13 - 20 February 1998
By Matt Kenne
Accompanying images at: http://storm.simpson.edu/~birding/mexico/Mexico.html
On Friday, February 13, 1998, a diverse group of Iowans met at the Monterrey Inn in Laredo, Texas, to embark on a birding trip through Tamaulipas and San Louis Potosi, Mexico with Bob and John Cecil. Accompanying the Cecils in the "Des Moines" van were Ann Johnson, Matt Kenne, and Jane Clark, who bravely volunteered the use of her van. Ed and Jean Allgood and Ed and Jean Leonard filled the Allgood's car. Karen Disbrow, Rick Hollis, and Barb Beaumont brought up the rear with Carol Thompson in her "Iowa City" Volkswagen van. Only a few of the participants had any experience birding in the tropics. Many, like myself, were going armed with little more than a handful of Spanish words and preconceived notions of Mexican life gleaned from friends' visits to border towns and resort areas. It started on an unlucky day, but I was lucky to be able take this trip - I had a great time!
We spent most of the day on the road to El Naranjo. It rained hard on the desert, but cleared beautifully as we headed into the mountains. Everyone wanted to see some birds, so we went to the El Salto Falls area even though the sun was going down. As soon as we got there, we spied an Amazon Kingfisher. Everyone forgot about the drive! As it became dark, John Cecil called in a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that landed overhead in the flashlight beaMs. Then supper at the local seafood place.
Even though band members partied until the wee hours, and Bob and John slept in the van on main street, we were ready to start our usual routine. A little fruit, some pan dulce (bakery sweet rolls), a pot of coffee, and we headed back to the El Salto Falls. We got our first up-close look at sugarcane fields, leaf-cutter ants, White-crowned and Red- lored Parrots. Ahh, the tropics! An ant swarm illustrated the fact that birds there are hit-or-miss, first nothing and then birds of all kinds flitting everywhere. Fan-tailed Warbler, Clay-colored Robin, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper (a Brown Creeper on steroids), Blue-crowned Motmot, Golden-crowned Warbler, Blue Mockingbird, and more were picking off insects flushed by the ants. We found Masked Tityras gobbling berries, Altamira Orioles singing, puzzled over one of the Myiarchus flycatchers (Dusky-capped), and squeaked out a Yellow-billed Cacique. Social Flycatchers were loudly social, and we practiced separating Boat-billed Flycatcher from Great Kiskadee.
We started to make our way up the to a fire-tower to picnic and have our only chance to see Military Macaws but we never made it. The birding was too good! Stopping along a small stream, the call went out: Trogan! Actually, two birds were present in the trees overhead. After some wrangling with spotting scopes and books we identified them as immature male Elegant Trogans. A Black-throated Blue Warbler that should have been wintering in the West Indies was there, as were Tropical Parula, Louisiana Waterthrush, the trash-bird-common Wilson's and Black-throated Green Warblers, Flame-colored and White-winged Tanagers.
I could describe the festival in the town square or the Italian (?!?) restaurant, but there's no way I could do justice to the El Castillo B&B or Las Pozas (The Pools), both creations of Edward James. A prime example of the phrase "Mad Englishman", he was a gifted artist, and the sculpture garden he designed in the jungle was a bizarre but beautiful place to bird. Check out the website at: www.junglegossip.com to get look at the site.
The birds were as wonderful as the surroundings: Montezuma Oropendulas are huge, flamboyant, brown orioles with a polygamous lifestyle. Emerald Toucanet, Barred Forest-falcon, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Crescent-chested Warbler, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Mountain Trogan, Yellow-winged Tanager, and Rufous-browed Peppershrike dazzled us as we climbed through the forest and coffee plantations. And then on the road to Tamazunchale...
For this day, we had a local guide named Rudy, who teaches English and is a strong conservationist and environmental activist. Rudy took us to our most southern point on this trip and also the most remote: the Indian village Tezapotla, surrounded by mountains. Along the way, we birded from a lookout over a wooded valley where we saw Red-billed and White-tipped Doves, Common Bush-Tanager, Squirrel Cuckoo, Plain Chachalaca, many parrots flying over the trees, Bronzed Cowbird, Spot-breasted Wren, Black-headed Saltator, and both Green and Brown Jays. Brown Jay is a species that you always think is something fabulous as you see it flying, but then you realize it's just another ?*!* Brown Jay.
Tezapotla is at the end of a road newly made from several miles of foot trail. We were told we were the first Gringos in the village, and it showed in the way that the people (especially the children) turned out to see us. The highlight of Tezapotla happened as soon as we left our vehicles. In a tree next to us were two birds that we couldn't identify, even though we had excellent views. The yellowish tanager-like birds with rusty-orange crowns and rumps were not like any in our books. The possibility, however remote, that these birds were an undescribed species, is a thrill that you just can't get birding in Iowa, but it sure makes birding in the tropics a blast!
Rudy then invited us to his home for a meal of enchiladas, black-bean soup, flat breads, cactus, and a dried beef that was delicious. His graciousness was appreciated as much as his enthusiasm for his environmental work in the surrounding countryside.
We birded around the grounds of the Hotel Taninul, near Cd. Valles, all morning. Several of us went out before sunup and soon realized that you can't identify night birds when you don't know the calls! Blooming trees had many orioles and hummingbirds, Aztec Parakeets were everywhere, Crimson-collared Grosbeak and White-throated Robin were near the hot spring, and Yellow-faced and Blue-black Grassquits and White-collared Seedeaters were next to the road.
In pastureland south of Cd. Valles we found many raptors. Laughing and Bat Falcons perched in the open and a very photogenic pair of Aplomado Falcons treated us to close looks. Others in the area were: Gray, Roadside, White-tailed and Harris's Hawks. Crested Caracara, Black and Turkey Vultures, Chihuahuan Raven and Kestrels filled the open country throughout Mexico, as did Couch's and Tropical Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird, and Vermilion Flycatcher.
White Ibis and Wood Storks roosted near the drying creek. On to Cd. Mante, a town with a sugar refinery that gives the area a horrible stench with the wind in the wrong direction.
The weather held for our last big birding day. It was in the 80s every day, and the dry season meant no rain, no mosquitoes, and half the trees were leafless. Plenty of ticks and chiggers to go around, though. Above the town of Gomez Farias, we came to the end of the roads that our vehicles could manage. If a person walked a few miles or had 4-wheel drive, you could reach Alta Cima, where it is possible to hire someone to take you to the cloud forest at El Cielo Biosphere Reserve. But for us, the views we had off the mountain, and the good birds right where we stopped were fine. Barred Antshrike was found almost immediately. Gray-breasted Wood Wren, Brown-backed Solitaire, Tufted Flycatcher, and Hooded Grosbeak flew along the track. Magnificent and Amethyst-throated Hummingbirds were seen. And, amazingly, a flock of 20+ Military Macaws flew overhead along the ridge. We didn't even know they were in these mountains!
Later, in Gomez Farias' town square, we had a fun conversation with Alberto, an employee of the state extension service. He wanted to practice the English he learned in a Texas college but didn't get to use in Gomez Farias. When he found out our interest in birds, Alberto rounded up a co-worker from Alta Cima to speak with us. The co-worker was working on a project to re-introduce Crested Guan and Great Curassow (victims of overhunting) into the area. He showed us photos of some birds they had in captivity for breeding, and assured us that the Military Macaws (the third endangered species in the area) were wild. We prowled some orange groves and cactus gardens and headed for Cd. Victoria, the state capital of Tamaulipas.
Another beautiful day, another army roadblock. Once or twice a day we'd get pulled over at a checkpoint, we were used to it by now. Everyday the same questions: Where have you been? Where are you going? What are you doing? Do you have any guns or drugs? Maybe, if someone was bored, they'd look in the trunk or glove compartment or under the seat. The Iowa City van almost always got searched, and blame soon settled on Rick Hollis as the most likely suspect. Ed Allgood always handled it with a palms-to-the-sky shrug and an I-know-no-Spanish smile that seemed to get him waved through quickly.
This morning's trip was a quick shot in the dark, an area SW of Cd. Victoria the Cecils had never visited. A winding mountain road took us up to a highland oak forest mixed with cactus, palmettos, and no agriculture. The coolest morning of the trip, the clouds soon broke up and the birds started singing. Bridled Titmouse, Rufous-capped Warbler, Rufous-crowned Sparrow foraged on the hillside. This area seemed more like Arizona than the Mexico we had traveled through, but was very beautiful. The birding ended on a gorgeous note: two Painted Redstarts together in a bare tree.
We made it back to Laredo at 8:00 P.M. Friday and the group split up to make their way back to Iowa. As a group in Mexico, we saw about 240 species. I, personally, had 125 Life Birds on this trip, including the handful I saw in Texas.
Speaking for the group, I want to thank Bob and John Cecil for inviting us along, and for guiding us through the various small headaches that come from foreign language and travel in other countries. Gracias.
Trip List: 245 seen
American White Pelican
DUCKS, SWANS, GEESE
HERONS, EGRETS AND BITTERNS
Little Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
IBIS AND SPOONBILLS
NEW WORLD VULTURES
HAWKS, EAGLES AND KITES
FALCONS AND CARACARAS
GUANS, CHACHALACAS AND CURASSOWS
RAILS AND COOTS
AVOCETS AND STILTS
PLOVERS AND LAPWINGS
GULLS AND TERNS
PIGEONS AND DOVES
NEW WORLD CUCKOOS
GROUND-CUCKOOS AND ALLIES
TROGONS AND QUETZALS
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
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
BUNTINGS, SPARROWS, TANAGERS, ALLIES
BLACKBIRDS, GRACKLES, ORIOLES