Chapter 4. Isthmus of Tehuantepec
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2003 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Based on the stories told by others at the Oaxaca campground, Shari prepared us for rough traveling today. On a couple of the birding trips this past week we had driven through the construction zone outside the city: helter-skelter sections of rock base, old roadbed scraped raw and narrow strips of new blacktop, all without directional signs or barricades to mark our path. Anticipating the worst, we are pleasantly surprised that once past the first 10 miles, the balance of the trip is an enjoyable tour through coastal mountains. Early on we pass the village of Mescal, famous for the worm-in-the-bottle tequila. For many miles thereafter we see patches of the Blue Agave, from which mescal is distilled, growing in neat rows on steep mountainsides. Since we pass so few people living in the mountains, I wonder who is harvesting these crops. The newly paved road through the mountains is well designed, with banked curves, yellow medial line, white edge lines and concrete ditches. But are there a lot of curves! On one 2-mi. section, not atypical from the other 150 miles of mountain road today, I count 26 curves. When not concentrating on making turns, I see cactus-studded mountain sides above me and a flat stream edged by palms in the valley below. Cactus, clustered like green menorah, have fuzzy bobby-sox caps. Vultures are the most common bird, but I also see White-throated Magpie-Jays, two Lesser Roadrunners, and at a rest stop a couple of Orange-breasted Buntings. After setting up camp and a Margarita Party, we drive two miles to a roosting site for Cattle Egrets along a river. We see a thousand - I counted 200 and multiplied by 5 - perch on one tree. Nearby we find Neotropic Cormorants and a Limpkin.
(Shari) Hearing horror stories about the road from Oaxaca to Tehuantepec, we expect the worse, but are pleasantly surprised in the end when the road was really better than the average one encountered so far. In fact, much of it is newly paved. It winds mostly down from 6500 feet to sea level, and offers some spectacular views. I especially like to watch the caravan on a curve behind us. One time I could see the tail gunner across a deep canyon at least 5 miles away by road but only a few hundred feet by air. Arriving at our destination by 2:30 we are able to enjoy a nice chat outside. Later Bert and I threaten to water down the margaritas because the day went so fine.
(Bert) "What is the most southern place we will visit during this caravan trip?" I ask the group while we sit around the campfire tonight. Lots of answers come forth, many thinking Dangriga in Belize, some suspecting Bonampak in Chiapas, near the Guatemala border, another suggests we were already there at Acapulco. Don and Jodi recognize we are at that spot right now. Tehuantepec is the southernmost point we will travel. It is near the dip in the cornucopia-shaped map of Mexico: the southern end of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. East of here Mexico curves northward toward the Yucatan peninsula; most of Guatemala and all of Belize are north of our current position. The high temperatures today match our southern exposure and the high humidity fits our low elevation near the Pacific. Although we started birding by 7 AM, a couple of hours later the heat had already set in. Tramping through dirt paths in a dry thorn forest made the heat more noticeable. Why a bird would choose to live in this scared bed of thorns is amazing. Yet the strikingly beautiful lemon yellow and peacock blue Orange-breasted Bunting finds it home and I see more than a dozen of the beauties. Also, Lesser Nighthawks roost in the thorn trees and I photograph one as it suspiciously eyes my close approach. White-lored Gnatcatchers fuss when we enter their domain and try to watch the hummingbirds that do not linger long enough for identification. Our most sought-after species - Sumichrast's Sparrow and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo escape detection, although back at the campsite in the heat of the afternoon Ralph finds one of the mascara-eyed ground-cuckoos.
(Bert) The lagoon is tucked just inside the beach. Shallow and surrounded by mudflats, it is a haven for shorebirds. Within seconds of our arrival, spotting scopes and binoculars are pointing in the direction of thousands of birds: pelicans, cormorants, gulls, terns, sandpipers species we've seen many times before, but not yet on this trip. Coen finds one out of place bird, a dark gull among hundreds of light ones. The Heerman's Gull is hundreds of miles south of its normal haunts. We become so enthralled by the multitude of shorebirds we forget the best birds to be seen are in the thorn brush surrounding the lagoon, so soon we split into small groups and beat the brush. We are again after the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo and Sumichrast's Sparrow, but others are worth finding as well. We encounter a boisterous crowd of Rufous-naped Wrens, chasing with Groove-billed Anis, then Streak-backed, Orchard and Altamira orioles. We continue to see birds for a couple more hours, when we meet up with Lee and Coen who tell us they have seen the ground-cuckoo. We head back to a spot we had spent much time investigating and try again to see the ground-cuckoo. Not there, we continue another couple hundred yards further when I see my first glimpse of the odd bird: long-tailed, elongated body like a roadrunner, but without a crest, the cuckoo is bigger than expected. A grayish brown back and reddish brown undersides, the bird would not be much of a prize were it not for the eye. Like the painted eye of King Tut in his burial casket, the haunting orb stares at me, accentuated by the gaudy sky blue mascara surrounding the intensely black pupil. I motion to Virginia L. and Pat C. By then the bird has moved but I relocate it higher up on the mesquite tree. Virginia gets a good look, but Pat only sees the shape, missing the eye. For this bird, not seeing the eye is like not seeing the bird at all. When our group gathers again, we learn that everyone has seen one or more ground-cuckoos. In fact, Chris - who walks three times further than anyone else - has encountered a pair and a trio of ground-cuckoos in his survey of the area. For the rest of the day and evening, in fun, we rib Pat mercilessly about the great bird we all saw and she missed.
(Shari) "Charlie, this is the first time I have seen you look like you are not having fun," I tell him. Oh, he does have his ever-present smile, but it appears frozen in place. His body is tense as if waiting for an onslaught. And in a way he is waiting for an onslaught, as he gingerly tries to get his whole body into the pool, one inch at a time. The water is cool, but once we are wet, it is refreshing and wonderful. The 18 of us that came to the restaurant for lunch and then use the pool are happy and cool even if it took two hours to order, eat and pay for our meal. Today is a scorcher and no one wants to do much of anything. After dinner, we use the remnant firewood from last night's bonfire and roast marshmallows. The cool evening is pleasant and watching shooting stars is a delightful bonus. We even have free entertainment, as we did last night, courtesy of another caravan: marimba music echoes across the campground.
(Bert) For the third day we try again to find Sumichrast's Sparrow in the Tehuantepec area. Two dozen birders have searched an area known as habitat for the sparrow, spent three mornings at prime time, plus three late afternoons in adjacent areas, yet in the end only Brenda has a view of one of these elusive birds. The rest of us fill in the gaps of our personal lists for this area and collectively identify 122 species (our trip list now stands at 379). For most of us the best today is the Pacific Screech-Owl we heard and saw fly in the dark at 6:10 AM. A petite owl, it responded to Don's tape recording of a Western Screech-Owl with a very similar call. We take a late start for our short travel day today, leaving just before 1 PM, to cross the southern portion of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. I've often wondered what the terrain of the isthmus was like and could not find any description in the books I've searched. The first 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean are a flat coastal plain, covered with thorn brush, occasional cornfields and land grazed by cattle. Our highway is layered patches of blacktop best traveled slowly. While watching the mountains ahead I see a Harris's Hawk, and then another shortly before reaching the edge of the mountains. That is certainly the furthest south I've seen this common hawk of south Texas. The road rises quickly and we are soon at 1000 ft. elevation, amid dry hillsides studded with cactus, sometimes palms and, in hollows, white-flowered and pink-flowered small trees, red-barked Gumbo Limbo and other larger trees. The road levels off as we enter a flat plateau and come to stop for the night a truck stop beside the road.
(Bert) Two hours of driving good highway, then mediocre potholed pavement, then rock road puts our SUV's and trucks into a small patch of native jungle that somehow has survived clear cutting agricultural spread. Except for a few paths off the road, the dense forest is impenetrable without a machete. Tall trees, thick vines and dense under story circumvent rock walls. We arrive in light rain, bringing out umbrellas for the prepared and umbrella-sized plant leaves for the creative. The rain is less a deterrent from birding then the accompanying darkness: all birds are black, identified only by shape, song and behavior. A pair of parrots perches high above the canopy and with Ralph's scope we can recognize them as Mealy Parrots, the largest parrots in Mexico. When the rain stops and the skies brighten, although still overcast, the birding gets better. In fact, the early rain becomes a bonus since it protracts bird activity throughout most of the day. On the division between Pacific slope and Atlantic slope bird populations, the variety along the Uxpanapa Road is great. Among the many new species for the trip we see Olive-throated Parakeets, White-crowned Parrots, White-bellied Emeralds, Black-headed Trogon, Black-cheeked and Lineated woodpeckers, Barred Antshrikes and many more. Chris, who has seen few lifers thus far, scores a dozen new birds today alone. Because the birds remain so well hidden, and we are only along the road edge of the forest, the actual density of birds must be great. Only two miles of native forest survive, yet probably hundreds of square miles of the surrounding countryside, and maybe the arid cactus and brushlands south of here, must have been like this a century ago. This place is worth several days visit, but it is so hard to get to that we only give it one. Then again, maybe its remoteness is one of the reasons this Eden still survives.
(Bert) Today we travel the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, through rolling country of secondary growth, cornfields and idle land. Our ascent in elevation two days ago was obvious; our gradual descent again to sea level goes unnoticed. Brown Jays flying across the road are common and I see both the dark bellied and the light bellied subspecies. While still in the State of Oaxaca, Coen and Brenda have the good fortune to see a pair of Aplomado Falcons perched near one of the topes we all drove slowly over. Their exceptionally sharp eyes also pick up three Fork-tailed Flycatchers and two Keel-billed Toucans in route and they kid Ray for not seeing the toucans fly over his rig. We cross into Veracruz and the lush land becomes flatter. Frequently, parrots fly over the road. From Acayucan we head east across the coastal savannahs of palms and cattail marshes. Crossing state lines again, we enter Tabasco. I always like this portion of the highway: it's the way Florida should look, but doesn't. Brilliantly red-orange African Tulip Trees and profusely blossomed Pink Cassia trees line the highway for miles. The marshes proliferate egrets and a couple of Snail Kites hunt above them. After our arrival in Villahermosa, Don C. remarks that today's driving was uneventful, an experience he hasn't had much of this trip.
(Shari) "Sixty-five days is a long time to be on your best behavior." So say I, especially when it comes to your husband. The day goes relatively well, if you do not count the fact that I am up since 3 AM with terrible cramps. I am tired and hot by the time we reach Villahermosa where I park the caravan, single-handedly (it was an easy park). Then I work my limited Spanish to find the restrooms and the dump. By the time the guard shows me the dump, I am hot, tired and crabby and in no mood to see Bert underneath our new car because the transmission disconnect does not work. Realizing how upset I am, Sue suggests that I go with her shopping, since I cannot do anything here. We drive to the local Carrefour and after spending 830 pesos on groceries; I still do not feel better. I have been praying that the car get fixed miraculously but our track record on a previous car and its disconnect has not been good. Upon arriving back at camp, I notice that the car has been moved. Bert is nowhere to be found, but I ask Dan about the car. He said the Mexican roads knocked the device out of alignment and he fixed it. Thank the Lord and thank Dan. I struggle with my 830 pesos worth of groceries, in the heat, no Bert in sight and I am repeatedly asked questions about a birding meeting which I know nothing about. I finally put a response on the board, saying that Bert mentioned something about a meeting at 7 PM and I assume that is when it is and that I know nothing more. Bert finally comes strolling back after the groceries have been put away. I really am hot and tired now and almost take off with Jim, Sue, Dan and Pat to go out to eat. But instead I heat up the chicken I bought and eat it during the bird meeting. So goes another day in the life of a Wagonmaster in Mexico. Thankfully these bad days are few and far between.
(Shari) Surprising what a good night's sleep will do. Bright eyed and bushy tailed at 7 AM, I am out walking and checking my "flock." At 8:30 we carpool to the renowned La Venta museum where the original Olmec stone heads are displayed in a park like setting. I follow the approximate one-mile path, reading the signs (in English) and marvel at the existence of these treasures exposed to the elements and human mischief. Set in a jungle within the city limits, the park is a cool oasis, away from the typical dusty, hot, noisy urban Mexico. Finishing a good 30 minutes before our departure time, I meet Wally and Chris outside the gates and we sit on the steps under some shade and watch a pair of monkeys with two little ones above us in the trees. The babies are learning to "walk" from tree branch to tree branch and often they miss their mark but remarkably grab onto another branch to save themselves from falling onto the hard pavement below. By 12:30 we are on the road again for a rare easy drive to Palenque. HOWEVER, upon arrival the transmission disconnect on our car moved out of alignment again and Bert spends a good 30 minutes underneath it before it works. He tells me, he will have to do this each time unless Dan can figure out how to keep it from moving. We have another margarita party to discuss the next 4-day agenda and enjoy the cool of the early evening before retiring to our rigs.
(Bert) Before Mexico became a country, before the Yucatán Republic was formed, before the Spanish explorers arrived, before the Mayan civilization dominated, was the Olmecs of La Venta. Three thousand years ago the Olmecs - although we don't know they called themselves that, since no written language remains - fashioned extraordinary stone monuments into a peculiar art form that remains for us to view today. Ancient faces, figurines, animals, and ceremonies carved into the large stones now decorate the mini-jungle we walk through, an oasis in the midst of Villahermosa: quiet nature and whispering history juxtaposed with the traffic noises and concrete buildings and myriad people of the bustling modern city. A curious combination of museum, art exhibit, zoo and nature preserve, the La Venta Museum is a fascinating place to look for birds and mammals taking advantage of the tall trees, thick understory and cool shade. We find Mexican Gray Squirrels, White-nosed Coatis and Yucatan Black Howlers climbing through the trees above us. Below are Melodious Blackbirds, Yucatan Woodpeckers, Yucatan Jays and a Kentucky Warbler. Along the river Chris and Brenda add Black-crowned Night-Heron to the trip list which now totals 437 bird species. After lunch we caravan east through coastal savannah, then south into Chiapas, until we reach the edge of the mountains at Palenque.
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