Birding the Lacandona – Palenque, Yaxchilan, Bonampak and more!

21 October – 28 October 2013

We spent a great weekend with a large group of friends who were in San Cristobal for the XII Congreso para el Estudio y Conservacion de las Aves en Mexico (CECAM). Participants at the CECAM conference shared current research and discussed avian conservation in Mexico. Unfortunately our Spanish classes prevented our attending the conference, but we were able to see many old friends and meet many new ones. We were inspired by the international coordination between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Groups from both Canada and the United States participated in the conference to join forces  protecting not only Mexico’s endemic species but also the migratory birds that spend time in all three countries.

As a group of 10 we birded Sumidero Canyon. The morning started off with a Feruginous Pygmy-Owl and a Blue-crowned Motmot and got better and better as the morning went on.  We headed straight to the Belted Flycatcher area after leaving the gate. We were fortunate to have multiple Belted Flycatchers sightings and everyone in the group saw this cute but skulking little flycatcher well.

The gang birding at Sumidero Canyon

The gang birding at Sumidero Canyon

Later, along the trail to the El Roblar mirador we had several migrants including Kentucky Warbler, Ovenbird, and a lot of Tennessee Warblers.  At the end of the road we staked out a known spot for the Slender Sheartail, but to no avail.

Squirrel Cuckoo, Sumidero Canyon, Chiapas, Mexico

Squirrel Cuckoo, Sumidero Canyon, Chiapas, Mexico

During a quick stop for lunch at a taqueria the heavens opened and it went from dry and beautiful to a foot of water running on the streets in about 20-30 minutes. Hoping it would be dry elsewhere, we headed onward to El Ocote with fingers crossed. We drove through torrential rain, feeling as though we had chosen very poorly, but by way of some amazing luck as soon as we hit the dirt road where we wanted to bird, the rain stopped. We all piled out of the cars quickly to get in some afternoon birding before the rains started again. Within moments we saw an entire new suite of more tropical species such as Ruddy Woodcreeper, Golden-hooded Tanager, Slate-colored Solitaire, Garted Trogon, and Green Parakeet. But our true target was the Nava’s Wren and with rain appearing imminent again so we headed to a location that Kathi and I had heard one well on a prior trip. The skies appeared ever more menacing so two of our group volunteered to head back to get the cars while the others stayed to try to see the Nava’s Wren. Just after Greg and Chente left we spotted a Nava’s Wren in the dark understory giving a call note none of us were familiar with. We kicked ourselves for not being able to record this odd call! As excited as we were to see this secretive endemic bird, Greg and Chente still needed to see it. When they returned with the car, we tried again to find the Nava’s Wren, initially without success. Just as we were about to give up, we all heard the call again and with 10 people looking quickly refound the bird for Greg and Chente… Success! And just in time as the heavens opened again, soaking us as we jumped into our cars. We waited out the rain under a bridge and celebrated out new birds with a beer until dusk for a little owling. We had more weather luck as the rain stopped just at dusk so off we headed looking for some lowland owls. The night seemed quiet until Arvind’s superhero style ears heard a faint Vermiculated Screech-Owl that no one else could discer. We hustled up the road a good ways and found that it was actually calling from quite close to the road. Despite this, in the dense tropical vegetation, it took a good 20 minutes of spotlighting, neck craning and searching in the dark to finally find the Vermiculated Screech-Owl deep in the foliage. What a successful day!

The next morning we headed to La Reserva Sepultura and birded the free highway from Tuxtla Gutierrez and Arriaga. With strong onshore winds many coastal migrants were streaming over the foothills we were in, including large numbers of Kingbirds and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers as well as a good handful of Peregrine Falcons. One of the first birds we found when we started birding was our target for the day, a female Rose-Bellied Bunting. This was a life bird for most of our friends (we had seen it a few weeks prior in La Venta), but unfortunately the outrageously colorful male eluded us. We stopped by an old ranch and asked permission to walk the ranch roads and trails. We found a calling Long-Tailed Manakin buried deep in the scrub, but only two people were lucky enough to see it. After a lunch in Arriaga beneath massive kettles of migrating raptors (hundreds if not a thousand or more Swainson’s Hawks, and many hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks), we birded another section of the free road and had fabulous looks at several female Rose-Bellied Buntings and a brilliantly colored male Rose-Bellied Bunting. We also found several Cinnamon-tailed Sparrow, Orange-breasted Buntings as well as West Mexican Chachalaca, all at the very eastern limit of their ranges.

After this terrific weekend part of the group split off to head home and bid farewell to our friends, new and old. As a smaller group we headed to the Lacondona region of Chiapas for what would be a couple of incredible days. A quick note on roadblocks and checkpoints in Chiapas- Military roadblocks are very common and are nothing to worry about, just smile and be polite and you’ll be waved on quickly in most cases. We actually had the first vehicle inspection of our trip along the frontier highway but it was brief and friendly and the early 20’s personnel seemed more interested in our trip and what we’d done to our truck than in checking our papers. However there can also be roadblocks by the locals. These can be intimidating, with a rope across the road and a large group surrounding your vehicle, but as long as you are polite and pay their demanded tolls, nothing bad ought to happen. There was a recent issue of some western travelers getting their vehicle and themselves banged up pretty well at such a roadblock but we also heard that they tried to run it. All of the locals we’ve spoken with have said it’s not a big deal, just pay the couple hundred pesos and accept it as part of cost of travelling in the area.

We spent the first day at Palenque, birding the entrance road until the ruins opened and around the ruins as well as we toured the site. Unfortunately we were so slow that we only saw about half the site! We didn’t have any surprises bird wise at Palenque, but the ruins were amazing and we saw some incredible birds. We saw a couple of new birds for the trip and had great looks at perched White-crowned and White-fronted Parrots and a pair of calling White Hawks that circled the ruins while we were atop a temple. We also watched a pair of Bat Falcons enjoying their breakfast.

Bat Falcons enjoying breakfast

Bat Falcons enjoying breakfast

As others have reported, the trail behind the Temple of the Inscriptions is closed, unfortunately, so there don’t appear to be many accessible trails for birding. To see our Palenque list you can check it out here!

Palenque

Palenque

Next we drove a couple hours south to Frontera Corazal, the point of embarkation for Yaxchilan, arriving by early evening, and headed straight for the Nueva Allianza cabins and ecotourism project. Nueva Allianza is a cooperative ecotourism program that offers trips to Yaxchilan. They are the only folks who can get you to Yaxchilan for a full morning’s birding rather than a very late 10 or 11 AM departure to see the ruins which is the standard offering. We paid 2400 pesos for an 8 hour trip for 6 people, entrance fees included, and had the company of Francisco and another guide.

The morning boat ride up the Usumacinta River

The morning boat ride up the Usumacinta River

Both guides knew a fair amount about birds and spotted a couple of great birds. Having talked with a few other friends who’ve gone to Yaxchilan recently, something around 400 pesos/head seems to be the going rate for the ½ day trip and you need a few people in the boat to make it happen, but the birding is amazing. On the river before reaching the ruins Kathi spotted a Great Curassow perched up in a tree, we had Aztec Parakeet, Red-lored and Brown-hooded Parrots flying overhead and lots more. Yaxchilan is an incredible place and nothing could be better than amazingly good birding amongst spectacular ruins with not another soul in sight, an experience will never forget.

Greg birding at Yaxchilan

Greg birding at Yaxchilan

Yaxchilan ruins

Yaxchilan ruins

It was simply amazing and our favorite day of birding yet in Mexico. We saw Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Crested Guan, Northern Schiffornis, Royal Flycatcher, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Gray-headed Tanager, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Red-capped Manakin, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and a lot more! You can see our entire eBird list HERE. Nueva Alianza contact information CAN BE FOUND HERE

That evening we made our way to Lacanjá (the community nearest Bonampak, which is reached by making a signed right turn just before the parking area for Bonampak) where we slept in our truck and our friends stayed in cabins at Campamento Rio Lacanjá (after making the right turn for Lacanjá, you will come to a T-intersection with a tiny store on your left (last place to buy water/snacks). Make a left turn here and the Campamento Rio Lacanjá is at the end of the road). We arose early the next morning, drove to the parking area for the Bonampak entrance road, and started walking the road into the ruins. Within an hour or two, we had no less than 4 run-ins with both locals and with park officials all telling us we needed a guide to walk to road. We jumped through hoops, asking and receiving permission from the first person we found and asked, then being told again by park officials that were driving past that we really needed a guide, then heading back to the parking area to try to talk with anyone around (still no one there at 8:30 AM), heading back down the road, only to be stopped again by a guide who’d come looking for us. After something of a circuitous conversation, we asked him if we could hire him for the day but he said no, we just needed to know for next time. Later, the park officials again stopped and told us we ought to have a guide to avoid problems with the community. Other friends have been stopped on the road into Bonampak/Lacanjá and have had to pay nominal amounts to pass by, and have had similar odd issues being told they needed a guide but there is not a sign in site or a guide available in the early morning when you want to go birding. We also offered to make a contribution to the local guide’s cooperative in order to keep in good graces with the community but that was also refused. In short, the people were very friendly, but the situation is a bit comical. There is no indication anywhere of the need for guides for the road into Bonampak, and there are no guides around early in the morning when you’d want to bird, but everyone who drives past will tell you that you need to have a guide. Despite all this hassle, the birding is incredible, easily equaling Yaxchilan, even if the setting isn’t quite as dramatic. We managed to spend over 8 hours walking the 7 miles into the archaeological site, finding Red-capped and White-collared Manakins, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Gray-throated Chat, Orange-billed Sparrow, White-necked and White-whiskered Puffbirds, another Royal Flycatcher, Green-backed Sparrow, Mexican Antthrush (heard only despite some effort), an almost certain heard-only Pheasant Cuckoo, more Schiffornises, Sulphur-rumped and Sepia-capped Flycatchers, Black-crested Coquette, Slate-headed Tody-flycatcher, White-bellied Emerald, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner and Gray-chested Dove. The icing on the cake at the end of the day was a trio of King Vultures drifting over the ruins in the late afternoon heat. You can see our entire list here.

Paintings inside Bonampak

Paintings inside Bonampak

If you do go to Bonampak on your own, just be prepared to be patient and do your best to try to comply with the not very well organized effort to have people guided on the road to the ruins. It does support the community directly and the habitat and birding are incredible. Bonampak and Yaxchilan are certainly two of the best birding sites in Mexico. Campamento Rio Lacanjá info can be found here 

We bid farewell to our friends in Bonampak and headed south, eager to check out Las Guacamayas. On the way to Las Guacamayas Josh spotted a pigeon in a snag so we stopped and jumped out to see who it was. The pigeon flew but Kathi picked up her binoculars anyway to check out the rest of the snag and there it was… a Lovely Cotinga,perched in the open! What luck!

Las Guacamayas is rapidly gaining fame as they are reintroducing Scarlet Macaws and it is pretty much the place in Mexico to see this magnificent bird. Unfortunately, however, the pricing is through the roof and beyond the reach of most people who would independently travel to such a distant location. Cabins start at well over $100/night, and there is not much birding on the grounds. They offer two options for birding. The first is a river trip for 2000-2600 pesos for 2-3 hours, which is out of our reach, and in our opinion very steep, we’ve paid the same for 6-8 hour pelagic and river trips. The second option is a 2 hour walk in the Ejido’s reserve (1200 hectares of primary forest, apparently) at the price of 900 pesos. There are options for birding for a half day or a full day but the price scales up accordingly. They do not have permission to access the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve across the river, so you’re paying to stay at an eco lodge and then drive a ways down the road to bird in their reserve area, which is not accessible without a community guide at an exorbitant rate. We would love to have supported them, and their reintroduction of Scarlet Macaws is splendid, but we didn’t feel that spending several hundred dollars for a night’s stay, a couple hours on a river trip and a couple of hours in their forest reserve was a good value, especially after having spent tiny fractions of that to stay at community run campgrounds/lodges and access pristine habitat in Yaxchilan and Bonampak. We tried discussing this with the staff but they barely seemed interested in talking to us, unfortunately. On the flip side, you don’t need to stay the night to see the (questionably wild) Scarlet Macaws that frequent the parking area.

Our final stop on our loop trip of the Chiapas lowlands was Las Nubes, another community ecoturism project located in tropical lowland foothills along a roaring river east of Lagos de Montebello.

Raging waters at Las Nubes

Raging waters at Las Nubes

We had heard from friends that it was a beautiful location and it was, indeed. Unfortunately it rained a lot during our stay but we managed to bird their roughly 1km long trail in a brief dry spell, seeing a few good birds, but the rain really put a damper on birding. There are more trails across their suspension bridge from the camping area that looked interesting but we didn’t get a chance to explore them. If nothing else it’s a reasonably convenient (20 mins off the highway), comfortable and safe place to spend a night if you’re down in that part of Chiapas!

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1 Comment on Birding the Lacandona – Palenque, Yaxchilan, Bonampak and more!

  1. gborgmann // November 3, 2013 at 7:43 pm //

    the ruins have to be a site to see -so much to take in and such little time. am sure you guys are trying your best to see as much as possible in such little time. amazing area

    Like

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