Tropical Birding in January (Part 2)

August 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Features

Tropical Birding in January (Part 1)

The second half of the tour was spent in Tuxtepec, on the opposite slope of Oaxaca. We crossed over the Continental Divide, passing through humid montane forests with regular roadside stops to get good looks at Emerald Toucanets, Black Hawk-Eagles, Collared Trogons, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, White-breasted and Grey-breasted Wood-Wrens, Yellow-billed Caciques, White-collared Manakins and Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers.

During one extended rest stop we wandered aimlessly down the road for lack of any birds to see, conversing instead, and inspecting various flowers and plants at the roadside. We hadn’t discovered any new local species; it was near evening and quiet, except when a fast-moving car passed too closely and forced us all to jump in alarm into the ditch at the shoulder. While we were standing there in confusion, Michael level-headedly remarked, “I think I hear quail peeping.” He crossed the road, ear cupped and bent toward the muddy hill on the opposite side. It was a steep slope; covered in thick, low-growing vegetation and none of us could see into the wet gloom much less hear anything, save the nervous rumble of cars in the distance. I joined him and, when concentrating hard enough, could hear a faint sound at the very edge of human hearing-like the soft, contented cheeps of young pheasant chicks-emanating from the foliage. We were only standing a few feet from the sound, but still could not see anything. I blindly scanned the area with my powerful binocular and only then could see movement beneath the leaves: there was a covey of Spotted Wood Quail, in perfect camouflage with the humus of the earth! It was the first any of us had ever seen, including Michael with his impressive life list and years of guiding. I grabbed my field guide, thumbing through the pages to find the quail, and then shared the reference and binocular with my companions so they, too, might see them. Had it not been for our guide’s super-human hearing, we most certainly would have missed them. To experience a “tour group lifer”, one that the professional guide had not seen nor any of the members, is a rare and memorable experience. I would never have been part of that moment had I not joined the trip. It suddenly felt good to share something with a group of people that appreciated seeing nature as I did. We talked about it all the way back to the hotel and, needless to say, the Spotted Wood Quail won the “My Favorite Bird of The Day” contest hands down that evening.

It took a whole day of driving and part of the night to reach our next destination; we kept each other awake and entertained with stories long after the darkness had fallen. Once at the Hotel Villa Esmeralda I checked into a room, exhausted from the long drive, and eagerly crawled into bed to sleep. I had hardly closed my eyes when the monotonous hooting of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl began. The bird was just outside my window, in a large tree overlooking the hotel swimming pool. The serenade lasted most of the night and I finally got up around 3 o’clock in the morning to confront my noisy neighbor. The owl flushed when I opened the door and flew off into the night, leaving me with a scant few hours of quiet time before I had to meet my tour mates in the lobby. At breakfast the next morning I overhead some bleary-eyed vacationers at the adjacent table complain that ‘somebody’s car alarm went off in the middle of the night’ and had to laugh. Little did they know that a tiny sprite of a bird was guilty of keeping them awake half the night and not a vehicle! Michael added the pygmy-owl to our checklist during breakfast; it was the first bird of the day to be counted and we hadn’t even left the hotel yet!

Soon after breakfast we left to look for more birds around Tuxtepec. One of the chosen places was a muddy swath in the forest, wide and circuitous, that the locals used as a “road”, although I suspect it was an active floodplain that channeled run-off during the wet season. The bed was sodden at the time we visited it and filled with many round limestone rocks, which had probably been washed smooth from years of successive floods. The rocks were slippery and hard to cross, but we held onto to each other to prevent falls. The floodplain provided a natural path to follow deep into the woods. As we walked along we were able to peer into the thick vegetation from the edges and see many marvelous birds hidden within. It quickly became one of my favorite bird watching sites in Mexico. The place was warm, inviting and secretive and filled with so much life that I could have easily reverted back to old habits, chasing birds and insects through the forest in luxury. I had to force myself to stay within earshot of the tour group.

Expectation beckoned us further and further into the heart of the rainforest; it was hard to know when to stop and turn around when newer and grander sightings waited for us with each step forward. Birds with names as exotic as the foliage: Olive-backed Euphonias and Crimson-collared Tanagers fed in epiphytes cradled within the arms of trees; Plain Xenops, Long-billed Gnatwrens and Northern Bentbills darted for cover from hedge to hedge; Spot-breasted and White-bellied Wrens hid within tangles of philodendron; Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers flitted among brightly colored orchids; Bananaquits, Rufous Pihas, Violaceous Trogons and Blue Buntings were around every “next corner”. Pale-billed, Chestnut-colored and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers drummed in the distance and teased us with their cunning, silently gliding from tree to tree, only to disappear from view behind a vine or branch in as little time. We had to run after them, tripping over rocks and craning our necks this way and that, to relocate and verify birds for our life lists. If someone marked a bird, he or she would quickly point it out for the rest of us to find. We all worked together to track species and build each other up in lifers and confidence. There were breaks high in the canopy and, looking up, we could see Lesser Swallow-tailed, White-collared, and Vaux’s Swifts streak like stars overhead. Flocks of White-crowned Parrots and Mealy Parrots flew past, squawking loudly, and broke the heavy, humid silence of the trees.

Our guide had brought us to the floodplain because of the rich biodiversity that prevailed there; and also because it was the home of the elusive Sumichrast’s Wren, a bird we all yearned to see. The muddy road into and about the rainforest was, in fact, nicknamed “Sumichrast’s Wren Trail”. Despite the honor, Sumichrast’s Wren did not long to see us and proved to be a very stubborn bird even on its namesake path. It would not respond to the recorded tapes at all and sulked in the shadows of the forest understory, out of the sight of prying eyes. Michael stopped by its known territory, multiple times each day to play the tape, but the bird would not show itself. I was beginning to believe that I would never see a Sumichrast’s Wren; that the bird would follow the lead of the Oaxaca Sparrow and remain forever unacquainted. Finally, on the very last day at Tuxtepec, Michael tried a new site whereupon a Sumichrast’s Wren was thought to have been heard singing in the distance. We hiked a ways into the forest, off the well-beaten path, to entice it to us. This time the ruse worked and the wren appeared, to the shock of us all. Nobody knew whether it flew in or walked in….It just materialized out of thin air for a moment directly in front of us, as much a part of my own imagination as the rock it stood upon, and then vanished as it had come. In the seconds I saw it, the bird reminded me of an American Dipper, dark colored and tail cocked, leaning forward from the weight of an elongated, down-curved bill. Of all the lifers seen on the trip, Sumichrast’s Wren became my favorite; I had to hope and want to find one and that, somehow, endeared the bird to me more than any of the others.

Another bird that magically revealed itself to us was the Aplomado Falcon. We saw two mated pairs of the falcons, hunting and flying together in the open fields outside Tuxtepec. They are listed in the neighboring state of Veracruz, along the Atlantic coastline, but not on the eastern side of Oaxaca. In fact, the species was not even cited on our checklists and we had to write the common name in by hand at the bottom of the page. The falcons were sighted at midday, on the hot, dry plains along the road. It was by random chance that we saw them because normally we did not transverse the main road at that time. On this particular day we needed to run last minute errands back at the hotel, and so, left the birding site in the rainforest at noon. It was a serendipitous find, made all the more evident by the strict logistical constraints of such a vacation.

As we traveled from site to site, I was amazed at the numbers of neotropical migrants overwintering from my home country: Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds, Brown Creepers, Greater Pewees, Yellow-rumped, Chesnut-sided, Black & White and Nashville Warblers, Violet-green Swallows, Yellow-throated and Plumbeous Vireos, Grey Catbirds and others aforementioned in the text. In some areas we visited migrant species outnumbered the tropical residents and we had to ignore them to concentrate on finding the endemic ones. A few of my compatriot birds I know only from Mexico or Central America; I’ve never seen them in my native country. Hammond’s and Vermillion Flycatchers, Virginia’s, Hermit, Orange-crowned and MacGillivray’s Warblers, Lincoln’s Sparrows and Swallow-tailed Kites would still be lifers for me had I not seen them outside the United States. For these species and me, at least, all ties are severed once winter vacations are over and we return to our northern haunts. I wondered what it must be like for a Mexican bird watcher to experience the Spring and Fall migrations of birds? Does he or she feel the loss of so many species during the summer months and joyously welcome them back during the winter ones? Do their fields and forests seem empty of birds in May, at a time when ours seem full? If so, a Mexican bird watcher’s expectations of the seasons must be the perfect reversal of my own.

The tour ended as abruptly as it had started and I soon found myself at the Oaxaca Airport waiting for a return flight. In the preceding week I had grown so accustomed to following behind a line of birders, which by now had become friends, that I checked my luggage along with theirs’, despite having a flight on a different airline! I realized my mistake just in time and the agents had to run alongside the conveyor belt to grab my bags before they were lost. Not wanting it to end so soon, we sat together in the airport as the group we had been, separating only when our departing flights became imminent.

I know that I could have gone birding alone in Mexico and been successful, as I have done most of my adult life, but that was not the reason for the trip. I took the tour to be among a host of bird watchers, who ultimately accepted me as some sort of long-lost relative that had finally come back to the family. In a sense, I guess I was. I met some wonderful people that I would not have otherwise, all whom share a passion for conservation and nature. We traded many bird watching and travel stories on our long rides to and from the field. We shared laughs and advice and adventures, field guides and equipment, and the food on our dinner plates. We pointed out birds for each other in the brush. Bird watching with other birders, I found, was far livelier than watching birds by myself. After all, who could disagree with me over identifications when alone in the field? I just wrote a name down in my notes and the bird became what I wrote. During the tour, surrounded by naturalists, I actually had to defend my sightings in what would become an intellectual challenge. The Tropical Birding tour was everything I imagined it to be and more: It was fun. It was a great way to develop friendships, bird watching skills and a stronger knowledge of natural history. I would highly recommend one to other recalcitrant bird-tour takers.

Article written by Stacia A. Novy

Accompanying photograph of Collared Trogon credited to Michael Retter

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