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March 1997

by Sheri Williamson

Just got back from a week in the Copper Canyon(s) on Monday, and am I ever glad to be home. CC is a wonderful place and I highly recommend it, but don't go during Easter Week! The canyons were crowded with both Mexican and foreign tourists. Lovely Cusarare Canyon near Creel, home of Eared Quetzals, Mountain Trogons and Rufous-capped Brush-Finches, was packed with about 300 people on Saturday; bathroom facilities are non-existent, so there were piles of feces and toilet paper all over. At least Easter was early this year, so there were few migratory birds to be disturbed by all the ruckus. I have vowed that I will NOT go back there during Holy Week again (the best time for birds, plants, herps, etc. is late summer-fall, after the rainy season).

For those of you who have not visited this magnificent area, here's a brief description from bottom to top. The city of Los Mochis lies in Sinaloan thorn-scrub on the Gulf of California at the downstream end of the canyon complex; dry-season deciduous trees and giant cacti characterize this habitat, along with many birds such as Gila Woodpecker and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that reach the American Southwest. In Topolobampo Bay you can see a wondrous assemblage of seabirds on Isla Pajaros (Bird Island), including large numbers of herons, egrets, terns, gulls, pelicans, cormorants, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and Blue-footed Boobies. Just upstream is the town of El Fuerte is situated on the Rio Fuerte, which is still lined in places with tropical broadleaf forest. Birds of these lower elevations include Crane Hawk, Mexican Parrotlet, Elegant Quail, Black-throated Magpie Jay, Sinaloan Crow, Social Flycatcher, and Happy Wren. Ascending, you encounter more tropical broadleaf forest along the canyon bottom and thorn forest up its slopes, finally reaching the pine-oak woodland (about 4500-6500'), with species you'd find in such habitat in SE Arizona, plus species such as White-striped Woodcreeper, Rufous-capped Warbler, Brown-backed Solitaire and Rusty Sparrow. Still higher (above about 6500') you'll find more conifers, including Weeping Pine (Pinus lumholtzi), and birds such as Eared Quetzal, White-eared Hummingbird, Mexican Chickadee, and Slate-throated Redstart. A remarkable train route, which took nearly a century to build, connects all these habitats.

This trip was more a cultural than natural history/birding trip, with the Tarahumara festivities being the main attraction. There were 26 in the group (too many), ranging in age from early 40s to mid 80s, and only about a half-dozen hard-core natural history enthusiasts. With travel and all the planned cultural activities, not to mention the time required to deal with group logistics, we spent little time actually birding/botanizing. (If you like, you can skip to the end for the meager bird highlights).

Shopping helped make the trip worthwhile for me. Tarahumara craftswomen weave baskets and sashes and hawk their wares (in a quiet, dignified fashion) at train stations, on the steps of hotels, and along the more popular trails, such as Cusarare Canyon near Creel (I have seldom paid more than $1.50 for a 6" basket). They weave baskets from Sotol (Dasylirion) leaves and Apache Pine (Pinus englemannii) needles, string necklaces from Coralbean (Erythrina), Castor Bean, acorns, and madrone (Arbutus spp.) berries. The sashes range from half-inch hatband size to the 5" belts traditionally worn by the men. Finding a truly "traditional" sash is difficult these days, what with bright-colored cotton being so much more marketable than natural-colored wool (I confess - all but one of mine are gaudily colored, including the ones my binoculars hang from).

At many popular stops such as Posada Barrancas, nothing but air stands between sightseers and certain death at the bottom of thousand-foot cliffs, but it seems that the canyons are in far greater danger than the tourists. Overgrazing is rampant, as the Tarahumara measure their wealth in livestock, and the amount of logging and forestry is increasing. It is not uncommon to see pure stands of Ponderosa Pine, planted after clearcutting of diverse native forest consisting of up to 8 species of conifers, 10 species of broad-leafed trees, and countless shrubs, herbaceous plants, ferns, fungi, etc. Catastrophic fires are just waiting to take hold in "dog-hair thickets" of stunted, closely-spaced trees, which will no doubt be replanted as a monoculture of fast-growing Ponderosas or exotic species. Demand for tourist facilities further jeopardizes the canyon environment; it is not uncommon to see untreated sewage piped down side canyons from large hotel perched on the rim.

In these days of "industrial tourism," it seems that no beautiful place goes "undiscovered" for too long, but perhaps the imperiled beauty of the Copper Canyon complex will inspire visitors from Mexico and the world to fight for its preservation.

Copper Canyon Bird Highlights 3/24-3/31 (of 93 species seen/heard):
Common Black-Hawk - from train
Zone-tailed Hawk - over Bahuichivo train station
Crested Caracara - from bus between Los Mochis and El Fuerte
West Mexican (Rufous-bellied) Chachalaca - from bus between Los Mochis and El Fuerte
Military Macaw - heard from Sacred Spring Overlook, near Cerocahui
Broad-billed Hummingbird - at hotel at El Fuerte
White-eared Hummingbird - at hotel at Posada Barrancas
Violet-crowned Hummingbird - at hotel at El Fuerte
Blue-throated Hummingbird - at hotel at Posada Barrancas
Magnificent Hummingbird - at hotel at Posada Barrancas
Mountain Trogon - heard at Cusarare Canyon
White-striped Woodcreeper - pair near Cerocahui
Tufted Flycatcher - heard near Cerocahui
Social Flycatcher - at El Fuerte train station
Masked Tityra - seen from train
Sinaloan Crow - from bus and at El Fuerte station
Brown-backed Solitaire - singing near Cerocahui, Cusarare Canyon
Painted Redstart - common at Posada Barrancas, Cusarare Canyon
Red-faced Warbler - Cusarare Canyon
Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrow - Cusarare Canyon
Yellow-eyed Junco - Cerocahui, Posada, Cusarare Canyon

Sheri Williamson
Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory
P.O. Box 5521, Bisbee, AZ 85603-5521