – six hours straight uphill, at least half of which under the cover of darkness.

So at 3am we stumbled out of bed and made our way to the trailhead. The climb was grueling but the anticipation was palpable. As dawn broke we heard the voices of Black-throated Jays and other target species, but from the narrow trail on the ridge seeing anything at all was difficult and crashing into the forest was even tougher. We worked hard to get brief views of a Tawny-throated Leaftosser but mostly we were focused on finding the guan. Just before 9am, having done little but walk straight up the muddy trail, our guide told us we had reached the lower altitudinal limit of the Horned Guan. Our pulses quickened but when checks of the fruiting trees where the enigma had been most recently seen all proved fruitless (i.e. no fruit and hence no guan), we started to have doubts about our chances of success.

The whole morning passed in this way – we split up and searched every fruiting tree we could find – no guan anywhere. The bird was living up to their reputation of being extremely furtive and difficult to detect despite their enormous size (90cm!). At one of the few places where you could see out through the trees, we looked back across the valley to see Volcán de Fuego living up to his name (Volcano of Fire) – smoke plume serpenting up into the brilliant blue sky!

The day wore on and we knew that, since we still hadn’t seen the guan, we might be coming off the volcano in the dark. One of our group gave up and headed back down. The rest of us split up and remained hopeful, even as with each passing minute hopes faded.

At nearly 3pm, knowing the time to get off the volcano was approaching, and separated from the rest of the group, I heard a noise that was like having my own nervous stomach rumbles removed from my body, amplified, and then played back to resonate in my ear drum and vibrate my jaw bone. As my body shook, there was no doubt – I had just heard the deep, booming, “volcanic” rumbling call of the Horned Guan! I tried to collect my wits and head as quickly and quietly up the trail to look for a way off the ridge towards the source of the boom, knowing full well that the call would be somewhat ventriloqual in nature (i.e. hard to pinpoint the direction it came from) and also knowing that any misstep, such as one that produced a loud noise, might scare off the bird I was trying to see. I also knew that if I did see the bird, alone, I would be extremely unpopular. The others however, were a fair distance uphill.

As I got off the trail and worked my way down, across the ridge, I heard the voice of our guide whispering and directing me towards him. It turns out that while he had been walking off to the side the guan had been walking up the volcano and, upon seeing him, had flown up into a tall tree and made the grunting call that I had heard. The way towards our guide was covered in leaf litter and vines so there were anxious moments as I tried desperately to be quick but quiet. Fortunately, two or three minute later I reached him and crouching to get into position, peering through the foliage, I saw the large dark shape in the canopy – none other than the Horned Guan! My pulse of course was racing so hard that it was hard to hold the binoculars steady to check the red horn and the dazzling red legs. But sitting in the dirt, I found a window through the leaves that allowed me to settle down and enjoy the spectacular view. Here are my first views of this magnificent creature, nestled in the shadows of the large branches of the subcanopy – large but easy to overlook without a clue to their presence.

Ordinarily in that situation I would have been in quite a quandary – stay with the bird or go fetch the others. Fortunately this time, our guide volunteered to get the others when I told him where they were. So, five anxious minutes or more followed as I watched the guan for signs of nerves and got ready to follow the bird if they flew. Amazingly, fortunately, this bird was content to remain in the canopy and moved very little. When I heard my friend footsteps approaching, there were a few more anxious minutes — “please stay just a few minutes more” i said to myself — and indeed, soon all four of us were huddled together on the volcano side staring in awe at trying to refrain from making audible sighs and expressions of pleasure.

Finally of course, the guan did fly, which in itself was a spectacle to watch — they seem to large and heavy and yet they fly with remarkable ease — but amazingly they went in the direction of the main trail. So we followed the movement and then crept along the trail until we got even better views of our prize. The photos that follow really say it all – what a feeling to be right under a bird of this size, listening to their booming call from so close (last photo shows the bird calling) and watching that red fleshy horn glow in the afternoon sun!!

After that we slid back down the mountain in jubilation, sharing jokes about “Christmas turkey” (best Christmas turkey a vegetarian ever had!) and recalling every detail of the sighting with relish!


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