Notes from a birding trip through Mexico by Jim Conrad
Chihuahua City, capital of the state of Chihuahua, lies just inside the vast Chihuahuan Desert's west-central boundary and is a sprawling, cluttered, and raucous city of about half a million people. It lies about 100 kms (60 miles) south of our grassland-mesquite. I take a bus there, then a series of local buses westward, toward the Western Sierra Madres.
Approaching the Sierra Madres at this latitude and from the east, the mountains do not announce themselves as a high ridge or even as a series of peaks. Despite the fact that here one crosses the Continental Divide and that the elevation is so high (over 2000 meters, 6,600 ft), I'm traveling across a kind of undulating plain. Still, there's a sense of being at the edge of something significant. Maybe it's the clouds boiling over the too-close western horizon and scudding close overhead.
The tilted plain breaks into low, rolling hills and the grassland fractures into patches of Mesquite, of juniper, and pine. Ranches appear here and there, and unirrigated cornfields and apple orchards confirm that the Chihuahuan Desert has been left behind. The clouds pull even lower, the horizon draws even nearer, and suddenly vertical-walled canyons of surprising depth open next to the highway. Finally the landscape fractures into a jumble of towering ridges and deep canyons, and any spot mantled with a little soil bears pine forest.
In late afternoon, still within the boundaries of Chihuahua State, I arrive in the tourist town of Creel, elevation 2295 meters (7650 feet). With a population of about 3,500, Creel is the main entry point for Copper Canyon, known in Spanish as Barranca de Cobre. Copper Canyon is almost four times wider than the U.S.'s Grand Canyon, and some eighty-five meters deeper (280 feet). Creel lies not far from the canyon's northeastern rim. Because of its isolation, surprisingly few tourists visit Creel.
People flock around the bus offering me, the only gringo aboard, every grade of fancy hotel, super-cheap room, kayaking trip, mule ride, and hike into Copper Canyon. I've been here several times before so I recall that a road leads southward out of town, soon entering pine forest, so after buying food and water I take a reading from the setting sun and start hiking southward. Six kilometers later (four miles) I spot a freshly painted sign announcing the Complejo Ecoturístico Arareko, or Arareko Ecotouristic Complex. It sounds too fancy for my blood, but it looks hardly developed at all. I follow the arrow and immediately meet with another new, hand-painted sign reading (translated from somewhat awkwardly composed Spanish):
Welcome. For the administration and operation of the Arareko Ecotouristic Complex, all us inhabitants of the village of San Ignacio de Arareko made a society of social solidarity, formed by 400 Rarámuri members of this place. The entrance fee is used for the expenses of maintaining roads, latrines, printing tickets, maps, and a payroll of 27 people. Moreover, it helps fund our organization so that we can repay the money the federal government gave us through solidarity organizations.
This campground, obviously just getting organized, is operated by a village of Tarahumara Indians, the Tarahumara calling themselves Rarámuris. I like the idea of supporting local folks in ecotourism projects, so I continue inside. The camping fee is about the price of a Coke. A very pretty lake, Lake Arareko, adjoins the campground, but there's not a single other person in the "complex." One curiosity of the landscape is that innumerable, dark, rounded, elephant- and hippopotamus-size boulders of basalt lie atop and project from the forest floor, often looking as if they had been dropped in place. With just enough daylight left to see what I'm doing, I peg the tent between two boulders and next to the trunk of a very large pine.
At my first dawn here, on October 9th, the temperature stands exactly at the freezing point. My breath has frozen into hoary rime coating the tent's inner walls. I scratch the canopy, feel shattered crystals shower onto my face, and clumps of frost gather beneath my fingernails. I rub meltwater from the frost into my eyes and across my face, deep into my beard-whiskers. I smell the meltwater's wetness, its freshness, and at this moment I could not feel more alive.
Though yellow sunlight filters among the pines' tops, the campground with its boulders and trees remains somberly blue. For a long time I just lie keeping warm, delighting in the fact that I am right here, right now.
Then comes a gentle pecking on wood, some familiar-sounding cheeps and calls, and birds begin foraging around the tent. I lie still with my eyes closed, focusing on the sounds, letting the bubble of bird-sounds move around me.
There's a woodpecker making pecking sounds and I can visualize him chipping off loose flakes of tree-bark. There's some kind of chickadee or titmouse out there with an accent I've not heard farther north. And there -- a single, very high, thin note I can hardly hear... a Brown Creeper. And then the nasal yank-yank-yank of a White-breasted Nuthatch, and a few other notes I can't quite place.
In mid morning I sit on a log, letting sunlight warm me. Then there's movement to the left, and not five car-lengths away an immature Cooper's Hawk with its brown-spotted breast and brown back and tail alights on the forest floor. With a wingspread of 70 centimeters (28 inches) the bird immediately stretches wide its wings as if to fly but instead starts hopping across the ground with its wings spread. It passes not two car-lengths before me, and continues on perfectly oblivious to my presence, always with its wings open.
Cooper's Hawks are streamlined beautifully for rapid flight, but on the ground this one looks as if it's constantly about to stumble. Cooper's Hawks have long legs, so this one looks like a wobbly clown on stilts. For the length of a large house the young hawk hops and wobbles with its wings spread wide, then vanishes over an outcrop of basalt, and when I go looking, is gone.
Back on the log I sit trying to figure it all out. Surely the young bird had been hunting. It had hopped with the sun behind it, so any animal on the forest floor looking toward it might have been partially blinded. Maybe it spread its wings only to stabilize itself during its clumsy run. It had not seemed to be using its wings to keep its equilibrium.
I have never seen or read of a raptor behaving like this. It was a wonderful thing to see.
It's so quiet. The mixed-species flock forming a bubble of birdsong around my tent at dawn continues drifting through the little valley just below but, here on the rocky ridge near my tent, even though sunlight speckles the forest floor and wind sighs among the Arizona Pines' boughs, the solitude is nearly as intense as among Samalayuca's dunes at dusk.
In fact, ecologically, this forest strikes me as similar to a desert. The mere facts that it consists of a single species of tree and that there are few wildflowers and grasses on the forest floor indicate that the environment here is harsh. If it were more hospitable, several tree species would be competing for space, and undergrowth would be dense. But here I can walk unimpeded below the pines, as if I were in a park.
These Arizona Pines are very closely related to the Pondorosa Pines so common in the mountains of much of western North America. In fact, earlier Arizona Pines were considered to be a variety of Pondorosa Pine, a variety specializing in high-elevation canyons of Mexico's Western Sierra Madres. The variety was known scientifically as Pinus ponderosa var. arizonica. Now most specialists regard this tree as a distinct species called Pinus arizonica, the "Arizona Pine," despite the fact that only a small part of its distribution extends into Arizona. For my part I'd be glad to call it the Tarahumara Pine.
You can read about Arizona Pines and see a map showing their distribution along with the Pondorosa Pine here.
A shrill, sassy shack-shack-shack erupts from the little valley below. I go there and find three or four Steller's Jays orbiting around one another as the flock drifts among the pines' mid-level branches. Steller's Jays are well known in western North America because they are so loud, colorful, and don't mind living near humans. In the East our Blue Jays look a little similar, and behave in the same aggressive, flamboyant manner. The favorite food of Steller's Jays is acorns, but in this oakless forest they are content to flit from one half-open pine cone to another, with their big bills probing for pine seed not yet fallen to the ground.
A jay lands on a branch, spots me, does a double-take, bounces to a more open spot on the limb, bends toward me so far he seems about to fall, looks at me with his right eye, and then, with a theatrical flourish of wings and tail, snaps his head about to look at me with his left eye. This head-turning goes on for a couple of minutes, each turn his long, black crest flopping clownishly and prettily in the crisp morning air. Then a second jay lands nearby, the gawker turns and looks at his visitor, appears to decide that this second jay should be avoided, and instantly flees deep inside a neighboring pine.
The second jay, though I am in plain view, simply ignores me. I decide that maybe it hasn't discovered me so I clap my hands just to see what its reaction will be. It pauses and for ten seconds -- without moving a feather -- stares at me as penetratingly as a bird can manage. Then it continues ignoring me. It begins probing for pine seeds making no superfluous moves at all. This bird's crest concisely expresses certain levels of interest in this and that, but by no means does it flop. I admire its economy of motion, the way it appears to think out its foraging plan beforehand, and how frequently it finds something to eat. This bird projects a regal image just opposite to the first one's.
Sometimes Tarahumara Indians enter the campground to accompany the two men theoretically renting canoes to visitors to the lake. When the visitors are younger than about fifteen years old they're nearly always running.
The very moment young Tarahumara children see me, they run toward me full speed, come to a fast stop just steps away, then beg for pesos. As I hiked from town to the campground, for a good fifteen minutes I watched a Tarahumara girl perhaps five to seven years old running down a trail in the valley paralleling the road. She was barefooted and kept her back erect in good jogging style. When she reached the gate at the trail's end she simply turned around and ran back. In Tarahumara villages, the favorite toy seems to be a hoop, which children run behind, keeping it rolling with a stick.
Tarahumara are famous for their running. The name they call themselves, Rarámuri, means "those with fast feet."
Each dawn frost coats the tent's interior and I go sit along Lake Arareko to warm in the sunlight. Tarahumara women also come, some of them stationing themselves along the highway so if tourists pass by they can offer their gaudy handiwork. Mostly they sell blouses, dresses, belts, and bags with shoulder straps. By the second day they ignore me. We are all just silently and gratefully warming in the sun.
Of the approximately 65,000 people who speak Tarahumara, about 99 percent live in this southwestern corner of the state of Chihuahua, the rest being in the neighboring state of Durango. The Tarahumara language belongs to the Nahua-Cuitlateco group of the Uto-Nahuan stock of the Pima-Cora family of languages. It's closely related to North America's Hopi and Comanche indigenous languages, and central Mexico's Nahua. Nahua was spoken by the Aztec civilization, whose king Montezuma was the ruler when Hernán Cortéz and his Spanish conquistadors arrived and destroyed the Aztec kingdom.
I speak to a Tarahumara man along Lake Arareko who tells me in heavily accented Spanish that he understands the Tarahumara who live deep inside Copper Canyon but, to tell the truth, the way they speak sounds awfully funny to his ears, and the folks down there have some strange words.
So, Tarahumara women sit with me at virtuous distances along Lake Arareko's shore, some alone and some in clusters of two or three, silently warming themselves in the sunlight. They wear calf-length, much-pleated dresses and loose blouses of the brightest colors. Most wear shawls, or rebozos, also brightly colored, looped across a shoulder, holding a small child on the back. On their heads they wear bright, store-bought bandanas highly decorated with print motifs. Because their dresses blouse out so much, one dress worn over another, as they sit along shore they look like multi-hued bubbles randomly spaced among the black elephant-rocks, and when they walk, they look like scurrying bells painted Easter colors.
A Tarahumara man sees me watching ravens across the lake. He comes and sits, looks through the binoculars, and then my field guide. I ask him if he knows anything about birds and he says that he knows nothing. I ask if any bird eats his corn. His eyebrows arch high and he says, "Ah, yes, the Pájaro Azul. I show him the Steller's Jay's picture in my field guide and he thumps it with annoyance.
Then he thumbs through other pages. He points to the Le Conte's Thrasher saying it eats his corn in May. He goes on and on identifying birds and describing what each does. He both reveals that he knows a lot about many birds, but also that his eye is not as sharp for details as a real birder's, for he misidentifies several species. The Le Conte's Thrasher, for instance, is not found in Chihuahua, and is a denizen of open deserts, not pine forests. I suppose his corn-eater is the Curve-billed thrasher we saw among the dunes.
It's good to see his wonder as he scans every page of illustrations. He says he cannot imagine any purpose great enough to make it worthwhile for someone to put so many pictures of birds in a book, for everyone knows which birds eat the people's corn.
During most of the morning and then again in late afternoon the mixed-species flock of my first morning's awakening floats up and down the little valley below my tent, the White-breasted Nuthatch's nasal yank-yank-yank always announcing the flock's location. As I approach the yank-yank-yank other calls become apparent and a flurry of silhouettes of small, hyperactive birds appears among the pines' lower branches.
At the heart of the flock are five White-breasted Nuthatches, only one of which is calling. Also there are three or four Ruby-crowned Kinglets -- none showing a hint of a ruby crown -- and three or four Mexican Chickadees. These species are among the smallest of the forest and they all flit nervously from branch to branch, probing with their tiny, slender bills into open pine cones, clusters of pine needles, and any irregularity of bark or twig, foraging for very small insects, spiders, and other arthropods.
There's been a good bit of study on mixed-species flocks such as this one. Flocks can consist of as few as two species, or more than a dozen. Some flocks are semipermanent, others are dissolved and reformed at more or less regular intervals, and some are completely transitory. They can be very loosely organized, or tightly integrated with complicated social structures. Their abundance and complexity is greatest in the humid tropics.
It's easy to imagine that a flock of flitting birds is more likely to jar a spider from beneath its leaf, or cause a bug to run from cover, than a single bird. However, woodpeckers often join such flocks, and their prey resides unshakably beneath flakes of tree bark. Also, we saw among the Mesquite that grain-eating birds also form mixed-species flocks. More than one serious ornithologist have suggested that often birds of different species flock together just for the company.
From time to time other bird species are drawn into my present flock's general vicinity but they do not join the active nucleus, just remain loosely on the periphery. After a few minutes the wandering flock drifts on without the visitors, or else the visitors fly away, abandoning the flock altogether. Among such visitors are Northern Flickers, Williamson's Sapsucker (shown at the right), and a single Yellow-eyed Junco with its eerie, schoolbus-yellow eyes.
Mixed-species flocks of nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice often flock together during the winter in North America and Europe. I was thinking about this when it occurred to me that, if I were in Kentucky with such a mixed flock, very nearby there would almost certainly be a Brown Creeper hopping up and down tree trunks, probing bark fissures and beneath loose bark flakes for miniscule arthropods.
As soon as this thought comes to mind, perfectly timed, a familiar, very high, thin seeeeep call of a Brown Creeper filters among the big pines.
When the Arizona Pine's lowest, more or less horizontal branches die they generally remain on the tree for a few years giving it a scraggly look, and then they fall off. Often these dead lower branches are encrusted with brittle lichen with relatively humid microclimates beneath their crusts. Naturally gardens of miniscule creatures congregate there. In this Lilliputian world the little (4¾-inches, 12 cm) Brown Creeper is the tiger, the ever bill-probing predator.
Much of the time the Brown Creeper works with its back toward the ground, seemingly impossibly hopping along the undersurfaces of lichen-covered limbs. A good deal of its prey appears to be taken at the tips of dead branches and broken-off twigs. Certainly spiderlings are drawn to these branch tips, where they eject gossamer strands into the wind. When the wind's pull on the silk reaches a certain point, the spiderlings release their hold on the stem and balloon away on air currents -- unless the Brown Creeper comes first.
Vultures sailed above us at our previous two stops, they're here, and surely they'll be with us at all our stops farther south. Along Lake Arareko's shore two vulture species take to the sky as soon as thermals form.
First Turkey Vultures appear, then Black Vultures. In the sky these two species are easy to distinguish, for Black Vultures bear large, white patches at the tips of their wings, while Turkey Vultures don't. Also, Black Vultures have shorter tails and longer necks than Turkey Vultures, and to my mind fly much less gracefully
Turkey Vultures will probably appear in our birdlists more frequently than any other species, and Black Vultures may well come in second. Vultures are so abundant not only here but throughout most the US that often I wonder how the land can support so many.
Part of the answer lies in the Vultures' ability to ride air currents for incredibly long periods without flapping, thus lowering their need for "fuel." Another answer is suggested by the discovery that Turkey Vultures are among the few birds who at night lower their body temperatures, thus saving energy trying to keep warm. Their temperatures drop about 6° C (11° F).
During my early days of birding, field guides placed vultures in the falcon family, along with hawks and eagles. However, since the early 1980's, largely based on DNA analysis done by C.G. Sibley and J.E. Ahlquist, New World vultures are now considered to be most closely related to storks, not hawks or falcons.
Here is this stop's Official List:
For North American birders, the most "exotic" species in the list may be the Yellow-eyed Junco and Mexican Chickadee. In the U.S., both of these species are restricted to the mountains of extreme southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico, but in Mexico they follow the western highlands all the way into the deep south.
Yellow-eyed Juncos, called Mexican Juncos in older books, look just like one of the phases of the Dark-eyed Junco common farther north -- except for the eyes. Those eyes are the bright orange-yellow of U.S. school buses. They are so conspicuous that they look unnatural.
Mexican Chickadees look almost identical to Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees common farther north, but their voices are a bit lower and more buzzy than those species'.
The list's Pygmy Nuthatch may not seem so unusual to Westerners because they are found at higher elevations all through the US West. However, they're "exotic" to Easterners. In the US Southeast we have the very similar Brown-headed Nuthatch, but that bird has a brown cap while Pygmies have gray ones, and the Brown-headeds are strictly low-elevation folks. Despite these differences, sometimes the two species have been lumped.
The field guide says that Pygmy Nuthatches forage in small flocks high in the pines. The one I saw, drawn at the right, was lower down on a trunk, and alone. Maybe it had descended just for a quick look at me, for I had only that brief sighting before it disappeared.
The list doesn't convey an important feature of Lake Arareko's birdlife. Large parts of the forest here, at least during the middles of days, are absolutely birdless. Except for wide-ranging hawks, vultures, jays, and ravens, all the other species were seen almost exclusively in the little valley below the tent.
One day a Mexican Chickadee lands nearby carrying in its beak a clear-winged insect, possibly a lacewing. The bird hops to the limb's most level part, pins the insect onto the bark with its feet and, vigorously swinging its whole body up and down, chisels at the insect with its bill. Once the wings are chipped off the bird keeps beating at the body until it is limp and soggy. Then the insect is swallowed.
Pinning prey with the feet and then chiseling it with the beak seems a natural thing for a bird to do, but most birds don't do it exactly that way. This special behavior is typical mainly of members of the Chickadee-Titmouse Family (the Paridae), and the Jay-Crow Family (the Corvidae).
If you look into your own field guide, most likely your book will place the Chickadee -Titmice Family right next to the Jay-Crow Family. That's because these two families are considered to be closely related. It's assumed that these families arose from a single ancient ancestor, and that the holding-with-the-feet-while-pounding-with-the-beak behavior arose with that ancestor, or perhaps somewhat earlier.
Though absent from our Official List, flycatchers are found at Lake Arareko. In fact, I observed several for lengthy periods. They are missing from the Official List simply because I couldn't figure out which flycatcher I had.
This won't be the last time this trip I have trouble with flycatchers. Mexico is home to over sixty members of the Tyrant-flycatcher Family, the Tyrannidae, an incredible number of which are mousy little birds with hints of eye rings, hints of crests, hints of wingbars, and they all occasionally fly from hidden perches to snatch up flying insects. To make identification harder, at this time of year they're not calling.
In Mexico, I find the flycatchers and hummingbirds to be the hardest large bird-groups to identify -- the flycatchers because of so many look-alike species, and hummingbirds because they usually buzz by so fast that their fieldmarks are impossible to see.
After working an hour or so with Lake Arareko's flycatcher, I'm guessing that I have a Pine Flycatcher, but it might be a Dusky, or maybe something else. A Field Guide to Mexican Birds ratifies my indecision by saying that the Pine Flycatcher is "probably not distinguished with certainty in the field from [the Dusky] and other similar species except during nesting season."
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