Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Northeastern Mexico Butterflies & Birds: Rancho del Cielo

I recently returned from leading two tours for WINGS, Northeastern Mexico Butterflies and Birds, and Costa Rica in November.

This was my fifteenth tour to Costa Rica and there were a few minor highlights, but more on that in another blog. Time to catchup on NE Mexico here. It was a fine tour overall, at least from the participants' perspective, the highlight being, as usual for this tour, the opportunity to stay a few days in the northernmost tropical cloud forest at Rancho del Cielo. From my perspective it was one of the more stressful tours I've ever led, as on day 2 our rental van's transmission went out.

Jim Brock and I have led several "butterflies & birds" tours for WINGS to areas such SE Arizona, Rondônia (Brazil), Costa Rica and Northeastern Mexico. The last time we toured the latter location was October 2002. Jim has actually been returning to Tamaulipas and other states in NE Mexico almost every year since, but this was my first time in five years.

It's a quick tour and straightforward itinerary, timed for the peak of butterfly diversity and abundance, which is world-class. On October 24, Jim and I flew to Brownsville, Texas were we rented the van. After meeting the group (only four participants this year) and spending the first night in Brownsville, we took a full day to drive south, making a few stops along the way (including at the border to get tourist permits and a temporary vehicle importation permit) and spent the next three nights in the town of Ciudad Mante. Ciudad Mante, only about 240 air miles SSW of Brownsville and on a similar latitude as Mazatlán, is a typical small, tropical city, an agricultural hub for processing sugarcane. Using the nicest hotel as our base (and it is quite nice), we spent the next two and a half days butterflying and birding as day trips in the river valleys to the north and foothills to the west. Then after lunch on the third day, we drove to the town of Gómez Farías and met up with representatives from Texas Southmost College and the Gorgas Science Foundation who took us up the mountain, several miles up steep, rugged limestone tracks in specially equipped 4 x 4 trucks, into the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve to an extraordinary place, Rancho del Cielo for the next three nights.

I want this blog to be mostly about Rancho del Cielo, as I can't wax poetic enough about how special this place is. But I will first recap the first few days of the tour and then write a very few lines about the van troubles we had.

We were still unsure about whether one could cross back into Texas and turn in the temporary vehicle permit at a crossing different than the one we entered. We wanted to avoid returning at any of the four Brownsville-Matamoros crossings, so on the first morning we drove west into the agricultural communities of the lower Rio Grande valley to the next international crossing, called Los Indios. We got there at 8:00 a.m. to find out that none of the offices were open to get our permits until 9:00. To kill time, we looked for birds around the parking lot, then drove a couple miles south into Mexico to find a side road hoping for some open country birds and migrants. After seeing a few things and our official first butterflies of the tour, we arrived back at border at 9:00, filled out the forms for tourist permits, then I went through the rigamarole to get the vehicle importation permit. When it's all done at about 9:30, I walk out of the building to find the whole group assembled around a hedge in front of the parked van and Jim with his camera out.

It turns out that Jim has found a Double-dotted Skipper. Appearance-wise, this isn't a fabulous bug, rather it's a typical grass-skipper – small, brown with some spots, and a fast flier. But it does have field marks (notice the two small spots in the middle of the hind wing), and it's very rare and local, being known in the United States from a few scattered reports in the Sabal Palm Sanctuary on the border a few miles southeast of Brownsville. But here we were some 30 miles west of Brownsville and only a couple hundred yards south of the river. Jim may have seen this species or a similar look-alike in southern Mexico a few years ago, so this is a really good find for this location. It turns out to be one of the rarest butterflies on the entire tour.

This first day's drive south went pretty quickly, and we made it to Cañon del Novillo just outside of Ciudad Victoria, a canyon well known for its butterflies, at about 2:00 in the afternoon. We were blown away by the butterflies here, ending up spending two hours and not getting any farther than 25 yards from the van. When we were done (actually, we had to drag ourselves away, because we still had a nearly two-hour drive ahead of us), we had seen about 110 species of butterflies and skippers, including 16 species of hairstreaks, 15 on one bush alone.

A few of the ones I managed to photograph here were a Narrow-banded Dartwhite

this Nitetis Hairstreak, a real rarity that wasn't identified until we talked to some experts back at home

and this adorable Schaus's Hairstreak, also little known and seldom seen.

On the next day, our first day out of Ciudad Mante we had had a good day, first stopping in a town along the main highway for Tamaulipas Crows,

then on the road towards Ocampo seeing Double-striped Thick-knees next to the road, one in the same field as a Greater Roadrunner (a very interesting comparison of size and shape, considering that one is a cuckoo and one is a shorebird) and some very fancy butterflies such as this Regal Hairstreak.

It was on the way back to Ciudad Mante that the transmission started acting odd. Backing out of a driveway, I had the odd impression that I was trying to back over a huge boulder or something, only there was nothing there. The van would lurch, go a couple feet, then lurch some more, and then finally wouldn't go back at all. Luckily I was at a point in the driveway that I could go forward to get out. But once moving, it was clear that not all was right with that part of the transmission either. It would rev loudly in first gear until we were going some 15 miles per hour, then it would make some loud clanking and grinding sounds and pop into second gear; beyond that the upper gears worked ok. This would repeat each time we had to slow down for a speed bump. Finally, we made it back to the hotel, at which point I had to assess the situation and figure out what our options were. First, we needed transportation for the next day and half. (After that, the plan was to leave the van parked for the two and a half days while we were up at Rancho del Cielo.) Then I had to figure out what to do with the van – where to have it towed to, essentially. And finally, I needed to figure out transportation back to Brownsville. Over the next day and a half I made what seemed like endless phone calls to transportation companies, the Mexican insurance company that we had a policy with, Enterprise Rent-a-car in Brownsville, and with Kris in the WINGS office. Complicating things was that this happened on a Friday afternoon and that while we were up at Rancho del Cielo starting Sunday afternoon we would be without any phone contact for nearly three days.

To make a very long story short, Enterprise was utterly useless and in the end did NOTHING for us, which still makes me mad. I ended up hiring two taxis for our butterflying and birding the next day and a half (a third taxi for the luggage on the second day). And upon returning from our stay at Rancho del Cielo (during which time the van sat in the Hotel Mante parking lot), I had to buy bus tickets from Ciudad Mante to Matamoros for Jim and the participants. Meanwhile, I rode with the tow truck driver and had to pay him an extra $300 to have the van towed to the border (the insurance company only paid for half). Once in Matamoros, I drove the limping van across the border and on to our hotel, while Jim and the group had to take taxis from the main bus terminal to the border, walk their bags across, wait in a line of trick-or-treaters at immigration for 45 minutes, and then call Enterprise. Oh, yes, they DID do something after all – they provided Jim and the group a 10-minute ride to our Brownsville hotel. Amazingly, we all arrived at the hotel at exactly the same time, 8.5 hours after we had departed in Ciudad Mante. In all, I had over $800 in extra expenses, which Enterprise should be reimbursing. That's the short story.

Back to Rancho del Cielo. Through some cosmic historical events, the Gorgas Science Foundation owns an inholding consisting of several wood and stone cabins in the middle of the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve. The way Mexican law currently works, apparently this would not normally be possible for a U.S.-based nonprofit organization or university. Through Texas Southmost College, GSF offers its facilities to students for special courses and biological research. And once in a while they open up their facilities for a very few groups like ours as a way of raising funds for their educational projects. During much of the year, the Rancho is closed up and shut down (though there is a local full-time resident who oversees the property). In preparation for a group, a team of volunteers from Texas must come down, open up the buildings, get the beds all ready, turn the gas on (all but one of the buildings is lighted by a piped system of butane lanterns), and get the kitchen ready for cooking meals. All the food must be brought in from Texas. The organizer for all this is Larry Lof, who was once a student at Texas Southmost College and has been coming here for decades. For our small group, he rounded up a crew of just two additional volunteers to help him staff the Rancho: Marty, who hung out at Rancho some 40 years ago when he was a kid while his father was president of TSC; and Sandesh Kadur a recent alumnus of TSC who just happened to be back in Brownsville for a short time while we had scheduled our stay at Rancho del Cielo. Sandesh is a biologist and naturalist, now a professional photographer and filmmaker. He has recently written and illustrated a magnificent book (co-written with Kamal Bawa) and filmed a fabulous documentary on India's Western Ghats. The book is called Sahyadris: India's Western Ghats - A Vanishing Heritage, and the documentary is similarly called Sahyadris: Mountains of the Monsoon. We were able to browse a copy of the book they had at Rancho, while Sandesh gave me a DVD of the film. After seeing it, I definitely want to go. Sandesh also maintains a blog here, see the link to the right.

The El Cielo Biosphere reserve is a large area with an amazingly diverse and complex flora unlike any place on Earth. Rancho del Cielo is located in an area of the reserve called the Sierra de Guatemala, a limestone hill that sits high enough facing the Gulf of Mexico to create its own weather. The mix of plants here is probably similar to what covered large areas of this part of the word in eons past but is now restricted to this tiny area. Think of it as something of a cross between the Great Smoky Mountains and the cloud forests of the Sierra de Juárez in Oaxaca: Sweetgum, Sugar Maple, Hickory and Southern Magnolia growing alongside Podocarpus, palms, tropical oaks and bamboo. Staying here is a very special treat and I look forward to returning when we offer this tour again in 2009.

Scenes from Rancho del Cielo, 2002:

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