Thursday, August 11, 2011

Birding in the Tehuacan Cuicatlan Bioshpere Reserve / Reserva de la Biosfera Tehuacan Cuicatlan

Few places are as beautiful as the Tehuacan Cuicatlan Biosphere Reserve. No, it doesn't have any mangrove lagoons. No, there aren't any rainforests. And although it has plenty of sun, Mexico's tropical beaches are far, far away. But the reserve does have tall mountains, deep valleys, wide rivers, steep cliffs, and some of the driest yet most diverse forests in the world. Located between the two southern Mexican states of Puebla and Oaxaca, the reserve is a wilderness seemingly a thousand miles away from civilization yet still accessible by public bus.

Harris's Hawks
Organized by the municipality of Zapotitlan Salinas, I had the luck of joining the first bird tour of the reserve between August 5 and 7, 2011. The first leg of the tour included an evening hike in Tilapa just south of Zapotilan Salinas. The vegetation here included desert scrub punctuated by tall columnar cactus. We started by seeing several Crested Caracaras along the road and a group of five Harris' Hawks perched on single cactus. It had rained recently and the gravel and sand in the dry river bed that we walked along was still wet. We saw both Tropical and Cassin's Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Common Ground-doves. There were several abandoned oriole nests, hanging like woven baskets from the trees along the river banks. The most common birds included several endemic species: Grey-breasted Woodpeckers flew from cactus to cactus, Boucards Wrens rattled away from their hidden perches (, and Bridled Sparrows called to each other from atop nearby thorny bushes. Two Elegant Trogons flew in quickly across the river in front of us and found us again later that evening further up the trail, although it was too dark to see their emerald green and ruby red plumage. As the sun set we heard coyote and fox howl in the distance. It was completely dark by the time we reached the end of the trail. That first night we ate New York style pizza that the chef and manager of our hotel, called Hotel Calvario, learned to cook while visiting the states.
Grey-breasted Woodpecker

Grey-silky Flycatcher
We began the second day early by climbing Cerro de Cutha, a large hill overlooking the town of Zapotitlan Salinas. The base of the hill was mostly tall cactus, various species of agaves and succulents, tiny golf ball sized cactus and large barrel cactus (called "asiento de suegras" or in-laws seat in English). Along the walk up we ran into more of the same endemics - Grey-breasted Woodpeckers, Boucards Wrens, and Bridled Sparrows - as well as a few unidentified jays, an oriole that was too far to see well, and what sounded like a Laughing Falcon, although none of us saw it. After about two hours we reached the top of the hill. The vegetation on top was thicker. The shade was welcomed, as it was beginning to get hot in the desert sun. Atop the hill we saw a few Grey-silky Flycatchers, White-lored Gnatcatchers, and Ash-throated Flycatchers, as well as several species of hummingbirds. We even heard the Elegant Trogon again, making its distinct, sick dog bark  call. ( But more impressive were the ancient Popoluca ruins at the crest of the hill that included a platform of rock on which sat a tomb that we were able to access. A little further was a "mirador", or lookout, that was once used by pre-Hispanic villagers to keep watch of the Zapotitlan Valley. From the lookout we could see the church that sat in the middle of Zapotitlan Salinas, and at over 400 years old it is one of the oldest in Mexico.

Zapotitlan Salinas from the mirrador.


Church in Zapotitlan Salinas - Ana

Tall cactus in the Botanical Garden.
We then walked down the other side of the hill towards the Helio Bravo Hollis botanical gardens. The garden has many species of cactus representative of the reserve and the reserve itself has one of the most diverse collections of cactus species anywhere. The botanical gardens also has the largest "pato de elefante", or the endemic elephant’s foot tree, in the world. By the time we reached the garden it was mid-day and most birds had found a shady hiding spot from the heat. A loan juvenile Red-tailed Hawk was our only bird visitor, aside from the ever-present Grey-breasted Woodpeckers, Boucards Wrens, and Bridled Sparrows. Somehow I managed to do the entire five hour hike, up the hill and then down again, with only a half bottle of water and no breakfast. Just another learning experience.

Lizard in the garden

Asiento de suegras - Ana

Pato de Elefante - Ana

After lunch we headed off on our third walking tour just outside of town. We saw Phainopeplas, Social Flycatchers, Vermilion Flycatchers, Inca Doves, Northern Mockingbirds, Curve-billed Thrashers, Rock Wrens, and yes, Grey-breasted Woodpeckers, Boucards Wrens, and Bridled Sparrows. We also got to hear and see a Canyon Wren as it called from atop an unfinished cement wall. ( We finished the walk by stopping by a small fish pond. Barn Swallows - and later as the sun went down bats - dove from the sky plucking insects from the surface of the water. We met a group of student biologists who were setting up mist nets in order to capture those bats, take measurements, and then release them again.

That night we explored the town a little. We walked past the central zocalo that was crowded with families and children playing under street lights. There was a basketball game going on the main court. As our tour group walked by, each of us wearing a pair of binoculars around our neck or carrying a large telescope on our shoulder, the spectators - and even some of the players - turned to watch us and seemed to care little about the score of the game. We ate a small taco stand in someone's backyard before heading back to the hotel for a long nights sleep.

After that long nights sleep, we woke at 2:30 A.M. on Sunday and headed by bus to the Canyon del Sabino in Tecomovaca on the Oaxaca side of the reserve. Reaching the canyon two hours later, we began the hour-long hike up the trail in total darkness. As the sun began coming up, and as we approached the end of the trail above the canyon, we began to hear the deep raspy calls of the Military Macaw. ( The canyon walls were almost two-hundred meters tall, but no more than fifty meters apart. We could hear the river that carved the canyon far below, its sound echoing up towards us. We sat at the lookout points and just watched, for about three hours, as the macaws chased each other like fighter jets, back and forth, diving down, flying back up, speeding from one end to the other, disappearing from view, then perching on nearby trees before taking off after each other again. It seemed they were competing for air space, than tree branch space, although there were plenty of both. During spring, these macaws nest in holes in the canyon walls. The canyon is so impenetrable that the colony has survived here for thousands of years while nearly all other colonies of Military Macaws have been trapped-out for the pet trade. This is the largest remaining colony of Military Macaws in Mexico and because of conservation efforts and ecotourism is actually increasing in size. The walk back down the trail towards the bus at the bottom of the canyon wasn't disappointing either. We heard and saw two Russet-crowned Motmots - an endemic species emblematic of the area - perched in trees on the side of the trail.

Canyon del Sabino

Military Macaw at sunrise.
Military Macaw in the Canyon del Sabino

Russet-crowned Motmot in the Canyon del Sabino

We ended the day and the weekend with a quick side trip to Santiago Quiotepec on the Rio Grande (not that Rio Grande). The river was broad, muddy, and swollen by recent rains. It had carved out steep walls in the rocks as it snaked its way through the valley. The bus could not cross the bridge to get to Santiago Quiotepec because the bridge was slightly less than structurally sound due to the summer's floods. We saw Black Phoebes, Western Wood Pewees, a Great Blue Heron and another Streak-backed Oriole. I was a little disappointed though because surprisingly there were no Grey-breasted Woodpeckers, Boucards Wrens, or Bridled Sparrows. We did cross the bridge by foot and ate lunch ata newly built community ecotourism project with a hotel and beautiful adobe restaurant and meeting hall. Here was saw a single Varied Bunting at the fountain in the courtyard.

In total we saw close to sixty species of birds, several of which were endemic to the region, and at least one, the Military Macaw, which is critically endangered. Amazingly, I managed not to see a single new species for my birds of Mexico list, even after the nearly twenty hours of hiking with some of Mexico's best and most enthusiastic birdwatchers. Still, I was far from disappointed and will surely be back again soon for the second ever bird tour of the Tehuacan Cuicatlan Biosphere Reserve.      

Rio Grande

Rio Grande

Bridge over the Rio Grande

Bridge over the Rio Grande


  1. Felicidades por esta difusión de estas zonas de Zapotitlán Salinas de la carretera Tehuacan -Huajuapan donde es una belleza no valorada y la otra Tehuacan -Cuicatlan donde se difunden estos lugares que tal ves muchos no los conozcan ni por el internet yo como oaxaqueño siempre que transito por estas carreteras me detengo a contemplar lo bello del lugar.Gracias por compartir estas fotos.