October 12, 1996
Notes from a birding trip through Mexico by Jim Conrad
of the most awe-inspiring railroad tracks in the world runs between Creel and Topolobampo
on the Pacific Coast. With 39 bridges and 87 tunnels, and ranging from 2,417 meters(8,056
feet), to sea level, this stretch of the Chihuahua-Pacifico Railway passes through a
rainbow of ecological zones, from Creel's cold, high-elevation forests of Arizona Pines to
Topoloampo's tropical beaches. In Creel, when I board the train headed westward,
downslope, I ask the conductor for a ticket to the first town surrounded by forest in
which oaks appear among the pines. To my vast surprise, without a single comment or wry
look, the enlightened man simply writes out a ticket reading: Bahuichivo.
At first the track courses through pine forest and keeps to more or less level ground and there is no hint of what the map shows as reality: That we are actually coursing along the top of a large peninsula of highland jutting out southwestward into the Pacific lowlands. Eventually we do break from the forest and it comes as quite a shock. We're gazing blankly through the windows as pine and more pine blurs by and then instantly our car rumbles onto a dizzyingly high bridge spanning a vertical-sided abyss. Then just as suddenly we're back into the somber pines.
This happens several times. Sometimes from the bridges we can see that the canyons being crossed are just arms of the much larger Copper Canyon, the northern rim of which the train's track is paralleling. The view into Copper Canyon is a panorama of enormous gray walls of exposed edges of horizontal rock strata and jagged rock chimneys with bonsai pines atop them. But distances and dimensions in these views are so otherworldly that it's impossible to sit in a train and relate to them. The views are like images flashed on walls and it's hard to believe we're right at the edge of something so immense.
A couple of hours out of Creel, the map indicates that the highland spur is about to come to an end. The track crosses a narrow ridge, careens over a canyon wall and descends, not to ascend again. Within ten minutes we've lost enough elevation for oaks to appear among the pines, and right on cue the wonderful conductor appears.
"Ya llegamos," he tells me; "We're arriving."
Bahuichivo is dinky and mud-splattered, not much more than a train station and a sawmill. Coming into town I'd noticed a fine camping spot along a pretty stream upslope so I hike back along the track. After about an hour I find the location. It's a perfect camping spot in every respect except one: Now that I think about it, probably the dozen or so local men lounging around the station as I hiked out of town could guess exactly where I was heading with a backpack. And that sets me up for being robbed. A few years ago in Durango not far south of here a couple of fellows near a sawmill town just like this one knocked on my tent one night and when I peeped out they put a pistolo to my head and took everything...
With a twinge of regret I cross the parklike opening along the stream and head up a slope so steep that I must draw myself upward by pulling on the very dense, shrubby undergrowth. The elevation here is about 680 meters lower (±2230 feet) than Creel, so it's warmer than I've experienced for a few days. However, it's still about 1650 meters high here (±5,400 feet), so it's not long before I'm very sweaty, and gasping for air.
Often I must rest, usually straddling a small tree trunk to keep from sliding downslope. With sweat burning my eyes and my shoulder muscles searing from lugging the backpack, I think about my fears, about the possibility that with this white beard and balding head I should really be somewhere else this dusk, doing socially acceptable things, not slinking about in such a shape, in a nameless Mexican canyon.
After twenty more minutes of looking I still haven't found a spot level enough for a tent, or even for simply lying down in a blanket, and it's almost dark. I'm near the slope's top, at the edge of the vertical rock cliff forming the canyon's upper wall.
Then through the undergrowth I spot a chimney rock about ten meters high (thirty feet) rising next to the cliff face. I make my way to the gap between the chimney and cliff, remove my backpack and tie a rope to it, then with my back to the cliff walk my way up the crack between the cliff wall and the chimney, and when I'm atop the chimney pull the backpack up after me. I lie there wet with sweat until my breathing slows down.
The chimney's summit is just large enough to park a car on. It's occupied by one medium-size pine and a small oak, and there's a more or less level spot just big enough for the tent, right at the pine's base. The view into the valley is fantastic. I'm right even with the treetops that are bound to be filled with birds in the morning, and from here I could hold off a large band of banditos. Barely with enough light to see what I'm doing, I stake the tent, enter it and feel very lucky indeed.
At dawn, inside the tent there is no sensation that I am atop a chimney rock. I could as well be awakening in the middle of a vast grassland, on the muddy banks of the Mississippi, or back in Belgium, where I was living just a month ago. That's a lovely thing about tents: Though you may awaken in a different spot every day, inside, it's always the same, and the homey familiarity is comforting. My tent with its known splotches of mildew on the ceiling and ant-gnawed holes in the floor is someone else's homey breakfast table and kitchen-window curtains.
It's not as bitingly cold here as it was during dawns at Creel. Through a slit in the tent I retrieve the thermometer left leaning against the pine's trunk. Here in the middle of October, at an elevation of about 1,650 meters (5,400 feet), some two-thirds of the way up the western slope of the Western Sierra Madres, it's 8° C (47° F). Worming my way outside, I cocoon in a blanket, lean against the pine's trunk, and look around, listening for birds.
Almost instantly the first bird-call of the day sounds, one of my favorites.. From among a jumble of boulders along the cliff's base at the canyon's head arises the piercing, liquid call of the very wren to be expected here, the Canyon Wren. It's a brown and rusty-colored little bird with a pure white throat and chest.
The song, to my ears, is exactly like a whistled rendition of someone laughing so hard that their last laughs trail into gasping heaves. But what makes the song beautiful is that usually, as is the case here, rocky backdrops create an acoustical situation that amplifies and projects the song-laugh. It seems impossible that a bird only 11.5 centimeters (±4.5 inches) can be responsible for such a resounding call.
Then another birdcall, also from the canyon's head, and this one represents an important milestone in our trip! It's the call of a Brown-backed Solitaire, and this is the first species encountered on this trip that is not also found in the United States. For the first time a species we've listed is one not illustrated in North American field guides. Here in the southwestern corner of Chihuahua we are at the northwestern extreme of its distribution. From here it ranges south through the Mexican mountains, to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Solitaires, along with thrushes and bluebirds, are members of the Thrush Family, the Turdidae. Except for their longer tails, they are similar to the mousy, look-alike species of flycatcher that have been giving me so many identification problems. They are exceedingly plain-looking creatures. The thing about solitaires is their song. Many would say that they are the champion singers of all Mexican birds. Well, it is often the case that the most plain-looking birds are the best singers, and this may be the best example of that. Sadly, this bird is often sold in Mexican markets, even though its song from a cage is nothing to be compared to what I hear here.
The song begins innocently enough with a soft wenk, wenk, and then metamorphoses into a chortling jumble of flutelike notes ascending the musical scale with ever increasing velocity. The older bird books say that the song suggests the cranking up of an old-time motor car.
ATTACK FROM ABOVE
For an hour the pines and rock outcrops rimming the canyon glow in sunlight and the blue sky dazzles with its clarity, but the canyon itself remains chilly, shadowy, and somber. At mid morning, still in the shadows, warm breezes begin stirring. Hot air is supposed to rise but, here, air feeling warm and dry and smelling of pine appears to be draining from the canyon's head and flowing down the canyon, streaming around the chimney rock and me. And this strange wind is bringing me visitors...
They are stink bugs. Brown, shield-shaped hemipterids of the family Pentatomidae, hoards of them, not lazily drifting with the warm currents, but flying hard with the current, as if embarked on stink-bug kamikaze missions. They thump into the tent, against the pine, and against me, my legs, chest, and face. They roll to the ground, flounder struggling to get upright, and if their flailing legs happen to snag something they yank themselves onto their bellies and immediately fly off again. Soon the ground is littered with them and if I nudge one with a finger the finger ends up smelling like the nauseating stinkbug defense.
No sooner has the invasion subsided than another onslaught begins, this time conducted by black, plump, two-millimeter-long (±1/12th inch), blood-sucking black flies -- Dipterids, probably of the family Simuliidae. They swarm around ankles, arms, neck, and face, and do not diminish in numbers once sunlight arrives. They become a plague with repellent keeping them away only a few minutes. Atop my chimney, as the canyon at last receives its full share of sunlight, I sit fuming over the godly humor that sets a mind so acutely alert and informed in a body that, by virtue of its very nature, draws black flies that make elevated thought impossible.
To read about another of my experiences with "Mexican Jays," click here.
Then five Gray-breasted Jays, called Mexican Jays in older books, rampage over the rim of the cliff above and settle in the treetops around me. Gray-breasted Jays are about the size of North America's Blue Jays and Steller's Jays, and they also are predominantly blue. The big difference between them is that Gray-breasted Jays are crestless.
There atop the chimney rock it's as if I were perched among them. Wrapped in my blanket more against black flies than because of the cold, I'm struck by how alert each bird seems, constantly glancing around, and how vivacious and subtle their interactions are. Silent and unmoving inside my blanket, I feel like a mud-caked turtle watching a flurry of butterflies.
Sometimes jays are described as "nature's alarm system" because they tend to be drawn to any commotion or deviation from the norm. When disturbed they cluster around the object of concern disturbing the neighborhood's peace with shrill, grating, cawlike calls. One endearing feature of Gray-breasted Jays, however, is that their voices are not nearly as harsh as their northern relatives'. Gray-breasted Jays fly about asking in fairly civil terms, Wink? Wink? Wink?.
One jay in the flock carries a small acorn onto a branch of the little oak next to me, wedges it between its feet, and with the same exaggerated seesawing motion observed at Creel with the Mexican Chickadee, chisels at the acorn with its beak.
A Painted Redstart flies out of the woods right at eye-level and exactly just a few feet before my face snaps an insect from midair. He's so close that I see very plainly how he closes his eye the moment he reaches the insect. I've never read this before but it makes sense. If he misses the insect, the eye might be damaged. What a grand observation post this chimney rock is!
So far all the birds seen here are species not observed at our previous three stops. The pine and oak sharing the chimney-rock's crest with me likewise are species not seen before, and I'm not sure what they are. Prickly-pear cactus clings to vertical rock outcrops of the canyon wall. On the canyon's drier slopes stand juniper and Madrone trees, as well as waist-high clumpgrasses. In the deepest, moistest, most shaded valleys there are very tall, dark, stately fir trees.
Not everything here is new, though. Flitting among the pines, just as they did among the mesquite in the grassland-mesquite zone, and among the pines at Lake Arareko, are Yellow-rumped Warblers.
A couple of Northern Flickers forage for ants on the ground at the base of the rock cliff. I can't see a flicker without thinking of a classic experiment. Adult male Northern Flickers bear conspicuous "mustaches" like the one on the right in the picture at the right. The mustaches are black in the Yellow-shafted race but red in the Red-shafted race, the one we have here. Females do not have mustaches. Thus a female flicker was caught, a mustache was painted on her, and her romantic life was utterly devastated.
Here's something else I think about when I see flickers. Ornithologists distinguish between bird species that are "determinate layers," which lay a fixed number of eggs, and "indeterminate layers," who lay extra eggs if some are removed from the nest early during the incubation period. Northern Flickers are indeterminate layers. In fact, one flicker laid seventy-one eggs in seventy-three days, trying to replace eggs removed as soon as they were laid.
For two days I remain atop the chimney rock, for seldom have I ever enjoyed such a perfect perch level with treetops. It's good to be atop the chimney rock when sunlight floods into the canyon. In afternoon wind my neighboring pine's branches knock together and the dry rapping sounds travel down the limbs into the trunk, sounding like heartbeats deep beneath the coarse, black bark.
When the wind is greatest, tree tops heave and leaves quiver franticly, like children waving arms and wiggling fingers to get attention. When the sunlight is brightest, I can see through several trees at one time, everything moving, knocking, sighing, rustling, even whistling, and I am glad to be on the chimney rock right inside the tree-top feeling.
Late in the afternoon of the second day I place my ear to the pine's trunk and listen for a while to the heartbeat. Then hardly able to hear my own voice over the wind-roar all around me I whisper into the bark that soon I must descend.
Next day, down next to the stream but keeping away from the perfect campground, a round boulder near the bank is perfect for clothes washing, and tree branches hanging low over the stream are perfect for drying. After the morning's scrubbing and hanging of clothes I sit on a boulder in mid-stream, staring blankly into deep shadows pooled behind a sycamore along the stream bank. A pale spot among the sun flecks twitches, and automatically my binoculars rise for a look. Silent and unmoving, an Elegant Trogon -- called Coppery-tailed Trogon in older books -- perches gazing right back at me.
Now, from a Northern birder's point of view, the five "most exotic" kinds of Mexican birds are probably the tinamous; parrots and parakeets; motmots; toucans... and; trogons. With their size, bright colors and stubby tails, Trogons look a little like parrots, but they lack the parrot's sharply downcurved beak.
The Trogon Family, the Trogonidae, is represented in the U.S. only in extreme southeastern Arizona, by the Elegant Trogon, and, very rarely, the Eared Trogon. Though some of the thirty-seven or so of the Earth's trogon species occur in Asia and Africa, trogons are mainly tropical American birds, with nine species breeding in Mexico.
The trogon before me now is behaving typically for trogons. They like to perch in fairly secluded, hidden locations, remaining very still. This lifestyle makes sense for trogons, whose main food is small fruits, with only occasional insects. Thus their diet is not nearly as energy-rich as that of a pure carnivore or nectar sipper. Trogons need time for fruits to work their way through lengthy intestines while enzymes break down the fruits' complex carbohydrates. They grab a fruit, then sit quietly as it digests.
Trogons have their own peculiar manner of "grabbing fruit." They flutter up to a small fruit and without landing take hold of it in their stubby, thick beaks, the upper mandibles of which are equipped with serrated edges. Not letting go, and most likely "sawing" at the fruit's moorings with those serrated mandible-edges, they simultaneously let the momentum and weight of their chunky bodies help them snap the fruit from its point of attachment. It all happens very quickly. Within five seconds a trogon can leave its perch, acquire a fruit, and then be back on its perch placidly digesting.
Most birds have four toes directed forward, with one toe pointed backward. A few, the best known of which are woodpeckers and parrots, have zygodactyl feet, on which two toes are in front and two behind. On normal zygodactyl feet the first and fourth toes are directed backward. However, there is one bird family in which the first and second toes are directed backward, not the first and fourth. This is the trogon family. The special word characterizing trogon feet is heterodactyl.
When I need to identify a trogon first I note whether the belly area is red or yellow, for all Mexican trogon bellies are one or the other. Then I make a mental snapshot of the barring on the tail's undersides, for it is true that trogon tails are bar-coded. The sketch at the right shows the tails of males of several species. Female tails are usually a bit different.
Usually I hear trogons before I see them. They make very distinctive, low, nasal-sounding, far-carrying, monotonous calls like cow-cow-cow-cow...
However, the Elegant Trogon I'm seeing now deep inside the sycamore's shadows looks at me for fifteen minutes never making a peep and then in a wink of the eye silently flutters away. It's strictly by accident that I've seen this species, for I just happened to be staring at the very spot where it was. It hadn't even crossed my mind to be looking here for trogons.
Just opposite to the secretive, silent manner of trogons, all day long, up and down the middle of the stream, shrilly calling with excited-sounding trills and musical runs, two American Dippers fly low over the water very often passing right by my sitting rock. Related to thrushes and wrens, only four dipper species exist in the whole world, though dippers as a group are found throughout much of the Earth's uplands. They all have the same roundish, short-tailed, long-legged shape and all live along mountain streams with cool or cold, clear, flowing water. And the ones I've seen always struck me as irrepressibly hyperactive.
Dippers eat aquatic larvae of insects, especially those of beetles and caddisflies, and moths, snails, small fish, and fish eggs. Not only do they work along the water's edge like sandpipers, they also float atop water like ducks, and, incredibly, "fly" underwater, and walk along the stream's floor as they forage. They can fly from below the water's surface into the air, and visa versa, almost as if they simply don't recognize the boundary between water and air.
Underwater, a movable membrane over the nostrils keeps water out. When operating abovewater but in the spray of a waterfall, another membrane, the "nictitating membrane," slides over their eyes. Since the water in mountain streams is often very cold, the dipper's plumage is well insulated with a thick undercoat of down. Dippers have preen glands about ten times the size of any other songbird (ducks aren't songbirds), which provide the oil used for waterproofing their plumage during preening.
Here is this stop's Official List:
latitude 27º25'N, longitude 108º04'W
MEXICO: Chihuahua; ±5 kms east and upstream of Bahuichivo; elev. ±1,650 m (±5,400 feet); oak-pine forest in canyon
Of the List's two non-U.S. species, the Brown-backed Solitaire is distributed from approximately here, southern Chihuahua, south through the Mexican highlands to Honduras. The Spotted Wren is a purely Mexican bird, found only in oak-pine woods and semi-open dry country from here south through the uplands to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This is a large wren, some eighteen centimeters long (seven inches). It's closely related to the Cactus Wren of the U.S.'s southwestern desert.
Deciding that after two days of not being seen it's now more or less safe to camp along the stream, in late afternoon I scout for a camping spot there. Well hidden behind a tangle of briars, eroded into a vertical rock face about five feet above the little stream's floodplain, I find a cavity almost too perfect to be true. Perfectly dry, a little longer than I am, and deep enough for my whole body to fit into, nature could not have provided a better sleeping platform.
An egg-size rock lies in the hollow's exact center. The rock is of a curious shape, color, and texture, completely different from the material forming surrounding cliffs and boulders. Clearly, someone has carried this rock from some distance away and left it here on purpose.
Has someone just wanted to see if the rock is still here the next time they drop by and look? Or might this person be generous enough to simply wish to greet me, the wandering stranger, no matter who I am, no matter what I'm doing, and no matter when I come here?
I prefer to think it's the latter. I like this concept, and as darkness comes and I feel snug and safe in my hidden hollow, I come up with this idea:
Someone has sent a greeting to me. Now I pass it along to you, and I hope that someday when you are properly sensitized and alert, in just such a subtle manner as has happened here, you will leave a special rock in a perfect place, keeping the greeting alive.
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