Naturalist Journeys is heading to Veracruz, Mexico this fall for a raptor migration tour: a bamboozling bird count!
By Dave Mehlman,
I was recently at a meeting and heard my good friend and colleague, Dr. Ernesto Ruelas, recount the history behind the establishment of the Veracruz River of Raptors hawk migration project many years ago. Ernesto, now on the faculty of the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa, Mexico, first became interested in the hawk migration there many years ago when he was a young boy, and he became inspired by the sheer number of migrating birds. His talk got me very excited about our upcoming raptor migration tour to Veracruz from September 25 to October 5, 2019—you will not want to miss it!
The talk also reminded me to look up the data on the fall 2018 hawk count in Veracruz, and as usual, the numbers were outstanding! A total of 2,122,814 raptors were counted in the town of Cardel, and 2,270,056 in the nearby town of Chichicaxtle! Even though I’ve been there before, it’s still hard to imagine that many hawks passing through a single site – the perfect destination for our raptor migration tour.
As has generally been the case, the most popular species in 2018 were Turkey Vulture (1,081,774 in Cardel), Broad-winged Hawk (844,258 in Chichi), Swainson’s Hawk (321,064 in Chichi), and Mississippi Kite (131,813 in Chichi). However, a total of 16 other raptor species were counted during last year’s fall season, illustrating the diversity. Plus, certain species that were not known to be very migratory have regularly been recorded there, such as Hook-billed Kite (101 in Chichi).
The thing is, there’s so much more to this trip than migrating raptors! Pelicans, storks, flycatchers, subtropical and tropical birds, archaeology, museums, good food—this trip has it all!
“The great pointed paw of the state of Florida, familiar as the map of North America itself, of which it is the most noticeable appendage, thrusts south, farther south than any other part of the mainland of the United States. Between the shining aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the roaring deep-blue waters of the north-surging Gulf Stream, the shaped land points toward Cuba and the Caribbean. It points toward and touches within one degree of the tropics.” — Marjory Stoneman Douglas
In this eloquent passage, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of The Everglades: River of Grass, beautifully captures the essence of Florida’s unique geography within the United States. Due to its closeness to the tropical Caribbean and the warm Gulf Stream, this peninsula harbors several unique plant communities found nowhere else in the USA. One of these is tropical hardwood hammock, a dense stand of hardwood trees of primarily Caribbean origin (sometimes over 90% of native species present). These rich and diverse forests with such evocatively named trees such as gumbo limbo, cocoplum, and wild cinnamon are important for a number of South Florida’s Caribbean birds that reach the northern end of their range in here: White-crowned Pigeon, Mangrove Cuckoo, and Black-whiskered Vireo. They are also an important wintering ground for a wide variety of songbirds.
White-crowned Pigeon is a handsome, large pigeon that depends on these hardwood forests to feed. During spring and early summer, these birds can be seen streaming overhead into Florida Bay by the hundreds in the afternoon at Flamingo in Everglades National Park. They can also be seen throughout the year in suburban Miami where they have taken a liking for ornamental fruiting trees in people’s yards! In spring, the nasal call notes of Mangrove Cuckoo and repetitive song of Black-whiskered Vireo can be heard in healthy tropical hardwood hammocks in South Florida — the former is partially resident while the other flies all the way from South America to spend the summer here. Of course, all three of these species are among the most desired of South Florida’s Caribbean birds to see for the visiting birdwatcher.
In fall and winter, these forests become even more active! Mangrove Cuckoos fall silent and Black-whiskered Vireos depart for the true tropics, but a couple dozen species of warbler, vireo, tanager, oriole, and flycatcher spend the winter in South Florida in this habitat. While the rest of the country lies in winter’s grip, January and February are a great time to observe “summer” birds in Miami and the Keys: Baltimore Oriole, Yellow-throated and Blue-headed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Painted and Indigo Bunting, and diverse flocks of warblers that can include everything from Worm-eating to Yellow-throated to Black-throated Blue. Winter is also the best time to see Short-tailed Hawk, a striking South Florida specialty often missed on spring tours, soaring high overhead.
In conclusion, South Florida and its unique tropical hardwood hammocks always have something to offer, whether it is a spring tour to catch up with uncommon summer breeders or a winter tour for the sheer diversity of wintering songbirds. Please consider joining us for either the winter or spring version of our Florida tour!
A special thank you to Carlos Sanchez for such a well-written and informative post on South Florida’s Caribbean birds. Recently, Carlos gave a talk entitled “Following Birds to the Heart of Brazil” to the Linnaean Society of New York at the American Museum of Natural History. What an honor!