At the mic: Alberto Lobato (Edited by Jennie Duberstein)
Alberto Lobato is a 17-year-old birder who was born in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. He has been birding since he was 5 years old and is an active member of the Xalapa Birding Club. He has traveled with COAX to various parts of Mexico. In addition to birding, he is a musician, with an interest in traditional music. Alberto’s favorite bird is the Bearded Wood-Partridge.
There is a very good spot for birding in Central Veracruz that has been unnoticed by birders. Isleta Grande is a small village located a half hour from Xalapa. Although the region is mostly full of sugarcane crops and coffee plantations, Isleta Grande has also has canyons with patches of humid semideciduous forest.
In early February I had the chance to spend two days birding these spectacular canyons. I was with my guide, Guastavo (a school friend who lives there) and his father.
We leave the sugarcane camps and headed into the coffee plantations that grow in the edge of the canyon. Killdeer and Yellow-rumped Warbler gave way to Black-throated Green Warblers, motmots, and trogons. As we made our way through the plantation, along the shade of big trees, flocks of Golden-crowned Warblers moved by, along with wintering Magnolia Warblers, American Redstarts, and Ovenbirds. Rufous-naped Wrens (an endemic subspecies from Central Veracruz) notice us and began to alarm call. In the distance a Collared Forest-falcon called. Even farther away we heard the call of the Keel-billed Toucan, sounding like frogs. As we made our way down to the bottom of the canyon, we passed enormous rocks. These had fallen from higher in the canyon and had been there for centuries in the same position. Trees grew from cracks in the boulders and suddenly there, in front of is, a Fan-tailed Warbler briefly appeared and an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper climbed spirally up the trunk of a tree in search of food.
As we reached the bottom of the canyon the forest canopy towered over our heads. We could hear the sound of the river ahead of us, but at the moment, during the dry season, all we could see were dry riverbeds. During the rainy season these would become powerful streams, but today they were our trail. We kept a close out eye for the nauyacas (fer-de-lance; Buthrops asper).
The trails were full of dry leaves, so walking was very noisy. In spite of this, Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers flew in small flocks in front of us, with Wood Thrushes, White-throated Thrushes, and more migrating warblers.
Ahead of us the trees become bigger. Their great branches cross the trail and above us, in the cecropia, Masked Tityras fly around like white leaves with wings. Suddenly we heard a very high call, repeated by many voices at the same time. It was the Collared Araçari, a small toucan that lives in the lowlands of Mexico. At least fifty of them were eating fruit in the same tree! We also spied the glint of an Emerald Toucanet feeding with the aracaris.
We were so surprised to see the flock of aracaris that we almost didn’t notice a Streak-headed Woodcreeper. But our surprise grew even bigger when we spot a pair of Military Macaws flying across the top of the canyon. It is completely unexpected because their range is only on the western slope. Maybe these birds were escapees that have adapted to life in the canyon? However they got there, it was a huge surprise to see these birds flying with the vultures in the walls of the canyon.
As we continued into the canyon large, recently fallen rocks flocked the trail and made it difficult, although not impossible, to continue. Eventually the canyon split into two canyons. A strong river flowed through the main branch while a small creek ran through the second, smaller canyon. We followed the trail into the smaller canyon with high stone walls, where Canyon Wrens were waiting. Farther down river we saw American Dippers foraging. Above us a Common Black-Hawk soared, and a pair of Blue-winged Teal flew over.
At this point the trail became more and more rugged and difficult. Falling into the river below would not be a good end to the trip, and fortunately this did not happen to us. We finally passed through this difficult section and arrived at an impressive waterfall where we e ate lunch (food is never tastier than after a 5 kilometer walk!) After eating we continued to walk up the canyon, climbing near-vertical walls at some points and walking narrow trails 60 meters above the canyon floor. The hiking was challenging, but the landscape was wonderful. The entire canyon was covered with trees and the golden light of afternoon. In front of us two White-crowned Parrots flew off into the mystic—we don’t know where they went. Many Montezuma’s Oropendolas flew into their nests in an enormous tree, and two Gray Hawks flew in spirals above us, a special goodbye from the canyon.
That night we talked with the residents of the village, experts in the canyon because they have lived there their entire lives. They say that large mammals live there, like the cotuza (Central American Agouti; Dasyprocta punctate) and brazofuerte (northern tamandua; Tamandua mexicana). They also talk about a nocturnal mammal called oso perezoso (kinkajou; Potos flavus). It seems like the presence of this species is diagnostic for the quality of the habitat in the canyon.
That night we look for owls, but without luck beyond a low, far call that indicates that some species live there.
After waking at 6am we headed to a different trail that first led us into the coffee plantations and then along the rift of the canyon. We began the day by walking uphill just before dawn. We could hear Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls singing, which alarmed a flock of warblers, who promptly began harassing it. We saw tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in the enormous fruit trees that lined the trail. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird flew into a lemon tree ahead of us, and in the flocks of birds high in the canopy overhead we spotted a Red-legged Honeycreeper.
In the open areas ahead of us, Painted Buntings (the locals call them mariposa, Spanish for butterfly) and Rusty Sparrows foraged. A Ladder-backed Woodpecker drilled on a small branch on an isolated tree, and just behind it was the larger Lineated Woodpecker, drilling on an enormous limb of the same tree. We stuck around to watch and were rewarded by a group of nearly 30 Chestnut-headed Oropendolas (more uncommon than the Montezuma’s we’d seen the previous day).
As we continued to walk along the plantation we found Canivett’s Emerald, Berylline Hummingbird, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, White-bellied Emerald, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, and Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a truly spectacular hummingbird day!
From there the trail descended into the canyon. We spotted the splendid beaks of Keel-billed Toucan perched in distant trees. Red-throated Ant-Tanagers flew across the path and Swainson’s Thrushes ate fruit and insects off the ground. The river appeared after a curve in the trail, as did a Golden-winged Woodcreeper, right at eye level! As we continued on, we found a miniscule hummingbird: the Stripe-throated Hermit. This tiny, brownish, curve-billed bird was flying around a cluster of ipomea flowers. There were Altamira Orioles, too, and a Rufous-browed Peppershrike singing, although he remained hidden from sight. Along the river’s edge in the cecropia trees Boat-billed Flycatchers and kiskadees moved in a flock with Masked Tityras. We could hear a Smoky-brown Woodpecker somewhere drumming on a tree trunk when suddenly a Common Black-Hawk emerged, only to be mobbed by all of the smaller birds. Poor thing! Being a raptor can be very difficult!
Finally we found a bridge across the river. Although the trail continued, it was too late for us to go much farther so once we crossed the bridge we stopped for a lunch break, enjoying views of Least Grebes just down river from us. We returned by the same trail, birding the whole way. White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Blue-crowned Motmot, and Short-tailed Hawk were just a few of the highlights. Then, almost at the end of the trail and just before we finished hiking for the day, an unexpected bird popped up in front of us: a Green Jay!
Isleta Grande is a wonderful place for birding, unexplored and full of the unexpected. There are many secrets and interesting things hidden in the canyon still to be discovered. But unfortunately, these secrets are threatened by a dam project a few kilometers down river. Hopefully the people of this area will be able to conserve these special places, where memories sleep inside the roots of the trees and in the wings of the toucans.