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.