Chapter 5. Sierra de Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2001 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Piling into three long, flat boats we push off from the dock at Sontecomapan. A narrow waterway connects us to the open water of the Laguna, but after a short spurt across one corner, we enter a river and wind slowly upstream through a mangrove swamp. The thick, snarled growth of the three mangrove species - Red, Yellow and Black - surrounds us and often branches over us. Yesterday we happened upon William J. Schaldach Jr., the man to whom Howell and Webb dedicated their well-known book, "A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America." Today he is our guide through the mangrove swamp. I'm torn between writing about William and the birds, both subjects fascinating. Although dimmed of eyesight and hard of hearing, 78-year-old William is sharp as a whip when it comes to his bird knowledge. A biologist by training, he has spent the past 30 years in the Catemaco area, fishing 7 or 8 in the nearby Gulf, prowling through the rain forests, discovering dozens of new subspecies of birds, and most recently investigating the rate of movement of plate tectonics as measured in plant and animal species diversion. As we travel in the boat and later in my car, William jumps from one subject to another, an authority or at least dabbler in many. Of Scottish-Irish descent, by way of Newfoundland, we share stories about that land since I just visited it this summer. Surprisingly, as he revisits some youthful memories, he bursts into a baritone voice singing a few Newfoundland folk songs in a thick accent. But here, locally, he tells us of how these volcanic peaks were once covered with rain forests, but agricultural demands reduced the virgin forests to 7%, mostly while he has lived in the area. We encounter lots of colorful birds, but I am left wondering what the forests must have looked like when he saw the last Harpy Eagle in Mexico. Today along the river we get great views of Common Black-Hawk, Osprey , Laughing Falcon and four kingfishers: Amazon, Green, Ringed and, perhaps, Pygmy. On the ride back, Ismael spots a bird in the swamp and runs his boat ashore. Barefoot, he climbs through the mangroves and quickly disappears from view. A little while later a Sungrebe pops out of the thicket and floats on the river in front of us, in glorious view of all of us.
(Shari) "Hot Spit" Mona exclaims as we identify a yellow ???? oriole. I am along with the birders today, believe it or not. It is a boat trip through the jungle and mangrove swamp and I thought it would be a nice outing. On a scale of 1-10, others tell me today is a 10 for birds. I pick up 5-7 lifers myself, one of which is a Sungrebe. That bird, I understand, is a plum to have on a life list. You should hear the ohs and ahs when it is spotted. It looks like a big duck with brown and white stripes on its longish neck. Nothing to write home about in my book, but hay, I am not a connoisseur of birds. Our group fills three boats and I am not on the same boat as Bert. Therefore, birding is more fun. I will let your imaginations go to work on figuring out why. I think the group hopes to make a birder out of me. Sid, Glorian and I head home after the 3-hour trip while the rest continue to bird at other locations. Dusty and I find out that the resort will do our laundry for us. They charge by the piece, and not by the kilogram, which could turn out expensive. Having the laundry at the office by 8 AM, will get it back by 5 PM the next day. Birders return home at 6 PM, already talking about tomorrow's outing. I am happy they had a good day.
(Bert) Just as the sky begins to reflect predawn light, we carpool with headlights bright. Not so with the local traffic we encounter: a bicyclist teetering on our right, a small truck loaded with standing passengers, a few pedestrians walking on the shoulder - all without artificial light. After Sontecomapan the smooth paved road turns to a bumpy rock bed that we navigate slowly for the next 45 min. We timed our arrival at UNAM to coincide with the active morning period when the birds can be most easily seen in the dense rainforest. Standing mostly at one spot, the parade of birds passes in front of us: Red-lored Parrots, Violaceous and Collared Trogons, Rose-throated Becards, White-throated Robins, Common Bush-Tanagers and White-winged Tanagers. The most spectacular is the Keel-billed Toucan with its outlandishly large and colorful bill. Just as the bird show slows down by about 10:30 or 11 AM, the UNAM researchers return with birds they netted earlier in the morning. One of the young ladies holds each banded bird in her hands for us to see and photograph, and then releases again to the wild. We inspect Swainson's Thrush, Clay-colored Robin and Golden-crowned Warbler.
Most of the birders head back to camp, but three vehicles continue down the road to Montepio, stopping frequently along the ranch lands to see birds. Hawks put on a good show: Gray, Roadside, Black, Short-tailed and an immature Snail Kite. The road terminates at the little village of Montepio where the tranquil sea folds up onto the broad sandy beaches. Here would be a delightful setting for a vacation home, were it not for the nearly four-hour round-trip on tortuous roads to the nearest grocery store and gas station.
(Bert) A day of rest, the weather is warm - almost too warm - and the skies clear. I catch up on computer work, mostly entering the bird sightings of the past two weeks. Our total species count is over 200 now, with many life birds ("lifers") for the group, including me. We've been dry camping now for a few days and today we need to run our generator for several hours to restore our house batteries. We string hoses together to refill water tanks and Sid (awarded last year as "Number 1 in the number 2 business.") uses his portable sanitary dump cart to relieve black tanks and gray tanks. In the late afternoon we share in a potluck dinner on the deck beside the pool, overlooking Lake Catemaco. I invite William Schaldach to join us. He tells me he sat on this same deck with Sean Connery when they were filming the movie "Medicine Man" here. After the main course we sing Happy 100th Birthday to Alice and Shari presents her with a cake with one candle for each century.
(Shari) One candle on a cake and the group singing Happy Birthday almost brings tears to Alice's eyes. We want to recognize her 100 years on this earth and our delight that she can accompany us, so we have a potluck in her honor. The setting is superb. The resort cleaned the round tables and chairs on the patio by the lake and set up a serving table, complete with tablecloth. I ask everyone to raise their left hand, put it on their hip and move that hip close to the food table. That indicates in which direction they should move around the table to gather their food. In doing it that way, everyone should get served at the same time. The line seems to move too slowly, however, and I think the food has to be more spread out and the desserts placed on a separate table. Beryl and Sid supply champagne for the group and we give a toast to Alice. Alice has made us all favors; the cutest little 2-in. high choir mice, complete with minute detail down to a cross on the hymn book, beads for eyes, and pink lining in the tiny ears. I will use ours for Christmas tree ornaments. We are done eating by 5 PM when the super bowl game begins. The resort has opened one of their rooms for the group to watch the game on TV. It is broadcast in Spanish, but that does not matter to die hard football fans, I guess. As I said before, the resort is a fantastic place and they have bent over backwards to make our stay pleasant. I understand that Sean Connery stayed here when he made the movie Medicine Man. He probably sat on the same outdoor chairs that we sit in to watch the mist lift off the mountains in the early morning and settle back down at dusk. At those times the lake is as still as a mirror and the scene is postcard perfect.
(Bert) In the stillness of the forest, nailed to a tree, a sign states, "Que todos los hombres del mundo renumcien a la violencia contra sus semezantes y contra la naturaleza - El Papa, Juan Pablo Segundo." In the open farmlands, the morning air has already turned warm, but here amongst the grandiose trees of La Jungla the air is cool and damp. Trees with branches that themselves are the size of ordinary trees tower far above us, their canopy closing off the sky and its light. Flittering near the sunny outer edge are warblers - Magnolia, Redstart, Black-throated Green, Wilson's - birds we see in the summer in the northern states. The greatest birding reward this morning are the many chances we get to see a strange bird with a strange name - Collared Aracari. With a toucan-shaped bill, the red colors of this bird are much more dramatic than the drawings in our field guides. The bill has zig-zag markings like a child would draw in an attempt to depict sharp teeth. Leaving La Jungla, we travel around the north side of Lake Catemaco, enjoying many views of the large, but calm lake. When the paved road turns to gravel and then to rock, we turn around, getting back to the campground by noon. An afternoon swim in the pool and a nap in the shade make this a lazy day. Enjoying the remnants of the Catemaco rain forest, I am reminded of the quote from Pope John Paul II, nailed to the tree, "That all men of the world renounce violence against their fellow men and against nature."
(Shari) Ninety-three degrees in the shade makes a good time for a swim. Gwen and Woody say the water is wonderful. Yea! If you are from Ontario, Canada! To my Texas blood, it feels very cold and I cannot get wet any farther than my waist. Bert gets wet to his neck, but I notice he does not stay in long. On top of that, a beetle the size of Wisconsin bites me behind my knee. Really the thing is as big as ¼ of a dollar bill and does the breast stroke across the pool with its two front arms with flipper like things on the end. It must be annoyed because it really comes after Bert as he tries to splash it away. We both make a dash out of the pool and point until a man with a rake comes to our rescue and scoops out the thing. Enough swimming for me! I walk back to R-TENT and find eight of our group sitting in a line under the shade of the trees watching Scotty and Woody on top of Woody's 5th-wheel. It must be hot because Woody strips off his shirt and the group claps for more. No one seems to have much ambition. Dorothy says in a day or so we will get used to the heat. Right!
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