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January 1999

by Troy Gordon

I've long had an interest in tropical ecology, and hummingbirds in particular. Four years ago, I went to the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve in southwestern Tamaulipas with a University group for a week, and saw enough to decide that someday I would return (for a scientific description of the reserve, see After two years of planning and hoarding vacation time, the time for the trip finally came the first two weeks of January, 1999. Here's a summary of the trip. Feel free to contact me for more information. My wife, Judy, can provide an alternative description that might not be as favorable.

Judy, our dog, and I left central Missouri at 5:00 P.M. New Year's Eve for the trip south--staying just ahead of the front that was moving in with cold and snow. We drove into the night, until central Oklahoma radio reports placed us below danger of ice or snow. Two days later found us in southern Texas at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge where we spent an afternoon to start learning "Mexican" bird species (I had birded in Mexico once, four years ago and all the non-migrant birds were new for my wife).

Early the next morning we took quick showers and left the USA, crossing into Mexico at Brownsville/Matamores. Scott Walker gives an excellent description of the trip down at his web site, A Practical Guide to El Cielo Biosphere Reserve, so I won't elaborate here. Suffice it to say his directions are very accurate (but if you want more information, e-mail me). We crossed into Mexico at about 9:00 A.M., and found the Mexican customs officials very helpful (and several spoke English very well) as we filled out the necessary forms, etc. The customs had been my biggest fear as my Spanish was very poor. Quick bite to eat after customs (we ate the food everywhere, but didn't drink local water), and we headed south to Ciudad Victoria.

Three and a half hours later, we took the turn off leading to Ciudad Mante. Note on the second leg, it is somewhat hilly (very mountainous if my wife describes it). You can't go very fast because of other vehicles. There is a reliably open Pemex gas station slightly over half way to Gomez Farias which Scott's directions don't mention. It's just south of the only one lane bridge on the left (east) side of the highway. FILL UP THERE!!

Take the road to Gomez Farias just past Rio Sabinas. There is a sign pointing to Gomez Farias, so you shouldn't miss it. In Gomez Farias, if you have a low slung vehicle, park it. Either walk up to Alta Cima (very good birding, very long walk), or find someone going up and catch a ride (several vehicles a day go up), or hire someone with a truck. If you have a pick up, van, or 4 wheel drive, by all means drive to Alta Cima. I did not follow this advice. We had a mini-RV (basically a pick up body with a camper built on). Bottom clearance was low, and this proved to be a problem--more on this later.

We drove through Gomez Farias without stopping as it was cloudy and looking like rain. I knew the road ahead was rough and didn't want to do it in dark or rain. It took about an hour, but we made it up the road to Alta Cima, much to my wife's surprise. It was almost dark at this time, and starting to mist rain. We stopped and got directions to "El Hotel Pino" (which is about 1/4 mile beyond the gate at the end of town on the left--the last building in Alta Cima, and indeed for about 4 miles), and started up the road to the "hotel." As my wife would say, "only a madman would drive on the road beyond the gate." To go past it, you must have 4 wheel drive and high clearance. We made it in our mini-RV, but unknown to us punched a hole in the gas tank doing it. We parked on the hotel grounds, and slept in it for the night.

El Hotel Pino is run by the Alta Cima Cooperativa--a cooperative providing some of the few jobs and income in town. The men run the hotel (taking turns being caretakers for the day), cleaning, helping the guests, doing maintenance, providing guide service or renting horses, etc. The women run a restaurant in Alta Cima called La Fe (the faith), billed as a nature restaurant for visitors (and the community, though few eat here), and selling sodas, handwork, tee shirts, etc. to the visitors. Spending money with the cooperative is the best way to get money into the village of Alta Cima so the local people see the value in having the biosphere reserve (this is a not-so-subtle hint)! Prices are very cheap. We were unable to spend the equivalent of $10 a day with meals, lodging, sodas, etc., except for the days when we hired guides or horses.

The first day of hiking, we heard lots of unfamiliar birds, and saw a few familiar ones, (wintering warblers, American kestrel, turkey vultures, etc.). Most of the "Mexican" birds we wanted to see most were just quick glimpses through leaves, or the ubiquitous gray colored flycatchers in various sizes all over. Little gray and brown birds are the main reason I don't do bird lists (and I confess, while I had studied the bird books for the expected birds in the area, I spent far more time on the bright tropical birds than the various flycatchers). By the end of the day, we were starting to be able to identify a few, but there were lots we hadn't a clue on.

The next day, we decided to really explore the area. We rented horses (which came with a boy to lead each one), and rode to San Jose, which is 5 miles further up the road--accessible by a very rugged 4-wheel drive vehicle, but the birding is far better walking or riding. Note the saddles were wood. My wife, as a woman, got a leather pad covering the saddle, but I did not, meaning by the end of the ride I had a saddle sore in a sensitive area for the next week, precluding riding again while there, so we did not go to some areas we intended to. During the ride, we stopped the horses to bird occasionally (such as at the lineated woodpecker), and also to leave the boys and horses (and let both rest a bit) and walk down trails. Had our first mixed species flock go by above us, meaning the trees were full of birds we couldn't see well (though our necks we getting sore from looking up), but did get a great look at a male mountain trogon. This was the tropics I wanted to see and explore!

Next day I was very sore. My wife was fine, and thought it was hilarious. The blister needed antiseptic cream. I had walked to get in shape before the trip, but I hadn't thought about riding to get my butt in shape. We spent most of day sitting (but oh, so very carefully) in various parts of the forest, letting birds (eventually) come to us. This is a very good way to bird the tropics. Saw various woodpeckers, squirrel cuckoo, spotted wren, etc. Lots of wintering warblers, Wilson's and yellow seem to be most common. Just like anywhere else, the best times were early morning and late evening. Siestas and reading are best for mid-afternoons.

Our days were now in a rut. Morning hike, late morning sit and watch what comes, afternoon back to hotel for meal (at restaurant or food we brought--we generally went to the restaurant once a day) and get things done. Evening hike and watch some more. At night, read and study until "snack time," when several children would bring up sweet bread to sell. It was cheap and very good. We always bought enough for the evening snack, and breakfast the next morning. A bit more reading, until it was finally bedtime (since it was winter, it was getting dark pretty early leaving lots of time to read). Temperatures were mid to upper 60's to upper 70's days, nights low 60's to upper 50's. Nights were cool with no heat, but bearable with several blankets. Time for the routine to be broken....

We suddenly discovered the gas tank had been leaking, and all gas was gone in our mini-RV--us 50 miles or more from the nearest gas station in Ciudad Mante. Fortunately, I had epoxy to repair the leak, but we had to pay someone to go to Ciudad Mante and get 20 liters of gas. The caretaker of the day knew someone going to Ciudad Mante the next day and agreed to help us get gas. Come tomorrow, no gas, but he assured us it would come the next day. Indeed the next day, someone came walking up the road with a container of gas, and we were set to go when we were ready, which would still be several days later.

The night we found the leak, we also found our highlight of the trip. My wife and I have federal U.S. sub-permits to band hummingbirds. Therefore, we especially wanted to see tropical hummingbirds. So far, nada, and we were looking hard. However, not a lot seemed to be in bloom. I had been to the area once before four years ago in March, and had had a hummingbird lek (or male singing assembly, if you prefer) pointed out to me (though I had not seen them through the foliage myself). I had scoured that area quite closely each day of this trip, though without much hope of finding them in January. However, on this day, we finally found them when we tried to figure out the strange bird that kept singing in the area whenever we walked by. The strange bird turned out to be wedge-tailed sabrewings, and the males were in full singing form. Suffice it to say, we spent the next 3 days watching them, or click for a full description.

Finally, after 8 days, we had to start heading back north. Our last day we stocked up on handwork at La Fe, and said our goodbyes and thanks. Early the next morning we were ready. We carefully eased out of the hotel grounds and down the road to Alta Cima. Not carefully enough, though and had another leak by the time we made the 1/4 mile jaunt into town. Emergency epoxy repairs took place right in front of the restaurant, and it was 20 minutes before school was starting to guarantee an audience, but the leak was stopped, and hoping we had gas to make the first gas station, we headed down the hill. Somehow this part of the road didn't seem nearly as bad as it had when we were coming up. However, we took it very slow, and stopped twice to let brakes cool, just in case (o.k., it was quite mountainous, like my wife says). A great curassow crashing through trees as we went by was a bonus--as was an obviously USA tourist hiking from Gomez Farias, but we didn't stop to hear any English spoken (except for ourselves, no one had spoken English at all in the village) because we were worried about gas--the tank was still showing empty and I didn't know how much had leaked out in that 1/4 mile crunch.

Well, we made the first gas station (whew). Headed back north for two days in Ciudad Victoria in a RV park, and then north to the border and Laguna Atascosa NWR again. Saturday (Jan. 17th) found us in tee shirts, windows down, radio blaring, heading north from south Texas. Tuesday back at work, Saturday (Jan. 24th), it snowed again.

A partial bird list for the Alta Cima area

As I said, I'm not a lister. But, here is a list of some of what we saw that I can remember (I didn't actually write them down at the time). These are favorites for one reason or another. There were lots I couldn't identify, and lots more we heard but didn't see.
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)
Grey hawk (Buteo nitidus)
American kestrel (Falco sparverius)
Great curassow (Crax rubra)
Squirrel Cuckoo (Piaya cayana)
Wedge-tailed sabrewing (Campulopterus curvipennis)
Mountain trogon (Trogon mexicanus)
Bronze-winged woodpecker (Piculus aeruginosus)
Lineated woodpecker (Dryocopus lineatus)
Great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus)
Boat-billed flycatcher (Megarynchus pitangua)
Green jay (Cyanocorax yncas)
Spotted wren (Campylorhynchus gularis)
Yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia)
Wilson's warbler (Wilsonia pusilla)
Rufous-capped warbler (Basileuterus ruffrons)
And glimpses of lots of others that I just couldn't identify quickly enough...

Some conservation notes

El Cielo Biosphere Reserve is part of the U.N. sponsored biosphere reserve program. A good description of the reserve by Maria Araujo is available at El Cielo Adventure. The reserve was designated in 1987 and is divided into three zones. The first zone is the primary core area, where no one lives and grazing and other activities are not allowed. In addition, there are two other zones where villages such as Alta Cima occur. Grazing is allowed in the area within these two zones, but some activities are restricted. These two areas serve as buffer zones for the core area.

Logging occurred in the area that is now reserve up until the time the reserve was declared. The villages in the area are largely the remnants of logging towns, which boomed at the time, but have dwindled now. Logging has made a major impact in the area, leading to the roads, and the villages which now allow access for tourists and scientists. Signs of the logging are widespread still, but are quickly fading. However, the forest in many areas is not what it once was, and it will take more time until succession allows the forests to regain their former glory. The wildlife species and plants have remained, even if they are diminished somewhat from how they were in the past. Observation and research opportunities ought to continue to improve in the future, as long as the area remains protected.

However, it is very important for the local people to realize a benefit from the reserve. When the area was logged, the benefit was obvious--each log coming out meant jobs and income. Now, the income must come from the people traveling to the area to see it in a natural state. This is the whole idea of ecotourism, and I encourage anyone who goes to spend money in the communities. Realistically, it will never replace all the money that logging brought in, but the local people also understand the logging was destroying the area as well, and many don't want to return to that.

I admit that I have some inner conflicts about the villages in the two outer zones. Because they are there, it gives people like myself access to an area that I would never see otherwise. However, the villages are not completely benign to the forest. The grazing of animals from the villages is spread out over a wide area in the forest under story. This changes the species composition of the area, and undoubtably is detrimental to some wildlife species. Even where grazing does not occur, cattle trails wind through the under story, reinforced with machete to keep the paths open. While we were observing the hummingbird lek, a cow slipped off the trail and slid partly down the slope nearby. The two boys herding it and I spent two hours trying to get the cow back up to the trail. Ultimately the cow was roped in place for several hours to recover a bit, then later (after I left) a trail was hacked down the slope to another trail it could follow back up to the herd. The newly hacked trail went directly through the hummingbird lek, and the next day, hummingbirds were singing on both sides of it as their territories realigned with the new opening. Nonetheless, that cow (and the others) were the livelihood for that family, and for them, it had to be saved at any cost.

I resolve the conflict in my mind by encouraging spending money in the village so the local people see the benefits of the reserve and want to protect it. They already have a strong movement to do so, and there are plans to promote the reserve more. It becomes necessary for us to support this movement to allow the reserve to be protected. There are instances in other biosphere reserves in Mexico where local people have moved into the reserve and essentially taken it over in places. Local support will prevent that from happening in El Cielo.

More on the Wedge-tailed hummingbird lek

E-mail me, with questions and comments.