Chapter 9. Humid Southeast Mexico, Part 2
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2004 All rights reserved.
(Shari) "Dan has had a heart attack." Although expecting to hear Katy say those words, they still shock and make it real. Dan seemed fine at our travel meeting this morning at 6 AM and even listened to a noise in our car. But when I departed from immigration at the Belize border, I was told that Dan did not feel well and was resting. Katy, just recently completing her EMS training, was talking with him. Dorothy said he strained himself when hitching up the car, and had indigestion and a pain in his shoulder. Immediately I thought heart attack but hoped for the best. Soon Katy said she thought Dan needed to go to the hospital to have the doctor check him. We rushed Dorothy through immigration, Bob drove Dan's rig across the border and Katy, Dan and Dorothy rushed off to Chetumal, Mexico, just across the border, to find a hospital. Meanwhile, the rest of us finish our paperwork, get gas (another story of wrong turns and hitching and re-hitching R-TENT-III), complete our entrance into Mexico and get the rigs fumigated. It is then we meet up with Bob, who had Dan's rig and was waiting for us on the side of the road. This is when I my telephone rings and Katy tells me the news. She says Dan is resting and is stable and Dorothy is fine. Robby wants to stay back at the campground in Chetumal and wait with Dorothy and Dan. Bert drives Bob's car, leading Bob who drives Dan's rig and Robby in his own rig - is this getting confusing to you? - to the campground and the rest of us wait for news. Still on the phone, I tell Katy that Robby, Bob and Bert are on their way to the hospital (another story I will let Bert relate). Soon another call comes through - our USA cell phones work without a hitch - and Bert says Dan is sleeping and he and Bob are on their way back to us. It is now 11 AM, with about 7-8 hrs. yet to drive. Usually arriving in Palenque at 3 PM, today we pull in at a little after 6:00. We hustled on our trip here and manage to get our rigs parked before dark. But my day is not over. I notice that I have a message on my phone and immediately think something has happened to Dan. I call my message service and find two are from our insurance agency and one is from my stepmother Marge who says my dad just returned from the hospital, is not doing well, and she wants me to call. Again, with the cell phone working great, I reach my dad. He says he is fine, Marge does not remember calling and yes he was in the hospital but is ok now. Of course I am relieved but very confused about how things really stack up in Wisconsin.
(Bert) Today's events are overshadowed by Dan's heart attack. Although not at first recognized as such, it occurred while he was trying to hitch his car to the motor home. At the Belize border only Dorothy goes to get the passports stamped and exit fees paid, while Dan rests on their sofa. Concerned, Katy and Robby visit with him and from her experience as a recently trained EMT, Katy emphatically suggests that Dan see a doctor on the other side of the border at Chetemal. So, Katy drives Dan and Dorothy across the border ahead of us and the rest of us follow more slowly as we get the big RV's across, refueling in the free zone, fumigating the undercarriages and regrouping an hour later to await news of Dan. Although Dan's symptoms suggested as much, we are still shocked when Katy calls on the cell phone informing us that Dan had a heart attack earlier in the morning. A plan takes shape to accommodate the situation: we take Dan's rig, and Robby's motor home and one car to the campground in Chetemal and then plan to see Dan in the hospital. Robby and Katy have graciously volunteered to stay with Dorothy at least for the first few days of Dan's recovery. Our plan goes well until, at the campground, we realize we don't know what hospital Katy drove to. The campground manager comes to our aid and enlists a young lady (sister?, friend?, co-worker?) to phone the two hospitals and then a long list of clinics, all to no avail as none have the patient we seek. We try calling Katy's cell phone, not sure it will ring inside the hospital, and are surprised when it connects. Katy walks outside the room to find out which clinic she is at and its address. The campground manager is not sure where that location is, so she and her friend hail a cab that will lead us to the downtown site. We follow the cab and much to our surprise the two ladies climb into the cab, determined to help us. We reach the Clinica Independencia and they pay for the cab before I can reach them, and then accompany us into the clinic. We find Katy immediately and hear that Dan is in stable condition, but now sleeping. Dorothy is shook up, but glad to see us. Knowing that everything is now being well handled - the modern clinic is two blocks from a hospital and cardiac specialists have been attending Dan - Bob and I drive back to where we left the rest of the caravan along the side of the road. We make the long 300-mile trip to Palenque, with the delayed start encouraging us not to hesitate lest we end up arriving in darkness. We think of Dan and Dorothy often before we reach our destination shortly before 6 PM. A call later in the evening from Robby reassures us the they are all okay now, three of them back in their RV's and Dan resting in the medical clinic.
(Bert) After birding a particular area for several years, it is not often that we add species to the overall list gathered from Steve Howell's bird finding book supplemented by our repeated visits. For Palenque, the list includes 256 species, but this morning we add to it. The first addition is a Mangrove Vireo, a bird of the Yucatán whose range just barely extends to Palenque. We see this vireo near the museum and the stores below the hill climbing to the ruins. More surprising is a thrush we see hoping on the cobbled parking lot. This plain faced and dully marked individual is a challenge to identify. With the absence of rufous coloring and a bold eye ring, I quickly narrow the possibilities to Gray-cheeked Thrush and Veery, neither of which should be here on this day in early March. Both are migrants that should pass through in April. With persistence and the cooperation of the bird, as well as many photographs, I eventually am convinced we are watching an early Veery, my first sighting of this species in Mexico. [However, after returning to the U.S. and studying the photos more closely, I had doubts. I showed 14 photos to four experts and they concur that the thrush is neither of the two I considered. See what you think after reviewing the photos ]. Mid morning brings us more good birds, especially when we look skyward from the open plazas within the Palenque ruins. We add a third species to the local list when we see a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle soaring with two Great Black-Hawks. Although not new to the list, we are thrilled to watch two White Hawks soar above us, close enough to hear them call in flight and for me to get a few somewhat distant photos. Cindy also points us to a Peregrine Falcon just before it disappears over the forest surrounding the ruins. Later, Cindy picks up a life bird she has particularly targeted: a Royal Flycatcher lurking in deep shadows of the forest in a spot where we have been waiting quietly for twenty minutes to see what might pass by. When we catch up with Judy later, she happily reports seeing a Collared Trogon. For lunch, Bob and Cindy have arranged a delightful meeting with Chris Wood & Steve Howell. They know Steve through Cindy's work on the maps included in his bird finding book. Chris and Steve are leading a field trip her in Palenque and we meet them at the resort where they are staying. This is the first time I've met Steve and he generously autographs my copies of A Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico and A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. We mention some of the rarities we saw this morning and he nods in acknowledgement of the Mangrove Vireo, agreed surprise at the early Veery, but hesitation at the Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, suggesting that other hawks might fit the partial description we give him. I have additional, more detailed, notes on our sighting and am convinced of the identification, but we don't pursue the subject. I ask Steve whether there will be second editions of the two books, but he thinks it unlikely since he is deep into writing three other books at this time. After lunch we spend a few minutes near the lodge where Chris has been staying, but do not share his good fortune of seeing an Agami Heron in the small creek visible from his back porch. In early evening as the sun sets we add a few more species to the day list when we sit near our RV's, ending the day with 80 species.
(Bert) Outside the ruins at Palenque, the winding road leading uphill and the spurs of trails under the dark forest canopy are often good for birding, but today wildlife seems sparse, yet with a few notable highlights. A flock of a half-dozen Collared Aracaris put on a display most of the morning. Always a sight to watch, their strange colors are a child's drawing creation with splotches of yellow and red on a black body and an outlandish bill with a jagged tooth-like painted surface. A bouncing ball call from deep within the shrubbery sounds quite like the song I heard two years ago at exactly the same spot, but this time we are not rewarded with even a shadow of the Great Antshrike. Deeper in the woods, a surprise on the lower trail is the number of Kentucky Warblers: I count five for the morning. A nightjar flies across the path, brandishing white wing patches and then perches low on the ground a dozen feet from where we stand. I can see the pauraque but it flies again just as Dave gets a brief look. Much of the rest of the morning walk goes by uneventfully, but for a few curious young people clothed in 60s hippy-style garb who hike in the same direction. Looking so unlike outdoor hikers, we speculate on their intent on this quiet forest path. Just as we leave on the trail we see a drab flycatcher, notable for its lack of field marks: no eye ring, no wing bars, drab coloring but greener gray above and more yellow below. The Ochre-bellied Flycatcher is perhaps our best bird of the morning. We break for lunch and then at 2 PM head in the other direction toward La Libertad. What a contrast our exciting afternoon birding is compared to a lack luster morning! At our first stop beside a small pond, we watch a crocodile unsuccessfully stalk an adult Northern Jacana with its two chicks. Along one shore two immature jacanas raise their wings and strut like teenagers in heat. And on yet another shore we watch Grassland Yellow-Finches bathe. On one of my photos I capture suspended water droplets projecting from fluffed feathers. A few miles down the road, I stop abruptly when I see a fire set to clear the roadside of long grass. From experience I've learned that these fires attract hawks eager to find fleeing rodents. As I pull off to the roadside, a White Hawk swoops low over my car. How strange to find this hawk out in the countryside miles from the nearest forested hillside where I usually find them! An Aplomado Falcon leaves his perch on a farm fence pole and alights in a nearby tree. Overhead a White-tailed Hawk flies low over the fire, giving us a good view of its black-and-white pattern so different from the White Hawk. Back on the road again, I stop once more when I spot a Zone-tailed Hawk, looking quite vulture-like, but not fitting the feather pattern or flight style of the many Turkey Vultures also sharing airspace. We stop again at another spot, this time finding more of the Vermilion Flycatchers that are so common in these farmlands, and we watch a Ladder-backed Woodpecker excavate a fence pole for nesting. Finally we reach the mile point where I've previously seen the best specialty of the day. Again this year, we are rewarded with good telescopic views of Double-striped Thick-knees sleepily resting in the cow pasture. Many other birds - notably a Fork-tailed Flycatcher and another White-tailed Hawk - distract us from the Thick-knees. The birding this afternoon is so good we feel cut short at 5:30 to head back to town for a dinner reservation and we discuss returning to this road on another day.
(Shari) Taking a break from birding, Bob asks if I want to join him on a trip to town. We climb into one of those familiar vans called "collectivos" and drive the short distance to Centro. Stopping first at one of the many Internet places, I discover that I have forgotten my "cheat sheet" and do not know my password. While Bob communicates, I walk the street shopping. Soon he joins me and we ask directions to the market where they sell verduras and frutas. Pushing through the crowds of people on the sidewalks, we stop to buy an assorted lot of things at separate venders: rolls, pastries, apples, cumin seed, peanuts, green onions, snacks, tomatoes, plums, and bananas. Whenever I visit Palenque, I wonder why the town does not support one of those fancy supermarkets. Shopping like this takes forever. Taking the collectivo home again, we get there in time for lunch. After the afternoon birding trip, I have arranged a dinner at our favorite Palenque restaurant. Here, half of us order the flaming steak and half get the stuffed fish. Both halves rave about their meal.
(Bert) "A plover! On the gravel bar!" exclaims Cindy. I raise an open-faced hand, signaling the boat driver to halt. Bob makes a quick request in Spanish. The driver obliges and swings the long narrow boat around. As we get closer to the sliver of gravel, an island in the Usumacinta River separating Mexico from Guatemala, I shout, "That's it! It's the Collared Plover! Look at the strong black bar in front and no white collar in back of the neck!" I can also see the chestnut wash over the hindneck, the black crown and the white forehead. Dave says there are two more plovers to the right and when I swing my binoculars toward them I see the nice contrast of the larger size and differing color pattern of the Killdeers. So Judy finally has her Collared Plover. She has been playfully pestering me the past 51 days that she wants to see a Collared Plover during our caravan trip. I told her it was quite unlikely, since we have never found even one on our previous trips. "But Howell's book says they are widespread," she countered. We joked that they are so widespread that you only see a feather here and there. When we met with Steve Howell a couple days ago he said that the numbers of Collared Plovers seems to have dropped considerably in recent years, but they might still be on the Usumacinta River in an area he has not visited since 1989. So it is our good fortune to find one just where he said, much to everyone's delight. Our driver reenters the stream, moving with the current and in another half-hour reaches our destination at the ruins of Yaxchilán, a riverside Mayan stronghold dominated by Edifice 33, built by Bird Jaguar IV during his reign from 752-772 AD. The well-preserved temple rises 133 feet above the Great Plaza and enjoys a grand view of the many other buildings below. In Mayan times it seems quite likely the forest was cleared around the temples, giving a clear view up and down the Usumacinta. But now the jungle has closed in and we stroll the park like setting under the shade of magnificent Ceibas and cedars. Before we visit this area, however, we head in the opposite direction and bird along the perimeter of the grassed airstrip. There, Dave stops us at the forest edge when he announces a puffbird perched prominently a few feet ahead of us. The very patient White-whiskered Puffbird allows me take close-up photos and gives everyone a graciously long view. Helen decides this is a good place to set up her three-legged stool and wait for the birds to come to her. When we catch up with her a couple of hours later, she proudly shows me the notes and sketch she has made. Previously on this trip she usually relied on others to make bird identifications and then often struggled to see the birds through the maze of trees, vines and shrubs. This time her patient wait has been rewarded with multiple and sustained looks at a life bird she has correctly identified as Royal Flycatcher. Her notes even include the subtle pattern of white dots on the brown wings of the flycatcher.
(Bert) This morning we rerun the route to La Libertad and beyond. At the marsh where we finished birding two days ago we again find a good variety of birds, today adding a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and a couple of Yellow-tailed Orioles. While it doesn't take us long to get a list of about 50 species, the birding quickly tapers off as we continue toward the Usumacinta River in the heat of the late morning. The marshes we expected to see are mostly dry farmlands supporting few birds. We return by lunchtime and I catch up on errands and write journals. Late in the afternoon, as we have done previous days, we gather near the RV's and set up lawn chairs on the edge of a retaining wall that gives us a good view of the lowlands below and the forest beyond. The wasteland attracts many birds, including several rarities. Each early evening we've heard up to three Ruddy Crakes. Today Cindy is waiting for a black seedeater she saw yesterday. This time when it appears I'm watching too and I agree that the bird is larger than the common Variable Seedeaters we've been seeing elsewhere. But most convincing is the enormous bill that seems to cover the entire front of the bird's head. We're watching a Thick-billed Seed-Finch, a great find, especially with the prolonged observation this one offers. Other good birds show up in the brambles below us - Canivet's Emerald, Grayish Saltator and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat - and we again finish the day with a chorus of Common Pauraques.
(Shari) Don, Helen and I meet the birders on the dirt road before we reach the waterfall. In the scope, I see parrots with mouths red from the berries they are eating, while Howler monkeys sound off across the road. Our second stop is the beautiful waterfall of Misol-Ha. Some of us walk down and are able to stand underneath the falls, enjoying its thunderous roar from above. The steps have been finished at this location and the walk down is oh so much easier than the slippery mud of previous years. By noon we are at Agua Azul another water attraction. These falls are stair steps of turquoise water over limestone and Dave remarks it is the prettiest falls he has even seen. We stop to eat at one of the many riverside restaurants and all order omelets except me. I order grilled shrimp and fries. Today the weather is like the weather of other years: steamy and hot. This group has no idea what hot is and they are ready to call it a day by 1:30. Two cars leave for home by 2 PM and only Cindy and Bert remain to catch more birds. Before we leave, I purchase an embroidered blouse with two toucans on the front for only $10. These blouses are popular tourist ware and I find them very cool in this climate. R-TENT-III is stifling hot when I return and it takes two hours before the air-conditioner can catch up.
(Bert) Several times, in different ways, Dave asks me about the falls as if he is trying to judge whether it is worth the effort to climb the walkway and rock stairs beside the river at Agua Azul. As we begin the climb, the midday heat is intense and the nearby water must bring the humidity to near maximum. At least we walk in shade. It being Saturday, in addition to tourists the local people have come to the river to swim and the multiple levels of the cascading water gives each group its own private pool for swimming. Unlike Dave's first impression of just one pretty waterfall, a wide variety of cascades entertains our eye. (Later, back at camp, Dave tells me Agua Azul was the best waterfalls he has ever seen). Every hundred feet we have a completely different view of the water pouring over smoothed limestone rock: slithering, plunging, tumbling, a dozen shades of turquoise and azure, crystal clear or bubbling white, a roar or a whisper. Water-fed giant trees hug the shoreline, their exposed roots sucking up the moisture. Birds feeding high in the canopy are fewer than I remember and I miss the Green Honeycreepers we've seen here on each of our previous visits, but we do see the more common Red-legged Honeycreepers. A Swainson's Thrush is only the second we've seen during the trip and I finally am able to photograph a Wood Thrush. The best bird - Black Hawk-Eagle - is high overhead, using the uplift of the mountains to float effortlessly. The others have already left, so only Cindy and I see the hawk-eagle. On our return trip we stop again near the edge of the mountains, just as they lift from the valley below. Overhead we watch hundreds of swifts and work out the details of Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts. When they fly low we can see their white throats, but a few appear dark and have less pointed wings and a more swallow-like profile. I wonder if we are seeing a few Chestnut-collared Swifts mixed in the flocks. We wait for them to cycle past us again, but this time they are much higher and too distant to see features clearly. Shortly before we leave, a dove flies over the road and disappears into the shrubby hillside. With my eyes I follow its location and after a few minutes binocular search I locate it on the ground in the dense brush, in too complicated a location to describe to Cindy. I suspect a White-tipped Dove, but its head is not pinkish but rather grayish and without any brown crown, making this a Gray-headed Dove and a lifer for me.
(Shari) As we pull out of the lot this morning, Bert tells me that Judy has broken air bags. A Wagonmaster from another caravan told her about them and said she needs to get it looked at in Villahermosa. Always something to deal with! As we turn the corner to get onto the highway, we hear that Dave's and Bonnie's bikes fell off their camper. Now, what next? Luckily no damage was done and by the time we get past the military check they are caught up with the group. The trip is only 96 miles today, but seems longer since the narrow road is crowded and we get stuck behind two very slow trucks. Finally we pull into the RV parking lot. Bob goes with Judy and the rest of us go to La Venta Museum. I walk the riverbank while I wait for Helen and Don to finish at the museum. Then we go to Wal-Mart. Seems Helen's cat needs cat litter. Since all three of us are starving, we decide to eat at the deli in Wal-Mart. It looks like a cafeteria but we cannot figure out where to start. The menu board is broken and useless and what is written there does not look like the choices in the pans. The board says they have a Pachetta Cubana and I tell the young lady behind the counter that that is what I want. She of course does not understand me so I just point at the food in the bins. I end up with chicken wings, fries, coke and coleslaw. She dishes it out and then walks with my food a good 50 ft. to the cash register and tells the girl how much to charge before she goes back the same 50 ft. to wait on the next customer and repeat the slow process. This is frustrating since it is so inefficient and we are starved. We sit to eat at the cheap tables and chairs but do enjoy the air conditioning. It must be 95 deg. outside, but nice here. Because of the heat, we diddle around the store for 2 hrs. before paying for our groceries. Upon arriving back at camp, I put the groceries away, read a bit - we have the generator on for the air conditioning - and make margaritas. By 5 PM it has cooled down nicely and we sit for 90 min. enjoying our time together once again. Judy comes over carrying a yellow bag with her broken air bags in it. We wonder why she has it, since it is so heavy. When asked, she retorts, "I am taking it for a walk." She is just so funny and makes me laugh a lot.
(Bert) With our Tailgunners no longer with us (Dan and Dorothy flew to a hospital in Tyler, Texas, and their son came to Chetemal to take back their RV), I'm hoping that we will have no mechanical problems for the 1100 miles we'll travel back to the U.S. So, when I notice several men staring and pointing under the carriage of Judy's truck I become concerned. We are lined up for our departure from Palenque and the campground is a bustle of activity with two other caravans, one of which will leave as soon as we pull out. The Wagonmaster for one of the other caravans points out to Judy and me that the bolts holding her air bags are gone and that the support bracket is cracked. It looks bad to me, but apparently the bags are just an add-on and he deflates them, causing the chassis to rely only on the springs for support. He says Judy can drive it this way to Villahermosa and find a mechanic there to replace the bolts and weld the support. We leave, travel about 20 miles and while waiting at a military checkpoint I hear of another problem over the CB. Dave's bicycle rack has fallen off and he is dragging his two bicycles behind him. He retrieves his bicycles and stores them inside. Fortunately, that is the last of our mishaps today during the 94 miles to Villahermosa. Bob and Judy go off to find a mechanic while the rest of us head to the La Venta Museum. The outdoor museum displaying the Olmec heads and other pre-Mayan sculpture is set in a jungle oasis in the center of a busy city. Sunday has brought out the local residents, particularly families with young children, to visit the museum, so the place is busy with activity. Perhaps it's this activity, or maybe the mid-day timing, that reduces the bird life we see. In a tree growing over the large concrete enclosure encircling a pair of enormous crocodiles a pair of Green Herons has nested and now we see three scrawny fledglings gingerly and unsteadily climbing through the branches. We encounter a group of Mantled Howlers resting lazily high in the trees. The day is hot and humid, so we sit and watch them sit and watch us. A bit later in another part of the woods they come through the trees, noisily disturbing the branches and calling loudly. We can see their reddish backs, the only real mark that separates them from the Yucatan Black Howlers we've seen and heard many times on our trip. One other mammal attracts my attention today: the black subspecies (nigrescens) of the Mexican Gray Squirrel. This is a very pretty sleek all-black squirrel and, accustomed to people in the park, it lets me get up close to photograph it. In the late afternoon we gather for margaritas and Judy drags out the airbags which they successfully had a mechanic remove. Now she'll feel the bumps a bit more, but at least the airbags won't cause further problems. Just as we are putting away our chairs and table we hear a pygmy-owl, one I heard earlier today. We gather quickly near the fence and see the owl perched on a low branch. Although it looks almost identical to the Ferruginous that we've found often during the trip, this owl hoots in short sequences. I count the hoots in each sequence - 14, 9, 8, 8 - separated by long pauses. Also, unlike the Ferruginous, we hear a preamble to the hooting, a chattering that sounds more like a passerine than an owl. The calls match Central American Pygmy-Owl, a new species for our trip list.