The Hawk Stalkers of Veracruz
Cardel, Veracruz

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

High in the Skies--The End of August
Photo Courtesy of Martin Sandoval
That Time of the Year Again
It´s late August, and school started last week, and the last hot days of summer are here.

In Veracruz, we are in the middle of the monsoon season.

It rains each day between 4 and 6 in the morning, leaving the streets of the old downtown area cool and fresh.

The area around Veracruz is full of birds of all kinds, especially during this time of the year.

Most people don´t spend much time looking up at the skies, but this is the time to do it.
High in the Skies--The End of August
Photo Courtesy of Martin Sandoval
You´ll be surprised at the number of birds you can see.

There are enormous flocks of all kinds.

My Buddy Martin Sandoval is a Tour Guide. He's fascinated by migratory birds and is a volunteer member of Pronatura, the local bird watching group.

He also takes enjoys taking people on guided tours to his favorite places.

Besides the main areas around Cardel, he has a lot of his own favorite spots in certain places on the beaches around Chachalacas, and Boca de Ovejas.

He was born in Veracruz and knows this area well.

During the time of the bird migrations from August 20 to November 20, he specializes in taking people to his favorite places.
High in the Skies--The End of August
Photo Courtesy of Martin Sandoval
If you are interested in birding, and are thinking about making a trip to this area, you should send him an email.

"La Migra"
The other day, Martín sent me some photos he took near his house, and excitedly told me the "Migra" had started!

"La Migra" in this case is the huge bird migration from Canada to South America.

And most of this vast migration goes through this area.

The special migratory birds are the graceful hawks which are called "raptors."
Stopping for a Rest
Photo Courtesy of Martin Sandoval
Unknown to Most People
Unknown to most people is the fact that there are only three areas in the world where birds converge each year during their annual migrations: Elat, Israel; Panama; and Cardel, Veracruz.

Cardel, Veracruz?

Hmm... I didn´t know that.

Cardel is only a 30 minute drive north of here.

One Sunday afternoon in October I drove up to Cardel with a friend to take a look.

How to Get There
Raptors are Special
A buddy of mine who lives in Corpus Christi, TX is a bird watcher in the fall.

His specialty is hawks, which are also called "raptors".

He used to tell me about the majestic hawk migrations that pass through the Coastal Bend of Texas each fall.

Later, I discovered that the bird counts in Texas are very small compared to the vast numbers that come through this area of Veracruz each year.
Downtown Cardel
The Cardel Valley
Cd. Cardel is one of the many bustling little sugar cane towns in this part of the state of Veracruz and is about a 40 minute drive north of Veracruz.

One Sunday in October, a friend and I decided to drive to Cardel to take a look at the bird migrations.

We drove north to Cardel, looking for the Hotel Bienvenido.

It´s not that hard to find, since it´s the tallest building in town, catty cornered from the plaza.
A Birder Friendly Rooftop
I realized that the migrations seen in Corpus Christi were small in comparision to the numbers that fill the skies of Veracruz every year.

Off to the west towards Xalapa, we could clearly see the mountains. We knew the Gulf Coast was behind us, less than 10 miles away.

The Cardel Valley was chosen because the gap here is very narrow.

The mountains gradually come closer to the Gulf of Mexico and the raptors converge, herded into the State of Veracruz.
Standing By
The Hawk Stalkers are Witnesses
The "Hawk Stalkers" gather each fall from August 20 to November 20 during the day to count hawks as they fly through to carefully record in their annual Raptor Census.

Some 20 volunteers from the Xalapa based organization Pronatura scan the skies watching for the huge swirls of birds

They are the "Hawk Stalkers" of Veracruz.
Scanning the Skies
The Blitz in WWII London
When we got up to the 5th floor, we found the volunteers quietly scanning the skies with binoculars.

For a moment it looked like a scene out of a WWII movie of the battle of Britain.

I could imagine them as helmeted neighborhood volunteers scanning the skies each night looking for V-2 buzz bombs to shoot out of the sky.
Bob Straub Lets Us Take a Look
A Raptor Expert
Bob Straub works with Pronatura and each year they perform a raptor census and make the results which are available to bird watchers everywhere.

To cover both ends of the Cardel Valley, they have another observation point at the soccer field in Chichicaxtle, a short 15 minute drive west.

Bob explained that they are looking for 20 species of raptors to count).

Compared to ducks and geese, don't flap their wings, and also migrate to South America like other birds.
Rooftop Shelter
Fragile Wings
The only problem is a hawk has slender wings that aren't built for long distance flight.

Instead it has to catch the rising thermal heat waves from the warming of the coastal plains and let them carry them up to great heights.

When the raptors peak out, they glide slowly downward in a southerly direction.
A Sighting!
Next they look for another thermal, then gently rise again to great heights, and repeat the operation until they get to South America several weeks later.

They spend the fall days sailing south in giant swirls of thousands.

A Sighting!
When there's a sighting, the action starts.

People grab binoculars and telescopes and begin to quietly scan the skies.

At first, I couldn't see a thing!

A Swirl of Hawks High in the Sky
A "Flash"
The untrained eye needs a lot of practice, but once you spot a swirl the sight is spectacular!

When they "flash", almost immediately you can see thousands of birds high in the sky swirling in a great mass of dots.

After the "flash" is over, the dots once again seem to blend in with the intense blue sky.
Just Below the Platform
Another Sighting!
Then I noticed the observers had turned their attention to a radio transmission tower.

They were looking at something in among the supports.

"¿Dónde?", I asked.

But, where? I couldn't see a thing

Then one of the volunteers pointed, "Mire, Ud."
"It´s just below the platform."
Up Close
A Silhouette
And there it is! Maybe you can see it.
Just a silhouette just below the first rung from the top!

Up close, it must be huge! Something like 2 ft. tall!

With the high power telescope they easily identified a female Peregrine Falcon resting before resuming her flight south.

And the sighting was duly logged in on the observers roster sheet.
The Raptor Census
Putting aside the fun of the search, I found off in the corner a tabulation board of the daily and raptor census totals.

Numbers are Important
The numbers compiled here at the Cardel, and at Chichicaxtle observation posts are taken seriously by the people at US government agencies who plan and administer public lands for the preservation of the bird populations.

The Title of the Raptor Census is "Veracruz, River of the Raptors". Column 2 is the previous days totals, Column 3 is a cumulative total for this season, and the last column is the best day for the particular species.

The day before we arrived must have been a hectic one at the end of the day when they counted 238,596 Swanson Hawks, the season record for the 2002 season!

Here you can follow the results of the census, including the daily postings from Veracruz: Latest River of the Raptors Bird Census Count.
Football Field
The Chichicaxtle Observation Post
We were curious to see what the Chichicaxtle observation post looked like and drove out to look for the soccer field.

It's an easy 15 minute drive up the 4 lane towards Xalapa.

When we got there, a football game was in progress.

The players weren´t aware of the importance of the observation post nearby.They had other more important things to do.

We stopped for a moment and talked to the volunteers at the observation post. They were having a good day.
The Chichicaxtle Observation Post
The Autumn Skies of Mexico are Alive
We were getting hungry, so we headed back to Veracruz and stopped for some good seafood at one of the restaurants in Antigua, Veracruz.

On the trip back home, I realized that while I am not an ornithologist, or even an amateur birder, but I came away from the short trip with a new awareness of an important event that happens each year not far from where I live in Veracruz.

Now in the fall, the skies along the Gulf Coast of Mexico look different.

Sometimes when I´m driving alone along the coast in the fall, I find myself looking for raptors cruising high in the skies above coastal Veracruz, as they glide gently south to spend their winter in South America.

I guess they have always been there, but nobody ever noticed.