10 –17 December 2013
We could not resist another trip down to the Chiapas lowlands before we headed on towards the Yucatan. We also needed to get new tourist visas and a new vehicle import permit since we have already been in Mexico for nearly 180 days (the length of a tourist visa). After visiting Volcán Tacaná, we headed to the sleepy border town of Ciudad Cuauhtémoc. We needed to cross over to Guatemala and return to Mexico to obtain a new tourist visa and a vehicle permit so we could continue to legally travel through Mexico. Time has passed very quickly here and it’s hard to believe but we have been on the road for nearly 6 months. We were not really sure what to expect at the border, but the entire process was a breeze and we had new visas and a vehicle permit in about 4 hours. For overlanders reading these posts, the details of the border crossing can be found here. With all of the border crossing stuff behind us we excitedly drove down to the lowlands and headed towards a little village called Playon de la Gloria just past Chajul on the Hwy that goes towards Los Guacamayas to spend a couple of days in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. The Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve is one of the largest reserves of lowland tropical forest in Mexico and is one of the few areas that support a Jaguar population. Sadly only 3,000-4,000 square kilometers remain of what used to be 15,000-20,000 square kilometers of rain forest in this area, but fortunately what remains is well protected. The Lacantún area is also very diverse and contains 25% of Mexico’s total species diversity. Thanks to a colleague who helped make private arrangements we were able to spend two full days birding and recording in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. Early in the morning we loaded up a small wooden kayak with the bare essentials and crossed the river to the Reserve. The first day we were in complete awe of the place. We had a research site and about 6 km of trails through rain forest all to ourselves and it was incredible. We were able to record numerous species with only the background noise of Howler Monkeys. We also took our time hiking all of the trails trying our best to learn more songs and calls of the tropical lowland species.
Highlights include Mexican Antthrush (subspecies of Black-faced Antthrush), White Hawk, Rufous Mourner, Short-tailed Nighthawk, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, White-collared Manakin, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Yellow-billed Cacique, Tropical Gnatcatcher, and Great Antshrike.
That night the rain started to fall and we quickly realized that our venerable tent is no longer perfectly waterproof when water started dripping on our heads. It would appear that we are due for a new tent! When I say that we crossed the river with bare essentials, I mean just the basics. We did not bring a stove and had no way to make food, so we ate cold beans from a can with cold tortillas for two nights and taco gringo (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) for lunch.
Livable, but man were we looking forward to warm food and vegetables after two days. Our final morning we awoke to rain and more rain. We spent the entire morning in the tent reviewing bird songs on our iPhone until it was time to cross back over the river, at which point we packed up all of our wet stuff in the rain. A bit of rain aside, we had an amazing time and Montes Azules is an incredible place and we feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit the area. The last time we were down in the lowlands we really wanted to do a boat trip up the Tzendales River. We heard from many people that it is a truly magical experience and one of the best places in Mexico to see the Sungrebe. Because we could not afford the ridiculous prices at Los Guacamayas we sought out other ways of getting up the river. A couple of people recommended that we enquire about a boat in the town of Zamora Pico del Oro, so we headed that way. We found a gentleman to take us down the Lacantún River and up the Tzendales River by inquiring at the abarrotes (grocery) store across from the hospital (ask in town where the hospital is and you should find the store easily enough). The owner of the abarrotes, Pedro, can direct you a couple of doors down to his uncle, Santiago. He has what seems to be the largest lancha (skiff) in town with a functional but old and loud two-stroke motor and can take you up the Tzendales River. We paid $700 pesos for a 6 hour trip, including stops for Santiago and his companion to go fishing and collect sugar cane and oranges. It was quite fun and about $2000 pesos cheaper than Las Guacamayas would ask. Birding was a bit difficult from the boat because the motor was loud, but we did see a number of good birds, including the elusive Sungrebe as well as a splendid group of at least 5 Scarlet Macaws feeding in a fruiting tree. For anyone on a budget and a not terribly tight schedule we’d recommend seeking out Santiago in Zamora Pico de Oro. If you do arrange a trip with him, you might want bring a cushion or something else to sit on as you will be sitting on the edge of the boat, and we would recommend asking him to bring at least 30 liters of fuel instead of just 20 so that you aren’t limited in how far up the Rio Tzendales you can go (we would have liked to go a bit further but fuel limited us in the end). Along with needing new visas, one of our primary objectives for the second big circuit of Chiapas was to volunteer on a monitoring project at Yaxchilan. A group of guides (Siyaj Chan – http://turismosiyajchan.mex.tl/ https://www.facebook.com/siyajchan.turismobioarqueologico) conducts a monitoring program every month in the Monumento Natural Yaxchilan. They have been doing standardized point counts and a raptor watch for the last three years to help assess the status of birds in the park. The first day Josh went up to the hawk watch platform with Servano to scan the skies for raptors. Within the last two years, one of the biologists saw a Harpy Eagle from the river, the first sighting in Mexico since the 1980’s when they were essentially extirpated by habitat loss. No Harpy Eagles miraculously perched in the open for Josh that day, but he did see a number of King Vultures, and both Black Hawk-Eagle and Ornate Hawk-Eagle soaring off in the distance. I went out with Francisco and Anselma to do point counts along a 2 km trail. I have done thousands of point counts in my day, but nothing I have ever done compares to the difficulty of conducting point counts in tropical forest. Given the difficulty of point-counting in the Lacantún (sort of a my-first-rainforest, comparatively not that biodiverse compared to the Amazon lowlands), I cannot imagine trying to train interns and conduct rigorous surveys in South America. Although Josh and I have been studying songs for lowland birds for months, there is still so much that we do not know and so many of the birds here have similar calls and songs. The first couple of points were overwhelming, but by the end of the day I felt a little more confident and even learned a few more songs. After just one day of doing point counts I had dreams of doing point counts in Tahoe where I worked on my Ph.D., I guess I miss doing field work! The second day we headed back out for another round of point counts. We really enjoyed being able to help out the Siyaj-Chan crew and we all learned a thing or two from each other. After the surveys Josh and I and headed back out to the trails and saw quite a few great species including Great Antshrike, Rufous-tailed Jacamar (which are quite abundant there), Green-backed Sparrow, Royal Flycatcher, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Mexican Antthrush, Creasted Guan, Rufous Mourner, Rufous Piha, and Blue-black Grosbeak. An evening of owling produced three Black-and-White Owls and two Mottled Owls, but no Potoos (our unicorn birds). There is a camping area at the Monumento Natural Yaxchilan and it is possible to arrange a visit to the area though the boat ride to and from Frontera Corazal could be a bit expensive if you cannot combine it with other folks going to the ruins or with the park guards or other people who are going to the park buildings already. Inquire at Nueva Alianza in Frontera Corazal or with Siyaj Chan and either of them should be able to help arrange a trip out to the area.
Our last destinations in the lowlands was a return to Bonampak, also home to amazing birding. Although we experienced a few hassles the first time we went birding on the road to Bonampak we decided to try again because the birding is so incredible along a quiet 7 mile road through rainforest. This time our experience was totally different. We parked the car at the entrance early in the morning and started walking down the road. Not a single person bothered us and we very enjoyably birded the first mile or two of the road before we waved down a taxi for a ride to the ruins. We also birded the ruins and walked another mile or so out from the ruins without hassle. Birding was productive despite a good bit of rain, but the highlight was an afternoon mixed species flock that included Russet Antshrike, Green Shrike-Vireo, Plain Antvireo, Plain Xenops, Rufous Mourner, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and more flock guarded by the sentinel Black-throated Shrike-Tanager (see our complete list here). Other notable birds from the morning included actually seeing a Little Tinamou as well as a Purple-crowned Fairy and a very briefly seen Black-crested Coquette.
We also hiked out to the Sak Nok Cascada (waterfall) in the village of Lancanjá.
It’s a beautiful 2 km trail that meanders through tropical forest and crossed numerous stream. When we were there the creeks were practically at flood levels so it was a bit hard to hear birds at time, but it’s a great spot to go birding and you can go there un-guided and without any hassles. We had a good variety of birds again but the highlight came just before we got drenched by a nice rainstorm. Josh spotted a couple of Euphonias high in the canopy and says “Hey do you want to come check this out, I think I have a White-vented Euphonia up here. No there are definitely White-vented Euphonias up here!” I raced over and sure enough, there were at least two male White-vented Euphonias with at least two females in tow. White-vented Euphonias are actually quite rare in Mexico, and most of the small handful (perhaps 6 or so sightings?) are from the Bonampak area. Distinguishing White-vented Euphonia from Scrub Euphonia is not too difficult if seen well. While the godmani subspecies of Scrub Euphonia looks very similar, it’s range stops in Michoacán and Guerrero, and the nominate subspecies of Scrub Euphonia that occurs in the Chiapan lowlands is much easier to distinguish. Unfortunately we brought neither our recording equipment nor our camera due to the threat of rain (and we got well soaked on the hike back to the car), but we got great looks at them and there is no doubt of the ID. We had a lot of rain in the lowlands this time around, but thanks to our new handy tarp, we were able to cook, relax, and stay dry!