Veracruz River of Raptors

Every year, millions of North American raptors come to Veracruz, stopping to rest en route to their winter habitats in Latin America. Threats to this vital link in the raptor flyway include habitat loss due to agriculture, ranching, and development. Conservation groups work to monitor the migrating birds, educate the public about their value, and preserve critical habitat in the forested foothills.It’s not a real river at all, not in the watery sense—but  when  you  see  the  stream  of huge birds soaring overhead, you’ll know why  this  migration  route  is  traditionally referred to as the River of Raptors.

It’s a bird-watching miracle you’ll never forget. Each fall, large predatory birds funnel  into  the  state  of  Veracruz,  Mexico, soaring in from every major North American flyway en route to their winter grounds in Central and South America. Some five to six  million  cruise  through,  including  just about  all  the  broad-tailed  hawks,  Swainson’s hawks, and Mississippi kites in existence. There are a million-and-a-half turkey vultures,  not  to  mention  sharp-shinned hawks,  American  kestrels,  merlins,  northern  harriers—just  about  any  swooping avian predator you can think of.

It’s a sort of geographic fluke, a bottleneck   created   where   Mexico’s   eastern Sierra Madre converges with the east end of the central volcanic belt, pouring into a narrow  lowland  passage  in  east-central Mexico. Add to that the effect of abundant thermal  updrafts  in  this  warm  coastal plain,  and  you’ve  got  ideal  flying  conditions for big birds like these raptors, who are  already  tired  from  their  long  migrational flights.

And  so  they  arrive,  between  late  September and mid-October. One great base for viewing them is Cardel, a coastal town surrounded  by  lowland  thorn  forest  and lagoons  that  provide  prey  for  those  hungry raptors. Set up in the afternoons with your  binoculars  and  telephoto  camera lenses (find a spot in the shade—it can be very warm here) and you’ll be astonished at  the  number  and  variety  of  raptors  you may  identify.  Note  how  they  converge toward a useful thermal, swirling one after  another  into  an  upward  spiraling  vortex, known  as  a  “kettle.”  Coming  out  of  the kettle into a long straight glide, they tend to  settle  into  layers  according  to  body weight,  with  heavier  birds  like  turkey  vultures  riding  at  the  bottom,  streamlined broadwings cruising at the top.

Another  prime  raptor-viewing  site  is right  where  the  bottleneck  occurs:  up  in the  mountains  at  Xalapa,  a  handsome colonial-era city that’s the capital of Veracruz.  This  stunning  highland  landscape (you  may  recognize  its  wooded  gorges and  tumbling  waterfalls  from  the  movie Romancing  the  Stone)  has  cloud  forests, shade-coffee  plantations,  and  pine-oak forests that harbor many other interesting bird species to watch when you get tired of  the  raptors.  As  if  you  could  ever  get tired of the raptors.