Chapter 11. Gulf Coast of Northeast Mexico
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2004 All rights reserved.
(Bert) In contrast to our last travel day, I always like the route we take north from Catemaco. It starts as a bit of a grind as we bump through a series of towns, but then gets better when we reach the countryside. In fact the first part is so slow that a team of bicyclists keep pace with us for the first 12 miles, gaining on the downhill, slowing on the uphill, passing us on the topes. I don't mind the slower pace as we wind up and down the foothills of the Sierra de los Tuxtlas as it gives me plenty of time to watch the changing scene of volcanic mountains, most now vacant or farm land stripped of trees, but the steeper ones still capped with dense forests. Once clear of the mountains we drive through the sand dunes along the Gulf coast. I tell Shari this would be a beautiful and natural setting for a golf course. Who would ever travel this far for golf, however? One of the prettiest of towns is Alvarado. We cross the high bridge over the Gulf inlet to Laguna Alvarado and below us lies a touch of Venice with boats lining the edge of the city, colorful houses, ornate churches. We've never stopped here, yet the scene entices us to do so someday. From the high road we look west to the Laguna and east to the Gulf. Descending, we drive past marshes filled with egrets, jacanas and Red-winged Blackbirds. The roads today are much better than previous years, yet it still takes us nearly four hours, with rest stops, to travel a bit over 100 miles. We approach Veracruz from south along the coast, with a clear view of the hotels and beaches and the rolling surf. The warmer waters of March have brought out the swimmers to enjoy the beautiful sunny afternoon.
(Bert) Four lanes of traffic whiz by - buses, trucks, taxis, diesel fumes, horns honking - while we peer through binoculars and scopes at the birds of the Veracruz marshes. Our first stop, along the railroad tracks, was less hectic. From there we looked at a large and swallow lagoon, supporting dozens of Least Grebes, hundreds of Neotropic Cormorants and a couple of Gull-billed Terns. Now we are only a few feet from the traffic, standing on a litter-strewn shoulder. This is hardly the ideal birding spot. What's surprising is how many birds have adapted to this urban setting. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Blue-winged Teal are the most numerous, but I'm most impressed with the 38 Common Moorhens and the 88 Northern Jacanas we see. After a brief visit, we drive cross-town again to the beach where we are camped. The rest of the morning and afternoon has no agenda and we do as we please. Bob and Cindy visit another birding site and bring back a good list of birds, so much so that I think we will add that spot to next year's itinerary. Shari and I complete shopping errands, driving and walking among busy Saturday crowds. The first Internet Café has such slow response times that I only display four screens in ten minutes, so we leave and go to Office Depot, where the transfer speed is surprisingly good. Although Mexican Internet Cafes are cheap - sometimes only 80 cents per hour - the access times are often pitiful. In late afternoon we gather on lawn chairs under palm trees, with a fresh cool breeze coming from the sandy beach on the Gulf of Mexico.
(Shari) Stopping in Veracruz for two nights allows us to catch up on laundry and shopping. Here is the last big grocery store of the trip and I pick up some favorite Mexican things at the giant Wal-Mart. Peanuts with lemon, canned mushrooms, wine from Chile, canned salsa, various flavors of juice, etc. are added to my cart. Helen is looking for vacuum cleaner bags and asks me to help her find someplace called Bodega. Before departing in her car, Bert and I lay odds of 99 to 1 in favor of not finding it. She has a crude map and some sparse directions about it being close to a bus depot. Wonders of all wonders, after a wrong turn, we find it and she finds the bags. Looking on the receipt, we notice it has a Wal-Mart label. I wonder if this store will pop up in the USA. The concept is a cross between Sam's Club - where big quantities are sold warehouse style - and a regular Wal-Mart, where one can purchase smaller amounts traditional style. This store allows purchases of small amounts, but the displays are warehouse style. If the number of people in the store is any indication of its success, I had better go out and buy stock. Last night we ate across the street at our favorite restaurant but tonight we are having squid at home. Bert likes squid a lot and often orders it in restaurants. For 90 cents, I get over a pound of squid filet. I do not know how to cook it and all my recipes include a tomato based sauce with it. We want it pan fried with garlic butter so I rinse and flour the filet before pan searing it. It tastes ok, but then I am not a fan of squid in the first place. I wonder why it is so cheap. Maybe I do not really want to know, huh?
(Bert) "You should write a book on Birding the Pemex Stations of Mexico," jokes Bob. We just completed a short loop trail around the back of the Pemex and we tallied 27 species, including such unusual finds as: Limpkin, Squirrel Cuckoo, Western Tanager, Ochre Orioles, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. We also noted a Great Kiskadee prominently displayed its yellow crown patch in the presence of another kiskadee, raising the feathers high over the crown. Mating signal? And the dozens of Indigo Buntings was an unusually high count. Migration? While running the caravan, we use the Pemex stations as rest stops as well as for refueling, and I've probably taken out my binoculars and scanned for birds at a hundred stations. So through the years I've accumulated a list of which Pemex stations are best birding stops. Just before our next Pemex stop of the day I notice a flock of migrating hawks. While diesel is pouring into R-TENT-III, I watch the skies. A long, strung out flock of hundreds of Swainson's Hawks, perhaps totaling a thousand, flies over the Pemex. Their black-and-white back-to-front pattern on flattened wings is obvious, but then the pattern changes to front-to-back on dihedral wings as the Swainson's Hawks are followed by hundreds of migrating Turkey Vultures. The hawks and vultures pass over and leave us behind before we finish refueling. Continuing northward, our RV's catch up again with the flocks by the time we reach our campsite a dozen miles ahead. Now we get to view the hawks and vultures again, but this time Dave notices another flock. These dark birds are long-tailed and long-necked, forming a rigid cross with outstretched wings. The tight flock of about 300 Anhingas rotates like a pinwheel, while at the same time drifting northward.
(Shari) As we get ready to pull out this morning, I slip Helen a birthday card. She is 77 years old today and I think that is special. She looks and acts much younger, although she, and her husband Don, would tell you she has slowed down a bit these last ten years. I can't imagine keeping up with her then. She is amazing. Later, we sit under the palapa while it rains outside, and enjoy a birthday pollo asada. I even baked her favorite dessert: flan. On a card that Judy had us all sign, sits a beautiful angel of beads. When the rest of the ladies saw it, they all wanted one and found out that Judy's Mom makes them. Thank you Esther for all of our angels.
(Shari) The town of Naranjos should be ashamed of its roads. In fact, a good stretch of today's drive is a shame. Four years ago the road conditions were in a sorry state and then they paved the road. Now they are again in a sorry state, but most assuredly this town. Here for a 10-mile section, we slow to a crawl as we negotiate one pothole infested stretch of road after another. Traversing this road less than 60 days ago, we do not remember it being so terribly horrendous. By the time we reach camp, eight hours later, I am exhausted and need a nap. A while later and a couple of margaritas, things look different. I can remember the last time we sat under the palapa, just getting to know each other. This time we gather with the comfort of being with good friends, laughing and joking the whole time. Tonight, Bert is the subject of the ribbing. Apparently his 25-year-old binoculars are out of alignment. As they get passed around the circle, no one can understand how he sees so many birds. Dave says it is because he has thousands of pictures in there. Bob says they must be on a diskette and Judy says it is because he sees double. In any case amid the banter, the consensus is that Bert needs a new pair. I just cringe at the thought and know this is not going to be just a $200 purchase or even $500 for that matter. I go in R-TENT-III before we even discuss the price of a new pair.
(Bert) The village of Naranjos is one continuous chain of potholes, many filled with rainwater. Simultaneously, each of R-TENT-III's six tires and the four tires of our tow car rolls in and out of different potholes rocking us in Tilt-A-Whirl action. Traffic is snarled in both directions as dozens of vehicles converge on the juggernaut. Vendors hawk goods beside the road, but drivers intently aim their vehicles through the lesser of evils while maintaining speeds that do not register on the speedometer. For many years the Veracruz road from Tuxpan to Tampico has been the worst highway in eastern Mexico and it still rates that ignoble distinction today. While Naranjos is bad, the rest of the highway is merely tedious, made so by heavy traffic, slow vehicles, many curves, countless topes, uneven roads - the right side sinks for lack of a shoulder while the center remains high - and, today, an intermittent drizzle that can't be handled by only one setting on the windshield wipers control. The first five hours of travel gains us 120 miles northward. Roads improve as we near Tampico and pass around the sprawling city, reaching our destination and another 120 miles in three more hours. The rain has stopped and the air is cool, so Judy, Cindy and I decide to try some local birding. Just as we passed through Tampico I spotted a Brown-headed Cowbird beside the road, our 399th species for the trip. Now we see a flock of these cowbirds and a bit further we find a pair of Lark Sparrows, number 400. We are nearing the U.S., so additional species are most likely common ones to us, but they are still exciting to add to the list since we are now surpassing the total species count of 2001 and 2002 when we took a similar route through Mexico and Belize. A pair of Northern Bobwhites crosses the dirt road, new for me on this year's list, although Cindy and Bob saw a flock a few days ago. Almost at the same time, a flock of Purple Martins circles above us. That's number 401!
(Bert) The Greater Roadrunner stops short of crossing the country road when it sees my car approaching. I radio the car behind me and the birders pile out to see number 402. We are headed toward a marshy lake near Tampico, hoping to find an Altamira Yellowthroat, a warbler with a range limited to southern Tamaulipas and northern Veracruz. I know it occurs here because one - and only one - of our birders last year saw it here. While searching for the yellowthroat we find many other birds, so many in fact that I'm sure if we spent a day in this area we could get almost as many as we did in Catemaco a week ago. Our morning count reaches into the 80s after just a few hours birding, but it seems we've missed the Altamira. We've seen flocks of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks and White-faced Ibises, heard a Sora, and counted over 20 Common Yellowthroats, but no Altamira. I announce that we will leave in ten minutes and the group starts heading toward the cars. I find Judy, who often birds alone, near the car. She headed in the opposite direction at our start and now when we meet up, she describes the bright yellow male Altamira Yellowthroat that she saw. Again this year, only one birder takes the prize. Back to the RV's, we continue our travel northward toward Texas. The highway is good now and travel is easy. Small villages only briefly interrupt the sprawling ranches. Our view is of the rolling countryside of the Tamaulipas brushlands, looking quite green from recent rains. Suddenly on my left I see a tight flock of seven Wild Turkeys feeding along the wide grassy shoulder, just in front of a small woods. They are uniformly dark, but their feathers glisten, and they certainly look wild. I note these characteristics to be sure I'm not seeing domesticated birds. These are wary of my approach and immediately head into the woods. The ranch is remote from any houses, probably by at least ten miles. This is the first time I'm convinced I've seen wild Wild Turkeys in Mexico, species number 404 on our trip list.
(Shari) If all caravan days were like today, I would pay them to do the trip. (Don't tell Ron and Juanita that though, okay?) The birders go off early and I get to sleep in. Then after I have a leisurely breakfast, they come back and we take off for a leisurely travel day. The road is narrow, but smooth with little traffic to get around. Making good time, we get to La Pesca early, relax, and get ready for our cookout and tonight's entertainment. Bonnie has written a wonderful poem that captures each of us to a T. I snap pictures of enthralled faces as she reads her ode during Happy Hour. Tonight we are having a cookout with everyone bringing their own meat to grill and a dish to share. Hopefully we will have empty refrigerators when we cross the border into the USA the day after tomorrow.
(Bert) Our last birding site of our trip still offers a few good birds. We head to the hills and park along the side of the road. The Yellow-headed Parrots appear as if on cue, a pair flying overhead with yellow heads brightened by the rising sun. We see a few more during the morning, seven in total, but less than I remember from last year. A bit farther along the highway, we park at another spot and walk along a farm road. I tell the group about tactics to see a Thicket Tinamou: (1) wait patiently along the road for one to pass by, or (2) scramble through the thick brush pursuing a calling bird, or (3) bird along the road as usual hoping by luck you encounter one. In the past, each technique has worked. We walk a few feet, but none are to be seen. Bob asks, "It sure would be nice if we could hear one." Surprised, I reply, "They are calling all around us right now," and I imitate the plaintive 2-note hollow whistle that we are hearing. In fact, while I try technique 3 for the next couple of hours I hear at least ten Thicket Tinamous calling from various directions, some fairly close by, others a good distance away. This year only Bob sees one and he uses technique 2, returning with a torn pants leg and a few scratches, but having gotten a good look at a tinamou. Cindy misses the tinamou, but is successful at seeing a White-bellied Wren. In my experience this wren, like many others, stays well hidden in the thicket and, unlike others, rarely responds to pishing. I hear several during my walk, calling a quick sweet 3-note "pretty bird", but one with a gruffer voice announcing, "check-it-out." I've heard the song several times during our trip, but no one has seen one yet. Today, Cindy has the good fortune of watching one repeatedly cross the road, scooting from one thicket to another. In spite of pleasant weather - maybe too good - the birding is slow, so we drive back down the hills and stop at a salt flat. Just before the water, in a very dry plowed field, we see an Osprey and a Ring-billed Gull standing peacefully side-by-side. A peculiar sight, we speculate that the Osprey holds a fish that the gull wants, but the ring-billed makes no attempt to pursue the object of desire. A few fly-by Roseate Spoonbills distract us and then we drive another hundred feet, surprised again to see the odd couple standing side-by-side in another dry plowed field. Twenty minutes later we see the strange pair yet again, this time on the wet mud near the edge of the watery salt flats. The shore and swallow water and island gravel bars are sprinkled with thousands of birds: American White Pelicans, Long-billed Curlews, Gull-billed and Forster's terns, cormorants, Willets, Snowy Egrets. New to our trip list are Dunlins, Lesser Yellowlegs and Marbled Godwits. After a delicious brunch prepared for us by Shari, we bird the La Pesca coast. We scan the jetty looking for rare gulls, but the rarest is Herring Gull, not much of a prize. A flock of American Oystercatchers flying out to sea is a nice surprise and a first for the trip list. The mudflats offer us a good chance to compare Snowy and Wilson's plovers through spotting scopes and a Great Kiskadee in this habitat is unexpected, but we don't add any new species to the list.
(Shari) Omelets in a bag! That is what is on the menu when the birders come back from their outing. Again this year it is a success, with everyone vowing to try it at home, especially with the grandkids. The last two days of the caravan are almost two of the best for me. We just have one fun activity after another. Tonight I arranged for a bonfire where we roast marshmallows for s'mores. I arranged that all in Spanish too, I have you know. Yesterday I asked for the wood and this afternoon two youths brought it over. Amazing! I really never knew if I was going to get charcoal, wood or nothing or maybe even a meal cooked over an open pit. But I got exactly what I ordered and I feel good about that. At 7 PM we sit around the fire just talking. Sometimes it is quiet with everyone looking at the flames, but no one wants to break the spell and go inside. I have to compliment the group on just how well they have gotten along. It has been my best so far and even though I am anxious to see my two grandkids, I hate to see this time end. Finally, close to 9:30 we douse the fire with water and say goodnight.
(Shari) It is still dark when my alarm goes off. Judy wants to leave as early as possible and the rest of us do not mind. We head out at 6:30 AM, just as the sun is peeking up over the horizon. Making good time, we soon reach our first rest stop and take a group picture, something we forgot to do at La Pesca. Our second rest stop gets protracted a bit because we know this is our last chance to hug Judy and Bonnie and Dave. As soon as they cross the border, they are headed west and east. Our border crossing goes smoothly and this year on the Mexican side the border guard has a new fangled machine that can optically read our car hologram and spit out a receipt right there in the parking lot. No hand typing the information twice. At the Texas border we pass inspection and by 12:30 we have all gone our separate ways. But for six of us the caravan continues at the Olive Garden for one more meal out. You see, after not having lettuce for 50 days or more, we are starved for a salad and Olive Garden fills our bowls multiple times. Again after our meal, we linger to talk. No one wants to say goodbye, but eventually we do. We get nice hugs from everyone, with promises to visit along the road.
(Bert) The last day always seems to be a bittersweet mixture of good-to-be-home and sad-it's-over, spiced with goodbye-to-new-friends. Judy is anxious to get to California and wants to reach San Antonio by nightfall, so we take an early 6:30 departure. On good highways, without slowing traffic, we make the 210 miles to the border before lunch. We say good-bye to Judy and to Dave and Bonnie, since they will continue driving, but the rest of us plan on meeting for dinner in McAllen. I've handed out my last checklists of birds seen and the final report of birds by location. Our group list ends with 409 species, plus 18 additional subspecies. Bonnie is delighted to have added exactly 200 birds to her lifetime list on her first trip to Mexico. Judy and Helen both added over 100 species and Cindy, who has often birded in North, Central and South America, is pleased to have added 32 to her 2000+ life list. In addition to the many birds we've seen, we leave Mexico with good memories of the grand and mysterious Mayan ruins, the exotic jungles of Belize, the wonderful people that we met and who helped us in our journey, and, of course, the friendships we've gained among each other. Judy and Bob and Cindy have signed up again for next year's trip, so we can look forward to seeing them again then.
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