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the river of raptors in veracruz, mexico, oct. 3 -11, 1998

2003-08-10 - 3:21 p.m.

Note: This is a trip report. The resulting bird list can be found here.

In the August 1996 issue of Wild Bird, I read that the largest known raptor migration in the world passed through Veracruz, Mexico, where one could view the spectacular "river of raptors" from the roof of one's hotel, margarita in hand. How could we resist? We had been caught up in the artificial lifestyle of the casinos, but on New Year's Day 1998, BF and I resolved to take the time each year to visit a birding destination. We decided that the Veracruz trip would be a great way to start.

What we didn't plan on was a surprise visit from Hurricane Georges shortly before our departure. Under mandatory evacuation from Mandeville, we stayed fully comped in a huge two room, two bath suite in Tunica. (Other evacuees traveled as far as Nashville or Dallas for hotel rooms, and we passed many cars pulled over for impromptu rest stops on the side of the road.) At the last minute, the hurricane made a sudden turn back to the east and hit Biloxi, knocking Treasure Bay Casino off its first set of moorings and sending it sailing out into the Gulf until it was caught by its secondary moorings. There was also minor damage to the other casinos, including the Long Bar in Grand Casino/Biloxi.

Yet we were living the life of luxury, with Cookie snug in his own bedroom and bathroom complete with a TV set. I even managed to win a few thousand for the team, although I couldn't concentrate fully on the game for fear of what might be happening back home.

Fortunately, although the power was out for several days in some areas, Mandeville was fine, and we were informed that we'd missed a flotilla of Magnificent Frigatebirds that had weathered the hurricane in Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain. We barely had time to return our own birds to their aviaries before it was time to catch our plane.

Veracruz is a state on the Gulf Coast of Mexico that is little known to foreign tourists other than birders. Since any tourist we saw was a birder -- and quite often a well-known one -- we could strike up a conversation immediately to get help in finding various species. There were probably less than 100 tourists, all told, there for the migration. The locals, having seen very few Americans, were friendly and always helpful, and there was no attempt made at price-gouging or the selling of junk souvenirs. A can of beer was 80 pesos -- about 16 cents in U.S. dollars. It won't stay this way forever once the word gets out.

Our guides were Bill Clark, co-author of The Photographic Guide to North American Raptors, John Schmitt, the artist for National Geographic and Wild Bird, and Allen Fish, who conducts hawk counts in Marin County, California. John is such an expert that he can identify a bird from a single feather and tell what part of the body it molted from.

For the first few days, we stayed at the Hotel Bienvenido in the town of Cardel. The roof of the hotel is a major count site for ProNatura, a Mexican conservation organization that has counted the migrating birds of prey since the early 1990s, when the spectacular count site was discovered. From the roof of the hotel, you can see how the mountains come down close to the coast, funneling the migrating hawks together as they travel south from eastern North America to South America. "Kettles" of hawks seem to boil up over the horizon like a thick cloud of mosquitoes. Most people on the tour saw more hawks here than they'd ever seen in their entire lives -- and this includes some people in our group who volunteer at Hawk Mountain. One day we saw over 100,000 hawks. The final count for the migration, which ended on November 20, 1998, would eventually total almost 4.6 million raptors, once again the largest count total in the world.

The majority of the migrating raptors were Broad-Winged Hawks (always the most numerous), Turkey Vultures, and Swainson's Hawks. Black Vultures are not counted because they are residents rather than migrants, but thousands of them were obviously stirred up by the spectacle and kept circling around. Ospreys, Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, Zone-Tailed Hawks, Mississippi Kites, American Kestrels, and Peregrine Falcons were all easily seen. Over the course of the week, our tour saw over 50 Peregrines, including a Tundra Peregrine Falcon perched in the rain forest area.

Other migrating birds were also enjoyed. I was startled by Bill's quick ID of a flock of White-Faced Ibis, wondering how he could tell from any distance. It turns out that, unlike in Louisiana, there is no Glossy Ibis present to confuse the issue. One of the most charming rooftop birds was a Yellow-Throated Warbler, which came to bathe in the drips from the air conditioner.

Another count site was at a soccer field in Cardel, where the counters climbed up a platform and counted hawks while play continued underneath them. This site lacked the advantage of rooftop drink and dinner service, however.

The area around Cardel seems to be highly agricultural, with lots of wetlands and some mountains. With such variety of habitat, and the locals not being allowed to own guns unless in the police or the army, there are a remarkable number of highly visible bird species. A nearby beach on the Gulf of Mexico is called Juan Angel beach, leading to the nickname of "Johnny Angel" beach and causing me to hear this song inside my head each time we visited.

There was a great afternoon of watching juvenile Aplomado Falcons team up to chase small birds over the sand dunes, where they couldn't get any cover and would quickly tire, making them an easy catch. Whenever a lucky Aplomado caught a bird, the other two would try to snatch the prize. On a previous afternoon, which was hotter and not so windy, the Aplomados hunted on their own and grabbed at large insects such as dragonflies and butterflies. It was fascinating to see the variety and adaptability of their hunting styles.

On one outing, the highly coveted Collared Forest Falcon perched briefly very close to Roger, then took flight at the resulting hullabaloo. Other highlights: A flock of around 40 migrating Roseate Sponnbills. Band-backed Wrens feeding their noisy chicks in a visible nest on a telephone pole, displaying some raptor-ish tendencies when one parent brought a large lizard to the babies. Snail Kites flying over Jacanas and other marsh birds, who remained calm, knowing at a glance that this was one raptor that was no threat. A patient White (as in snow white) Hawk being chased off its perch by a persistent Melodious Blackbird. A Laughing Falcon that apparently gets its laughs by parking near a heavily traveled highway, just beneath the bend of an overpass, so that birders who stop to admire it nearly get rear-ended by large Mexican tanker trucks. A pair of handsome Bat Falcons, including the bold female who first chased a Zone-Tailed Hawk out of their territory and then zoomed neatly upward to catch a small bird. A bushy tree filled with a variety of species of migratory warblers. Boat-Billed Herons and juveniles at the nest, with a placid iguana on the other side of the tree. A Crested Caracara, the national bird of Mexico, with an undignified "tennis ball" crop full of food.

Many of "our" birds were present. The familiar herons that could be enjoyed included the Little Blue, the Reddish Egret, and both species of Night Heron seen in Louisiana. White and Brown Pelicans put in an appearance, as did the Magnificent Frigatebirds we'd missed in Mandeville. In fact, we had a great opportunity to study female and juvenile Magnificent Frigatebirds perched where we could examine their field marks at our leisure. We saw a Purple Gallinule with young chicks but, oddly, no Common Coots.

During the later part of the trip, we stayed at the Hotel La Finca, which is in a tourist area for Mexicans, near a patch of remnant rain forest. The local tourist trap is apparently an island of imported and released Howler Monkeys, but we passed on this adventure, preferring to explore for birds. The town itself features a gigantic egret rookery which can be seen from the beach area of the hotel. Watching the egrets fly in for the evening reminded me of similar scenes in Louisiana.

Although the remaining patch of rain forest is tiny, it hosts an incredible variety of birds, including Collared and VIolaceous Trogons. I enjoyed the noisy flocks of Aztec Conures and the strange "shivery" flight of Red-Lored Amazons. A small flock of Collared Aracari were present, playfully beak-wrestling, with their bills having a primitive, almost Aztec look. Rain seemed to bring the smaller birds in close, allowing for an intimate and prolonged view of many species.

A word on the food: We all know what the food is like in rural/agricultural areas of the United States, and I was not prepared for gourmet thrills. To my surprise, we feasted like kings. The chicken tacos at the Hotel Bienvenidos were more like Hungarian food than my usual ideas about Mexican food -- mild, with lots of sour cream and paprika, but unbelievably tasty. They were my lunch every day. The seafood was memorable as well. In the rain forest, we stopped at a small place that had no electric service, just propane gas, and were astonished with one of the best meals (garlic sauteed langostinos fresh from the trap) that we've ever eaten. Ironically, the only bad meal came in the big city of Veracruz itself, where we ate at a VIPs, a place where the emerging middle class of Veracruz apparently dines. It could only be compared to a Shoney's with a liquor license.

At the beginning of the trip, we playfully planned to keep a list of Volkswagens, since the semi-official automobile of Mexico comes in every possible color combination. We saw over 100 color varieites and such interesting curiosities as VWs modified to make tiny pick-up trucks. We just don't get that many color choices in the U.S. I got tired of listing the greens alone, which ranged from Lime Green to Jaguar Green to Green with Large White Primer Spots to Grass Green to Olive Green get the idea. When every third car is a VW, I guess you need a wide color scheme, or no one would ever be able to find their own car in the parking lot.

By trip's end, the group's total was 172 species seen and 2 others heard. Slow as I can be sometimes, I saw 160 of these species and heard both of the heards-only. Truly a mind-boggling experience!

snail kite of veracruz

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