National Geographic : 1945 Feb
Wildlife of Tabasco and Veracruz BY WALTER A. WEBER With Illustrations by Staff PhotographerRichard H. Stewart T HE golden afterglow of sunset was fading from the dark jungle foliage, and the gloom of dusk was beginning to cast the landscape into harmonious masses when the still air was suddenly rent by a sonorous, deep-throated birdcall, cha-cha lac-d, cha-cha-lac-d, cha-cha-lac-d. The sound came from a near-by thicket, but we strained our eyes in vain to discern the source of the voice. Before the echoes of the last note had died away, a timbered patch to our right emitted the same cry, followed immediately by others from various points, and within a minute the surrounding forest had become vociferously vocal with the harsh cries. The subsequent din lasted about five minutes and then ceased as abruptly as it had begun. Miguel, our Mexican assistant, smilingly offered a bit of information. "The people here call that the 'six-thirty bird,' " he said, "because it announces that time of the day." Quick glances at our watches verified Miguel's statement; it was 6:35. That was our first evening in camp at La Venta, Tabasco, and was early in February. Subsequent observations of the "six-thirty bird," which is called chachalaca in most parts of Mexico, showed that the birds kept their song time by the sun. Their regular evening recitals came later and later with the advanc ing season until, by the end of April, it was closer to 7:30 before the echoes of cha-cha lac-d dwindled and finally disappeared into the miasma of insect overtone that ruled the tropical night. Dawn was announced with as much enthusiasm as the day's end, and, as a further evidence of the chachalaca's reaction to the absence of sunlight, its harsh cries would be reiterated at any time of the day when storm clouds darkened the sky. The chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is a dark grayish-brown bird, about the size of a com mon bantam, but with a rather long tail. It belongs to the family of birds called Cracidae, related to our domestic fowls. Chachalacas were abundant at La Venta, but in spite of this and their noisy habits just described, the denseness of their forest home and their wariness, plus the excellent use of their keen eyes, close observation was diffi cult. Specimens for scientific purposes and as additions to our bill of fare were obtained only by slow, painstaking stalks. The "six-thirty bird" was only one of the many interesting forms of wildlife encountered by members of the joint expedition of the National Geographic Society and the Smith sonian Institution to La Venta, Tabasco, in the spring of 1943.* The green stone tiger masks and precious jade ornaments recovered from the red sandy loam of La Venta receive more than a little competition from the plant and animal deni zens of the forest, swamps, and jungles of the area. On a "Main Line" for Migrating Birds La Venta supports a typically tropical flora and fauna. To the biologist, that statement alone suffices to indicate a wealth of wildlife so vast that it is incomprehensible to one who has not seen it. Moreover, La Venta is an island covered for the most part with heavy rain forest and surrounded by grassy swamp land and is directly on one of the main bird migration routes. It is near the center of an area where little ornithological exploration has been done. I can hear bird students saying "Ah" and sighing, for such a place surely is the answer to a bird lover's dreams. Such it turned out to be. Of the 173 bird species of which scientific specimens were secured for the study collections of the United States National Museum at Washington, D. C., a few brief accounts and illustrations from paintings of some of the more interesting and colorful forms will help the reader under stand the enthusiasm of an artist-naturalist for La Venta (Color Plates I to XVI). The location of our camp was fortunate for the study of birds. It was on a high grassy knoll, with forest on all sides save one, and on that side a series of swales led down to the edge of one of the endless tidal swamps of Tabasco. Small streams and springs near by and dense bushy thickets added to the * In the spring of 1943, the author studied the fauna of La Venta, Tabasco, and neighboring parts of Vera cruz and Chiapas as a member of the fifth expedition to southern Mexico, jointly sponsored by the Na tional Geographic Society and the Smithsonian In stitution. The primary objective of this expedition was to continue the archeological exploration of this region. See "La Venta's Green Stone Tigers," by Mat thew W. Stirling, and "Finding Jewels of Jade in a Mexican Swamp," by Matthew W.Stirling and Marion Stirling, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Sep tember, 1943, and November, 1942, respectively.