Lost in the Cloud Forest
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.
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.
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.
Resplendent quetzal resting between foraging flights.
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.