By Nicholas Block
Three other college students and I recently made a 10-day road trip to northeastern México, concentrating on the El Naranjo/Gómez Farías and Tlanchinol regions. We hoped to see all the northeastern endemics and as many other Mexican specialties as possible. We missed one endemic, unfortunately, most likely due to the fact we spent little time in the best habitat for it. However, the trip was very successful overall, logging 262 total species without any coastal birding at all and little lowland or wetland birding. One of the participants had visited México previously and the three others had visited Costa Rica, but everyone found many lifers. Except at Tlanchinol, we camped wherever there was a decent patch of ground slightly off the road and were never hassled for it. In Tlanchinol, we stayed at the Hotel Victoria, which worked out nicely at only 110 pesos per night for 2 queen beds. The restaurant at the hotel was excellent as well. Four main dishes and a couple drinks for each of us totaled less than 150 pesos. The following report is a fairly brief account of each day's highlights.
Michael Andersen, Baldwin, NY, Freshman at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO
Nicholas Block, Seabrook, TX, Sophomore at Rice University, Houston, TX
Chris Merkord, Austin, TX, Junior at Texas A&M University, College Station, TX
Michael Retter, Colfax, IL, Junior at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, IL
January 4, 2001 - Matamoros to Gómez Farías
In the late morning, we crossed the border at Matamoros after an unsuccessful search for the Blue Bunting at Bentsen-Río Grande State Park. We were a little confused at where to pay the tourist fee (180 pesos) but eventually figured it out (at the Soriana just down the street, not at the crossing itself). And with little fanfare, we were finally on Highway 180/101 heading south into México. México! Although we knew it might be the most boring lifer of the trip in terms of showiness, we still couldn't wait to see our first Tamaulipas Crows. However, as the miles dragged on, we in the back seat became a bit more concerned with our cramping muscles than birds. Just north of the Tropic of Cancer, we finally saw our first truly Mexican birds - a flock of about 10 Brown Jays in the top of a roadside tree. We finally stopped for gas on Highway 85 somewhere south of Ciudad Victoria and not too far north of the road to Gómez Farías. In the very welcome short break, we were able to watch a small flock of TAMAULIPAS CROWS associating with some GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES around the gas station. We were disappointed when they didn't vocalize before flying off, but we later got a kick out of listening to a small flock calling further south. We also watched a pair of SOCIAL FLYCATCHERS and a calling COUCH'S KINGBIRD. We then proceeded on to Gómez Farías and saw what became the only PAURAQUE of the trip at dusk on the road up to the town.
Night - roadside camping below Gómez Farías
January 5, 2001 - Gómez Farías to El Salto
Not knowing exactly when dawn chorus would happen at this latitude, we woke up well before much light had begun to filter through the clouds. Lying in our sleeping bags waiting for the temperature to rise a little (and hoping for owls), we couldn't wait to begin our first full day of real birding. Once it was light enough to really bird, we started down a trail downhill right off our campsite. The dense vegetation and early light yielded few birds, but we did find a decent flock of wintering species and got great looks at our first GOLDEN-CROWNED WARBLER. Back out on the road with a little more light, we birded a more open area and found a few more cool new species. First was a flock of about 15 YELLOW-WINGED TANAGERS foraging at the top of a Ficus tree. A male/female pair of CRIMSON-COLLARED GROSBEAKS provided frustratingly short views, but a beautiful male BRONZE-WINGED [GOLDEN-OLIVE] WOODPECKER was very cooperative for us. This location also held our first male ELEGANT TROGON. From here, we worked our way down the road making stops at decent-looking tracks into the forest. One particular stop just walking the road yielded a great flock of several tropical species, including RED-THROATED ANT-TANAGER, a beautiful male ROSE-THROATED BECARD, MASKED TITYRA, BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD, ALTAMIRA ORIOLES, SQUIRREL CUCKOO, and a male FLAME-COLORED TANAGER. Psittaciformes seen along the road were flyover YELLOW-HEADED PARROTS, GREEN PARAKEETS, and a pair of perched AZTEC [OLIVE-THROATED] PARAKEETS. Other species of note seen along the road down to Highway 85 included a pair of SHORT-TAILED HAWKS, YELLOW-THROATED EUPHONIA, BLACK-HEADED SALTATOR, BOAT-BILLED FLYCATCHER, BLUE MOCKINGBIRD, ROADSIDE HAWK, MELODIOUS BLACKBIRD, AUDUBON'S ORIOLE, and a female BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUIT.
The next stop was the Río Sabinas crossing on Highway 85 just north of the road to Gómez Farías. We couldn't find the Sungrebe we had hoped for, but the trees along the river provided great birding. Wintering US breeders were found in large mixed-species flocks alongside several distinctly tropical species, such as BLUE-CROWNED MOTMOT, LINEATED WOODPECKER, and IVORY-BILLED WOODCREEPER. We also added our first female ELEGANT TROGON and ROSE-THROATED BECARD, and a COMMON BLACK-HAWK. From here, we started the drive south to El Salto.
Highway 80 east of El Salto (and still in Tamaulipas) yielded a pair of soaring APLOMADO FALCONS. Shortly after crossing into San Luis Potosí, a stop along the road at a small pond produced our first LEAST GREBE and a slope full of INDIGO BUNTINGS. We stopped at the small marsh on the corner of the road to El Salto off Highway 80 mentioned in Howell's Bird-Finding Guide in hopes of finding Altamira Yellowthroat - lots of COMMON YELLOWTHROATS but no Altamiras were seen. New species at this location included SOLITARY and SPOTTED SANDPIPERS, COMMON SNIPE, WOOD STORK, NEOTROPIC CORMORANT, BALTIMORE ORIOLE, and a handful of waterfowl species. A little further north along this road, there are two more ponds on the west side. These ponds and the fields around them harbored some notable species. Several LEAST SANDPIPERS, a couple DOWITCHER species, and some BLACK-NECKED STILTS were present, but the most notable shorebird was an apparent BAIRD'S SANDPIPER. This species should have been in South America, but there it was. Details will be submitted to the proper authorities. Perhaps the best part of this stop was seeing AMAZON, BELTED, and RINGED KINGFISHERS all in the same field of view. Very cool. Other new species here included YELLOW WARBLER, VERMILION FLYCATCHER, NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW, SAVANNAH SPARROW, and EASTERN MEADOWLARK. We arrived at El Salto with a little light left. Three flyover MUSCOVY DUCKS proved to be the only ones seen on the trip, and a BLACK PHOEBE was seen along the river/pools. At dusk, at least three FERRUGINOUS PYGMY-OWLS were heard calling around camp, but none were ever seen well.
Night - camping at El Salto
January 6, 2001 - El Naranjo Area
Dawn found us along Highway 80 west of El Naranjo between Chupaderos and Las Abritas. The chorus was a bit disappointing because the location was shadowed by a hill to the east for most of the morning, and so sunlight never hit the spot until after any full dawn chorus would have been finished. However, we still found good birding and many new species. Before dawn, at least three MOTTLED OWLS were heard calling from the road. New species seen along the track included THICKET TINAMOU (heard many), BARRED ANTSHRIKE, CRESCENT-CHESTED WARBLER (many), RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLER, SPOT-BREASTED WREN, GRAY-BREASTED WOOD-WREN (heard), ORANGE-BILLED and BLACK-HEADED NIGHTINGALE-THRUSHES, RED-CROWNED PARROT, GREATER PEWEE, OLIVACEOUS WOODCREEPER, SMOKY-BROWN WOODPECKER, BROWN-BACKED SOLITAIRE (heard), DUSKY-CAPPED and HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHERS, BLUE BUNTING, YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUIT, and MOUNTAIN TROGON.
From here, we moved on to the road that leads to El Maguey. Large flocks were present here, which yielded TROPICAL PARULA, WHITE-WINGED TANAGER, and many more CRESCENT-CHESTED WARBLERS. A cooperative group of four SINGING QUAIL was also found along a small side track, and a flock of VAUX'S SWIFTS flew over.
The track just east of El Platanito on the north side of the road didn't hold too many birds, but RUFOUS-BROWED PEPPERSHRIKE, a striking male WHITE-WINGED TANAGER, another BLUE BUNTING, and a WEDGE-TAILED SABREWING were seen.
The stop between El Platanito and Agua Zarca, mentioned for Spotted Wren in Howell's guide, came through after some searching when a group of at least three SPOTTED WRENS came close enough to the road to be seen. We also found our first AZURE-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD, SPOT-CROWNED WOODCREEPER, PAINTED WHITESTART (REDSTART), and HEPATIC TANAGER here. Another stop between El Platanito and Agua Zarca, which held many flowers, produced WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD and a female RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD.
West of Agua Zarca, the habitat becomes very open and much drier. New birds found out here included BLUE, BLACK-HEADED, and HOODED GROSBEAKS, WHITE-TAILED HAWK, WHITE-WINGED DOVE, and EASTERN BLUEBIRD.
On the way back to the El Maguey road, we stopped at an open, straight stretch of road east of El Platanito. We got excellent first looks at a BROWN-BACKED SOLITAIRE here, as well as a beautiful male/female pair of BLUE-HOODED [ELEGANT] EUPHONIAS and a WHITE-THROATED ROBIN. Along the El Maguey road later, we were able to call in a couple TAMAULIPAS PYGMY-OWLS.
Night - camping on small side track off road to El Maguey
January 7, 2001 - El Naranjo Area
The morning along the road to El Maguey was probably the best birding of the trip thus far. The birds along the road itself were excellent, and many good species were found up a small track on the west side of the road just after the cattle guard crossing. New species found in the morning included a small flock of BLACK-HEADED SISKINS that were associating with LESSER GOLDFINCHES, RED-LORED PARROT, PALE-BILLED WOODPECKER, a female MAGNIFICENT HUMMINGBIRD, and a female AMETHYST-THROATED MOUNTAIN-GEM (HUMMINGBIRD). Other notable species that provided very good looks here included MOUNTAIN TROGON, SPOT-CROWNED WOODCREEPER, GRAY-BREASTED WOOD-WREN, BLUE MOCKINGBIRD, and NORTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULET. A THICKET TINAMOU and TAMAULIPAS PYGMY-OWL were also seen.
We returned to the stop between El Platanito and Agua Zarca where we had seen the hummingbirds the day before in hopes of getting better looks at them. The heavy brush made viewing difficult, but we were eventually awarded with wonderful looks at a male AMETHYST-THROATED MOUNTAIN-GEM (HUMMINGBIRD) and the female RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD, and the WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD was heard singing.
The next stop was a track between El Platanito and the El Maguey road that we had not yet explored. We found a couple large mixed-species flocks, one of which held our first CASSIN'S VIREO. Heading back to the road, we heard some loud, raucous calls up ahead. We knew they were psittaciformes of some kind, and then it suddenly hit us that they weren't amazons. MILITARY MACAWS! We rushed out to the road in time to see some fly over the valley in front of us. Incredible birds!
Night - camping at El Salto
January 8, 2001 - El Salto to Tlanchinol
The majority of today was spent on the drive south to Tlanchinol. Some exploring in the morning at El Salto yielded the first ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER, PEREGRINE FALCON, and WARBLING VIREO of the trip. The road back to Highway 80 afforded awesome looks at a group of RUDDY GROUND-DOVES and a pack of four HARRIS'S HAWKS.
On Highway 85 at the Río Tampaón, we finally got our first looks at a pair of BAT FALCONS. They were cooperatively perched on the wires over the river.
A bit north of Tlanchinol, we spotted four MONTEZUMA OROPENDOLAS flying near the road.
Night - Hotel Victoria in Tlanchinol (the Restaurant Mary Kay at the hotel is excellent)
January 9, 2001 - Tlanchinol Area
We began the day on the Lontla trail that goes downhill as mentioned in Howell's guide. The fog was pretty thick and, although we could hear them everywhere, we often only got brief looks at most birds. The most common tropical/cloud forest species we found during the day were COMMON BUSH-TANAGER, CHESTNUT-CAPPED BRUSH-FINCH, and GOLDEN-BROWED WARBLER. Hundreds of bush-tanagers were seen and/or heard in flocks at almost every location. Other good species found along that first track included BROWN-CAPPED VIREO, AZURE-HOODED JAY, and UNICOLORED JAY.
We found another very good track going downhill at a pullout past Lontla. The clouds still made visibility difficult, but we found some new species, such as SPOTTED WOODCREEPER, RUSTY SPARROW, flyover CHESTNUT-COLLARED SWIFT, HOODED GROSBEAK, and HOODED YELLOWTHROAT. The swifts, grosbeaks, and yellowthroats were all seen in an open, pasture-like area at least a mile down the trail. The yellowthroat was not mentioned by Howell for this region, but this area down the track appears to be a good spot to find them. We watched at least ten feed in the same place with a flock that also included RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLER, NORTHERN HOUSE [HOUSE] WREN, and WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER.
Night - Hotel Victoria in Tlanchinol
January 10, 2001 - Tlanchinol Area
Today was very different from the previous day because there were very few clouds in the sky, and it became quite sunny later on. It seemed that the major cloud layer was below us, as we got beautiful views of the valleys covered in white. We started today on the track past Lontla to the pasture, in hopes of seeing the Hooded Grosbeaks again since not all of us saw them the day before. Arriving at the pasture, we were able to relocate the small flock of HOODED GROSBEAKS, which consisted of four males (one immature) and three females. The HOODED YELLOWTHROATS were present again as well, though not as cooperative in this weather. Downhill from the pasture, a COLLARED FOREST-FALCON gave its distinctive call for a while. A small group of GRAY SILKY-FLYCATCHERS was seen very briefly near the beginning of the pasture, and a few more flew over the track on our return. The other new species seen on this track were a female BROAD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD and a very distant EMERALD TOUCANET. Two small clearings on the left-hand side of the path (coming from the road) near the beginning of the track held a female WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD, a beautiful male MAGNIFICENT HUMMINGBIRD, and a female AMETHYST-THROATED MOUNTAIN-GEM (HUMMINGBIRD).
We then returned to the Lontla tracks, intending to concentrate more on the upslope trail this time around. The tracks leading up the hill yielded more looks at MOUNTAIN TROGON and BLACK-HEADED NIGHTINGALE-THRUSH (at least two very cooperative birds) and added a COLLARED TROGON to the ever-growing species list. The highlight of the day, however, was a WHITE-FACED QUAIL-DOVE seen fairly well in the understory just below the road at the Lontla pullout.
Night - Hotel Victoria in Tlanchinol
January 11, 2001 - Tlanchinol to Alta Cima
We birded a little in the morning at the Lontla tracks again but did not stay very long. The majority of the day was spent driving to Alta Cima. Instead of taking a left in Huejutla and retracing our route from a few days ago, we decided to continue north on Highway 105 and then cut west to Ciudad Valles via Highway 120 and Highway 70. It turned out to be an excellent idea as we added several new lowland species to our list, the first being LAUGHING FALCON. We spotted one on a snag in the state of Veracruz, and it allowed great scope views. While watching the falcon, several MANGROVE SWALLOWS flew by with more NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS. A little further north, we stopped at a small pond to see if the scrub and reeds around it held anything interesting. No Altamira Yellowthroats, but we did see at least two GRAY-CROWNED YELLOWTHROATS. We also saw a male yellowthroat that immediately reminded us of the "San Ygnacio Yellowthroat" from Texas, which was rumored to be a Gray-crowned X Common hybrid. The bird we saw had an incomplete black mask like an immature Common, but the bill seemed much larger than a normal Common would have. It was not bicolored, just unusually large. It also appeared to have a broken eyering. Unfortunately, we were only able to view it for a few seconds before it disappeared into the scrub. Maybe the two species really do hybridize. Another sighting we found unusual was a pair of YELLOW-WINGED TANAGERS. This lowland scrubby habitat seemed like an odd location for this tropical species. I know their range extends all the way to Alta Cima at the higher elevations, but are they at all regular in this type of lowland habitat in northern Veracruz? GROOVE-BILLED ANIS and HOODED ORIOLES were very easy to see here. Many WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATERS, YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUITS, and BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUITS were also present. GRAY CATBIRD and a female PAINTED BUNTING were new for the trip.
At the turnoff for Highway 120, the small ponds yielded three NORTHERN JAÇANAS, two adults and an immature. A LAUGHING FALCON was heard, and a large flock of TAMAULIPAS CROWS was here as well.
The new Presa El 'Oyul' Recreation Center south of Antiguo Morelos off Highway 85 held some new waterbirds, but not much else. EARED GREBE, LESSER SCAUP, BUFFLEHEAD, FORSTER'S TERN, and GREATER ROADRUNNER were all new here. This area is apparently quite new. Some shelters and tables have been erected, and it appears to be a wonderful place to camp if needed.
Night - roadside camping just before Alta Cima
January 12, 2001 - Alta Cima Area
The morning was spent birding in and around the town of Alta Cima. A flock of 21 WHITE-COLLARED SWIFTS came into view for a short time before retreating behind a ridge again. Another COLLARED FOREST-FALCON was heard, as well as a couple MILITARY MACAWS. We got better looks at both WEDGE-TAILED SABREWING and AZURE-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD, but the most unusual species was a VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD. A small group already at the hotel alerted us to its presence. It was frequenting the blooming tree (red flowers) next to the bunkhouse of the Hotel El Pino and was seen often both days we were here. Mike Andersen obtained several pictures, and they are awaiting development. What is the status of this species in Tamaulipas? (Looks like this question has already been posted)
On the road to San José, we located a lek of WEDGE-TAILED SABREWINGS with at least five displaying males not too far above Alta Cima. Very cool. The birding at San José itself was pretty good, with at least one large flock frequenting the slope just above town. A male BULLOCK'S ORIOLE, several BLUE-HOODED [ELEGANT] EUPHONIAS, and a couple HEPATIC TANAGERS were amongst the species seen. A CRESTED GUAN was heard but never seen.
We walked the road from San José to La Gloria in hopes of finding some pine-oak species not seen at lower elevations. The birding was slightly slow on this road, but the habitat was beautiful. The first small flock we encountered held at least one female OLIVE WARBLER. Further up, a lone PINE FLYCATCHER worked its way over us, giving good looks at the underside of its bill. A little later, tracking down a call we did not recognize, a TUFTED FLYCATCHER appeared. It was very cooperative, calling and flycatching from the same perch for quite some time. A large flock of mostly BLUE-HOODED [ELEGANT] EUPHONIAS later held a second Tufted. MEXICAN (GRAY-BREASTED) JAYS were heard at one point during the hike, and we saw a large group of at least 25 MILITARY MACAWS fly by through the trees.
On the drive back to Alta Cima, we stopped to watch an ant swarm work through the understory. BARRED ANTSHRIKE, BLUE-CROWNED MOTMOT, DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER, OLIVACEOUS WOODCREEPER, and GREEN JAY were some species seen near the swarm. A little further down the road, a Leptotila dove was spotted running through the brush. It was very uncooperative but finally allowed a couple good looks that identified it as a GRAY-HEADED [GRAY-FRONTED] DOVE.
We learned that a Tawny-collared Nightjar was hanging around the hotel in Alta Cima at night, and a Vermiculated Screech-Owl had been heard a little up the road above town. A short time after dark, we were able to hear the TAWNY-COLLARED NIGHTJAR, and it was later seen perched on and flycatching from a tree next to the bunkhouse. Unfortunately, we did not take the time to drive up and listen for the screech-owl thanks to a large ant swarm that tried to take over our room. Dealing with them took up all of the time around dusk and afterward. It definitely made for an interesting evening, though.
Night - Hotel El Pino in Alta Cima
January 13, 2001 - Alta Cima to Matamoros
Our final day in México was spent mostly driving back to the border, although we planned to try a final time for Altamira Yellowthroat at Presa Vicente Guerrero. Our first stop was in Gómez Farías to check flowering plants for hummingbirds. We were not disappointed, as we were able to find a stunning male CANIVET'S EMERALD feeding on some small red flowers that seemed to resemble bougainvillea. Blue-throated Mountain-Gems (Hummingbirds) had also been reported in town, but we did not see any in the short time we spent there.
Unfortunately, it appears that most of the cattail marsh at Presa Vicente, mentioned in Howell's guide, is gone. A few cattails still line the irrigation ditch, but not many. So not surprisingly, many COMMON YELLOWTHROATS were found, but no Altamiras. A CASSIN'S SPARROW was new for the trip, though.
The final trip bird was a MOTTLED DUCK seen in the small marsh/pond right at the new international bridge on the Mexican side.
If anyone wants more information on any locations/species, please don't hesitate to let us know. Good birding!
Click here for species list at end of report