In 2013 I went to southern Mexico to find some owls. Here's what happened......
April 12th Tui dropped me off at PDX mid-afternoon. I had been feeling a bit nervous about the trip for a few days, so it was good to finally get started. I flew on Alaska Air down to LAX, which was a zoo as usual. I had plenty of time to figure things out. The automated check in machines were broke, and there was a good deal of confusion at the Aeromexico desk. The plane however was brand new, and real plush.
April 13th. Benito Juarez airport in Mexico City was calm and urban. After a three hour wait I caught a short flight to Oaxaca City. It was just as a remembered. Clean and calm and beautiful. I ate a traditional Oaxacan breakfast at a cafe next to the bus terminal, then emailed Tui and re-hydrated.
An hour later I catch a decently fast bus to Tehuantepec, that crossed a lot of rugged cactus covered limestone mountains. Tehuantepec, is hot and busy. I ate a couple of cabeza tacos. The counter of the cafe has an entire bull's head on it, from which the chef carves cabeza meat. I caught a share taxi to Puente Tejas. The driver tells me a great story about walking for 10 days to cross the border. He then made his way to Idaho, where he worked as a gardener for three years, then bought a Silverado and returned home with his prized truck. From Puente Tejas, its a 7km walk to the right to the Guingola ruins. I hiked down the gravel road for about 2km, when I took an obvious track to my left which led to a dried up canyon that originated from the huge limestone escarpment above. The forest here is deciduous thorn forest with a few cacti. I arrived well before dusk, and was covered with sweat bees as I waited. Soon the bees attracted half a dozen lizards which perched on and around me, and ate the bees! A Ridgeway's pygmy owl started calling near by, and I was able call it in by whistling and get excellent views. I saw its streaked crown bold white spotting on it's scapulars and long pale-banded tail which it pumped side to side as it sung. What a great start! I was playing the Oaxacan screech owl recordings to find the best one, when I heard a Oaxacan screech owl respond. A rough "bouncing ball" song! I walked up to a gully and flushed a screech owl in daylight. Amazing! I decided to wait for night to see if I could get a better view. I dozed in the early evening listening to the sound of two or three pygmy owls singing. At dusk I played the recording again. A big screech owl flew into the adjacent tree. I got to see it's indistinctly marked brown back. Each time I played the tape, the owl moved, so I eventually got to see its yellow eyes, and indistinctly marked breast. On my way back to the main road I taped again, and with in two seconds a Oaxacan Screech flew in to the tree. This time I saw the bushy, lightly marked eye-brows, a gray bill with a greenish gray tip and bristly feathered toes. Like the first bird it was brownish gray. Another nearby Oaxacan screech owl called. In the distance on the mountain side I could hear a loud "kow kow kow" . I could not assign it to an owl so perhaps it was a mammal?
It was a short happy hike to Puente Tejas, where I easily caught a share taxi to Tehuantepec. I bought a bus ticket to Tuxtla. I ate some good street food and caught the 2315 to Tuxtla and fell sound asleep soon after boarding.
April 14th I arrived at Tuxtla at 4am. Too tired to do anything I found the nearest hotel and crashed until noon. It was great to shower and change into clean clothes. I caught a combi to the plaza, which I recognized from nineteen years ago. I emailed Tui and Jose Luis (the guy who was helping me organize a trip to El Triunfo). I then set off for El Sumidero-the hilltop reserve that overlooks the canyon. After a couple of false starts I figured the route out. On board the combi up the hill, I set next to a Mexican rocker, with a heavily pierced face and long hair. He wanted me to translate a Metallica song, which I couldn't do. He had the hardest time believing that I love punk music, and kept commenting on my short gray hair. I got dropped of at the top of Tuxtla, and from there it was a pretty grueling climb to the top of the plateau. I had my back pack on, which was heavy with water bottles, and the sun was relentless. At the top of the climb I stashed my bag under some trees, then walked along the now level road. Pretty soon a guy in a truck offered to give me a ride to the end of the road. He warned me that it wasn't safe here after dark. This was a bit awkward as he offered to take me back to town. I slipped away from him and found a nice shady place to wait for dark. My waiting place was right next to the cliff that overlooked the flooded canyon almost 1000m below. It was an incredible view, made all the better by a dirty red sunset. While I waited I heard a Ridgeway's pygmy-owl, but it didn't come in to my tape.
I prepped my ipod and speakers, then set out along the road back towards Tuxtla. The first time I played for Guatemalan screech owl, I got a response! I tried to get close to the owl, but as I noisily advanced on it through the dry forest, it receded. Eventually I gave up and tried for a more aggressive bird. Still this was a good start. At my next stop which was adjacent to the turn off for the penultimate mirador, a medium sized owl flew in. I was able to spotlight it right away, and to my surprise I had missjudged the size and it was a screech owl. It had a brownish back, whitish eye-brows, yellow eyes and a gray-horn bill. It was not strongly streaked below, but was a little more strongly marked than last night's Oaxacan screech.The owl then flew into a thicket and commenced singing a 3-8 second toad-like trill, which gradually became louder. Wow a Guatemalan screech owl. Brilliant! (There were no references to the species occurring at this site online; only an old reference from Howell's book). I spent 15 minutes trying top obtain a better view, and despite getting very close to me , it behaved like a typical vermiculated type and remained artfully out of view.
About 1-2 km down the road, where there is an exposed cliff on the left side of the road, I taped in a Mexican Mottled Owl. I had lovely close up views of this gorgeous owl. It's so much more beautiful in the flesh than on paper. After turning off my light, I could watch the owl calling in silhouette. Its dark body pumped rhythmically. In the vicinity I heard whiskered screech owls-what a surprisingly low elevation, but the call sounded spot on. I heard another Guatemalan screech, and then two more near the turn off for Coyota Mirador. Finally by the deer crossing sign, I encountered a singing Ridgeway's, and got brief views. I also found several buff-colored nightjars in the area, heard a potoo and a lesser nighthawk.
I found my back pack easily and dusted off the invading ants. Nearby I found a side road that led to a flatish area of grass and rocks that overlooked Tuxtla below. Above me the sky was orange from the clouds reflecting the city's sodium lights. The air hummed from the overhead power lines. After such a brilliant night it took a while to calm my self and sleep. I dream that I showed my mam a flooded graveyard. She was frightened in the dream.
April 15th I awoke by my alarm at four. It was good to get up as the ground beneath was rocky and I was cold. It was a brief steep rocky hike back to Tuxtla. I found an Oxxo and bought coffee and juice. Then I caught a combi down to the zocalo. At the zocalo, I sipped my juice and watched the city awakened. At six, I caught a cab to the meeting point for the group that I was to accompany to El Triunfo. The trip was arranged by Jose Luis Rangel Salazar, email@example.com , a biologist from San Cristobal. A photographer named Sergio greeted me. We chatted in Spanish for a while while the rest of the group, mostly graduate students and photographers assembled. It was a surprisingly long drive to Finca Prusia interrupted by a tasty lunch and a flat tire.
It was quite a long wait at Finca Prusia, an old coffee estate, while our group and a second group of photographers were ferried up to the trail-head in a pick-up. At the trail-head our gear was loaded onto mules. Then we commenced a long hot 12 km hike to the camp. I arrived around 6pm. The camp at El Triunfo was absolutely beautiful. It was a clearing of small buildings surrounded by mountains covered in subtropical cloud forest. The mules grazed the pasture, no doubt relieved as we were to be done with the hike. We were given blackberry juice and gorditas served with fiery chilies.It tasted perfect. At dusk we were served a good dinner. While eating Pedro, one of the owl guys heard a fulvous owl. We shot out of the dining hall and realized it was really close. It tried spotlighting the bird, but it moved deeper into the forest. I brought out my player, and taped it, but that didn't help. Then Pedro explained to me that tapes were banned in the reserve. Ah shit! The owl had fallen silent and I gave up and finished my dinner.
After eating I left alone and explored the trail that loops around the North side of the camp. I was able to get brief views of a flying fulvous owl! It looked magnificent in flight-huge, broad winged and utterly silent. This was a bird I really wanted to see in full color. To that end I worked the entrance trail until midnight. Surprising fulvous owls are common here and I hear about eight birds. I saw a couple of ringtails and lots of tall trees. At one point I got really close to a singing bird, but the tall trees made it impossible to see it.
Back at the cabins the photographers were worried about me. They thought I was lost or eaten by pumas.
April 16th. I slept until nine, by which time the camp was abandoned. I climbed the ridge above camp, which led through somewhat stunted cloud forest. Mostly I was killing time until the owls came out. Still it was a beautiful place. I was half expecting to track down a day roosting owl, like all the photos I had seen online. At the top of the ridge I was surprised that the haze prevented me from seeing the Pacific-but it's been a dry spring and the air was dusty. At lunch we are served amazing tacos with sour cream and fiery hot sauce.
That afternoon I work the Bandera trail, which follows a small creek. Along the trail I got to see a horned guan- a near mythical and absolutely gigantic denizen of the mountain. No owls though. I return for more food and a hot shower. After dinner the guys arrange for me to assist with their research-on the relation ship between the hour, the moon and the frequency of fulvous owl song.
Pedro, Jose-Raul and I took a longish hike along the same ridge trail I had followed earlier today. We heard about eight fulvous owls. One was really close, but fell silent as we tried to locate it. We were all done by eleven, but I was too tired to go out on my own.
April 17th. My alarm awoke me at four, but sadly I ignored it. At dawn I got up with everyone and after breakfast, Jose-Raul and I set out on the ridge trail. We got great views of a pair of horned guans and chlorophonias, plus a hazy view of the Pacific. After lunch I lazed around and read books. I slept a bit, then birded the clearing. Best bird was a female black-crested coquette. After dinner we heard a fulvous owl. I tried to find it, but despite getting close the tall trees made it impossible.
Just before dusk, Pedro and I departed on another fulvous owl survey along the Bandera trail. We heard many birds. (In contrast top a trip a few months ago when few were heard and none along this trail). Several birds called as pairs, the first call would be from a male, soon followed by a very similar, but slightly higher call of a female. We were done surveying at eleven. We indulged in quesadillas and hot chocolate before going to bed.
April 18th. This time, I got up when my alarm went off at four. I stealthily left the camp and returned to the Bandera trail. This trail passes several clearings, which I thought would be helpful for seeing owls. I heard a short screech that sounded like the call of a female spotted owl. Immediately after I heard a pair of fulvous owls dueting. The dueting built to a crescendo of rapid and excited calling. Perhaps it's mating season for fulvous owls? I heard more fulvous owls along the creek. I also encountered a brilliantly pied skunk. It was very confident, and was disinterested in moving off the trail. I followed it cautiously for quite a ways before it moved aside and allowed me to pass. Just before dawn I heard a crashing above me, which turned out to be a spider monkey. (Apparently they are quite rare, and this sighting generated a lot of interest back at the camp). As the skies began to lighten I heard another owl. I eventually saw it fly across a clearing twice. The last view was good enough to see the pattern of markings on the flight feathers. I hiked happily back to camp, and arrived as all were leaving. This was perfect, as I could sleep soundly all morning.
We ate excellent chicken empanadas for lunch. How many times could we revisit the same poor chicken? (Fried on Monday, tacos on Tuesday, made into soup on Wednesday and refried in empenadas on Thursday)! After lunch, I walk around the loop near the camp, and find a small snake and another horned guan. Back at the camp, Brenda invites me to watch a quetzal's nest. This turned out to be not as exciting as I would have imagined. For two hours we waited in a hide, being bitten by many mosquitoes. All we see are a long tail feather protrude from the nest hole.
That night Pedro, Brenda and I survey for Fulvous owls. It's not that productive and we hear about three birds.
April 19th. Pedo and I leave at 5 am to check out a potential nest site. Unfortunately we see and hear nothing by dawn, when we give up and return for breakfast. After breakfast Nancy takes me to visit the remote sound recording devices used to record the calls of guans and owls at El Triunfo. We pass the quetzal nest, and get great views of the male bird looking out of the nest hole, with its tail held over its head like a squirrel.
The hike back to Finca Prusia was easy and uneventful. The drive back was hot and dusty. We stopped again at Jaltenengo for a late lunch. I had time to email Tui. Just out of Jaltenengo one of the cars in our convoy dies. Eventually it's abandoned along with it's unfortunate owner. It's a really long dusty drive to Tuxtla. Along the side of the road we pass many brush fires, whipped along by strong winds.
In Tuxtla there is a soccer match and traffic is truly terrible. Eventually we drop off most of the group, before driving up to San Cristobal with Jose-Luis. We arrive after ten in San Cris. Jose-Luis does not want me to visit Huitepec after dark, which is a bit frustrating for an owler. He suggest a good hotel for me. I find a hotel to stash my backpack. I hide my gear under a jacket and walk out to the zocalo. I have to ask three different cabbies about Huitepec, before I find one who knows the reserve. Ten minutes later he drops me off at the entrance. He hovers, concerned that the entrance is locked. I grin at him and give a thumbs up, hop the locked gate and slip as quietly as possible into the oak forest without a light to give me away to unseen observers.
April 20th. Once I was deep in the forest and away from people, I started owling, My fist target was bearded screech-owl. An apparently fairly tricky little owl. After an hour of working the oak forest I heard a barely audible reply. Amazingly I found the bird overhead and really close. It looked very small for a screech owl. It showed white eye-brows, yellow eyes, bare legs, its back was warm chestnut brown and it's chest is white with brown occelated crescents. The song is a very quiet trill, shorter and lower in pitch than the Guatemalan screech's. Excellent! A beautiful little owl. Reminds me of bare-shanked screech or cloud forest screech. Now for the others! I hiked into a valley on the right side of the reserve, and from there up to a col, then left to a peak. From the peak I descended along the other side of the ridge. I played and listened regularly for unspotted saw-whet, but got no response. I did hear a Mexican Mottled owl close to the summit. I was anxious to see the saw-whet, having missed it in Costa Rica, it was my most wanted bird of the trip.
As I descended from the peak the trail became very indistinct, I had to hunt around at times to locate it. Eventually I returned to a major trail, which lead me to a shelter. It was four in the morning, and I was really exhausted. I fell asleep for an hour, then awoke freezing. I headed back into San Cris. It was long walk, about 10km, and I didn't have change for a cab or combi. It took a while for me to find my hotel, but once I did, I slept beautifully 'till noon. Feeling restored I walked back to the reserve. Foolishly I had lost my hat, and had hoped to find one for sale on my long sunny walk to the reserve. Instead the sun beat down on me mercilessly. I also mistakenly thought I had seen a hotel near the reserve. Alas there was none, so I had to haul my gear all the way to the reserve. I very carefully buried my bag in the reserve, as it was frequently used as a route by local people between their farms and San Cris.
Once free of my gear, I worked on Guatemalan pygmy-owl for a couple of hours. I then took a break to buy a tasty torta and have a coke, before returning to the reserve for two more hours of pygmy-owl searching.
Night fell, and I switched to searching for saw whet-owls. I tried the main loop trail, which looked excellent, with mature trees, laden with epiphytes. Alas no response. By 930pm I was feeling really tired. I unearthed my gear and set up my tent.
April 21st I set my alarm for 230am. I hiked up to the col and down the far side. Near the abandoned research station station I get a really weak response from a saw-whet. The bird is clearly near me, but is neither aggressive nor persistent in it's response. Soon it's fallen silent and I eventually give up.
I also work the loop trail, but get no response. Now it's 630am and I make my way to the road. I catch a combi to San Cris. I find a shit hotel, and drop off my gear. Behind the hotel the road is barricaded by protesters, demonstrating for the rights of indigenous people. Then I catch a cab to Moxviquil reserve on the other side of town. It's a pine covered hillside that apparently has Guatemalan Pygmy-owls. I rapidly climb the hill, then explore the fields and scrub covered hills beyond, before returning back to San Cris by mid morning.
Back in town I buy a hat at the market and find some coffee and hot tamales from a street vendor. Ah that's better. I returned to the hotel to call a guy Javier, who was recommended as a guide and schedule an owling trip to Huitepec tonight. At the hotel an amazingly unsexy old whore argues withe the desk clerk about room rates, then drags a remarkably youthful and somewhat unfortunate looking client to her room.
After using the internet I catch a combi out to Occosingo Road. I miss Howell's site and instead explore a road to the right, 3km from the turn off. I work the area to the left of this road. I find lots of great habitat with a mosaic of pine forest and humid epiphyte rich humid oak forest. Jose-Raul had warned me that this was not a very safe area. The land is controlled by indigenous people, who were at war with the state of Mexico in the 1990s, and bad feelings towards outsiders continue to this day. I do my best to dodge the indigenous people I do see. The one group who sees me does not respond to my "hola". Soon after the heavens open, and I am soaked by a ninety minute rainstorm.
At four the rains let up and I was able to continue my pygmy-owl quest, but it was to no avail. I soon caught a combi back to San Cris. In town I ate a delicious burger and changed to another combi and went out to Huitepec. The rain stated again, and continued for an hour. I was beginning to think that Javier was not going to show, when he arrived on his motor cycle just as the rain let up. Javier turns out to be a park guard I had met yesterday. He is a nice guy, but definitely not a passionate bird guy. He takes me to the partially cleared valley on the right side of the reserve, where the owls held territory last year. Alas we get no response. After that he looks a little deflated and we wander the loop trail and tape for saw-whets, but get no response. I am beginning to tire of Huitepec, its a very small reserve and it's easy to lose hope working the same trails. We call it a night and I catch a cab back to town and get some sleep.
April 22nd. I leave my hotel at six, walk across San Cris to the combi station, where I eat good tamales and drink hot coffee. I catch a combi to Howell's site on Occosingo road, and start birding at 7am. The dawn is misty, damp and absolutely beautiful. Above me are cliffs of limestone, bathed in the yellow light of dawn. The forest smells wonderful and reminds me of Northern Arizona. I work the road until it ends in fields, then climb the ridge, and work my way along, until I descend onto the road I worked yesterday. I see lots of good birds including pink-headed warblers. At one point I think I hear a distant pygmy-owl, and see a stocky small brown bird fly, but it's far too brief a view to know for sure. By 11am I give up and return to San Cris, collect my gear from the hotel. I try calling a guide at Volcan Tacana that Jose-Raul recomended to me, but just leave a message. I email Tui and change some dollars to pesos, then catch a direct bus to Tonala.
Tonala is really hot and humid. I slog up the main drag towards the combi stand, when a Mexican DEA agent gives me a ride. We chat about this and that. I take the combi to Puerto Arista and survey the scrubby fields along the way. Puerto Arista is a run down seaside tourist village. I am eager to leave without drawing attention to myself. After buying water I walk 1km east of town, then take a track on the north side of the road to a patch of decent looking scrubby woodland. It's late afternoon, and I take it easy under the shade of a palm and prepare for tonight. Above me a caracara protests my presence. I try my Pacific screech-owl tape, which is really quiet, and curse myself for not figuring this out earlier.
Dusk falls and a big bright moon rises. I eventually get a single response, but no follow up and fail to find that owl. I hear at least two Ridgeway's pygmy owls calling in the distance.My rechargeable speaker craps out, and I am forced to switch to a less powerful AAA-powered unit. Now the tape is really quiet. Across the road I locate a singing pair of Pacific screech-owls! I got a great view of both birds. The song is a gruff, (but softer than Oaxacan screech,) series of 6 bouncing ball notes. These big screech owls have yellow eyes, have gray-brown upper parts, limited black encircling the facial disk, obvious loose ear tufts, their legs are covered in bristles, the chest shows few markings, just a few long thin lines, the plumage is noticeably loose. Brilliant! What a relief It's a crap location with lots of barbed wire and only small patches of forest and lots of rough pasture.
Although it's 10pm, I catch a share taxi immediately Along the way to Tonala I see a big dark-backed barn owl perched on a fence post. It was a beautiful night. The radio played melancholy music and everything was perfect. At the bus depot I catch sight of my self in the bathroom mirror. The barbed wire fences of Puerto Arista had gotten the better of me, my shift was really torn up and I have dried blood all over my arms. I ditch my shirt and find some empenadas and horchata to recharge. I catch an 1155pm bus to Tapachala.
April 23rd. I have amazing dreams as the bus takes me to Tapachala on the Guatemalan frontier. I arrive at Tapachala at 3am. I sleep at the terminal for a couple of hours. I take a cab to the combi terminal, and then take a combi to Union Juarez. Juarez is a hillside town set in shade coffee plantations. I ask around for a phone to call the guide at Volcan Tacana. Surprisingly there is no public phone, but I do get to stash my gear at a hotel by the plaza. At the next village I ask around for the guide who apparently lives here. A lady at the store calls his house but unfortunately he's not home, so I buy six liters of water and six packs of biscuits and set off on foot to Chiquihuites. Fortunately after a mile a couple of public health workers pick me up in their car and take me the rest of the way. At Chiquihuites I buy a huge breakfast at a store then set off up an obvious trail to Tacana.
According to Jose-Raul, unspotted saw-whet owl are easy at Papales, a refuge about halfway up the volcano. I taped for Guatemalan pygmy owl along the way. It takes about 3hrs to arrive at the signed refuge, where there is a small farm adjacent and I pay the farmer 10 pesos to use it. On arrival I feel pretty unwell so I decide to sleep until dark. I awoke at 7pm and feel really rough, feverish and weak. I take a very short walk to check the trail and then return to the refuge and fall asleep. I briefly awoke during a violent thunderstorm then later in the night to vomit copiously The rest of the night is spent in a state of feverish sleep. The floor is hard and everything is sore and I feel terrible.
April 24th. At 7am I awaken to an incredible orange glow through the gaps in the refuge's walls. I open the shuttered window and see an amazing sunrise beneath me. The whole land is brilliant green, above the sky is glowing orange. I return to my sleeping bag, too sick to go out and look for pygmy-owls. I sleep on and off until 4pm and finally get up and drink a lot of water, take some Tylenol and Advil and eat a few biscuits. As I come back to life I take a few short walks on nearby trails. I try for the pygmy-owls but get no response. Pink-headed warblers are common here. The weather is cloudy and nearby I hear thunder. I'm concerned there will be another storm tonight that will ruin my chance at the saw-whets. I consider packing up and leaving, but decide to stay.
At dusk I begin climbing and taping for pygmy-owls. By 8pm I'm about 400 meters past the first house above Papales and it's quite dark. I start taping for the saw-whet. No response so I descend 100 meters down the trail. I think I hear something and descend another 100 meters and hear a clear song. I sit down before an open tree and begin to tape again. Nothing happens. I play again, nothing, then again. Something moves in the back of the tree and and I hear the sound of the owl's claws grasping a branch. I aim my light --- and there it is. My most wanted owl in Mexico! Beautiful. Its so small its almost completely uniform chocolate above and orange buff below, has a bold facial disk around its yellow eyes. Its hard to believe after those cold nights in Costa Rica and three nights of searching in Huitepec.
Now its time to go home. I walk back to the refuge, pack and hike quickly off the mountain. The trail is slick from the rain and I fall a lot. At the last patch of forest before I enter Chiquihuites I hear a pair of fulvous owls calling. I tried to tape them out but they didn't respond. In the village there was no one to ask for a ride so I walk on towards Union Juarez. 3 kilometers below Chiquihuites I hear another pair of fulvous owls which again don't respond to tape. Even though its a cloudy night a big moon makes for a bright hike. I find the hotel and retrieve my left possessions. I grab a room, wash my clothes and shower.
April 25th. Its a little after midnight when I finally get to sleep and just after 4am when I awaken to catch the first combi. Its a fast ride down the mountain to Tapachula. The first direct bus to Oaxaca doesn't depart for 21 hours so I take a bus to Aaringa. From Aaringa I take a 2nd class bus to Juchitan. This bus is really shit, its slow hot and barely limps across the isthmus of Tehuantepec. Its mid-afternoon when I arrive is Juchitan, which is really hot and windy. I pick up my last bus to Oaxaca. Its a long winding ride through the mountains to Oaxaca. The last hour is under a beautiful full moon.
At Oaxaca I eat Tlayadas, a meat and salad grilled quesadilla. I find a decent hotel near the zocalo, then walk around and drink a couple of beers. The city is old and beautiful. At the zocalo their is an encampment of demonstrators fighting for the rights of indigenous people. People of all classes mill about, the poorest sleeping on park benches, while the more comfortable imbibe. It's a perfect night with the full moon, and so many people on the street. It seems like such a waste to sleep, but it's getting late and I have a long journey ahead.
April 26th. I get up early and take a cab to the airport. It's a lovely clear morning. The flight to Mexico city is great. I spend a few hours at Mexico city, then catch a flight to LAX. From LAX I find an earlier flight than the one I was booked on and make my way home to Portland. What a brilliant trip.