River of Raptors

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.

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