This article is from the October 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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A Visit to the Veracruz "River of Raptors"

by Charles Duncan 

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.

Readers 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.,, P.O. Box 6599, Colorado Springs, CO 80934.

The 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.

Near 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!

The 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.

Aside 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!

Hawks 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.

Even 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.  

It 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.

A 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.

For more information on these tours, or on birdwatching and nature tours at other times of the year, contact:

Jim Dion

Pronatura Veracruz

Apartado 399

Xalapa, Veracruz, México

(tel) 52 (28) 18-6545

(fax) 52 (28) 18-6546


Charles D. Duncan

The Nature Conservancy, Wings of the Americas

638 Congress Street, #305

Portland, Maine 04101