Friday, April 8, 2011

End of Week 36 - Peace Corps Conference at Mision La Muralla, Amealco Queretaro

Mision La Muralla
As our giant tour bus drove down old cobble-stone roads towards our hotel in Amealco for our first conference with Peace Corps and the other volunteers since we all left for our different sites last November, the surroundings felt strangely like Fall back in the northeast. From our high vantage point on the bus we could see the deep valleys below and the tall hills above. Small towns formed along ancient mountain streams that once ran clean and clear through the altiplano of Mexico. The trees on the hillsides had lost their leaves which blanketed the ground in different shades of oranges, yellows, reds, and browns. The corn fields had been harvested many months before and only dried stalks remained. I could almost see red barns and mills pressing freshly harvested apples into cider in the distance. But then, this wasn't Fall in Buffalo - it was Mexico and it was the beginning of spring.

Mexico has 160 species of oak trees, the greatest diversity of oak species in any country in the world.  Unfortunately, the majority of Mexico's oak forests have been lost to agriculture and cattle pastures. Thirty-six species of oaks in Mexico are considered globally threatened. The hillsides along the roads in Amealco were covered with oaks and are some of the last remnant oak forests in the country. Even so, as we drove along the road we could see new patches of forest being burned to make room for more cows, sheep, and goats.

The oaks in Amealco were the reason that the landscape looked so familiar. Oak trees in Mexico are a little different from those that I'm used to back in Buffalo, however. Buffalo's oaks are tall and have a predictable leaf shape, sometimes rounded and sometimes pointed, but always clearly oak. Mexico's oaks are shorter and their branches are usually covered with lichens, hanging mosses, and even tropical bromeliads. Their leaves seem to either be very large or very small, sometimes with only hints of oak leaf shapes, but always thick and waxy, probably to retain more water during the long winter dry season. The majority of oaks seem to lose their leaves towards the beginning of spring after several months without rain, although some trees manage to keep their leaves year-round. But, with all of these differences, there's still one constant: oak trees everywhere have acorns.

A leafless oak.

And where there are acorns, there's wildlife eating them. At Hotel Mision La Muralla, our lodging for the week, there was a small ravine that still had some untouched oak trees, amongst its eucalyptus and white ceder plantations. I managed to wake up early every morning throughout the conference and watch local  birds as they congregated in this small patch of forest and competed for space amongst the trees with paintball warriors, paintball being more popular than bird-watching in Mexico.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker in Amealco.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker in Veracruz.

Of course, given the availability of their preferred type of food, I saw several acorn woodpeckers. There were always at least three golden-fronted woodpeckers calling loudly to each other from the tops of trees. Interestingly, the golden-fronted woodpecker's forehead in the center of the country glows like gold in the sunlight, while the same species in Veracruz has a completely red forehead.

I also saw a few flycatchers eating insects above the stagnant pools of water in the ravine. Every morning, the same black phoebe would fly up to me and then land on a rock face nearby in perfect view. An eastern phoebe joined him on that rock one morning. Vermilion flycatchers chased each other from tree to tree, sometimes colliding in mid-air then tumbling to the ground in a feathery, squeaking ball. I couldn't tell if they were mating or ending the relationship with one last fight.  Western wood pewees perched in the trees above the pools of water, at one point devouring a recently captured monarch butterfly.
Black-headed Grosbeak.

Truthfully though, I can't always identify every bird that I see. The western wood pewees that day didn't look quite like the western wood peewees in my guide book. Their bill was too orange and not quite big enough to be the greater pewee. And, of course, there were also several unidentifiable species of sparrows present in large numbers all week. I don't know what it is with sparrows, but they all look exactly the same and none of them look the way they are supposed to.

The tree cover in the ravine made perfect habitat for eastern robins, hermit thrush, and even an orange-billed nightingale thrush. On the second morning I heard a strange rustling in the brush below the trail. I though tit would be another thrush and as I waited for several minutes for something to appear a blue mockingbird came into view. The blue mockingbird is endemic to Mexico and is a deep cobalt blue color, almost black in the shade. I had been hoping to see one on just about every bird watching trip I had taken in Mexico but had been unlucky up until that point. After I saw it and it saw me it flew to the top of a ceder tree and began singing loudly and randomly.   

Surprisingly, very few of the other volunteers are bird watchers even though the majority of them are biologists. By the end the week though, several other volunteers were joining me for my morning bird watching tour. Even though they may have slowed me down a bit (just kidding everyone), I had more fun showing them some of the common species than I would have had by myself chasing down some of the more exotic ones. We did waste a lot of time hunting the blue mockingbird, however, as it called loudly from distant trees in the ravine, all the while obscuring itself just enough to prevent another perfect viewing.

And, of course, the Peace Corps conference was fun too.

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