Chapter 10. Sierra de los Tuxtlas
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2004 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Our drive today is better than I remembered from last year's experience. Only the last 30 mi. are tedious on the windy hilly terrain on a narrow potholed road. Finally we reach Catemaco and since Bert is unsure of his ability to maneuver R-TENT-III through the arches of the campground entrance, we all unhook our tow cars in town. I drive on ahead and am greeted with smiles at the reception desk. They all remember me. "Peude usted ayudar mi para alto traffico?" I ask a young man. And even to my surprise he understands and walks with me to the street to stop traffic so the caravan could use the left lane to make a wide right turn. It is only 3 PM but I wonder if anyone else besides me would like margaritas. A resounding "Yes" answers me and I go in to make up a pitcher. By the time I come back, the women have gone birding, so the men and I have margaritas without them. Of course Bert is with the women. We then decide to eat at the restaurant next to the lake. My mouth waters for the garlic soup and fried whole fish. Much to my disappointment, the menu has changed. I order some kind of fish and Bert orders a dish with octopus. We wait for over an hour while the kitchen prepares our food, wondering how they make a living since we are the only ones in the restaurant. Finally our food arrives. Again we are surprised. The meal has nothing else included with it. No rice, no bread, no chips, no beans. Bert's dish looks like an appetizer and so I share my delicious fish with him. My oversize platter is covered with a whole fish, head and tail included, and smothered in a delicious spicy tomato sauce. Helen's and Bert's octopus are delicious they say, although small in portion. Dave only ordered ceviche, which is good too but small, so he too must share Bonnie's platter of fish with lemon. The poor waiter spends the whole time while we eat and a good 30 minutes after figuring out our bill. I watch him write, then punch numbers in his calculator, then write again. On and on it goes. I just wish we would have said one bill and we'd divide by three. It is ridiculous, embarrassing, sad and funny all at the same time.
(Bert) A day of uneventful but tedious driving, I find this section of road about the least scenic we travel in Mexico. Perhaps it is the excess of topes and potholes, or maybe it is the flatness of the land and the absences of forests and lakes that contribute to my desire to just keep truckin' and get this behind me. Only the last ten miles rekindles my interest. The RV engine is working harder as we climb the Sierra de los Tuxtlas, a coastal mountain range discernable on Mexico country maps as a little bump jutting northward near the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and south of Veracruz. When I study bird ranges on these maps, especially in Howell and Webb, I notice how very often birds occupy this little bump on the map. We are arriving at a small mountain range that is home to over 360 bird species during the timeframe of our visit. Now we get our first view of the very large Lake Catemaco, looking down at it from a cliff road. The winds must be blowing below, because we see whitecaps on a shimmering steel blue lake, vacated of boats, dotted with houses on the Catemaco side, dominated by forested mountains on most of the shoreline. We settle into our campsite at a small lakeside resort and while three of our birders watch avian activity on the lake and the rest gather near the RV's for early margaritas, I check on Bill Schaldach (Dr. William J. Schaldach Jr., to whom Howell & Webb dedicate their book). Each visit to Catemaco we've asked Bill to join us for birding and each return year I wonder if he is still alive. In the years that I have known him, he's not been in good health, but he has always been anxious to participate in our birding, acting as guide and chief source of entertaining stories. Now when I ring the buzzer at the gate to his house, his grandson William appears. I'm saddened to learn that Bill has been in the hospital for a month and was expected to die, but is now home again, or that is what I think William says to me in a mixture of Spanish and English. I ask William to join us for birding tomorrow, so maybe I will learn more details then.
(Bert) As I'm getting ready for a birding trip this morning, the rain begins to fall: not just a little sprinkle, but the kind of rain that looks like it will last most of the day. I retrieve my raincoat from the closet and head out the door, but soon find the group huddled under the canopy of Bob and Cindy's RV. We discuss the rain situation and decide to reverse the schedule, rotating today's birding plan with the free day scheduled two days from now. Hours later, when the skies clear, I wonder if we made the right decision, but shortly, the rains begin anew. The freed up schedule gives me plenty of time to catch up on my computer work, writing a few journals that I missed during our Belize side trips and cataloging the hundreds of digital photos that I've taken. Our trip list now stands at 384 species and, of these, I've photographed 154 during the trip. I've also taken photos of 12 mammals, 8 reptiles and dozens of butterflies and flowers. In the afternoon, William leads us on a walk through the woods near our campsite. The trails look like they were his playground when he was a child (he's barely into his teenage years now). We don't see a lot of birds during the hike, except at one spot where White-bellied Emeralds are in abundance. I've asked for any more details about his grandfather, but the only additional information I learn is that it was blood in his urine that sent him to the hospital, that they don't suspect cancer, but the problem is probably heart related. He is resting at home and I doubt we will see him. (Later I talk to Bill's daughter and find out Bill had anemia and pneumonia and has problems of the aorta, but is now walking about the house). If there are any on this reading list that would like to contact him by e-mail, let me know. I know from previous correspondence with this readership that some of you have met Schaldach and can relate experiences almost as interesting as the stories Bill himself tells.
(Shari) I plan to sleep in this morning, but as the birders prepare to leave, our car alarm goes off. It is 5:45AM, for heavens sake. Later I feel wiggling in the front of R-TENT-III and fear someone has broken in. I get up and find Bert sitting at the computer. Apparently because of the rain, the birders switched the free day with today. However no one was brave enough to visit me in the bedroom to determine if the potluck could also be switched. They got my number all right! The day does turn out to be on and off rain and we finish a lot of odd jobs that have been piling up. We take a trip to an Internet café and retrieve our mail. Robby reports that Dan is safely at the Heart Hospital in Tyler, Texas and has had double by-pass surgery. Doing well and stable, he is still in ICU. Originally planning to have the potluck on the tables by the lake, I change its location for fear of rain. Bob and Cindy have a nice area under their awning and we set up our tables. Bob has made really good chicken with a cumin honey sauce and Helen has made her wonderful meatballs. I bring a Key Lime pie for the third time this trip and Bonnie and Judy round out the meal with potatoes, green beans and garlic bread. After dinner we share some of Bob and Cindy's Bailey's Creme. After so many days in each other's company, you'd think by now we would be sick of each other. But we linger into the night and, not bothered by mosquitoes, we stay until close to 8 PM.
(Bert) We've decided to make a Big Day of birding: a day where we try to see as many species as we can. The only real difference in our strategy, though, is that we split up a bit more and we don't attempt to have everyone see every bird. We leave at 5:30 AM, but it takes just over an hour to reach our birding spot, not because of the great distance (about 16 miles), but because the road is so bad. When we arrive at UNAM, the birds are active and the Mantled Howlers are howling. We see Violaceous and Slaty-tailed trogons and when I walk to where Bob says he saw the howlers I find a Collared Trogon. Later, I find three of the monkeys as well, eating leaves high in the canopy. These have red backs and seem to have cuter faces - more baby-like - than the Yucatán Black Howlers. Dark clouds overhead threaten of rain, stalling morning light and perhaps reducing the number of birds feeding on the tree tops, but we see many Masked Tityras, one Black-crowned Tityra, at least a half-dozen Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, a few orioles and warblers. After the initial spurt, activity slows and we begin walking along the rock and gravel road. Judy and I hear turkeys. I'm surprised, as I didn't think they occurred here. They could be domestic, but we are birding beside a deep forest which is part of a protected preserve and more than a mile from the nearest house. I carefully climb down a steep hillside populated with Give-and-take trees - palm trees with sharp spikes completely covering the trunks - careful not to lose my balance and grab for support. Although I can hear the female turkeys clucking quietly just down the hill from me, I cannot see the birds. By the time I reach the bottom of the hill I no longer can hear the birds either. Back up into the sunlight and along the road we can see the forest on our right and, on our left, pasturelands descending to the Gulf of Mexico a few miles in the distance. What a beautiful setting for a house! But, I'd hate to make the drive to get groceries. At the end of the road Bob asks a villager to lead us to the lake, a low water-filled depression hidden in the volcanic mountains. The path is steep and muddy from yesterday's rain, but eventually we reach the lakeshore just as two Bare-throated Tiger-Herons fly by and a pair of Least Grebes push away from shore. The villager offers to take two on a canoe ride, so Bob and Bonnie accept. They had been eyeing the larger of the two boats pulled up on shore, the one with the seats, but when the villager takes the smaller boat they recognize they will be without seats on a narrow, tipsy boat. Off they go across the smooth lake surface, propelled by a single canoe paddle. Meanwhile, Dave and I hike further along the path, scaring up a black-hawk and watching a White Hawk in flight. Back at the village, we eat our packed lunches and then split up into two cars, one returning to the campsite and my carload continuing to bird. We stop briefly again at UNAM, stepping just a dozen feet along a forest path and find a Northern Barred-Woodcreeper busily excavating bark on a big tree. While Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers scurry through the understory, much to our delight a Black-throated Shrike-Tanager appears and stays, posing for photographs and singing its "chee-cho" song. Near the driveway we hear the hollow far-reaching 3-note whistle of a Thicket Tinamou. Early this morning we heard Great Tinamou, a nice comparison in calls. Back on the rock road we descend the mountain slope and turn in a different direction, this time traveling through farmlands and marshy areas. Almost five miles further we reach a sandy beach flanked on one side by a lagoon and on the other by the Gulf of Mexico. Resting on the beach, a flock of Laughing Gulls and Royal and Caspian terns holds a surprise Black Skimmer. On the return we stop for a large heron feeding in the marsh where we watched Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks earlier. My suspicions are confirmed when I lock in the spotting scope on two Pinnated Bitterns, a difficult bird for us to find on this caravan route. Further down the road, I see a hummingbird perched low and close by. I call it a Buff-bellied Hummingbird and we all agree its cinnamon belly marks it as the yucatanensis subspecies. But later in the evening when I put my digital photos up on the computer I see that the belly shows as grayish buff, which would indicate the other subspecies (chalconota) or, quite possibly, the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, a tough puzzle in identification. Fortunately, while photographing the hummer it spread its tail and I captured the reddish feathers terminated in greenish tips. So, I - we - miscalled this species; it is really a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. My error is like using TV-playback to correct an umpire's call in sports. After making the correction, our Big Day ends with 126 species and my own list totals 106, the highest personal 1-day number I've had at this location.
(Bert) We head in a different direction this morning, skirting the edge of Lake Catemaco in the twilight and then following a country road away from the lake and climbing into the volcanic mountains. The road is lined on both sides with trees, used as fence posts and wired to keep cattle inside the pastures. We encounter the rear of a herd moving along the road and pushed by a cowboy on horseback. Not being able to pass, we wait for the cattle to walk another quarter mile and turn off into a farm driveway. As the road climbs more steeply, sections of the slope are shielded with two concrete tracks, one for each wheel, separated by a strip of grass, giving us the traction to make the climb easily. Again the road is rocky, but not as bad as yesterday, until we reach the village. Last year we parked below the village, but this time I want to get beyond, so I keep driving, followed by Bob's car. The unpaved road is merely a rock pile flanked by ramshackle houses and I edge upward at a snail's pace. At the upper edge of the village the road gets steeper and the boulders bigger. Finally, rounding one curve I look upward and decide the gap between rocks is too large to risk further travel and we park beside the road to begin hiking uphill. The morning air is crisp - at least by Mexican standards - and the birds are lively, so uphill hiking is slow as we watch the morning feeding activity. Dave spots a yellow-billed bird and calls it a Chestnut-headed Oropendola, its identity confirmed when it springs from the dense bushes and flies over our heads. Cindy gets to see a Long-tailed Saberwing, a hummingbird most of the rest of us saw on yesterday's outing and now get to see again. It looks to me like an exaggerated form of White-bellied Emerald, with the same white-below-green-above color pattern, but a very long pointed tail, long bill and stretched out body. Further uphill, I get a quick, but satisfying, look at a charcoal gray headed warbler with a yellow body and a prominently split white eye ring. I think MacGillivray's Warbler, but can't believe one could be here on the east coast of Mexico, so I say Mourning Warbler. Then I get out Howell and Webb and scan the warbler section. In fact, MacGillivray's Warbler could winter here, as Howell places a star at the spot on the map where the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas lie, a disjoint population separated from the usual distribution along the Sierra Madre. We continue climbing the rock road until we reach the eco-lodge under construction last year, but devoid of people today. The lookout tower is open so we climb the stairs to a roofed top from which we can look up and down the jungle-covered mountainside. Directly below us an adult Southern House Wren sings merrily and a fledgling squeaks for attention. Above the forest canopy fly a few hawks, but distant and hard to identify. One that sails closer is an immature Red-tailed Hawk. During the morning we see black hawks several times, but aren't sure which species to assign them to. Now, heading back downhill we turn on a path to a small lake that plugs the crater of an ancient volcano. A couple of kingfishers entertain us, but the real thrill for Cindy and then Judy is to see an Elegant Euphonia, formerly known as Blue-headed. Cindy found the little finch in her spotting scope and it flies before the rest of us see it. With our eyes and our binoculars, we scan the opposite mountain side for movement, but go unrewarded. Back on the road, we overlook a natural garden with blooms attracting dozens of birds. Excitedly, I call to the others to see a White-winged Tanager in a nearby tree. Although Judy, alone, saw one of these early in the trip, here's the chance for the rest of us to see this pretty flame-red bird with contrasting black wings and white wing bars. A bit later I see a White-throated Robin, but it moves before Cindy can follow my directions and even after a 20-minute vigil we cannot relocate it. The wait is not unrewarding, however, as we watch dozens of Yellow-winged Tanagers, Clay-colored Robins, a Wood Thrush and the cinnamon throated subspecies of Black-headed Saltators. We leave the tree full of birds as it's time for lunch and moving on. We add a few more species as we head back to Catemaco, most notably a pair of Hook-billed Kites soaring together.
(Shari) The group invites me along on their outing today, but I prefer to stay "at home." Yesterday, Helen and I had a wonderful time shopping in town and visiting the beautiful gilded church. Today, I just want to soak up the ambiance of this beautiful place. I always say this campsite is my favorite and to just say "because it is pretty" does not really explain things. The beauty of the lake is music to my soul and every day it looks a bit different. Sometimes gray with whitecaps and sometimes calmly placid and serene but no matter how it looks, it is restful to me. Tonight we have a travel meeting at lakeside and I get to drink in the view as well as my wine. Then we all go to a restaurant in town; one that Helen and I visited yesterday. Pierre, our English-speaking waiter from Orange County, California, does a good job. As we surmise, he stays here not because of his grandparents but because of a girlfriend. I ask him if we could have a free appetizer, and he brings us fried minnows. At least that is what they look like to me. I cannot fathom eating the head, but do like the taste of the rather salty fish. Bert just eats the whole fish in one bite. I must be in a rut because again I order the whole fried fish. I just love fish cooked like that. It seems just so much healthier than the heavily battered fried fish at home. And easy too! Just pop the whole darn thing, head, tail and body into the hot oil for a few minutes and slap it onto a plate. Yum!
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