From May 18 – 21, 2018, I birded the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas in Veracruz.
As I had little time to prepare for the trips due to family and business commitments in the previous months, I simply arranged for a guide to pick me up at Veracruz airport and transport me around for the days I was there. I made the arrangements via Rafa Calderon (email: email@example.com, phone: +52 1 551 495 5715). Rafa Calderon is based in Mexico City and has a network of local bird guiding contacts throughout Mexico. I had used him previously to arrange a visit to the Gomez Farias area in Tamaulipas. Rafa has good English but be aware that the guides he uses often have extremely limited English. Although this hasn’t caused me to miss any birds on the trips I have arranged through him, you will need to be prepared for communication issues in the field with directions and sometimes English language bird names.
The local guide Rafa set me up with was Braulio Malaga (email: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: +52 1 294 147 5760). If you want to contact him directly, you will need to use Spanish. Braulio lives in Ruiz Cortines, the ejido that owns the forest area that is the best place to the see Tuxtla Quail-Dove. He has a good knowledge of the birds and their vocalizations in the forests around Ruiz Cortines and regularly guides birders to see the dove. He has a laser pointer to help with directions. He knows some additional birding spots in the lowlands but is not an expert in lowland forest birds. We had a separate driver, Rolfondo, who is also trying to learn bird guiding. Braulio owns the first shop you will on entering Ruiz Cortines, so you can potentially show up and try to contact him there, although it is obviously better to plan in advance.
I stayed at some cabanas at Ruiz Cortines that were built for ecotourism. These are very basic, but have a hot shower some of the day, along with a flush toilet and wash basin. There is no air-conditioning or fan, but at this altitude, at least in mid-May, the temperature at night was pleasantly cool. The cabanas had a restaurant operating on the days I was there. Staying here eliminates a 45-minute drive from the nearest more upmarket hotel. The cabanas have good birding right by them.
Birding locations and species
More detailed counts can be found in my ebird entries for those that want them. One important note: you can spend a lot of time crouching down or sitting down in the forest waiting to see retiring species. Remember to shower promptly at the end of the day or you can end up with a lot of chiggers on you (I had at least 80!)
May 18 – Las Barrancas and other grassland areas: Going south from the airport, we stopped first at the road to Las Barrancas to look for grassland species. We saw Double-striped Thick-knee, Great Black-Hawk, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Grassland Yellowfinch. Since we had missed Aplomado Falcon, my major target here, we then worked our way to Sontecomapan via the coast, stopping at various locations N of La Nueva Victoria. We did eventually turn up an Aplomado Falcon on the road to Lagunita Las Delicias.
May 19-21 – Ruiz Cortines: This is the general area that birders search for the quail-dove these days. The forest is protected so this should be a reliable future location. You can find it by looking in ebird, as Google Maps does not mark Ruiz Cortines by name. Although I didn’t specifically check, I suspect the forest here is owned by the ejido and that technically you need permission to bird here. Since I was using local accommodation and guiding services, this issue was moot for me. I would strongly encourage visiting birders to use these services to give incentive for continued conservation efforts.
We started at dawn and walked along the track through the cloud forest. This is the dirt road from Ruiz Cortines to Manuel Hidalgo. Seeing the quail-dove typically requires some stalking into the forest. This species does not respond aggressively to play-back. Braulio would typically walk in some distance towards the call and then have us wait quietly in a semi-concealed position. He would imitate the call and carefully scan the ground and low (<2 m high) branches. Although it is not uncommon to take a full day or even a couple of days to see the dove, we were able to get very good looks of one singing about 1m off the ground within 3 hours. Incredibly, about an hour later, I was pishing a foliage-gleaner into view, when a quail-dove (in response?) few up from the ground into a small tree and gave fantastic views again.
We were able to coax a Blue Ground-Dove into view using playback but later had very good looks of a pair on the track while driving back in the car. My impression was that mid–late afternoon might be a better time along the track to see doves as there was less traffic along the track than the morning. Traffic is very light, but enough to disturb shy birds off the track. Gray-headed Dove proved frustratingly difficult to see. After several hours of unsuccessful efforts, we were able to get good views by using playback from the track (via our driver) while we stalked the bird from a separate angle. We then later flushed a pair up from the track that appeared to be feeding under a fruiting tree. I was able to see one of them fairly well up in a tree eventually. Despite a lot of effort, we were not able to actually see a Slaty-breasted Tinamou.
The endemic Long-tailed Sabrewing was quite frequent along the track but it may take some time to get a good look. Violet Sabrewing is also quite frequent but was even harder to see well. I eventually had decent looks on the third morning along the track. There were certainly some White-bellied Emeralds around the cabanas but for many other hummingbird sightings it was not possible to determine whether this species or Azure-crowned Hummingbird were involved.
The endemic subspecies of Chestnut-capped Brushfinch is common along the track and easiest to see in the early morning or late afternoon when it often feeds on the open track. Other species occurring fairly commonly to commonly along the track or around the cabanas are Slaty-breasted Tinamou (easy to hear, very hard to see), Golden-crowned Warbler, White-breasted Wood-wren, Black-headed Nightingale Thrush, White-throated Robin, Slate-colored Solitaire, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and Common Chlorospringus. Less common appear to be Collared Trogon, Green Shirke-Vireo, Yellowish Flycatcher, Eye-ring Flatbill, Black-faced Grosbeak, Red-crowned Ant-tanager, Spectacled Foliage-gleaner, Golden-olive Woodpecker, White-winged Tanager, Golden-browed Warbler, and Yellow-throated and Elegant Euphonias. Note that most of these birds are much easier to hear than see and persistence/playback may be required to actually see a species.
If you walk far enough along the track, you will come to a more open area on the left. We saw singles of Piratic, Streaked, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher here.
There are some additional areas to check in Ruiz Cortines itself, where the endemic subspecies of the Black-headed Saltator occurs. It is frequent at the first shop (Braulio’s) in town if you are coming into town from the Catemaco-San Andreas road. As you head back down the road a couple of KM out of Ruiz Cortines, you will encounter some more forest. The species here seem largely similar the forest on the track by the cabanas, although we did see Emerald Toucanet here.
Laguna de Sontecomapan
One late morning we went down to the Laguna de Sontecomapan. After an unsuccessful search along a trail at an ecopark for Rufous-breasted Spinetail, we took a boat trip out on to the lagoon and went up a couple of the rivers. The first river (this is the one that is closest to the channel that leads from the dock to the lagoon) had some lush growth along it. We stopped at short distance up here and were successful luring out a Rufous-breasted Spinetail using playback. We then returned to the laguna and then headed up a second broader river. This proved good for Common Black-Hawks, with about 7 birds seen, including a nest, Gray-headed Kite also occurs along here, but we failed to find one. We used playback at a number of spots for Yellow-tailed Oriole and were eventually successful in seeing a pair. We found a pair of Sungrebes well up river. On the return, we found an immature Bare-throated Tiger-Heron in the channel between the main lagoon and the dock. The cost for the boat trip was MX$600. From my perspective, the boat trip was pretty successful, but the number and variety of water birds were pretty low. The dock area is towards the north side of town and just east of the main road. Look out for a couple of restaurants near the turn, which goes just 100 yards or so down from the main road to the dock.