25-27 August 2013
Remarkably, now a good 23 years since Steve Howell visited Tlanchinol for his book, “A Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico,” great cloud forest still stands in a good tract near this small mountain town in Hidalgo. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t check the weather forecast and headed up there just ahead of Tropical Storm Fernand. We had great birding in the brief dry periods but had more rain than not so our visit wasn’t terribly long. The track that is described as the “Lontla” trail is no longer signed as such, but is still easy to find and still offers great birding. About 5km north of Tlanchinol there is a small pullout on the east (right if coming from Tlanchinol) with a tiny track heading up, and a larger pullout on the west side of the road, and the beginning of a wide cleared and fenced path is visible. There are signs for “El Temazate” and a Pro-Arbol sign (signs you see throughout Mexico stating that the local Ejido is participating in a government program to conserve forests). We would have loved to have birded Tlanchinol more but the rain chased us out. However, in our brief efforts there we still found Azure-hooded Jays, Unicolored Jays, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, Brown-capped Vireos, Spotted Woodcreepers, Chestnut-capped Brushfinches, and a completely unexpected Tamaulipas Pygmy-Owl. We found the Pygmy-Owl when it started calling very close to us, giving the very distinctive slow double toots of this species. It also gave occasional single or triple toots, and gave one sputtering/rolling start to a series. Unfortunately just as we heard it, it was beginning to rain, and despite listening to the owl and whistling back and forth with it several minutes, we were only able to see it in flight, not perched, as the fog thickened and the rain intensified. Within 5 minutes it was absolutely pissing rain and the owl had stopped calling, so we had a nice long hike back to the car in torrential rain! There may well be more records of Tamaulipas Pygmy-Owl from Hidalgo than we are aware of, but ours is only the second in eBird and it is clearly not commonly seen that far south! This was a great surprise for us, as we had missed seeing this owl in the El Naranjo/El Maguey area of eastern San Luis Potosi, where it is typically much more readily found!
After Tlanchinol we headed for coastal Veracruz to the town of Tecolutla to look for the Altamira Yellowthroat. In comparison to Tlanchinol, much has changed in Tecolutla since Howell wrote his guide. The extensive freshwater marshes that existed 15+ years ago are now almost entirely drained and cattle are grazing where there used to be great habitat. The town has grown a bit and encroached further into the cattails and channels that lead towards Estero Lagarto (the large estuary north of town). There are still a few bits of accessible freshwater marsh, the best that we found is comprised of some tule/reed areas and a bit of grassy marsh along a dike that is found immediately behind the water treatment plant on the NW edge of town. We spent about 5 hours looking for Altamira Yellowthroat here but had no luck. We did find King Rail, Muscovy Duck, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Ruddy Crake and the “Ochre” Orchard Oriole, but the Altamira Yellowthroat eluded us and despite being a fairly popular beach destination it didn’t attract us to stay longer and try harder. We did have better birding at the mouth of Estero Lagarto, which can be found by taking the dirt/sand track north from town, through a cattle gate (close it behind you), until you arrive at the estuary mouth. We found roosting Black Skimmers, Royal Terns and Sandwich Terns in the dozens, a handful of Collared Plovers and about 18 Wilson’s Plovers, as well as some migrants – Black Terns, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, a Black-bellied Plover and a Red Knot. Additionally, Barn Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows and Gray-breasted Martins were passing south in the hundreds, a very cool bit of migration to observe.
When we left Tecolutla, headed for Xalapa, we ran into a protest blocking Hwy 180, the coastal highway in Veracruz and the much faster route for us to Xalapa. We detoured inland over some coastal mountains that were entirely deforested and converted to cattle grazing with a bit of corn mixed in. In comparison to the Tlanchinol road, which was in great shape despite torrential rain and waterfalls pouring off the cliffs onto the road, the road through Yecuatla and Naolinco was washed out in many places and had suffered numerous large mudslides and had boulders and uprooted trees strewn everywhere after the rains. Many folks were out clearing the road and we were, thankfully, able to get through, but it was a sobering sign of wholesale clearing of forests.