Palizada, river of kings – Part I

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The boat advances at good speed on the tea-coloured waters of the Palizada river. Wearing raincoats under a persistent drizzle, we keep our photo gear covered and our eyes glued to the vegetation on the riverbanks. Rainy weather is conspiring against us, stealing sharpness and saturation from everything we see and denying us photographic opportunities. Even so, the boat is loaded with smiles. A few minutes into this trip we’ve seen, perched on the power line that connects the scarce rural homes along the river, a Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle torquatus). Moments later we’ve seen ten more so we decide to start counting, a collective exercise that soon becomes celebration.

Like notes on a stave, many Ringed Kingfishers keep us company as we motor up the Palizada River. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Like notes on a stave, many Ringed Kingfishers keep us company as we motor up the Palizada River. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Forty!”, we announce over the engine’s noise. “Forty one… forty two!”. One here, three on that segment of cable there, two more sharing a branch. Never before have we seen so many of these true kings of fishing, like musical notes drawn on a stave as long as the river. We’re now all looking for the next one, each new discovery unleashing laughter in crescendo. By the time we reach our destination this morning, the Nicé-Ha Unit for Enviromental Management (UMA), we close the count with an astounding figure: 75 Ringed Kingfishers!.

A liquid avenue into “Nicte Ha”. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

A liquid avenue into “Nicte Ha”. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Our arrival in Nicte-Há has not been previously announced but is quickly detected. Within a minute or two several men approach the docks, among them Ramon Sanz, in charge of this private reserve. Ramon’s look is inquisitive but becomes a warm welcome the instant he recognizes Francisco Hernandez, célebre restauranteur from Campeche, bird photographer and promoter of this trip. Francisco has garnered the interest and support of Campeche’s Secretary of Tourism (SECTUR CAMPECHE), making possible this exploration with a common goal: to generate a first multi-disciplinary report on the potential of Palizada for bird-related tourism.

Part of our welcoming committee in Nicte-Há. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Part of our welcoming committee in Nicte-Há. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Besides Francisco and his wife Carmen Cabañas, also a bird photography enthusiast, the team for this mission includes Joann Andrews, María Andrade and Marigel Campos of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, as well as respected ornithologists Paul Wood and Jesús Vargas Soriano, and Wilbert Salas of SECTUR Campeche. RIDE INTO BIRDLAND has also been asked to participate, in order to help evaluate opportunities for nature photography and to share this story.

Paul Wood and Marigel Campos look on as Joann Andrews inspects a photo album that evidences presence of jaguars in the area. (Photo © Roselys Oropeza).

Paul Wood and Marigel Campos look on as Joann Andrews inspects a photo album that evidences presence of jaguars in the area. (Photo © Roselys Oropeza).

Our team thus lined up, now under the roof of Nicte-Há’s welcoming kitchen with warm cups of coffee in our hands, we listen as Ramon recounts jaguar sightings in the UMA. He shows us trap-camera images evidencing the presence of the imposing cats, as well as of other large mammals such as tapirs and deer. “You can see the deer from here”, he says. A few steps outside the kitchen are in fact sufficient to look out towards the line where the property’s garden meets the surrounding vegetation. There, within a couple of minutes, we spot several deer that seem to return our stares.

Ramón Sanz shows Joann Andrews and Paul Wood a thermal map of the area. Colors indicate different types of vegetation. (Photos © Iván Gabaldón).

Ramón Sanz shows Joann Andrews and Paul Wood a thermal map of the area. Colors indicate different types of vegetation. (Photos © Iván Gabaldón).

Conversation continues as we tour the facilities, at the center of which we find two comfortably appointed cabins with bathrooms and sleeping quarters. An impressive solar power system has its own control room (complete with back-up diesel generator) and wind-power is now being added into the mix. The UMA has horses and tack for riding in the property, flat-bottomed fishing boats with rotating chairs, quad motorcycles for rugged, swampy terrain, and several permanent blinds perfectly suitable for nature photography. It must be said: these facilities were conceived for regulated hunting but my eyes are looking at their great potential for wildlife photography, an activity that has already taken place here and, as Ramon is quick to confirm, is not only welcomed but deemed of high interest and expected to grow in the future.

Bird observation from the boat, left to right: Joann Andrews, María Andrade, Francisco Hernández, Ramón Sanz, Paul Wood. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Bird observation from the boat, left to right: Joann Andrews, María Andrade, Francisco Hernández, Ramón Sanz, Paul Wood. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Birds remain our group’s manifest interest and this motivates Ramon to make us an offer we can’t refuse: he’ll take us to a location, which we agree to keep secret, where we’ll see a species of bird seldom encountered in the Yucatan Penisula. Expectation is in the air as we board the UMA’s boats and are taken deep into the canals until finally, with the parting of mangroves, an exciting sight is unveiled: we’ve reached the nesting area for a species classified by IUCN as vulnerable. Our boats approach prudently, one at a time, never coming too close. We cannot disclose more details here, and for this we apologize to our readers, but this restriction has good cause: only the scientists who found this population of birds (and are currently monitoring it) qualify to make this information public. What we can say with unequivocal joy is that the presence of these birds in the Palizada River confirms the richness and good health of this ecosystem. Ergo, its great potential for bird-related tourism.

A green Iguana (Iguana iguana rhinolopha), sporting the reddish hue it acquires during mating season. We saw many large iguanas like this one along the river. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

A green Iguana (Iguana iguana rhinolopha), sporting the reddish hue it acquires during mating season. We saw many large iguanas like this one along the river. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Waterborne transportation is part of daily life for most locals on the Palizada River. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Waterborne transportation is part of daily life for most locals on the Palizada River. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Great Egret (Ardea alba), photographed from the boat. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Great Egret (Ardea alba), photographed from the boat. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

At the end of the day we motor downstream back to our lodgings at Hacienda San Román. Rain and cloudiness have been constant factors during our first day of exploration in this part of Campeche, but just as constant has been the presence of abundant populations of birds, starting with the many sightings we enjoyed on the road from Campeche to Palizada. A question flutters around in my mind: If Palizada has been so generous with us on a rainy day… how much more will it give us when the sun really comes out?

The Palizada River is the eastern branch of the mighty Usumacinta River and its waters feed the Laguna de Términos. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

The Palizada River is the eastern branch of the mighty Usumacinta River and its waters feed the Laguna de Términos. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

I.G.H.

(…to be continued).

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With special thanks to the Campeche Secretary of Tourism (SECTUR Campeche) for making this trip possible. For more information on this and other wonderful destinations in Campeche, México, visit www.campeche.travel

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