Huítepec, a Scrap of Cloud Forest
April 27th, 2010 by robert

Huítepec is a well-known place among international birders. It has a fragment of cloud forest protected in a reserve close to San Cristobal, and cloud forests can be so much fun to bird! As well as crescent-chested warbler, various trogons and other cloud forest species, I was on the lookout for the fabled pink-headed warbler.

The first time I went to Huítepec I caught a ride to the entrance in time for it’s 9 AM opening, already late for birding. The gate was locked, and I waited. And waited. About 9:40 the guards arrived, and I set off, discouraged, up the steep trail. Loud ranchera music drifted up from the small, poor community adjacent.  Bird song was sparse, apart from the similarly eerie and resonant songs of brown-backed solitaires and singing quail. I walked the 2 KM trail slowly, and while the forest was impressive with huge trees, the only birds I was seeing were warblers. The first was the nice and friendly slate-throated redstart, but the few mixed flocks were mostly North American migrants. Good practice, scanning the treetops for old friends, but not exactly why I was there. While descending I did have excellent views of singing crescent-chested warblers, the kind of views that stick so that you feel you know the bird, and a mountain trogon followed me partway down the hill.

When I reached the end of the trail, the guards asked me how it went and how many birds I had seen. I told them I had seen a few, but that by the time the reserve opens to the public, most of the birds are already inactive. No problem, they said. Just come early and jump the fence!

Two days later, that is exactly what I did. I rose early and left Peter and María Elena’s house before five, walking about ten blocks to an open store where I could purchase something, anything, to break a 200 peso note. Getting change is often an issue here, and surely a taxista would not have sufficient change so early in the morning. With change and a limonada, I caught a cab immediately after leaving the store. The streets were deserted, except for taxis that cruised in all directions like water-striders. A fine rain fell, softening edges.

The young driver did not know how to get to Huítepec, did not know the road it was on, even though it was one of the main roads out of San Cristobal to neighboring communities. So I directed him on the fifteen-minute drive, leaving him looking a little perplexed when I got out at the gate in the darkness. I climbed the fence and was on the trail by 5:30. (Mexican) Whip-poor-wills sang at the forest edge as I walked steeply uphill, using a dim flashlight to see the way. I regretted, again, that the headlamp I had bought just before leaving Alaska had stopped working after a few days.

I reached the first of three picnic tables I had noticed on my first hike, each covered with a thatched roof, and stopped for breath. I played the songs of a couple of owls that might be near, through an iPod with small speakers attached. Nobody answered. The rain had become more continuous, but it was warm and I pressed on to the second covered table. There I took out my coffee system, yogurt, granola and a banana, and made breakfast as first light arrived and the morning bird chorus began. While a few songs were familiar and known, many others were mysteries. I realized again how important bird song is for my identification ability, and that I did not know the tropical birds well enough.

In the Clouds

By the time I finished eating, the rain had eased, but I was enveloped in clouds. I looked up and just inhaled the ambiance.

Tree Patterns

I packed my gear and headed up the trail. When I reached the third table, at the trail apex, I noticed a narrow track leading up through the forest. It went up and up, and I followed with trogons singing, a mountain trogon on one side and a collared trogon on the other, slightly lower down the hill. Eventually I passed over a peak and began descending through beautiful, untouched cloud forest, until I came to a branch in the trail that lead to a clearing. Sun began to filter through the clouds, but the rain intensified. I ducked under a huge pine tree in a vain attempt to stay dry. A magnificent hummingbird zipped by to feed on a flowing shrub. For the first time on the trip, I could hear no human-caused sound.

When the rain eased I headed back the way I had come. A few nice birds popped up as the skies cleared, and as I watched some barred wrens feeding above me, a man in fatigues carrying a big-lensed camera caught up with me. He turned out to be a naturalist who works on the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor project, trying to create an unbroken series of reserves and parks reaching from southern Mexico through Central America. We chatted as we birded down the hill, and Manuel offered to guide me through some forest to a nearby spring. Ducking under the barbed-wire fence, we walked along the forest edge, staying in the shade because now it was sunny and getting hot.

We made it to the spring by following an old aqueduct that still captured most of the spring’s water, diverting to abandoned orchards that are up for sale. Having been bird-hiking for seven hours, now in direct sun, I felt the first symptoms of hypoglycemia, and needed to eat. Walking back toward where he lived, we entered a neighborhood of large houses, mostly invisible behind tall walls. Manuel explained that land was incredibly expensive; the forty hectares of abandoned orchards is being offered for $2 million. Dollars. Somehow that did not compute, given that a majority of the local population is poverty-stricken.

I said goodbye to a new friend, walked half a mile down a deserted, paved road of mansions to the highway, and waved down a combi van for the ride back to San Cristobal and Bohemia.


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