Guatemala: Horned GuanBy
Now there’s a subject line for you!
The walk up San Pedro isn’t a long one–we did just a bit less, I think, than 2 miles up and 2 miles down; but in its close approximation to the vertical, it turned out to be one of the more challenging birding walks I’d ever made. I found myself needing to stop regularly, frequently, among the coffee plantations, cornfields, and 400-year-old trees–to admire the view and the birds, of course, never for anything so shameful as to catch my breath!
And the views were well worth the pause. The walk to the land of the guans is divided into two segments, marked by a delightful little halfway shelter where we paused for lunch (and, yes, to catch our breath).
(Only now do I notice that there must have been cell phone service up there!) Atitlan glistened far below us.
And Black Vultures, omnipresent whatever the elevation, floated–hopeful?–just over our heads.
We disappointed the elegant scroungers and headed up. San Pedro must be a staging site of global significance for Tennessee Warblers, and there were other, more exotic delights like Crescent-chested Warbler and Slate-throated Redstart hanging out with many of the flocks. At about 2,500 meters elevation (and just a little more than two kilometers from the visitor center), we started to look in earnest for cracids.
Hugo started showing us the individual trees he had seen the birds in on past visits–always a bad sign on a birding walk. We made a surprise detour at one point, walking across rather than up the steep slope, for a pair of staked-out Fulvous Owls.
These rarish strigids would have made any other birding day a great one, but we pushed on, leaving them perched lumpily in the canopy.
The question arises on every chase: When do we give up? At the remove of two weeks, I can summon back neither the lactic-acid ache of my thighs nor the mingling of disappointment and slightly ashamed relief at our decision to sit down for a while and ponder defeat.
And then Mel, just a few yards farther up the trail, waved. He waved with such vigor that I could almost swear I heard the hand motions before I saw them; and his face left no doubt about what he’d found.
Where’d all the energy come from? We were on our feet and up the hill in no time at all, and the gasps that issued from our lungs suddenly had nothing to do with the steepness of the trail. There it was–no, there are two–no, there are three–no there are five! Horned Guans stepped deliberately through the foliage, turkey-sized creatures with white sewn-on eyes and ludicrous senses of dignity.
The “horn” varied from rhinoceros-like on this individual to just an ill-formed scarlet bump on others–the counterpoise to the inconspicuous red gular patch. As striking and as weird was the feathering on the bill, reaching out to form a puffy frontal crest that made the ivory upper mandible look absurdly small.
The birds were slow and quiet up in the trees, and it would be easy to miss even these hulking beasts if you didn’t happen to catch one out in the open.
That odd white tail-band suddenly made sense as a piece of “disruptive” coloration, breaking the long tail into discrete patches of shade. Patience, though, gave us outstandingly good views as the birds walked and fed and, finally, vocalized in the trees just off the trail.
As we watched, the birds stood still for minutes at a time, whether in stolidity or a species of static display I don’t know; playing statue like this was usually done in pairs, or at least in twos, and was followed by slow stepping along the branches, only occasionally breaking out into flutter-flight to a nearby perch.
All this was in utter silence at first, but after several minutes we heard a few very low-pitched, slightly buzzy booms–the famous courting call, given with complete decorum. Only once did a noisy and brief squabble break out between two birds, their necks outstretched and heads lowered as they stared at each through felt-puppet eyes.
We had half an hour of this, and were even able to share the birds with the only mildly interested hikers on their way down from the summit. (One curious French family stopped–all I could think of was “poule cornu,” and I’m sure they’re still wondering what a crested chicken and its giddy watchers were doing all that way up on the volcano.)
Suddenly, for what seemed to us no reason at all, the birds pitched out of the trees, one at a time, truly massive in flight, and disappeared over the ridge. They did not return. But the afterglow was a chance for us to watch a stub-billed Emerald-chinned Hummingbird and to catch our breath for the walk back to the visitor center. It took us only about half the time as the climb up had, but as any mountain walker knows, it’s the down direction that’s dangerous. I kept my feet, but every few minutes someone else would skid out, and Hugo, pointing out the importance of seeking one’s center of gravity, would shout out his instructions: “Sit!”
Or at least I think that’s what he was saying. We all made it whole and happy, and celebrated with cold drinks in San Pedro before the trip back across Atitlan–and an early evening in San Lucas.