December 1998 - January 1999
by Jeff R. Wilson
The long drive home was just long enough for processing mind images into permanent memories. Five of us spent one and a half days in the Rio Grand Valley (a day longer than planned because of insurance snafu) and 4 full days of birding and two driving days in Mexico. My total trip list from Memphis to Memphis was finalized at 317 with 241 species in Mexico. If we had birded the extra day we lost, as planned, on the coast and lowlands the species total in Mexico would have been closer to the norm of 300 for 5 or 6 days in the Northeast portion where I bird each Christmas. Even so I added a couple of new birds to my Mexican list in an area that I don't usually get to add any. A great find was a Great Curassow near Gomez Farias and the second addition was a Plumbeous Vireo, my first since the split; in fact we found two at different locations.
In the Valley area we had mind-boggling looks at an adult and then a first year male Hook-billed Kite. The adult male flew right over our heads, at tree top height twice, giving us glaring looks with its bright yellow eyes. The White-collared Seedeaters gave a couple of us only a fleeting glimpse at the Zapata Library site on our first try but I felt lucky and insisted on a second try after lunch. We were rewarded with looks at three birds and everyone got long, satisfying looks especially when a male unexpectedly decided to sing from the top of a 30' Willow tree. The Brown Jays and Audubon Orioles made on time appearances near Falcon Dam. A Lesser Nighthawk flew down the center of the Rio Grande one evening letting us choose in which country to count him. A Great Horned Owl was seen silhouetted in the trees on the Mexican side as another called from the US side, evidently giving an all clear sign. Ringed, Green and Belted Kingfishers showed no respect for National boundaries and we watched all three at Salineo race up, down and across the river. The large flocks of Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots (including a Yellow- headed) were not only timely but convenient, in that the parakeets come to roost slightly before the parrots and the two locations are only a couple of miles apart, allowing you to get both on the same afternoon.
The road from the border to Victoria, Mexico improves each year (now mostly 4 lane) and it bypasses 4 towns including Victoria, so the trip is much speeder and safer. The cost of gasoline is twice what we are paying here in the states. I don't see how the people down there are getting along. For some reason I think we will be paying similar prices within the year. The first thing we noticed in the Valley and in Mexico was how everything was lush and green. This actually was not good as they had experienced a very bad drought during the growing season and the crops had suffered. The late rains had been just that, too late, and many crops failed completely, such as Mangos at Gomez Farias and Cielito. The citrus crops were also greatly reduced causing the people hardships, as these are the small farmer's only cash crops. The Nopales (edible cactus) did quite well, as you would expect. The drought also had a great bearing on the birds to be seen; many of the trees that fruit at this time and provide forage had been hard hit. Bird species that we normally see in the hundreds, we found but a few and many species of which we normally see a few were not to be found at all. Orioles and tanagers were conspicuous in there almost complete absence.
Even with the odds against us we birded out all the areas we could cover and had some great experiences. Besides the previously mentioned species we ferreted out these goodies. Most unexpected award goes to a bird I have not seen in the state of San Luis Potosi since 1987. An Emerald Toucanet suddenly materialized out of the green; it was stoically sitting on a branch that virtually spewed bromeliads, orchids and moss. Its greenness was not to be outdone by its verdant surroundings and the black at the eye and almost black/mahogany lower mandible gave the banana yellow, upper mandible just the accent for the stern look of a stoic. Even though the bird was very close, it took some time for everyone to find him but he waited till all of us were giving the appropriate unintelligible sounds before melting away into the dense foliage. We later located three more of these magnificent birds.
The Muscovy Ducks along the El Naranjo and Sabinas Rivers put on great shows by perching high in the trees and then showing us how goose like they are in flight. Kenny Nichols picked up a Greater Scaup just across the border for a good trip bird for Mexico. We saw only 18 species of raptors which is a little below normal but an adult Collard Forest-Falcon sitting in a Sweetgum Tree, in full sun not 40 feet away, will be a scene indelibly etched in the minds of four of the group. I was down the road looking for Military Macaws, which obligingly made an appearance shortly after the falcon left.
Daybreak high on the mountain road to Alta Cima is always a winner and produced not only Crested Guan but also a disgruntled Currasow. Singing Quail sang chorus after chorus for us that morning but only allowed us to see foliage movement. I walked up to a Rufescent Tinamou leisurely taking a stroll down a dark path, his bright red legs seemed completely out of place for this most secret of birds.
Six species of the Psittacidae family were seen but all were way below the numbers we normally record. Ferruginous Pygmy Owls answered my whistles at every turn and in all types of habitat, some would follow us around and sit above us glaring and calling while small birds whirled around them protesting their protesting. Mottled Owls responded to my weak imitations of their calls; I think the responses were out of sympathy and not protest. Tawny- collared Nightjars, Pauraque and Potoos completed the night birds. The Potoo sat posing, turning its head from side to side like a professional model; long enough for LaDonna Nichols to video tape the encounter. The White-collared Swifts, in much smaller numbers than usual, made their regular mad dash up the canyon and through the waterfall to their secure roosting places. Both Mountain and Elegant Trogons came to my whistles and croaks and Kenny found a beautiful Violaceous Trogon, resting quietly, to add to their new and growing Mexican bird list.
Hummingbirds were in low numbers except for the Wedge-tailed Saberwing and Broad-billed which were found in many locations. Canivets Emerald, Blue- throated, White-eared and Buff-bellied rounded out the list. Gray-collared and Rose-throated Becards put on great shows for all. The mountains gave up Spot- breasted, House and Spotted Wrens, Brown-backed Solitaires galore, Blue Mockingbird, White-throated Robin, Gray Silky-flycatchers, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Brown-capped Vireo, Cresent-chested Warbler, Painted Redstart, Golden-crowned and Rufous-capped Warblers, Blue-hooded Euphonias, Black-headed Saltators, Hooded, Black-headed, Rose-throated and Crimson-collared Grosbeaks, Black-headed Siskins, Lesser Goldfinch, White-winged and Flame-colored Tanagers, Common Raven, Yellow-billed Caciques, Montezuma Oropendolas and many other species.
The lower elevations gave us many Red-billed Pigeons, 1 Altamira Yellowthroat, Gray-crowned Yellothroats, Fan-tailed warblers, Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias, Melodies Blackbirds, Tamaulipas Crow, Chihauhuan Raven, Blue-gray and Yellow-winged Tanagers, Clay-colored Robin, Ivory-billed and Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Northern Beardless-tyrannulett, Greater Peewee, Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed and Social, Dusky-capped, Tropical, Couch's, Yellow-bellied, Least Flycatcher, Say's Phoebe and last but not least, Vermilion Flycatchers seemingly by the Millions. Only 2 immature Northern Jacanas were seen; no adults could be found.
Six species of woodpeckers also made the list. The pair of large Pale- billed Woodpeckers at a nest tree were real winners and were second only to the pair of Bat Falcons seen at their regular nesting hole. The male Barred Antshrike in all his black and white finery was outdone by his cinnamon colored better half. I thought we were going to be kicked off the mountain by his mate for some unknown infraction of the rules. She came to us wildly fussing and proceeded to inspect the whole group from a roadside bush, getting as close as 2 feet, working her way down our line and with one last disgusted twitch, disappeared.
The views we had from the mountains of the lowlands and from the lowlands up to the mountains were continuously impressive. Each sunrise and sunset held us momentarily transfixed as we tried to soak up enough of the experience to last us till next time. The veiling fogs, the cold mountain air, the numerous, colorful and wonderful butterflies, the marvelous and mysterious birds, the strange smells that greeted us at every turn will forever be with us, urging each to return if not in body then certainly in spirit to the sweet, luscious lands of Mexico.
States of Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi were visited. Round trip mileage 3980.
Jeff R. Wilson