Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mexico - a HAPPY birthday

So, from those dizzy heights we return to the coast. This is more of a day-in-the-life type blog. It was one of the last days of the AOU conference and we were all a little dizzy from hearing hundreds of presentations. It was also my birthday and we were in Veracruz… surely that required celebration! So we trundled down to the bus station pre-dawn and got on the first bus to a small town near the coast from where we got a cheap taxi with a very friendly taxi driver to take us down to the beach – Playa Juan Angel (Jimmy Angel Beach) to be precise. Our target bird was Collared Plover, a tiny little plover that I had never managed to connect with elsewhere in Mexico, despite the fact that they are distributed along both coasts. We had to take our shoes off to get to cross the channeled stream to get to what looked to be the best section of beach and as we walked along we quickly saw plovers… but those were Snowy Plovers (or Kentish Plovers if you prefer). Fortunately 30 minutes or so later I spotted 3 Collared Plovers and the birthday lifer celebrations began. Later we found another adult with a juvenile (on the side of the beach where we didn’t need to get our feet wet) and here is a photo of that adult Collared Plover. The way the foot is tensed you can see the semipalmation well.

There were other shorebirds on the beach too like this beautiful Long-billed Curlew. I just love the barred pattern in their upperpart feathers.

And there were other waterbirds too of the long-legged wader type like this white-morph Reddish Egret

And this juvenile Snowy Egret. Compare the proportions of both egrets and you’ll notice their different giss/gizz (general impression, shape and size).

On the beach there were a large bunch of terns including this juvenile Black Skimmer (Royal Tern behind). With the lower mandible longer than the upper mandible, skimmers may look odd – but they have a neat fishing trick of course!

Sandwich Terns were also common

And we tried very hard to turn this tern into a Roseate Tern (it has some puzzling features, e.g. the combination of full black cap with long, thin, all-black bill suggests Roseate Tern but the primaries appear too dark for Roseate and it seems that the white inner webs characteristic of that species are missing. Also, the tail appears too short for Roseate)… but we eventually decided it must be an unusual (maybe transitional plumaged?) Common Tern after all. Comments anyone?

Away from the beach there were other beautiful birds to look at like this male Vermillion Flycatcher.

And perched Black Vulture.

After an hour or two at the beach we walked back to the road and flagged down a bus to Cardel. In October, this is a phenomenal spot for raptor watching and the conditions seemed perfect. Yes, we were in for a treat. To understand why southern Mexico is so good to watching migrating raptors you have to realize three key facts: 1) raptors don’t like to flap much and conserve their energy by soaring on thermal currents, 2) the thermal currents raptors need only occur over land, and 3) North America is shaped like a big triangle standing on its apex so if you need to travel to South America over the land no matter where you start your journey, east middle or west, you will get funneled down through some key bottle necks, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and further south along in Panama’s narrow corridor of land. As it turns out, Veracruz City and Cardel are just north of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and boy do they see some raptor traffic in the fall.

So there we were on top of the tallest building in Cardel (a hotel). As the day warmed up and the thermal started to climb, we saw distant “funnel clouds” spiraling upward over the hills on the horizon. Of course, these weren’t funnel clouds but rather streams of raptors circling in the thermals. When they got high enough they broke from their thermal and started streaming in a “river of raptors” looking for the next thermal. These "rivers" would come right over our heads and sometimes there were so many raptors in one river that it would take them over half an hour to pass us. On the roof the raptor counters were clicking away while on the terrace one story below the rest of us sat astounded at the spectacle. A sky full of raptors!

In the morning the dominant species in the flocks was Broad-winged Hawk. In fact well over 100,000 Broad-winged Hawks passed us by – here is just a few of them (the larger black birds mixed in are vultures)!

Sometimes the Broad-wings had more company. Spiraling with them here are Wood Stork, Black Vulture, Swainson’s Hawk and if you can pick out the Great Black Hawk in the mix you’re doing extremely well! (hint: look for a bird with a different giss underneath and to the right of the Swainson’s Hawk and Black Vulture flying close together.. but actually you’d need to see the larger file to ID this bird)

Later in the afternoon, the conditions meant that the raptors were moving a little inland rather than hugging the coast. We therefore left Cardel and went to a nearby site called Chichicaxtle, where there was an observation tower near a soccer field. Here we started to observe a changing in the guard with Swainson’s Hawks beginning to dominate, although there were still some Broad-wings mixed in. By the end of the day the official count was over a quarter of a million raptors (all species combined).

A final treat, on the edge of the soccer field, was an endemic hummingbird, the Mexican Sheartail. Most of this species’ range is in the Yucatan Peninsula but it seems there is a small disjunct population in Veracruz. What better way to finish a smashing birthday than with a lifer!

Visit for larger versions of these photos...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Nature Blog Network Birdwatching Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory Fatbirder's Top 500 Birding Websites