11-18 MARCH 1995
by Greg D. & Debra G. Jackson
A circuit through eastern Mexico provided a fascinating mix of birding and non-birding activities. Priorities for the trip were to find Slender-billed (Sumichrast's) Wren near Cordoba, Veracruz, visit the ruins of El Tajin, and bird the wonderful cloud forest near Tlanchinol, Hidalgo.
11 March: Non-birding drive on the excellent four-lane MX 150D (toll) from Mexico City to Cordoba, stopping only at the ruins of Cacaxtla.
12 March: Cordoba area. Morning at Sumichrast's Wren site near Amatlan, with late afternoon on the San Juan microwave towers road near Fortin de las Flores.
13 March: Drive from Cordoba to Xalapa on MX 125 and 140, with a brief stop at the Mexican Sheartail stakeout near Puente Nacional.
14 March: Travel from Xalapa to Tecolutla via MX 140, 131, and 180 (non-birding), with brief late afternoon birding along the Barra de Tecolutla road.
15 March: Early morning birding at Tecolutla, a visit to El Tajin for several hours at midday, then a moderately tedious but scenic drive via MX 180, 127, and 105 to Huejutla de Reyes (non-birding).
16 March: Most of the day in the Tlanchinol cloud forest area, with an afternoon side trip to Molango.
17 March: Morning at the Tlanchinol cloud forest, and afternoon driving to Mexico City on MX 105, 130, and 85. The drive from Huejutla to Pachuca on MX 105 is one of the most beautiful we've experienced in Mexico, and traverses an incredible array of habitats.
18 March: Non-birding day in Mexico City, mostly in the
Chapultepec and Polanco areas.
Cacaxtla: This covered ruin complex is well worth the small detour into the state of Tlaxcala northwest of Puebla. Surprisingly, the ancient city was Mayan; the main attraction is the fantastic colored murals. The paintings are in great shape, the best we've seen in Mexico. Black-backed Orioles were found easily in the trees at the base of the ruin complex.
Amatlan: A highlight of the trip was finding the Sumichrast's Wrens near Amatlan just south of Cordoba. Advice provided in the report by Sargeant and Wall (1993) was very helpful in this quest. I repeat some of their directions here, with several modifications.
In Cordoba, follow Avenida 11 south, bearing right at the fork with a Pemex station. Continue through town, eventually crossing three sets of railroad tracks; you need to bear left a few blocks after the first set. Continuing south, cross under MX 150D and drive to the small town of Amatlan. Go to the main square (zocalo), and take the road on the left side of the church. You will pass a soccer field and a cemetery on the right, and then take the left fork 2.2 km from the square. In another 0.5 km you will reach a quarry (N 18d 50.009', W 96d 54.133'). Drive into the quarry and park out of the way on the far side; we just waved at the people living at the front of the quarry, and had no problems.
There is a stream leading from the far end of the quarry, with a partially hidden trail along the stream. There are a few crossings to negotiate on rocks, but we did not have to wade. You are in a coffee plantation with large trees at this point, with some birding opportunities. Follow the trail away from the stream, and ignore a side trail on the left. In a short distance, you will emerge from the forest at a sugar cane plantation, where you should turn right on a wide track. This junction (N 18d 50.211', W 96d 54.225') is 0.4 km straight-line distance NNW (331d) from the quarry. After about 50 meters turn right into the woods on another large track; walk left in roughly 100 meters on a small trail leaving at a diagonal up the hill. Birding on this trail through the shaded coffee groves was excellent, and we heard singing Sumichrast's Wrens from the bottom of the trail. Best viewing for the wrens was at the base of the limestone cliffs about halfway up the slope to the left of the trail. We saw two wrens, one of which sang repeatedly, and heard another (?) bird; views were only brief and patience was required to experience this elusive rarity.
Other than the star attraction, interesting birds included Thicket Tinamou (heard), Red-lored Parrot (2), Squirrel Cuckoo, White-bellied Emerald, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Blue-crowned Motmot (2), Emerald Toucanet, Collared Aracari, Olivaceous and Streak-headed woodcreepers, Masked and Black-crowned tityras (2 each), Tropical Parula (2), Golden-crowned Warbler (3), Yellow-throated Euphonia (3), Red-throated Ant-Tanager (8), Common Bush-Tanager, Black-headed Saltator (15), and Chestnut-headed (2) and Montezuma oropendolas. North American migrants were common, including eight Nashville Warblers.
San Juan microwave towers (microondas) road: This road leads from MX 150 (old highway) just west of Fortin de las Flores, and climbs a moderately wooded hill. A late afternoon visit was surprisingly dull, however, and I mention it mainly as a negative.
Puente Nacional: A small area of arid thorn forest is located along MX 125 west of the connector to MX 140. It is well described by Howell and Webb (1990) and Sargeant and Wall (1993). We stopped briefly in midday in the area of the Km-101 marker, walking into the poorly-vegetated fields on the north side of the road. Despite the time of day, we located two Mexican Sheartails in the field. We did not visit the area at night for Buff-collared Nightjar, nor did we explore the thorn forest nearby. A Lesser Roadrunner was seen on MX 125 west of this spot.
Xalapa: Not a birding site for us, but mentioned because of the excellent anthropology museum, with well-displayed artifacts from several civilizations in Veracruz. Garza and Rodriguez (1994) discussed finding the critically endangered Bearded Wood-Partridge close to the nearby town of Coatepec; unfortunately, this article was not yet available to us when we were in Xalapa.
Tecolutla: I hadn't planned originally to stay here, and consequently did not have the Howell and Webb (1987) article on birding in this area. We birded in late afternoon along the Barra de Tecolutla road leading to the Tecolutla River. This road is accessed from MX 180, and passes through mostly open areas with a few marshy spots and scattered patches of trees. We found the birding to be of only moderate interest, though.
There is an excellent marsh at Tecolutla, but we had difficulty securing good access. The only decent spot we found was on the main road west of town; a track entered a site slated for development, 2.7 km west of the road fork on the west edge of Tecolutla. This was just west of the old Campo Miguel Hidalgo. Though the area now may be filled with houses, we could reach the edge of the marsh from this road. We didn't encounter any problems from workers at this spot, though one person warned us about continuing too far down the track due to "Africanized" bees. Birding was moderately good, but we did not find Altamira Yellowthroat or "Ochre" Oriole. This was a good area for Ruddy Crake, with at least five encountered.
El Tajin: A fantastic place to visit, this should be a target for anyone traversing this part of Mexico. Because of the location, it is less visited than many ruins in the country, but ranks with the best of them. The style of the pyramids here is fascinating, and the complex is extensive. There are adjacent wooded patches which probably would be productive for birds early or late in the day; unfortunately, it was already hot when we arrived. We spotted a few interesting birds such as Rose-throated Becard, Masked Tityra, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Yellow-winged Tanager, Black-headed Saltator (8), and Montezuma Oropendola (2).
Tlanchinol Cloud Forest: Howell and Webb (1992) gave an excellent account of this superb forest; the report by Sargeant and Wall (1993) also was useful. As much of the accessible cloud forest on the Mexican eastern slope has been destroyed, it was a joy to bird in an area with only minimal alteration. The area is traversed by the paved MX 105, and adequate accommodation is available within striking distance. The largest nearby town is Huejutla de Reyes, over an hour to the northeast. The village of Tlanchinol is only a few km to the southwest, but the nearest decent accommodation is 30 minutes southwest in the village of Ixtlahauca.
There is considerable forest along the highway, which can be birded without too much interference from traffic. Take care when driving on this road, though, as fog can be heavy. There are a few minor trails that lead to the southeast (on the right when driving from Tlanchinol). The best area is on the northwest (left) side of the road; there is a pulloff about 5 km from Tlanchinol with a sign for "Lontla" (N 21d 1.781', W 98d 38.465', approx. 745 meters altitude). An obvious track leads directly into the forest at this stop, soon descending to a village far below. This trail provides fantastic birding, and is the highlight of the area; a moderately steep grade is present in places. At 540 meters elevation, there is a fork in the trail; we took the right fork and descended another 75 meters in altitude, but the woods below the fork were more disturbed and less impressive.
You can spend hours exploring the upper part of this trail, and repeated trips probably would be necessary to get most of the specialties. Howell and Webb give a list of great birds, only some of which we encountered in two mornings and part of an afternoon. Better familiarity with local calls and songs would have helped in this regard. I would suggest at least two days to begin to explore this rich area. As it appears to be completely unprotected (even in the Mexican sense of the word), it is anyone's guess how long this special place will survive.
Interesting species seen in the area, with daily maxima in parentheses, included: White-faced Quail-Dove (1), Magnificent Hummingbird (10), Mountain Trogon (15), Smoky-brown Woodpecker (3), "Bronze-winged" Woodpecker (2), Olivaceous (3) and Spot-crowned (4) woodcreepers, Tufted Flycatcher (7), Unicolored Jay (12), Gray-breasted Wood-Wren (25), Brown-backed Solitaire (15), Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush (5), Black Robin (2), White-throated Robin (1), Gray Silky-Flycatcher (2), Brown-capped Vireo (6), Crescent-chested (2) and Golden-browed (12) warblers, Common Bush-Tanager (75), Rufous-capped Brush-Finch (2), and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch (7). Good numbers of North American migrants were present.
Total species: 163
Life birds: GDJ - 8
DGJ - 9
Taxonomy, species order, and English names follow AOU conventions.
Thicket Tinamou -- Amatlan
Least Grebe -- Tecolutla
Brown Pelican -- Tecolutla
Neotropic Cormorant -- Tecolutla
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret -- Tecolutla
Little Blue Heron -- Tecolutla
Tricolored Heron -- Tecolutla
Green Heron -- Tecolutla
White Ibis -- Tecolutla
White-faced Ibis -- Tecolutla
Wood Stork - MX 105 south of Tempoal de Sanchez
Black-shouldered Kite -- Tecolutla
Northern Harrier -- Tecolutla
Buteogallus sp. -- Tecolutla
Gray Hawk -- Tecolutla
Red-tailed Hawk -- Amatlan
Crested Caracara -- Tecolutla
Merlin -- Tecolutla
Plain Chachalaca -- Tecolutla
Ruddy Crake -- Tecolutla
Sora -- Tecolutla
American Coot -- Tecolutla
Black-necked Stilt -- Tecolutla
Northern Jacana -- Tecolutla
Greater Yellowlegs -- Tecolutla
Lesser Yellowlegs -- Tecolutla
Laughing Gull -- Tecolutla
Royal Tern -- Tecolutla
Red-billed Pigeon -- Tecolutla
Mourning Dove -- Cacaxtla, Tlanchinol to Mexico City
Leptotila sp. -- Amatlan
White-faced Quail-Dove -- Tlanchinol
Olive-throated Parakeet -- Amatlan
Red-lored Parrot -- Amatlan
Squirrel Cuckoo -- Amatlan
Lesser Roadrunner -- Puente Nacional
Groove-billed Ani -- El Tajin
White-collared Swift -- Amatlan
White-bellied Emerald -- Amatlan
Azure-crowned Hummingbird -- Amatlan
Magnificent Hummingbird -- Tlanchinol
Mexican Sheartail -- Puente Nacional
Mountain Trogon -- Tlanchinol
Blue-crowned Motmot -- Amatlan
Belted Kingfisher -- Tecolutla
Emerald Toucanet -- Amatlan
Collared Aracari -- Amatlan
Ladder-backed Woodpecker -- Puente Nacional
Smoky-brown Woodpecker -- Tlanchinol
Golden-olive (Bronze-winged) Woodpecker -- Tlanchinol
Olivaceous Woodcreeper -- Amatlan, Tlanchinol
Spotted Woodcreeper -- Tlanchinol
Streak-headed Woodcreeper -- Amatlan
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper -- Tlanchinol
Tufted Flycatcher -- Tlanchinol
Greater Pewee -- Amatlan
Contopus sp. (Eastern/Western Wood-Pewee) -- Tlanchinol
Least Flycatcher -- Puente Nacional
Cordilleran Flycatcher -- Tlanchinol
Eastern Phoebe -- Puente Nacional
Vermilion Flycatcher -- Puente Nacional, Tecolutla
Boat-billed Flycatcher -- Amatlan, El Tajin
Rose-throated Becard -- El Tajin
Masked Tityra -- Amatlan, El Tajin
Black-crowned Tityra -- Amatlan
Northern Rough-winged Swallow -- Tecolutla
Green Jay -- Cordoba to Xalapa
Unicolored Jay -- Tlanchinol
Mexican Crow -- Tantoyuca
Tufted (Black-crested) Titmouse -- El Tajin
Bushtit -- Tlanchinol to Mexico City
Band-backed Wren -- El Tajin
Canyon Wren -- Cacaxtla
Slender-billed (Sumichrast's) Wren -- Amatlan
Spot-breasted Wren -- Amatlan, El Tajin
House Wren -- Tecolutla
Sedge Wren -- Tecolutla
Gray-breasted Wood-Wren -- Tlanchinol
Ruby-crowned Kinglet -- Tlanchinol
Brown-backed Solitaire -- Tlanchinol
Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush -- Tlanchinol
Black Robin -- Tlanchinol
Clay-colored Robin -- Amatlan, Tecolutla
White-throated Robin -- Tlanchinol
American Robin -- Mexico City
Gray Catbird -- Tecolutla
Northern Mockingbird -- Tecolutla
Cedar Waxwing -- Amatlan, Mexico City
Gray Silky-Flycatcher -- Tlanchinol
White-eyed Vireo -- Tecolutla
Solitary (Eastern and Plumbeous) Vireo -- Tlanchinol
Yellow-throated Vireo -- Amatlan
Hutton's Vireo -- Tlanchinol
Brown-capped Vireo -- Tlanchinol
Orange-crowned Warbler -- Tecolutla
Nashville Warbler -- Amatlan, Tlanchinol
Tropical Parula -- Amatlan
Crescent-chested Warbler -- Tlanchinol
Yellow Warbler -- Tecolutla
Magnolia Warbler -- Amatlan
Townsend's Warbler -- Tlanchinol
Black-throated Green Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler -- Tecolutla
Black-and-white Warbler -- Amatlan, Tlanchinol
American Redstart -- Amatlan
Northern Waterthrush -- Tecolutla
Common Yellowthroat -- Tecolutla
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat -- Tecolutla
Hooded Warbler -- Amatlan, El Tajin
Golden-crowned Warbler -- Amatlan
Rufous-capped Warbler -- Tlanchinol
Golden-browed Warbler -- Tlanchinol
Yellow-throated Euphonia -- Amatlan, El Tajin
Yellow-winged Tanager -- El Tajin
Red-throated Ant-Tanager -- Amatlan
Summer Tanager -- Amatlan
Flame-colored Tanager -- Tlanchinol
Common Bush-Tanager -- Amatlan, Tlanchinol
Black-headed Saltator -- Amatlan, El Tajin
Blue Bunting -- Tlanchinol to Molango
Indigo Bunting -- Puente Nacional
Painted Bunting -- Puente Nacional
Rufous-capped Brush-Finch -- Tlanchinol
Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch -- Tlanchinol
White-collared Seedeater -- Tecolutla
Yellow-faced Grassquit -- Tecolutla
Savannah Sparrow -- Tecolutla
Lincoln's Sparrow -- Tecolutla, Tlanchinol to Molango
Eastern Meadowlark -- Amatlan, Tecolutla
Melodious Blackbird -- Amatlan, Tecolutla
Orchard Oriole -- El Tajin
Altamira Oriole -- Tecolutla
Black-backed Oriole -- Cacaxtla
Yellow-winged Cacique -- Mexico City (? escape)
Chestnut-headed Oropendola -- Amatlan
Montezuma Oropendola -- Amatlan, El Tajin
House Finch -- Mexico City
ACCOMMODATIONS (rates at seven new pesos/dollar)
Cordoba: Hotel Villa Real Florida -- very nice place northwest of center city on Avenida 1. We enjoyed the spacious Garden Suite, which was great but far more than we needed (even included a large jacuzzi room with skylights and tropical plants!). USD 100.
Xalapa: Hotel Xalapa -- Master Suite spacious, a little worn but clean and comfortable. The hotel is about a kilometer west of the city center on Victoria. A pleasant place with many facilities and a good restaurant. USD 50.
Tecolutla: Hotel (Balneario) Tecolutla -- Pleasant old "grand" hotel. Clean and comfortable, though small, rooMs. Nice grounds fronting the beach. Enclosed parking lot. USD 27.
Huejutla: Hotel Olviedo -- small, clean, acceptable place with private bath/shower for only USD 9. Rooms had refrigerators and color TV. Parking was enclosed, but you had to be the last one in the courtyard lot to get out early; we parked without incident in front of the hotel to ensure an early departure to the cloud forest. The hotel is located in the main part of town on Morelos; it is situated very close to the Hotel Posada Huejutla, recommended in the Lonely Planet guide.
Ixtlahauca: Hotel Conchita -- small, clean, very basic hotel in a small village, located on the left on MX 105 as you arrive from the north. The rooms have no heat, but do have private bathrooms/showers. Management is friendly. The main problem was the lack of food, as the attractive hotel restaurant was closed, and there is really little else to try. USD 8.
Mexico City: Hotel Plaza Continental Aeropuerto -- comfortable and very convenient hotel connected by walkway to the domestic terminal. A great place for single-night layovers at the airport. About USD 100 for executive/club level.
Four Seasons Mexico City -- Fabulous new hotel at the
end of Paseo de la Reforma. Of the excellent hotels we have used in
area (Stouffer Presidente, Camino Real, and Marquis Reforma), this is
far the best. We paid only USD 110, surprisingly low for this type of
Cordoba: We enjoyed eating at one of several cafes in the "Hotel" Zevallos fronting the zocalo. A great place to relax and watch the world go by. Otherwise, we ate fast food such as at Pizza Hut.
Xalapa: We ate only in the restaurant of the Hotel Xalapa, which was good.
Tecolutla: A pleasant open-air dinner spot on the main road parallel to the beach is La Trucha Vagabonda. Food was very good and service friendly; this seemed to be the most popular spot, the reason we selected it.
El Tajin: We had a good lunch in the outdoor cafe at the visitor center.
Huejutla: There are several restaurants in town; we had eaten a large lunch at El Tajin and only bought snacks in a grocery store near our hotel. The presence of restaurants would make Huejutla the best base for many people when visiting the cloud forest, despite the drive of over an hour.
Ixtlahauca: If the restaurant in the Hotel Conchita had been open, it would have made the stay in Ixtlahauca much more pleasant. Deciding to skip the places in town with one table and a woman stirring a pot, we lived on bread and potato chips for a couple of days! I strongly suggest carrying food if you plan to stay in this village, as the selection of ready-to-eat food is very limited in the few small stores.
Mexico City: We enjoyed a very good dinner in the Zona Rosa at Fonda El Refugio, which serves a variety of regional dishes in an old home.
If I return to this part of Mexico, I would spend more time exploring south of Cordoba, and certainly in the Tlanchinol cloud forest. Searching for Bearded Wood-Partridge near Coatepec would be a top priority; hiring the local guide as suggested by Garza and Rodriguez (1994) probably is the only reasonable method to find this vanishing species. The arid forest near Puente Nacional also would be interesting to work. Another possibility for the future would be exploration of MX 105 between Molango and Pachuca, with habitats ranging from highland pine and hardwood forest to desert scrub; Spotted Wren might be possible along this route.
I'd still recommend the fascinating ruins at El Tajin (especially) and the museum in Xalapa.
We used a variety of general Mexican guidebooks to plan the trip. The most helpful for this journey were the Lonely Planet and Birnbaum guides and the Mexico & Central American Handbook. The following cited publications are very useful for birdfinding in this area:
Garza, H.G.d.S. and S.A. Rodriguez. 1994. The Bearded Wood-Partridge in central Veracruz and suggestions for finding and conserving the species The Euphonia 3(1):8-12.
Howell, S.N.G. and S. Webb. 1992. A Little Known Cloud Forest in Hidalgo, Mexico. The Euphonia 1:7-11.
Howell, S.N.G. and S. Webb. 1990. A site for Buff-collared Nightjar (Caprimulgus ridgwayi) and Mexican Sheartail (Calothorax [Doricha] eliza) in Veracruz. Aves Mexicanas 2(3):1-2.
Howell, S.N.G. and S. Webb. 1987. Birding at Tecolutla, Veracruz. Aves Mexicanas 1(87-3):4.
Sargeant, D.E. and J.W. Wall. 1993. Mexico: a birder's guide to Mexico. Privately published. [2nd ed. (1995) available from the Natural History Book Service, U.K.]
Greg D. Jackson