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Guatemala: Guan, baby, guan

February 25, 2010
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Birders are well known to travel to places that are, shall we say, sub-optimal.  I’m thinking of sewage treatment plants where rare shorebirds can congregate or landfills where blizzards of gulls can produce some exceptional individuals, and those are the classic examples of birder hotspots that are typically avoided by the general public.  But you can probably add to the list countless out of the way dismal swamps and treacherous forests and ice-covered coastlines that offer extremes of both weather and accessibility.  Taken together you’ve got the picture of the birder as a pretty adventurous person.  This is, of course, self-evident to those of us involved in the avocation.

But there exist some birds who require all of that adventurous spirit and perhaps something more, a near olympian effort to find them perhaps, or a acceptance of the possibility of failure.  I’ll leave it to you to decide which is ultimately the more painful, but what is safe to say is that there are few birds on the planet that combine all of these aspects in quite the same way as the celebrated Horned Guan of Guatemala.

The Horned Guan is one of the world’s truly bizarre birds.  It’s lineage is ancient, it’s connection to the rest of the Cracids, Guans and Curassows that share its family, tenuous.  It has a horn, an honest to goodness skull protrusion, that unlike any other “horned” bird in the world is not connected to feather or bill making it resemble nothing so much as the button-eyed dinosaur sock puppet of an elementary aged school kid magically given the gift of life from a passing fairy.  Oscar Wilde once said the only people he find fascinating are those who know absolutely everything and those who know absolutely nothing.  He would love this bird that looks both constantly perplexed and otherworldly sagacious as it stares vacantly out from photographs whose captions trumpet both its novelty and its rarity.

The appeal of the Horned Guan, besides its arresting features, lies in the fact that it resides only near the peak of cloud-shrouded volcanoes in southern Guatemala and across the border in the Chiapas state of Mexico.  It’s an exceptionally specific ecological niche, and one in which the bird very rarely, if ever, leaves.  This means that in order to see this bird in its full fantastic glory you have to go to this narrow band within a band where they are, and nowhere else.  We birders are often irrationally subject to the pull of the endemic, be it regional or national, and few birds fit the bill as precisely as the Horned Guan.  Fortunately, this is a path traveled by many, from Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds, to Sharon Stiteler the Birdchick, to the late literary giant George Plimpton.  But whether you see the bird in Guatemala or in Mexico, the story is roughly the same.  There’s this volcano, see?  And you have to go up it.

I’d read tales of Volcan San Pedro before.  How the trail is steep, and long, and not for the faint of heart.  I admit I tossed it off.  “I’m a healthy young man in the prime of my life”, said I, “I’ve done these sorts of climbs before”.  I’m not ashamed to say that I wholly and entirely underestimated this mountain and this bird, and I’m now convinced the Horned Guan is aware of the difficulty in reaching its mountaintop abode.  You have to earn your Guan on Volcan San Pedro.  A bird this rare and this odd practically requires it.

The mountain comes at you mercilessly.  It drains you.  It leaves you sore and breathless and beaten, and when you reach the top it hammers at your knees and ankles with the sledgehammer of your own weight coming down.  It is not a thing to be taken lightly nor is it a thing to come to unprepared.  The trail starts by descending (descending!), as if a cruel joke, into shade-grown coffee groves filled with migrating warblers and vireos and orioles, distracting you for a time before it turns upwards and begins the relentless task of attempting to throw you off its back for five grueling miles.

And to taunt you further, the truly ethereal song of the Brown-backed Solitaire rings from every grove of trees yet the bird stays just out of sight.  This song is one of the most famous in the avian world, and for good reason.  It’s a fluid avalanche of notes that sounded to me like water running over a windchime.  It is haunting, and when we finally spotted a single singer deep in the pines, we sat, amazed, as a nondescript brown bird dropped its mandible 90 degrees and spilled forth a cavalcade of sound.  Not for long, however, you still have along way to go.  You still haven’t earned your Guan.

We stopped from time to time, as if we had any choice from a cardiovascular perspective, to regroup and to take in spots where our phenomenal guide and resident Guan-whisperer Hugo has seen fantastic birds.  We found some of them, family groups of screaming Bushy-crested Jays and secretive Rusty Sparrows and striking Rufous-collared Robins, all regional endemics like the Guan.  And you miss some too, like the Lesser Roadrunner that decided this cliff face was not the place to be on this particular morning.

After three hours of walking up what can probably be most closely approximated to be a dirt staircase, the group is scattered down the mountain.  Hugo and a hardy few took the lead, always several hundred yards ahead of me, but a carrot to encourage this plodding donkey up the hill.  Further behind lagged the British contingent, including BBC star Bill Oddie who, it must be said, had every reason to abandon the climb (and likely wished he had by the end) but persevered, pulling up the rear but always moving onward, and upward, to Guan territory.

By the time you reach the Guan zone you’re practically spent.  You’re reduced to taking ten steps and stopping to rest, leapfrogging others using the same strategy all the way up the mountain until you come to where the Guans are, a belt of stunning old-growth forest that wraps around the top of the mountain like a knit cap.  The trees here are different, bigger, older, an appropriate temple to house the sage bird everyone comes to see.

For the next five hours were stayed in the Guan zone.  We pored over every single epiphyte choked limb for signs of the big birds.  We imitated the bill clap they use to communicate.  We walked up, and down, and god help us, up again.  We saw good birds like the tiny Wine-throated Hummingbird and the gregarious Gray Silky-flycatcher.  We asked the unusually large number of tourists heading towards the volcano’s peak whether they’d seen anything and got the same shake of the head, even when Hugo clarified that it was the big Guan we were looking for, not the smaller and far more vocal Highland Guan that haunts the same forests.

Hugo, for his part, was as relentless as the mountain we’d trudged up.  As the hours rolled by without a sight of the bird he would not give up, and the prospect that a group of bird-crazy foreigners might leave without seeing the very species emblazoned on the logo of the INGUAT Birding Encounter clearly weighed heavy on him.  But by the time we split the group up to spread out down the trail with the directions to yell if we found it, the writing was on the wall.  There was no fault to be laid at the feet of our guide, the bird simply would not have us.  The realization that this trip to Guatemala, this brutal hike up the mountain, would be in vain was a cruel reminder that failure is as much a hallmark of this birding thing we do as any successful twitch.

In the end, we realized that the multitude of tourists may have had something to do with our Guan strikeout.  This is not a stupid bird no matter how simple it may look.  Given the option of hanging out near a trail packed with loud humans and the quieter confines of the deeper forest further out, well, the choice seems rather simple even for me. A conversation heard by a particularly noisy trio of young American tourists that consisted of various incarnations of “dude” and “nice” (I kid you not) probably put it over the edge.  This is not a bird that suffers fools.  Sad that we were apparently confused.  Even a Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo couldn’t completely dull the pain.  But I have to admit, it comes close.

The lead group of Guan watchers reached the pick-up site several hours before our trailing companions.  A turned ankle had made the going slow for them.  We had to leave, but we’d catch up at dinner.

I left the group, and Guatemala, the next day.  Real life doesn’t always allow for days lounging in a tropical paradise.  With nearly a month removed from my trek up the mountain the lingering pain from the climb has vanished and my mind is once again filled with technicolor visions of a huge black and white bird with a red knob.  I suppose, should I be fortunate enough to return to this part of the world someday, I’ll have to do the climb again.  If that day comes, hopefully the Guan will then find two trips up the mountain will deem me worthy.

I will undoubtedly have earned it.

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20 Comments
  1. February 25, 2010 7:28 am

    Well, I almost felt sorry for you reading the post but then I googled an image of a Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo and changed my mind.

    No, seriously: that SUCKS!! I hate it when plans do not work out due to the weekend, it’s happened to me a few times too, although not quite as painful physically and emotionally as in your case.

    One of my golden rules of birding is to always leave out one lifer as a reason to come back. However, this lifer ought to be some small, brown indistinct warbler, or an Empidonax or whatever-the-drab, but not the star bird of the show.

    Again: crap!
    You’ll HAVE to get back there in a couple’ years, and train extensively before the trip so you can carry young Noah up as well.

  2. February 25, 2010 11:23 am

    That’s disappointing, especially after such a long hike.

  3. Nate permalink*
    February 25, 2010 11:25 am

    @Jochen- If I ever go back to try for the bird again, and I sincerely hope I can, there’s no way I’m carrying Noah up that mountain.

    @John- Yeah, but the experience was pretty cool, even if the bird didn’t cooperate.

  4. Greg permalink
    February 25, 2010 1:43 pm

    At least you’ll have a good story to tell when Noah and you make the trek up that volcano side by side…….that is, if you can speak between all the huffing and puffing…..

  5. February 25, 2010 1:44 pm

    I’m going to have to do that hike just to see if it is really as bad as everyone makes it out to be. I mean, it can’t be that bad, can it?

    Sucks about the guan…but, well, like you and others have said, it’s a reason to go back.

  6. Nate permalink*
    February 25, 2010 1:58 pm

    @Dad- I hope there are still Horned Guans around when Noah is old enough to climb volcanos. It’s considered to be one of the 10 rarest birds in the world, which makes the fact that they’re more or less easy to find when you get to the right habitat so amazing.

    @Corey- It can. And it is. And it’s impossible to appreciate until you’re doing it. So you should.

  7. February 25, 2010 3:30 pm

    So, ummm, I’m gonna ask it: are you sure Horned Guans actually exist? I know you have questions about the existence of Ivory Gulls due to similar (somewhat similar, anyway) circumstances.

    And as long as I’m speculating, are “guan hunts” the Latin American equivalent of a good ol’, North American “snipe hunt”?
    -Mike

  8. Nate permalink*
    February 25, 2010 8:32 pm

    @Mike- The Ivory Gull is a special case, but if I ever return to Guatemala to try for the Guan again and miss again, then yes, I’ll probably question the existence of this bird that’s clearly too bizarre to be real.

  9. February 25, 2010 11:37 pm

    We all know that this is just a part of birding. But, you have to admit, this has to be one of the worst things about this hobby! After all that effort, it really stings not to see what you were hoping for.
    Sorry to hear about the dip, but it was still a great story, and very well written. Hope you get to see it someday.

    You’d think that reading this would make one not want to attempt the same thing, but no, I really want to experience the Guan trek now!

  10. February 26, 2010 1:29 am

    @Nate: no way you’d carry Noah up? So you wouldn’t do ANYTHING for the Guan? Maybe that’s why it didn’t consider you worthy…

    @Grant (last paragraph): welcome to the club! I once did a hike along a particular trail that was well known for being strenuous. I consider myself a good hiker, but this trail was the first and only time in my life that I literally longed for death. I really wanted to die right there on the spot, just so I didn’t have to walk on anymore.
    Yet, looking back it was a great day and I’d do it again 7 days a week. Okay, make that once a week …

  11. February 26, 2010 7:24 am

    What a massive bummer that you didn’t get that guan after all that work. But it sounds like you still got some really nice birds, not to mention a heckuva workout. Next time, I hope you are luckier–and I hope there will be a next time up there!

  12. Nate permalink*
    February 26, 2010 9:32 am

    @Grant- Yeah, before I did it I always wanted to do the climb. Now, staring at the possibility of needing to do it again if I ever return? I don’t know. I probably would, but knowing what waits for you is disheartening.

    @Jochen- That’s exactly how it feels, like you’re going to die right on the spot. And that’s before you even get to the pavilion that marks the approximate halfway spot. At which point the trail gets harder.

    And re: Noah. You’re right! The Guan knew!

    @Felicia- Me too! And there are some great birds to distract you on your way up, especially nearer to the beginning. One I forgot to mention was Blue-and-White Mockingbird, which I saw, but not well. More reason to go back!

  13. March 1, 2010 7:19 am

    I’m in awe of the views and otherworldly feel, especially from those last two images. Even if you hadn’t seen a single bird, it sure looks like it would have been worth the effort anyway–to behold that scenery if for no other reason. Grant got it right: your tale makes the adventure all the more attractive. Sans the crowd, I mean. (And am I a bad person for thinking I’d have been inclined to walk over and politely smack members of the “dude” and “nice” group upside the head for being so daft?)

  14. March 1, 2010 7:35 am

    I just noticed that the volcano reaches a height of nearly 3,000 metres above sea level.
    So that’s what’s been killing you: thin air!

  15. Nate permalink*
    March 1, 2010 9:34 am

    @Jason- Not bad at all, you have no idea how close we were…

    @Jochen- Yeah, the thin air doesn’t help matters in the least. Compared to how much my legs hurt I probably didn’t notice it, but it undoubtedly contributed.

  16. March 1, 2010 10:25 am

    It’s the thin air and lack of oxygen that makes your legs hurt so much – I’ve experienced it in Kazakhstan. It’s really bad.

  17. March 2, 2010 10:30 pm

    I just read this and am already reliving flashbacks of the infamous San Pedro Death March. Very well-written, Nate. You manage to maintain an admirable level of equanimity despite having worked harder to miss a bird than you probably ever have or will again. The birding gods will undoubtedly smile upon you in time!

    But I should add that seeing the Horned Guan certainly doesn’t suck…

  18. March 6, 2010 11:49 am

    I must say that I feel for your disappointment in not seeing this magnificent bird Nate but it is difficult to feel too sorry for anyone who has had the ability to go to Guatemala to try.

    I, and the girl that was to become my wife, made a trip to Guatemala back in 1976. We were captivated by its beauty but alas, those were my pre-birding days. Your photos inspire me to go back to Guatemala for a birding trip but your description of the hike up Volcan San Pedro makes me wonder if I could make it.

    The chance to see an incredible endangered species like the Horned Guan makes me think I can and should make the trip.

    I thought your readers may want to get more information on this bird from Birdlife International, the official Red List Authority for birds for the IUCN.

    Thanks for the excellent post on this endangered species!

  19. Nate permalink*
    March 6, 2010 1:25 pm

    @Mike- No doubt! I was surprised as I accepted my guan-less fate, that what before was unthinkable hurt less than I thought it might. Even without the target bird, it was still a great day in the field.

    @Larry- I certainly wouldn’t feel sorry for me! Guatemala is a wonderful place with fantastic people, but if you do make the trip I’d be sure to take precautions. It wasn’t that long ago that it was a military junta like many Central American nations and parts of it can still be dangerous to tourists traveling alone. That said, there are lots of lodges and guides that would make things easier and safer and are a piece of cake to get in touch with. The nation clearly sees the advantages to encouraging tourism and they’re working hard to facilitate them.

    As for the climb, I can’t deny it’s very difficult. But you could probably make it as long as you took it slow and steady. It worked for me, and fortunately there is lots to see on the way up and the way down so taking you time is encouraged regardless.

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