By Alberto Lobato
(translated by Jennie Duberstein)
In Mexico there is a species of bird in the Troglodytidae family that has adapted to live in the holes in the limestone rock formations found in the states of Veracruz, Puebla, and Oaxaca, where it looks for insects and lives: the Sumichrast’s Wren (Hylorchilus sumichrasti). There, in it’s reduced range, it also faces threats that could put the survival of the species in danger.
The village of Amatlán de Los Reyes is about three hours from Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz. Around the village are limestone hills covered by remnants of forest and coffee plantations. This is where I went in search of Sumichrast’s Wren.
In the morning before the sun had risen, the Paraques gather in the road, oblivious to potential danger from passing vehicles. At the foot of the hill it is necessary to walk, though. The road is full of slippery rocks and it is easy to fall, especially before the sun comes up. But with the first rays of the sun, hundreds of vultures abandon their nocturnal perches and begin to fly; the White-breasted Wood-Wrens begin to sing; the Blue-crowned Motmots, which begin singing before sunrise, move around in the understory; a Collared Aracari and a Gartered Trogon feed on the fruits of an enormous tree covered in bromeliads. And then it began to sing, with a song similar to the Canyon Wren, but more variable: it is the Sumichrast’s Wren. This bird was described in 1871 from a spot in Veracruz and is associated with the eroding rock formations in which it lives.
The first day the bird was far from the road. We caught glimpses of it, like a shadow that passes between the rock masses and the low branches; while it moves it continues to sing, but it is impossible to see. No matter—we must continue walking to look for a spot that is more open where we’ll hopefully have better views. We cross paths with various Keel-billed Toucans, with bills that resemble enormous flying bananas, with Ivory-billed Woodcreepers picking insects out of the trees, and with Red-lored Parrots noisily flying over. There are tityras, antshirkes, a Stripe-throated Hermit, and a spot where stone walls rise above growing lianas and trees. This looks like a good spot to find Sumichrast’s Wren.
And there it is! A small, dark wren with a ridiculously short tail and a long bill. It paused on a high point on the rocks, jumped lower, and ran along a large crack as if it were a hallway, all while singing various times. Then it jumped into a cave, stuck its head back out, and continued running along the crack. Later, it again sang as it stood atop the rocks.
As we continued walking, Red-legged Honeycreepers appeared, looking for food. Here were fledglings of some species, begging for food from their parents, and a Long-billed Starthroat perched in the tallest part of a dead tree. Although we could hear the Thicket Tinamou singing from all directions, this shy bird is difficult to see. Lesser Greenlets sang from the tops of the trees, and Sumichrast’s Wren sang from a nearby branch. It is a curious bird, and it came closer to us as we watched and sat quietly, looking at the humans that were observing it; then it flew and began to sing again.
This is Sumichrast’s Wren, a bird adapted to these limestone rock formations. The harsh terrain in which it occurs has helped shield it to a certain extent from habitat destruction, but with the planned construction of a hydroelectric dam in the region, this bird may disappear form the hills of Amatlán de los Reyes. Although the zone has been declared a Natural Protected Area and the nearby residents oppose dam construction, the future of this population of Sumichrast’s Wren remains uncertain.
I’d like to give a special thanks to COAX (Club de Observadores de Aves de Xalapa; Xalapa Birding Club), who organized our trip to the region.
About the author: Alberto Lobato is a 16-year-old birder who was born in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. He has been birding since he was 5 years old and is an active member of the Xalapa Birding Club. He has traveled with COAX to various parts of Mexico. In addition to birding, he is a musician, with an interest in traditional music. Alberto’s favorite bird is the Bearded Wood-Partridge.