Notes from a birding trip through Mexico by Jim Conrad
Between Bahuichivo and the next train stop in the direction of the Pacific lowlands the elevation drops another 650 meters (2100 feet). Even though the two stations lie only thirty straight-line kilometers apart (about eighteen miles), the drop produces enormous changes in vegetation. My ticket for the next station reads Témoris.
The diesel-powered train lumbers along slowly providing sensational views into the canyon. Since the cars are old-style I can hang over the bottom half of the two-part door at the end of the last car. Standing there I feel increasingly warmer air gush around me and when I look around the side of the train and see an interesting flower or leaf coming up it's easy enough to lean out and snatch it as it passes by. As the track plummets the vegetation changes and I know the birds are changing, too.
At around 1,200 meters (3,900 feet), pine forest abruptly yields to thorn forest in which spiny acacias dominate. After these days of solemn, blue-green pines, what a pleasure to see luxuriant thickets of elephant's-eye-high Castor Bean with broad, star-shaped, glossy, yellow-green leaves shimmering in the dazzling sunlight. Agaves and cacti crown rocky ledges along the track. Among the cacti are species of prickly pear cactus, barrel cactus, cholla cactus, columnar cactus, and a spectacular, giant organpipe species.
Eventually the train eases into a settlement. With sweat beading on my forehead my eyes drink in the passing tableau: Scarlet hibiscus blossoms explode inside dark green shadows; succulent papaya trees laden with ripening yellow fruit; crowded thickets of glossy-leafed banana trees; guava trees heavy with yellow guavas, and ;children playing along the track, dirty, healthy, happy-looking children, their white teeth and brown skin glistening in the sunlight.
Through the engine's diesel fumes I smell random odors of wet, green herbage, ripening and rotting fruit, the perfume of orange blossoms mingling with the emanations of outdoor toilets and standing pools of sewage, and, from the little open-walled restaurant across the parking lot to which I direct myself, the smell of wood smoke, hot coffee, hot tortillas, hot-sauce, and hot refried beans.
This is Estación Témoris, or Témoris Station, they tell me. The real Témoris lies over the mountain. Here there are only a few houses and a couple of little stores, nothing more, so I'll have to take a taxi to Témoris. I tell them I'd like to walk for the exercise. Of course, my real plan is to follow the river downstream and make camp.
Water in the river is so low that it can be crossed by jumping from rock to rock. However, the gravelly, bolder-strewn, unvegetated flood plain portion is broad enough to hold a baseball diamond. Obviously there are times when unimaginable amounts of water rush through here sending house-size boulders rolling and scouring away even the willows. Cliffs along both sides of the floodplain rise almost vertically to towering, round-top peaks. Two craggy volcanic necks frame the river downstream. The view downstream reminds me of Japanese watercolor scenes of an impossibly pretty landscape.
After about an hour of hiking below town, at the edge of the barren floodplain, a large fig tree has accumulated enough level soil among roots behind it for the tent to be pegged there. The fig's branches are heavy with green, spherical, marble-size, inedible figs.
The tent is erected and a poncho and some trousers are spread across its roof to break its contour lines -- to help camouflage it. It's so deeply shaded and weedy below the fig that from just a few feet away the tent becomes invisible.
It's a good site. However, as the sun dips behind the high peaks, a melancholy murkiness spreads across the valley's floor, even though dusk is still hours away. I lie in the tent cooling off, listening to mosquitoes thronging outside the tent's screen window.
The Solitary Vireo's taxonomy is complex. Some authors separate the Solitary Vireo into the Blue-headed, Cassins and Plumbeous Vireos. Judging from distribution maps in Howell & Webb's field guide, this could have been either the Cassin's or Plumbeous Vireo
In the late afternoon I sit on a boulder next to the fig's smooth, slate-gray trunk. Not three arm-lengths away, a Solitary Vireo alights on one of the tree's lower branches, assumes a comfortable-looking perching position, and cocks his head slightly. He holds his head sideways so that his left eye, highlighted with a thin eye-ring, stares exactly at me. He makes not a sound and twitches not a feather. In such a manner this bird perches for a solid hour, absolutely unmoving, always with that left eye riveted right on me.
Though it would be interesting to see just how long this bird can look at me, after an hour I want to move to another rock. The moment I stand up the vireo takes flight. He lands in the top of a nearby tree and for a full minute goes into a paroxysm of alternately hopping and flitting about, and ruffling his feathers -- giving a clear impression of "letting off steam" after his period of intense observation and inactivity. At the minute's end, he flies away. I have never seen a bird behave like this.
At dusk, however, he returns to another nearby perch and continues his earlier intense watchfulness until darkness enshrouds all, and I feel my way into the tent.
Awaiting sleep, I can't shake the feeling that the vireo's behavior is downright spooky. I wonder what a superstitious person would make of the visit? Here in the shadowy belly of an almost supernatural-looking canyon, I wonder what omens, what kinds of vision, what spirits or apparitions a mind could attribute to this little bird's behavior if one just allowed the mind to wander... ?
At daybreak the thermometer reads 19.5ºC (67º F). Sunlight kindles the peaks, but here on the canyon floor it remains somber and quiet. Certain hesitant-sounding peeps, quickly smothered outbursts of song, and faint, drawn-out whistles break the hush from time to time, and surely these are voices of interestingly rare and exotic species. However, I can't identify them and can't get a glimpse of what's making them. An hour passes but sunlight makes hardly any progress entering the canyon. The whole canyon remains more than half asleep.
Godzilla thrusting his scaly head above the fig tree could not be more shocking than the sudden explosion of this shrill, frenzied call sounding very much like a squealing tire on a gangster's car. There's a beating of wings and then three silhouettes materialize from the fig tree's shadows and in loose formation sail across the canyon. Big birds, these, with long tails and long necks ending in little heads. They look like archaeopteryxes, those half-bird, half-reptile bird-ancestors living 150 million years ago during the late Jurassic period.
The three primeval silhouettes come to rest in another giant fig across the river. Binoculars reveal them to be the northern form of the West Mexican Chachalaca, a mostly brown, slender, turkeylike bird with a wingspread of some eighty-five centimeters (thirty-three inches).
Mexico has three Chachalaca species and all are impressive, but this northern race of the western species is the most handsome of all. Its belly and the tip of its tail are possessed of a rusty red hue that in such a gloomy canyon as this appears to radiate warm light.
When I began birding in Mexico about thirty years ago, I was sure that chachalacas would soon disappear. They were conspicuous birds and men in the countryside often were met carrying guns in the hope of running across them, for chachalacas are favorite hunting fare. However, today in most of the country chachalacas seem as common as ever. Probably that's because they do well in weedy, overgrown areas, such as abandoned cornfields. Also, they are less persnickety than most birds with regard to their food, eating a wide variety of fruit, seeds, leaves, and insects.
What a pleasure to watch these birds walking along the big fig's massive horizontal branches, breathing through their open beaks, and their heads atop those long necks pumping like a chicken's when it walks. There's something ungainly about chachalacas, something in the character of a lanky, loose-jointed teenage boy with big feet and a gigantic Adam's apple. Watching chachalacas, you just like them.
By the time the chachalacas glide into a thicket behind the big fig, sunlight has begun reaching mid-slope on the valley's opposite wall. Far above, birds can be heard heartily singing, and the binoculars can barely pick them up flying from rock to rock. However, down here, things remain calm, chilly, and clammy
With the binoculars I vacantly scan the tangled wall of trees and woody vines across the boulder-strewn floodplain. This random searching discovers two Brown-backed Solitaires, the magical singers from Bahuichivo, silently and unmovingly perched side by side, simply gazing into the valley like a couple of married folk at breakfast staring from the kitchen window. Sexes are similar in this species, but I have to believe that these are male and female.
In the canyon's continuing gloom a Spotted Sandpiper -- in winter plumage immaculately spotless -- comes gliding down the stream and lands right before me. Spotted Sandpipers are plain-looking little wading birds who bob their tails as they walk, and who are common as sin wherever water occurs nearly throughout the Americas. One reason they are so common may well be that Spotted Sandpipers are polyandrous. By that I mean that female Spotted Sandpipers entertain more than one male mate.
During the breeding season the female typically lays in succession up to four sets of eggs, of four eggs each, and she supplies each nest with a compliant male who incubates the clutch. The female may incubate the season's final clutch herself. If a male loses his clutch of eggs to a predator, the female quickly replaces it with a new set. Female Spotted Sandpipers are a quarter larger than the males, and as such defend the nesting territories while the male incubates. Females also fight each other in competition for males.
Sunlight at last penetrates into the canyon's deep-seated belly but the anticipated outburst of bird activity doesn't materialize. The early flush of bird activity glimpsed on the cliffs above has already dissipated there but birdlife on the canyon floor remains as subdued as ever.
Birds do appear here and there, but they are the expected species doing the expected things. Turkey Vultures circle high above. A Great Blue Heron alights on a boulder downstream, spots me, then leaps into the air with its wings spread 175 centimeters wide (nearly six feet). American Dippers occasionally bolt up and down the stream just as at Bahuichivo. A Black Phoebe works the river systematically, first perching conspicuously atop this rock, then that one, frequently darting out to snatch flying insects in mid air.
One species already encountered during the grassland-mesquite stop deserves special mention if only because it is so thoroughly to be expected here. Today, right on cue, it appears among thick bushes next to the river.
It's the Wilson's Warbler, a mostly yellow, slender little bird, incessantly working among streamside branches stretching over the water reaching for light. The bird darts beneath this leaf, then that one, flits a tiny distance, pokes its tiny, slender bill into miniscule angles between leaf petioles and the stems they arise from, habitually twitches its tail, flits a little farther or maybe does an aerial cartwheel to catch something too small to show through binoculars, suddenly hops onto side-branches to snap up spiders or mites, and it does most of this poking and bill-snapping so fleetingly that once it's over it's hard to say whether it happened at all. Frenetic activity is typical warbler foraging behavior, but the pace of the Wilson's Warbler is more lively than most.
Témoris lies a little north of the winter range the field guide describes for Wilson's Warblers. The winter range extends from central and southern Mexico all the way south through Central America to Panama. Therefore, probably the bird seen now is just resting during its continuing migration south. Moreover, since this is so late in the migrating season, it's a good bet it has come from the northern part of the species' summer range.
After some thirty years of birding in Mexico, my impression is that this species is probably the most ubiquitous, or at least the most frequently seen, wintering songbird of all of Mexico. This is curious to me since in the eastern US I seldom see it.
Dazzling sunlight bakes the canyon's floor through late morning and into the afternoon. In mid-afternoon the temperature reaches its maximum for the day of 29.5º C (85º F) and the wind picks up and gushes down the canyon in a hot, unremitting flow.
The remarkable thing is that this hot, too-rough wind carries with it a bounty of orange-yellow butterflies. Not Monarchs, these, but a smaller, less boldly marked species, more yellow than orange.
At first there are just a few gaily flitting above sparkling water and among hippopotamus-size boulders. As butterfly numbers increase, it becomes apparent that four out of five butterflies are heading downriver, with the rest en route the opposite direction. Most fly about waist high above the water but a few soar high, and the binoculars reveal some flying so high that the naked eye can't see them. There are thousands of them, thousands...
By four o'clock the passage of orange-yellow butterflies is general, and overwhelming. A single glance across the canyon reveals dozens at a time, and the view down the canyon is like looking into an orange and yellow dust storm. Let the eyes drift out of focus, and the butterflies become a diffuse, apricot-colored river, and I am on the river's bed, looking up through the water.
In late afternoon the canyon wall across the river darkens with its own shadow so that the still-lit butterflies flowing downstream over the river appear as thousands and thousands of bright, pulsating points of light. The mood of this strange and beautiful scene is suddenly shattered when three crow-size, long-crested, streamer-tailed, boldly blue, white, and black Black-throated Magpie Jays kite from the wall of my side of the canyon across the river to the other wall. The stately passage of these large, elegant birds above the river of yellow butterflies, all highlighted by tropical sunlight with the dark canyon wall behind them, is thrilling.
Magpie jays are related to North America's Steller's Jays and Blue Jays but, whereas Steller's Jays are only about twenty-eight centimeters long (eleven inches) and the Blue Jay a bit shorter, Black-throated Magpie Jays reach over seventy centimeters (about twenty-eight inches). About two-thirds of that length is tail.
The dark blue tail, embellished along its edges with white spots, stiffly streams behind the birds as they fly across the river. It's obvious from the birds' steady flight that the tails stabilize the flight through what must be highly unstable air.
When not flying, maybe the long tail can be problematical. I watch a jay perched on a limb inside a tree across the river try to turn in the opposite direction, but the tail catches on neighboring branches. The jay works himself along the branch to a more open spot but again it's the same thing. Later I watch a jay perching quietly on a limb minding its own business when a rogue updraft catches that tail, carries it upwards like the handle of an old water pump, and the poor jay topples over as if an invisible hand were pushing him from behind.
Why has nature equipped this species with such an impractical tail? Both males and females have them, so it's not a case like the peacock's, where the male's tail impresses the female. It's not to counteract the aerodynamic effects of the large crest, for Steller's Jays also have large crests.
After thinking about it for a while, the only conclusion I can draw is that Black-throated Magpie Jays have long tails with white spots along their edges because, having them, they are so pretty. Sometimes Mother Nature simply expresses herself with panache.
In late afternoon, the whole canyon again in deep shadows, I sit on a rock near the fig tree. Upriver, a large, dark bird appears flying low down the middle of the valley, directly toward me. The binoculars reveal a powerfully built black hawk. As the bird approaches I focus the binoculars closer and closer, until the big hawk spreads its wings and breaks its flight directly over my head. When I twist around for a better look the bird realizes that it's not alone and flies away.
The field guide carries a whole page of illustrations of "Black Birds of Prey Overhead," pinpointing subtle differences between eleven species, but I didn't see all I needed for a solid identification. With ninety percent certainty I'll say that it was a Zone-tailed Hawk, but that's not good enough for the Official List.
One reason Zone-tailed Hawk are interesting is that they mimic Turkey Vultures. They soar with them circling in the sky holding their wings in a shallow V just like vultures. Prey on the ground familiar with the vultures' innocent circling pay less attention than they should, and sometimes pay with their lives.
Here is this stop's Official List:
Early on the second morning I break camp and return up the canyon toward Estación Témoris. Again it's the time of somber shadows and from the deepest of those shadows, inside heaps of vines sprawling over bushes and rocks, there come once more the hesitant-sounding peeps, drawn-out whistles, and quickly smothered outbursts of song so peculiar to this canyon's somber hours.
Where my foot trail joins the gravel road leading upslope to Témoris the town, from a viney heap cascading over an embankment there arises a single note so sharp and piercing that at first I think it can be nothing but a person right beside me trying to catch my attention with a whistle. But there is no one. Once again, shear luck carries my gaze deep into the thicket where I spot a bird's silhouette. The binoculars reveal a Blue Mockingbird, a wholly dark-blue bird, except for the black bandit's-mask across its face, and eerie, red eyes...
This species is not know as a particularly mysterious or enigmatic one. Its general haunts are woods, brush, and second growth. Yet right now this weird single note and the silent red eye staring from within deep shadows create an unearthly mood. A chill passes over me, setting my hairs on edge. My last moments on the canyon floor perfectly balance the first ones, when the Solitary Vireo so uncannily watched me upon my arrival. It's as if a spirit of this gloomy canyon wished to tell me that it was watching me, and now tells me that I have been watched. What notions might a superstitious person come up with?
The gravel road to Témoris begins in tropical deciduous forest next to the river. Mostly there are broadleaf trees that will lose their leaves sometime during the dry season, from approximately November to May. Soon the road climbs into thorn forest composed mostly of spiny bushes and small trees, especially common among which are various species of acacia. The binoculars clearly reveal pine forest atop the canyon's walls.
The hike up the canyon wall is a pure joy. The road snakes in and out of sunlight while calls of Brown-backed Solitaires echo continually in the background. Small, noisy flocks of Gray-breasted Jays roam along the slopes like bands of teenage boys out on the town. Two species of brilliantly yellow-and-black orioles, the Black-vented and Scott's Orioles, appear on open snags, seeming like ornaments on Christmas trees. A third oriole, probably the Streak-backed, gets away.
Occasionally thickets of a weedy Mimosa appear along the road bearing spectacular heads of red flowers. These are abuzz with hummingbirds zipping about so fast that seeing their field marks is hard. I put the backpack in some shade, sit down and lean back on it, and after about twenty minutes of catching exceedingly brief glimpses of the birds I manage to determine that the hummers possess extensive areas of emerald-green, and that dark rufous-purple appears in their wings and tail. This is enough to enable an entry in the notebook: Berylline Hummingbird.
The higher I climb, the less the black flies plague me, and the cooler and drier the air becomes, ever more agreeable. Among pines at the very top it feels like Lake Arareko again. The road winds past a few widely spaced, recently built cabins, which are rough-hewed, and spattered with mud. Women spreading washed clothing to dry on shrubs have loads of kids around their feet, and are themselves gaunt and washed-out looking. The dogs here all behave as if they expect me to throw rocks at them.
Finally I round a corner and there's Témoris in a shallow valley below. It looks like any Mexican town with a population of about 1,500, and sounds that way, too. Even from a kilometer away there is a continual din of Diesel-engine noise, a sawmill's buzz, a merchant with a loudspeaker hawking bananas, papayas, and pineapples, the school bell ringing, dogs barking and roosters crowing. All this is remarkable because the binoculars show that the single gravel road leading into town from the other side is as narrow, pot-holed, and untraveled as this one. Témoris has one street paved for a short distance and on that brief paved section there's something of a traffic jam! Témoris is the best tempest in a teapot I've ever seen.
In town I'm directed to the house of Manuela Guerrera, known to fix meals for strangers. She is astonished that a man like me comes from so far away just to look at birds. It is a revelation to her and something she will be talking about, I judge from her amazement, for years to come. She says that everyone in Témoris is like everyone else, and that, typically, even people who visit Témoris are only like people already there. But, a man like me, just looking at birds...
I ask her if she knows anything about birds.
"Absolutely nothing," she replies with an exasperated shrug of the shoulders. "Except for the swallows. They come in the spring, April maybe, perch on the wires across the street and they look here and they look there and they fly around, they make nests, they raise their young, and then they fly away in the fall. They left here several weeks ago."
Manuela probably refers to Barn Swallows or Violet-green Swallows. Dozens of the latter right now line up along a wire just down the street, twittering to one another and flitting about as excitedly as if it were the middle of summer.
I ask my hostess if my plan of reaching the Pacific lowlands by taking the road on the other side of town is a good one. It's impossible, she tells me, because water is over the road now and I might get stuck for days waiting to cross the low spot. The only dependable route to the coast is by train.
Visualizing myself stranded along a flooded bank someplace inside a cloud of black flies, I decide that hiking back the way I have just come would not be unpleasant.
Not far from where the road begins descending toward the river, a narrow ridge projects a hundred meters or so from the road into the canyon, then drops precipitously. The ridge is overgrown with a single species of low-spreading, gnarled, scrubby oak. Because the ridge is so exposed to winds through the canyon, a stiff breeze streams through the oaks all the time. Since the oaks' leaves are leathery and crisp, and the twigs are hard and rigid, as the wind beats leaves and twigs together, it's noisy within the oaks. A thick carpet of dry, brittle oak leaves carpets the ground, so every step beneath the trees is accompanied by loud crunches. Here is where I camp for the night.
The wind blows all night, the noise never ceases, the moon reels above the canyon, leaves blow onto my tent and scrape as they slide down the sides, a skunk leaves its odor lingering despite the wind, and I lie suspended inside this strange universe more than once laughing into the wind and moonlight, and then laughing at my own laughing.
Awakening the next morning, an oceanic body of dry quaking, leafy rustling, woody knocking, breezy sighing, and tent flapping has insinuated itself into my soul. As if I have danced with elves all night, I am weary but fresh, and still giggling.
On a high rock with a good view into the canyon, I take position and watch as the valley awakens. Hours pass fast as I savor the simple watching of birds doing what they will. Ravens soar along the cliff's edge across the canyon. A hidden Canyon Wren someplace sings its piercing, descending, laughing-to-dry-heaves song. The glorious Brown-backed Solitaire's strain shimmers continually in the background. A House Wren claiming a shadowy heap of weeds nearby whines at my intrusion. A small flock of Gray-breasted Jays raucously drifts all over the canyon. Rufous-capped, Townsend's, and Wilson's Warblers, and a Painted Redstart, all belonging to the Wood Warbler Family, lithely forage for bugs and spiders in treetops just below me.
Nothing spectacular happens the whole morning, but each tiny event is so fascinating, so perfectly fitting, that the hours blossom into a meditation, and feel like minutes passing.
In the afternoon a barefoot fellow on a burro enters the ridgetop cornfield above the road behind me. He dismounts, stretches, gazes into the canyon awhile, spots me on my rock, removes his broad sombrero and waves at me with it. He spends half an hour wandering all over the cornfield, which has already been picked and now is straw-colored and dry, then mounts up and rides away. Sometime later, here he comes riding down the road, coming for a visit.
Gilberto Almerón Gonzalez is a handsome, bright-eyed, self-assured boy of about fourteen, and his burro's name is Mentiras, which in Spanish means "lies." Gilberto's little brother told his mother he wanted to eat squash, so Gilberto and Mentiras were sent to the cornfield to look for them. Planting squash among the corn is an ancient Indian practice, but Gilberto says his family doesn't belong to any Indian group. Animals seem to have eaten all the squashes except one about the size of a basketball, one with such a hard rind that Gilberto says he'll use a rock to break it open.
Gilberto holds my field guide to birds in the manner of someone utterly unfamiliar with how books should be held. He tries hard to be delicate with it but ends up scrunching and soiling the pages. I show him the picture of the most conspicuous bird in these parts, the Gray-breasted Jay, and he calls it Tchwee, which is an excellent approximation of the call it makes. He says the Tchwee eats his corn. Then Gilberto flips some pages, points to a pigeon and tells me that it's an águila, an eagle, and that it eats his family's goats.
Gilberto's error isn't as absurd as it seems. He's unfamiliar with how the scale of illustrations can change from page to page. Both pigeons and eagles are heavy-set, thick-necked birds, so strictly in terms of shape they are vaguely similar. More interesting is Gilberto's suggestion that eagles in this valley capture his family's goats.
I'll bet Gilberto's goat-eating eagle is the Golden. Immature Golden Eagles even show white areas on the undersides of their wings, and at the base of their tails, which approximates the patterning of some pigeons.
However, I suspect that if any eagle ever ate one of his family's goats it was a long time ago, maybe even generations. I think that right now Gilberto is introducing me to a tiny part of his family's spoken tradition. He is repeating something he has heard his father or grandfather say and in five or six years, if he still doesn't watch television, he will speak of goat-eating eagles to his child.
Here is the Official List of birds seen on the walk up to Témoris:
Late in the afternoon it's warm and shadowy at Estación Témoris as about thirty local folks and myself wait for the train to Los Mochis, on the Pacific Coast. It's hard to imagine a more congenial, pleasant crowd. Children playing, mothers gossiping, men wandering around sipping beer; an old man down in the parking lot earning beers by scratching tunes out on his fiddle. Young girls are made up as if they were models. Middle-aged railroad officials are so busy flirting with the girls that it's impossible to get any information from them, even to get their attention. It is a peaceful, summery, happy afternoon to treasure.
Then the local police arrive, about half a dozen young men in street clothes, carrying shotguns, pistols, and semi-automatic guns. Activity freezes. The police walk up and down the track talking with one another on hand-held radios and yelling dramatically, discussing clearly irrelevant matters.
After fifteen minutes the chief walks up to one of the many men with a can of beer in his hands, arrests him for drinking beer in public, has his assistant handcuff him, and lectures him abusively and dramatically about being a public disgrace by drinking beer in public. It is obviously a random arrest, for at least ten others are doing the same thing, and being ignored. Finally the police leave, the arrested man lying on his side in the back of one of their pickup trucks with his hands and feet shackled.
Later, the train into the Pacific Lowlands goes slowly into the night. I sit at the window watching the world change continually, feeling ashamed about what I have just seen.
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