Chapter 6. Isthmus of Tehuantepec
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2005 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Again a scenic route, this one leading from Oaxaca city to Tehuantepec, we drive through low mountains clothed in a mixture of native thornforest and cultivated agave. Thousands of acres of the cactus, grown for tequila and mescal, are a patchwork of tiny sloping fields surrounded by native vegetation. The blue green agave is a radially symmetric bouquet of spiked daggers arranged in translationally symmetric uphill rows. Native cactus abounds, most prominently by tall unbranched spires that form sharp dihedral angles with the steep mountainside. In the distance I can see seven ridges, initially green, then brown succeeded by purple and sky blue. Close up rocks have the green cast of copper ore. Other mountains bleed rusty red, especially where cuts through the iron rich rock give us purchase on the roadway clinging to the mountainside. The caravan snakes around the hills, often allowing the head to see the tail. Straightaways are so rare that when I find one I check my odometer and measure its 0.4 mi. length. We stop for lunch at Rio Hondo, which like most small villages is named by its river. I get so absorbed by the birds here that I miss lunch altogether and then when Shari comes out to see what’s happening, I tell her we should stay another half hour. Even the non-birders join us on the river bridge overlooking tall trees growing along the flowing water. New to our list are White-throated Magpie-Jays – lanky blue and white jays adorned at head with a spiked crown and at tail with a long kite string. Rufous-backed Robins alight on the branches below me and give me a close-up opportunity for photographing them. Yellow-winged Caciques are yellow and black streamers in flight. Most unusual is the sight of a Wood Stork circling above us with a flock of vultures, certainly out of place here high in the mountains. At Happy Hour we do a bird count off and Ilsa contributes a Lesser Roadrunner that she spotted during today’s drive.
(Shari) Mostly downhill, and also mostly winding, our drive today is slow. The road has much improved and at least the surface has been redone so that the potholes are gone since our last drive this way. We stop for lunch at 12:30 at the first big pullout I have seen in the last 90 min. It turns out to be a terrific birding spot, and we stay an extra half an hour thinking that we still will get in by 3 PM. Never assume anything in Mexico! Travel days often have surprises in them. We do arrive at the hotel by 3 PM and they do have our reservations. That is all good. HOWEVER … here’s the way it evolves. We unhook the car at a small pullout about three miles from the hotel. I drive ahead to let the management know of our arrival and ask where we should park. He tells me, around back. Now, only the four smaller rigs will fit “around back.” I drive back to the front entrance just as Bert is leading the group in. Making the decision where everyone should park, I tell the small ones to follow me, and the large ones to follow Bert into the dirt lot on the right. I drive back out and lead two more to the side. Now we are all parked and nicely out of the way. I go back to the office and ask how much the fee will be per night. I am told $38 per rig per night. I ask to speak to the manager, since this charge is outrageous for parking without any facilities. The manager does not read or speak English (I doubt this) so her assistant translates for us. After more “talking” I find out that the manager has gotten our reservations, but has reserved eight hotel rooms not eight parking spaces. She will not budge. Her boss comes out and is very animated and what he is saying does not seem friendly. The assistant tells me it is okay to stay. The boss says not to worry. The manager says $38 but changes to $30 a bit later. Thirty dollars for 11 or $30 for 8, I do not know. This does not seem to be a compromise. I plead some more and ask to call our caravan headquarters. Sure they say: $3.00 per min. I say I will get “me esposo.” Back outside, around the building and up to the dirt lot, I walk looking for Bert. I tell him of the situation, and he follows me back to the office. Meanwhile, the manager has called the owner of the RV Park down the road. He is already in the office when Bert and I arrive. Speaking pretty good English, he relates again what we already know. Plus, if we stay, we cannot put out chairs, awnings, tables or wash. Apparently, the ownership changed and their rules are now different. The owner of the RV Park says we can stay with him for $10 per night per rig. That seems a more reasonable solution, but we have to move. I know everyone has set up by now. Bert and I go off to tell the group the news. So far they know nothing is amiss. I tell the smaller rigs. Poor Ron and Carol. They are the ones pulling a pop-up tent trailer and have the hardest job to set up and take down. I feel so badly for them. Tom and Carlu have already removed their bikes from on top their roof. Judy is off birding somewhere. Finally we get them all together, back in line with a CB count off and move to the next campground. Bill wonders if he can make it down the sharp decline at the entrance road. He does. We have margaritas and actually the group likes this spot better, but I really wanted the pool. Apparently we cannot use it, even if we buy lunch. Business is sure different in Mexico. Seems they turn it away. It is entirely possible that we have some sort of cronyism going on here between the RV Park owner and hotel owner, but we will never prove it.
(Bert) Our campsite nestled under overhanging trees in a rural area is prime for an owl prowl. So, at 5 AM the most persistent of birders – Cindy, Judy R., Ron and me – walk a few hundred feet down a country path and stop to listen to the silence of darkness. Nothing. We play a recording of a Pacific Screech-Owl. Nothing. We play a recording of Mottled Owl. Nothing. Cindy tries Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, but her recording is so weird, I decide I can do better. So I start my imitation and within 15 seconds I activate a live owl in the palms about 200 yards away. The Pygmy-Owl and I play a duet, soon joined by a screech-owl almost directly above us. The trio becomes a quartet when a Mottled Owl in the next tree joins our choir. We use a flashlight to spot the Mottled Owl, but it either flies away or goes silent. The Pacific Screech-Owl exits when we shine in its direction and all we see is a dark shadow and hear the whoosh of air as it glides past Judy’s left ear. I resume my pygmy-owl chant and this time the Ferruginous comes and joins us in the tree above. Not shy in a flashlight beam we easily locate the hooter. We turn out the light and, strangely, this owl calls in a double hoot – something I’ve never heard before. When we turn on the light again, the mystery is solved. Two pygmy-owls now perch side-by-side, performing a syncopated duet with each owl’s hoot filling the sound gap of the other. In the distance we hear a third pygmy-owl and, perhaps, a fourth. We retreat to our RV’s, only to start up again at 6:45 for a birding trip to La Ventosa lagoon. With our first exposure to the Pacific Ocean, we add a number of species to the list, including Gull-billed, Royal, Elegant and Common terns, Reddish Egret, Willets and Whimbrels. On the rarer list, we add lifers for most when we find Rufous-naped Wrens, White-lored Gnatcatcher (seen only by Cindy and Tom), and the most colorful, Orange-breasted Bunting. Although we certainly make a diligent search in the right habitat, none of us find the elusive Lesser Ground-Cuckoo this year. At dusk, Carl, Sandy, Charlu and I visit the same Cattle Egret rookery that a few of us went to last night. When we arrive, only about 50 egrets are at the roost, but before we leave there are 1200 to 1400 perched on three trees overhanging a canal. While watching the birds come to roost, we are delighted to find Limpkin, Least Grebe, Ringed Kingfisher and watch a snake cross the canal in speedboat time.
(Shari) Nothing much is planned today for the SOB’s. Some go to the beach. I stay home and get caught up on caravan accounting, group accounting, journals and road logs. I even get a few hours to read and take a nap. It is wonderful. At 5 we gather in the shade and compare notes of our day. More lifers were found for the birders, which makes them happy. Van and I try to solve the whole of Mexico’s problems in one sitting. Sue and Judy S. are studying a bird and actually have a book open. Amazing, not for Judy, but for Sue. There goes my shopping compadre. Ron and Carol are doing wash. Sandy and Carl are cleaning house. Mel and Beth are off getting water. Tom is still birding. I tell Bob B. how wonderful the spreadsheet is that he worked out for me. I guess I knew you could get sheets to “talk” to each other but never took the time to figure out how. He did it for me and it makes the campground accounting for the group so much easier. Thanks Bob. Our satellite problem still is not fixed and Bert uses the satellite phone through Carl’s network to talk with Ground Control. AGAIN! I talk with my dad through the satellite, but the connection is not good and he wants to hang up. Either that or he wants to watch “Everybody Loves Raymond.” I hear him perfectly but he says he cannot hear me clearly.
(Bert) Although we plan an earlier departure, so many birds are active in the trees above our campsite that we are drawn to them instead. Our first parrots of the trip, a small flock of Orange-fronted Parakeets and another species that is probably Lilac-crowned Parrot quickly draws our attention. A very vocal oriole that I suspect is Spot-breasted teases me for a half hour, but I cannot see it among the leaves. It would be a life bird for me, so it is hard for me to leave this spot, but we finally do, heading toward the brushlands near the edge of the mountains about 10 miles west of here. The birding spot was quite unproductive two years ago; nonetheless I want to give it another chance. This morning the area again starts out dull, with only a few distant birds heard and only a Brown-crested Flycatcher seen. At Cindy’s suggestion, I hoot my pygmy-owl imitation. Within a minute, birds start flocking in around us. Only seen by two birders yesterday, now everyone sees a half dozen White-lored Gnatcatchers surround us and this species becomes common throughout the morning, especially when I hoot for them. Another good bird entertained by my first call is a Banded Wren, not shy to our binoculars. A Golden Vireo, duller than usual, becomes a new life bird for Cindy. The lemon yellow belly of a Citreoline Trogon well hidden in dark branches draws our attention. When it flies to another location, those that missed it at the first perch move toward its new perch. But I shift in the other direction and see a remarkable sparrow clinging to brush just above a yucca. I’ve got a perfect view of a Cinnamon-tailed (Sumicrast’s) Sparrow. I quietly motion Cindy to my spot and soon others gather to see this rarity – a life bird for everyone - and we even get it centered in a scope. Our 2003 group searched diligently for this bird, put only one person found it. The range for Sumicrast’s is so tiny you could say we are at the northern, southern, eastern and western edge of its range, simultaneously. A bird that I thought we would have found in the Oaxaca area, we finally see a Beautiful Hummingbird, undeserving of its adjective. Later we take another road heading to Ruinas Guienguila, seeing a Gray Fox along the way, and find a hummingbird that certainly deserves to be called beautiful, but is named Doubleday’s Hummingbird, a distinct subspecies of Broad-billed. Most striking is its intensely red-orange bill terminated with black. At the same stop, we find a bird I am not expecting to see since its range is as tiny as the Sumicrast’s. The two females have us puzzled for a moment, but I recognize them as buntings. Then the male appears, removing all doubt about its identity: Rose-bellied Bunting, often called Rosita’s Bunting. The male is as striking as a Painted Bunting, but limited to two colors, mostly bright blue with a pink belly and an obvious white eye ring. What a day for me! I’ve gotten 2.5 life birds: Sumicrast’s, Rosita’s and Doubleday’s (which I count as half, since it is only a new subspecies for me). When the road climbs, narrows and becomes sharp-rocked, we turn around and head in another direction through the thorn forest toward Rio Las Tejas. Under spreading shade trees we eat our lunch and lounge along the pebbled creek side. Somewhat cooler than the 102° temperature measured by the auto thermometer, and with a bit of a breeze, we see large numbers of birds and Tom witnesses many of them bombarding an unwanted Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.
(Shari) The birders are long gone and I sleep late. Annoying Spanish emanating from a loud speaker on a car interrupts the quiet of the morning. I guess it is time to get up. I have scheduled a movie and popcorn at 1 PM but Judy S. is the only one who joins me to watch “Meet the Parents.” The rest have gone to town to see what they can find. They must find a lot since they do not return for at least four hours. Sue brings me polla asada. Yum! We sit outside in a circle, talking about birds and their behavior. Bert starts a hooting noise and soon hoots emanate from the woods surrounding the camp. I am impressed. At dark, we go inside to enjoy the chicken and retire early. Every night seems to get earlier and earlier. That means an earlier start to the morning too. Tonight I think I am asleep by 8:30 PM. That is ridiculous, I know.
(Bert) Word has spread about our owling experience a couple of days ago, so this morning others want to participate. At 5:30 we are again under the same trees and when I hoot, a pygmy-owl responds. The sequence of events is much the same, but this time we miss Mottled Owl and hear two Pacific Screech-Owls instead. A bit later Cindy, Judy and Tom try again to find ground-cuckoos at the lagoon (unsuccessful again), but the rest of us stay around the campsite. Birding is particularly good at this camp and I’m keen on finding the Spot-breasted Oriole. I hear the bird so often and fail to find the oriole that I begin to wonder if I’ve got the song wrong. I’m surrounded by Altamira and Streak-backed orioles, caciques, robins, magpie-jays and other singers, but I think I know all of their songs, so there must be something missing. After more than an hour of scanning the same cluster of trees, I find a Melodious Blackbird that shouldn’t be here. Its eastern Mexico range terminates at the mountains along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, about 35 miles from here, and range maps do not show it wandering on to the coastal plain. But here it is, and singing its “witch cheer” song. This confirms Ron’s sighting of one at Rio Tejas yesterday. Immediately after identifying the blackbird I see a Spot-breasted Oriole, spots and all. In a minute it takes flight to another tree and I hear the music I’ve been chasing. The remainder of the morning is leisurely and at one point I see four lawn chairs lined up with readers sitting in each. Bob helps everyone tie down their RV awnings in anticipation of today’s short drive up into the Isthmus where the winds can be dangerous. At 1 PM we leave camp and, indeed, do face strong winds but manageable if I slow to about 35 mph. Twenty-three miles across the coastal plain, the mountains form a gray wall across the road, stretching from the western to eastern horizon. Five miles farther and we curve left, climbing gently along the mountain edge where leafless brush form a brown tangle offset by the pink blooms of Cassia trees. At 600 ft. we level off into a broad basin edged in still higher mountains. Here in the plateau is a palm tree forest where a few cattle graze. We soon stop for the day, our shortest drive of the trip, at a Pemex station and park in its huge back lot, accompanied by double trailer semi’s.
(Bert) I wonder what the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was like when it was being considered for a canal between Atlantic and Pacific. Nowadays, a relatively flat and straight highway traverses nearly barren low mountains between the oceans. Although we climbed a bit yesterday when we left the Pacific coastal plain, today along the Uxpanapa road we are only at 260 ft. and descend to 200 ft. when we reach the bridge over Rio Chalchijapan. Nonetheless, this rural road gives us a taste of natural history. We’ve left the main highway and are now on a newly blacktopped side road, much improved in two years. Yet, when we pay the first of two 50-cent road tolls – a rope stretched across the road attended by a teenage girl – the road deteriorates into potholes. Even though this is a birding excursion and we are driving SUV’s, the road is a bit of a challenge with so many potholes I cannot avoid them by zigzagging the wide road, but must drive through a constant succession of them. We pass through hilly farmlands and second growth patches of forest, but seek the small acreage of virgin jungles that is near the Oaxaca-Veracruz border. After nearly two hours of driving, we are enveloped in tall trees, canopying the rock road. We walk down a short path into lush jungle just as rain starts to fall, pitter pattering on elephant ear leaves and giving us a live performance of the sounds of a tropical rain forest much like recordings we’ve often heard. A Slaty-tailed Trogon perches patiently for all of us to see eventually, although nearly hidden by overhanging branches. Trogons are highly prized by birders, perhaps because of there relatively large size (over one foot head to tail) combined with especially bright colors. This Slaty-tailed is a male with a cherry red belly, grass green chest and back, orange bill, black face and red orbital ring around a dark eye. When found – and they are easily overlooked – they usually pose, as does this one, for long periods. Thus, unlike many other birds we see today, the trogon gives everyone a chance to study its features. At the opposite extreme is a Yellow-olive Flycatcher we see later. I get perhaps one of my best looks at this species in a series of eight 5-sec. commercials between long sessions of birdless branch watching. For long-time birders with extensive life lists, this drab bird is exciting for its peculiar field marks that distinguish it as another check on the list. But for others, chasing a poorly defined dull bird, mostly hiding and usually departing before binoculars can focus on the movement can be a frustrating exercise. Such are the differences in birding experiences. Another example could be hearing versus seeing. When my list is long, with few gaps, hearing a bird is rewarding even if I cannot see it. Today we hear the two-note drawn-out funereal calls of three Slaty-breasted Tinamous and the owl-like hooting of a Violaceous Trogon and the distant muffled cooing of a Gray-fronted Dove, but see none. I’ve noticed that beginning birders have little patience for this birding-by-ear activity, but I count it as a most rewarding occurrence. Judy R.’s habit of birding alone, mostly while standing still or sitting patiently on her three-legged stool, again pays off for her today. She finds Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Golden-hooded Tanager and Crimson-collared Tanager, while we find none. My style of walking slowly, usually with an entourage of birders behind me, produces Olive-throated Parakeets, White-fronted Parrots, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, White-winged Tanager, Montezuma Oropendola and another dozen species new to the trip list. On our return we stop several times along pastures cleared of the original forests. Here the birding changes more to Van’s liking, as we see many species in quick succession, most posing prominently and patiently enough for all to focus binoculars. We find Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, Band-backed Wrens, Southern House Wrens and Gray-crowned Yellowthroats. And best, we all see a much sought after Royal Flycatcher – a nemesis bird that Judy R. finally adds to her life list.
(Shari) I am writing this with a knot in my stomach. It is 5:45 PM and the birders are not home yet. They left early this morning and Bert knows I worry after 5 PM. It is ridiculous. I have been pacing the floor for the past 15 minutes. Oh oh, here they come. I do not know if I should hit him or hug him. Maybe I will do both. This is one place I do not like on our tour. We park behind a big Pemex station with a bunch of trucks. The wind has been blowing all day and all night. Sue, Bob, Beth, Mel and I went for a little ride this morning and found the cleanest and cutest town in Mexico. It is called Lagunas and seems to be a company town kept alive by the big cement plant that dominates its landscape. The streets are all clean with no garbage in sight. The parks are manicured and planted with flowers and sculptured trees. A modern church dominates the hillside and house after house after house is well cared for and rich looking. This town must be the Beverly Hills of Mexico. We stop the car in front of a bakery and just have to go inside. Each of us picks up a round tray and tongs and starts to choose from the goodies on display. Everything is so tasty looking. Sitting at the tables provided, we then sample our sweets. I have a tasty bread pudding and others have assorted donuts. After lunch Bob, Sue and I watch a movie. So my day has been full, but at 5 PM I start to worry anyway, conjuring up all sorts of horrendous scenarios. So as I see the headlights come into the parking lot, I am extremely relieved. I still intend to give Bert a scolding though.
(Bert) Color the world lime green. Traveling north through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec on a cratered and pocked highway, we cross from Oaxaca into Veracruz, entering the coastal plains lush in fresh grasses and palm trees sprinkled with Cassia trees showered in coral flowers, the first to bloom in spring. Eastward a hundred miles through the marshes, our elevation is only about 50 ft. above sea level so water seeps into all the lower spots, creating ideal habitat for hundreds of egrets and herons. We stop at a wayside before the artistic bridge over Rio Uxpanapa and I call for an extended lunch period because I know the birding is good along the gravel side road leading through the marshes. Today it is even better than I anticipated when we find Bat Falcon, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Rufous-breasted Spinetail and a dozen other “good birds.” Over the bridge, we cross into Tabasco, soon entering the 20-mi. boulevard leading to Villahermosa. The 4-lane highway it bisected with a continuous row of mature African Tulip trees displaying their large orange blooms. At night, a Central American Pygmy-owl hoots in the trees overshadowing R-Tent-III.
(Shari) Yesterday and today are travel days, to get from the Isthmus to southeast Mexico. Before we left the U.S., we were told the park in Villahermosa where we stayed in previous years has closed and I have directions to a new park. That always gives me butterflies, but we find it without a hitch. However, this new park did not know we were coming, nor do they know we are returning in March. Luckily no one else is here and we have plenty of room. The “park” is basically a level field. The owners have recently added water hookups and electricity, such as it is. Only one person at a time can run water and/or use electricity without affecting the whole line. We have full use of the pool, showers and bathrooms and also get “free” music. When we arrive we see a wedding in progress in the field next door and a big youth party in full swing at the pool area. I am told the pool party will go on all night. I warn the smaller rigs. The rest of us can close our windows and put on a fan to block the noise. None of us can block the pounding bass however and it throbs all night and into the morning. I swear, Mexicans must have defective eardrums by the time they are 20. This country is so very noisy with its honking horns, loud music, blasting loudspeakers, engine braking trucks, and crowing roosters. I sometimes need some silence and think of poor Carol and Ron in their open-air pop-up, parked closest to the loudspeakers.
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