Monday, May 4, 2009
Northeastern Mexico - Gómez Farías and the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve WINGS Tour
This was a really short tour – only four full birding days and two travel days – designed specially as a pre-American Birding Association Convention tour. Originally we were to spend two nights at Casa de Piedra in Gómez Farías, giving us 1 1 /2 birding days in the lower elevations. Then we would spend three nights at Rancho Del Cielo, giving us two full days at one of the most peaceful retreats I have ever been to. To make a long story short, just a week and a half before the tour, I found out that Texas Southmost College issued a (stupid, not well-thought-out) travel ban on all students and faculty to Mexico, which prevented us from getting to Rancho del Cielo, since they are the ones who take us up there, open it up, and provide bedding, drink and food. So as a backup plan, we spent all five nights in the town of Gómez Farías. This ended up being rather fortuitous, as it allowed us to see more of the lowland birds as well as travel a bit farther afield to the diverse Ocampo-Tula road.
I should also mention something about the issues that have people worried about travel in Mexico. It's largely hype and not news. There is no upswing in violence away from certain border cities, and that violence is reflected on the U.S. side of the border as well (such as in Phoenix). If you are away from the nasty cities of Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, almost any place in Mexico is at least as safe as any American city. Furthermore, there was no danger of swine flu anywhere I was in Mexico – there were more cases and more ease of transmission in Tucson schools. I can't say "enough said," as there simply cannot be enough said that will go beyond the reach of American mass media. But I can try.
Our first full day began as promised – a long drive down through the agricultural and scrub flats of northern Tamaulipas with the occasional Crested Caracara and White-tailed Hawk. Sprinkled in were the occasional migrant Mississippi Kite and Chimney Swift, while a pair of Northern Bobwhites and a Harris’s Hawk were slightly less expected. The first sign that things might be changing was a Roadside Hawk several miles north of Ciudad Victoria, after about a 3 hour drive. But then things were really different when we arrived at the Cañon de Novillo, where one can normally get at least a slight taste of the tropics. We were, after all, still 25 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer. But that didn’t seem to matter as one tropical species after another grabbed our attention. Recalling Texas were Green and Brown Jays, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Olive Sparrow, and Audubon’s Oriole. And other species known as vagrants in Texas were also here, such as Elegant Trogon, Rose-throated Becard, Yellow-green Vireo, Fan-tailed, Golden-crowned, and Rufous-capped Warblers, Crimson-collared Grosbeak and Blue Bunting. But what amazing confusion when we saw Squirrel Cuckoo, Blue-crowned Motmot, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Spot-breasted Wren and Melodious Blackbird! And most astonishing of all was a pair of Great Curassows, only recently noted in this region, where thought to be once extirpated. There were a few migrants of note as well, such as Black-headed Grosbeak, Swainson’s Thrush, and Acadian Flycatcher.
The view in Cañon El Novillo.
We had to tear ourselves away from here, driving only another hour or so to the south before a short stop resulted in our best views of the regional endemic, Green Parakeet, as well as a White-crowned Parrot and our only Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Upon arrival at our hotel in Gómez Farías, we couldn’t wait to start birding. Thicket Tinamous were calling from the woodlands in all directions (but not to be seen yet), while Masked Tityra, Social Flycatcher, Red-billed Pigeon (on a nest), and Yellow-winged Tanagers were right over our hotel grounds. We headed down the road and we found yet another new tropical bird, Black-headed Saltator before having to call it a day.
On our first full morning in the Gómez Farías area didn’t take us far from town, but we didn’t have to go far to have amazing birding. A Blue-crowned Motmot started the day before sunrise as we watched it from the balcony of our hotel. The entire blue crown was visible at such close range. Just up the road we were tantalized by the echoing Thicket Tinamous and a distant Singing Quail, but we eventually had to move on to avoid the construction noise. We learned the visual and vocal differences between Streaked and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and over the next few days got repeated views of both species. We also saw all of the other “stripe-headed” tyrants – Social, Boat-billed, and Great Kiskadee. Wedge-tailed Sabrewings were usually furtive in the understory but came out agressively to imitations of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. And said imitations almost always resulted in a real Ferruginous Pymgy-Owl appearing – we saw or heard about 20 in our four and a half days. Other highlights on the road towards Alta Cima were a soaring Short-tailed Hawk, flocks of White-crowned Parrots, our first of many views of Spot-breasted Wrens, singing Brown-backed Solitaires (usually higher in the mountains), Yellow-throated Euphonias (which ended up being at almost every birding stop) and a pair of Hooded Grosbeaks, also lower in elevation than usual in the spring. We also had some northbound migrants, the more uncommon ones being Acadian Flycatcher, Western Tanager, Lincoln’s Sparrow (strange to see in the deep forest), and MacGillivray’s Warbler.
One of the big surprises was the near completion of an "Ecological Interpretive Center" at the junction of the Rancho del Cielo Road. It looks like way too much – too big, too expensive. A little kiosk and a parking area would have gone a long way. Now they'll have to find money to maintain and staff it. A disappointing amount of habitat had to be leveled to create this place. And the construction noise while we were there was unbearable. Oh well.
This orchid, Cyrtopodium macrobulbon, was growing along the roadside above the visitor center. Thanks to Brad Boyle and Gerardo Salazar for the names of the orchids.
A closeup of the same orchid.
Muted Hairstreak, Electrostrymon joya, not far from the orchid. Butterflies were not nearly as abundant as in October, but diversity was still good. Without trying I saw 50 species; a concerted effort should have produced some 250-300.
In the afternoon we headed to the lowlands in search for Tamaulipas Crows, finally discovering a notable nesting group in an old railroad bridge in the town of El Limón. But whiled driving the back roads nearby we hads some successful encounters, including great views of Altamira Yellowthroat as well as a male Rose-throated Becard, Hooded Orioles and White-collared Seedeaters. We also netted Ringed, Amazon and Green Kingfishers, and finally coincided with the long-resident pair of Bat Falcons below Gómez.
A highlight in the early evening was the boat trip down the Rio Frio at Bocatoma with single Boat-billed Heron and Sungrebe, both at the northernmost edge of their ranges. We also had our first Muscovy Duck and “Bronze-winged” Golden-olive Woodpecker here.
Views of the Frio River where we saw Sungrebe.
We finished off the day after dinner with a successful search for Mottled Owl which silently flew in to iPod and perched in the open on a power pole.
To make up somewhat for our not being able to get to Rancho del Cielo, we were given special access to the Gorgas Science Foundation property in the the lowlands called El Cielito. A misunderstanding of the directions was fortuitous, as it led to our having scope views of the only Red-crowned Parrots of the trip, perched on top of the Montezuma Bald-cypress over the Rio Sabinas. Once we found our way, the birding at Cielito was great. We started with several Red-lored Parrots, a Green-breasted Mango, and several Masked Tityras. The forest understory trails were our best chance for actually seeing one of the many Thicket Tinamous we had been hearing, and sure enough, one started calling close enough that we backtracked on the trail and had great views of it crossing the trail. Visually, it was as underwhelming as tinamous tend to be, but curiosity was satisfied for those whom this was a new family. Elegant Trogons were especially common here, and we saw both of the large woodpeckers (Pale-billed and Lineated), Smoky-brown Woodpecker, many of the locally breeding and resident Vaux’s Swifts, understory flocks with pairs of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, and our only Gray-collared Becard of the tour. We came across a swarm of Eciton burchelli army ants covering the forest floor with a number of larger birds taking advantage of the arthropods being flushed from their hiding places. Sticking tight to the swarm was a Great Kiskadee, not normally in the forest understory, while an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, several Brown and Green Jays, a Squirrel Cuckoo and more Red-throated Ant-Tanagers took advantage of the easy pickings. Other additions here were a heard-only Collared Forest-Falcon and great views of a male Yellow-faced Grassquit on the entrance road.
A view of the Sabinas River at El Cielito.
I surprised myself by finding this roosting Lesser Nighthawk.
The orchid Encyclia parviflora at El Cielito.
We spent the late afternoon on a higher stretch of the road to Alta Cima, where a flyover of 3 Military Macaws was a great surprise. We found a pair of Rufous-browed Peppershrikes building a nest right over the road, finally got views of secretive White-throated Thrushes and added White-winged and Flame-colored Tanagers among mixed flocks of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Audubon’s Orioles. Crested Guans came out of hiding to feed in fruiting trees only towards the very end of the day.
We spent one entire day on the Ocampo-Tula road, which led us to a great mix of habitats at higher elevation, changing abruptly from wet forest to open oak, to a juniper scrub with giant yuccas. In each area the birds were strikingly different. Getting there very early was a good idea, as White-tipped Doves were wanding out in the open all over the place, including in the middle of the paved road where later many trucks would barrel around the curves. Many Blue Mockingbirds sang from hidden perches, but we eventually had great views of one. Trolling brought out a pair of comical Spotted Wrens, and purposeful whistling resulted in an amazingly close encounter with a Tamaulipas Pygmy-Owl, which was mobbed by Buff-bellied and White-eared Hummingbirds and a Rufous-browed Peppershrike that puffed up to a size that equalled the owl. Most of the other birds we lucked into, such as several Mountain Trogons, both Black-headed and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, numbers of Crescent-chested Warblers, Gray Silky-flycatchers (building a nest, a rather dense cup in an oak), Azure-crowned and Bumblebee Hummingbirds (in a gorgeous understory of pink locust flowers), a pair of Singing Quail, Greater Pewee, Acorn Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, Olivaceous and Spot-crowned Woodcreepers (completing our woodcreeper list), Long-billed Thrasher, Rufous-capped Brush-Finch, Elegant Euphonia (building a nest), and both Flame-colored and Hepatic Tanagers. A Hermit Thrush was an unexpected rarity (late for a winter bird), and dipping into the drier side of the mountains surprised us with White-eyed Vireos and a very curious Bewick’s Wren. Towards the end of the day we were treated to another flyover of Military Macaws, added Brown-crested Flycatcher in a quick roadside stop in the blazing afternoon heat, and found a Black Phoebe, very scarce in this part of the world.
In the understory of the drier oak forest on the rainshadowed part of the Ocampo-Tula road were masses of this pink-flowering shrub, probably a locust in the genus Robinia.
A 1 1/2-inch wasp in the family Scoliidae (thanks to Eric Eaton) feeding in the flowers of a Mala-mujer, Cnidoscolus species.
This epiphtyic orchid, Prosthechea cochleata, was growing in the forest on the wetter side of the Ocampo-Tula road.
Dropping down the west side of the range resulted in a very abrupt change in habitat. Here we had White-eyed Vireo and Bewick's Wren, two species completely absent just a few miles to the east.
Our final day presented a challenge, as our earlier success meant that the remaning possible new birds were few and far between. So we tried some target-birding, spending time in some habitats where we hadn’t done much birding yet. The early morning heavy clouds and light showers close to the mountains (a fine example of how the mountains here so drastically effect the climate on a local scale) probably affected migrants that would have passed through unnoticed, such as a Dickcissel, Baltimore Oriole and a Northern Waterthrush close to town. A pair of Grayish Saltators finally showed before we moved on to areas below town. A random stop along the road where there was some activity resulted in a singing Crimson-collared Grosbeak, another pair of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, and a real prize, a pair of White-bellied Wrens. Dropping down through the agricultural area and forest edge near Ojo de Agua, we scored with our targets of Barred Antshrike and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, netting our first White-tailed Kite, more Yellow-faced Grassquits, a bevy of Northern Bobwhites, some Least Grebes on the river, Common Ground-Dove and a dark morph Short-tailed Hawk. At La Florida we finally caught up with Olive-throated Parakeet and Scrub Euphonia before another delicious fish lunch at Bocatoma. The afternoon wasn’t as productive, but we did find Blue-gray Tanagers behind the Hotel Mante and then discovered where Northern Mockingbirds and Northern Bobwhite are most common in the Ciudad Mante area. A Greater Roadrunner and seemingly way out-of-place White-sided Jackrabbits were final additions.
White-crescent Mottled-Skipper, Codatractus alcaeus, near Ojo de Agua.
A Five-striped Leaftail (Phyllogomphoides albrighti) near Ojo de Agua. Thanks to Bob Behrstock for the name.
The last day’s drive back to the U.S. was far from birdless, with fourty-four species seen on the fly, including a small group of Varied Buntings flushed from the roadside that we had to drive back for. A Loggerhead Shrike also prompted a quick retreat for a confirmation, becoming our 206th species on this venture into the fascinating American tropics.