This article is from the August 1999 - September 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Book Review
A Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico

A Bird-finding Guide to Mexico. Steve N. G. Howell. 1999. 70 maps, 18 line drawings by Sophie Webb. 365 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Softcover $28.00.

For me, traveling in Mexico has always meant birdwatching. Sometimes it’s birdwatching with visits to Mayan ruins; sometimes birdwatching with snorkeling on the side; sometimes, I combine birdwatching with a few days or a week in a colonial city. But the central theme is pretty constant it seems.

Mexico is a wonderful place for people interested in birding, whether for the casual observer or the committed and passionate aficionado. There are spectacular species to be seen, many found nowhere else on Earth. There also some old friends: birds that breed near our homes in the U.S. but winter in Mexico – not a bad plan, really. With over 1000 species of birds in Mexico, the list is significantly longer than for the U.S. and Canada combined. And what species they are! Parrots, toucans, tanagers – all so brilliantly colored as to seem something out of fantasy book. The wrens, seldom seen but almost invariably heard, seem to have their world headquarters in Mexico, with some 30 species present. If you like a challenge, there are flycatchers and sparrows to identify. For sheer drop-dead beauty, go for the Resplendent Quetzal, found in the cloud-forests of Chiapas, with the same colors as the Mexican flag and enough folkloric significance for anyone’s taste. Give a listen to the nightingale-thrushes and you’ll understand the term “hauntingly beautiful.”

Of course, we could mention other, more practical, reasons why a birder or any adventurous tourist would be attracted to Mexico: the good and inexpensive hotels, the wealth and variety of the foods, and the warmth and generosity of the Mexican people. Specifically for birders, we can add the existence of good field guides, making the chore of identifying sightings easier, something that cannot be taken for granted in all of Latin America 

A new resource, certain to increase the popularity of birding in Mexico, has just become available.  A Bird-finding Guide to Mexico, by Steve N. G. Howell, provides descriptions of five to ten sites for each of 14 birding regions” of the author’s own creation. There are simple and clear maps for many of these sites, and all have at least written directions for access. Each site has been chosen because it provides high quality general birding as well as opportunities to see a number of species that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. This latter feature is important for those who enjoy “listing,” the attempt to see ever more species in a country, state, backyard, or whatever.

There are some 272 bird species and forms that the author considers of exceptional interest, and these are printed in bold-faced type throughout the main text. Moreover, two appendices help one to know where to look for a given species that one may want to see. The appendix entry for Resplendent Quetzal, for instance, reads “This spectacular bird is seen readily at El Triunfo (Site 12.9) and can also be found at Montebello (Site 12.7).”

The author, Steve Howell, is uniquely qualified to write a book of this sort. He and his wife, the painter, Sophie Webb, have spent almost two decades exploring Mexico, and the depth of their knowledge of bird distribution borders on the supernatural. Together, they wrote A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America (hereafter “Howell and Webb”), a weighty thing, published in 1995 by Oxford University Press. Astonishingly, Oxford Press has let it go temporarily out of print, and new copies for sale are quite scarce. The present book is for the most part a well-organized and -presented compendium of their travel notes, occasionally refined and updated by other birders who may have visited the sites more recently. Not surprisingly, it will be most valuable when used in conjunction with Howell & Webb for more detailed descriptions and paintings of the birds.

Howell wisely omits information on non-birding tourist attractions, restaurants, and lodging, all well-covered in general tourist guides (and all subject to going out-of-date). Instead he has provided details crucial to a birder not easily available elsewhere. For example, I have shied away from the popular birding destination of San Blas, Nayarit, because of the area's reputation for biting insects. Although I suspected they might be seasonal or exaggerated, accurate information has been hard to come by and I have never felt confident enough to put a vacation at risk. Howell addresses the question head-on: biting insects are a problem from July to November but not otherwise. Case closed. Yes, I'm going – in February.

The sites Howell has selected cover much of the country, and virtually all of the spots tourists routinely visit, from Tijuana to Chiapas, Matamoros to Cozumel. The one inexplicable oversight is the spectacular Veracruz River of Raptors, discussed elsewhere in this issue.

In sum, even the most seasoned birding tourist will find much of use in this book. For anyone new to birding in Mexico, let’s just say it’s the book I always wished I had had.

NOTE: A more detailed version of this review can be found in Birding vol. 32 (4), August 1999. Birding is published by the American Birding Association, P. O. Box 6599, Colorado Springs, Colorado 80934, phone 800-850-2473, . I thank the editors for permission to reprint some of the material I wrote for that review.