Notes from a birding trip through Mexico by Jim Conrad
For at least the 20th time in my life now I take a series of buses across the Gulf lowlands to the ancient Maya ruin of Palenque in the northeast corner of Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas. On my very first trip into Mexico, when I hitchhiked through the entire country back around 1968, I came here riding in the back of a pickup truck, for at that time no bus service was available and the ruin was not well known. Back then the landscape here struck me as "deep jungle." At the ruin I rented a kerosene lantern and all by myself descend into the Temple of Inscriptions, and for as long as I wanted viewed the famous stone sarcophagus lid with its fantastic, otherworldly carvings and hieroglyphics. Now the ruin's stairway is electrically lit and I'm told you don't get more than a few seconds of viewing.
I like Palenque because there are cheap camping sites near the ruins and the ruins themselves lie next to bird-filled tropical evergreen forest about as good as you can find in Mexico.
After buying several days of food and cartons of milk in the town of
Palenque, I take a microbus toward the ruins and get off at my usual campground, Maya
Bell, which during most of my visiting years has been about as laid-back and mellow a
place as you can find anywhere, always with a few guitar-strumming hippies from the north
less interested in the ruins than the hallucinogenic "magic mushrooms," genus Psilocibe,
growing so commonly in the pastures across the road. Today as I walk in, probably
beginning my last stay here in my life, my feeling of nostalgia is profound, and I'm
saddened to see how the place has "cleaned up," with fewer hippies now, and more
white-haired gringos in air-conditioned campers. Still, good tropical evergreen
forest stands nearby, and the cost for a tent site isn't high.
Not long before sunset, as soon as I get my tent pegged beneath a huge Strangler Fig tree at the campground edge, right next to the forest, I sit down on one of the fig's rambling roots and look around. Some American Redstarts seem immune to the late afternoon heat as they nervously forage through the lower forest canopy gleaning leaves and stems with their small, slender beaks. From inside a dense heap of vines and bushes comes the familiar wahhh call of the Gray Catbird. Hopping along the rusty barbwire fence between the campground and the forest, right above a line of leafcutter ants, is a Magnolia Warbler. The vegetation is unmistakably tropical, but these first birds are all "old friends from home."
While the great bus-brought masses stream into and out of the Temple of Inscriptions' front entrance, it's possible to sit on the pyramid's back side in fair solitude, gazing at ease into the extremely lush, dense forest just behind the temple. Since the cutting of trees is not allowed around the ruins, the vegetation here is about as mature as you can find in these parts. Also, a little footpath leads back behind the Temple, up the hill and along a valley, to an Indian village on the hill's other side. This footpath is wonderful for birding. Here are the species noted on the day I visit the ruins:
All the species seen are either familiar migrants from North America, or birds not found at all north of the US/Mexico border.
In the middle of the morning, very hot, getting tired, on a steep slope inside dense vegetation, about to give up birding for the day, I lean against a tree, raise my head, and see exactly what I sketch above. In a sunbeam, a Northern Royal-flycatcher spreads its crest, fans its tail and opens its wings, causing an explosion of living light, a transcendent moment.
In a split second, the crest disappears, the wings and tail jerk into their usual configuration, and in the next second the bird is gone.
If I were a Maya shaman in another time and age, what kind of sign might this be?
I have never experienced such an exquisite instant of being with a bird.
This is supposed to be the beginning of the dry season here but the day after my ruin visit heavy rains come and go all day and all the following night. It's a warm rain but everything I have gets wet or at least moist, and already mildew is setting in.
Between downpours I walk around seeing what I can see. The American Redstarts continue being particularly active and easy to see.
Down next to the office red-flowered hibiscuses and cannas are in full blossom and how pretty to see these gaudy flowers visited by the green-backed Long-tailed Hermit hummingbirds, with their two very elongated, white, central tail feathers and very long-curved bills. Despite these birds' being much larger than any hummer we have in North America, and shaped much different, this is a common species in lowland forests and humid second growth from southern Mexico to the Amazon drainage.
Down among the gringo RVs, brownish Clay-colored Robins hop about on the mowed grass just like American Robins farther north. But the day's prettiest bird is surely the Masked Tanager, slinking through the dense, wet herbage at the campground's edge, almost invisible among the shadows, its body mostly black, but with a sky-blue rump and wing patch, and a "hood" over its head of a rich golden hue. With its Rembrandt colors it seems to have been designed to harmonize with the luxuriant forest-edge wet-glossiness it sticks to. It's found from here into South America.
On a massive Strangler-fig limb I watch a male and female Yellow-throated Euphonia, also members of the Tanager Family. The male orbits the female moving its body on its legs exactly as might a teenage boy exhibiting how to thrust the pelvis back and forth during sex, but in an exaggerated, humorous-looking manner.
With the rains making the forest hard to get through and with my shoes falling apart anyway, the road between town and the ruin is a fair place to bird from, and even here you see amazing things.
I hear a quick weezit, look to my right and there's a little thick-billed bird so dark blue that it might as well be black, the Blue-black Grassquit. The crazy thing is that this bird is perching on a barbed-wire fence and each time it makes its weezit call it jumps into the air a good foot and a half, then instantly returns to its former spot. It does this every five to ten seconds so it's an amazing display.
Moreover, to me it sounds as if this bird's voice is ventriloquial -- as if the song originates a couple of feet behind the bird. However, my books say nothing about this, so maybe I'm just having hearing problems. Maybe the rains are stopping up an ear.
A car crashes into a dragonfly, leaving the shattered insect on the road. A stocky, yellow-bellied, dark-rusty-backed flycatcher, a Great Kiskadee, shoots from the roadside thicket, snatches up the meal, returns to a shadowy perch and eats.
Through the binoculars I admire the bird's colors and fine features. It's a very common bird, a "weed bird" distributed in disturbed sites from southern Texas to Argentina. Hearing another car coming, the kiskadee's body language shows that the bird is paying attention. He holds his head so that his right eye faces the road. The car passes, no insect is left on the road, and the kiskadee "loosens up," changes position, looks around -- until the next car, and then the same routine is repeated, with his right eye fixed hard on the road.
After three cars pass he very vigorously, almost brusquely, wipes his bill and looks around. Anyone not ashamed of interpreting bird behavior anthropomorphically would say that this bird is frustrated because not every car leaves behind a shattered dragonfly.
Some days the rain comes so hard that even walking along the road is pointless. Many of the campers, including myself, are so wet and mildewed that the experience is losing its charm. To distract himself from the mess, one day Miguel Antillón Carreón from the Mexican state of Jalisco drops by my sagging tent for a chat. He's noticed that I'm watching birds and he has a bird story.
One day between Jalapa and Presa Teotitlán he was visiting a campesino, a farmer, and saw a Greater Roadrunner eating with the chickens, and behaving in every way like a chicken. The campesino explained that he had stumbled upon a roadrunner's nest, stolen an egg, put it in the nest of a brooding hen, and now the roadrunner thought it was a chicken. Miguel says that he always looked for that roadrunner when he passed by that place, and that it stayed there for eight months, then disappeared.
At Témoris we saw that the Black-throated Magpie-jay's long tail sometimes gave it problems when the wind was stiff. The Squirrel Cuckoo, a large, rusty-red bird common in a variety of habitats from northern Mexico to Argentina, also has a substantial tail, not as long as the Magpie-jay's, but thicker, and pretty long as well. One day I see one example of how the 18-inch-long (46 cm) cuckoo deals with its ample tail.
The bird perches at the very top of a medium-size, compact tree. The tree's topmost branches form a fairly regular surface and the cuckoo simply rests its tail flat upon that surface as he looks around.
On the US's Thanksgiving Day, the rain holds off long enough for me to walk along the road between town and the ruins, making the following list:
Noteworthy is the real abundance of Wilson's Warblers, with American Redstarts and Magnolia Warblers being very common as well. Even when it's raining these species busily forage among the bushes and trees. What a treat to see the redstart so busy de-bugging a big, deeply palmately lobed cecropia leaf, a kind of leaf very unlike anything the bird sees during the nesting phase of its life up North.
One of the most spectacular birds in the list is also one of the most "jungly sounding" ones, a fairly large bird (the male being about 20 inches long -- 50 cm), the Montezuma Oropendola shown at the right. My Peterson field guide describes its bubbly, haunting song as being "like water pouring out of a bottle: 5-7 liquid glub's or gloob's, getting higher and faster." The one in my drawing is hanging on its nest, so you might guess that oropendolas are closely related to orioles who build similar pendulous nests. Sometimes you see large, isolated trees in pastures in which several such large nests are hanging, and it's quite a sight. Despite the bird being so spectacular, it's somewhat commonly encountered.
One Magnolia Warbler becomes famous in the campground for attacking its reflection again and again in the side mirror of a pickup truck from Maryland. This goes on the whole morning except for a five-minute period when a Great Kiskadee comes driving the warbler away so he can attack his own image in the same mirror. Several mirrors are available in this campground so one wonders what is so special about this one.
Species in the above lists thrill me the way looking into a big bag of multicolored jellybeans might thrill a small kid. Up north you get so accustomed to seeing the same species again and again, and then here, there are amazing things everywhere, every day.
The Bananaquit is just one of them, a denizen of humid forest borders, plantations, clearings, towns and parks from southeast Mexico down to Paraguay and Argentina. It almost like a hybrid between a wren and warbler, but of course it isn't. It's its own thing. What a pleasure to see this.
And the rains just come and come, the mildew consumes all, and I have to get out of here much sooner than I wanted.
Go to Stop 15
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