Up in the high country

Neill took the wheel out of Palenque and up the eternity of hairpins and yawning, jungle-draped chasms that is the Ocosingo Road after brekky on March 1st.

I’d like to be able to wax lyrical about this amazing mountain road – two and a half hours of breathtaking vertiginous forest views, 6,000ft up, where banditos once robbed travellers, until the army got seriously medieval and employed the most heavily armed and humourless checkpoints we came across.

I’d like to write about the indigenous native children brought up in bone-crushing poverty and chasing the X-trail to try and sell us bananas, or the mean hombres trudging up the hills with machetes in hand, or even raggedy families out gathering firewood.

I’d like to harp on about the lines of white traditional smocks hanging on the trees for sale around every tiny pitiful unmapped village.

But I can’t, because that most malicious of the old Mayan gods, none other than the notorious Bolloxotl, had dealt me a particularly wicked hand of cards that day.

Bolloxotl is the Mayans’ mischievous one, the one who makes birders sit on tarantulas, or just miss the fleeting shape in the jungle canopy that may once have been a Quetzal (that’s what Bazzo told us anyway).

Bolloxotl is the god that stops the ant swarms running and he is feared by all sensible birders.

This morning he bestowed upon me an almighty dose of the Aztec two-step, so I spent most of the time on the road into the high Chiapas diving into ditches and banos perched above plunging ravines, before dosing up on Immodium.

Quite why I my nether regions suddenly felt like Popocatepetl had moved south and was ready for serious business is a mystery – I’d only had a modest supper of beer, steak, beer, chillies, beer, chips, beer, refried beans, beer, salad, beer and a few mescals the night before….

By the time we got to the end of the Ocosingo Road, I felt a lot better, which was lucky as it was time to start birding the pine and oak woodlands above St Cristobal De La Casas, a great town, where Lesser Nighthawks arced above the illuminated central square in the evening, and xylophone troupes performed on the bandstand.

We checked out the track 2km up the Ocosingo Road from the St Cristobal junction first – Yellow Eyed Junco, Brown Creeper, Rufous Collared Thrush (common, but a stonker), Chestnut Collared Sparrow and Hammond’s Flycatcher were around the clearings, but as it was a hot afternoon the woods were fairly quiet.

Before we headed into town to find a place to stay for three nights, we gave the track 2.6km from the junction a bash. The wind had got up and cloud was sweeping down off the high forested ridges above us – colder certainly, and the birds were more active as a consequence.

Steller’s Jays foraged around the pines, calling loudly, and lovely Eastern Bluebirds sat on prominent perches, pulses of startling blue in the grey fading light.

Best of all was a full on male Townsend’s Warbler – the first of many we would see over the next few days.

I’ve always been a sucker for Yankee Wood Warblers (who isn’t?), but this species was stunning even by the standards of the rest of the clan.

We drove back into town at 5.30pm into the chaos of evening traffic, and booked into the Hotel Jardines del Carmen in San Cristobal de las Casas – a fine old Spanish colonial style hotel, with a balcony over looking the massive Mexican flag that fluttered above the town, hemmed in by a cruel world of shanties and hard poverty.

Next morning we hit km2.6 on the Ocosingo Road hard at 6.15am and hammered it. Although cold at first the birding was superb, and goatherds and wood gatherers seemed happy to see us whenever they passed.

The area wasn’t dissimiliar to the pinewoods at Formby, except the birds were different and we were 6,000 feet up.

Areas of tired dead crops broke up the trees and the edges here were very productive.

Hermit Warbler joined Townsend’s on the list and I was lucky enough to get a brief glimpse of a feeding Pink Headed Warbler before it melted away in the dawn gloom – the lads would score with two the next day.

Grey Silky (Flycatcher), Hermit Thrush, loadsa Yellow Rumped Warblers, Bushtit, Cedar Waxwing, Hutton’s Vireo and large groups of squeaking and twittering White Collared Swifts heading west on Spring passage made the place magical.

Hutton’s and Warbling Vireo, Band Backed Wren and White Eared and Garnet Throated Hummer – there were birds everywhere!

Tropical scored with a Ruddy Capped Nightingale Thrush, but it had scuttled into cover by the time the rest of us caught up with him.

By 11am we’d exhausted the track and with the day heating up, went to km2, where Magnificent and Amethyst Throated Hummers, Black Capped Swallow, Flame Coloured Tanager and a superb Crescent Chested Warbler ensured the smiles stayed on our faces.

The latter was in a feeding flock comprising Parula, Black Throated Greens, Townsend’s, Prairie, American Redstart, Hermit and Black and White Warblers – yankee warbler heaven.

The Black Capped Swallows were nesting on the secluded cliff face about a kilometre down the trail. Very cool.

We pulled out at 1pm and drove through St Cristobal and up to the cloud forest reserve at Huitepec – a calf-murdering ascent up steep steps through the cloud forest tangle.

The thin air at higher altitudes (7,000ft) meant we had to stop frequently. Luckily as we all treat our bodies as temples (no alcohol, no tobacco, macro-biotic diets, no telling lies etc) we survived. Just.

The trees and dry forest floor were quiet until we bumped into a feeding flock near the top of the trail.

With the forest floor covered in dry leaves, it was a bit like birding a particularly wild wood on the east coast in autumn.

Suddenly there was activity all around us, with Black Throated Jay, Band Backed Wren, Slate Throated Whitestart and a dreamy Golden Browed Warbler flitting about, some only feet away.

A Mountain Trogon on the way down the trail and a fine Black Throated Blue Warbler made the trek more than worthwhile…if you discount the hippy strumming a guitar at the summit.

Hopefully the indigenous folk conducting some sort of religious ceremony involving a crucible of smouldering wood sorted him out later.

Then it was back to St Cristobal, one of the four cities taken by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in 1994, and still with much poverty to address….street kids no older than five or six run around all night trying to sell trinkets for pesos amid the artsy fartsy folk and hippies in the town centre.

On March 3rd we went to km2 again, and Neill lured out two Pink Headed Warblers in the bushes and scrub to the left and above the main track. Great views of ’em – a bit like Dunnocks dusted in icing sugar if you ask me.

Much better was the breathtaking Red Faced Warbler that came into the Pink Headed tape lure, what a head pattern!

Then it was onto the holy mountain of Cerro Tzonyehuitz, or “TZ” as it is known to all but the most dextrous of tongue.

A good track hairpinned all the way up it through scrub and cloud forest (there I am at the top, proving that any hat which seems a good idea on holiday will in retrospect always make you look an arse).

The air was cool, crisp and thin above 7,000 feet, and the birding was hard.

Steep narrow trails snaked down through the dense forest, where abundant creepy crawlies and invisible Highland Guans lurked, the latter whistling like doodlebugs.

Hard scrabbling up and down the ravines way above the clouds brought us some nice Grey Silkys, a gorgeous singing Elegant Euphonia, the endemic White Breasted Hawk (mobbing a Red Tailed Hawk), Swainson’s Hawk, Band Tailed Pigeon and flocks of Violet Green Swallows.

On the way down I got flight views of a Spotted Nightingale Thrush as it zipped past me into the undergrowth, and the hillsides echoed to the sounds of Highland Guans, while wood warblers and Philly Vireo fed by the trackside.

Bazzo flushed two Singing Quail just outside one of the tiny Indian villages on the slopes.

Not too many species today, but all top quality stuff – maybe Bolloxotl was smiling down on us at last.

March 4th was our last morning at St Cristobal, and we went to km2.6 for another bash at the pines. We were confronted shortly after 6.30am by an irate guy who wanted to know if we had permission to be there.

Permission? Us?

Bazzo explained we didn’t as politely as is necessary when talking rural Latin American Spanish with an angry man waving a VERY BIG MACHETE and we told him we’d leave. 

We went in the opposite direction to him and carried on birding, but a short while later an old Dodge pulled up and asked again if we had permission.

Much more friendly this time, and no machetes involved, but we all felt a tad uneasy and decided to pull out and begin the journey through the hills towards Tuxtla Gutierrez and the Sumidero Canyon.

But not before Neill had managed to score Lincoln’s Sparrow and Spotted Towhee.

The road wound down out of the highlands, snaking down the Pacific slope of the Sierra Madre de la Chiapas until the roaring, screaming, smoggy, mental Mexopolis of Tuxtla Gutierrez hove into view.

Tens of thousands of souls try to survive here in a chaotic urban sprawl much like any other around the world, but perhaps considerably poorer.

How poor are people? 

Would you try to make your living by fire-eating for 120 seconds while the lights are on red at a busy road junction, in the hope someone will lob you a peso from an idling car?

Tuxtla’s one selling point of course is that it is directly beneath the stunning, startling, bird rich and awe inspiring Sumidero Canyon, a Mexican national park of scrub, forest and miradors looking out over the breathtaking rip in the earth that is Sumidero.

The wake on the water in the picture by the way is made by a boat about the size of a Mersey Ferry. That’s how deep Sumidero is.

We drove into the park in the heat of the day at 11am, but remarkably, birds were still very active and we were lucky to have a stunning afternoon.

Neill ran over Bazzo in the X-trail at the Mirador La Ceiba, but in his defence, it was quite hot, and he’d driven heroically for quite a few hours.

Once we saw the amount of birds coming into a nearby fruiting tree, Bazzo recovered reasonably quickly.

These things happen in any well-oiled hyper-efficient unit.

Green Parakeets, Varied Bunting, Rufous Crowned Motmot, the bizarre White Throated Magpie Jay, Streak Backed Oriole and an array of yankee warblers zipped about the fruit, while Black and Turkey Vultures rode the updraughts on the canyon lip, just feet above us.

We drove the reserve road for about 10 clicks until we got to the end, stopping at various miradors to bird.

Yellow Winged Tanagers, Violaceous Trogons, bold Green Jays and a lovely Belted Flycatcher, lured in by Neill’s MP3 collection, were our reward.

At the end of the track, at the Mirador Los Chiapas we met Edward.

Edward Vercruysse is Belgian and one of those world birders who disappears into the field on foot for long periods (in this case 11 weeks). 

A complete birding machine, with all other distractions in life stripped away, Edward is pure hardcore.

And great company to bird with for the remains of the day.

Barred Antshrike, various hummers, Rufous Capped Warbler, Boat Billed Flycatcher (finally), Blue Headed Vireo, White Lored Gnatcatcher and a superb Yellow Grosbeak all popped up as we birded the canyon together.

As we drove back out, Ridgeway’s Rough Winged Swallows were feeding along the lower slopes above the city.

We pulled out at 6pm, heading back into the roaring urban maw of Tuxtla, to stay the night at the Hotel Catedral, where Eddy was already ensconsed. 

After a shower, Edward joined us for a night on the tiles in the big city.

Next morning we walked into the national park at 5.30am, leaving the wheels at the locked entrance, and successfully tape lured a Buff Collared Nightjar in the area around the first trail on the left after the entrance.

Crazy call even by Nightjar standards. Listen to it on eBird here.

A good start to the day, but in contrast to yesterday, the whole place was a bit quieter – Short Tailed Hawk, Grey Crowned Yellowthroat, Ash Throated Flycatcher etc were nice, but it was an hour or two past dawn when we locked onto a superb Red Breasted Chat as it moved through the scrub, again by the Mirador La Ceiba.

Nice Streak Backed Oriole and plenty of Tropical Kingbirds.

Blue and White Mockingbird was calling in the morning grey, but we couldn’t find it.

Tropical met a mean Mexican bird guide who was leading a group about, using a laser pen as a pointer – effective but questionable, still the guy sure knew his stuff, picking out Bar Winged Oriole, Brown Crested Flycatcher and Short Billed Pigeon for Trops.

Great orchid type thing in Sumidero, but I’ve gotta id yet (found by Trops).

As the sun burnt through the mist, we decided to pull out, and with Edward aboard, pushed north, stopping off at the Nava’s Wren site 30 clicks north of the city to play MP3s to no avail.

We left the uber birder Edward in the muddiest, meanest rainforest we encountered there. He seemed happy enough.

I have no doubt he found the wren, but we had to move on.

Pleasure to met you Eddy. Hasta luego.

The X-trail pointed north and we began the long haul back up to the Yucatan coast, for the final stage of the trip.

Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies…

CHIAPAS LIST:

Yellow Eyed Junco, Brown Creeper, Cooper’s Hawk, Rufous Collared Thrush, Chestnut Collared Sparrow, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Yellow Rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), Steller’s Jay, Townsend’s Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Pink Headed Warbler, Hermit Warbler, Grey Silky Flycatcher, White Winged Dove, Yellow Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Bronzed Cowbird, Nashville Warbler, Bushtit, Garnet Throated Hummer, Warbling Vireo, Cedar Waxwing, Hutton’s Vireo, White Eared Hummer, Band Backed Wren, Black Vulture, White Collared Swift, Greater Peewee, Least Flycatcher, Red Tailed Hawk, Buff Breasted Flycatcher, Brown Backed Solitaire, Magnificent Hummer, Black Throated Green Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black Capped Swallow, Amethyst Throated Hummer, Turkey Vulture, Flame Coloured Tanager, Crescent Chested Warbler, Black Thrush, Spotted Woodcreeper, Mountain Trogon, Golden Browed Warbler, Black Throated Jay, Slate Throated Whitestart, Black Throated Blue Warbler, Great Tailed Grackle, House Sparrow, Red Faced Warbler, Maroon Chested Ground Dove, Ruddy Capped NIghtingale Thrush, Violet Green Swallow, Elegant Euphonia, White Breasted Hawk, Red Tailed Hawk, Band Tailed Pigeon, Swainson’s Hawk, Spotted Nightingale Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, Singing Quail, Lesser Nighthawk, House Finch, Summer Tanager, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Mourning Dove, Tropical Mockingbird, Green Parakeet, Varied Bunting, Altamira Oriole, Rufous Crowned Motmot, Violaceous Trogon, Western Tanager, White Throated Magpie Jay, Streak Backed Oriole, Northern Parula, Green Jay, Yellow Winged Tanager, Clay Coloured Thrush, Belted Flycatcher, Mountain Thrush, Barred Antshrike, Azure Capped Hummer, Olive Sparrow, Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Ruby Throated Hummer, Social Flycatcher, Canivet’s Emerald, Rufous Capped Warbler, Masked Tityra, Boat Billed Flycatcher, Plain Wren, Blue Headed Vireo, House Wren, White Lored Gnatcatcher, Squirrel Cuckoo, Yellow Grosbeak, Plain Breasted Chachalaca, Ridgeway’s Rough Winged Swallow, Magnolia Warbler, Short Tailed Hawk, Blue Grey Gnatcatcher, Grey Crowned Yellowthroat, Buff Coloured Nightjar, Blue Black Grassquit, Black and White Warbler, Ash Throated Flycatcher, White Eyed Vireo, Sharp Shinned Hawk, Red Billed Pigeon, Short Billed Pigeon, Tennessee Warbler, Red Breasted Chat, Indigo Bunting, Buff Bellied Hummer, Yellow Billed Cacique, Red Throated Ant Tanager, Bar Winged Oriole,  Brown Crested Flycatcher.  

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