Tag Archives: nature

A Birdwatching Guide for Huatulco

By Randy Jackson

It’s almost as if humans have a special connection to birds. It is a heart-warming delight for all of us to see or hear a bird. I could even imagine some brutish invading Hun pausing his evil deeds to watch a little bird hop from branch to branch, singing a pretty song. Birds soften us all, especially little birds.

In my view, all of us are somewhere on the birdwatching spectrum. There’s that Hun at one end. At the other end of the spectrum is the fully kitted-out, pocket-ladened dude or dudette (ornithologist), who devotes a good portion of their time seeking even a brief glimpse of an avian creature.

On the birdwatching spectrum, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m more of a bird appreciator. I do own a copy of “Birds of Mexico and Central America” and I have a pair of binoculars. I also have a few birdwatching friends. It is through these friends that I have met an amazing birdwatching guide who lives in Copalita – everyone just calls him Cornelio.

Cornelio (Cornelio Ramos Gabriel) is well known for his bird-guiding prowess, both locally and online. Cornelio grew up, and currently lives, in Copalita. As a young boy, while out gathering wood for cooking, he was intrigued by a little red breasted bird. Flash forward to one day in 1998 when he was working at the Camino Real resort. Some tourists showed him a photo of a red breasted bird and asked if he’d ever seen one. Cornelio took them to the place he had seen that little bird as a young boy. To everyone’s delight, they found the very bird the tourists were looking for.

As Cornelio described it, “when I looked at that bird through the tourists’ binoculars, I fell in love with birds.” He then bought a bird guidebook, a pair of binoculars, and began walking trails seeking out birds in earnest. Even when on his motor scooter, if he caught sight of a bird, he would follow it until he could identify it. In this way, over time, Cornelio became an expert on the birds in the Huatulco area.

Around the year 2010, by word of mouth, people began asking for Cornelio to guide them bird watching. This guiding work continued to increase, so that by 2014 he was able to leave his hotel job. Guiding bird watchers became his principal job. This work is largely seasonal for Cornelio, who is also a musician.

Before the devastating effects of hurricane Agatha on Copalita, I was able to ask Cornelio some questions on bird watching in Huatulco:

What are some good places to observe birds in Huatulco?

Huatulco National Park, Sendero Candelabro (on Cornelio’s ranch in Copalita, http://www.facebook.com/senderocandelabro), and along the Copalita River.

How important or popular is bird watching in Huatulco?

Huatulco is a good area for birdwatchers. On a good full-day walk, one can observe about 100 to 120 species.

What is the season for migratory birds in Huatulco?

Northern migratory birds begin to arrive in October and they leave again in March. Birds migrating from the south are around Huatulco between April and July.

Have you seen birds in Huatulco that were well off course, possibly blown here by a storm?

Yes, I’ve seen a giant cowbird and a Tahitian petrel.

What is the rarest bird you’ve seen in Huatulco?

Northern Potoo

Any particular captivating bird watching experiences?

Once in the community of La Esmeralda [a five-hour drive northeast of Huatulco, on the border with Veracruz], in two days I observed 30 birds I’ve never seen before.

Cornelio’s reputation has spread to the extent that he sees increasing numbers of serious bird watchers who wish to see the endemic birds of Southern Mexico.

To contact Cornelio, many online links will put you in touch. Facebook, of course, or Tripadvisor, even a Google search for “bird watching Huatulco” will work. His own website is https://birdguidehuatulco.business.site/, or Whatsapp (52) 958-106-5749.

Note: At the time of writing this article, Hurricane Agatha hit the Huatulco area causing severe damage. The town of Copalita was severely hit. Cornelio’s family house was spared, but the homes of many friends and neighbours suffered devastating damage. Cornelio is involved in helping his neighbours out. One way of helping some people in Copalita is to send funds to Cornelio for this purpose.

The last word, of course, goes to the birds. Our relationships to these creatures holds an element of “uplifting of spirits,” somehow more so than with any other creature we see in nature. As Emily Dickinson has said “I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.”

Bird Watching Guides and Resources
for the State of Oaxaca

By Kary Vannice

Of the 1,100 species of birds that live or migrate temporarily to Mexico, 736 inhabit Oaxaca. Oaxaca boasts the greatest biodiversity in the country, not just for bird life but for all plant and animal species.

For this reason, many biologists, naturalists, ornithologists, and birders flock to Oaxaca each year to explore and understand the immense diversity of bird life throughout the region. This avian diversity is attracted by Oaxaca’s vast territorial biodiversity, from 10,000-foot peaks and high mountain deserts
to coastal seashores and dense mangrove lagoons – it’s no wonder so many bird species either live or temporarily migrate through this region.

Whether you’re a serious, money-investing birder or simply a casual observer of nature, there’s a resource out there to help you enhance your appreciation and understanding of the birds of Oaxaca.

Several detailed bird books have been published dedicated to the birds of Oaxaca alone. If you’re the type that wants to have an entire encyclopedia of local birds to leaf through when out exploring, then you may wish to add these to your personal library.

Aves de la Lagunas Costeras de Oaxaca, Mexico – This detailed and beautifully published paperback book identifies 133 species of birds that live in or frequent the lagoons of the coastal waters of Oaxaca. Written by Paul Germain and Mateo Ruiz Bruce, this book was published in 2016. Paul, an Englishman who lived in the small village of Ventanilla while writing the guide, took years to painstakingly detail the characteristics of each bird species, as well as photograph them in their natural habitat. The book is written in English and Spanish. Even for those not dedicated to birding, it is a delightful book to explore and may just inspire the reader to pick up their binoculars and take to the lagoons in search of the unique species that live there.

This book is available for purchase locally in several shops in Ventanilla and the surrounding area.

Birds & Birding in Central Oaxaca by John M. Forcey is more of a checklist than an Audubon-type field guide, although it provides some information on each bird species included. One reviewer described it this way… “This annotated checklist includes details of habitat, elevation, breeding, dates for migratory birds, and local subspecies alongside information on the best locations in the area for bird-watching.”

This guide focuses on bird species you will find in the central portion of Oaxaca, including the Sierra Madre and high desert areas that occupy the center of the state. A handy tool for serious birders to keep a running tally of species they’ve spotted in the dense jungle or wide-open spaces as they tick each one off the list. The second edition was published in 2009 and is still available via Buteo Books online.

There are also many general field guides that cover the region of Oaxaca. A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Adjacent Areas: Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador, by Ernest Preston Edwards (3rd edition, 1998) is an illustrated guide to birds of these regions and contains 850 beautifully drawn, full-color depictions of regional birds. Many of the most common Oaxacan birds can be found in this guide.

Another popular bird book is A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, by Steve N.G. Howell and Sophie Webb (2003, a new edition is coming out in August 2022). This book is very similar to the one mentioned above. It contains similar drawings/paintings of bird species, and it covers, generally, the same information about each individual species. Either of these books is a good choice for a general bird book for this region.

If you’re not serious enough about birding to invest in a field guide to have on hand but still enjoy identifying local birds while you are out enjoying nature, make a trip to the Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco, held in the main square in Santa Cruz Huatulco on the first and third Saturday of each month. Once there, ask for local naturalist photographer Jon Church. Jon almost always has a booth set up and sells some excellent one-page laminated bird guides that you can easily pop into your backpack or beach bag to have on hand.

If you have an excellent memory (or a good camera), you can snap a mental or real photo of the birds you see in the wild and use some of these online websites to identify the birds you’ve spotted once you get home.

Avibase – the World Bird Database is an excellent online resource that allows you to search by region (Oaxaca) and access a vast amount of detailed information about each species, including photos and recorded bird calls. (https://avibase.bsc-eoc.org/)

Ebird – Much like Avibase, this is a crowd-sourcing database where birders can register and submit data, including photos, bird calls, location found, and other details about each sighting. The page dedicated to the state of Oaxaca identifies 739 different bird species from this area. (https://ebird.org/region/MX-OAX)

Naturalista – This is a Mexican website written in Spanish. Still, with the photos provided, one can easily identify the bird they are looking for and use the translation feature to learn more about the habitat and unique details about each species. This site also has an interactive map that will show you the location of each observation, if you are aiming to locate that one elusive bird, you just haven’t been able to cross off your list yet. (https://www.naturalista.mx/projects/aves-de-la-costa-oaxaca)

Of course, there are many friendly, dedicated birding guides with local knowledge that can arrange to take you to exactly where you need to go to get all the bird-watching action your heart can handle (see articles elsewhere in this issue). Checking out some of the books and websites above just might spark a passion you didn’t know you had!

Huatulco: A Paradise of Bird Habitats

By Nick Pitman

Birds. They have a superpower. Unlike us mere ground-bound bipeds, if it takes their fancy they can just open up their wings and soar above the treetops and beyond. What a view it must be from up there! (Sometimes I feel them laughing down at our inadequacies.) We tend not to pay them too much attention, but they are all around us.

Here in Huatulco, we are woken up by the screech of the white-throated magpie-jay and the piercing jungle call of the West Mexican chachalaca, and we watch the sun go down to the loud accompaniment of the orange-fronted parakeet (see “Noisy Birds on the Oaxaca Coast” elsewhere in this issue). Birds truly provide the soundtrack to our outdoor lives.

My own appreciation of birds has been a quite recent development, but what’s not to like? You get to go out early and enjoy the cool mornings, open up your ears and learn the language of the forest. You connect with nature and are reminded that we humans are just a small part of something so much larger, you relax and exist in the present moment. The more you observe birds, the more you see how different they all are; you get caught up in their colorful outfits, rituals, habits and drama, a soap opera waiting to be discovered. A recent scientific study linked exposure to nature, and in particular birds, with increased well-being and life satisfaction; hikers experienced greater joy proportional to the amount of birdsong. The greater the diversity around you, and here we have a lot, the happier you are. So it turns out that great big smile on your face has nothing to do with the sea and sand after all. It’s the birds!

There are more than 10,000 different species of birds in the world. Around 1,100 of those are found in Mexico, which ranks 11th in the world for bird species. More than 700 of those species can be found here in Oaxaca, more than any other Mexican state and more than the whole of Canada.

The Habitats in Huatulco

Huatulco itself, situated geographically as it is, provides rather a unique and multifaceted habitat. Steep mountains directly inland create a “rain shadow,” blocking the rain from reaching Huatulco and resulting in a specially adapted deciduous forest, dry for half the year. This is extremely rare in the tropics. And just like the plants and trees that have evolved to these conditions, so too have the animals that live here.

Along the coast here we have the Huatulco National Park, the finest preserved tropical dry rainforest in Mexico, where you can find spectacular endemic bird species such as the orange-breasted bunting, red-breasted chat, golden-cheeked woodpecker and the citreoline trogon (see “The Trogons of Mexico – Then and Now” elsewhere in this issue). And of course, my personal favorite, the russet-crowned motmot, a bird that actually prunes its own tail to look more sexy!

Then there’s the riparian habitat along the Rio Copalita, home to many varieties of heron, four types of kingfisher and of the exotic roseate spoonbill. Just 10 kilometers inland, around Santa María Huatulco, new species appear, such as the masked tityra and the black-headed saltator. Another 45 minutes up into the hills, it changes again and you start to see species such as the red-headed tanager and our only member of the toucan family, the northern emerald toucanet.

Where Which Birds Are When

So now that you’re getting more excited about birds, where are good places to go near Huatulco to find them? Well, in downtown La Crucecita there’s Parque Ecologico Rufino Tamayo, which boasts hilly trails offering plenty of early morning viewing – listen up for the distinct call of the ferruginous pygmy owl. Right there in Santa Cruz, kitty-corner from the Itoo restaurant on Mitla, is a square of green that is surprisingly rich with some of our more common birdlife, such as the yellow-winged cacique and hanging nests of streak-backed oriole.

The access trail to Playa Pescadores near Tangolunda has water and is a great place to look for the elusive green heron, combined with a stroll around the old campground next to the golf course where you might spot the lineated woodpecker. One of my favorites is to walk along the beach at La Bocana to the river. The estuary there is packed full of birds, look for tricolored herons, reddish egrets and the tiny green kingfisher. Of course, I have a few secret spots but I think I’ll keep those to myself.

Good resources for learning more about the birds of the Oaxacan coast include the website inaturalist, bahias de Huatulco checklist (www.inaturalist.org/check_lists/230415-Bahias-de-Huatulco-Check-List), which lists all wildlife not just birds.

You can download the Merlin app, created by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology (merlin.allaboutbirds.org/) to your phone, and from there you can add the Mexico: Oaxaca and Chiapas bird pack. This useful tool has all the calls and songs for each bird it shows, so you can start to become Dr. Doolittle and start a conversation with your neighborhood long-crested northern cardinal. It works offline, too; in theory, you can put it on your computer, but it’s really designed for your phone. Locally, when you are down at the Huatulco Organic Market on Saturdays in Santa Cruz, you’ll see Jon Church selling his excellent local bird posters.

If you really feel like getting serious, then why not take a bird tour – we have three very knowledgeable guides in Huatulco. Pablo Narvaez (958 108 5087, http://www.facebook.com/pablo.narvaez.144) does private/group tours locally; he can show where those motmots are hiding. Bird Guide Cornelio (see “A Bird Watching Guide for Huatulco” elsewhere in this issue for more information) maintains an eco-ranch, a small private reserve, above Copalita where you could see the northern potoo. Huatulco Birding Cesar (958 107 3736, http://www.facebook.com/lasninfas06/) has a small reserve in La Jabalina near Rancho Tangolunda, a great habitat for the blue bunting. Contact them directly for more info.

Happy hunting and I’ll see you on the trail!

To see photos of all these birds and more, please follow me on Instagram, @nickjourneyman.

Noisy Birds on the Oaxaca Coast

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

We grew up the East Coast of the U.S., where the primary sounds of birds were sweet and melodious. Their songs marked the seasons. The chirping of robins meant spring was here. The summer was filled from sunup to sundown with trills and warbles of brightly colored goldfinches, cardinals, orioles, and the more somberly attired nuthatches. Fall was brought in by the songbirds flocking together and filling the trees with melodies as they prepared to fly south. And even in the coldest days of winter, tiny chickadees hopped around on snow-covered branches as they cheeped their little conversations.

Imagine our surprise when we were introduced to the noisy birds on the Oaxaca coast making a racket as their sounds punctuated the day. We simply don’t need an alarm clock in Huatulco. The chachalacas wake us as soon as the sun rises. Although they are large and heavy, resembling turkeys or overgrown quail, we heard them long before we saw them. Their name means “chatterbox,” but “clatterbox” would be more accurate. Their calls to each other sound like a metal spoon dragging along a washboard. And since they are clothed in feathers of various shades of browns and greys and hide out in bushes and trees, they can be frustratingly hard to spot even though they sound as if they are close enough to touch.

We first actually saw, rather than heard, chachalacas years ago in Santa Cruz driving on a street that ended in relatively dense and high vegetation. Seven or eight of them were comically hanging out on one tree, their combined weight dragging the branches almost to the ground. At first we couldn’t recognize them, since it was after sunset and they were very quiet. But our headlights disturbed one and he or she gave a loud cackle waking the others who called out in an affronted cacophony. We had no doubt that they were the infamous chachalacas who frequently woke us, so we felt justified in turning the tables. Their ability to hide must be an adaptation to being hunted and cooked. Reportedly their meat is very tasty, and said, of course, “to taste like chicken.” Of course, many wild creatures, including snakes, are said to taste like chicken. But we intend to continue using them as alarm clocks rather than dinner. (For more on this bird, see “The West Mexican Chacalaca – Best Known for Its ‘Song’,” in the July 2013 issue of The Eye.)

We are often amused in the late morning and afternoon by white-throated magpie jays. These noisy members of the crow family have bright blue backs, a long blue tail, white breasts, a distinctive black v-shaped bar that rings its lower neck, and a comical curly-cue black crest that bobbles around as it hops from tree limb to tree limb. Magpie jays seem to spend most of their time screeching at each other and squabbling over insects and seeds. The only time they seem to be quiet during the day is when they are by themselves or when they stealthily position themselves near an outdoor human dining area to swoop down and steal a piece of bread or tortilla chip. On the off chance that a human is fast enough to protect the food from the swooping magpie jay, they are likely to find a nearby perch and scream until the human gives up and tosses the desired food to the irate bird. Some outdoor restaurants on the Oaxaca coast, plagued by aggressive magpie jays, have hung curtains to discourage the little beggars. Although we appreciate not needing to fend off avian thieves, we miss being able to watch the reactions of other diners who suddenly realize that part of their meal has been converted into a magpie jay free-for-all.

Mexico has 22 species of parrots and macaws, so parrots are plentiful on the Oaxacan coast. There are three varieties named for the frontal patch right above the beak – white (Amazona albifrons), lilac (Amazona finschi) and orange (Eupsittula canicularis). The little fellow with the orange frontal patch and long tail is actually a parakeet. But all of them are mostly green. And when they are flying from tree to tree and squawking while in motion, it’s difficult to tell them apart. Our favorite time to watch parrots (and many other birds) is during the period right before sunset. The birds flock together and begin searching for a place to roost overnight. Whole treetops seem to blast into air, as the flocks soar and, as one, find another tree to occupy. This visual phenomenon repeats itself several times until, using unknown criteria, the flock settles down for the night. But each time the flock comes in for a landing the group conversation is close to deafening. The sunset brings out a cacophony of ear-splitting, hard, harsh avian sounds multiplied by up to a hundred or more voices.

Finally, the bird whose noise punctuates the quiet of day all day long and sometimes even at night, is the woodpecker. There are three local varieties of the woodpecker; the lineated, pale-billed, and golden cheek woodpeckers. But they are commonly heard more than seen – even though each has a splash of bright red on their heads. Their distinctive ra-ta-tat-tat as they pound away at tree trunks looking for insects to eat can be heard at long distances. So, although one looks for that flash of red in nearby trees, the woodpecker may be deceptively far away. We grew up with woodpeckers, albeit different varieties, most commonly the downy woodpecker, so their drumming was a familiar noise.

But the strident sounds of the chachalacas, magpie jays, and parrots, once startling and unfamiliar, have now become part of our cherished environment in Huatulco.

Five Environmental Wins in 2021

By Kary Vannice

While climate change research is producing issuing dire assessments about the very short timetable and the very large commitments required to avoid environmental disaster, there have actually been some bright spots on the ground. Here are five of them.

1) The Monarch Butterfly Bounces Back

In the January 2017 issue of The Eye, I reported on the death of 6.2 million monarch butterflies in a freak severe winter storm in the Sierra Madre mountains of Oaxaca. At that time, experts were so concerned about the fate of the monarch that they speculated that they might be listed as threatened in just a few short years. In 2020, the numbers hit an all-time low.

In 2021, however, some areas along the migration route saw an increase in monarchs by as much as 4900% from the previous year. While others saw only a 25% increase from 2017, biologists and conservationists are encouraged that this is the beginning of a new era for the monarch butterfly.

2) The Giant Panda Delisted

China’s giant panda’s iconic black and white markings have long been a symbol for conservationists worldwide. The World Wildlife Fund, which has used the panda as their logo since 1958, upgraded them from endangered to vulnerable in 2021.

There are now about 1800 pandas thriving in the wild; last year, China also announced the creation of the Giant Panda National Park, which will contribute to growing numbers of wild pandas. The park will be roughly the size of the United Kingdom and will also serve to protect other threatened and endangered species such as the China tiger and the Siberian leopard.

3) Ocean Protection and Coral Reef Recovery

Fourteen countries banded together in the name of ocean conservation. Australia, Canada, Chile, Ghana, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Portugal, Fiji, Jamaica, and Palau collectively committed to protecting all of the world’s oceans, not just focusing on the areas that were already in preservation status.

From shutting down illegal fishing operations to restoring depleted mangrove forests and renewing coral reefs, these 14 nations are committed to doing their part to solve the more significant climate change crisis.

Off the coast of Australia, in the Great Barrier Reef, a “coral IVF” project has aided in the birth of billions of new coral babies in 2021 alone. Australia also announced a plan to create 60 new marine reserves, with two massive reserves planned in the Indian Ocean, one of which will encompass 194,000 square miles.

4) Indigenous Peoples Recognized and Protected

The Peruvian government established a 2.7 million acre reserve specifically for “uncontacted peoples” to preserve their way of life and the land they live from. After 20 years of political debate, a new law has been enacted to protect indigenous people from oil conglomerates and other companies that seek to extract natural resources from the Amazon rainforest.

At last year’s United Nation global climate summit in Glasgow (COP 26, co-sponsored with Italy from 10/31 – 11/12/2021), research was presented that suggested that if tropical rainforest nations wanted to meet their Paris Agreement goals, the most effective action they could take would be to return vast sections of land back to the indigenous peoples and once again make them the land’s legal stewards.

5) Mexico Bans GMO Corn and Pledges to Phase Out Glyphosate

In January 2021, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a special decree that prohibited genetically modified corn and committed the country to phasing out glyphosate by 2024.

There are 59 distinct varieties of corn that are native to Mexico, the birthplace of corn, and many believe that planting GM corn could threaten the biodiversity of Mexico’s native corn.

Glyphosate, the herbicide used in Roundup, kills broad-leafed weeds and grasses. Glyphosate is suspected of causing illnesses such as cancer, infertility, and liver disease. In the decree signed last year, farmers and other agricultural producers will have to stop using glyphosate by 2024.

Both of these protections are important steps towards keeping the food supply in Mexico safe and healthy, as well as preserving the integrity of Mexico’s most important native food, corn.

Once They’re Gone, They’re Gone Forever

By Kary Vannice

As we come into a new year, many of us get rid of or eliminate things in our lives that no longer have a purpose to make room for the new. We’ve become accustomed to lightning-paced technology turnover as we willingly and regularly upgrade to the latest and greatest smartphone on the market.

We, in our plastic and metal world, have become so used to “planned obsolesence” that we now simply accept that in a few years, most of our everyday objects will be outdated and worthless. And we’ve started to see it as a sign of progress … out with the old and in with the new.

Unfortunately, in the natural world, there is no research and development team working on new species to replace the many that are rapidly being extinguished from our planet. New mammal, amphibian, and insect species are not coming online as fast as Apple comes up with a new version of the iPhone.

No, once a species is lost to us, it is gone forever, and with it a critical piece of biological biodiversity, which upsets the balance of an ecosystem forever. There are no replacements or upgrades in the natural world. Each species is integral to the healthy functioning of the whole.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes a yearly “Red List,” which lists most of the threatened and endangered species on the planet.

According to the IUCN, “Currently, there are more than 142,500 species on The IUCN Red List, with more than 40,000 species threatened with extinction, including 41% of amphibians, 37% of sharks and rays, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef-building corals, 26% of mammals and 13% of birds.”

In 2015, IUCN listed Mexico as the country with the most threatened or endangered mammals globally – 101. And of course, that number didn’t include any insect, amphibian, bird, plant, reef coral or reptile species, all of which are included in Mexico’s top threatened species.

In recent years, studies conducted in Mexico have confirmed the vulnerability of the monarch butterfly (insect), the leatherback sea turtle (reptile), the Mexican axolotl salamander (amphibian), the scarlet macaw (bird), elkhorn coral (reef coral), the white nun orchid (plant), in addition to several mammal species including the Mexican grey wolf, the jaguar, the ocelot, the Mexican long-nosed bat, along with dozens and dozens of other lesser-known mammal species here in Mexico.

Just a few months ago, The New York Times ran an article online titled “Here’s the Next Animal That Could Go Extinct,” and yes, that animal only exists in the waters of Mexico. It’s the vaquita, a small ocean porpoise. Only ten are known to be living in the wild, in the waters off the coast of San Felipe, a small fishing village on the Gulf of California.

One of the main reasons Mexico has so many threatened and endangered species is that its diverse landscape translates into high biodiversity. Mexico is number four in the world for the highest number of mammal species, boasting over 500 species. But the sad fact is, nearly a fifth of them are in trouble. Most are threatened because of habitat loss due to clearing to create agricultural land or commercial development.

Many of the species on the “Red List” are collateral damage from commercial activity, such as farming or fishing. Of the 101 species listed in 2015, 60 were rodents. At that time, the San Quinton Kangaroo Rat had not been seen since 1986 and was declared possibly extinct in 1994. However, in 2017 researchers caught one in a survey trap, proving that, while their numbers are small, they are still surviving on Baja California’s coast. That is encouraging news, but one species among nearly 100 just doesn’t seem like a big enough win.

Eighty percent of the threatened or endangered species on the IUNC’s “Red List” for Mexico are endemic, meaning that they do not exist anywhere else in the world in the wild, which means if they go extinct in Mexico, they are gone forever.

In nature, there is no such thing as planned obsolescence; all species strive to survive. It is only a system out of balance that causes extinction. And right now, man’s manipulation of nature is the number one cause of species loss both on land and in the sea. If you’d like to do your part to prevent extinction in your area, support local land conservation efforts and pitch in to keep green spaces clean and safe for all species.

Editor’s Letter

“We look and listen to the mortally wounded nature … where the worst is yet to come.”
Zapatista Manifesto

We have been waiting in sweltering humid days for drops from the sky to give us a respite. We move through the world masked-up, struggling to breathe and wondering when relief will come. Grey skies that yield not a drop and thunderous sounds seem to taunt us. May and June on the Oaxacan coast are months filled with longing and anticipation. The landscape is brown and thirsty, its hunger mirrored by the people, who after an anemic tourist season, are also in limbo.

This month our writers explore the environment. To most of us, this means nature but it is also a state of being. We accept in nature the cycle of life which inevitably leads to death; dry tree branches or a fish that ends up on our plate. That which once danced through the fantastic blue depths of the ocean eventually stops swimming, whether by having fulfilled its allotted time or by being prematurely snatched up in a net.

For the past year we have lived in a collective environment, whether you are in Calgary or Delhi, we have all been moving towards a common purpose and defeating a common enemy. Humanity has become a school of fish that moves in sync like some other worldly dance. Yes, there are still so many things that we disagree about, but we are like the great network of trees that communicate through root systems; united by our fears and worries.

I have never felt greater reverence for nature than I have this past year. The symphony of birds is like the voice of god, whichever one you believe in, majestic trees have been reminders of our own individual insignificance. How can we ever improve our environment more than a tree does?

The world is slowly unfolding into its previous normalcy. People say it will never be the same but I believe they are wrong. We will slip back into our minutiae of concerns; getting more stuff, more power, just more for the sake of more. Will this time have been in vain? I hope we will remember the importance of nature when contrasted with the human experience and revere the one that has the greatest importance.

Then the sky opened, rain fell and suddenly everything is green.

See you next month,

Jane

Ten Simple Steps to Help Preserve Mexico’s Ecology

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

  1. Sunscreen: wash it off before swimming in lakes, lagoons or ocean bays. Previously, much of coastal Mexico was a natural aquarium, teeming with brightly colored fish and exotic sea life feeding off myriad varieties of coral. Today, many of the most accessible bays and lagoons have a visible oily slick of sunscreen on the surface, with mainly dead coral and greatly reduced sea life. Many inland lakes have also been polluted.

There are still wondrous places to snorkel and dive, mainly accessible by boat. If you are fortunate enough to visit some of these sea or lake homes to see thousands of aquatic creatures, please help preserve them by wearing a sun-guard shirt (an inexpensive teeshirt will do) instead of poisoning the waters with sunscreen.

  1. Picnics: if you carry it in, carry it out. The beaches, vista points and forests in Mexico are great places for a picnic. It’s tempting after an afternoon of eating and drinking to just leave your empties and other trash behind. If you do, you’re basically creating an unattractive garbage dump and providing the animals with materials that can choke or otherwise kill them. It’s so simple to bring and use paper bags to collect your detritus (recyclables in one bag and trash in the other) and dispose of them in bins for recycling.
  2. Flora and fauna: observe but do not disturb. Plants and animals, both on the land and in the water, are fascinating. We can spend hours watching whales playing in a bay, or geckos scrambling around our patio walls, or an octopus hiding under a rock and sending out a tentacle to catch a fish or a sea turtle nesting on a beach. We’ve also watched in horror as people use sticks to poke at iguanas and disfigure other animals, or disturb nests of turtle eggs, or surround whales with multiple motor boats, or dig up plants that support multiple forms of animals. Please remember that you are a guest in their homes and, just as you wouldn’t enter a human home and purposely maim or torment your hosts, be a good guest to the animals and plant life here.
  1. Paths and trails: stay on the beaten path. In addition to not trampling or otherwise disturbing flora and fauna, staying on the beaten path will help you avoid unpleasant encounters with the native life. Many forms of plants and animals in Mexico have developed excellent forms of self-protection, including sharp spines, toxic stingers, pincers and teeth that can deliver a painful bite. Not all snakes rattle or give a warning before they spring. So keep on track and keep your eyes where you are about to step.
  2. Drinking water: avoid plastic bottles. In many places in Mexico the water is fine to drink. If you are at a moderately or expensively priced hotel or restaurant and you are served water from a pitcher, it generally is filtered and potable. The same is true of ice. If you are at an economy-priced place where you are not sure about the hygiene, you can ask for a glass of water from their garafon, the huge jugs of filtered water kept on hand for the staff to use. But please, please, please, help stop the world-wide pollution of the earth with billions of tons of plastic bottles. Until someone figures out how to turn plastic back into its natural components (a future Nobel-Prize-winning discovery), every plastic bottle of water you drink and discard will contribute to choking off life in Mexico and around the world.
  3. Restaurants: no plastic straws or one-use plastic anything. Plastic straws are literally killers. They find their way into the ocean and are gobbled up by short-sighted sea turtles. Hundreds of turtles die each year from ingesting a plastic straw. Many fish and sea-birds are also injured. Other plastic utensils also contribute to the injury and death of marine life. If you must use a straw, at least use a paper straw. But folks, who really needs a straw? Every sip from a plastic straw you take shortens the life of rapidly disappearing species.
  1. Shopping: bring your own bags and select ecofriendly packaging. Buy organic.
    Fortunately, most Mexican supermarkets are legally prohibited from providing plastic bags for packing your purchases. And there are wonderful colorful cloth or other material shopping bags for sale in gift shops and from vendors all over Mexico. They’re not always environmentally friendly but they are easily packed, great souvenirs. But before you even reach the checkout counter, please think ‘green’ before you place something in your shopping cart. Two or three tomatoes really don’t require a thin plastic bag to keep them separate from an avocado; and the avocado comes in its own natural wrapper. By reaching for the fruit and vegetables that are labelled ‘organic’ you may pay a little more, but you are helping keep toxic pesticides out of drinking water and out of the bodies of many living creatures – including your own.
  2. Signs: read them and obey them. Much thought and effort has been spent on placing signs around Mexico to protect wildlife and to protect you. The road signs depicting silhouettes of local fauna are charming – but they are danger signs. Keep your eyes peeled on the road in front of you and to either side and slow down so you can stop in time to avoid an animal that darts out to cross to the other side. The signs on beaches and in parks that have the universal multiple “no” symbol should be studied and heeded. At the very least, they will give you a heads-up about human behavior required to protect life in Mexico. And ultimately, you may be saved from a hefty fine or even drowning.
  3. Showers: keep them short. Many places in Mexico, as throughout the world, are suffering from severe water shortages. You are encouraged to shower off before entering pools to save filtration systems; but all that is required is a quick rinse to remove sand and salt. A long hot shower before you dress is as passé as a flip-top cell phone. Remember to save water in other ways too. Turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth. If you have a kitchen, fill that dishwasher before you run it. And although washing your hands frequently is highly recommended, turn off the water while you soap and sing the canonical ‘happy birthday’ song twice.
  4. Prevent COVID: You may be on vacation, but the coronavirus never takes time off from work. Until Mexico vaccinates most of its population and enters a low COVID tier, wear your mask, frequently wash your hands and stay at a safe distance. The life you save could be your own.

To Hibernate, or To Migrate?Bats in Mexico

By Julie Etra

Mexico is well-known for hosting migrating birds and butterflies on their seasonal journeys north and south. Bats? Maybe not so much, but it’s hard to tell. In cooler climates, the majority of bats just hibernate for the winter. It’s apparently very difficult to track bat migratory patterns, so there’s only one bat that’s well known for migrating south to winter in Mexico.

Bats have been getting a lot of bad press these days, given that they were the most likely source of the spillover, the technical term for pathogens jumping from animals to humans, of the COVID-19 outbreak that started near Wuhan, China last year. Bats were also responsible for the SARS virus outbreak in 2002 and are notorious vectors of rabies. Bats carry a huge assortment of viruses to which they are not susceptible. Spillovers generally occur when we humans encroach on a wild animal’s habitat. It can happen in reverse as well, as COVID-19 is known to have recently passed from humans to the mountain gorillas of the equatorial African rainforest in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Humans have passed a nasty fungus to bats, called the white nose syndrome, most likely from Europe, that has led to huge die offs of this essential mammal, particularly when they are hibernating and vulnerable. This is unfortunate, because bats are extremely important in many ecosystems. They consume insects that would otherwise damage crops, and pollinate numerous species of plants, including agave, or maguey, as it is called here in Mexico. Besides insects, nectar, pollen, and fruit, some species also eat vertebrates. According to science writer David Quammen, “A single colony of big brown bats in the American Midwest, by consuming 600,000 cucumber beetles in a year, prevents 33 million cucumber beetle larvae from feeding on the next year’s crop. Mexican free-tailed bats eat cotton bollworm moths in Texas. By one estimate, from 2011, bat predation on insects was saving $23 billion annually for agriculture in the United States.”

Bats are a hugely diverse group of mammals, varying in habitat, behavior, diet, morphology, longevity, you name it. They are the second most diverse group of mammals following rodents (mice, rats, rabbits, and other chewing animals). There are over 1,400 species of bats – among them is the much maligned but well named common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, which occurs from Uruguay to Mexico, including our lovely Parque Nacional de Huatulco. The rotundus part of the name, which means “portly,” comes from the fact that they get so fat after drinking blood they can’t fly again until they pee away a substantial amount of urine.

The two traits in combination that uniquely characterize bats are that they have “colonized” the air and they are nocturnal; they fly and feed at night. Bat species that eat insects have an extraordinary capability – they hunt by “echolocation,” that is, they emit high frequency sounds that bounce off their prey (e.g., swarms of mosquitoes) and bounce back to the bats’ highly sensitive ears.

Bats in Huatulco

The National Commission on the Protection of National Areas finds that here on the Oaxacan coast, and more specifically in the Parque Nacional de Huatulco, have six species of bats in the park.

Great fruit-eating bat (Artibeus lituratus). Obviously, this bat eats fruit, and occurs from Mexico through southern Brazil, and on some islands in the Caribbean. They are polygamous with groups called harems, one male and two to five females. They change their feeding behavior with the position of the moon, decreasing feeding time when it is full, most likely to avoid predators that hunt by moonlight, like owls.

Jamaican, common, or Mexican fruit bat (Artibeus jamaicensis). This is a large, stout bat that roosts in caves, hollow trunks, and under palm leaves. Its range is Mexico to northwestern South America. It loves figs, which don’t grow in the Parque Nacional in Huatulco, but does eat other fruit and vegetation. Because it carries its food all the way back to its roost, it is an important seed disperser. The Mexican fruit bat also has harems, and can live as long as nine years.

Little yellow-shouldered bat (Sturnira lilium) is another frugivore, critical for seed dispersal. It is opportunistic in its eating habits, feeding on whatever is available.
Palla’s long-tongued bat (Glossophaga soricina). This nectar-feeding bat is super interesting. It has the fastest metabolism ever recorded in a mammal, similar to that of a hummingbird. Although it uses 50% of its stored fat over a day, over 80% of its energy comes directly from simple nectar sugars as soon as the bat consumes them. Its tongue is are powered by bloodflow and the tip can increase by over 50% in length.

Vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), described above.

The fishing or greater bulldog bat (Noctilio leporinus) occurs from Mexico to northern Argentina and on most Caribbean islands. It uses echolocation to detect waves made by fish, its prey.

As for the bat that migrates, it’s the Mexican (or Brazilian) free-tailed bat, which likes to live in caves, although it will make do with a bridge underpass if it has to. In the summer, it lives – and breeds – in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico; in the winter, it moves to southern Mexico and Central America. The Mexican free-tailed bat makes a formidable migrator: if they get a tail wind, they can cruise along at 60 miles an hour, and they’ve been tracked at an altitude of 10,000 feet.

A 2013 study in Ecosphere, the journal of the Ecological Society of America, located winter cave roosts for the Mexican free-tailed bat in Hidalgo, Michoacán, Jalisco, Querétaro, and Chiapas, but who knows? In Huatulco, a popular cocktail-hour pastime in Santa Cruz is to take your margarita and beach chair to sit on the greenspaces atop the Sector E canals. Bats about the size and color of the Mexican free-tailed bat emerge in droves at sunset.

The Ahuehuete, Mexico’s National Tree

By Julie Etra

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

The trees lined the canals and were planted in the pre-Hispanic parks and gardens, which were abundant – Mexico has had a long and storied love affair with gardens, and particularly trees.

Ahuehuetes were a major feature of the gardens of Moctezuma, and before him Nezahualcoyotl (see the 100-peso bill). And it undoubtedly sheltered Hernan Cortés on the Noche Triste, the Night of Sorrows, where he supposedly wept as his invading army of Spanish conquistadors and their native allies were driven out of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (not for long). As the lakes have been drained and paved, many of these trees have succumbed to loss of habitat and altered hydrology.

Pre-Hispanic Mexicans prepared various parts of the tree for medicinal purposes. They burned the bark for an astringent, to heal burns, scars, and skin ulcers. Other medicinal ailments were treated through the preparation of resin, leaves, buds, stems, fruit, and bark included edema, heart conditions, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. The wood was used for furniture and beam construction, and burned as fuel. Ahuehuete trunks, due to their hardness and resistance to rot, were used to make canoes.

Ahuehuetes also had spiritual and mythic significance, and were considered ancestors, brothers and/or gods associated with creation stories. The Mixteco chiefs of Apoala (northwest of Oaxaca City) believed that the gods and the first chiefs originated from the branches of majestic trees growing adjacent to rivers. The “broken tree” (arbol quebrado) myth of the Mexica, which is portayed in the Codice Boturini, represents the birth of the Mexica people as an independent nation. In general, pre-Hispanic texts reference the religious, magic, and cosmic properties of trees, particularly those species that grow close to rivers and springs.

Another legend about the ahuehuete is related to its use as temporary housing. By divine mandate a husband and wife took shelter in the hollow trunk of an ahuehuete in anticipation of a flood. The gods drained the land and the couple survived. Currently, among the people of the Huasteca (a geographical and cultural region of the Meso-American Huastec people – it runs along the Gulf coast and inland to include parts of five states in central Mexico) – the tree plays a role in the holiday celebration of the initiation of planting, in accordance with the agriculture calendar. Other current religious rites consist of petitioning the gods for rain by wrapping a statue of San Antonio de Padua in braided roots of the ahuehuete, then burying the statue in a well dug near the river. Archaeobotanical studies have revealed that branches of the ahuehuete were used as offerings in a variety of religious ceremonies, particularly in the Basin of Mexico.

Through its continued traditional and religious uses, therapeutic qualities, versatility in construction, and use as a fuel, the ahuehuete maintains is its place in contemporary Mexican culture.