April 13, 2006
BIRDING & BACKPACKING AT EL CIELO BIOSPHERE RESERVE IN 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.)
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:
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:
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:
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
Walking through Alta Cima again:
Now descending on the one-lane gravel road toward Gomez Farias (earlier I came up using a steeper but shorter foot trail)
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,