River of Raptors

Ewan Burns
Ewan Burns
Ewan Burns
Ewan Burns

River of Raptors

One of the world's greatest wildlife spectacles takes place every autumn as millions of hawks and other soaring birds funnel through Veracruz, Mexico, where a pioneering program aims to keep them flowing for millennia to come.

By Susan McGrath
Published: September-October 2010

Sunlight is easing its grip on the coastal plain of southeastern Mexico, and the people of Chichicaxtle are coming out to play. There's a girl's softball team fielding grounders on one village green and a men's soccer match in full swing on the other. Families settling onto the unpainted plank grandstand are unpacking picnic baskets, popping open sodas, hallooing and chatting, and generally drinking in the twin delights of fellowship and sport.

Over their heads a far more serious game is under way--an exalting wildlife spectacle birders come halfway around the world to see. Not that it's distracting the local sports fans. People here in central Veracruz State take it as the natural order of things that on any given day in early October, half a million raptors might be gliding in stately procession across the sky overhead.

Chichicaxtle lies smack under the greatest raptor flyway in the world, a slip of coastal plain pinched between the Sierra Madre and the Gulf of Mexico. Down through this bottleneck flies just about every able-bodied broad-winged hawk, Swainson's hawk, Mississippi kite, and osprey in North America; the northern populations of peregrines, kestrels, merlins, Cooper's, and sharp-shinned hawks; and most of the turkey vultures of the western United States and Canada. Day after day, through most of September, October, and November, the birds pour southward, something between four and six million hawks and vultures in all. It's the world's greatest concentration of raptors and yet so little known that my dog-eared copy of Lonely Planet Mexico makes no mention of hawks at all.

Nature's game does have a grandstand here, the rooftop of a tiny, two-story turret of concrete on the dirt track between the ball greens. Throughout the migration season scorekeepers staff it 10 hours a day.

A squarely built man named Rigo Mendoza is counting now, his binoculars steadied on the heels of his palms in the counter's characteristic grip. Slipped over his forefingers like clunky jewelry are metal clicker counters, two on one hand, one on the other. His thumbs tap-dance on the tiny pedals, counting off in hundreds-per-click the three major species overhead--broad-wings, Swainson's, and turkey vultures--while he calls out to the assistant, Mercy Njeri Muiruri, a running count of the names and numbers of the minor players. Mendoza calls in Spanish, but whatever the language, the contrapuntal click-and-call of hawk counting sounds more or less like this:

"I have Mississippis"--click click click. "Four Mississippis"--click click click click. "Two osprey. Mercy, do you have my osprey?"--click click. "One peregrine. One kestrel"--click click."Aquaticas, Mercy, wood storks. . . . I make it 57."

A few out-of-towners have sidled to the top of the stairs to the roof. One is a heavy-set bus driver from Morelos who saw a clip about raptor migration on television and drove five hours southeast to this tower. He's in luck: Sometimes the passing birds soar so high they're but a faint contrail of charcoal specks. Today they're a broad banner of dark chevrons flowing across the field of blue, their silhouettes textbook-crisp, like the illustrations in an old Peterson's guide book--chunky, crow-sized broadwings; kink-winged ospreys; slender, pointy falcons and kites; big-winged turkey vultures.

For 25 neck-torquing minutes this stream courses steadily over, in loose formation, wings fixed, the seemingly infinite flow casting a rapturous, hawk-induced spell over the tiny audience. "Hermoso. Hermossisimo," the driver murmurs. "So beautiful."

The sky-borne Serengeti is beautiful, says Matt Jeffery, program manager for Audubon's International Alliances Program. Beautiful--and of critical importance. "This bit of coastal plain represents vital habitat for an extraordinary slice of avian diversity," Jeffery says, "both migratory birds and resident ones." It's an Important Bird Area (IBA) of global significance, he notes.

ProNatura Veracruz, Mexico's BirdLife Partner, counts and bands raptors here during the fall migration, in collaboration with U.S.-based organizations Hawk Mountain and Hawk Watch International. Their research shows that the Centro de Veracruz, as the IBA is called, provides seasonal refuge or passage not just to hawks but to more than 200 other migratory bird species, as well as to an unknown number of migratory dragonflies and butterflies. Veracruz's own resident fauna is richly diverse, too, and includes about 500 native bird species.

Since 2007 the National Audubon Society has become deeply engaged in conservation efforts here, mentoring ProNatura in its environmental awareness and land preservation work. Together, ProNatura and Audubon, in partnership with the international nonprofit RARE, have launched a Pride Campaign. It applies proven social-marketing techniques--the kind successfully used to encourage seatbelt use, for example, or to discourage smoking--to change attitudes and behaviors toward nature here.

The region has an urgent need for land stewardship, says Elisa Peresbarbosa, conservation subdirector at ProNatura Veracruz. "The trends are disquieting." These flatlands owe their glorious chartreuse color largely to chemical-intensive sugarcane, which covers 75 percent of the irrigated plain. Most of the wildlife habitat in the migration corridor now lies in the foothills and canyons of the southern arm of the Sierra Madre, the Sierra Manuel Diaz. But a long-term drought is rendering farming and ranching in the foothills less and less viable and has intensified the emigration of young men to the north--"Veracruz's biggest export commodity," locals joke blackly.

"Landowners see no options other than to cut a little more forest and run more cattle," Peresbarbosa says. "It feels to them like it will improve the situation. But . . ." She shakes her head. The problem is not so much food for the winged migrants, Peresbarbosa says--amazingly, many hawks and vultures soar so efficiently they appear to be able to fast for weeks at a time. But the birds do need significant stands of trees in which to roost overnight. As pasture marches farther up into the foothills it forces raptors to divert inland, off the flyway, to find such perches.

For their part, farmers and ranchers are also feeling the consequences of deforestation. One gnarled old fellow spoke up at a ProNatura-sponsored town meeting to lament that he'd cleared around a spring and the spring had returned the insult by running dry for the first time ever. In answer a state official, Flora Zitacuaro, outlined government assistance for watershed protection and invoked the universal benefit of forest. "People need the same things birds do," she said.

 

Hawks migrate?" marvels a backpacker, gazing bemusedly at some ProNatura outreach posters.

Boy, do they. As summer's end nears, they drain down through North America like water from a gigantic watershed. What's more, these iconic, solitary hunters migrate together, rivulets of lone birds trickling into small bands, small bands flowing into bigger ones. They lay up in the grasslands of South Texas and northern Mexico, pooling in immense mixed flocks, fattening themselves up and awaiting propitious conditions--hot days with little or no rain. Then they lift off and push on, by the hundreds of thousands.

New World raptors migrate to and from roughly the same places New World songbirds do, and for the same reason--so as not to starve during northern winters. But the two employ radically different strategies. Songbirds tend to travel at night, to avoid predators, it's thought, and to take advantage of the heat-wicking cool and relative calm of night air. They rest and eat by day, so they can burn up the miles by night, beating their small wings steadily hour after hour, in energy-intensive, powered flight. Though a few songbird species skirt the Gulf of Mexico, migrating along the coastal plain, most take the heart-stopping shortcut across the open water, covering 500 miles in a single, epic, 18-hour flight.

Hawks and vultures travel exclusively by day, over land, exploiting the turbulent currents of sun-heated air, their wings more or less fixed. As befits solar-powered birds, they keep bankers' hours.

In San Juan Villa Rica, a dusty hamlet on Sierra Manuel Diaz's outflung elbow, farmers have decanted their milk into the urns in the cheese factory pickup truck, in the shade of the blue-painted fig tree that marks the village center. Miriam Lerma Lizarraga and Yocelyn Ramirez Gonzalez, from ProNatura, are going door-to-door this morning, spreading the gospel of environmental awareness.

"Hawks! They steal my chickens! That's why we have to kill them!" roars a bare-chested, barrel-bellied man lounging in a plastic chair on an open patio. It's not an unusual sentiment among ranchers, says Lerma Lizarraga, if somewhat more emphatically expressed.

"The migratorios don't eat chickens. They just look for trees to rest in as they make their way down the isthmus," she explains calmly.

"We see clouds of them," says a stout woman with a seraphic smile, sorting limes in her aproned lap. "They go around and around like this"--she stirs the air in front of her with lime-filled hands, vividly conjuring up a rising gyre. Instinctively all heads turn to the sky.

That's exactly how they do it, says Robert Templeton, a retired physics teacher from New Mexico. Birding here with his wife four years ago, he witnessed a colossal day--640,000 birds flooded through the bottleneck. Templeton now returns to volunteer for ProNatura every fall. The photographer Ewan Burns and I have shanghaied him in our little white rental car and cruised up to Villa Rica hoping to get closer to soaring hawks.

It's after 11 a.m. now, and the sun is frying the coastal plain. Sunlight is heating the surface at different rates, according to how reflective the ground cover is. Hotter air expands, becomes lighter; plumes of hot air called thermals begin to rush upward.

Thermals start at the ground, Templeton says. "So as the morning progresses roosting birds will be watching one another. At some point a bird will take a glide to another tree. And then one will go up and make a little loop and come down. So they keep doing this. And then the next thing you know, someone goes up and they don't come down. And they all tend to go pretty quickly at that point."

On a hot day here thermals can be half a mile across and 10 times higher than they are wide. Their vertical wind speed can exceed nine miles per hour, and as many as 2,000 hawks and vultures can be soaring in a column within one, all turning in the same direction. "Kettles," hawkwatchers call these upwelling air columns that boil with rising birds.

A kettle is forming now, below and east of us. We dive into the car and pelt down the road. Unfazed, our professor continues his explanation at a dignified shout from the front seat. "When the birds are soaring in a thermal, they're actually falling. But within the thermal the air is rising faster than the birds are falling, so they're carried upward. They're not making forward progress in the kettle, though. At some point they have to peel out of a thermal and glide to another."

How do they know when to peel out? "This is what they do," interjects Burns, an ardent paraglider. "And besides, if you stay in too long, you get sucked up to 20,000 feet and struck by lightning and beaten by golf ball-sized hail stones and spat back out, probably dead."

"Precisely," Templeton says. "So they rise in the kettle. Then they cut out of the kettle in a line, sometimes 30 or more birds across, gliding and falling toward the south, until they encounter another thermal, and rise again. That's how they travel--soar to about 3,000 feet above ground level, glide to about 1,000, soar, glide, soar, glide."

On the best of days thermal "streets" form--parallel lines of thermals often topped with cumulus clouds punctuating the length of the plain. Hundreds of thousands of birds can be riding down these thermal highways, the sky strung with orderly swags of speckles for hundreds of miles. "Like dirt caught up in a dust devil, making the invisible visible," as the hawk aficionado Scott Weidensaul writes in Living on the Wind.

"Stop here!" Templeton commands.

Under the kettle now, we tumble out of the car. Burns lies down in the middle of the road and starts shooting. Templeton redirects the few cars passing by. I just stand there, neck cranked, jaw dropped, as hundreds of broad-wings billow upward in a vertical gaggle above us, not dramatically close so much as dramatically numerous, and unmistakably hawklike. The kettle is like a swarm of enormous bees, but silent, swift-rising, and all wing. In 30 seconds they've blown to the top of the kettle and begun streaming off the south end of it, like water overflowing from a spout. Their day's journey has begun.

 

The raptors can glide up to 200 miles a day. Toward the end of the afternoon, as the sun descends, so do they, to overnight in patches of forest. Most of the coastal plain's native forest had given way to agriculture by the time Cortez dropped anchor here in 1519, so the big flights of raptors have been roosting in the foothills of the Sierra Manuel Diaz for centuries at least. But in modern times the foothills have been shorn to graze more cattle. Pasture a la Veracruzano isn't the complete wasteland for birds that sugarcane is; nevertheless its scraggly grasses and spindly trees don't work as roosting sites for big flights of raptors.

They don't really work for grazing anymore either, says Rene Altamirano Acosta. Raised in Mexico City, Altamirano studied hydrology and biology at university before coming to Veracruz in 1989 to run the family ranch. Right off he dug a natural tank to sequester rainwater. "The first year it filled to my chin. Well, I thought, next year it'll be better. Next year, my waist. Then my ankle. Then there came a year"--he pats his boot--"nothing but mud. It had stopped raining."

Altamirano is one of many farmers who express concern about diminishing rainfall and unpredictable weather patterns. "We don't know what part of the change is global, what part is local," Altamirano says. "We just know it's not enough rain."

The village of Mozomboa, population 3,000, where Alta-mirano lives, has a nice old grange hall of pink-stuccoed cinderblock. As part of the ongoing Pride campaign sponsored by Audubon and RARE, ProNatura has organized a series of workshops here, bringing together landowners and representatives from government agencies in an effort to preserve habitat in this critical corridor. A key component of the Pride campaign is the training of a young community-development organizer at ProNatura named Adolfo Balcazar. 

As in all Pride campaigns Audubon participates in (see "Taking Pride," below), much of Balcazar's work fosters awareness and education, reaching out to people who live within the IBA to engage them in conserving their landscape. For example, here, where futbol is king and there are no organized after-school activities for children, Balcazar got a soccer tournament going for 120 children from eight lowland villages in the migration corridor. He commissioned radio and television spots promoting interest in nature, and had a peregrine falcon costume made up for "Peri," a popular figure at festivals.

That's the fun part, Balcazar says. Far more challenging, if ultimately most rewarding, is collaborating with landowners to preserve forest.

On a recent weeknight a score of ranchers from Mozomboa--all of them men, most still dusty from a day in the fields--gather at the grange for a ProNatura workshop. Representatives from state and federal forestry agencies take turns on the dais. Their slides show flowcharts crammed with acronyms. The farmers seem weary, yet they edge to the fronts of their seats. The officials are outlining technical help and tax incentives available to ranchers who put at least 25 acres into private conservation.

"We're not going to take your land," says Flora Zitacuaro, from the Veracruz department of the environment. "And we understand that you have to make a living. You will still be able to make use of the conservation units. You can apply for permits to allow hunting in the protected forest. You can plant timber lots. You can raise native palms and orchids to sell to nurseries. And believe it or not people pay for a moment of quiet and peace in the countryside." ProNatura's goal is to put 1,250 acres into conservation, although titles have yet to be verified, habitat potential assessed, and government permissions granted.

While they're keen for the support, ranchers are wary of relying on the government. Not unreasonably, says Peresbarbosa, a warm, elegant straight-shooter. She herself is wary of creating expectations that can't be met.

"As the landowners are starting to get excited, I'm a little bit scared," Peresbarbosa says. "I tell them every time we have a meeting: 'We, ProNatura, can't do this for you. You, the landowners, have to do it yourselves. Many, many doors will be closed because of corruption, because of bureaucracy, because these projects are not easy to accomplish, and they take time."

Here in Veracruz, as everywhere in Mexico, Peresbarbosa explains later, privately, that it's all too easy for people with special connections or deep pockets to subvert the public process, getting development rights to state conservation lands, for example, or permission to operate unsustainable sport hunting on lands with conservation easements, or rights to drain protected water sources. One's paperwork can get "lost"; applications can fall to the bottom of the pile.

"But we can help landowners navigate the process, fill out their paperwork, act as go-betweens with all the many government bureaucracies. We need patience, and we will find together what we can do."

 

Altamirano invites Templeton, Burns, and me for a hike up a ridge into the sierra on his land. Here's conservation writ large: A property line runs down the ridge from the granite escarpment at 2,000 feet to sea level below. On the neighbor's side of the line it's all pasture a la Veracruzano. Though ragged, it looks like a manicured greensward compared with the frothy jungle on Altamirano's side of the fence.

Altamirano stopped burning to clear pasture in 1999 and reduced his herd three years later. In 2005, with a government subsidy, he planted a 50-acre timber lot and put another 50 acres in conservation. His father, who still owns the land, was furious and his neighbors laughed, calling him a slacker. "A tree isn't a hindrance," Altamirano told them. "It's a treasure."

Now, as the land has become ever drier and the ranching less and less profitable, Altamirano has bold plans. With ProNatura's help he's putting another 100 acres into conservation. The deer and armadillo populations have boomed, and he plans to have paid hunting here; the government will fund signage, and ProNatura has some money for fencing. Altamirano envisions trails, some small cabins, ecotourism. It won't be easy, though. He's still worried about his long-term prospects.

We perch on a rocky outcropping together, watching raptors kettling and gliding south across the sky. The birds boil upward, stream out the top, coast like surfers riding a wave, bubble upward once again, overflow again in a broad line. Thousands and thousands of hawks, eddying, flooding, truly a river of raptors. We sit, silent, hypnotized by the seemingly endless aerial spectacle. "Some people weep when they see this," Templeton says. I translate to Spanish for Altamirano. He nods. Yes, one can see why.

Taking Pride
How do you motivate a fisherman in Belize to use less destructive nets? A farmer in Paraguay to adopt organic growing practices? Community leaders in Panama to halt forest clearing? You launch a RARE Pride campaign, so named because it inspires people to take pride in the natural assets that make their communities unique and offers them viable means to protect those features. Audubon's International Alliances Program works closely with the nonprofit RARE and partner organizations throughout the Western Hemisphere to conserve critical bird habitats along migratory flyways that cross international borders. In addition to the RARE Pride Campaign in Veracruz, Mexico, Audubon has helped launch campaigns in the Bahamas, Belize, Panama, and Paraguay. To find out more, click here.

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