31 May - 5 June 2001
by Dan Lockshaw
Just got back from a trip to Baja California and the west coast of mainland Mexico with Bruce Webb. Although my main concern was for owls for my web site, we did see over 200 species of birds. For owls the trip produced such specialties as Cape Pygmy, Vermiculated (Guatemalan) Screech, BALSAS SCREECH, Mountain Pygmy, Colima Pygmy and Mottled Owls (and a few US occurring owls like Elf, Ferruginous Pygmy... 9 sp total). In this e-mail I am only going to discuss the Baja portion of the trip from May 31st to June 5th.
We arrived late afternoon on May 31st in Cabo San Lucas and stopped only briefly to see Frigatebirds (lots) in the bay and have a couple tacos before heading north to Todos Santos. There we met Tom Donini, an American living there, who had set up a trip for the three of us, got permits in La Paz, and a Mexican guide up to Sierra de la Laguna and Laguna Meadow. After going over last minute details and planning to meet at 5:00 AM the following morning, Bruce and I got a room in Todos Santos (~$20 and decent) and got some sleep.
The next morning Chito, our guide, arrived at 6:00 AM and we headed to the base of the mountains and entrance to the preserve. The dirt road up to the mountains is 2.1 miles from town and it is 10.1 miles of dirt road to the entrance (well marked and described by Howell). After packing the three pack animals for our trip up we left at about 7:30 AM. It was another couple kilometers up to the trail head from the gate at the entrance although we enjoyed several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Scott's & Hooded Orioles, Northern Cardinals... along the way. It was already hot and this was much too late to be leaving for this hike.
I want to add a caution at this point. We planned our trip with pack animals and plenty of water and supplies to make this trip. The ascent is very steep starting at about 1400 feet elevation and the top is over 6100 feet. The trail goes up 1500 ft then down 5-800 ft then back up 1500 ft... THIS IS A VERY STRENUOUS HIKE and should be well prepared for. December would also be a much cooler month for this. I think that Howell's book does not give the difficulty of this climb enough caution. At 11:00 AM we ran into a young (perhaps in his mid-20s) mountain climber/bird watcher from Utah in distress from the climb. He had left at 2:00 AM for the ascent and never made the top when we met him coming back down (gave him a granola bar to help him out). He was very clear about his own under estimation of this climb. At about 6:00 AM he had heard Cape Pygmy-Owl at the first stream crossing another hour ahead of us. He described the owl as having a single hoot like Northern Pygmy-Owl.
The trail to the top is very clear and easy to follow. La Laguna Meadow is another hour beyond the top of the trail and back down 1000 ft. Although we had seen one San Lucas Robin at the first stream crossing, it wasn't until we hit the Pine/Oak near the top that there were Baird's Juncos and both birds became quite frequent up in the forest.
We reached our camp at about 7:00 PM and were pleased to have two Cape Pygmy-Owls calling from along the hillside next to camp. They did have a single note call similar to Northern Pygmy-Owl. As we finished setting up camp Mexican Whip-Poor-Will began calling from the edge of camp and both Great Horned and Western Screech Owls were heard that evening. La Laguna Meadow is very beautiful and although the grass in the meadow was dry now, there was a small creek going through the center and the surrounding forest is mostly green. It is a very beautiful oasis at the very top of the mountains. Although we did not drink water from the small creek, we were told that it was good at one end of the meadow that probably stretches for more than a mile and maybe is a 1/4 mile wide. Our next day and a half was spent finding (recording and photographing) the four endemic birds on the mountain (Cape Pygmy-Owl, Xantus' Hummingbird, Baird's Junco and San Lucas Robin). Coming down the mountain from our camp at a reasonably good pace took about 6 1/2 hours. Photos of these 4 birds can be found at http://owling.com along with recordings of the Pygmy-Owl.
The Cape Pygmy seems a bit shyer than the Northern Pygmy and it was very difficult to get him to come down out of the very tall trees. His call is similar to Northern Pygmy, although has a slightly faster pacing between notes, and a somewhat higher pitch that almost had a Whip-Poor-Will quality to it. He was quite similar in appearance to the Northern Pygmy-Owl. These owls move down the mountains in the winter and our guide claimed that they could often be found at the base of the mountains in December (winter).
Leaving La Laguna and Todos Santos we went went back down around the tip to San Jose del Cabo to look for Belding's Yellowthroat behind the Presidente Hotel (per Howell - the reeds have grown back now). Very nice views of several birds (8) and they were quite distinctive. Continuing north towards La Paz we also stopped in a favored desert wash, 9 miles north of the airport bridge to see Gray Thrashers and later that evening Western Screech and Elf Owls. We left La Paz on the ferry with our car on the afternoon of June 5th.
As I sort through the recordings and photos, more will be added but for now there are some pictures of the 6 endemic birds (Gray Thrasher, Belding's Yellowthroat, Cape Pygmy-Owl, Baird's Junco, San Lucas Robin and Xantus's Hummingbird - also the non-North America occuring Mangrove Warbler) and a new Pygmy Owl page for the Cape Pygmy-Owl on Owling.com (http://owling.com). Note also that Cape Titmouse may also be considered a separate species and endemic and though we saw them up at La Laguna, I didn't get any photos of them. Next owling.com update will come with many new photos and recordings of the Mexican owls (Balsas Screech... Wow!).
The 5 days in Baja (1 full day spent fooling with paperwork to take our car across to Mainland Mexico on the ferry) produced some nice birds. Seen on the Ferry across to Mazatlan were such things as Sooty Shearwater, Least Storm-Petrel, Galapagos (Wedge-rumped) Storm-Petrel, Black Storm-Petrel, Red-billed Tropicbird (5 birds), Brown Booby, Magnificent Frigatebird,...
Aliso Viejo, CA