23 December 1998 - 4 January 1999
by Bob Cecil
My wife, son John, his girlfriend Briana, and myself left for Colima, Mexico on Dec 21, 1998 as soon as we completed the compilation of the Keokuk IA/IL/MO CBC. We drove all night and arrived at Laredo, Texas the following afternoon. We did the border stuff (insurance, money exchange, tourist and auto permits) when we got there so that we could depart early AM the next morning. As usual, we got papers at the Columbia crossing, about 20 miles north of Laredo. Insurance from Sanborns - money from a local casa de cambio.
Wednesday the 23rd at 6:30 AM we crossed the border and drove straight for Zacatecas. The weather was unseasonably cold - ice covered the cacti in the high country between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey. My wife was worried about finding lodging during the busy holiday season, so we had advance reservations at the Hotel Aristos where we had stayed before. However, the place was nearly empty. This was by far the most expensive place I have ever stayed in Mexico - one room for four was about $70. The grounds are beautiful, and the hotel overlooks the city. We walked to the town center in the evening for tacos and exploring. There were a few birds around, including an empid which John spent an hour on and though maybe Willow, plus Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Robin, and House Finch.
We left the next morning for Colima. We didn't make many stops, but did check the mixed flocks of birds not far south of Zacatecas near the large archeological site/ruins - mostly Lark Sparrows and Lark Buntings but also Chipping, Grasshopper, and Clay-colored Sparrows. Nearby were Curve-billed Thrashers and Canyon Towhees, as well as a Cinnamon Teal in a small pond. We traveled on south through Guadalajara, stopping for pollo asado, grilled chicken sold by street vendors throughout Mexico.
Just south of Guadalajara are vast, shallow lagoons that become mudflats in the dry season, of which we were in the middle. In 3 or 4 brief stops, we found perhaps 5000 Least/Western Sandpipers, 2500 Northern Shovelers, 1000 American Avocets, 500 Black-necked Stilts, but not much else. Surely, a dedicated shorebirder with more time could have found many more species. Farther down the road, we saw the huge flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds for which Ciudad Guzman is known. Volcan de Fuego came into view, belching far more smoke than usual. We arrived at the home of our friends in Colima (actually the suburb of Villa de Alveraz) early on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. In a tree outside their house were a dozen Lucy's Warblers.
The Torres family is related to my wife's sister-in-law, and we met them about three years ago in Cd. Guzman. Their 21 year old daughter, Rocio, wanted to learn English, so we invited her to visit us in the US, where she stayed for about 5 months. It was a wonderful experience for all of us, and her English went from nada to pretty good. Our families have been very close since.
Since my son and I were accompanied by non birders (my wife and his girlfriend), we were unable to devote full time to birding. The following are accounts of short outings that we did make. Not generally mentioned but frequently seen: Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, both vultures, Gray Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Am. Kestral, Rock Dove, Morning Dove, Inca Dove, Groove-billed Ani, unidentifiable hummingbirds, Great Kiskadee, kingbird sp., Rough-winged Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Mockingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Nashville Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Great-tailed Grackle, Streak-backed Oriole, House Sparrow.
Colima and the road towards Minatitlan. Rocio's house is at the edge of town amid undeveloped, weedy areas. Short walks often produced the following species: American Kestral, Banded Quail, White-winged and Inca Dove, Vermillion Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Thick-billed Kingbird, Barn Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Mockingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Blue- black Grassquit, White-collared Seedeater, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Orchard Oriole, and Streak-backed Oriole. Immature/female hummers were also present, and one morning, a hundred or more Yellow-winged Caciques flew through.
We took a short trip on Highway 98, which runs from Villa de Alverez across the Rio Armeria towards Minatitlan. In the thorn forest about 3 miles past the river, we found our first Red-breasted Chat. Farther along, we found Orange-fronted Parakeet and White-throated Magpie Jay. Although we only drove about 15 miles along this road, we saw that it traversed some high quality habitat of various types, and decided to return later.
Comala and area. Comala is a quaint little town about five miles towards the volcano from Colima. It is mentioned in many tourist guides so it is not unusual to encounter a Gringo or two there. At the entrance to town there is a pleasant but polluted stream gurgling past rocks and boulders. Birding along it can often be pretty good, and in an hour or so we found Squirrel Cuckoo, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, N. Beardless Tyrannulet, Rose-throated Becard, Sinaloa Wren, Rufous-backed Thrush, Cassin's, Golden, and Warbling Vireos, Black-and-White Warbler, and Wilson's Warbler. Off other roads within a mile or two of here, we found a Gray Hawk engaged in the seemingly futile exercize of trying to catch one of several Mexican Parrolets; also, Orange-fronted Parakeets and MacGillivary's Warbler among more common stuff.
Manzanillo and other beach towns. One of Rocio's brothers is a supervisor for the Corona distributor in Manzanillo, so we went there one Sunday to spend the day with him on the beach. John and I abandoned the beach scene pretty quickly and searched some of the nearby lagoons. More interesting birds included Brown Booby, Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Magnificient Frigatebird, Tricolored Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White Ibis, Wilson's Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, California Gull and Northern Waterthrush.. The next morning we headed back towards Colima, but stopped at Pasquales first. Pasquales is a tiny beach town on the south side of the mouth of the Rio Armeria, and is accessed by driving through the city of Tecoman. Sometimes, the surf here is huge, attracting surfers from the US and elsewhere. It is always risky to swim, so most people just wade or sit on the beach. The lagoons behind the beach and the river mouth can offer good birding, and in the past we have found Roseate Spoonbill and Collared Plover among the ubiquitous herons, ducks, terns, etc. The only new birds for this trip were Marbled Godwit and Green Kingfisher.
Mary and Briana took the bus with Rocio to the market in Guadajalara, which gave John and I a full day of birding. We decided to drive the highway to Minatitlan. Highway 98 is the free highway to Manzanillo from Colima, via Minatitlan. For some reason, it is not marked on the generally very good Atlas de Carreteras, patchily available if you're lucky. The highway runs through much undistubed habitat, including the Manantlan Biosphere Reserve, and has lots of places to pull over and explore. We found Ruddy Ground Dove, Squirrel Cuckoo, Lesser Ground Cuckoo (seen only by John as it darted/flew across the road), Lesser Roadrunner, Mountain (?) Pygmy Owl, Golden-crowned Emerald, green trogon sp., Greater Pewee, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Nutting's Flycatcher, Rose-throated Becard, White-throated Magpie Jay, Spotted Wren, Sinaloa Wren, Brown-backed Solitaire, Swainson's Thrush, White-throated Thrush, Rufous-backed Thrush, Black-throated Gray, Townsend's, Black-throated Green, and Black-and-White Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrush, Painted Redstart, Slate- throated Redstart, Fan-tailed Warbler, Rufous-capped Warbler, Red-breasted Chat, Red- crowned Ant-Tanager, Summer Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager, Varied Bunting, Orange-breasted Bunting, Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrow, White-collared Seedeater, and Baltimore Oriole.
We still had some time in the afternoon so we headed to La Maria, a lovely natural lake about 15 miles past Comala near San Antonio and the Volcano. This tropical forest/coffee vinca on the edge of the thorn forest is one of our favorite birding places in west Mexico. Try to get there fairly early on a week day (2 pesos charge per person) to avoid the crowds and noise of weekends. A bridge is being constructed over the stream by San Antonio - about time. At La Maria we found Ladder-backed Woodpecker (we had forgotton that this desert species sometimes uses tropical woodlands), Gray-crowned Woodpecker, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Tufted Flycatcher, Vermillion Flycatcher, Rose-throated Becard, Eastern Bluebird, Painted Redstart, Flame-colored Tanager, and Red-headed Tanager. Previous trips have produced Thicket Tinamou, Brown- backed Solitaire, Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, White-throated Thrush, Blue Mockingbird, Gray Silky, Golden Vireo, Fan-tailed Warbler, Mountain and Elegant Trogons and a variety of winter warblers. We stopped at a tiny store for our traditional bottle of Indio - a wonderful but hard to find dark Mexican beer - and headed back to Colima.
Barra de Navidad etc. Barra de Navidad/Melaque is a developed tourist area with lots of hotels. Our plan was to stay here for the night and then to head out early the next morning for Autlan, a well-known highland birding spot. Unfortunately, there were a million tourists there and the only room we could find was $110 for a pretty dingy suite
at the Sands. We decided to head back towards Colima and get a room at the Hotel Parisio in the tiny beach town of el Paraiso, just outside of the city of Armeria. This, too, was filled up (a first for us ) so we headed to a place John had found in a travel guide (Pacific Mexico Handbook) and visited briefly with Briana. Tampumchay is a hotel/restaurant about 8 miles south of Colima off the Los Amoles exit and features an archaeological site and some pretty good desert/thorn forest birding. Got rooms ($20 for a double), and heard a Pygmy-Owl sp. (see note).
The next morning we got permission to walk around and headed for the tombs: Lesser Nighthawk, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Nutting's Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher,White-throated Magpie-Jay, Rufous-naped Wren, Rufous-backed Thrush, Black-headed Grosbeak, Blue Grosbeak, Orange-breasted Bunting, and Yellow- winged Cacique. We set out a hummingbird feeder and managed to pull in a Broad- tailed.
Road to Playa de Oro and the El Toro Microwave tower. These well known birding spots are a few miles north of Manzanillo. We stayed the night before at Playa Paraiso ($15 a night for a double) and left the next morning before dawn, getting to El Toro about sunrise. Here we saw a small shrub covered with dead leaves suddenly defoliate and turn into a cloud of Zebra Butterflies. Species seen at the two locations included Ruddy Ground-Dove, White-tipped Dove, Squirrel Cuckoo, Golden-crowned Emerald, Beryline Hummingbird, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Citreoline Trogon (the Playa de Oro road is the only place in Mexico where I have seen this species), Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Western Wood-Pewee, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Flamulated Flycatcher (John), Rose-throated Becard, San Blas Jay, Happy Wren, Sinaloa Wren, White- bellied Wren, Golden Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Tropical Parula, Rufous-capped Warbler, Red-breasted Chat, Grayish Saltator, Black-headed Grosbeak, Blue Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Orange-breasted Bunting, and Yellow-winged Cacique. Unfortunately, we had a checkout deadline back at the Hotel Paraiso, so we could not bird these areas as thoroughly as they deserved. We returned to Paraiso to spend some beach time. This is a small and rustic beach village where Gringos are nonexistant but well treated. Warm green waves roll in, frequently large enough to sweep you off your feet.
The microwave shrine. Officially "Microondas La Cumbre," it is easily seen on a hilltop south of Colima, and is accessed from Highway 110. At the top and on the way up we found Lesser Roadrunner, Allen's and Cinnamon Hummingbirds, and Black-chested Sparrow. This is pretty good thorn forest habitat and surely there are more species of birds here. Back toards Colima near where 110 intersects the Manzanillo Autopista, there is a small lagoon that usually has several hundred to a thousand or more water birds present. It is always worth checking.
One afternoon, we saw a couple of hummingbirds feeding on the flowers at Rocio's, so we finally got around to hanging up the feeder. Little interest the first day, but the next day a couple of female/immature birds (Broad-tailed?) and a Berylline's showed up. The next day, an agressive male Rufous appeared. Both John and I commented that he looked like he had been around feeders before. Regarding hummingbird feeders, we found that they were of little value if left up only an hour or two, but were worthwhile over a longer time. Other than ours, we have never seen a hummingbird feeder in Mexico.
--I'm sure most of you heard about the eruption of Volcan de Fuego. It started in Nov. and was still active when we were there. The local entertainment in Colima was to drive out towards the volcano at night and watch the lava spill down. We went out a couple of nights - one gave us a pretty good display. On clear nights, the orange glow at its peak could be seen from Colima. Naturally, we did not make an attempt to bird it. It appeared from our vantage that the lava has scoured off perhaps the top 4000/5000 feet of the mountain - as I recall, most of this had been forest. It looked like much of the road leading up it from Atenquique must have been destroyed, although we had no confirmation of this. We didn't have a chance to bird Volcan de Nieve.
--Pygmy Owls. We only saw one, which was probably a Mountain. We tried to attract owls and other birds by using its double note call but without success. At Tampumchay we heard what was probably a Colima. The next day we imitated its call and business picked up considerably. We used this same call for the rest of the trip - often interspersed with pishing, often with success. We even had an owl respond. The call we used was a medium pitched, hollow, monotonous whistle, about two per second or little slower, in a series of about 8 to 12.
--Recommended Reading. The Pacific Guide to Mexico (Moon Publications) is the best guide to this area I have found. Its author, Bruce Whipperman, has obviously driven every road in Western Mexico. It lists a lot of off-the-beaten-track places than can have good birding. The Peoples Guide to Mexico (John Muir Publications) by Carl Franz is is an indispensible and often side-splitting melange of travel tips, culture, the cops, booze, food, health, and general survival. This book can tell you how to say "fan belt" in Spanish. We never travel in Mexico without it. Both of these books are in print and available everywhere.
--As usual, there were several roadblocks set up by the military, the federales, or anti-narcotics squads. For the first time in many trips to Mexico, we were waved through all of these stops. Gringo amnesty month?
--No one got sick. We are always careful (but not paranoid), but I also think that Mexico is getting better about providing safe water and food.
Please contact me if you have questions, etc.
Des Moines, IA