JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Notes from
El Cielo Biosphere Reserve, southern Tamaulipas, MÉXICO

April 13, 2006

BIRDING & BACKPACKING AT EL CIELO BIOSPHERE RESERVE IN
EL CIELO BIOSPHERE RESERVE, SOUTHERN TAMAULIPAS, MEXICO

Wednesday afternoon, April 5th, I bused out of Mérida, Yucatan. After two full nights and a long day of taking one bus after another, always keeping near the Gulf Coast as I returned toward the US, on Friday morning at dawn, April 7th, I arrived in Ciudad Mante, at the southern end of the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The night before, in Tampico, I'd jagged away from my usual route along the coast. Now I was inland, some   250 straight-line miles SSW of the southernmost tip of Texas at Brownsville.

In Ciudad Mante I caught a small local van, a cumbe, to the village of Gomez Farias. The sun rose as we traveled across very flat land. The morning was overcast and misty, at 74°. The landscape was occupied with sugarcane fields, small citrus orchards and a little hacked-over scrub. I was getting worried because I was looking for some mountains to backpack into, but everything I could see from the van was flat. Finally, after almost deciding I'd made a big mistake, a mountain base loomed out of the mist, and then suddenly up we went.

Gomez Farias was strung out along a limestone ridge, consisting of about a mile of little houses and stores along a single, bumpy little paved road. Jagged fingers of white limestone emerged between buildings and trees, especially very green Mango trees heavy with half-formed fruits, giving the area a slightly Chinese-watercolor feeling. At an elevation of maybe 450 meters (1500 feet), the van dropped me off at a shady spot where I was told that down below a family fixed food for visitors. I descended through a green tunnel of lush vegetation to a tin roof atop poles over a wooden table about 15 feet long and next to a humble looking house and a sign announcing Comedor Juarez, a comedor being an eating place.

The dirt-floored comedor was set amidst a collection of hundreds of potted ornamental plants worthy of a botanical park, and beneath tall trees. Someone here had a passion for plants. Overhead, White-crowned Parrots screeched, Social Flycatchers issued shrill calls, doves cooed, Melodious Blackbirds chortled, and, at a distance, lots of Plain Chachalacas sang. A tiny, dark woman in a long dress with an apron emerged from the house and I ordered my favorite Mexican meal of eggs scrambled with onion, chile and tomatoes, refried beans, and hot tortillas. All during breakfast small, green mangos fell onto the tin roof above me. That didn't bother the birds, however. An Ivory-billed Woodcreeper hung upside down beneath a viny arbor 15 feet from where I ate.

I bought water and food, and continued through town on the rough little road I'd come in on. At the town's edge I met two serious-looking birders from Texas, one wearing a weathered cap saying "Texas Master Naturalist." They said that the day before they'd seen a Crested Guan and a Military Macaw -- dream birds for any birder. The Master Naturalist volunteered this information about El Cielo Biosphere Reserve, which is the place I was about to hike into:

"El Cielo is coming back," he said. "When I first started coming here there weren't any squirrels or Kinkajous, but now you see them. There are Black Bears here. The Red-billed Pigeons and Chachalacas used to be very wary, but now they're practically town birds. In the last few days a Jaguar has killed a calf and a burro. You have to say it was a Jaguar because a Mountain Lion couldn't have pulled down that burro."

Now at the edge of Gomez Farias, as I begin hiking upward into the reserve, I begin listing the birds. As the sky clears and the temperature gradually rises to 97° at 3 PM, here are the birds seen from the one-lane, stony road climbing ever higher into secondary, mostly leafless (dry season) deciduous forest with considerable broadleaf evergreen vegetation in the understory, and many tree limbs bearing dangling Spanish Moss, tufts of other bromeliads, mosses, a few orchids and peperomias, and a lot of Rhipsalis cactus, with dangling, much branched stems of cylindrical, pencil-thin stems (I'll make the names of some of the most interesting and/or pretty birds into hotlinks so you can see them.)

  1. WHITE-HEADED PARROTS, 53 of them, passing overhead, squawking uproarously
  2. HOODED ORIOLE, the same species I've been seeing all winter back in the Yucatan, this one singing its familiar song from a Spanish Cedar tree
  3. BLACK-HEADED SALTATOR, a towhee-like bird with an olive back, cooperatively singing with a companion
  4. GRAY CATBIRD, the same catbird we have up north, nervously flitting from treetop to treetop, though usually he sticks to shadowy thickets
  5. PLAIN CHACHALACA, several Wild-Turkey-like birds calling from across the valley
  6. MELODIOUS BLACKBIRD, two all-black, grackle-like birds cooperatively singing from the weedy slope above
  7. MASKED TITYRA, four of them, white with black wings and face masks with red eye-patches, with thumb-on-comb calls, singing from the lower limbs of a Gumbo Limbo
  8. WILSON'S WARBLER, all yellow but with a black cap, a very common winter visitor foraging in a strangler fig
  9. NORTHERN PARULA, a warbler with a slate-blue top with a yellowish nape and a yellow bottom with a chestnut chest-smudge, calling with its buzzy trill dropping at the end
  10. BROWN-BACKED SOLITAIRE, a slender, plain-looking, gray-and-brown thrush with an ethereal song of fluty phrases, one of the most accomplished of all singers, and several are calling in this valley
  11. TROPICAL KINGBIRD silently passing through
  12. SQUIRREL CUCKOO, 18-inch long, rusty-red bird silently dropping downslope into a thicket
  13. IVORY-BILLED WOODCREEPER, looking and acting like a northern Brown Creeper but twice as large, a rusty brown bird with pale streaks on back and breast, and a woodpecker-like, pale beak
  14. SCRUB EUPHONIA, like a Goldfinch but with more black and a yellow spot on its black head, foraging among bromeliad tufts on leafless tree
  15. GREEN JAY, so prettily green, yellow, blue and black, in undergrowth harshly fussing at my passage
  16. WHITE-THROATED ROBIN, drably brown and paler below, but with a conspicuous white throat with black streaking, five to eight of them feeding in a tree with marble-size, yellow fruits
  17. ELEGANT TROGON, a little like a parrot with a long, squared tail, this is a female mostly brown with a red belly and white chest band, and a white spot behind the eye; she perches silently watching me from a tree limb, then flies away
  18. OLIVE SPARROW, a dark olive and brown little bird with brown head stripes, perching silently at dusk in dense thicket
  19. BROWN JAY, dark brown above and paler below, 16 inches long (Blue Jays are 10 inches), screaming above my tent

At dusk I camp off the road among limestone boulders, maybe a mile below the village of Alta Cima. Here at the end of the dry season the trees are dropping brown, leathery leaves that thump onto the tent every breeze that comes along. After two nights on buses I am exhausted and rattled. My sleep is dreamless, like being dead.

SATURDAY, APRIL 8TH

At dawn it's a chilly 48°, the sky is clear, and what a pleasure it is to awaken in a forest where all one can hear is the wind, falling leaves, and birds. As I continue my hike upslope I encounter these new birds for my list:

  1. CLAY-COLORED ROBIN, brown above and tawny below, silent in underbrush
  2. TURKEY VULTURE circling over the valley
  3. BRONZE-WINGED WOODPECKER, greenish with bronzy wings, gray crown and with red behind the eye, it's stabbing into a thick carpet of moss on a leafless tree limb
  4. YELLOW-BILLED CACIQUE, a black, grackle-like bird with very conspicuous yellow beak and eyes, tugging at a shred of stem bark in dense undergrowth
  5. PAURAQUE, a foot-long Whip-poor-will-like bird flies across the trail and lands on a rock in plain view 20 feet away

I enter the settlement of Alta cima, surely of not more than 100 inhabitants, very humble homes helterskelter along the road, orchards with a strange mingling of banana trees, peach trees with small peaches not quite ripe yet, and much branched, tree-like prickly-pear Opuntia cactus. Walking through the settlement I see these species:

  1. FLAME-COLORED TANAGER, a gorgeous, strawberry-colored bird with blackish wings with white bars, blackish tail and blackish stripes on back, singing hoarsely, vireolike, from a Sweetgum tree
  2. DARK-BACKED (LESSER) GOLDFINCH perching silently in leafless thicket
  3. BLACK VULTURE, three of them playing on air currents near peak above us
  4. ZONE-TAILED HAWK tightly circling over valley
  5. RUFOUS-BROWED PEPPERSHRIKE, a thrush-sized bird, olive above, yellow below, gray head with a rusty eyebrow stripe calling from thicket border
  6. RAVEN crossing above valley
  7. BEWICK'S WREN, lustily singing atop a hut's solar panel (! -- but they're setting poles for grid electricity during my visit)

Leaving the settlement, continuing the hike upslope, I meet Esteban Berrones wanting to be my birding guide for US $30 per day. His problem with regard to making a living like this is that he speaks little English so birders who come here -- mostly North Americans -- seldom hire him. I ask him what the most interesting birds are he can show visitors and he lists these:

Well, if you speak Spanish and want Esteban to guide you, call him at 01 83118 3-72-28, and check out the website at www.elcielotours.com. Esteben says he's also seen the Stygian Owl here, but he's not promising that one to visitors.

I camp at the bottom of the pine zone. The tropical element is dropping out at this elevation, now at maybe 1200 meters (±4000 feet).

SUNDAY, APRIL 9TH

The 356,442 acre El Cielo Biosphere Reserve claims to be the northernmost cloudforest in the hemisphere, and on this day clouds shroud the peaks just above me. I'd hoped to make it to the top but I'm low on water and my visa for Mexico is about to expire, so I must turn back. It's a somber day and on this beginning to Semana Santa, the week at the end of which Northerners celebrate Easter, there are lots of pickup trucks grinding up the steep, exposed-rock trail ferrying vacationing Mexicans to the peaks, all making lots of noise. I decide to take the day off, find a secluded campsite, read and catch up on my note-taking. Still, these species add themselves to my list:

  1. MOUNTAIN TROGON, quietly perched against background of pink Redbud blossoms
  2. HOUSE WREN, little brown wren taking quick look at me from atop roadside rocks
  3. TROPICAL PARULA, similar to the Northern Parula but no white eye-ring
  4. SUMMER TANAGER, all red, chk-chk-chking from overhead tree
  5. BARRED ANTSHRIKE, a black-and-white, zebra-striped bird calling from dense thicket
  6. OLIVACEOUS WOODCREEPER, looks and acts like the smaller northern Brown Creeper, hopping long underside of mossy tree limb, but dark, olive-gray head and underparats, with rusty wings and tail

Surely the prettiest sighting of the whole trip will be this day's Mountain Trogon, its green head and back, red bottom and neat white chest band, and that curious black-and-white, bar-coded tail, perched elegantly before a bright pink spray of Redbud blossoms held daintily on slender, black limbs.

At this elevation leafless oak trees are just now bursting their buds, with reddish leaves emerging.

MONDAY, APRIL 10

I begin birding at some cornfields above Alta Cima

  1. BLUE-HOODED EUPHONIA, a blackish, finchlike bird with a cinnamon underbody and a bright, almost incandescent, powder-blue crown, foraging in early morning sunlight
  2. HOUSE FINCH, bright strawberry red at edge of abandoned cornfield
  3. BLACK-HEADED SISKIN like a Goldfinch but black head and chest, large yellow spot on wings, about ten feeding in fruiting, eupatorium-like bush
  4. SOCIAL FLYCATCHER, two yellow and brown birds noisily going treetop to treetop
  5. WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD, small, greenish, with white stripe behind eye, in flock of next species
  6. MAGNIFICENT (RIVOLI'S) HUMMINGBIRD, 5-inch long (Ruby-throats are 3 inches) in a flock of maybe ten birds, including several immatures, some adults calling with amazing, extended chortle-gurgling songs interspersed with metallic, rattle-like calls, the calling and flitting going on for an hour or so, much visiting of a flowering tree and singing all around; I've never seen a hummingbird species so vociferous in such an animated, socializing flock!

Walking through Alta Cima again:

  1. BRONZED COWBIRD, four of them in orchard trees
  2. INCA DOVE, a small ground-dove with feathers showing a scaled effect, in people's yards

Now descending on the one-lane gravel road toward Gomez Farias (earlier I came up using a steeper but shorter foot trail)

  1. PAINTED BUNTING, surely the most rainbow-colored of all North American songbirds, foraging in roadside weeds
  2. YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUIT, a finch with an olive body, black chest and head, with very conspicuous orange-yellow throat patch and eyebrows, foraging in roadside weeds
  3. YELLOW-THROATED EUPHONIA, black and yellow finchlike bird like the earlier Scrub Euphonia, but with a yellow throat, in bushes along road
  4. BLACK-HEADED ORIOLE, yellow with black head, a pair foraging in leafless trees choked with Spanish Moss

*****

A serious birder could have listed over a hundred species, I'm sure, but I spent a lot of time just watching things living their lives, and poking along with my heavy backpack (holding all the possessions I've used during six months in the Yucatan, and water).

If you'd like to go with me to El Cielo sometime for some of my laid-back kind of birding, let me know. Probably it's the closest, easiest-to-reach place in Mexico where birders from eastern North America can see a fine spectrum of truly tropical plants and animals.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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