Treasures of Campeche (Part I) – Calakmul, land of wonders

Calakmul_300pxIt’s a fleeting vision: eight large birds emerge from the woods, cross the path ahead of me and are swallowed again by the vegetation. Ocellated Turkeys! It’s the third time I see them today as I walk towards Structure II in the Mayan city of Calakmul. I’ve only been able to photograph the tail feathers of the group’s straggler, but that’s not important. What’s really exciting is knowing they’re here.

The Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata) is an impressive bird that can measure up to 90 centimeters, reaches a weight of 3 to 4 kilos and exhibits iridescent feathers in shades of bronze, green and turquoise blue. Subjected during decades to excessive hunting for its nutritional value, the beauty of its feathers and the amusement of “sport hunters”, the Ocellated Turkey has seen its habitat drastically reduced by human activity. Populations are presently limited to some 130,000 square kilometers distributed in Quintana Roo, Campeche, Yucatan, Belize and northern Guatemala. They also survive in lesser numbers in areas of southern Tabasco and northern Chiapas.

In Mexico the Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente (PROFEPA) has included the Ocellated Turkey in its Threatened Species category, one step away from being labeled In Danger of Extinction. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species also flags this species as “Near Threatened”. The creation of reserves, as well as ongoing efforts to limit indiscriminate hunting, have allowed a partial recuperation of their populations, but even so the future of the Ocellated Turkey is not guaranteed. Reserves are subject to constant pressures from nearby human settlements whose dwellers continue to engage in illegal hunting and logging.

Flying to Calakmul: las clouds part to disclose a view of the forest. (Phto © Iván Gabaldón).

Flying to Calakmul, clouds part to disclose a view of the forest. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Calakmul is one of those officially protected areas and the presence here of the Ocellated Turkeys is living proof of it. In 1989 the Mexican government established the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, 723,000 hectares comprised of a core area (34.3%) and a buffer area (65.6%), thus recognizing officially the value of a territory that combines great biological richness with the cultural significance of harboring in its midst the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul. Ten years later the government of Campeche decreed the protection of 520,000 additional hectares, establishing the Balam Kin and Balam Kú state reserves. The joint territory of these three reserves conforms the largest extension of protected forests in Mexican territory and one of the 20 largest tropical reserves in the world.

Human foot prints are like those of no other species: vehicle tracks that can be easily recognized from the air. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Human footprints are unlike those of any other species, vehicle tracks that can be easily recognized from the air. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Our approach to the reserve reveals two landscapes in one, deforestation and forest. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Our approach to the reserve reveals two landscapes in one, deforestation and forest. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

As a visitor to Calakmul I feel immersed in the jungle, aware of its sounds and smells, surrounded by life. Early this morning, near the entrance to the archeological zone, a Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and a Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus) allowed me to observe them up close for several minutes, as if they wanted me to realize we’re not just in any place. Toucans have a territorial range that covers most of the Yucatan Peninsula but their populations are decreasing and sightings have become less frequent. It’s the first time I find and photograph the Aracari, a species smaller than the Keel-billed Toucan but equally striking.

Toucans excel at dispersing seeds, playing a vital role in the ecosystem. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Toucans excel at dispersing seeds and play a vital role in the ecosystem. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Once inside the archaeological zone I walk as silently as possible with Luis Jiménez Hernández, our bird guide in Calakmul. Beckoned by the calls of water birds, we now find ourselves at the edge of a small body of water. A fine drizzle begins to fall as we crouch under available cover to observe groups of Least Grebes (Tachybaptus dominicus), Northern Jacanas (Jacana spinosa), Common Gallinules (Gallinula chloropus) and a solitary Green Heron (Butorides virescens). It’s a joy to peek into their lives, even if achieving clean compositions is made virtually impossible by the vegetation.

Lest Grebes (Tachybaptus dominicus), always aware of their surroundings. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Lest Grebes (Tachybaptus dominicus), always aware of their surroundings. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Once we get back on the trail the Ocellated Turkeys are still in my mind, but the forest insists on reminding me there’s much more than birds here. It all depends on where you look and how attentive you are. Off to one side of the trail, as we move deeper into the vegetation, we encounter thousands of ants engrossed in the realization of an epic project. Moving like armies they travel up and down a large tree and then disappear into the jungle with their cargo of leaves, denying us knowledge of where they’re coming from or going to. Scientists who study the Calakmul area have catalogued 1,537 species of plants, over 200 species of diurnal butterflies, 70 species of reptiles and amphibians, 350 species of birds and 86 species of mammals. Those same scientists know better than anyone that these are only partial records and they estimate the existence of tens of thousands of species here.

Soldiers of the forest: the ability, strength and capacity for work of ants command respect. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Soldiers of the forest: the ability, strength and capacity for work of ants command respect. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Butterflies of the species Morpho helenor like to dwell on dark and humid terrain in the forest. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Butterflies of the species Morpho helenor like to dwell on dark and humid terrain in the forest. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Sounds reaching us from above force me to change my angle of observation. Spider Monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi), among them an infant, travel with amazing ease through that world inaccessible to us on top of the trees. They are high up and bathed in backlight but I strive until I manage to make a few images. Calakmul makes me feel optimistic, I sense there will be more opportunities to photograph the monkeys and Luis assures me, based on his knowledge of the area, that this is very likely indeed. Spurred by this thought we decide to get back on the trail to catch up with the rest of our group in the main area of the archeological site.

It's impossible to make eye contact with the monkeys without realizing how much we are alike. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

It’s impossible to make eye contact with the monkeys without realizing how much we are alike. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Minutes later we exchange more smiles than words as we rejoin at the foot of Structure II with our travel companions: campechano entrepreneur Francisco Hernández and his wife Carmen (who have organized this magnificent trip) and my wife Rose. Being here elevates our souls, we have the place entirely to ourselves and there’s no need to hurry. Rose and I climb towards the top of the structure, negotiating the ancient steps with the required care to avoid a fall.

Once we reach the top we sit on the old stones and soak in an imposing view: as far as we can see there’s nothing but dense and majestic forest, covered by partially clouded skies and interrupted only by two other large structures of the ancient city of Calakmul. It seems unreal to be in this crossroads of nature, pre-hispanic past and our own contemporary existence. A gentle breeze caresses us constantly, coaxing creaking sounds from a tree that grows on top of the structure and enveloping us with the unexpected and sweet aroma of honey. There are bees up here, working in earnest within the cavities of the old tree, producing their golden nectar with no human intervention as they have done since the beginning of time.

Partial view of Structure II in Calakmul. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Partial view of Structure II in Calakmul. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

The view of Calakmul from the top of Structure II takes our breath away. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

The view of Calakmul from the top of Structure II takes our breath away. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Later, as we descend, we stop halfway down to enjoy a privileged view of a tree that grows in front of the structure, its branches covered in ferns, bromeliads and other parasitic plants. It hosts an ongoing parade of Keel-billed Toucans, Aracaris, Woodpeckers, Chachalacas, Flycatchers and Trogons. I busy myself photographing this moving cast of birds, focusing my attention on the meticulous labor of toucans as they work their way through the branches, picking small fruits with heir huge bills and launching them back into their throats with quick head motions.

With characteristic ability, this Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus) launches fruit into its beak. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón)

With characteristic ability, this Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus) launches fruit into its beak. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

The Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) uses its bill to pick fruits with great precision. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón)

The Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) uses its bill to pick fruits with great precision. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

A colorful neighborhood: a Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and a Black-headed Trogon (Trogon melanocephalus) share this tree top. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

A colorful neighborhood: a Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and a Black-headed Trogon (Trogon melanocephalus) share this tree top. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

On the same tree, a Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons). (Photo © Iván Gabaldón)

On the same tree, a Yucatan Woodpecker (Centurus pygmaeus). (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

It is now time to leave but, as we shall soon discover, Calakmul still holds gifts for us. We start walking towards the exit and have not left the main archaeological zone when that which has been eluding me all day presents itself: a healthy group of Ocellated Turkeys!. Not one or two, a dozen turkeys walk at ease on a clearing between the stone structures, looking very much like they own the place. I make my first images from where I stand before approaching carefully, seeking partial cover behind the few available trees. The turkeys tolerate my approach and grant me, finally, an opportunity to accomplish the coveted mission for my photo archive.

This Ocellated Turkey  (Meleagris ocellata) strikes an unusual pose. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón.

This Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata) strikes an unusual pose. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Ocellated Turkeys scratch the terrain in search of food. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Ocellated Turkeys scratch the terrain in search of food. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

This close-up shows the unmistakeable blue head with orange nodules of the Ocellated Turkey. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

This close-up shows the unmistakeable blue head with orange nodules of the Ocellated Turkey. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

My attention is then drawn by the movements, farther away at the edge of the forest, of a group of dark birds of prehistoric appearance. Calakmul takes my breath away once more by regaling me a first encounter with the Great Curassow (Crax rubra). Larger than the turkeys, these birds walk stealthily and are obviously aware of our presence. As soon as I attempt a cautious approach they start retreating, making me realize I must keep my distance. They’re too far away, the light is too dim in the shaded area where they stand and I barely manage to make a few images before they fade back into the forest. The Great Curassows, perhaps conspiring with the Spider Monkeys that still await me on the way out, imbue me with an imperious need to return to Campeche and to this forest of wonders known as Calakmul, capital of the millenary kingdom of Kaan, treasure of Mexico and Humanity, worthy heritage of a planet called Earth.

I'll admit this photo is barely acceptable. But I had to share with you the wonder of an encounter with the Great Curassow (Crax rubra). (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

I’ll admit this photo is barely acceptable. But I had to share with you the wonder of an encounter with the Great Curassow (Crax rubra). (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Pleasures of life in the jungle. Mr. Monkey, it's been an honor. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Pleasures of life in the jungle. Mr. Monkey, it’s been an honor. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

(…to be continued)

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RIDE INTO BIRDLAND sincerely thanks the Government of Campeche, the office of Governor Lic. Fernando Ortega Bernés and the Campeche Secretary of Tourism for their invaluable support with the air and ground transportation that made this story possible. We also thank Don Francisco Hernández,  Ambassador ad-honorem for the State of Campeche, who invited us to discover the wonders of his state.

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The services of Luis Jiménez Hernández, an excellent guide who specializes in archaeology and birding, can be retained by contacting him to his cell phone at 983 135-1487, by email at luis8lewis@hotmail.com, or through his FaceBook page.

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Bibliography:

La piel de la selva – Ecosistemas de Campeche. (2012 – Various authors). Published by the Government of Campeche, its Department of Culture and CONACULTA.

Calakmul – World Heritage Site. (2012 – Various authors). Published by the Government of Campeche, its Department of Culture, INAH and Mexico’s Federal Government.

A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. (2010, Steve Howell and Sophie Webb).

The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. (Sixth Edition)

Southern Mexico – Travellers’ Wildlife Guides. (Les Beletsky, 2007).

I.G.H.

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4 Responses to Treasures of Campeche (Part I) – Calakmul, land of wonders

  1. Maria Andrade says:

    Hola Ivan,

    Ya estrañábamos tus publicaciones¡¡¡. Gracias por compartir tu experiencia y por contribuir a la difusión de esta bella región de Campeche.

    Saludos,

    MA

  2. Cherie Pittillo says:

    It’s difficult to describe the essence of Calakmul, but you did it beautifully. Congratulations on your variety of images from aerial to the intimacy you shared with turkeys and monkeys. To have both a trogon and a toucan in the same image or to show the toucan catching the berry in mid-air…all are astonishing. Thank you for sharing the magnificence of Calakmul through text and images.
    I look forward to part II.

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