The Catemaco Count and the Playa Escondido

Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel

At Christmas time, I recall past Christmases with my family and friends, as well as past Christmas bird counts. I founded the Freeport Christmas count in l956. Then in the early ‘70s, the National Audubon Society decided to accept Christmas counts from Mexico. My birding pal, Ben Feltner, suggested we start a Christmas count in the El Naranjo area of northeast Mexico. The first El Naranjo count was a great success. The next year we decided to start a count at Catemaco in southern Vera Cruz. Our idea was that after participating in the El Naranjo count, everyone would drive to Catemaco to participate in that count. The early Catemaco count attracted budding young ornithologists who had never been to the Tropics. Later in their lives they would make significant contributions to tropical ornithology. These young ornithologists included Ted Parker, Mark Robbins, Gary Graves, and Michael Braun. One year Kenn Kaufman came on the Catemaco count.

One of the prime areas in the Catemaco count was the University of Mexico research station, located north of Catemaco, which preserves a tract of rainforest. I saw my lifers there including my first Lovely Cotinga. Ted Parker spotted that bird in a fig tree. There was no place to stay at the station, but a few miles before it was a sign that read, “Playa Escondido.” The “road” to this lodge consisted of two strips of concrete that were a little more than the width of a tire. Once you carefully negotiated the descent down the hill on this “road,” you arrived at a small building that contained the open air restaurant and office, as well as the home of the owners. The lodge was about six small rooms with concrete floors. Each room contained two small beds. The owners were a couple from Chihuahua. I wish I had gotten to know them better and had learned when they bought this property and why they decided to become lodge operators. From the dining room, a steep path led down to a black sand small beach, the Playa Escondido.

I don’t remember much about the birds I saw on the lodge property other than seeing a White Hawk one day, but I do remember the charming simplicity of this tiny lodge located in such a remote and scenic spot. I recently learned that many years ago David Wolf proposed to his wife Mimi while they were staying at the Playa Escondido. Unfortunately, I only stayed there once with three teenage boys from Austin: Kurt Huffman, David Sugeno, and Peter English, whom I had met at a hawk watch near Corpus Christi. I became their birding mentor and took them on a number of trips including one post-Christmas trip to Catemaco. One of the most wonderful things about this lodge was the seafood. There was a tiny fishing village below the lodge. The fish you ate had been caught that day. I especially remember the Sierra or Spanish Mackerel. Later I read in the Logbook for the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck that Steinbeck considered fresh Sierra to be the most delicious of all fish. At the Playa Escondido it was perfectly prepared. But even better than the Sierra were the piguas. These giant fresh water crayfish live in clear streams. Years later I saw little boys near Colonia Guadalupe Victoria in Chiapas fishing for them wearing goggles and using a slingshot. At the Playa, they cut the piguas in half lengthwise and sautéed them with oil and garlic. They were one of the best meals of my life.

If the Playa Escondido still exists, I am sure it is very different today. I am glad I have those memories from my early days, enjoying the birds, people, and ambiance of southern Mexico. It was there that I first fell in love with the Tropics and the birds and other creatures of that most biologically rich of all regions of the world.

A Winter Walk in the Woods

Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel

For birders and naturalists, every season has its special joys. Winter brings great flocks of waterfowl, as well as raptors and sparrows, to many parts of the country. The mixed species flocks in woodlands are another winter treat. While not as diverse as the flocks in tropical forests, they are fascinating. In both the Tropics and our country, birds of different species form mixed species flocks for safety. With more eyes watching for hawks, it is more likely that a hawk will be spotted. An alarm call will send the flock members scurrying for cover. In the Tropics, mixed species flocks contain one pair of each species, but in temperate climates the flock may contain several individuals of some species. It is not uncommon to walk awhile through a winter woodland and see almost no birds. Then, all of a sudden, you might encounter a mixed species flock, and the once-quiet woods are now full of life with a dozen or more birds actively looking for food.

Downy Woodpecker. Photo by Barry Zimmer.

Downy Woodpecker. Photo by Barry Zimmer.

One of the joys of encountering a mixed species flock is not knowing which species it will contain. In Central Texas such a flock will often consist of Carolina Chickadees, Black-crested Titmice, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped warblers, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Other species that may join the flock include Pine Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Downy and Red-bellied woodpeckers, and Blue-headed Vireos. If you are lucky, a Brown Creeper or Golden-crowned Kinglet will be part of the flock. It is fascinating to observe the different behaviors of the birds in the flock. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, bundles of energy, are frenetic as they hop from branch to branch, flicking their wings almost constantly. They seem to use up more energy than they can gain from the food they find. In contrast, Golden-crowned Kinglets move less rapidly and flick their wings less. If you encounter a Blue-headed Vireo, it will seem stolid in contrast to the kinglets and many of the other birds. It spends more time on each perch peering around, hoping to spot a prey item.

Time spent observing a mixed species flock is time well-spent and is one of the rewards that can make a winter walk in the woods a real treat.