Before coming to Veracruz, I thought I had a pretty good layman's knowledge of Mexico's pre-Columbian archaeological sites. I am therefore ashamed to say that I had never heard of El Tajin, because it turns out to be one of the most spectacular of the lot. Eileen, Davin and I made it the target for an all-day trip after the conclusion of the CITES Animals Committee meeting, on May 4, 2014, and I'm very glad we did.
El Tajin is a long way north from Veracruz City, so we made an early start. Our intention was to drive directly to the site, but our driver (who knew about my interest in birds) gave us s breather along the way, at an overlook above the mangrove forests of Laguna La Mancha.
Here we encountered a few Plain Chachalacas (Ortalis vetula) leaping through the trees opposite us. Plain Chachalacas are the most northerly members of the guan family (Cracidae). Their "chachalac!" calls give them their name (a nearby beach is named after them).
A bit further north, near Farallón, we passed an impressive outcrop by the roadside. No time to stop, though - we still had a long drive ahead of us before reaching the site.
At the entrance to El Tajin we were treated to a performance by voladores, acrobats who throw themselves off a tall pole and swing in an ever-increasing circle, as they slowly descend to the ground, tethered by what one hopes are stout ropes secured to their ankles. Their fall is accompanied by music from a wooden flute played by the fifth member of the ensemble, still perched atop the pole. This is actually a centuries-old pre-Columbian ritual linked to various rain gods, recognized by UNESCO as 'intangible cultural heritage' worthy of preservation and performed today at a number of archaeological sites in Mexico. It's a remarkable thing to see.
No less remarkable is the site itself. El Tajin was occupied between about 800 and 1100 CE, and it is, according to UNESCO, one of the largest and best-preserved of Mesoamerican cities, and "an outstanding example of the grandeur and importance of the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico".
I've seen Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Tikal, Teotihuacan and many other Middle American sites (not to mention Machu Picchu in Peru), and this one blew me away. Eileen and Davin were impressed too.
Like other Mexican sites, El Tajin is dominated by pyramids, some of which look quite like those at Teotihuacan or Chichen Itza.
There is much about El Tajin, though, that is distinctive. Most unusual of the lot is the so-called Pyramid of the Niches, an ornate structure some 20 metres high. It is the centrepiece of the site.
Its peculiar architectural style, with a facade studded with tiny niches (did they once contain offerings, or statuettes of the gods?), is echoed in other buildings on the site.
As always with well-preserved sites like these, you can find bits of rococo detail. So full of ornament are carvings like these that it makes it very difficult for an amateur (like me) to make sense out of them. It must have been easier when they were brightly, and newly, painted.
Not everything at el Tajin is fully restored; nooks and crannies in hte background must be full of treasures yet to be unearthed. They also, of course, provide enticements to a naturalist.
I kept my eye out for any birds we came across as we explored (and marveled at) the ruins. I saw nothing rare, but anything as softly beautiful as a Blue-Grey Tanager (Thraupis episcopus) was certainly worth looking at.
I was surprised at how acrobatic the bird was as it fluttered around the power lines.
The tanager was out in the open, but for other birds I kept glancing at the trees behind the ruins, a number which were in fruit.
Here I found female Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus), smaller and browner than the males I showed you in my last post.
Here, too, were more Social Flycatchers (Myiozetetes similis), as common and obvious here as anywhere else. This is surely one of. the commonest flycatchers in Mexico.
And here, a Bronzed Cowbird (Molothrus aeneus), distinguished by its characteristic red eyes, sings from a treetop. Cowbirds, like the cuckoos of the Old World, are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds (interestingly, most of the cuckoos of the New World, where cowbirds live, build nests of their own).
A relative of the cowbird, and one of its regular hosts, is the Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus), here peering out from a dessicated palm frond.
The Yellow-winged Tanager (Thraupis abbas) is a close relative of the commoner Blue-grey. It seems to be a little less eager to venture into the open.
The Yellow-throated Euphonia (Euphonia hirundinacea)is a bird that was once considered to be a tanager, but is now known to be something quite different: a member of a group of cardueline finches largely specializing in mistletoe berries (though the Yellow-throated gets only about 20% of its diet that way). Euphonias are, in many ways, the tropical American ecological equivalents of the flowerpeckers of Asia and Australia. Apologies for the poor photo!
Thrushes of many species live in the American tropics, though they are not as varied there as in the Old World. The Clay-coloured Thrush (Turdus grayi) is common throughout Middle America. It is the national bird of Costa Rica - perhaps surprisingly, considering how many spectacularly-plumaged birds live in that country.
El Tajin was not a bad spot for insects too, as you will see in my next post. However, here are a couple of butterflies we turned up among the ruins: a Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), a species widespread in North America...
...and a Banded Peacock (Anartia fatima) that has apparently had asn unpleasant encounter with a bird. Although Banded Peacocks show up occasionally in Texas, this is almost entirely a Middle American butterfly, ranging from the US-Mexican border south to Panama. Pre-Columbian Americans often attached considerable symbolic significance to butterflies, even elevating some to the level of warrior gods. I wonder what the builders and inhabitants of El Tajin thought of this one?