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4 - 8 January 2006

by Mike Mulligan

Daily Details:

January 3:

I meet my old friend Rick Waldrop at the Houston airport and we fly to Villahermosa Mexico. After picking up our rental car we drive to Las Choapas to try for Spot-tailed Nightjar. (Las Choapas is described on page 212, Site 10.8, in Steve Howell's excellent Bird-finding Guide to Mexico.) We arrive about 11pm and were unsuccessful, not surprising considering the time of year. O/N Las Choapas.

January 4:

Drive south on the trans-isthmus highway to the Nava's Wren spot near Boca del Monte (also called Sarabia, Site 10.7). Following Mr. Howell's directions we turn off the Uxpanapa Road at km 25.8 and stop at the karst-outcrop forest on our right. We hear/see several species from the roadside (Violaceous Trogon, Keel-billed Toucan, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Spot-breasted Wren, Brown Jay, Lesser Greenlet, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Rufous-capped Warbler, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Olive-backed Euphonia, Blue-gray Tanager, a few migrants) but hear no Nava's. Rick crawls down into the forest to look around while I patrol the road. About 20 minutes later I hear him whisper "I've got the wren." I ease myself into the brush to join him, and sure enough he is on the bird. It occasionally makes a soft ticking sound as we watch it forage close by for 10 or 15 minutes. This is a life bird for both of us -- my only of the trip -- and should have come on our final day. But we'll take it.

Returning to Boca del Monte a stop at the river gives us Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Mangrove Swallow, White-collared Seedeater, Grayish Saltator and Melodious Blackbird.

We head back north to Los Tuxtlas (Site 10.6) near the gulf coast and are surprised to find thousands of Lesser Scaup on Lago Catemaco. Also see Least Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, various herons, Wood Stork, Snail Kite, Roadside Hawk and Crested Caracara (both along the way), Northern Jacana, Inca Dove. O/N Hotel Campestre, Catemaco.

January 5:

Early drive out the Montepio road to the UNAM Biological Station. A Black-and-white Owl hangs around the station and we hear a hooting; not sure which species. Paraque, three kingfishers, Collared Aracari, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Bright-rumped Attila (heard), Masked Tityra, Band-backed Wren, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Clay-colored Robin, Thick-billed Seedfinch, Yellow-faced Grassquit are all found. Stopping for eggs and tortillas at the village of Sontecomapan we spot a Red-billed Pigeon on an overhead wire, apparently scavenging in the tiny square. We continue around the east side of Lago Catemaco to Miguel Hidalgo.

On the "main" street we find several people looking up the mountainside with binoculars. They're on a distant White Hawk and I set up my scope for a better view. Their "guide" tells us of a biosphere reserve uphill a couple km where we can stay overnight. This is Tuxtla Quail-Dove country so we carefully negotiate a really bad road to the site. Turns out the guide works there and a basic room and simple meals are available. The Mexican family we met watching the White Hawk are staying also. This was enough business for the "management" to bring in two guitar players for an after-dinner singalong. Rick borrows a guitar and sings a couple tunes to the delight of the others. Our solar powered light dies during the evening ("no sol, no luz") and the rain begins.

January 6:

The downpour drums through the night against the plastic roof, and in the morning we decide against the four-hour hike up to the quail-dove site. Birds seen on trails around the settlement include Collared Forest-Falcon (heard), Plain Chachalaca, Violet Sabrewing, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Blue-crowned Motmot, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Hermit and Golden-crowned Warblers, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Yellow-winged Tanager, Yellow-tailed Oriole, Montezuma Oropendola, more migrants. A happy find is a small flock of "Plain-breasted" Brush-Finches. Back at the tarp-covered kitchen I notice one of the women using a metate to prepare corn meal for tortillas. I'd never seen one in use before and she cheerfully allows us to take her picture in action.

Our rental car scrapes and slides back down the primitive trail, and once on Hwy 180 we aim for Veracruz City. This coastal drive is a vast wetland, and stops produce Magnificent Frigatebird and 10 species of shorebirds. We drive through heavy smoke from burning sugar cane fields, and note a remarkable 40 Aplomado Falcons appearing to flycatch in the billowing haze. In the wetland meadows we find a group of about 90 Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, American Bittern (no Pinnated, darn), White Ibis, Mexican Duck, Limpkin, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher flock, several Fork-tailed Flycatchers. At Las Barrancas (site 10.5, no barranca in sight) Rick points out a Double-striped Thick-knee pair sticking their heads above the grass. Somewhere we add Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Gray-breasted Martin.

We bypass Veracruz City and continue to Cordoba, O/N Hotel Los Areos. Good birds on this cold and windy day.

January 7:

Amatlan (site 10.3) is approximately a half-hour south of Cordoba and is known for resident Sumichrast's (Slender-billed) Wrens. Kim Risen and I saw the bird at this site in November 2001; then the bird was singing. I expected no such luck this time. Rick and I walk the trails for a couple hours, extending beyond the area indicated in the site guide. The only wrens we find are Spot-breasted and Band-backed, but we also see Short-tailed Hawk (dark morph), Squirrel Cuckoo, Stripe-throated Hermit, Ridgeway's Rough-winged Swallow, White-throated Thrush, Yellow-breasted Chat, Black-headed Saltator. Finally, making our way back to the car, we locate the Sumichrast's along "the first few hundred meters of the trail," just as Mr. Howell says. It's a lifer for Rick and he is delighted. I cannot believe that we've found the two toughest wrens in the country. In January yet! The wren even starts singing as we walk away. We return to Amatlan and enjoy a street-food breakfast in front of an elaborately painted elderly church.

On our way to Coatepec we take a brief rest stop near Huatusco and find Cassin's Kingbird, Rose-throated Becard, Lesser Goldfinch, Fan-tailed Warbler and Scrub Euphonia. Coatepec is where we intend a Bearded Wood-Partridge search. In Site 10.2 Mr. Howell gives the address of Pedro Mota, a local guide. This is when it's really fun to travel with Rick. (I first met him in Guatemala about 15 years ago when he was running an orphanage near Antigua, and we've since birded together from Alaska to South America.) Rick speaks fluent espanol and is an absolutely fearless driver. He seems to have a town memorized before we arrive, and easily finds Sr. Mota's house in a maze of un-named one-way streets. I am bewildered by this talent. Sr. Mota will send his biologist son, Claudio, out with us in the morning to look for the rare wood-partridge.

We can't locate a restaurant so buy a roasted chicken on the street for dinner. It's delicious. In the evening the streets are filled with groups of residents carrying lit candles, making their way toward the churches. It's the night that the baby Jesus is ceremonially taken out of the manger. O/N Hotel Lerda, $15US for the room and the meanest guard dog in town.

January 8:

Claudio leads us through several coffee plantations outside of town. We park and begin a strenuous hike straight up the mountainside. It's darn cold but I warm up fast. The first 300 meters are steeper than I like (I'm puffing), but finally the trail gentles a bit. Claudio whistles softly for the birds as we gain altitude. After several hours of this we return to the car, partridge-less. We do find a perched Mottled Owl for consolation. Others seen on the mountain include Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, White-bellied Emerald, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Gray Silky-flycatcher flocks, Slate-colored Solitaire, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer.

Our next stop is Colonia Francisco Barrios, Site 10.4, where a small disjunct population of Mexican Sheartail resides. We walk this lowland thorn forest for an hour, trying to avoid 40 kinds of sharp and prickly plant life. Eventually we locate one sheartail coming to a pear cactus blossom. Resident species seen are Laughing Falcon, Northern Bobwhite, Common Ground-Dove, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Hooded Oriole. Migrants include Northern Mockingbird and Loggerhead Shrike.

We've a long drive to Villahermosa and stop at only a couple wetlands along the toll road. We are out of pesos, but a toll booth operator says the next booth will take US dollars. WRONG. Rick argues and pleads as the Sunday traffic piles up behind us. Huge trucks blare their horns. Car drivers shake their fists. Toll booth person holds firm. Eventually we back down the shoulder -- against the traffic -- and into a Pemex (gas) station, where we pay an exhorbitant rate for some pesos. We make it to Villahermosa with a couple liters to spare. Rick locates a cash machine which promptly eats his bank card, but we find a cheap hotel (Ritz) that takes credit cards. In bed by 11:30, dead tired.

Up early the next morning, at the airport by 6:30, fly home. We had a lot of fun, saw some beautiful country and birds, ate some great food, slept in some strange places (just a normal birding trip). Rick finished with several lifers and a bunch of new country birds. I added 8 to my country list, finally arriving at 700.

Can't wait to get back.

(The above is not a complete list of birds seen.)

Mike Mulligan
Calgary, Alberta, Canada