Four Million and Counting....My Story from the Rio de Rapaces

By Steve Dougill

Stop the bus.  Here it is.  Right here.". Tamara and Dalī had been unsure of where exactly to disembark the local bus but it was clear they had arrived in the small pueblo of Chichicatle from the line of raptors passing low overhead stretching from horizon to horizon … the famous "Rio de Rapaces", or river of raptors.

In the Mexican state of Veracruz where the country narrows to a thin waste, an even narrower coastal plane funnels huge numbers of migrating raptors, sandwiched between the snow capped volcanic peaks and their lower foothills and the Atlantic coast…. in reality a 20km strip of cane fields and scrubby forests, of small towns with dusty soccer fields, and coastal dunes, lagoons and larger cities. Between mid August and the end of November more than four million raptors are counted each year to record the largest raptor migration in the world.  Those numbers are impressive enough but hide the subtlety of the individuals, the spectacle of the migration and the absolute sense of wonder and amazement you experience.

Let's pick up the story towards the end of the first week in September.  It's hot and humid with no wind at 9am when the count starts.  We are 5 stories up, that's 110 steps to climb, on the rooftop of the Bienvenido hotel in Cardel.  Like the city it's a little run down, a little seedy, half cleaned and half painted; looks like the stains have been here for a while … it's noisy and you can look down on the bustling street life unfolding below.  But we have  a three-sixty degree view.  Almost immediately we start to see loose groups of three, five, ten Orchard Orioles fly by mostly at eye height and below; there's flocks of Dickcissels with their characteristic short electric buzz call; groups of Eastern Kingbirds; and hundreds upon hundreds of swallows pouring through all heading south.  Now the first Mississippi Kite, joined by another, you look up higher and see five more … Soon thirty birds are swirling around a rising air current, a thermal, in a tight vortex only to leave in a follow-the-leader line.  They are fast and in a hurry.  First seen as a mosquito speck in the distance they are upon you before you know it and gone just as quickly.  Soon we are seeing bigger and bigger vortexes swirling around in the hazy distance.  The lines almost disappear in the blue but found again when a new vortex forms.  We are looking up, high,straining necks to catch the line again.  Two thousand birds in this vortex, birds arriving at the bottom as others are leaving from the top, a temporary gathering that lasts for less than five minutes as birds gain altitude for free and then coast to the next rising column of hot air.  By early afternoon the winds have picked up sufficiently to drive the birds further inland towards the second count spot at Chichi.  At least the winds give relief from the humidity and clear la broma a little.  That day we tallied more than 60,000 kites.  That's close to twenty percent of the total world population passing through this geographic bottleneck in one day!

It's a month later and the ProNatura counters are busy.  At each of the two sites there are two counters who are experienced at not only the identification of the raptor silhouettes but also able to quickly count multiple groups of multiple species at the same time.  At busy times we do this with three clickers in one hand, frantically tallying Broad wings by fifties on one, Swainsons by tens on another and Turkey Vultures by ones on the third.  It's crazy, it's exhausting and totally exciting.  There is also an assistant at each site who is responsible for recording the weather every hour and entering the count data into the tablet.  It's a tough job as we are shouting out numbers all the time, sharpie, sharpie, kestrel, coop, coop, 120 White Ibis … and then doing math on the fly: mil novocientos trenta y doss Platos por Cinco … that's almost ten thousand Broad-wing Hawks.  My Spanish is improving but I got good at numbers fast!

This is the time when most visitors come.  It's timed to see the peak of the Broad-wing Hawk invasion.  As a visitor you either have to be very lucky and time it perfectly or come over a period of several days to catch a big flight.  It can be quiet with little or no migration….. Then you notice a breeze picking up and the cumulus clouds have become quite large … and almost immediately the swallows start coming…. And it won"t be long before the broad wings are upon you. The lines can be 50 birds wide and 100 deep snaking their way into the distance, joining one vortex to another.  In fact multiple lines, some crossing, some distinct, forming one or two or more vortexes of thousands upon thousands of birds, moving, swirling, changing directions … and then there is that one pioneer bird that breaks away from the group to start the next line, followed by hundreds and thousands behind.  While it was fun to listen to all the gasps and exclamations in English and Dutch and French and German from the birding tourists it was even more fun to be with the counters, many who have worked on the project for many years and still are blown away by the spectacle.  It's totally energizing and enthralling to be in the thick of it and be surrounded by people who are gob smacked too.  

It's mid-october now and everybody is tired.  Close to four million birds counted for the season and another month or so to go.  The Swainsons are peaking and the Turkey Vultures numbers are going through the roof.  This is my favorite time.  Raptor variety is fantastic and huge flocks of white pelicans undulate along their open lines and v-shape formations.  Thousands of scissor tailed flycatchers are on the move.  It's when you really understand the actual concept of the river and how aptly Rio de Rapaces was named, aided by the lines of relentless TVs.  

I find it amazing, more than amazing really, something that blows my mind, that most of all the raptors heading south from North America on a particular day find the same 100m wide patch of sky, a narrow river of fast flowering air currents surrounded by less favorable paths.  These currents are always changing as seen by the changing paths the lines take.  Often within the lines you will see the broad wings on top, presumably as they are smaller and lighter, accipiters and kestrels off to the side and a rogue resident punk Black Vulture apparently forcing its way upstream against the current.  But it's the Turkey Vultures and smaller Swainsons that dominate.  With characteristic long winged profiles they traverse these long river reaches between tumultuous vortex rapids without a wing beat or flap.  Wings straight and rigid.  Straight ahead.  All birds seemingly at the same speed.  It gives the impression that they are on a fast moving conveyor belt.  All the TVs look the same; same shape and actions while the swainsons are less conservative in their dress and form.   Looking up are the birds moving, or are they stationary and you moving.  It's as if I"m on the floor of the ocean looking up as the shoal of fish-like raptors course overhead.  In the distance it's in slow motion as the Vultures appear as fuzzy shapes in and out of the clouds.  Then they"ve arrived and overhead you realize just how fast they are going , how big they are and just how far they have come.

It’s over 30 years since the first official count during the spring of 1991.  Before that the concentration of raptors and flood of waterbirds, songbirds and insects was well known to the local birding community before news gradually percolated out ….The counts were on a shoestring budget, first conducted from the shade of the chicken woman's porch, then a rickety looking spectator stand on the edge of the village soccer pitch, everyone clinging on to optics and laughing as birds flew over.

Today the counts are fully established with international partners, guided tours provided by the local biologists and an education facility that hosts workshops and provides the focus for working with local school kids to enthuse conservation values and ethics.  Several of the annual counters live in the village and were introduced to birding and raptor conservation through these after school programs.  Today you see the next generation of counters hanging out with the older ProNatura staff, learning birding skills, soaking in the conservation aura, and having fun fun fun.  Artists have worked with the community to decorate old buildings with colorful murals.  An annual festival celebrates the migration that benefits the ejido with food and music and of course the greatest raptor migration in the world.  And technology has arrived.  Raptors are caught and blood samples taken for various studies before being released, often carrying a small transmitter to determine migration routes and wintering habits.  And MOTUS towers are up and running, recording a detection each time a tagged bird carrying a compatible transmitter flies by on its uninterrupted migration journey.

During the 2019 season we counted 5,213,515 raptors.  But there was so much more.  The thousands of sulphurs and other butterflies and dragonflies migrating at tree height; the tens of thousands of songbirds and waterbirds using the same migration corridor; day trips to the mountain forests above Xalapa to see the blazing red warbler; enmoladas for lunch from the local anjoleto; beer and tacos after work by the side of the road … and like with any field work job, the close friendships with my family away from home.  My companeros de trabajo are truly friends for life.

About Steve and Birding Veracruz in 2023

Steve Dougill is unashamedly a bird nut, a birding evangelist and works to promote bird and wildlife conservation in the U.S. and abroad through community and non-profit involvement.  Based in Las Vegas, Nevada, he carries out wildlife surveys and leads bird tours to Mexico and India.  This fall Steve is co-leading a trip to Veracruz with friends from the Red Rock Audubon Society... Support Pronatura and witness one of the greatest bird spectacles on earth with us.  Contact Barbara Beck at fieldtripspecialist@redrockaudubon.com for more information.