20-29 May 1998
by Bob Cecil, Ann Johnson, & John Cecil
We left Des Moines, IA about 4:30 PM on Wednesday, May 20, planning to drive all night to Cd. Victoria, Tamaulipas. We had heard the reports of the Mexican fires and were concerned about their effect on our trip, but received some assurance from Sanborn's Insurance that the country was passable and that there was at least some of it left. The smoke was noticeable almost from the time we left, and as we approached Texas, the day was more like pale twilight, the sun an odd orange color, a hazy pall over everything.
Did the border stuff (insurance, permits, and money exchange) and headed on to Victoria, arriving in the early evening of the 21st. Not much birding along the way, but did race past a Cave Swallow at a bridge. The El Naranjo motel at the south edge of town was clean and had AC & TV for about $15.
Early AM, May 22, and an early start to Catemaco via Tampico and Veracruz. The smoke/haze continued to increase, and we wondered if the forests near Catemaco would still be there An all day drive, but did see Gray and Roadside Hawks, Apolomado Falcon Ruddy-ground Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Social and Boat-billed Flycathers, Gray-breasted Martin (thanks to Ann's quick spotting and a quick turn-around that also produced a Blue-gray Tanager) Altimira Oriole, and Montezuma Oropendola. The coastal plain/Gulf Coast south of Veracruz produced Maginificent Frigatebird, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Limpkin, and Northern Jacana. Picked up a 25 lb. bag of delicious Mexican oranges for $1.25. Stayed the night in a pleasant and secluded motel about 3 miles north of San Andres Tuxtla - $15. Went to town for tacos and Corona. The motel had nice wooded grounds that would probably have been good birding, but before sunrise the next morning, we headed for the Biological Research Station about 15 miles out of Catemaco going north towards the tiny beach/tourist town of Monte Pio.
The Biological Station consists of about 1500 acres of intact tropical forest and is run by the University of Mexico. Visitors are welcome, and many US students do research there. On the grounds and nearby: Keel-billed Toucan, Band-backed Wren, Rose-throated Becard and Red-throated Ant-Tanager. Both Common and Great Black-Hawk came around, and we saw a very similar bird that seemed much larger than either and some different field marks. Recognizing the perils of inexperience with difficult-to identify species, we concluded that it had to have been a Solitary Eagle, albeit a little out of range, perhaps because of the fires.
We were walking back towards the station buildings and saw some Gringo students releasing a snake beside the road. We asked what it was so they re- hooked it and we got a quick glance at a Fer-de-lance. The students, from SW Missouri State at Springfield, were mostly graduate level and were both delightful to talk to and highly competent. The future of America, at least regarding wildlife biologists, is secure. They showed us a vampire bat and a a strange tree lizard. They were going to Laguna Azul nearby, and asked if we wanted to go along.
The road to Laguna Azul is perhaps a mile on past the entrance to the Biological Station, going to the left. Before running into the students, we drove this road a ways and got Collared Aracari (!), also Red-lored Parrot, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Masked Tityra, and Black- headed Saltator. A colony of Montezuma Oropendolas hung their nests over the road. Ann was our flycatcher specialist and helped us identify Brown-crested, Ash-throated, and Dusky-capped, White-throated, and Yellowish, in addition to Tropical Pewee. My son John (aged 20) was experienced and skilled with Mexican hummingbirds and parrots/parakeets; I did the Spanish and had the most experience with Pacific slope species. The students showed us the way to the lagoon, but they were on a tight schedule and soon outdistanced us. After a few hundred yards of barren hills and desperately poor but friendly locals, we entered the forested lagoon area which is connected to the research area. The lake was of clear, fresh water perhaps 100 acres (?wild stab) in size, and seemingly incongruously, had a number of immature Frigatebirds fishing over its surface. A pair of Bare-throated Tiger-Herons were along the lakeshore. We also saw Pygmy Kingfisher, Chestnut-headed Oropendola and the lovely Crimson-collared Tanager. The heat was getting to Ann, so John and I walked on along the trail and saw the spectacular White Hawk flying overhead. Ann would have to wait until tomorrow to see this stunning raptor. While she waited near the lake, she picked up Violaceous Trogon and Black Thrush. We met some of the students again where we had parked and had a couple of beers while Ann convalesced - from there to a spartan hotel at a Monte Pio, five or six miles on up the road. A Masked Tityra, serious Mexican junkbird Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and Yellow-tailed Oriole were in trees at the hotel. Cost about $13 but no AC or hot water. The proprietor was pleasant, though. We were tempted to exercise some environmental activism and release his caged toucans and parrots. A few Coronas on the beach, and then we rendezvoused with the students at a seafood restaurant. They had previously spoken for all the langostinos so we had fried fish, but it was excellent. They then invited us to go with them to mist-net bats in the forest across from the research station. In the two or three hours we were there, we didn't catch a bat, but saw langostinos in the creek, giant click beetles with incandescent eye spots, and huge moths. In a later e-mail, I learned that after we left, they caught another vampire bat and then six new species the next night.
We headed back to the laguna early the next morning, walking past it through the large tract of tropical forest to the open pastureland beyond. Particularly eerie were the haunting roars of the area's howler monkeys in the distance. New birds included Gray-headed Dove, Blue-crowned Motmot, Violet Saberwing, Long-tailed and Little Hermit, Azure-crowned and Magnificant Hummingbird, Long-billed Starthroat, Linneated Woodpecker, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Rufous-capped and Golden-crowned Warbler, Black-throated Shrike Tanager, Black-faced Grosbeak, and the tiny but shimmeringly blue Red-legged Honeycreeper. Back at the station, I alone got a glimpse of a Slaty-breasted Tinamou. S.A. Wondering where the warblers were this Spring? They were in Mexico. Beginning in Catemaco, we were astonished to begin finding them. There we found Mourning, Kentucky, Black-and-white, Am. Redstart, Ovenbird, and Northern Waterthrush, and later in the trip added Chestnut-sided and Magnolia as well as Gray-cheeked and Swainson's Thrush, Veery, and Red-eyed Vireo. I have occasionally come across summering northern warblers in Mexico, but nothing like this. Were they just migrants late in departing? Any ideas??
It was afternoon and we had to make a decision - drive 8 hours to the fires and uncertainty of Chiapas/Palenque, or head south across the isthmus to the Pacific slope and the many new species that would offer. Although we had not researched the area and all we had were the Edwards birdfinding guides, we decided to head south, staying the evening in a nice hotel in Acyucan, about $22. We whittled our way into a huge and wonderfully sweet pineapple we bought a a roadside stand for $1.25; also fresh mangoes and, of course, Corona.
Highway 185 runs south through southern Veracruz State and into Oaxaca, crossing a continental divide that was more plateau than mountain range. Generally, Veracruz was almost totally converted to ag land while Oaxaca was much more in natural vegetation. The Howell/Webb range maps show the presence of many southern Mexican species in the isthmus part of southern Veracruz, but we could find no habitat. Gulf slope species included a single, immature Fork-tailed Flycatcher plus Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Long-tailed Saberwing, Green-breasted Mango, Fork-tailed Emerald, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Black- headed Trogon, andYellow-billed Cacique (sore point here. Ann's seen this species two for two in eastern Mexico - I'm zero for four).
We knew we were on the Pacific slope when we encountered the first of many White-throated Magpie Jays. Moments after our first stop in the hills overlooking the coastal plain we found Sumichrast's (Cinnamon-tailed) Sparrow, a species with a tiny range, and White-lored Gnatcatcher. Orange-fronted Parakeets flew over, and Ann was wowed by her first Orange-breasted Bunting. On the coastal plain were several Snail Kites plus Northern Jacana, White and White-faced Ibis, and Black-necked Stilt.
We had visions of a pleasant beachside hotel overlooking the Pacific at Salina Cruz, but it was a port/Navy town with no tourism facilities whatsoever. We found a virtually deserted beach and did see Brown Booby, Ring- billed and Laughing Gulls, and Black, Gull-billed, Royal and Least Terns. In a nearby coastal lagoon were, oddly, a couple of dozen Wilson's Phalaropes. Ann alertly spotted a Mockingbird that looked strange to her - a Tropical. We retraced our steps to Tehuantepec and stayed in a rather upscale hotel there (about $26).
We blasted off early the next morning to return to the thorn forest on the foothills, but it wasn't really worth the effort especially since we didn't find the Rosita's Bunting we were after. We did find Stripe-headed Sparrow when we returned to the lowlands. On towards Oaxaca City on Highway 190... We did some roadside birding along this road and found Rufous-naped Wren, Bridled Sparrow, Citreoline Trogon, Yellow-green Vireo and Yellow-winged Cacique. Higher in the pines was a Grace's Warbler. We turned around to a restaurant for lunch and a Russet-crowned Motmot sat out in the open in the sun - a gorgeous bird. A later stop produced Blue Grosbeak and White-throated Towhee.
We stopped along the way at a small mezcal factory amid fields of agave. They gave us tiny but more than adequate samples of the fiery liquor. We bought a couple of liters in hand-painted bottles for about $4.00 each. Some even had a worm in the bottle - much less commonly encountered in Mexico than you might expect. I later spread a few drops around on a counter and it popped into flame with the touch of a lighter. As Ann put it, the stuff could have powered a race car.
We made it to Oaxaca City, a charming, ancient city of arts and culture and a nightmare of narrow streets and congestion. We finally found a parking lot under a downtown hotel and pulled in. The Hotel Victoria was pricey but we finagled a discount and got a room for three - about $50. John knew downtown Oaxaca City and took us to the market and several shops on the squares. This is a politically active city, with demonstrations and lots of aging European hippies.
We left early the next morning, looking for the National Park just north of town. After over an hour of driving around and asking directions, we finally found it. Unfortunately, the beautiful blacktop road leading up to tantalizing forested mountains in the distance was closed to vehicles. We were limited to birding the overgrazed agricultural land near the guard house. Still, we got Oaxaca Sparrow, Greenish Elaenia, Gray Silky, Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, Blue-throated Euphonia, White-throated Thrush, Black- vented Oriole, Greater, Western, and Tropical Pewee, and White-eared and Amethyst-throated Hummingbirds.
Edwards, in his 1985 Supplement..., enthused about the 85 mile forested highway 175 between Oaxaca City and Valle Nacional. Edwards was right. The forests along this road were breathtaking, without a question the largest contiguous tract of forests either John or I had ever seen in Mexico. Approaching the forests, we stopped several times not far outside Oaxaca City and got Boucard's Wren and Pileated Flycatcher during unsuccessful searches for Slaty Vireo; farther up were Blue Mockingbird and Bushtits. We stopped at a restaurant overlooking a wooded hillside and saw Chestnut-capped Brushfinch and Spotted Towhee while waiting for our food. A hummer showed up and gave us long, clear views. Studying it and Howell/Webb indicated Green-throated Mountain Gem, to which John responded, "They're not here - they're south of the isthmus." Nevertheless, it was the only species that fit the description, and we finally agreed upon the identification.
The highway was little-used but steep, narrow, and winding, and pitted with a million axle-busting potholes, but it wound upward through a variety of habitat zones including oak forest, pine/oak forest, and finally, cloud forest. Birding was not always easy but we did find occasional turnouts or trails that led us to Black, Chestnut-collared and White-collared Swifts, Unicolored Jay, Slate-throated Redstart, Red Warbler, Crescent-chested Warbler, Brown-backed Solitaire, Yellow-eyed Junco, Tufted Flycatcher at a nest, Mexican Chickadee, and a road-kill Russet Nightingale Thrush. We nearly cooked the brakes on Ann's Saturn going down the other side, but finally made it to Valle Nacional and looked for a hotel. Directions from a little Corona shop led us to it. The proprietor jumped up to wave us into the parking lot. Austere but clean, and $6 for a single room. After some excellent tacos across the street, we stopped back at the hotel-owner's little shop for some bottled water. We talked a bit, and then he says, "Mescal?" We weren't sure what we were in for, but smiled and nodded. He produced a blue plastic jug that Ann identified as an old antifreeze container (upon reflection however, I wonder how much antifreeze they sell in this part of Mexico), along with some plastic shot glasses. I had a fresh lime in my pocket, which I cut up. This was local stuff, but tasty and much milder than the firewater we had bought before. We did a couple of shots, and I tried to give the guy a 10 Peso coin as a way of saying thanks, but he wouldn't take it.
John was anxious to bird the cloud forest again the next morning, so we got an early start. Ann picked up a moderate dose of la tourista, possibly from the tacos, so she was a little uncomfortable. John and I have pretty well-developed immune systems and were OK.
The cloud forest was magnificent. Wauer (Naturalists Guide to Mexico) talked about tree ferns in cloud forests, but we were never sure if he meant ferns that grew in trees or ferns the size of trees. This forest had both. Unfortunately, it was tough to bird. The higher we got, the more vision was obscured by blowing clouds, and the forest itself was dense and impenetrable. Reluctantly, we returned to a slightly lower elevation where at least we could see. Stopping at wide spots and openings, we got Barred Parakeet, Rusty Sparrow, Blue-black and Yellow-faced Grassquits, and Slate-colored Solitaire. At another, lower elevation stop (now probably lowland tropical forest rather than cloud forest) we stopped at an opening near a little shrine by a limestone sinkhole and found Red-crowned Ant Tanager, Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, Ruddy Quail-Dove, nesting Red-legged Honey Creepers, Crimson- collared Tanagers, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Blue-crowned Motmot, Yellow-winged and Blue-gray Tanagers and a Bananaquit. Someone then saw a bird fly into a nearby tree and we found a Blue Ground-Dove, in my mind, the most beautiful of its group, the color of a Blue-gray Tanager. The sobering part of this part of the trip was the procession of logging trucks rumbling out of the forest, each laden with huge logs.
We were afraid we would encounter more mountain highways north of Valle Nacional so we left the forest about 11:30, heading north. The highway was good, though, so we decided to go on to the beachside tourist town of Monte Gordo which is south of Poza Rica about 50 miles. Found an overpriced but first class hotel. Since it obviously wasn't tourist season, we finagled a discount and stayed there for about $30. The birding was marginal but we did see American Oystercatchers fly by.
During the Iowa Ornithologist's Union field trip to Mexico in February, I took the group to the Hotel Tanninul, about 10 miles east of Cd. Valles. This palatial hotel features large, beautiful grounds and a hot sulphur spring/swimming pool (which is a little fragrant, understandably). It is owned by the sugar workers union (a good cause to support, I thought) and the staff is excellent. Since this was about our last opportunity to do some tropical birding, Ann suggested we revisit it and stay the night. It was off season, and we had no problem getting rooms for about $25. It has a large cave, with Aztec Parakeets nesting in its crevices. Other birds included Elegant and Mountain Trogons, Red-lored and Red-crowned Parrots, Blue Buntings, and a few others. Coatimundis fed on mangos and we glimpsed a Ringtail while looking for nightjars. Didn't find any of the later, although Paraques called in the distance. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls were common - one even flew up with a mouse in its talons that was nearly as large as it was.
We left the following morning (Saturday) about 9:30 AM and began the grueling trip back to Iowa. The best bird sighting was near Cd. Mante where an Aplomado Falcon and a Gray Hawk had clutched talons in a fight. We also saw White-tailed Hawk and Hook-billed Kite. We drove straight through, and arrived in Des Moines at about 2:00 PM Sunday.
--First, THANKS to all of you who offered us information on the trip. Unfortunately, we didn't wind up going to Palenque, Xalapa, or Cordoba, but we still have the info and promise that we will put it to good use on a future trip. We hope this account will be of value to those of you planning to visit Veracruz and Oaxaca.
--The trip produced 257 species, almost all seen by all three of us. Ann is our computer wizard, and I'll see if she can post the trip list (compiled on AviSys) with this account. We assume that an organized tour would be much more productive in terms of birds seen, but there is a certain satisfaction in discovering new areas and new birds on your own.
--We saw fires and where fires had been. While it was extensive and depressing, it wasn't like the whole country was burning. Inexplicably, fires were still being set to burn brush piles, clear pastures, etc. Most of the burned areas were not high quality habitat, but some certainly were. I don't think it had rained there since we were there in February.
--The Mexican people are wonderful, despite their grinding poverty. Most folks, such as myself, who get seduced by Mexico and its culture, do so because of its people. They are warm, friendly, and polite, but one can easily understand why so many of them will risk everything to come to the US. A political aside: you often seen people washing clothes, bathing, and drawing water from horribly polluted streaMs. I wonder how many rudimentary water/sewer systems could have been built with the 3/4 of a billion dollars past President Salinas and his brother ripped off from the Mexican people. Sometimes, I don't care if there is a heaven, but I hope there's a hell...
--A little Spanish is highly desirable, but there are a lot of Mexicans who know a little English and who are willing to help you out. They ALL want to practice on you.
--Driving in Mexico takes some getting used to, but Mexican drivers are, in my opinion, excellent. Since having an accident in Mexico is a crime (really!) people tend to be pretty careful. The biggest challenges are overloaded, under-powered trucks, and the ubiquitous "topes," or speed bumps.
--Hands down, my favorite food in Mexico is pollo asado, grilled chicken, available at roadside stands. Usually it is grilled halves, but sometimes it is roasted whole on a heavy wooden spit. Second choice is street tacos, and third is fish. Many people are afraid to eat in Mexico, and you can get sick there, but remember that Mexicans have no interest in making their customers sick.
--Alway drink bottled beverages, even though more and more areas of Mexico now have potable tap water. In a west Mexican town we visit, Cd. Guzman, Jalisco, our friends still drink bottled water even thought the city water is now OK. They complain that it tastes like chlorine! Can't have it both ways, folks.
--I have never had trouble with the police in Mexico. Most give tourists a break since we have such an impact on their economy. All bets are off in Mexico City, though, and I always give that place a very wide berth.
--Banditos. Still looking. Des Moines is more dangerous than anyplace I've been in Mexico (except Mexico City). There's more good news. Guns are illegal in Mexico.
--We did encounter a number of military roadblocks, a common experience when driving through the countryside. The military guys (teenagers with assault rifles) are professional and polite. They sometimes make a cursory look through a suitcase or two and then carefully put everything back. They're looking for guns, and, I presume, drugs. Sometimes, they just wave you through, but they usually ask you where you are going.
--Des Moines to Des Moines, we spent about $325 each on food, lodging, and incidentals. Since we took Ann's car, John and I paid for gas, Mexican insurance ($112), and tolls on the autopistas and occasional bridges. I would guess that this came to maybe $275 total. Gas is maybe $1.40 a gallon in Mexico. Use magna sin (unleaded).
--For those of you going to Mexico through Laredo, you might consider crossing at Columbia instead. It's about 18 miles north of Laredo but features none of the lines, traffic congestion, surly Mexican immigration officers*, and other madhouse elements of Nuevo Laredo. Don't tell anyone else.
*Some Mexican immigration officers deeply resent what they view as anti-
immigrant/ anti-non-citizen policies of our current Congress.
Following is the trip list corresponding to the recent post on the trip
Veracruz and Oaxaca taken by Bob & John Cecil and Ann Johnson. Most birds
were seen in those two states, although the trip list also includes birds
seen en route in the states of Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosi.
GANNETS AND BOOBIES
American White Pelican
DUCKS, SWANS, GEESE
HERONS, EGRETS AND BITTERNS
Little Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
IBIS AND SPOONBILLS
NEW WORLD VULTURES
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
HAWKS, EAGLES AND KITES
FALCONS AND CARACARAS
GUANS, CHACHALACAS AND CURASSOWS
AVOCETS AND STILTS
GULLS AND TERNS
PIGEONS AND DOVES
NEW WORLD CUCKOOS
GROUND-CUCKOOS AND ALLIES
TROGONS AND QUETZALS
American Pygmy Kingfisher
CROWS AND JAYS
VIREOS AND ALLIES
WAXWINGS AND SILKY-FLYCATCHERS
MOCKINGBIRDS AND THRASHERS
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
OLD WORLD SPARROWS
SISKINS, CROSSBILLS AND ALLIES
NEW WORLD WARBLERS
BUNTINGS, SPARROWS, TANAGERS, ALLIES
BLACKBIRDS, GRACKLES, ORIOLES
////---- STATISTICS ----/////
Species seen - 257