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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: Veracruz

Migration is a Moving Experience

2023 Narrative

In Brief: Our revival of this migration-centered tour was a great success, with a small group and fabulous birding, from quiet beaches to cool montane conifer forests. Whether it was dizzying kettles of thousands of hawks or a coastal fallout of migrants everywhere we looked (from American Bittern to Dickcissel to abundant Yellow-breasted Chats), the great diversity of birdlife kept us busy—but in a good way. From dust-bathing Northern Bobwhites to flitting Red Warblers; from local endemics such as Strickland’s Woodpecker, Blue-capped Motmot, and Bearded Wood-Partridge to 22 species of migrant warblers (plus six residents!) and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls at every turn; from sun-downer beers to colorful butterflies in tropical forest; and from a calm sunny morning in high desert with singing thrashers to a blustery beach afternoon with hundreds of migrant waterbirds it was a very special week, away from the madness of the so-called ‘developed’ world. The great range of habitats produced almost 300 species in a week of unhurried birding, but all too soon it was over.

In Detail: Everyone arrived safely into hot sunny weather, with time the first afternoon for a little light birding near the hotel, where the recently established Monk Parakeets showed well, alongside Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Great Kiskadees, and numerous tail-less Great-tailed Grackles. The intro meeting and dinner were followed by a good sleep. After an early breakfast, our first morning found us at a quiet beach road where swarm after swarm of migrating White-winged Doves passed over southward, along with flocks of Dickcissels and a scattering of other species ranging from White Ibis to Magnolia Warbler. Residents included some obliging Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, both Common Black and Great Black Hawks, the endemic Veracruz [Rufous-naped] Wren, Black-headed and Cinnamon-bellied Saltators, and Rose-throated Becard, while migrants ranged from Mississippi Kites and countless swallows (4 species) to an elusive Alder Flycatcher and abundant Yellow-breasted Chats. The heat kicked in by mid-morning so we headed to the famous Cardel hawk migration watchpoint atop the Hotel Bienvenido, where Pronatura Veracruz is into its 33rd year of counting the world famous ‘River of Raptors.’ Our timing was good: we stepped into the river mid-stream and before lunch almost drowned in tens of thousands of Broad-winged Hawks (of 220,000 logged during the day!), along with spectacular kettles of Anhingas and sundry other species. After lunch and a welcome siesta we explored south of Veracruz City and, despite hordes of beach-going locals, we found beautiful Scissor-tailed and Fork-tailed Flycatchers side-by-side, along with a variety of waterbirds such as Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, plus some wonderful Double-striped Thick-knees and a stunning sunset—not bad for the first day!

Another early start took us to another beach spot, where we soon appreciated the potential for great daily variation in migration—today no White-winged Doves! But by poking around we found a nice variety of shorebirds, headlined by the steadily declining (thanks to humans) Collared Plover, plus Aplomado Falcon and a scattering of migrants. At another beach spot we enjoyed a tern roost with hundreds of Sandwich Terns among which we picked out 3 uncommon Common Terns, along with Black Skimmers and a Reddish Egret. The hot-weather trend continued so we adjourned once more to Cardel and got to watch the steady build up from no hawks to thousands, with kettles appearing and disappearing as if by magic. Most were Broad-winged as expected on this date, plus a handful of Swainson’s Hawks and a beautifully low and showy Zone-tailed Hawk, along with hundreds of American White Pelicans and Anhingas. In the afternoon we moved inland to the Chichicaxtle observation tower where, with a pleasing number of locals as well as visiting foreign birders, we watched thousands upon thousands of Broad-wings streaming and kettling over, among which we picked out some dark-morph birds plus a single Hook-billed Kite. The adjacent trees held migrant Baltimore Orioles, a Couch’s Kingbird, and a handsome Yellow-winged Tanager.

We had hoped on one of the lowland days for overnight rain to ground some migrants and—amazingly—that is what happened! Our morning at a marshy savanna area south of Veracruz produced an exciting mix of birds (100 species in 4.5 hours!) all over the place—from a remarkable total of 6 American Bitterns showing well to an undoubted underestimate of 80 Yellow-breasted Chats. Plus Wilson’s Snipes in the open, Blue Grosbeaks and Dickcissels on roadside grasses, numerous Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and warblers, orioles, flycatchers, and vireos every few feet! Residents included singing Plain-breasted Ground-Doves, cryptic Double-striped Thick-knees, hunting Aplomado Falcons, and both Tropical (a recent range expansion) and Northern Mockingbirds. The mix of northern and southern species in this region was nicely exemplified by a male Northern Cardinal perched alongside a male Barred Antshrike! Then it was on to our base in Xalapa for the next four nights, at 1400 m elevation and within easy reach of varied highland and foothill habitats.

Our first highland day we began in cloud forest at Las Minas, where birding was good despite the sunny ‘tourist weather’—although that did mean things quickly got rather quiet. The first few hours, however, featured great audio of the very local endemic Bearded Wood-Partridge, plus flocks of warblers including Red and Crescent-chested, plus showy Gray-barred Wrens, handsome Emerald Toucanets, and stealthy Black Thrushes. Spectacular, low-flying White-throated Swifts entertained as the local Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks circled overhead, a stunning male Elegant Euphonia burbled forth from his mistletoe hide-out, and Bumblebee and Garnet-throated Hummingbirds visited roadside flowers. Moving to higher elevation on Cofre de Perote we found the controversially split Transvolcanic Jay and the poorly known, highly local, and tiny-billed Strickland’s Woodpecker, as well as Collared Towhees, Striped Sparrows, more Red Warblers, and numerous ‘Southeast Arizona specialties’ such as Olive Warbler, Mexican Chickadee, and Yellow-eyed Junco. Not to mention those resident ‘Aztec’ Golden-crowned Kinglets—so we won’t.

The second highland day started in cool valley fog near Perote, but as if by magic the fog quickly dissipated to reveal a silvery and then golden sun-bathed hillside of Joshua tree desert where we enjoyed birding in a very different habitat from the rest of the tour. The adjacent relict grasslands held Lilian’s (aka Chihuahuan by the geographically bewildered) Meadowlarks and swarming flocks of Horned Larks, while the rocky slopes produced Curve-billed and Ocellated Thrashers, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Looping back through the slopes of Cofre de Perote we enjoyed more Red Warblers and located the understated Pine Flycatcher before a filling roadside lunch stop. Afternoon birding at La Joya started out quiet but then things came unglued as we hit a mega-flock that absorbed 90+ minutes—at least 30 species and perhaps 100 or more individual birds, ranging from Mountain Trogon to Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and dominated by 13 warbler species (5 residents and 8 migrants). Phew! After that we were ready for a siesta followed by a good dinner to round off ‘just another amazing day’ of birding in Mexico.

Helping to fill in the range of habitats, the next day we visited foothill coffee plantations and tropical forest, starting with a spectacular Collared Forest Falcon and ending the day with a surprise roosting Northern Potoo. In between we enjoyed varied migrant warblers (including both Mourning and MacGillivray’s, plus an obliging Louisiana Waterthrush); a group of Red-legged Honeycreepers mobbing yet another Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, along with a Bananaquit and several Azure-crowned Hummingbirds; the ‘deafening’ song of Wedge-tailed Sabrewings; a beautifully sunlit Keel-billed Toucan; and, with some work, the local endemic Blue-capped Motmot and Bronze-winged Woodpecker.

For our last morning we sampled some relict native grassland and scrub, with clear skies and great views inland of Cofre de Perote and the decreasingly snow-capped Pico de Orizaba. Birds ranged from a covey of dust-bathing beauties (the colorful local race of Northern Bobwhite) to the very local Mexican Sheartail, along with resident Botteri’s Sparrows, Grass Wrens, and Black-crested Titmouses/Titmice, plus migrant Painted Buntings and yet more (!) Yellow-breasted Chats and Wilson’s Warblers. From hot and still, the day quickly turned to blustery and overcast, which meant that migrating raptors weren’t much in evidence so we opted for a siesta and late afternoon coastal birding. Good decision! The winds picked up to 40+ knots with lightning and thunder, and at nearby beaches we enjoyed the spectacle of hundreds of herons, egrets, ducks, and terns battling the gale over the breaking surf—another aspect of migration, and one rarely observed so graphically. A fine last supper punctuated by lightning as the rain finally broke through made for an atmospheric conclusion to this diverse tour.       

Flight times meant another early breakfast and departure, and all too soon it was time to leave, after a great week of migration, from beaches to mountains; plus numerous resident bird species, friendly people, good company, and fine cuisine. Thanks to all for making this a wonderful trip.

- Steve Howell 

Created: 17 October 2023