Birding Eastern Chiapas

White Hawk
White Hawk

In January 2015, I (Robert) joined a tour offered by Mark Pretti Nature Tours to eastern Chiapas, Mexico. The itinerary started from Tuxtla Gutierrez, climbed to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Sierra Norte de Chiapas, then descended into the eastern tropical lowlands at Palenque and Bonampak, before concluding in Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco. The tour was co-led by Benito Hernandez who interpreted the cultural and historic sites, not to mention handling all the challenging driving. Since the nature tour was primarily dedicated to tropical birds, you will find a gallery of bird photos to supplement this narrative.

Cañón del Sumidero outside Tuxtla Gutierrez

Upon our arrival at the hotel in Tuxtla Gutierrez, we discovered that there was a roost of hundreds of White-fronted Parrots in the trees behind the hotel. The day after our arrival, the tour embarked on a day trip to Cañón del Sumidero. We were fortunate to be delayed only slightly by a parade of local teachers demonstrating for better wages – the bridge across the Rio Grijalva was blocked to incoming traffic by the parade, but outbound was merely slowed to a crawl.

Once out of town, we entered the park and climbed the mountain side. Our first roadside stop provided us with a fruiting fig tree and an array of birds, including the much-sought gems like Canivet’s Emerald, Banded Wren, and White-lored Gnatcatcher. The stop also provided our first views of this dramatic canyon. The lower reaches of the mountains on the southern, interior side feature dry tropical forest and thorn scrub that the White-throated Magpie-Jay calls home. Streak-backed Orioles, Boat-billed Flycatcher, and Plain Chachalacas were also here. Higher up the mountain, the transition to northern side across the crest provides a different fauna that wanders up the wetter drainages from the tropical forest below. At the picnic stop, we managed to find an uncommon Slender Sheartail (hummingbird), Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and Yellow-winged Tanager, among others. Olive Sparrow was seen particularly well here. We found a Plain-capped Starthroat among the many Azure-crowned Hummingbirds. After employing the call of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl to stir up the birds, we actually heard one calling a short distance away. On the trails nearby, we found the retiring Northern Bentbill along with Collared Trogon, Olivaceous and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers. Meanwhile, a Short-tailed Hawk soared overhead. In seeking the rare Belted Flycatcher, which we heard but failed to see, we had a brief encounter with a colorful Red-breasted Chat. As we embarked on our return to Tuxtla, we encountered a female Hook-billed Kite by the road just beyond the crest.

The next morning, we visited the grounds outside the Tuxtla Zoo to get additional birds of dry tropical forest like Russet-crowned Motmot and Green Parakeet, not to mention Altamira Oriole (in the combretum vines), Masked Tityra, and Green Jay. Duetting pairs of Melodious Blackbird were heard and seen for the first time here, but we would see them in many places later in the trip. Golden-fronted Woodpecker and Squirrel Cuckoo watched all the action from high perches. A normally shy Crested Guan seemed to be visiting his relations inside the zoo. A pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls were perched nearby.

San Cristóbal de las Casas

After leaving Tuxtla, the tour ascended the highway to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Sierra Norte de Chiapas. Before entering the former capital of Chiapas, we visited the Huitepec Reserve where we had our first glimpses of Golden-browed Warbler, not to mention Amethyst-throated Sapphire. Spot-crowned Woodcreeper and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker were seen well in the pines here. A Crescent-chested Warbler here was a good find and also seen later at Chanal Rd. Rose-throated Becard was seen unusually high in the trees on the return hike back down to the preserve entrance.

After lunch, we settled in at the charming Casa Felipe Flores in town. The rooms were arrayed around several courtyards, while my cozy room was reached by ascending a spiral staircase and featured a roof-top patio. Here I had views not only across the city, but also close up views of Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer and White-eared Hummingbird. The bustling Zocolo was the hub of our cultural sight-seeing which included visits to the Regional Culture Museum with its textile exhibits and to the Na Bolom Museum. Na Bolom recounted the life work of Franz and Trudy Blom to preserve the indigenous Mayan culture of the Lacandon, a tribe that relocated from the Yucatan Peninsula to the eastern interior of Chiapas at the time of the Spanish Conquest some 500 years ago.

The highest point of our trip was along Chanal Road at an elevation around 8,000 feet. The ethereal songs of Brown-backed Solitaire could be heard throughout. Here the star of the avian show was the Pink-headed Warbler, a regional endemic. The Rufous-collared Thrush was also a good find and some folks saw the elusive Blue-and-White Mockingbird. Nearby, Rufous-browed Peppershrike and Band-backed Wren put on a show, while Common Bush-Tanagers were busy eating fruit. Setophaga sp. warblers were well represented here with Black-throated Green, Townsend’s, Hermit, and even Golden-checked Warbler relatively common. The group also had terrific views of Olive Warbler at the southern end of its range – or as we liked to call it, the Masked Pumpkin-head. We also enjoyed spending a half-hour trying to get a glimpse of one of the six or so Singing Quail that were calling from no more than 30 feet away – although none of us saw so much as a twig twitch or a leaf flutter. Walking back to the vehicle, I noticed a rustle of leaves in a bush next to the trail. I stuck my head into the bush and spied a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush in the deep shadow at its center. By the road, Gray Silky-flycatcher foraged high in the trees.

The Temples at Palenque in the eastern lowlands

The tour descended through Ocosingo and into the eastern tropical lowlands at Palenque. Here and there along the route, “Viva Zapata” signs were seen. These signs belie the uneasy status quo of indigenous people whose land claims were reversed with abandoned land reforms and halted resettlement programs as the indirect result of the NAFTA Agreement, all of which led to the Zapatista Uprising of 20 years prior.

The Mayan ruins at Palenque, a World Heritage site, offered an excellent museum below the temples set on a terrace overlooking the eastern lowlands that stretched beyond the horizon clear across the Yucatan Peninsula. Greater White-lined Bats (a harem actually) roosted high on the wall under the eaves of the museum. An Ovenbird inhabited the area beside the entrance kiosks. A Worm-eating Warbler turned up along the lower trail from the entrance in the company of Wedge-billed Woodcreeper. In this same area, a few members of the group had a glimpse of Long-billed Gnatwren. We saw several Violet Sabrewings visit the blooming African Tulip Trees along with Long-billed Starthroat. One of the difficult skulkers of the trip, Spot-breasted Wren was seen well here. Scope views of White-eyed Vireo were particularly rewarding.

Brown Jays were heard before seen and seemed omnipresent in the lowlands. Another common bird of the lowlands was the Clay-colored Thrush, while Wood Thrush was seen several times. Green Honeycreeper was seen at Combretum vines, Calliandra and other flowering plants in the lowlands as was Red-legged Honeycreeper. Barred Antshrike and Lineated Woodpecker turned up at the forest edge of an empty parking lot. Nearby, a Black-headed Trogon called, distantly it seemed, and then revealed itself. We had the opportunity to compare it to a Gartered (Violaceous) Trogon too. A Ringed Kingfisher flew overhead.

At the Aluxes Zoo, besides enjoying the conspicuous Scarlet Macaws flying in for feeding, a Gray-necked Wood-Rail was seen along shore of the small lake. Nearby, Kentucky Warbler skulked low by the bushes along the trail. By the parking area, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher turned up just beyond the fence. Next to the vehicle in a thicket, a territorial pair of Rufous-breasted Spinetail were seen close up. Manatees were being fed at the water’s edge. Back at the hotel, confiding Blue-winged and Hooded Warblers made good photography subjects, not to mention the nearly ubiquitous Magnolia Warblers and American Redstarts. Black-cheeked Woodpecker perched on a snag visible in the rain from reception. Dinner at Monteverde Pizzeria provided fine Chilean wines to accompany remarkably good Italian fare, especially considering our somewhat rural setting.

Bonampak Temples in La Selva Lacondona

Our drive from Palenque to the Rio Lacanja was punctuated by a couple raptors: a Bat Falcon high in a snag and a “roadside” White Hawk perched in plain view for great photos (including the one on this website). The Lacondon Rainforest provided highly sought tropical specialties like Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Northern Schiffornis, Purple-crowned Fairy, and Rufous Mourner. The forest provided many opportunities to see Red-throated Ant-Tanager and even a few opportunities for Red-crowned as well. Even the often difficult White-breasted Wood-Wren was seen well here, not to mention the Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Plain Antvireo, along with Sepia-capped and Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher. We had several fleeting views of White-crowned Parrot as they flew past, but one perched in a tree and provided scope views. Rufous-tailed Hummingbird was common in the lowlands, but the forest also provided both Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermit, not to mention scope views of Scaly-breasted Hummingbird and Wedge-tailed Sabrewing.

Near the cabins along the Rio Lacanja, I found Blue-crowned Motmot, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, and Orange-billed Sparrow. The Green-backed Sparrow recalls the Olive Sparrow we saw at Sumidero Canyon, differing mainly in their respective vocalizations. In the vicinity of the road, we saw Grayish, Buff-throated, and Black-head Saltator. This was a good opportunity to study the behavioral and visual differences among these related species. In the palms by the road, Black-cowled Oriole was seen well. Yellow-throated Vireo was seen better here than at Palenque. The male Passerini’s Tanager was stunning as were male Red-capped Manakins, not to mention White-collared Manakins. Speaking of colorful birds, the Golden-hooded Tanager was seen high in the trees – this bird is the only representative of the Tangara genus regularly occuring in Mexico. Plain Xenops was also viewed high in the canopy, an unusual place for this bird. Collared Araçari and Keel-billed Toucan were conspicuous in the canopy of the forest. Beside the dining facilities, both Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes were seen well and studied carefully to learn to distinguish the two.

The murals at Bonampak are particularly noteworthy among Mayan sites and served to inform the screenplay of the feature movie Apocalypto, produced and directed by Mel Gibson. Climbing to the top of the temples afforded a terrific view over the forest, and while no Lovely Cotingas were found when scanning the tree canopies laid out before us, there was at least another Short-tailed Hawk to enjoy.

Villahermosa and the return home

We made the long drive from Bonampak through Palenque (with lunch at Mr. Taco where I enjoyed Tacos al Pastor) to Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco. On the drive into the city, the vast wetlands of the Rio Grijalva and Uscumacinta nearby harbored Wood Stork, Neotropic Cormorant, and even a White Pelican. Once settled into the hotel, we all enjoyed a farewell dinner and the conclusion of another enjoyable tour.

…cycling, birding, and more!