Only 5% of the original forest remains in the Tuxtla region. The rest is taken over by cow pasture and sugarcane.

Our site is a denuded finger of land that extends into virgin forest on the west side of the San Martín volcano. The transition between pasture and forest is abrupt. The pastures are like empty squares in a pan of sheet cake.

Click play at left to zoom on the field site.

Day 1 Land of Witchcraft – June 3, 2019

A long day’s journey from Los Angeles to Catemaco, Veracruz. In the airport, we meet Vicente (Chente) Rodriguez, our point person on bird conservation issues in the Mexican government. John and Chente first met on a field trip to Durango, Mexico in 2002, bonding over birds and Bob Dylan.

Our goal with this trip–and all of our trips for the Mexican Bird Resurvey Project–is to resurvey the birds at sites where Chester Lamb collected in the 1930s to 1950s (see our Mission and History in our About section). Partly, we are doing this remotely by comparing Lamb’s birds to modern citizen-science records already on eBird. We are also looking at DNA changes to 20 target species especially affected by habitat change in modern times. But with these on-the-ground expeditions, we are hoping for another, more granular view of change, the kind you can only get by walking in Lamb’s footsteps and meeting the local people who know the local birds and are trying hard to protect them. Here, Chente has put us in touch with Huilotl Toxtlan Guías Comunitarios de los Tuxtlas, a group of local bird monitors who make a tenuous living through guided tours and short-term survey jobs. We’ll meet them tomorrow.

In the meantime, we try to get up to speed on the local birds. Catemaco lies on the bank of a large lake, which we explore (link to eBird checklist). The town is sleepy and humid, with no tourists in sight. It has a reputation for witchcraft. Brujos advertise their services on shop fronts. It does not take sorcery to get us to sleep – just a bed and a swamp cooler.

White magic for sale in Catemaco
The team stages in Catemaco, where the restaurants are empty after tourist season

Day 2 The Farm – June 4, 2019

We meet Gonzalo, leader of the community network of local bird monitors. Chalo, as he’s called, is around 50, friendly, with slicked-back gray hair and a quick smile. He has arranged for us to stay with a local landowner on an ejido, or communal land, that has been parceled out to individual families.

The road is rougher than we expect. That our rental car lacks both power and clearance is the only truly predictable component of any expedition. Arriving, we see the farm dwellings are a few structures made of wood and sheet metal. Angel, who says he is 94 years old, lives there with his wife and son, David.

Greeted by a flock of Red-lored Parrots (Amazona autumnalis), we set our camp in a nearby field under the branches of a towering tree that lies on the bank of a deep ravine thick with forest. We make some brief forays into the pasture and forest edge, forming some quick impressions of the birdlife (link to eBird checklist).

The cook makes tortillas by hand from corn soaked overnight with cal or quicklime to soften the large kernels. The resulting mixture (nixtamal) is ground up and formed into a dough (masa), which is patted out on a stone and then cooked over an open fire on a piece of broken ceramic. The result is a stack of magically soft and stretchy tortillas that are as delicious plain as they are filled with beans and salsa.

In the night a howling wind moves in. The branches of our camp tree crash around unsettlingly. Tents flap and push against us all night. No one sleeps.

Campsite in a pasture on the west side of San Martín volcano.
Campsite in a pasture on the west side of San Martín volcano.
Ryan snaps some birds next to the kitchen

Day 3 The Quail-Dove – June 5, 2019

In the morning, we fan out in small groups to explore and create bird lists (link to eBird checklist). Our sampling method is simple: see and record everything, with photographs if possible. “Intensive search,” Chente calls it, lending it an air of rigor.

Each group is a mix of Moore Lab personnel and local bird monitors. My group is James, Chente, and Fernando, a youthful local monitor with an impressive ability to identify the birds by song.

At first we stick to forest edges. There are a lot of those. Only 5% of the original forest remains in the Tuxtla region. The rest is taken over by cow pasture and sugarcane. Chester Lamb began to see this transition in the 1950s. “Formerly it was a good station,” Lamb wrote in 1953 about the site he first visited in 1951, “but now so much forest and brushland has been cut and it is planted in cane.”

The Cota farm is on the border of the protected area. Our camping pasture is a denuded finger of land that extends into virgin forest on the west side of the San Martín volcano. The transition between pasture and protected forest is abrupt. The pastures are like empty squares in a pan of sheet cake. The pasture has a distinct bird community: Gray-crowned Yellowthroat (Geothlypis poliocephala), Morelet’s Seedeater (Sporophila morelleti), Brown Jay (Psilorhinus morio), Red-lored Parrot (Amazona autumnalis).

With protected forest pushing up against pasture, there is very little in the way of secondary-growth forest so often seen on the frontiers of active forest clearing. Accordingly, there are few birds particular to this regrowing forest type; birds like Great Antshrike (Taraba major) and Long-billed Hermit (Phaethornis longirostris) are absent, and only a single Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus) flies overhead one day. Another telling absence is the Rufous-breasted Spinetail (Synallaxis erythrothorax), a classic early successional bird. Chester Lamb collected it in the 1950s during a time of active forest clearing and its attendant secondary regrowth.

This is one hint of change since Lamb’s time: the settling of the forest into an abrupt ecotone between pasture and primary forest with no buffer of secondary forest.

We enter this primary forest suddenly on a narrow trail. The temperature drops 10 degrees. Our eyes adjust to the dark. We do not see any birds, but seem surrounded by their calls. These calls are foreign to me, as I failed to do the homework Ryan assigned before the trip (a Dropbox folder stuffed with bird songs). But they seem familiar to James and Fernando, who are busy pointing here and there and whispering Latin names to one another in the universal language of science.

We walk only a few steps before Fernando stops, points to his ear, and then up into the forest. He smiles, “Geotrygon carrikeri.” That’s the scientific name of the Tuxtla Quail-Dove, endemic to the forest here. Better known from near the field station several miles to the northeast, it has not been officially recorded on this side of the preserve. Its presence here is not surprising, but still it is exciting to plant a new flag on the map for a bird whose only home in this world is these few relic patches of forest.

Fernando stops again. Hide, he tells us. Then he begins making the call. Coo coo coo. Pause. Coo coo coo. Nothing happens for what seems like a long time. Then we hear a soft flutter. Fernando motions us to come to him, slowly – and lowly. Which is not that easy. We clamber over tree roots to his side. He points into the forest. Where? We see nothing. There, he points. We look again. Perched thirty feet away on a branch two feet off the ground is a creamy gray dove with ruddy wings. In the dark of the forest, its white cheek stripe pops. No one exhales for what seems like a minute. And then the bird is gone.

A fleeting look at the endemic Tuxtla Quail-Dove
Keel-billed Toucan having a great morning in Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz, Mexico.

Day 4 A Fruitless Hike Uphill – June 6, 2019

Chester Lamb went to a lot of places that really make you wonder how the hell he ever got there in the 1950s. This is one of those places. Unfortunately his field notes reveal few hints as to his precise routes. Did he have mules? Field assistants? We do not know. The 1950s marked his third decade collecting birds for Robert T. Moore. By then his field notes were sparse. His zest for being a hired gun was waning. His trip in 1955 was one of his very last for Moore.

We want to get a look at Lamb’s site to confirm that the habitat and the birds there were not too different from our campsite area. Even with little to go on, we feel we can get very close to Lamb’s site. He followed a stream called the Río Tecolapán until he found a decent camping place at around 2,000 feet elevation. On the map, two places look like candidates.

Today, Chalo has made arrangements for us to visit one of these candidate sites. After morning birding and the mandatory siesta, we make the unwise decision to strike out around 4pm, against the recommendations of the locals, who now include Veracruz residents and mega-birders Amy McAndrews and Jorge Montejo. Under the withering afternoon sun, a half-mile feels like 10 and ends, for some reason (even though our destination was a stream) with a long slog up a steep draw. To the surprise of no one, there is no stream there. This did not feel like someplace Lamb would have camped. We returned soaked in sweat and discouraged. Maybe we didn’t need to make it to Lamb’s site after all.

The sun was withering in the pastures
Sweaty triplets after a hike

Day 5 The Bird Trappers – June 7, 2019

In the morning Ryan strikes out on his own to the other candidate site. It seems much more promising as Lamb’s original site, because it actually involves a stream this time, or at least a stream bed.

He comes back with 12 new birds for the expedition–six of them birds Lamb had but that we had not yet seen, including Great Curassow (Crax rubra) and Canivet’s Emerald (Chlorostilbon canivetii). Also today we record Black Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus). Amy and Jorge, expert birders who live and work in Veracruz and have come to join us, report an Ornate Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus). Together, these sightings suggest the large raptors and ground birds are managing to persist in the Tuxtlas as they did during Lamb’s visit.

Meanwhile, we tramp through pasture and forest (link to eBird checklist) and then open a few mist-nets and catch two species we had overlooked until then: Eye-Ringed Flatbill (Rhynchocyclus brevirostris) and Yellow-billed Cacique (Amblycercus holosericeus). The bird monitors hold and photograph the birds with delight before we release them.

Another thing we learn is that Amy and Jorge, with their years of experience on the local birds, are hearing and seeing some birds we are overlooking. Their daily checklists and photographs document species like Black-headed Trogon (Trogon melanocephalus), a fairly large and distinctive bird that for whatever reason seems invisible to us. This goes to show how important it is to bring in local expertise and lots of eyes to what, after all, are fairly short trips with birds we are just getting familiar with.

As evening approaches we hear the sound of a motor. Two young men on a motorcycle. David speaks to them. They say they are looking for a pregnant cow lost in the forest. After they leave, Azael, David’s son, says they are lying. They are going into the forest to take birds like toucans and solitaires for sale in the markets.

Feeling somewhat unsettled, we decide to wait in the darkening forest for the sound the owls. Amy and Jorge thought they heard a Black-and-white Owl (Ciccaba nigrolineata) the night before, but just a single note. Maybe it will be back again tonight. We walk to the end of the trail where there is a locked gate. We wait as late afternoon turns to dusk. Eventually a strange hooting begins. After some debate, the group decides it is a pair of Mottled Owls (Ciccaba virgata) with young.

As we leave, we see the motorcycle belonging to the pair of bird trappers by the locked end gate, the expanse of forest in front of it. They are out there somewhere.

Demonstrating mist-net set-up for the monitors
Scrub Euphonia female
Setting up a mist-net
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper

Day 6 Lamb’s Footsteps – June 8, 2019

In the morning, we slip into the forest from the pasture, toucans and parrots above us in the canopy. Not too long after, we emerge onto what looks like a paved highway. Except the pavement is sand: gray, volcanic, and a bit crunchy when our feet sink into it. This is the stream, Lamb’s stream.

As we walk against the normal flow of water (the stream bed is dry at the moment), the channel narrows. We are actually at the bottom of a deep ravine whose walls tower 50 feet straight up. Hummingbirds zip around the multilayered greenery of ferns and palms and pink Heliconia flowers that sprout from the ravine walls and drape overhead: Violet Sabrewing (Campylopterus hemileucurus) , White-bellied Emerald (Amazilia candida), and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl; see full eBird checklist). Above us, only a thin crack of blue sky is visible, crisscrossed by hundreds of day-flying Urania Swallowtail Moths that look more like butterflies – black wings with electric green stripes.

Huge treefalls present an obstacle course. I could easily imagine Lamb picking his way through them, shotgun in hand, cigarette in mouth. We are certainly walking in his footsteps. I look around for a spent shell casing, an old cigarette butt, a forgotten pocket knife. There is nothing but smooth sand punctuated occasionally by Ryan’s footsteps from the day before.

The only new bird is a Collared Aracari, but the hike is worth the time spent to live in Lamb’s shoes a little.

And as Lamb would have put it, “With that, our time at this camp comes to an end.” We thank David and his family for hosting us and say goodbye to our local collaborators.

On the whole, the forest on this side of the San Martín Volcano, though heavily fragmented, hosts an impressive assemblage of birds, little changed from Lamb’s time. If threats like illegal trapping can be kept at bay, the birds have a fighting chance of hanging on.

Whitney Tsai Nakashima hiking in a Quebrada near San Martin Tuxtla
Whitney walks in Lamb's footsteps along the volcanic gravel stream bed of the Río Tecolopán
Male Gartered Trogon calling along the trail on our first morning in Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz.
Male Gartered Trogon calling along the trail on our first morning in Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz.