National Geographic : 1945 Feb
Wildlife of Tabasco and Veracruz for occasional call notes or cries of alarm. If the migrants were niggardly with their music, not so the La Venta birds. I heard many notes that were to take me days and weeks to identify with their rightful owners. One, soon to reveal himself, was the squirrel cuckoo (Plate XII). I heard the rattling, squirrel-like chatter of this russet-garbed relative of our yellowbill several times before seeing the bird. By stand ing still and giving a few squeaks in imitation of a small bird in distress, I soon saw one of these cuckoos appear in the branches over head. His curiosity was evidently so strong that it prompted him to approach closer and closer, until he was barely 15 feet from me. As he moved into a patch of sunlight, I was startled to see his bright eye, blood-red, like a ruby in the green-gold setting of his eyelid. The squeaking had attracted other birds, most arresting of which was the yellow and green trogon that lit on a swinging liana directly over the trail. Ornithologists call him Trogon melanocephalus, meaning black headed trogon. This species proved to be a common resident of the region and was usually referred to by us as the yellow-breasted trogon because of its brilliant golden-yellow breast (Plate IX). Trogons Eat on the Wing Not quite so abundant but even more striking is the larger Massena trogon, which sports a blood-red waistcoat. The two are alike in habits, being quiet and rather in active but not shy. Several times we observed their curious manner of feeding on fruits and berries while on the wing. In doing this the bird hovers in the air, much like a giant moth or hummingbird, while his bill rapidly strips the berries from the outermost branches. I wandered on up the trail to a place where the forest opened into the clearing made by the workmen at the archeological site. The sun was up in full force now, and its glare on the freshly turned red sand con trasted strikingly with the dark velvety greens of the forest. What priceless treasures still lay buried beneath that rust-colored loam I mused on, as I remembered Dr. Stirling's discoveries of previous years. My mind wandered from the realism of sur rounding jungle, with its throbbing life, to the time of the ancient La Ventans, who existed on the island fifteen centuries ago. But not for long could my thoughts linger in those intriguing corridors of the past. A swift moving shadow made me look up in time to see a small, smartly dressed falcon alight on the topmost branch of a dead tree on the edge of the clearing. It was a white-throated bat falcon-close relative of our sparrow hawk (Plate IV). His steely blue-black back, red dish breast, and pure-white throat, added to the jaunty carriage so typical of,the falcons, made him an attractive individual. The glasses revealed that he had caught a huge grasshopper, which he proceeded to eat with the inherent nicety of falcons. First, he carefully plucked the wings. While they floated earthward in slow spirals, his sharp hooked beak severed the body in pieces just the right size for a smallish falcon. Then he swallowed each piece daintily. Perhaps birds do not have a highly de veloped sense of taste, but his evident satis faction after devouring that tidbit made the little hawk look just about the way one feels after eating his first brook trout of the season. Just beyond the area now being excavated was an old farm, rapidly being taken over by new jungle growth. On its edge lay one of the great stone heads excavated a few years before.* On the round, weathered dome of the idol sat four fat little ground doves, sunning them selves and preening their feathers; in the mud of the ditch in front of the face, myriad deer, ocelot, coati, and agouti tracks told the story of nocturnal four-footed prowlers. Seeking the shade of the near-by forest, I sat down on a fallen log to view the colossal basalt monument again. In my mind's eye I tried to reconstruct the scene before me into what it was like when that stone symbol marked the shrine of the ancient people. Whatever glorious pageantry of color and cul ture may have been enacted on that spot, the stone head alone remained with its rotund, inscrutable features essentially unchanged after centuries of exposure to the elements. It seemed, by its presence, to exaggerate the loneliness of the spot. The Motmot Shapes Its Tail A flock of parakeets flying overhead, scream ing unmusically, broke my spell of musing. Not far off I could hear the plaintive whistle of a tinamou. My "still watch" was soon rewarded by the appearance of two Lesson's motmots alighting on swinging vines over the trail (Plate XII). The sleek birds turned investigating eyes in my direction, while their long pendulum shaped tails jerked sidewise, rhythmically, as if they indeed were Nature's timepieces, which * See "Great Stone Faces of the Mexican Jungle," by Matthew W. Stirling, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1940.