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Join Date: Oct 2003
Southern Mexico: dec 2006-January 2007
Finally got round to uploading the finished report of a birding trip a pal and I did through the south of Mexico (Mexico City surroundings, Oaxaca and Chiapas) from December 13 until january 12, 2007.
It's a long text, but couldn't find a way to simply attach the word document, so here it goes.
If someone is interested in the word version and the excell species list PM me and I'll forward it.
Introduction: This is trip report covers the month long birding trip a friend and I took from December 12, 2006 until January 12, 2007 through Southern Mexico. We traveled 5800 km leaving from Mexico City, through Oaxaca, Chiapas and the foot of the Yucatan Peninsula. The total species list ended up with 467 species seen (+2 heard). We had a great time and can highly recommend visiting the country.
• Birding Resources used:
Books used on the trip were the Rough Guide to Mexico (6th edition 2004), Howell and Webb’s Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Sibley’s Birds of North America and Howell’s Where to watch birds in Mexico (1999). As a lot of the North American wintering birds and migrants have no plates in Howell and Webb we used the Sibley’s East and West as additional field guides. Though the latest information in Howell’s site guide is from the late nineties we found that a lot of it is still quite accurate. We also found a lot of useful information in the trip reports we found at sites as www.eurobirding.com and the surfbirds website.
Bird sounds: we took an MP-3 player along with a selection of bird sounds, both for learning the calls and (limited use) to tape some species in. We got most of these through a friend who has extensively traveled in South and Central America, and obtained some from the internet.
Car Rental: car was booked through Europcar via the internet. They offered the best deal (950 Euro, including insurance, for a month). The model we got was a Hyundai Verna which overall served us well throughout the trip. Some car trouble was had however: 2 flat tires one of which was due to wear. We also ended up having to replace the brakes, as we wore those out as well. All in all this only added about another 90 euros to the cost of the car. The lesson we took from that is, before accepting it, to check the car a lot more carefully next time.
Health: Malaria is a possibility in the south of Chiapas. The parasite isn’t resistant to Nivaquine yet, so no need to take anything stronger. Biting insects can be a real nuisance and there’s no shortage of them, especially in the humid parts. DEET containing insect repellent isn’t a luxury.
We only had trouble with locals once: an encounter with 3 obnoxious drunks when birding in the forests near the Ocosingo Highway (San Cristobal) which resolved quietly in the end. We found most of the Mexicans to be delightful people: polite, friendly, honest and helpful to strangers. Being able to speak Spanish is a big help as even in the big cities there are few people who speak English.
One Remark: The Yucatan is getting a bad reputation for (and given our experience, deservedly) fraud at the gas stations. In the 2 gas stations where we bought gas in the Yucatan (Xpuchil and Francisco Escarcega) the attendants tried to overcharge us. We recommend ordering gas for a fixed amount of pesos and keeping your eyes on the meter. As a side note: it’s not just the tourists they try to swindle, the locals pay very close attention as well.
Political unrest in Oaxaca and Chiapas: Not once did we feel unsafe or unwelcome in Oaxaca. Though there had been serious problems (in the capital) in October and November 2006 the situation had calmed down by the time we were there. The federal police and army were leaving on the day we arrived in the city and though there was still a lot of local police about around the Zocalo, normal day to day life had resumed. Tourists are highly appreciated and almost all people we met were happy to see foreign travelers and urged us to tell everyone that Oaxaca is safe and that visitors are more than welcome. Chiapas: We encountered a fair number of military checkpoints in the state, especially on the Frontera del Sur (at least 6 along the length of that road). The soldiers were friendly and polite, and in most cases we were simply waved through. The car was cursory checked only once and all the optics didn’t even raise an eyebrow. In the highlands along the Ocosingo Highway near San Cristobal we found many of the locals quite suspicious of strangers. People may mistake your binoculars for a camera (which are not appreciated). Our altercation with the drunks stemmed at least in part from the fact that they thought we were photographers and wanted to trespass on people’s properties. We recommend respecting peoples fences and staying on the roads and being somewhat discreet with running around with telescopes and binoculars. In contrast, the area near Puerto Arista on the pacific coast is very laid back and a very friendly place.
Lodgings: In general it’s easy to find decent and cheap lodging in Mexico. We only had one bad experience, near Palenque. Hot water wasn’t available everywhere. Locations stayed at and prices are in the report itself.
Food: Food is cheap, plentiful and most of the time very tasty. You can find small restaurants or comedors practical everywhere, and the prices are such that it isn’t worth the bother cooking your own food. You get warned a lot about the food of roadside stalls, but we didn’t experience any trouble whatsoever with it.
The report is subdivided by visited area. Where the locations visited differ from Howell’s description it is mentioned. A full list of species seen by location can be found at the end of the report.
Mexico City and surroundings
December 12: Left from Brussels, Belgium via Washington DC, arriving in the enormous sprawl that is Mexico City around 10.30 in the evening. Stayed at Hotel Isabel, about 15 minutes drive from the airport. Apart from our lodgings in Calakmul this was the only place we pre-booked (through the internet). It is basic but clean and a good deal at 330 pesos for a double.
Teotihuacan: Not a real birding day, as we planned to visit the Zocalo and Teotihuacan. We got up at around 6.30 and went for a short walk around the Zocalo before picking up our car at the airport at 7.30. First birds seen in the trees around the cathedral and in the flower beds beside it were a soaked female common yellowthroat, ruby crowned kinglet, plenty inca doves and great-tailed grackles and a bewick’s wren. A single hummer zipped past and remained unidentified.
After picking up the car we headed north out of the city towards the truly impressive ruins of Teotihuacan, about 1.5 hours drive north from the city. By the time we arrived it was well after 10 and already quite hot. Despite that most of our attention was focused on the ruins and the heat there was still some bird activity. Our only cactus wren for the trip was seen here, among other birds seen among the ruins were a single say’s phoebe, 2 clay-colored sparrows, vermillion flycatcher, several smart lark sparrows, a black-tailed gnatcatcher and a fine male blue grosbeak.
We left the site around 2 in the afternoon and spent the next 6 hours trying to get back to, and then through Mexico City to Cuernavaca. The traffic situation around Mexico City is truly bewildering and we ended up getting lost a few times. You’d think that clear directions and road signs wouldn’t be a luxury around and in a city of 20 million people, but the Mexican department of traffic seems to think otherwise. The only good thing about the whole mess was that we ended up spending the night in a roadside hotel (El Zorro, 400 pesos for a double) only a few miles from La Cima. The owners were so kind as to provide us with tea and bottled water as well as prepare some sandwiches for dinner.
La Cima and Coajomulco: Following the directions (still fine) in Howell we arrived at La Cima shortly after dawn. Though it was quite cold there was a fair amount of bird activity and besides a good number of North American migrants we found all our target birds for this site. The first Mexican species we picked up were striped sparrows which occur in good numbers here. It then took us some time but we did find several sierra madre sparrows, in the bunch grass edges of the fields between about 600 and 1000 meters down the dirt road described in Howell. They showed quite well and we saw at least 4 individuals. There were also plenty of yellow-eyed juncos around. Other species seen were a male olive warbler and a grace’s warbler. A stop a bit further along the highway, and a walk through the mix of pine-oak forest and small fields on towards Coajomulco yielded a cracking red warbler, a party of 8 hooded grosbeaks, tufted flycatcher, a single white-eared hummingbird and brown-throated wren. A mixed flock coming through consisted of a good number of North American migrants as well as mexican chickadees.
It was getting close to noon before we finally reached the patch of forest near the turn off towards Coajomulco described in Howell and we birded the forests on the right side of the highway as well as some gardens up a steep flower covered bank on the left side of the road. It certainly did not disappoint and we had a whole slew of North American warblers as well as a good number of Mexican birds. Both red warbler and white-eared hummingbird appeared to be relatively common as we had at least 5 birds of each species here. Among the new birds for the trip were grey silky-flycatcher, buff-breasted flycatcher, black-headed siskin, an obliging blue mockingbird, slate-throated and painted whitestarts, rose-throated becard, rufous-capped warbler, a single rufous-sided shrike-vireo, white-throated thrushes and several brown-backed solitaires.
The night was spent in Hotel America (280 peso for a double) in the center of Cuernavaca where a fair was in progress at the Zocalo. The sound of thousands of great-tailed grackles coming in to roost in the trees on the square mixed with the Mexican brass band music resulted in quite a cacophony.
Popocatepetl and the long road to Oaxaca: Day 4 saw us getting up at about 4.30, leaving Cuernavaca at 5 only to arrive after a (very) long day in Oaxaca at about 8 o clock in the evening.
After leaving Cuernavaca well before dawn we drove straight towards Popocatepetl. The aim was to bird the forested slopes of the volcano in the morning and then drive over the Paso de Cortez straight to Puebla to get on the Cuota (Toll) Highway to Oaxaca and arrive at Oaxaca round 6. So far for best laid plans… Turns out that the road up the volcano towards the pass is very good, the part down the mountain towards Puebla is an entirely different matter altogether. “Dirt Track” is more accurate and in places a generous description. No regrets though as both the birds and the spectacular view and landscape are well worth the visit. The lower slopes of the volcano are covered in fairly humid forest, giving way to open Pine Oak woodland upon the higher slopes towards the pass. New birds seen in the lower humid forest were green violet-ear (quite common in the flower banks by the road), golden-browed warbler, green-striped and rufous-capped brush-finches, and colima warbler! The brush-finches took some work but we ended up with good views of both species.
While stopping at a picnic spot in the open Pine Oak woodland we were invited to share breakfast with a family of Mexicans who were picnicking on the mountain. After exchanging food, chocolate, sweets and some small talk we parted ways, well fed and with the invitation that if we’d happen to be in their neighborhood to come visit.
Heading further up the mountain with regular stops and walks up the slopes we suddenly saw a woodpecker fly into a lone pine tree and much to our delight found it was a strickland’s woodpecker. We ended up seeing at least 2 individuals of this highly localized species. We unfortunately didn’t find either of the nightingale-thrushes and as it was getting towards noon, and we still had a long way to go we reluctantly left the volcano, headed for the pass and then started the descent towards Puebla, only to end up lost in that city. 2 Hours later someone finally could give us clear and accurate directions and we were on the long road to Oaxaca. The landscape through the latter part of the road is a spectacular scenery of canyons and cactus desert. The new birds for the trip on the long drive were a white-tailed kite sailing over some fields, and a northern caracara besides the road.
The following 3 nights were spent at the Hostel Casa Paulina (300 pesos per night for a double, an excellent and ample breakfast included) located close to the Zocalo of Oaxaca. Hot tip, while we heartily recommend the place, do try to get a room away from the front entrance as the road traffic is very noisy.
Oaxaca and surroundings
Teotitlan del Valle and Benito Juarez: This is the only day we had booked a guide for. Roque Antonio, a local from Teotitlan del Valle met us before dawn, and took us straight to the area near his home town. A walk through the remaining desert scrub, fallow fields and then some birding near a small reservoir on the valley floor netted us boucard’s wren, white-throated towhee (both plentiful), dusky and beryline hummingbirds, black phoebe, our first great kiskadees and social flycatchers, neat looking bridled sparrows and taking some effort, a pair of grey-breasted woodpeckers, but no oaxaca sparrows. The valley floor is good for raptors as we saw several species as well as several species of heron near the small reservoir.
As it started to get hot we moved up the mountain flank to the large reservoir described in Howell, adding several species of heron, shorebirds and ducks to the list. A blue mockingbird was briefly seen by Regis and Roque, but refused to be lured into the open. By the time we left it was getting close to noon and really hot, so we drove straight up the mountain to the little hamlet of Benito Juarez where at the small visitor center we had tlayudas, an Oaxaca specialty, and fresh juice for lunch. We then birded the gardens around the villages adding collared towhee (hard work), a family group of grey-barred wrens, a pine flycatcher and a russet nightingale-thrush, before descending through the pine-oak forest birding all the way down to the valley floor. A sudden stop for a bird on the road, resulted in a flash of red taking off on the left, a call of “mountain trogon” followed by everyone piling out of the car, to be rewarded with great views of a male and female perching in the trees close by the side of the road. A stop at a small humid valley leading steeply up the mountain netted us 2 more collared towhees, several amethyst-throated hummingbirds, and a pair of black robins. A cinnamon-bellied flowerpiercer was seen by Roque, but failed to reappear and was missed by both of us.
We headed back to Oaxaca round 6 PM, dropping Roque of near the Zocalo and after freshening up headed into town, where market day was in full swing. Dinner was had at one of the small stalls and after watching the Christmas procession passing by the Hostel, we called it a day and tucked in.
Monte Alban: We decided to take it easy and only visit Monte Alban and set out at dawn, birding the tomb trail below the site described by Howell. Though we did find several good species it took hard work, especially after 9 as the sun was then blazing away resulting in almost no bird activity anymore. Surprisingly, despite a good number of trees flowering not a single beautiful hummingbird was found. New birds seen on the trails on the lower slopes were a surprisingly confiding belted flycatcher and a nutting’s flycatcher. Regis found a dwarf vireo that staid in sight for just a few seconds and then disappeared back in the scrub never to show again. So far we hadn’t found any sparrows. Trailing back we decided to split up, me taking the lower trail and Regis taking a trail leading back but up from the tomb described in Howell, where finally a single oaxaca sparrow was found. The bird showing well enough before retiring under some of the thorn scrub and disappearing from view.
It being close to Christmas and a Sunday to boot also meant a lot of local visitors and thus a lot of disturbance at the ruins. We found few birds here, but still added a few to the trip list. Our only pair of thick-billed kingbirds was seen, as well as rock wrens, which were foraging through the ruins. The ruins are well worth a visit, and it was after noon when we called it a day and headed back to the center for a stroll around town and a siesta. The last species added was the pair of tropical kingbirds hanging around on the roof of the hostel.
December 18: Lower route 175, Cerro San Felipe and the road to Valle Nacional: Leaving the hostel after breakfast we headed for Valle National, birding some sites along the way. First stop was the “8 km” site just a few kilometers up the route 175. Though it was already fairly late in the morning bird activity was still quite good, and though the dwarf vireo didn’t show itself, a golden vireo responded well and came right out in the open near the little stream to the right of the road. Other birds found in the scrub on the left were several black-vented orioles, and a male painted bunting. By the time we finally reached La Cumbre it was already noon. A small visitor center is being built here and it appears efforts are being made to preserve the remaining forest. We first took the track on the right side of road (as described in Howell) and found a strong-billed woodcreeper in the first remnant forest patch. Several family groups of grey-barred wrens were heard or seen, but our target bird, the dwarf jay was not among them. We then decided to try the route on the left side of route 175 and after paying the locals the fee to use the trail (80 pesos) we set off. Our patience was finally rewarded when the next group of wrens we encountered, about 2 km up the track, held our target bird: 4 dwarf jays! We followed the group for some time regularly catching glimpses to good views of the jays. We could easily have spent more time here, but as our goal was to reach Valle Nacional before dark so we turned back towards route 175, encountering a nice mixed flock of warblers which held several crescent-chested warblers, another new bird for the trip. We made a short stop to stretch our legs in the valley bottom on the other side of La Cumbre, and then continued straight on until we hit the hamlet of La Esperansa (km 79-80) on the atlantic slope shortly before dusk, quickly birding some of the gardens finding common bush-tanager, yellow-winged tanager and white-naped brush-finch before continuing our descent, arriving well after dark in Valle Nacional, checking in at “hotel del Valle” (basic but clean: 280 pesos for a double with airco/180 with a fan, no hot water). There are plenty of small places serving basic food in the town.
This is undoubtedly one of the best places we visited and, in retrospect, we should have spent at least 1 more day here to bird the higher reaches. Unfortunately the weather up in the cloud forest was abominable when we were here (thick cloud banks alternating with heavy rain) leading to much frustration as we could often hear a lot of birds, but see none or only shadows in the mist. We ended up retreating to the lower slopes where we did see quite a bit, but missed most of the high-altitude species.
Valle Nacional: We started birding from km 50 onwards continuing up the mountain, catching a fleeting glimpse of a single plain chachalaca, our first flights of brown-hooded parrots, a squirrel cuckoo, a single white-faced quail-dove, male bumblebee, blue-throated, garnet-throated and a male stripe-tailed hummingbird, white-bellied emeralds (common), keel billed-toucan, 4 species of woodpecker (lineated, golden-fronted, golden-olive and yellow-bellied sapsucker), ivory-billed and olivaceous woodcreeper, a single spectacled foliage-gleaner, a female red-capped manakin, green and brown jays, an orange-billed nightingale-thrush at La Esperanza, green shrike-vireo, brown-capped vireo, golden-crowned warbler, blue-crowned chlorophonia, blue-grey, crimson-collared and white-winged tanagers, black-headed saltator, yellow-faced grasquits, white-collared seedeaters, montezuma’s oropendolas, audubon’s oriole, olive-backed euphonia,…. We only stopped birding for a quick lunch at the comedor “Lulu” in La Esperanza, returning to Valle Nacional after dark.
Valle Nacional: We started the day in the orchards at the edge of Valle Nacional back in the direction of Oaxaca, where they meet first forest patches and hit a nice mixed flock of species consisting of a good number of North American warblers and forest birds coming down to forage. We quickly added red-lored parrots, aztec parakeets, a pair of violaceous trogons, several collared aracaris and a masked tityra. Regis found a single chestnut-headed oropendola and a yellow-billed cacique, both of which I missed. Continuing up the mountain and stopping wherever there was activity we found blue-crowned motmot, grayish saltator, scarlet-rumped tanager, red-throated ant-tanager, 2 plain chachalacas perched in the trees at eye level, a spotted woodcreeper, little hermit and rufous-tailed hummingbirds, boat-billed flycatcher, spot-breasted wren, blue-black grosbeak, thick-billed seedfinch, blue-black grasquit, barred antshrikes and a yellow-tailed oriole. A pair of what only could have been hawk-eagles disappeared too quickly from view to be identified. We did manage to see (and see well) other birds of prey though. A roadside hawk and a grey hawk perching close by the road, and distant, though once we had the scope on it, a very good look at a perched white hawk. Once again visibility was very poor to non-existent once we reached the cloud forest zone, though we still managed to find and get good looks at a slate-colored solitaire feeding on berries and a southern house wren in La Esperanza. With the weather deteriorating even further we headed back down finding a female lovely cotinga in the same bush we had the chlorophonias the day before, a male white-collared manakin and in a glade just before reaching the outskirts of Valle Nacional, several orange-billed sparrows.
Leaving Valle Nacional, Tuxtepec to Villahermosa
Tuxtepec: A very quick trip to the orchards, and a scan of the river delivered an amazon kingfisher and a lone neotropical cormorant. We then headed for the sites decribed in Howell for Tuxtepec. Though there’s obviously still woodcutting going on there is still some good forest left on the hills described in Howell and we found birding was good, though we arrived only after the heat had started to set in. A calling black hawk-eagle, our first groove-billed anis, several white-crowned parrots, 3 grey-crowned yellowthroats were all added. And then a ferruginous pygmy-owl came flying in, responding to its call and perching on an exposed branch allowing for great looks. The river nearby held good numbers of waders, a caspian tern and mangrove swallows, while the immense reservoir held some gulls and wintering american white pelicans. Unfortunately we were short on time and we skipped over most of the often extensive marshes along the Usumacinta river on our way to Villahermosa, where we spent the night at Hotel Tabasco (very basic but cheap, 180 peso for a double, no hot water) and enjoying the Christmas market and festivities going on.
Palenque and the Usumacinta Marshes
Villahermosa to Palenque: Was a relatively quiet day, spent mostly on the road getting to Palenque, getting a place to stay and relax a bit. After checking the rough guide we ended up picking “El Panchan” right next to the entrance of the Palenque site. It was a dump. The only good things to be said about it is the restaurant next door called “Don Mucho’s” which had excellent food, and that it’s located at the entrance of the site and that it’s dirt cheap. This is probably the worst place I’ve ever had the misfortune to stay at. Didn’t help that they had a (real crap) live band on the night we arrived which didn’t know when to quit. We didn’t get any sleep that night. The place has some birds on its grounds though. A short walk around netted us wedge-tailed sabrewings, several species of North American warblers, several spot-breasted wrens which showed well for a change and an ochre-bellied flycatcher. A raucous cacophony of calls turned out to be a group of howler monkeys.
the ruins of Palenque: As we were awake anyway we got up before dawn and headed out to the ruins. We weren’t allowed past he museum, but upon request and having to promise we wouldn’t go up to the ruins, we were allowed to bird the road past the museum and the trail leading to some waterfalls (Cascade trail). The parking area and forest/scrub edge around the museum was quite birdy and netted us a male violaceous trogon, streak-headed woodcreeper, lesser greenlets and scrub and yellow-throated euphonias. A bat falcon was sitting on the radio antenna on top of the museum. Along the trail to the right just after where the road crosses the stream, which leads through the remaining forest at the foot of the hill we saw wedge-billed woordcreeper, violet sabrewing, long-tailed hermits, an obliging white-breasted wood-wren, a single green-backed sparrow, and a pair of green honeycreepers. Being the holidays the ruins were already packed with people by the time we got to them, though there was still bird activity around some of the fruiting trees. The lovely golden-hooded tanager and an obliging pair of black-cheeked woodpeckers were new for the trip. The “temple of inscriptions” trail is unfortunately still closed off, and is being guarded for trespassers. The heat and the lack of sleep got to us in the end and we retired to our “lodgings” for a long siesta and planning the next day.
more Palenque and Usumacinta marshes:
Up at dawn and straight back to the museum area. Less activity than the day before, though a new species of trogon was seen: a fine male black-headed trogon, then on to the ruins to get there as the first visitors. As it was a Sunday entrance was free. We headed straight for the area near the back of the main square but found the area quiet and went for the cascade trail instead. A chestnut-collared woodpecker showed well, and then we heard a mexican antthrush calling close by. It never showed itself however, though at one point it can’t have been more than 5 meters away from us. We’d hear it again later on in Bonampak and Yaxchillan, but never set eyes on one. Once the ruins started to fill up with people, we headed out and decided to bird the La Libertad road on the way to the Usumacinta marshes. It being the afternoon we didn’t see much along the road excepting a laughing falcon perched in on an open branch. A couple of ponds near to Emiliano Zapata held a good variety of wading birds as well and some wildfowl including black-bellied whistling-ducks. There are extensive marshes on the near (Palenque) side of the bridge, but with no space to park and lots of traffic speeding past a fleeting glimpse of a black-collared hawk, was all we got. The fields along the Playa Larga road described in Howell were mostly dry, yielding little in the way of birds. The first stretch of the Balancan road was dry as well, but about 8-10 kilometers in we hit a large number of flooded fields and meadows, holding thousands of ducks and waders, shorebirds and a bonanza of raptors: both species of night herons, roseate spoonbills, 5 jabirus, 2 snail kites, a great black-hawk perched by the side of the road, a single white-tailed hawk, 2 aplomado falcons, peregrine, a laughing falcon... Lesser yellow-headed vultures were common. Other new birds were ringed kingfisher, scissor-tailed flycatcher and tropical mockingbird. No pinnated bittern though. We birded the road and several side tracks until dusk and decided to come back at dawn and try again for the bittern in the morning.
Usumacinta marshes: Back to the Playa Larga road. Just before we crossed the Usumacinta bridge a bare-throated tiger-heron lazily flew across the road. Activity was good along the Playa Larga Road. It being Christmas we had it all to ourselves. Plain-breasted ground-dove and grassland yellow-finch were foraging on or along the road; a crane hawk perched on the utility wire and remained there right above our parked car. Purple gallinules were out feeding and again herons everywhere, but not the bittern and near noon we reluctantly headed back towards the highway to start the long drive to Rio Bec Dreams, about halfway along the road between Francisco Escarcega and Chetumal from where we would explore Calakmul for the next 3 days.
Rio Bec dreams run by a British-Canadian couple is a great place to stay. It’s about 60 km south of the entrance to Calakmul, just along the highway. Excepting an upmarket compound and several archaeological sites close by, there’s nothing there but low forest. Rick and Diane are great hosts, Diane’s food is delicious and their cabana’s very comfortable. Both know the area very well and can give directions to some of the other Maya sites in the area. We had an excellent stay here and the fellow travellers that made it to this off-the beaten track place were great company. After checking in and showering we went for a short walk around the premises and then along one of the trails in the dense scrub/forest. The place was quite birdy with altamira oriole and yucatan jays feeding on some flowering trees near the entrance, and white-tipped doves foraging the grounds. Regis spotted a yucatan woodpecker on the trail (another miss for me), a male black-headed trogon played hide and seek, but the best was a pair of female great curassows, crashing through the tree tops raising all kinds of hell! That and the 5 course dinner complete with Roast Turkey and Christmas pudding concluded a great Christmas Day. And the best was yet to come!
Calakmul and the “bat-cave”:
Having arranged a packed lunch the day before we headed out for Calakmul aiming to be at the entrance road just after dawn. We checked in at the main gate and then slowly drove along the access road (60 km to the ruins from the turn-off of the highway) stopping whenever there was any bird activity, or flowering / fruiting trees. The air was filled with the calls of parrots and often large groups were either heard or seen flying over, though most remained frustratingly unidentified in the gloom. A small group actually perching close by in the canopy turned out to be a trio of white-fronted parrots, a patch of second growth about 5 km along the road had a good number of flowering shrubs, but no hummers yet. A nice surprise was a barn owl we unintentionally flushed from a rock wall and was then mobbed by a party of yucatan jays. We slowly worked our way through the dry forest which is very different from the remaining forest at Palenque, being much denser and with the trees only reaching about 20-30 meters max, up to the warden’s post about 20 km into the park where our target bird for the region, occelated turkey proved to be ridiculously easy, foraging right by the entrance buildings.
THE “find” of the vacation followed about halfway the bend after the warden’s station, maybe only a km further up the road. An adult cougar leisurely crossed the road, right in front of the car then sat just inside the forest observing the car for 10-15 seconds before disappearing into the dense vegetation, leaving us staring open mouthed in the car. Talking about a one-in-a-million chance… After this chance encounter everything else paled in comparison. We did end up seeing several species more typical for the Yucatan, including white-bellied wren, white-browed wren, a pair of grey-throated chats, a single northern bentbill and several canivet’s emeralds among the flowers along the road. It was well after noon before we got to the ruins which we had nearly to ourselves. A small mixed flock held a pair of plain xenops, the last new bird for the day.
The last activity for the day was a visit to the famous(?) bat cave (located off a track to the left if you come from the direction of Calakmul, about halfway km post 106 and 107 along the highway) that we had read about in several reports and was also advertised on the Rio Bec Dreams website. We broke several speed records in getting there; one was in replacing a tire that disintegrated on the way back, then speeding to Rio Bec and finally having learned the others had just left on the way back towards Calakmul to reach the rest of the party.
The spectacle of 2.5 million bats exiting the mouth of the sinkhole, spiralling up in intricate patterns and then weaving out in a sort of drunken highway of bats across the forest canopy under the setting sun was most impressive. We learned it takes some 5 hours between the first bats leaving the cave and the last one exiting it. A team of Mexican biologists, helped out by several Dutch exchange students was trapping and examining the bats and we were fortunate to be allowed to help out the team. It was close to 11 by the time we finally had finished dinner, showered and tucked in.
Chicana and Calakmul: Early morning saw us birding with Scott and Joanne, a friendly couple of birders from Chicago, around the grounds of the Chicana Lodge just a km further up the road. They had arranged with the guard that we could visit the lodge grounds. They had told us the evening before about having found turquoise-browed motmot on the grounds and we were hoping to see this species, and were not disappointed finding not one but 2 of these gorgeous birds, one of which was very obliging. Other species seen feeding on the flowering and fruit laden trees were orange and altamira orioles, several rose-throated becards, masked tityra, a party of yucatan jays and a pair of lineated woodpeckers. We then visited the small Chicana archeological site across the road and found a pair of pale-billed woodpeckers drumming away.
We then headed back to the Calakmul access road and birded along it for the first 40 km, finding amongst others a rufous-browed peppershrike, blue bunting, orchard oriole, buff-bellied hummingbird and yucatan (yellow-lored) parrot, after which we returned to the top of the sinkhole waiting together with several hungry grey hawks for the spectacle to begin and then spent the last hour of sunlight watching the hawks chasing bats. This place must be an all-you-can-eat buffet for them.
December 28: the road from Calakmul to Bonampak: Today saw us reluctantly leaving the Calakmul area and return in the direction of Palenque and then onwards to Bonampak. We made a short stop at some unnamed lake about halfway between Calakmul and Francisco Escarcega, picking up our only fulvous whistling-ducks for the trip. We then spent some more time in the Usumacinta marshes having a last go at finding pinnated bittern, but alas no luck, and finally settled for the night in Hotel Vallescondido (pricey at 750 peso, but very well appointed), of which the open air restaurant lies just inside the forest along the road, where we found a blue-crowned motmot as last bird for the day.
Bonampak and Yaxchillan
the ruins of Bonampak: Leaving our lodgings at 6 in the morning we arrived just after dawn at the entrance gate on the road to Bonampak. This road is now closed to private vehicles and the ruins don’t open until 8. We did get permission to bird the grounds near the visitor center and the access road to the ruins on foot. The second growth and forest edge near the visitor center did hold a good number of birds and among the new ones for the trip were a pair of foraging blue ground-doves, a female great antshrike, a pair of long-billed gnatwrens, a black-capped tityra perched high in a tree, and several red-legged honeycreepers. Birding several of the trails leading into the forest netted us a plain antvireo, a fine male red-capped manakin, a clear red-crowned ant-tanager, a female collared trogon, and sepia-capped and sulphur-rumped flycatcher. By the time we finished birding the trails it was late morning, and we paid (80 pesos a head and another 50 entrance fee for the ruins) for the bus to the ruins about 8 km into the forest proper. Though there were quite a few people visiting the ruins most were clustered around the little stalls around the entrance or already heading back from the site. We had the landing strip and the ruins nearly to ourselves. Starting out with the gardens at the entrance we immediately found a white-necked puffbird perched out in the open on a snag; a good start! We then checked out the second growth and a short trail at the end of the right half of the landing strip, finding a white-whiskered puffbird and then a northern royal-flycatcher. A nightjar/nighthawk flushed by Regis remained unidentified. Then on to the forest clearing holding the ruins, where we encountered a nice mixed flock holding such goodies as 2 pairs of dot-winged antwrens, 2 cinnamon becards, and a pair of black-throated antshrikes, while in the ruins themselves we found 2 blue-crowned motmots, a rufous mourner and then Regis found a rufous-tailed jacamar perched on a snag just inside the forest. As we hadn’t found any new hummingbirds yet, we then decided to check the other side of the runway as it held quite a few flowering trees and bushes. Lots of hummer activity here, and one of the last ones found was a black-crested coquette. We then reluctantly hurried back to the entrance as we were nearing closing time, where the last species added to the growing list was a pair of mealy parrots calling loudly as they flew across the clearing.
Bonampak and than further to Yaxchillan:
Saw us returning at dawn to the visitor center where after a quick check of the grounds we headed into the forest looking for some of the forest birds we still missed. No tody motmot’s unfortunately, and Mexican antthrushes were again heard only, but a stub-tailed spadebill and 2 male red-capped manakins were found at the start of the trail and after some time we chanced upon a good sized mixed flock containing tanagers, several woodcreepers, a pair of smoky-brown woodpeckers, a single buff-throated foliage-gleaner and some band-backed wrens. While on the way back we caught a reasonable look at a short-billed pigeon and good looks at both dusky antbird and a rufous piha. We decided not to return to the ruins, but do a quick check of some of the pools (one of which held a single weary female muscovy duck) near the campground we were staying at and then head for Frontera, from where we planned to visit Yaxchillan the following day.
December 31: Yaxchillan:
The Hotel Escudo Jaguar was booked full for the holidays, but we managed to get a tent on the hotel grounds for 50 pesos for the night. Having arranged the boat the day before, we left at 6.30 for Yaxchillan. The trip along the river was uneventful and we arrived at the ruins at about 7.15, where upon asking the wardens we got permission to enter the ruins (they normally open at 8). We birded these impressive ruins the whole morning, but weren’t very lucky, and excepting a group of spider monkeys came away with nothing new. No regrets though as the site was very impressive and well worth the visit for its architecture and surroundings alone.
Upon our return to Frontera we packed up our gear and headed out on the Frontera del Sur for Tsizcao and the Lagos de Montebello. We caught our only new bird for the day, an impressive pair of king vultures just outside Frontera. The Frontera road along the Guatemalan border must once have run through great forest, but almost all of that is gone, converted into pasture or fields, and leaving a mostly bare landscape. Our long drive was livened up, though by people instead of birds: first by a Mariachi band complete with stacks of speakers playing their hearts out on a bridge crossing the Usumacinta. God knows why they picked that spot, as there was no-one around for miles! Then when nearing one of the military checkpoints we were pulled over by 4 heavily armed cops, whose sergeant asked if we spoke English. He explained he had bought an American pick-up truck and couldn’t understand some of the dashboard warnings. Could we explain? Between the few words of English he understood, our crap Spanish and lots of sign language we managed to explain what we thought the problem was, whereupon were sent of with a smile and an “adios”.
Lagos de Montebello to Tuxtla-Gutierrez
Once again it was nearing dark when we reached Tsizcao where we checked into the “Pino Feliz” (150 pesos for a double, place has hot water). Here we spent a quiet New Year’s Eve with a young couple from Quebec.
bad weather at the Lagos de Montebello: Saw us getting up with heavy cloud cover, wind and rain. Not a good start for the year. Between the weather, the almost completed habitat destruction in the region and the fact that the whole of Mexico seemed to be on vacation near the lakes it’s amazing we saw any birds at all.
This is one place where Howell is completely outdated. There is no trace of cloud forest left anywhere near the lakes themselves. Even a lot of the humid pine-oak forest has been cleared. In fact your best bet for finding any forest in the region is heading several hours drive south along the Frontera road back in the direction of Frontera where the mountain slopes you cross on the way to the lakes are still well covered in forest.
Even so, there still are some birds about. A patch of pine-oak forest held a flock of unicolored jays, a single wet and bedraggled azure-crowned hummer and some band-backed wrens. When checking out some stands of trees near one of the lakes we found another flock of unicolored jays, accompanied by a family group of band-backed wrens (finally showing really well), and 3 audubon’s orioles of the “dickey’s” subspecies, which according to the field guide were well out of their normal range.
A walk through a forest patch along the lake on the Guatemalan border netted us 4 green-throated mountain-gems.
A late afternoon visit to the Chinkultic ruins netted us lots of eastern bluebirds in the fields on the way in, and a single (out of range) northern shoveler, but nothing else.
January 2: more bad weather near San Cristobal:
Morning saw us rising to heavy showers and strong wind, and after a short debate we decided to cut our losses and head straight for San Cristobal and the Ocosingo Road. A few stops along the way gave us our first rufous-collared sparrows and along the Ocosingo Road, rufous-collared thrushes. No luck with the weather though as it was fairly cold, wet and windy here as well, so we headed into town, booked us lodgings at the Hostel Posada Mayambe (50 pesos for a bed in a bunk room), a basic but clean backpacker’s place. We then took a stroll around the city, did some tourist shopping and splashed out on some good food.
Ocosingo Highway near San Cristobal:
Another day of wind, rain and cold! First, we went out to the km 2 spot along the Ocosingo highway described in Howell. In between the rain and the cloud banks birding was difficult, and though the birds were very active the trick was trying to identify them in the atrocious light. The weather would remain fickle throughout the morning, with just a few short spells of good visibility. Despite all our efforts not a single pink-headed warbler was seen. What we did find among the many flocks of warblers were a single cracking male golden-cheeked warbler, a red-faced warbler, many olive warblers, 2 (Guatemalan) northern flickers, the Guatemalan race of the yellow-eyed junco, a large flock of pine siskins, a single merlin, 2 rufous-browed wrens, strong-billed woodcreepers, a single yellow-green vireo, 8 yellow-backed orioles, red crossbill and plenty of rufous-collared thrushes.
Our short afternoon visit to Cerro-Huitepec gave us our only blue-and-white mockingbird for the trip, but little else. We then left San Cristobal and headed for Tuxtla-Guttierez were we booked into the Hotel Casa Blanca near the Zocalo (240 pesos for a double). Green parakeets are common in the city center early in the morning.
January 4: el Canyon del Sumidero:
The Sumidero Canyon is quite spectacular, and though we made the mistake to bird the lowers slopes first in the early morning, finding the low forest on the ridge mostly quiet when we got there we still did see quite a few new birds, including a single female blue seedeater, an obliging azure-crowned hummingbird, a plain-capped starthroat, lots of canivet’s emeralds, beryline and buff-bellied hummingbirds, white-throated magpie-jays, white-lored gnatcatcher, streak-backed orioles, and banded wren. Regis caught the tail-end of a single male slender sheartail near the restaurant at the top of the canyon. Despite our efforts we couldn’t relocate the bird and it would go down as a miss for me.
On the way back we made a stop at a garage to finally have the breaks checked, and replaced as they were worn through.
Ariaga Foothills to Puerto Arista
Ariaga foothills and the Pacific Ocean at Puerto Arista: On the way to Puerto Arista we took the old libre highway via Ariaga, the road described in Howell for rosita’s bunting. The landscape driving to the pacific coast consists mainly of fields alternating with remaining patches of thorn forest and we stopped regularly along the road to check for any bird activity, picking up masked tityra, rufous-browed peppershrikes and white-throated magpie-jays in the first 20 km after leaving Tuxtla. About halfway a sudden stop for a sparrow sized bird perching on a snag delivered a lesser roadrunner perched in the top of a thorn bush right beside the road! While the sparrow proved to be one of a pair of the smart stripe-headed sparrow. Luck would remain with us today, because even though it was already hot when we descended towards Ariaga we ended up finding no less than 4 male and 4 female rosita’s buntings along the pull-outs we stopped at, while several orange-fronted parakeets were seen as well. A word of warning: it takes some courage to park on the pull-outs as the road consists of one hair-pin turn after the other, making it very difficult, if not downright impossible to see any oncoming traffic and all the pull-outs are on the left side of the road!
In the late afternoon we entered the sleepy little village of Puerto Arista on the Pacific Ocean, where we lodged for 3 nights at Jose’s (Joe’s) Camping and Cabañas, not the most luxurious, but definitely our favourite place we stayed at.
Joe, a Canadian that settled quite some years ago in Puerto Arista is a great host and an absolutely excellent cook. Do yourself a favour when you’re in Puerto Arista and stay at José’s. The cabaña’s are basic, but clean and the whole place has a very relaxed atmosphere and the pool was more than welcome during the hot early afternoon. The price, at 150 peso for a cabaña is a steal. We shared the place with a small number of European, American and Canadian travellers, including a Canadian family we had met in Palenque, all of whom proved to be fine company. And birding isn’t half bad on the campground either!
After checking in and dumping our gear we headed out for a walk along the ocean shore where brown pelican, magnificent frigatebird, royal and caspian terns were seen along the beach. We had a short break on Joe’s terrace enjoying a cold drink while a cinnamon hummer was flitting through Jose’s flowering trees. A late afternoon drive along some mangrove lined channels delivered a host of shorebirds and herons and a near adult mangrove black-hawk perched in a tree in someone’s orchard. On the way back the first lesser nighthawks (common as muck here) and pauraque started to forage and a ferruginous pygmy-owl was calling from somewhere in Jose’s back yard.
Puerto Arista and Boca del Cielo:
So about the birds on the campground… Nearly all our target birds for the area were seen here early in the morning. Having gotten up a bit before Regis I was on my way back from brushing my teeth when he came rushing over to tell me there was a russet-crowned motmot in the tree next to the entrance and the house. A frantic dash to collect my binoculars proved unnecessary as the bird was still perching on a snag and remained there for several minutes…. And that was only the beginning. On the way back to the cabin I heard the unmistakeable calling of a giant wren. A short search revealed a pair of these smart wrens foraging in José’s palm trees. Now it was my turn to go and collect Regis! In the growing daylight other species found foraging on the grounds were yellow-winged cacique, altamira and streak-backed orioles. While checking the mangrove lined creek at the back for the green kingfisher we had seen there the day before, a small heron took off and then settled on a branch just above the water: boat–billed heron! We ended up seeing about 20 of them along the channel. Joe later told us that a small colony has been nesting in the mangroves in the back for years. This must be one of the easiest places in Mexico to see this nocturnal heron.
Following this heady start we then headed out for the crossroads to Boca del Cielo where an object in the top of a tree drew our attention and proved to be one of 3 white-bellied chachalacas. Along the road leading to Boca del Cielo we checked out the pastures and orchards finding more yellow-winged caciques, another russet-crowned motmot, several smart painted buntings and another 10 giant wrens (7 seen and at least 3 heard only). At the bridge crossing the creek to Boca, 2 mangrove black-hawks were soaring among several turkey vultures. A surprise find was a lesser roadrunner in Boca del Cielo itself. Large numbers of gulls and terns were resting on the beaches here, mostly laughing gulls with a number of royal and caspian terns thrown in as well as several black skimmers. By 11 it was roasting hot and activity had almost completely died down, so we returned to the campground for some cold drinks and a dip in the pool. In the late afternoon we rented Joe’s canoe for a trip down the mangrove creek where upon returning at dusk we saw several crocodiles and were accompanied by a good number of lesser nighthawks, hawking insects round our heads.
Tapanatepec to Tehuantepec to Puerto Angel
the road through the Tapanatepec foothills to Tehuantepec: Our plan to bird the area around Boca at dawn fell through cause of a flat tire. By the time we found and had fitted a spare (used at Calakmul), it was late morning. We decided to head straight for our next destination and bird the Tapanatepec foothills. We didn’t see many birds but still managed to find a few good ones including a hunting zone-tailed hawk, 7 more rosita’s buntings and 8 orange-breasted buntings, our target bird here. It was late afternoon when we checked into the Hotel Donaji (280 pesos for a double) in Tehuantepec.
around Tehuantepec and further on to Puerto Angel: Saw us looking for sumichrast’s sparrow and lesser ground-cuckoo today along the Route 190 site described in Howell. It was very windy and the location isn’t what I would call picturesque (it is a dumping ground for carcasses and household garbage). We tried several spots along the road walking down the road and tracks into the thorn forest but only caught a glimpse of the sparrows and no sight or sound of the cuckoo. Orange-breasted bunting is very common here though. A nice find was a single male beautiful hummingbird.
We left the area in late morning and took the coast road to Puerto Angel. For those with more time on their hands: the coast road runs through some excellent thorn forest areas. If you can park by the road and walk up any of the overpasses, you could then walk along one of the farmer’s roads into the forest and probably get some good birds. A Canadian birder we had met did just that and saw 2 ground-cuckoos here.
We made 2 stops along the coast road to bird sites not described in Howell. The first is the Colorada Laguna (signed for along the road), which is a big fishing lagoon lined by some mangroves about 1 hour drive along the coast road. The track to the lagoon and beach runs through cactus and thorn forest and was despite the hour of the day still birdy. We had 5 rufous-backed thrushes in the scrub near the lagoon, and saw sumichrast’s sparrows well here as well as a pair of golden-cheeked woodpeckers. There were a good number of seabirds sitting on several of the rock outcroppings in the ocean (bring a scope) and we found both brown booby and surprisingly at least 6 blue-footed boobies among them.
Next stop was made at the Arroyo Quetzali which is a track on the left hand side of the road at about km 270. We struck gold here coming up on several mixed flocks of birds containing among others a male citreoline trogon, rufous-naped wrens, happy wren, spot-breasted orioles, a golden vireo, a male of the Mexican race of northern cardinal, and one of the star birds of the trip: a stunning male red-breasted chat which showed well for about 5 minutes.
We arrived at Puerto Angel in the early evening and checked in at the Hotel Anasi (160 pesos for a double). The trees around the village center were swarming with great-tailed grackles and yellow-winged caciques coming in for the night. A quick walk around the town and the beach front netted us several grey-breasted martins.
La Soledad to Oaxaca
Puerto Angel, via La Soledad to Oaxaca: We were really pressed for time now, so we only spent the morning birding around the Playa Zipolite/Puerto Angel coast, finding lots of brown boobies near the stack (but no tropicbirds), another citreoline trogon and golden-cheecked woodpecker, and Regis found a single doubleday’s hummer.
We then headed back along the route 175, stopping along the road where it looked good for birds and at the El Mirador restaurant and the La Soledad site described in Howell. (note: the La Soledad track described in Howell is now seriously overgrown. It’s still there but is easily missed). While having a drink at the restaurant and scanning the trees for hummers we found a single cinnamon-sided hummingbird and a fan-tailed warbler.
The short walk along the La Soledad trail delivered us a pair of very obliging blue-capped hummingbirds (with the male conveniently perching on an exposed branch, sitting in the sunlight for several minutes). Another find were 4 red-headed tanagers. The area looked really good, but lack of time and a pair of aggressive dogs forced us to head on for Oaxaca. The forests along the route 175 are still quite extensive and one could easily bird the area for several days and find some very good stuff here. Last new bird seen along the road, while descending the mountains towards the Oaxaca valley, was a flame-coloured tanager.
We spent the January 9 and 10 nights in Oaxaca, again staying at the Hostel Casa Paulina.
Oaxaca surroundings and Yagul: our last day of birding. We headed back for a bit of late morning birding to the beginning of highway 175 and found activity still high. Our last trip birds were found here: 2 male and 2 female blue-hooded euphonias, a small group of shore larks and several rufous-crowned sparrows. The afternoon was spent making a short visit to the ruins of Yagul and some souvenir shopping.
January 11: Back to Mexico City: The next day we took the long drive back to Mexico City. After handing over the car and checking into our hotel, we splashed out on our last dinner and tucked in early to get our early morning flight back to Belgium.
And that was the end of it. A month on the road, 5800 km travelled, lots of great people met and between the 2 of us 467 species seen.
For more information, please contact:
- Regis Nossent: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Filip Beeldens: email@example.com
Last edited by fbeeldens : Monday 15th October 2007 at 14:13.
|Wednesday 7th November 2007, 11:44||#2|
Join Date: Jul 2004
Location: NJ, USA
Filip thanks for posting this very extensive trip ,some of the birds you got from Tapanatepec to Tehuantepec to Puerto Angel are oustanding did you get the Ground Cuckoo as well ?
! Your Bonampak and Yaxchillan day looks like your best day birding with some great neotropicals. would love to see pics if you have any
-Stephen , New Jersey, USA
Lifelist: #644 Piping Plover #645 Dunlin #646 Blue-winged Warbler
|Friday 16th November 2007, 07:41||#3|
Join Date: Oct 2003
Looking back at the trip I think we were a bit to ambitious in the ground we were going to cover and both of us felt we could have spent more time in Valle Nacional and Bonampak. Oh well, reason to go back there.
Bonampak was excellent and definitely worth several days birding. Next time I may skip Palenque and head straigth for Bonampak and Yaxchillan.
|Saturday 17th November 2007, 15:53||#5|
Join Date: Oct 2003
Noticed that there's a mistake in a brid's name in the bonampak section: it's black thorated shrike tanager we' ve seen and not black throated antshrike.
|Tuesday 15th January 2008, 11:17||#6|
Join Date: Oct 2003
My pall is working on the file sizes of some of the pictures he took. In the next few days I'll upload some to Opus/the gallery. Including 1 or 2 of Boucard's wren and of a male blue-capped hummingbird.
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