Oreophasis: Searching the Horned Guan in Guatemala
It’s 5 a.m., pitch dark and definitely cold enough to wear a few layers as we leave our lodge at the shore of Lake Atitlán, in the highlands of Guatemala. From here, we start our hike up on one of the volcanoes that surround the mystical lake. Our target is to find a specialized and highly endangered bird species that occurs only in the montane, moist forests of Mexico and Guatemala: The Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus).
During the first hours of the hike, headlamps are our most important companions as we make our way through coffee plantations and corn fields that cover large areas at the foot of the volcano. The metallic song of the Brown-backed Solitaire (Myadestes elisabeth) is the only bird voice we hear in the darkness.
The day slowly breaks as we climb higher and higher on the narrow footpath. In the very first light, we find a nice pair of Singing Quails (Dactylortyx thoracicus), still on their roosting branch, about a meter above the ground.
Higher up, we get into rather natural forest, suitable habitat for the weird-looking, turkey-like Horned Guan. Still, single lying tree trunks, cut down for firewood, are witnesses of human presence in this area and reflect the main threat the species is facing today: deforestation. The Horned Guan, a member of the Cracidae family and considered not to be a “true” guan, lives largely arboreal and depends on large trees. It forages in the canopy and feeds on fruit, flowers and leaves.
After three hours of steep hiking, sweat is dripping from the tip of my nose and I’m glad to have the lightweight versions of my trusted optical gear with me: The EL32 binoculars and the ATX65 scope. This turns out to be a more exhausting operation than expected. But at the peak of exhaustion, 1400 meters in altitude later, comes the relief.
A unique call from the canopy grabs our attention. Rasping, roaring and screeching as I would expect it from a Veliceraptor out of a Jurassic Park movie. A joy to a birdwatcher’s ears, something I’ve never heard before.
It’s the alarm call of a Horned Guan! The bird has spotted us way before we noticed it and we see it taking flight right above our heads. With loud and flapping wing beats it takes off, revealing its enormous tail and long neck.
We continue on the track, as we hear the call again. This time, there are more than five birds feeding in the trees. Once the group accepts our presence, we obtain amazing views of these oddies. Their white, finely marked breasts look fluffy, their white eyes stare down at us. The most striking feature is the red, bare horn that protrudes from the birds’ foreheads. Only one of the 18 individuals we would find that morning shows just a small bump instead of the obvious horn - it’s an immature bird.
Thanks to the spotting scope we enjoy perfect views of the birds, as they feed in the treetops. Once we recovered our breath, we start our descent back to the town again, leaving the Horned Guans in peace in their montane forest kingdom.
About the author
Leander Khil is an ornithologist, birdwatcher and wildlife photographer from Graz, Austria. Driven by his love for birds, adventure and the outdoors he travels the world since he was a child.
web: www.leanderkhil.com facebook: facebook.com/leander.khil instagram: www.instagram.com/khil.birder.photographer