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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Mexico: Veracruz - A River of Birds

September - October 2022
with Steve Dougill and Alberto Lobato as leaders
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Hawks, you said? Besides many other great birds on offer in Veracruz, the river of raptors is a breath-taking spectacle. Photo: Steve Howell

The Mexican state of Veracruz is a justifiably famous travel corridor. Cortés scuttled his ships on the coast of Veracruz before advancing on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and during the colonial era until 1760 Veracruz was the only port allowed to manage trade through to Spain. Today the city still serves as one of Mexico’s principal ports.

Countless centuries before Cortés, many North American birds had already evolved fall migration routes that passed through this coastal Mexican state. Indeed, the hawk migration alone is so spectacular that locals refer to the passage of migrant birds of prey as the ‘Río de Rapaces,’ or ‘River of Raptors.’ In a single day in Veracruz, it’s possible to see more raptors than most birdwatchers will see in their lifetime! Our tour is timed to coincide with the peak of fall migration in Veracruz, and visits to tropical coastal grassland and shrubby, pine-oak woodlands, fog-shrouded humid forest, coastal mangroves, lowland rainforest and other habitats will provide us with both an excellent introduction to the birds of Mexico and the conservation efforts of our Mexican hosts, Pronatura Veracruz A.C.

Day 1: The tour begins at 6 pm in Veracruz. Night in Veracruz City.

Day 2: We’ll begin in the coastal short-grass prairie around Las Barrancas, just south of the city of Veracruz. Mornings here can be lovely with many North American migrants and resident birds to see. Here we’ll search especially for the Double-stripedThick-Knee, a bird as bizarre as its name sounds. Small patches of trees often host large numbers of Scissor-tailed and Fork-tailed Flycatchers, often side-by-side. Concentrations of migrant landbirds often stage in isolated patches of trees where they are joined by residents such as Yellow-bellied Elaenia, and Common Tody-Flycatcher. As the day warms, we should see Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures cruising over the flooded fields while Aplomado Falcons hunt the unflooded areas. We’ll have lunch at a local restaurant in the quaint town of Talcotalpan, a World Heritage town located on the banks of the Papaloapan (Butterfly) River, followed by a two-hour boat trip through the Alvarado Wetlands. While digesting our meal, we’ll be able to see the mangrove restoration efforts carried out in the area while looking for five species of kingfisher, plus Common and Great Black-hawks, Black-collared Hawks, Sungrebe, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper and (Mangrove) Yellow Warbler. After the boat trip we’ll make our way back to the Hotel in Veracruz for dinner and get ready for next day. Night in Veracruz City.

Day 3: We’ll have an early breakfast and depart for the 3.5-hour drive south to Catemaco. If we missed something specific the day before, we may make a quick stop at Las Barrancas before continuing to our hotel in Catemaco. Our hotel grounds will host some great rain forest birds, including chachalacas, toucans, oropendolas, orioles and migratory warblers such as Hooded. After dinner, we’ll offer an outing to Nanciyaga Reserve with hopes of finding Mottled and Spectacled owls. Night in Catemaco.

Day 4: After a 6:00 am breakfast, we’ll head to Nanciyaga to explore this private forest reserve that runs along the edge of Catemaco Lake. Here Great Curassow, Scarlet Macaw, Bright-rumped Attila, Lesser Greenlet, and Ruddy Crake will make our morning. After lunch at an open-air restaurant at Nanciyagas we’ll travel to an area of patchy and open forest that the Universidad Autónoma de Veracruz Villa uses as a research station. Here we will be looking for trogons, ant-tanagers, Golden-olive Woodpecker, and potential sightings of White Hawk and shorebirds. We will continue birding all the way to the Gulf of Mexico before returning to Catemaco for dinner. Night in Catemaco.

Day 5: We’ll make an early trip to the Ruiz Cortinez, a town located at mid-elevation on San Martín Volcano. In this cloud forest we will be looking especially for Tuxtlas Quail-Dove and Long-tailed Sabrewing, both Mexican endemics, and we’ll have a least a chance for Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Black Hawk-Eagle, Barred Forest-Falcon, Lesson’s Motmot, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner and more. This area is particularly humid, where trees growing on the volcanic substrate are covered in ferns and epiphytes. We’ll take lunch at a local restaurant before visiting another section of the reserve at a lower elevation, looking for Yellow-billed Cacique, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia and Tody Motmot. After this we will return to Catemaco for dinner. Night in Catemaco.

Day 6: Today’s morning will be more relaxed, starting with breakfast at 7-8am. We’ll pack up and leave the lowland rainforest behind with a drive towards the town of Chichicaxtle, the so-called “capital” of raptor migration. After a lunch at our hotel, we’ll visit the nearby Mario Ramos Bird Observatory for an afternoon of scanning the skies. Here the hills, mountains and ocean come together, funneling millions of birds through a relatively small area. We should witness spectacular flights of tens of thousands of raptors, but even on a slow day (with “just” a few thousand birds) it will be easy to see why locals refer to this migration spectacle as a “river”. At times, the sky will be peppered with immense kettles of swirling raptors stretching from horizon to horizon. Birds stream from kettle to kettle, making the sky appear connected by aerial rivers of Broad-winged, Swainson’s Hawks, and Turkey Vultures. There is also a steady movement of Osprey, Peregrine Falcon, American Kestrel, and Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. They are often joined by smaller numbers of migrating Hook-billed Kite and Zone-tailed Hawk. A variety of wading birds use the same thermals and can often be seen in the same kettles: Wood Stork, American White Pelican, Anhinga and White Ibis are usually particularly numerous. Night in Puente Nacional.

Day 7: After breakfast we’ll head towards Rio Escondido, a spot near Chichicaxtle where the tropical deciduous forest offers great birding, and an old irrigation canal nearby offers additional variety. Varied Bunting and Morelet’s Seedeater are expected, as are Rufous-capped Warbler and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. We will enjoy watching large numbers of migrating songbirds pass overhead. The flatulent calls of Dickcissel will be audible high overhead, and the gaps will be filled with the mass movements of several species of butterflies and dragonflies. All the while, colorful resident birds vying for our attention will include the colorful Altamira Oriole and stunning Vermilion Flycatcher. Raucous Great Kiskadees are joined by their similar-appearing cousins, the Social and Boat-billed Flycatchers. Add Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Rufous-naped Wren, Canivet’s Emerald and many species that rarely if ever reach the United States, and we are certain to have a bird feast for our eyes and ears. After birding in this area we will move between counting stations to wring the most out of the raptor migration during the rest of the day. Raptors move through the entire coastal plain of Veracruz, and with different weather conditions air currents change and the flight path of the migrating birds change accordingly. We will stay in contact with the Pronatura counters to know exactly where the heaviest raptor movements are taking place. Night in Puente Nacional.

Day 8: We’ll visit Playa Juan Angel, where a walk along the dunes and beach may produce Mexican Sheartail, Ruddy-ground Doves, Squirrel Cuckoos, Magnificent Frigatebird and many northern visitors. If conditions are right, this is  an excellent place to witness huge numbers of swallows and passerines pouring south, skimming the tops of the dunes. The mouth of the river sometimes has nice concentrations of shorebirds with the potential of spotting a Collared Plover. As the temperature rises, we’ll tear ourselves away from the lowlands, and head back to the hotel to pack and have lunch. We will have our last quick stop at the River of Raptors Observatory before heading into the mountains to the town of Coatepec, rumored to be a great town for coffee lovers. Night in Coatepec.

Day 9: We’ll visit Parque Ecológico Macquiltépetl, a park on the side of an extinct volcano in the heart of Xalapa. Paved paths wind their way up the volcano, allowing us to see flocks of birds at eye level. Wedge-tailed Sabrewing and Azure-crowned Hummingbird feed on the many flowering shrubs. Mixed flocks of warblers are common, while Rusty Sparrow and White-naped Brush-Finch skulk at ground level. Perhaps best of all, the park is an excellent place to find (and actually see) Blue Mockingbird and the endemic “Chiviscoyo,” the Bearded Wood-partridge. After lunch at the local restaurant at Los Tecajetes Park we’ll visit the Museum of Anthropology and History of Xalapa (M.A.X.), filled with fascinating exhibits on the history of the pre-Hispanic towns of Veracruz. The MAX is known as one of the best museums of its kind in Mexico. We’ll have a birding option at El Haya Park for those more interested in a walk instead. Night in Coatepec.

Days 10: We have two full days to explore the diversity of habitats outside of Xalapa. On the first day we’ll visit an area where fog-shrouded humid evergreen forest and pine-oak woodlands mix to provide a wonderful assortment of habitat and birds. Some species will be familiar to some of us, including Steller’s Jay, American Robin, Eastern and Western Bluebirds and flocks of wintering Black-throated Green, Hermit and Townsend’s Warblers. These are joined by Rufous-capped Brush-Finch, Collared Towhee, and Crescent-chested and the almost unbelievable Red Warblers. There are also large numbers of hummingbirds including the tiny Bumblebee Hummingbird. Bronze-winged Woodpecker and Cinnamon-bellied Flower-piercer occur alongside superb butterflies such as Anna’s Eighty-Eight and Blue Morpho. Night in Coatepec.

Day 11: We’ll spend the morning exploring a dry region nearby, stopping by the beautiful Alchichica crater lake along the Pueblas border, where incredible stromatolite formations petrified by the passage of the centuries border the edges of the lake. In the afternoon we’ll be sure to visit the impressive Texolo waterfall near Xico, featured in the movie Romancing the Stone. Though the dramatic scenery alone will make the trip worthwhile, we also hope to see Bat Falcon, as well as White-collared Swift, which nest behind the waterfall. American Dippers and Louisiana Waterthrush can be found along the river while flocks of Montezuma Oropendola and White-crowned Parrots crowd the skies. Night in Coatepec.

Day 12: After breakfast we’ll pack up and head back towards Cardel and Chichicaxtle, where we’ll enjoy the streaming river of birds at the hawkwatch sites. We expect to see Swainson’s Hawks dominating the skies, with lesser number of Broad-winged Hawks. After lunch at the hotel, we’ll have the option to return to the hawkwatch site, or to do a river walk along the Antigua River at Paso Mariano, where we’re likely to see Rose-throated Becard, wild Muscovy Duck, Laughing Falcon, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, and Black Phoebe, and may hear calling Collared Forest-Falcon. Night in Chichicaxtle.

Day 13: This morning we’ll leave early and head toward a nearby overlook; another great spot for experiencing a close view of migrating raptors across a beautiful landscape. There are some viewing platforms here where we’ll eat a packed lunch. For those with energy, there is a trail that leads through tropical oak forest, home to many birds including the Black-crested Titmouse, Short-tailed Hawk, Rufous-naped Wren, Lesser Roadrunner, and Yellow-headed Parrot. A bizarre species of planthopper, Cerogenes auricoma (locally calledthe “forest fairy”), can also be found here, amongst ancient palms, orchids and more. The trail ends at a high point with a 360° view of a natural “pinch point” that funnels the raptor migration. After lunch, we’ll visit the ruins of Cempoala, the city that first welcomed Hernan Cortes more than 500 years ago before he continued on to the city of Veracruz. We’ll arrive at our hotel in time for a rest and clean up before a final, celebratory dinner together. Night in Veracruz.

Day 14: The tour concludes this morning in Veracruz.

Created: 30 November 2021

Prices

  • 2022 Tour Price Not Yet Known

Notes

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Questions? Tour Manager: Matt Brooks. Call 1-866-547-9868 (US or Canada) or (01) 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

Maximum group size 10 with two leaders. Both leaders will accompany the tour regardless of group size.

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