Chapter 8. Tamaulipas
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2003 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Today, anticipating the worst roads of the 4000-mi. trip, we are pleasantly surprised at the improvements made since last year. Like the Alaskan Highway, each year we see better road conditions in Mexico. We take a new toll road around much of Poza Rica, but finish that section by skirting the north part of the busy city since a bridge construction keeps the toll road from completion. But the new part avoids the steeper mountains and the severe congestion of the city. Northward, we pass miles of orange orchards, frequently edged in banana trees. Vendors hawk the fruits in dozens of roadside booths in Buenos Aires and other little villages. Near Alamo we stop for a break and looking skyward I see migrating flocks of Swainson's Hawks, often mixed with Turkey Vultures. Shortly afterward I spot Tamaulipas Crows at their southern range limit. Tailgunners Dan and Sue have dropped out of the caravan with a brake problem. We hope they will catch up with us by evening (but they do not). New pavement improves the "town of 13 topes", but they replaced the topes again and added one more for good measure. The southern bypass of Tampico is newly paved. Gone are the potholes and Volkswagen-sized holes, replaced with smooth blacktop. Passing the RV park we stayed at previous years, we see it has been replaced with apartment buildings. This year we head north of the city by another 20 miles to a new hotel that could be mistaken for an American counterpart, and park in its huge gravel parking lot for the night. Always one of the most popular features of our caravans, we have another Margarita Party tonight.
(Bert) We could see the marshes off in the distance, but reaching the lagoon by road is another matter. I knew where to find Altamira Yellowthroats in Tampico, but not near our new campsite northwest of the city. We turn at a gravel road that seems to be heading in the right direction and stop at a pond when Brenda spots some ducks. This turns into a good birding site and we continue walking along the road, picking up bird species quickly. The sounds I hear remind me of Texas - Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Altamira Oriole, Eastern Meadowlark, Inca Dove - so I know we are not far from home. But one sighting, a male Scrub Euphonia, is further north than range maps indicate. We continue toward the lagoon, but reach a dead end. Chris talks to the landowner and learns of another route, but after driving a few miles it still isn't obvious how to reach the lagoon. So Chris stops another truck and asks for directions. In Spanish, with lots of hand motions, the man gives directions, then stops and decides it is easier to show us. Off we go, following the pickup to the little village, through the streets and to the boat dock on the lagoon. The marshes on all sides look like the right habitat for Altamira Yellowthroats, so we start searching. Birds are plentiful - Purple Gallinule, Common Moorhen, Lesser Scaup - but in the yellowthroat category all we see is lots of Commons. Last night's rain converted the marsh border to mud and we soon add a layer to our shoes. We add Swamp Sparrow to the trip list. All of us try to find a dry spot from which to peer into the marsh at the sparrow. Saturday morning kids with no better entertainment soon gather to watch us watch birds. This little village is not likely to be found by any tourists except maybe an adventurous fisherman or two who charter a local rowboat to explore the lagoon. Four vehicles loaded with gringos armed with binoculars and spotting scopes all probing the locally uninteresting marshes and tramping through the mud must be quite a spectacle to these kids and a source of puzzlement to their parents. After a couple hour search we've come up with dozens of Common Yellowthroats, but no Altamira, so three carloads head back to camp, leaving Chris and May for a few moments longer. May, who often birds quietly while sitting on a three-legged stool, has not left the spot where we saw the Swamp Sparrow. This time her patience pays off and she alone sees an Altamira Yellowthroat.
(Bert) The first surprise is the tanager at dawn. Like some others, I dismiss the bird as a common Summer Tanager, but those standing closer to its perch note the wing bars and recognize it as a first year male Western Tanager, a western species that swings far west to the Mexican Gulf coast. Next comes the endangered Yellow-headed Parrots, not really a surprise since these hills are home to dozens, but nonetheless a special treat to those who have not seen this popular cage bird flying in the wild. Then we hear the two-note whistle, easily imitated, and soon repeated in every direction. None of us recognize the call, but we hear it close and far and so frequently that it really has our curiosity. We speculate on what it could be when Chris suggests a tinamou. I agree and open Howell & Webb to its description of the Thicket Tinamou call. It fits to a "T" and no sooner do I read the description out loud than a tinamou walks down the farm road in front of us. Another surprise! We continue walking down the country road and come to an overlook of the hills. A great place to see hawks, we identify Gray, Roadside and White-tailed, speculating on the latter for some time because of its unusually extensive brown head and chest. Migrating Turkey Vultures start a sequence of long glides downward, followed by uplifting spirals in invisible thermals. Among the many hundreds of vultures are a few hundred Broad-winged Hawks and a dozen or so Swainson's Hawks. Last night's rain and this morning's clear weather and thermals has made conditions ideal for migration and here along the coastal hills we see it in full force. We finish our walk and head back to camp for Shari's special omelet brunch, enjoyed by all. In early afternoon we head to the coast, only a few miles distant. Setting up our scopes, we survey a flock of gulls. Chris notices a particularly white gull and even though it is some distance away, through the scopes we can clearly see the whiteness extends through the mantle, wings, and especially the tail. A perfect example of a second-winter Glaucous Gull, this is the biggest surprise of all. In fact, it is undoubtedly the rarest bird of the entire Mexico and Belize trip. Maximizing my scope and digital camera, I take several photographs of this rare bird at 700 - 800 X. Later, I look up the range of this holarctic breeder and see that there are a few Mexico records in the Baja California area, but no Gulf of Mexico records where we are. I've seen and documented the species on the Texas coast, but at a location 600 miles north of here. Wow! If I didn't have experienced witnesses with me and if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes and if I hadn't taken documenting photographs, I never would have believed what I saw. And, I'll probably never again see a Glaucous Gull in Mexico.
(Shari) Doubtful faces watch as I show them how to make their omelets. No one believes that the eggs will cook in the bags, but after Steve tests his, everyone is ready to dig into the tasty brunch. It is noon and it helps that everyone is starved after a long morning of birding. We clean up the dishes and move the tables to the other side of the building to take advantage of its shade for this evening's fun and finger food. Pat and I have worked out new questions this year for our "oldywed" game and hope for 100% participation. Poor Charlie is without Carolyn but we make him the official judge in determining the acceptance of our answers. Questions like what is your spouses favorite television program or what bird best describes your spouse bring hoots and hollers especially when the two partners do not agree. It is all in fun and everyone is a winner. We learn some unknown facts about people and marvel at how close we have become in these 65 days.
(Bert) Ray sits in the middle of the ranch road, patiently scanning the surrounding thicket. We hear Thicket Tinamous in many directions, sometimes tantalizingly close, but almost always well hidden in the dense brush. Ray is determined to see one and patient enough to wait. A few of us move on and just down the road I hear the sweet song of a wren. After a 10-minute search, all the while listening to the song, we finally find the source. The petite White-bellied Wren is only a few feet in front of us, much closer than I guessed. We bird through the morning along the ranch road and return to see Ray still trying to see a tinamou. Others have come across one by pure chance, but Ray has come up empty handed. On the way back we stop at the sandy edge of an inland bay. Among the mix of shorebirds we find a few Lesser Yellowlegs, a holdout on our trip list until now. In the afternoon a few of us head to the beach and mud flats, wondering if there is anything left that we haven't seen. The only species that comes to mind is Horned Lark, but we don't find one. We return for the jambalaya dinner Shari planned for the whole caravan, using up everyone's vegetables and meats not allowed in tomorrow's border crossing. Then Pat and Lee entertain us by reading Pat's poem, now becoming a tradition since this is her fourth time in writing about the trip and its participants, tongue-in-cheek, set in verse. She certainly catches the personality, habits and quirks of each of us. In behalf of the group Pat presents me with an award: a portion of a paper plate, creatively cut so as to leave only the flat center and the scalloped top third, blacklined between scallops like feathers and hung around my neck with a piece of white yarn. A stubby breast feather from a turkey is pasted in the flat center and above that is written "The Order of the Ocellated Turkey." We finish our last night of the trip sharing laughter, in this case at my expense. Tomorrow we head to the border.
(Shari) As Bert takes pictures, I watch faces and smile at how animated and also relaxed everyone has become. Pat and Lee are reading their annual "epic" poem and it is the best ever. Ears strain to hear the words in this outdoor theater by the water's edge. Pat's words have captured each one of us to a "T" - Ray with his "sexy" shirt open, Joanne and her knitting, Ralph with his patience, Coen and his ever-present binoculars, etc. Darkness descends on us way too soon and we do not want to part on this our last night. But the pesky mosquitoes like the dusk and force us to clear the dishes and leftover food from our gumbo dinner. Tomorrow we will say our goodbyes.
(Bert) The flat coastal brushlands of Tamaulipas slip by quickly and without event. I'm sure most of us are thinking about home as the miles whiz by. At the last rest stops, we say good-bye to the few that aren't joining us tonight. Border crossing goes smoothly, but slow as usual. The Mexican army border guards try to get me to move the caravan to a parking lot, but I refuse since once in the lot there is no way easy way for the longer rigs to cross the border (they would have to drive about five miles back into Mexico to make a U-turn). The U.S. side of the border is jammed with three lines of backed up traffic. When our turn comes, the K-9 drug dogs sniff our rigs and the inspectors board our RV's, confiscating any illicit food items and questioning us about our purchases. As each of us passes the tests, we head off in different directions for various campgrounds of our own choosing, soon loosing CB contact with each other. In the intervening hours before dinner we catch up with U.S. news - a scarce commodity while in Mexico - and learn that we are poised for war in Iraq and the whole U.S. is at heightened alert, especially here at the border. Somehow it seemed safer to be traveling in Mexico then in the U.S. Most of our group meets for a farewell dinner at Olive Garden, freshly showered, dressed up for the occasion, and anxious to have a familiar American meal. While traveling in other countries is an exciting experience, coming home to the comforts and pleasures of home after over two months is a welcome event. Fortunately the restaurant manager puts our group in a separate room, because the conversation is a roar of words and laughter. When the food is finished, the bills paid, we linger for hugs and last minute invitations and promises to see one another again somewhere down the road. And, based on our previous caravan experiences, I'm sure we will cross paths with many of our group again in our travels.
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