Veracruz River of Raptors
Sept. 30 – Oct. 08, 2016
Phil Brown, HMANA Tour Guide
Eduardo Martinez, Pronatura Biologist
Ernesto Ruelas-Inzunza, Veracruz Hawk Watch Co-founder, former HMANA/RPI Staff
HMANA returned to Veracruz, Mexico this past October with a tour group to witness the spectacle of the world-famous River of Raptors. And what a tour it was! A total of 238 bird species, among them 25 species of raptors, were seen or heard by the group of 11 participants plus guides, during the seven day tour. Being a HMANA tour, raptors were certainly the center of attention! During the days the group spent between the two hawk watch sites in Cardel and Chichicaxtle, 579,155 individual migrant raptors were tallied! Compare that with the 591,397 raptors tallied from 103 hawk watch sites during 2016’s International Hawk Migration Week.
We watched hawks from every place we could: the two official hawk watches in Cardel (a rooftop of the Hotel Bienvenido where we stayed) and a two-tiered circular platform and visitor center of Pronatura Veracruz in Chichicaxtle, next to a soccer field in a more rural neighborhood; we saw tens of thousands of raptors from other places, too, including the ancient archaeological site of Quiahuiztlan, and many places in between. The migration each day seemed better than the day before, and the spectacle left us grasping for words to describe the magnitude and magnificence of it all.
A clear highlight of the tour included seeing hundreds of thousands of Broad-winged Hawks, tens of thousands of Turkey Vultures and Swainson’s Hawks, and hundreds of Mississippi Kites in migration. These four species are the most notable raptor migrants over Veracruz, which sees over 90% of their entire world populations pass through each fall. Other raptors got our attention, too. Exotic to many of us were the several Zone-tailed Hawks that passed through daily, trying to blend in with the slightly larger vultures, as well as more southern species including Gray Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Hook-billed Kites, which were only ‘discovered’ to be migrant species here in Veracruz two decades ago. Resident raptors of Veracruz included Roadside Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, Laughing Falcon, Crested Caracara, White-tailed Kite, Lesser Yellow-headed and Black Vultures, and both Common and Great Black-Hawks. All this, plus smaller numbers of migrant American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Harrier, and Red-tailed Hawk.
But it wasn’t just hawks. Sharing the sky with the raptors were hundreds of Anhingas, Ibis, American White Pelicans, Wood Storks, and more. Somehow, there was time to focus on 200+ other species of birds including many species endemic to Mexico and Central America. Some of the stars were warblers – 28 species highlighted by the coveted Red Warbler, as well as Olive and Golden-browed Warblers. Not to mention all of the neotropical migrants that had recently returned from breeding areas of the US and Canada. And there were other wonderful songbirds – both Fork-tailed and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in impressive numbers, the endemic Blue Mockingbird, lots of hummingbirds of several species, motmots, trogons, and a fan favorite, Montezuma’s Oropendula. The diversity of birds corresponded nicely with the wide range of habitat types we visited – there were birds of the tropical lowland rainforests, montane forests, dry scrub forest, grasslands, wetlands, sandbar, open ocean, open sky, canyon, and urban landscape.
We made the most of our short time in Veracruz. Tour participants all put in many long days of birding in often hot conditions, but the payoff was rewarding. Everyone’s identification skills, whether a beginning or advanced birder, improved considerably during the tour, and we are now all better prepared for those western/southern rarities at our own hawk watch sites! Though this was decidedly a birding tour, we also made time for some world-class cultural destinations including several sites of national and international significance such as the Quihuiztlan and Cempoala Ruins, and the Archaelogical Museum which featured ancient Olmec civilizations from the region.
Lastly, not enough can be said about the people of Mexico who we met – all of the talented and caring guides, especially guide, Eduardo Martinez, who shepherded us safely through both rural and urban areas finding good eats for us the entire tour (we all especially loved the moljacetes!). Ernesto Ruelas’ knowledge and special connection to the hawk watch and to HMANA, and Elisa’s presentation and personable nature, also added greatly to the tour, and we were fortunate to have ample time with them. Our very special day at El Mirador coffee plantation and with owners, Jorge and Emege, complete with a delicious home-cooked meal in their courtyard, was an authentic example of how eco-tourism works well as we had the chance to experience – and taste – conservation practices of shade-grown coffee on this sixth generation farm.
Given the success of the tour, we hope to offer it again! Stay tuned for future travel opportunities to Veracruz with HMANA