This article is from the October 1999 The Mexico
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A Visit to the Veracruz "River of Raptors"
by Charles Duncan
recently became Conservation Ornithologist for The Nature Conservancy’s
Wings of the Americas program, after a long career in academia. He is the
President of the Association of Field Ornithologists, and an avid birder,
sound recordist, and photographer. He is especially fond of travel in Mexico
and other spots in tropical America, and lived in Chiapas from 1992 to 1993.
His recent published work has been on the distribution and abundance of the
Sharp-skinned Hawk, Red-necked Phalarope, and Golden-cheeked Warbler. Charles
lives in Portland, Maine.
of this newsletter who are interested in the natural world have surely heard
of the migrations of Gray Whales off California, the great wintering
aggregations of Bald Eagles in Alaska, and the huge herds of Caribou in
Canada. These are among the planet’s great wildlife spectacles. Far fewer, I
suspect, are aware that one of the most impressive migrations of any sort
happens every autumn in Veracruz. This phenomenon, called the “River of
Raptors” involves the southbound migration of literally millions of hawks
– in some cases, virtually the entire world’s population of
the species. It has been my
privilege and pleasure to visit the Veracruz River of Raptors (VRR) three
times, first in 1992. After a brief visit in 1997, I organized an invitational
trip to the VRR in 1998. My goal was to introduce key people in the US birding
community to the site and to the talented people from Pronatura Veracruz who
have been monitoring the migration, bringing it to the world’s attention,
and working for conservation of birds and habitats in Veracruz. The trip was a
huge success and is described, with photos, in an excellent article by Clay
and Patricia Sutton in the June 1999 issue of Birding magazine,
published by the American Birding Assoc., www.americanbirding.org, P.O.
Box 6599, Colorado Springs, CO 80934.
magnitude of the River of Raptors, the greatest hawk migration anywhere in the
world, depends on an accident of geography combined with a bit of basic bird
biology. Migrating hawks rely on rising warm air currents (called
“thermals”) to stay aloft, so that they can avoid the energy expenditure
of flapping flight. These updrafts are absent over open water, so most hawks
avoid flying over the ocean if at all possible. They also don’t like flying
over mountainous areas where the cooler temperatures produce weaker thermals.
the small town of Cardel, about 30 minutes north of Veracruz City, the
mountains come quite close to the ocean, and the coastal plain – the
preferred flight path – is very
narrow. The hawk migration from a huge proportion of North America is squeezed
through this small bottleneck, and forms an amazing sight. The passage of the
hawks is weather dependent but when things are just right, it is simply off
the scale of any other hawkwatch site. More than a million hawks have been
counted going through in a single day! For comparison, the rather more
well-known Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, itself a joy to visit,
celebrated its one-millionth hawk after 50 years of monitoring. An
“average” day at VRR will see the passage of 75,000 hawks, still a mighty
impressive event. The 1998 total for the three-month season was about
four-and-a-half million hawks and vultures. For some birds, virtually every
individual of the species migrates through this area. This means that the VRR
presents a unique opportunity to monitor global populations. Pronatura
Veracruz has an international team of researchers tallying the migration. The
counts are so astonishing that at first they were disbelieved. Counts of
Swainson’s Hawk at the VRR significantly exceeded previous estimates of the
world population for the species. To the counters’ credit, they brought in
outside experts, verified their methods, and, ultimately, convinced the
skeptics, some of whom are now major contributors to the project!
exact mix of species coming through changes across the season, as each
migrates on its own timetable. The earliest pass in late August, and the last
show up in the middle of November. My favorite season to be at the hawkwatch
is the second week of October, but almost any autumn visit will yield
impressive results. The major species, in order of abundance, are Broad-winged
Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Swainson’s Hawk, Mississippi Kite, and American
Kestrel. In 1998 a remarkable total of 18 species of birds of prey were seen.
from being the numerically largest hawk migration in the world, the conditions
for visitors must be among the most comfortable at any hawkwatch. The main
observation site is the fifth floor roof of the Hotel Bienvenido, the tallest
building in Cardel. There are comfortable chairs, a good shade awning, a
well-stocked refrigerator, bathroom, and even a phone line to the restaurant
on the first floor. No one will mistake the Bienvenido for a luxury hotel, but
the beds are good, the rooms are air-conditioned, and the staff is friendly
and helpful. Double rooms were about $27US as of this writing. Order the vuelve
a la vida (“return to life”) seafood combination at the seafood bar
next door and you’ll know what the good life is all about!
aren’t the only flying creatures coming through this bottleneck. The number
of other birds, such as Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, White-winged Doves, and
swallows is enormous. I once estimated 1100 Barn Swallows passing by a small
section of beach in only 5 minutes. I was told that the migration had been
going on like that for a month, implying a passage of several million
swallows! These migrations are only starting to be documented scientifically.
less well-known, but every bit as astonishing is the passage of tens of
millions of dragonflies each fall. At times every bit of driftwood on the
beach is covered with these delicate and beautiful creatures.
The abundance and variety of butterflies is also breathtaking. During
our October 1998 trip, Clay Sutton yelled to his wife, a major figure in
developing butterfly censuses in the US, “Pat, come here! You’ve died and
gone to Heaven!!” You know, Pat didn’t disagree with his assessment.
is perfectly possible to visit the River of Raptors on one’s own. There are
direct flights to Veracruz from Houston, and many buses travel to Cardel daily
if one doesn’t wish to rent a car. Reservations at the Bienvenido are a must
during hawk migration season, however.
much richer experience can be had, however, by joining one of the small tour
groups that Pronatura Veracruz puts together each fall. In addition to having
the amenities, service, and security that comes from an experienced locally
based tour operator, you can be confident that the income from the tour goes
to support vital conservation and education programs that Pronatura Veracruz
runs. In 1999, these 9-day, 8-night package tours begin September 17th
and continue through October 19th. They are led by exceptionally
capable and pleasant bilingual birding/naturalist guides. The tours visit a
variety of locales, all in Veracruz, in addition to the hawk counting site on
the roof of the Bienvenido. There are opportunities to visit historic and
archaeological sites and observe both resident and migratory birds,
butterflies, dragonflies, and other wildlife. Among my favorites has been the
trip to Pronatura’s home base, the nearby colonial city of Xalapa (see the
May 1999 issue of The MexicoFile). Here one has the chance to
see some highland and specialty birds and butterflies, a great contrast with
the coastal setting of Cardel, while staying at my favorite hotel in all of
Mexico, the impossibly charming Posada del Cafeto.
more information on these tours, or on birdwatching and nature tours at other
times of the year, contact:
52 (28) 18-6545
52 (28) 18-6546
Nature Conservancy, Wings of the Americas
Congress Street, #305