While Mexico is riddled with centers of endemism — its pines, oaks and deserts offering a distinctive Middle American flavor — the Mayan south is instead a Neotropical paradise.
This past March after I co-led the WINGS Western Chiapas and Oaxaca tour with legend Steve Howell (seeing many of those wonderful endemics, perhaps the topic of another blogpost), I got to spend a full week with him on our own in the Lacandon region of far eastern Chiapas – the tropical lowlands and foothills bordering Guatemala. Steve knows Mexico like no other, yet since much of this area was inaccessible until recently, some of the areas (and all of the hotels) were new territory even for him.
I’ve led the Palenque tour a couple of times, and that area offers just a taste of what lies farther down the newly paved highway to Yaxchilan. The border between Mexico and Guatemala here is formed by the Usumacinta River, flowing through this distant gap seen from the highway.
It’s a short ride to the ruins, which are not only interesting to look at but also offer good access to the forest undertstory. The White-whiskered Puffbird at the top was one of the birds we encountered here. We also visited the famous Bonampak ruins, not far away.
This Salvin’s Kite Swallowtail (Eurytides salvini) was kind enough to stay posed for both of us to get photos. We didn’t know it at the time, but there were no published photos of this insect in the wild.
While in the area, I added over 20 birds to my Mexico list – such tropical things as Plain Antvireo, Russet Antshrike, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, and the White-whiskered Puffbird. But the highlight of the week was our stopping at a big, weedy field and recognizing it as potential Gray-breasted Crake habitat. There being no Mexico records for this bird didn’t keep us from stopping, and indeed, within moments of my playing my iPod three of them were calling from the field, one very close. It eventually crossed the road in a weak, flapping run to the opposite ditch. When they first started calling, Steve was still getting out of the car. He was also skeptical when I first yelled “Gray-breasted Crake!” suggesting perhaps I was hearing a frog. So at least for a few moments until he heard them clearly and suspended his disbelief, I had a bird in Mexico that Steve didn’t have.
Another highlight of our scout was the side road through the freshwater marshes of Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve near Villahermosa. Like a mini-Pantanal, there was never a moment we weren’t surrounded by birds. These photos of Pinnated Bittern and Crane Hawk were taken from the roadside.
Steve had never seen such concentrations of Pinnated Bittern, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and Northern Jacana as we saw along this road. When we do our new WINGS tour here this coming February we’ll make the detour to include this great area.