Trogons, hummingbirds, parrots, and other Mexican specialties await birders just a short drive from the world’s greatest hawkwatch
By Carole S. Griffiths with contributions from Devin Griffiths | Published: 10/1/2009
Cardel, a small town east of Mexico City near the Gulf coast, might not be the first place that comes to mind when most of us think of wildlife spectacles. Point Pelee in spring or Africa’s Serengeti, yes, but Cardel?
But as any avid hawkwatcher will tell you, Cardel and its sister hawkwatching site Chichicaxtle are the real deal. I’ve been there twice, standing on the roof of the Hotel Bienvenido, struck dumb as wave after seemingly endless wave of birds of prey streamed overhead, darkening the skies for hours at a time. Every day, from August to November, thousands of raptors pass during the most spectacular avian migration in the world. By season’s end, more than five million birds — predominantly Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks, Mississippi Kites, and Turkey Vultures — will have flown over the two sites on their way to rich winter feeding grounds in Central and South America, to wait out the northern cold before winging home again on the winds of March.
Birders from around the world have been visiting Cardel ever since the migration spectacle became widely known. (Birder’s World Contributing Editor Paul Kerlinger wrote about it and the migration at Eilat, Israel, in the October 2006 issue.)
But there’s more here than just raptors, and to come looking only for them is to miss the forest for the trees. The state of Veracruz teems with avian life, and incredible birding opportunities abound. Let me introduce you to the most convenient and rewarding of them, beginning in Cardel.
The town is an ideal jumping-off point for birding Veracruz, home to 84 families of birds and 730 species — nearly 70 percent of all birds found in Mexico, 28 of which occur nowhere else in the world. Close to half of Veracruz’s bird species, including 25 of the 28 endemics, can be found within a one- to two-hour drive of Cardel. In one week, you could see about 300 species, including 25-30 raptors, as many as 20 hummingbirds, and numerous endemics, such as Blue Mockingbird, Mexican Sheartail, Red Warbler, Bumblebee Hummingbird, and the threatened Bearded Wood-Partridge.
Traveling in this part of Mexico is easy. Bus service is efficient, inexpensive, and comfortable, and the highway system in Veracruz is top-notch.
Before going too far afield, though, take a side trip to Chichicaxtle, a 10-minute bus ride away. Although geographically close, it’s as different from Cardel as is possible for two areas separated by such a short distance.
Chichicaxtle is out in the country, set next to a small village, and the site itself is in the middle of a community soccer field. Volunteers from both sites stay in regular contact, so news travels fast. After a report of favorable conditions at Chichicaxtle, birders not charged with keeping tabs on the migration at Cardel shuttle to the more active site. When Cardel heats up once more, the birders simply make the journey in reverse. Then it’s over to Chichicaxtle again when Cardel’s feathered flood falters. And so on. It’s not uncommon to bounce back and forth several times in a day, switching between the sites like a tennis ball hit in slow motion across a six-mile court.
Peak times for huge flights
Large flights from August 20 until mid-September, peaking September 1-9
Large flights start around September 22, peak from September 26 to October 8, and continue until October 12
Large flights October 3-20, peaking October 7-17
Large flights September 26 until the end of October, peaking October 17-30
Be sure to bird the fenceline, trees, and fields bordering the soccer field. Mexican Sheartail and Buff-bellied Hummingbird are possible, as are Gray Hawk, White-collared Seedeater, and other residents.
Farther out you’ll find birds in coastal lagoons, forests, beaches, shade-grown coffee plantations, high desert, cloud forest, an extinct volcano, semi-tropical wetlands, and rainforest. Of the dozens of great birding sites in the state, you can’t go wrong at the 11 I’ll describe below.
Just 15 miles north of Cardel, La Mancha Biological Station, a field station operated by the Institute of Ecology, hosts the greatest diversity of avifauna in the coastal plains: More than 330 species are listed. Its forests and lagoons shelter Laughing Falcon, Collared Forest-Falcon, Zone-tailed Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Peregrine and Aplomado Falcons, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Boat-billed and other herons, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, White Ibis, and Aztec Parakeet. The area is also home to Red-billed Pigeon, White-bellied Emerald, Rose-throated Becard, Masked Tityra, Montezuma Oropendola, Melodius Blackbird, and Blue-gray Tanager. And dozens more.
During my visit, there was even talk of a sighting of the uncommon and secretive Sungrebe, although I wasn’t lucky enough to catch it. The difficulty in spotting a few birds, however, is more than made up for by the ease with which you can get to them. This is not rugged back-country birding; a 30-peso entrance fee (about $2.50) and a decent pair of walking shoes are all you need.
Head west on the highway from Cardel, and in less than an hour you’ll find yourself in the capital city Xalapa. Known as the Athens of Veracruz due to its three major universities and variety of cultural attractions and events, Xalapa offers birding in a more urban setting.
Among its many good restaurants, hotels, coffee houses, bakeries, and bookstores is Macuiltepetl Ecological Park, site of an extinct volcano in the center of the city. Search the park’s interior for the endemic Blue Mockingbird, as well as more widespread species, such as White-naped Brush-Finch, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Blue-crowned Motmot, Rusty Sparrow, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Green Jay, Band-backed Wren, Squirrel Cuckoo, and Scrub Euphonia. And watch for migrants from eastern and western North America.
Xalapa is also centrally located for birding western Veracruz. The forests at Las Minas, a short ride from downtown, are especially good sites for viewing Mountain Trogon, Hooded Grosbeak, Slate-throated Redstart, Gray Silky-Flycatcher, White-eared and Bumblebee Hummingbirds, Collared Towhee, Rufous-capped Brush-Finch, Russet Nightingale-Thrush, Hepatic Tanager, Black-headed Siskin, Tufted Flycatcher, and several species of warbler.
Only In Mexico
At least 94 bird species are endemic to Mexico. Among them, the
following 28 are found in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz:
* Occurs only in Veracruz
The area’s shade-coffee plantations provide two essentials for any quality birding experience (early-morning ones in particular): gourmet coffee for the birders and breeding habitat for the birds. At the plantation I visited, Rancho El Mirador, I watched Yellow-olive and Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, Olivaceous and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, Blue-crowned Motmot, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Common Bush-Tanager, and White-winged Tanager, which looks like Scarlet Tanager except for its white wing bars and black lores. Several plantations welcome overnight guests, giving birders a chance to slow down and bird at a relaxed pace.
Now let’s head back to Cardel and turn south to search out far different habitats and their birds.
Along the highway between Cardel and Veracruz sits the historic town of La Antigua, where, in 1520, Cortés established the first Spanish colony in the Americas. Take a boat ride down the La Antigua River to watch waders, shorebirds, and a quartet of kingfishers — Belted, Ringed, Amazon, and Green. Its grassy, tree-lined banks shelter Roseate Spoonbill, Wilson’s and Piping Plovers, and Whimbrel, and on a good day you can watch Sandwich Tern and Black Skimmer hunting the cool waters.
Just east of La Antigua is a coastal beach known as Playa Chalchihuecan. The two-mile dirt road leading to it traverses thorn-scrub areas, forests, and open fields, offering excellent birding. You may be treated to two endemic hummingbirds — Mexican Sheartail and Bumblebee Hummingbird — as well as Black-headed Trogon, Cavinet’s Emerald, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, and Common Pauraque.
Continuing south, your next destinations should be the bird-rich savannas at Las Barrancas, less than an hour’s drive from Cardel. Double-striped Thick-knee, a grassland shorebird that is one of only two thick-knee species in the Western Hemisphere, is often seen here. Common Tody-Flycatcher, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Pinnated Bittern, Northern Jacana, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture also occur within the grassland and wet meadow. The Rufous-breasted Spinetail, which is near the western edge of its range in the area, can be seen in the scrub habitat, and Crested Caracara and Aplomado Falcon are common.
Still farther south are the vast Alvarado wetlands, 750,000 acres that provide stopover and wintering habitat for thousands of egrets, ibis, herons, and ducks. The birding is great at several spots, including Cosamaloapan, where you can bird by car along a lightly traveled highway. Watch for Snail Kite, Black-collared Hawk, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Northern Jacana, and other wetlands birds.
Drive about three hours south of Alvarado to reach the Sierra de los Tuxtlas, mile-high volcanic peaks that are home to the northernmost tropical rainforest in the Americas.
The big attraction for many visitors is Lake Catemaco, formed within the calderas of several extinct volcanoes. The town of Catemaco has good hotels and restaurants and is an ideal base for birding trips in southern Veracruz.
Patches of rainforest along the lake’s edges hold several common tropical species: Blue-crowned Motmot, Red-lored Parrot, Spot-breasted Wren, and White-breasted Wood-Wren, as well as Stripe-throated (formerly Little) and Long-billed (formerly Long-tailed) Hermits — hummingbirds with wedge-shaped tails and deeply curved bills. At the Nanciyaga Ecological Reserve on the eastern shore of the lake, watch and listen for Ruddy Crake, a relative of our rails, as well as Collared Aracari and woodcreepers.
Research stations devoted to the study of tropical ecosystems dot the area, including the National University of Mexico (UNAM) Biological Station, an 1,850-acre reserve nestled in the foothills of the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas, about 18 miles east of Catemaco.
Birding near UNAM is relatively easy and quite rewarding. Just inside the entrance gate, I was thrilled to watch a pair of nesting Black-and-white Owls. The species lives in forests, swamps, and other habitats from southern Mexico to northern South America.
Why Cardel is Grand Central for raptors
Situated in the lowlands just north of the city of Veracruz, Cardel lies in a level gap that runs between the Gulf coast and the Sierra Manuel Diaz, an eastern extension of the Sierra Madres. The town rests just south of the range’s southeastern edge, where warm air from the Gulf collides with the mountains and rises up against them, creating vast thermals.
Migrating raptors ride the thermals, gliding effortlessly from the peak of one to the base of the next, and then rising up again. It’s a process that conserves energy the birds would otherwise have to expend by flapping and makes long migrations possible. North of the gap, an expanse of essentially flat land stretches across the midwestern United States and north into Canada. Combined with the thermals, the topography funnels migrating birds through a natural bottleneck that passes directly over Cardel.
The flyway over Cardel is also a critical migratory route for American White Pelicans and Wood Storks, perhaps 1,000 per flock, as well as throngs of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Anhingas, and White-winged Doves. And the area ranks among the better places in the Americas to observe eastern and western passerine migrants and wintering birds side by side.
Other birders in my group watched Bat Falcon, White Hawk, and Gray-headed Kite hunting in the open country, and I saw or heard Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Aracari, Violaceous Trogon, Bright-rumped Attila, and Stub-tailed Spadebill within the tropical forest.
On our way back to Lake Catemaco, we took a late-afternoon boat ride through the mangroves and marshes of the brackish Laguna de Sontecomapan, where we saw the elusive Plain Chachalaca (more easily seen late in the day), Laughing Falcon, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Northern Jacana, Olive-throated Parakeet, and Greater Curassow.
My visits to Veracruz were extraordinary. Cardel and Chichicaxtle, where migration is writ large, are clearly here to stay on the world’s birding scene. For us North American birders, they present an unrivaled wildlife spectacle starring our familiar North American raptors, plus close proximity to the beauty and diversity of tropical birds.
Carole S. Griffiths is a research associate specializing in raptor evolution at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She also teaches ornithology, evolution, and conservation biology as an associate professor at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus. Devin Griffiths is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.