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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Mexico: Veracruz - A River of Birds

Saturday 24 September to Friday 7 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 their passage 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 (!), and while each year is a bit different, our tour is timed to coincide with the peak of fall migration. In addition, visits to tropical coastal grassland and shrubby, pine-oak woodlands, fog-shrouded humid forest, coastal mangroves, lowland rainforest and other habitats will provide both a fine introduction to the birds of Mexico and the conservation efforts of our excellent 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 migrant and resident birds. We’ll search especially for the Double-striped Thick-Knee, a bird as bizarre as its name. Small patches of trees often host large numbers of Scissor-tailed and Fork-tailed Flycatchers, often side-by-side, and concentrations of migrant landbirds often stage here, 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 quaint 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 looking for five species of kingfisher, plus Common Black, Great Black and Black-collared Hawks, Sungrebe, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper and (Mangrove) Yellow Warbler, we’ll be able to see the important mangrove restoration efforts carried out in the area.  After the boat trip we’ll return to our hotel. 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 important yesterday, we may make a quick stop at Las Barrancas before continuing to Catemaco. Our hotel grounds hosts some great rain forest birds, including chachalacas, toucans, oropendolas, orioles and migratory warblers such as Hooded, and we’ll spend the afternoon here. After dinner, we’ll offer an outing to Nanciyaga Reserve with hopes of finding Mottled and Spectacled Owls. Night in Catemaco.

Day 4: After an early breakfast, we’ll drive to Nanciyaga to explore a 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 enliven our morning. After lunch at an open-air restaurant at Nanciyagas we’ll travel to a Universidad Autónoma de Veracruz Villa research station. Here in an area of patchy and open forest we’ll look for trogons, ant-tanagers, Golden-olive Woodpecker, and possibly White Hawk and shorebirds. We’ll 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 cloud forest near Ruiz Cortinez, a town located at mid-elevation on San Martín Volcano. This area is particularly humid, and the trees here, growing on the volcanic substrate, are covered in ferns and epiphytes.  We’ll be looking especially for Tuxtlas Quail-Dove and Long-tailed Sabrewing, both Mexican endemics, and we’ll have a least a chance for Ornate and Black Hawk-Eagles, Barred Forest-Falcon, Lesson’s Motmot, and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, among others. We’ll take lunch at a local restaurant before visiting a lower elevation section of the reserve in hopes of Yellow-billed Cacique, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia and Tody Motmot. Night in Catemaco.

Day 6: This morning will be more relaxed, with breakfast at 7-8 am, but of course birding the hotel grounds is an early option. We’ll pack and leave the lowland rainforest behind, driving 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’- concentrations of raptors and other migrants all swirling up the same thermal (a rising column of warm air) -  with birds streaming from kettle to kettle making the sky appear connected by aerial rivers. Broad-winged Hawks dominate in late September but there is also a steady movement of Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons, American Kestrels, and Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, and they are often joined by smaller numbers of migrating Hook-billed Kites, Zone-tailed Hawks and even a few late Mississippi Kites. We should note that a variety of wading birds can often be seen in the same kettles with the raptors, especially Wood Storks, American White Pelicans, Anhingas and White Ibis. 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 provides additional variety. Varied Bunting and Morelet’s Seedeater are expected, as are Rufous-capped Warbler and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. We’ll hope for large numbers of migrating songbirds passing low overhead and the gaps should be filled with the mass movements of several species of butterflies and dragonflies. We’ll likely be distracted from the overhead show by all the colorful and noisy resident birds including 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 this area we’ll move for the rest of the day and as needed between raptor counting stations. Raptors move through the entire coastal plain of Veracruz, and with different weather conditions air currents change and the flight paths of the migrating birds change with them. We’ll 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 Dove, Squirrel Cuckoo, 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 an excellent concentration of shorebirds possibly including Collared Plover. As the temperature rises, we’ll leave the lowlands, and head back to the hotel to have lunch and pack. After departing, we’ll have a last quick stop at the River of Raptors Observatory before heading into the mountains and 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 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 a local restaurant in 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 that activity. 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 habitats and birds. Several 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, but these are joined by Rufous-capped Brush-Finch, Collared Towhee, Crescent-chested Warbler and the almost unbelievable Red Warbler. There are also large numbers of hummingbirds including the tiny Bumblebee Hummingbird, and 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 and White-collared Swift, the latter nesting 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 Chichicaxtle, where we’ll once again marvel at the streaming river of birds over the hawkwatch sites. With the passage of a week, we expect Swainson’s Hawks and Turkey Vultures to have joined Broad-wings as the dominant species. After lunch at our hotel, we’ll have the option of returning 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: We’ll leave early with a packed lunch and head toward a nearby overlook with viewing platforms, another great spot for experiencing a close view of migrating raptors over a beautiful landscape. For those with energy, there is a trail that leads through tropical oak forest, home 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.

Updated: 03 December 2021

Prices

  • 2022 Tour Price : $4,650
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $530

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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