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Spotlight on the Birds of Veracruz

Benny Thatcher, Lesley Bulluck, Ana Raymundo, Tiffany Beachy, Alex Pena (field assistant from Mexico), David Buehler, and Jesus GamboaEach year, during the first two weeks of October, thousands of raptors -- birds of prey -- migrate south from Canada and the United States through the area around Veracruz, Mexico. More than 150,000 hawks fly through on a single day.

Last fall, a group of UT bird experts were on hand to see it.

Doctoral candidates Lesley Bulluck and Benny Thatcher and graduate students Tiffany Beachy, Kelly Caruso, and Dan Hinnebusch from the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries traveled to Veracruz for the 4th North American Ornithological Conference. Their adviser, David Buehler, accompanied them.

The conference occurs once every four years and brings together ornithologists from all over the Western Hemisphere. Many migratory songbirds cross the borders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico twice a year, yet only recently have avian researchers in these three countries started to collaborate. The 2006 conference theme was "Wings Without Borders."

"It was an incredible time," Beachy said. "I've traveled to Mexico, Central and South America several times before, but this was one of the most memorable trips for me because it was a huge international gathering of people who all have the same passion: birds. I felt such camaraderie with everyone.

"It was a week of stuffing my head full of all kinds of information, from current research on avian ecology to names of important biologists, career suggestions and names of local birds."

Similarly, Bullock had been to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico a couple of times before to do field work, like bird-banding. But this trip gave her the chance to experience the culture of a Mexican city. "It was great to experience Veracruz," she said. "There is a town square in the old part of the city where there is live dancing on certain evenings and restaurants surrounding the square."

Expanding Professional Horizons

Bulluck said the conference also provided a chance to broaden her horizons professionally. "There were many more Latin American participants than at other national bird meetings, which added a very different and helpful component. We study birds that spend half of their life cycle outside the U.S. and we know very little about what occurs there.

"We were able to go on several bird-watching field trips while in Veracruz, which was amazing. From the riverboat tour near the city where we saw a wide diversity of songbirds to witnessing the raptor migration with literally millions of migrating raptors overhead, spiraling up on thermals all along the horizon, it was spectacular."

Kelly Caruso said the trip offered her several "firsts." "I saw beautiful species of birds that I've never seen before -- too many to list! -- and experienced hawk migrations for the very first time."

Caruso said one of the many "take-home" messages she gleaned from this trip "is that for conservation efforts to be successful anywhere in the world, we need to have more of a 'people-based' approach where we are working with local communities to help solve their problems and get conservation programs on the ground. It's impossible to expect people to care about conservation if they are consumed with problems for their own survival."

Caruso said she highly recommends work study trips. "Experiencing a different culture, its history, food, landscape and its people was so very enriching! The amount I learned in one week in Mexico has impacted my life in more ways than I imagined it would. It has also inspired me to learn Spanish as a second language, and to pursue a stronger environmental policy focus within my studies."

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