13 - 25 February 2001
by Ann Johnson
Well, our most recent trip to Mexico was certainly memorable – 342 species of birds, great weather, a minor volcano eruption, a visit to a Mexican hospital, and much more. Twelve birders from Iowa, Colorado and Arizona embarked on this year’s trip. On the advice of our leader, Bob “Mexico for under $500” Cecil, we planned to rendezvous in Laredo, Texas on 13 February before entering Mexico. Seven people (Cecil, Disbrow, Gedler, Johnson, Moore, Tetrault, and Zaletel) drove two vehicles from Iowa, four people (Brees, Dinsmore, Jackson, and Niyo) drove one vehicle from Colorado, and one person (Widner) brought a vehicle from Arizona. Only three of these vehicles (a Toyota Camry, a Chevy Tahoe, and a minivan) would enter Mexico. The weather during the trip was great with generally clear skies and temperatures reaching into the 80s (low 90s along the coast). We encountered some light fog north of Monterrey on our first day, but otherwise had no visibility problems. In the following account, all times are in Central Standard and miles driven each day by car are in parentheses.
14 February (Wednesday)
We met in Laredo at 2 p.m. We spent an hour exchanging money, getting vehicle insurance and trying unsuccessfully to find a working ATM machine (the computers were down all over town). We then headed northwest to the Colombia border crossing where we obtained our tourist passes and vehicle entry permits in less than an hour. We also found a working money machine there that spit out stacks of pesos. This border crossing is certainly more efficient and less traveled than the main crossing in Laredo and is well worth the extra 20-minute drive. By 6 p.m., we had finished the border stuff and were back in Laredo. We ate dinner at Tony Roma’s and spent the night at the Red Roof Inn ($45 per double room).
15 February (Thursday)
We departed Laredo at 5:30 a.m. and quickly crossed into Mexico at Nuevo Laredo. Kay had invested in three 2-way radios, and these proved to be a lifesaver on the trip. They were especially helpful for pointing out birds at 70 mph and for passing slow-moving vehicles on the typically treacherous mountain roads Mexico has to offer. Ann saw a flock of Tamaulipas Crows on the outskirts of Monterrey, but that was the only highlight of an otherwise long drive. We made good time, easily skirted Monterrey, and enjoyed good roads with very little traffic.
Southwest of Monterrey, we turned south on Highway 57, crossed the Sierra Madre Oriental, and found ourselves on an area of expansive high plains. We continued south on Highway 57, arriving at the large Mexican Prairie Dog colonies in Nuevo Leon at 10 a.m. We birded here for about 3 hours, mostly at the large prairie dog colony along Highway 57 near the small town of Las Vegas. Our target bird was Mountain Plover, and I finally managed to find a cooperative flock of 53 individuals just as we were about to leave. I was hoping to find one wearing color bands that I had put on in Montana, but they were all unbanded. This flock may have contained local breeders (the first breeding record for Mexico was from this locale in 1999) or wintering birds from the U.S..
After studying the birds for a few minutes, three locals drove up, obviously concerned about our presence. After a few minutes of interesting conversation (mostly gesturing since none of us fully understood what they were saying), it became apparent that this was their ranch and the prairie dogs were protected. We showed them some plovers, tried to explain that I studied this species in Montana, and then they drove off. We were pretty sure they understood we meant no harm. Other birds we saw in this area included Ferruginous Hawks, a Golden Eagle, a flock of 32 Mountain Bluebirds, and Curve-billed Thrasher. We then continued on to Zacatecas, a beautiful city situated at about 8,000 feet. Lodging at the Hotel Aristos ($66 for a double room). (563 miles)
16 February (Friday)
After the long drive yesterday, we decided on a leisurely 7 a.m. departure this morning. We continued south along Highway 54 for about an hour to the La Quemada ruins, where we birded until 11:30 a.m. The ruins are located on a small butte, surrounded by scrub thickets interspersed with patches of cactus and grassy fields. This is high desert country, and some of the more interesting birds we saw here included single Greater and Lesser Roadrunners, Broad-billed Hummingbird, several Gray Flycatchers, Verdin, Bewick’s Wren, a Phainopepla, a Green-tailed Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Black-chinned Sparrow, and a pair of Scott’s Orioles. The number of Chipping, Lark and Vesper sparrows here was impressive.
After this stop, we continued south on Highway 54 to Guadalajara. Despite rush-hour traffic, we easily passed around the north end of town. Before leaving town, we stopped for one of Bob’s favorite Mexican meals – pollo asado (grilled chicken). We ate at the same roadside stand in March 2000 and this is definitely my favorite Mexican meal. After a tasty dinner and beers, we continued southwest on Highway 80. A quick stop near kilometer marker 79 produced Eastern and Western bluebirds and several Stripe-headed Sparrows just as it was getting dark. We then continued on to Union de Tula where we spent the night (Hotel y Bungalos La Martinica, $20 for a double room). (310 miles)
17 February (Saturday)
We departed Union de Tula at 6:45 a.m. and continued southwest on Highway 80 towards Autlan de Navarro, birthplace of Carlos Santana. A quick stop at the San Francisco microwave tower road north of town produced Brown-crested Flycatcher and a couple of White-throated Magpie-Jays and not much else. We continued through town towards the Puerto Los Mazos microwave tower road, arriving there at 8:30 a.m. From the parking area, we could see the distant microwave tower atop the crest of the Sierra Madre del Sur. This well-known birding area involves a moderately arduous 10-kilometer round trip hike on a winding cobblestone road, but it’s worth it.
The road begins in a dry oak forest, gradually climbing into more humid oak forest and then finally ending in a tropical deciduous forest. Birding in the dry oak forest was pretty slow, although we did manage to find a few birds including Arizona Woodpecker, Cassin’s, Plumbeous, and Golden vireos (all in the same tree), Tufted and Dusky-capped flycatchers, Crescent-chested and Rufous-capped warblers, Painted and Slate-throated redstarts, Scrub Euphonia, Hepatic Tanager, and Streak-backed Oriole. At the top, the forest was dense and humid and the birds were in greater abundance. We found one large tree that was literally covered with birds including White-throated Thrush, Tropical Parula, Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, Hermit, and Red-faced warblers, and Western, Flame-colored, and Red-headed tanagers.
Other birds we saw near the top included a very cooperative Linneated Woodpecker, Olivaceous, Ivory-billed, and White-striped woodcreepers, Green Jay, Brown-backed Solitaires, Blue Mockingbird, a male Golden-winged Warbler, Green-striped Brush-Finch, and Black-headed Siskin. We were back at the cars at 3:15 p.m. for a quick snack of crackers, kippers and beer. We then continued south towards La Manzanilla, quickly crossing over the Sierra Madre del Sur and then making brief stops to look at a Roadside Hawk and a flock of 9 Lilac-crowned Parrots.
We arrived in La Manzanilla at 5 p.m. Several of us spent a few minutes at the mangrove swamp at the west edge of town where we saw many herons and egrets, Anhingas, Northern Jacana, flocks of Orange-fronted Parakeet, a Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Thick-billed Kingbirds, and numerous Yellow-winged Caciques. All the while, three crocodiles sunned themselves on the nearby mudflat. We ate dinner at one of the many beachfront restaurants, enjoying passing Brown Boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, and Heermann’s Gulls while being eaten alive by pesky mosquitoes and no-see-um’s. We spent the night at Hotel Posada Tonala in La Manzanilla ($40 for a double room) (113 miles)
18 February (Sunday)
Some of us had hoped to spend the day at sea in a panga boat, but we decided against this when we found out there were no life vests. Instead, we left La Manzanilla at 7 a.m. and headed inland towards Barranca el Choncho, a narrow forested canyon with a small stream. The first thing we heard when we got out of the cars was the noisy squawking of a flock of West Mexican Chachalacas. With some effort we managed to get good looks at these birds as they hopped around the canopy overhead. The birding was good along the entire canyon, especially at the upper end where the forest gives way to dry scrub habitat.
The list of birds seen here included Zone-tailed Hawk, Lilac-crowned Parrot, displaying Golden-crowned Emeralds found by Aaron, Cinnamon and Bumblebee hummingbirds, Citreoline Trogon, Green Kingfisher, a stunning and very cooperative Pale-billed Woodpecker, Greenish Elaenia, Flammulated Flycatcher, Rose-throated Becard, Masked Tityra, Golden Vireo, San Blas Jay, Sinaloa, White-bellied, and Gray-breasted Wood- wrens, Rufous-backed Thrush, Fan-tailed Warbler, Greyish Saltator, Orange-breasted Bunting, Rufous-capped Brush-Finch, and Black-vented Oriole. We also enjoyed looks at some very cool butterflies including a couple of malachites and a morpho. A cooperative dark morph Hook-billed Kite soared overhead just as we were about to leave at 11:30 a.m.
Our next stop was at the Manzanillo airport marshes. We birded along the road from noon until 2:30 p.m. in 90-degree heat. The drying marsh was simply teeming with birds, but most were too distant to see well in the heat waves. Despite the heat, we saw quite a few birds including most of the common herons, a flock of 200 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Short-tailed Hawk, Limpkin, Ringed Kingfisher, and a Willow Flycatcher.
We then returned to La Manzanilla for some beach time. A few people wandered along the edge of the nearby mangrove swamp and found a pair of Mangrove Black-Hawks. At 5 p.m., eight of us met local guide Dave Collins of Immersion Adventures (www.immersionadventures.com.) for a kayak trip through the mangrove swamp. After a thorough (at least two of us had kayaked before and thought it was overly long) introduction to kayaking, we hit the water at 6 p.m. This boat ride was easily one of the highlights of the trip. In addition to large numbers of herons, egrets, Anhingas, and Neotropic Cormorants, we managed to see Least Grebe, a cooperative Least Bittern, 17 Boat-billed Herons, a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, two Muscovys, several small flocks of Red-billed Pigeons and Orange-fronted Parakeets, and huge numbers of Tropical and Thick-billed kingbirds roosting for the night. Aaron and I managed to get fair looks at three Coatamundis as it was getting dark. The cost was $15 per person and it was worth every cent.
That evening the hotel owner cooked us a wonderful meal of fresh fish ($6 per person). After a few beers, several of us got the munchies and walked next door for street tacos, another favored Mexican meal. We again spent the night at Hotel Posada Tonala in La Manzanilla (75 miles)
19 February (Monday)
This was a day I will not soon forget. We left La Manzanilla at 6:30 a.m. and arrived at the Playa del Oro Road an hour later. The road winds through several miles of dry forest and scrub habitat before ending at the ocean. We stopped often along the road, frequently shuttling vehicles ahead while the rest of the group walked. Birds seen along the road included Roadside and Short-tailed hawks, a flyover Peregrine Falcon, a calling Colima Pygmy-Owl, Lilac-crowned Parrot, Golden-crowned Emerald, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Citreoline Trogon, Greenish Elaenia, Nutting’s Flycatcher, Thick-billed Kingbird, Golden Vireo, San Blas Jay, Lucy’s Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, and Varied and Orange-breasted buntings. At the end of the road, where it overlooks the ocean, we saw Red-billed Tropicbirds and Brown Boobies circling their offshore nesting island. Shorebirds on the beach consisted of a Spotted Sandpiper, a Whimbrel, and a Long-billed Curlew. We enjoyed a snack of crackers, kippers, and fresh pineapple while we scanned the ocean for birds.
We left Playa del Oro at 1:15 p.m. and headed for the beach resort of El Paraiso, arriving there at 2:30 p.m. On the way, we stopped to scan the coastal lagoons east of Manzanillo where we saw an abundance of waterbirds including Reddish Egret, Long-billed Curlew, Herring Gull, Black Skimmer, and a lone Mangrove Swallow. When we arrived at El Paraiso, the hawkers quickly found us and tried to sell us hammocks and jewelry. The plan was to loaf on the beach at El Paraiso for a couple of hours before birding Boca Armeria in the evening.
After a beer, several of us headed for the water. All our plans changed when I took a spill in the surf and dislocated my right shoulder. Bob, Russ and Aaron loaded me in Russ’s vehicle and we managed to find a hospital in Tecoman by hiring a taxi driver. Nearly two hours after the accident, they re-set my shoulder, gave me some medication and a makeshift sling, and sent me on my way. Dinner was especially refreshing after this ordeal: street tacos and beer in Tecoman. We spent the night at Hotel Paraiso ($26 for a double room) (84 miles)
20 February (Tuesday)
We took it easy this morning and ate a nice breakfast on the oceanfront in La Paraiso. Staring at the ocean during breakfast turned up 3 Black Skimmers and not much else. We departed La Paraiso at 10 a.m. Our first stop was at the Tampumachay tombs, where we arrived at 10:45 a.m. It was hot and the tombs were pretty quiet, but we did manage to find a Zone-tailed Hawk, a covey of Banded Quail, a calling Colima Pygmy-Owl, several White-throated Magpie-Jays, Orchard Orioles, and Varied and Blue buntings. We departed at noon and headed for our next stop at Balniero Agua Fria, just west of Colima. This is a popular swimming spot for the locals, but also offers some good birding. Some of the birds seen here included a Short-tailed Hawk, an unusually cooperative Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl found by Hank, a Squirrel Cuckoo, a Ringed Kingfisher, and a Gray-collared Becard.
We left Agua Fria at 2 p.m. and headed for Colima where we made a quick stop at the Torres residence. The family is friends with Bob and their daughter, Rocio, had made many of the motel arrangements for our trip. After a brief visit, we headed towards Comala. On an earlier trip, Bob had christened Comala as the “free food wars” town. Apparently, the local beer distributor provides free food to all local restaurants, which they then provide to any customer who orders a beer. Sure enough, as soon as we ordered beer the free food began to arrive – tacos, ceviche, tortillas with a variety of fillings, fresh cucumber and jicama, etc. To top it off, a local band was playing live music and a woman at the next table managed to drag Aaron out of his chair for a dance, much to the delight of all the patrons.
After a great meal, we left and headed for the small resort of La Maria, arriving there at 6 p.m. La Maria is nestled in the mountains north of Comala, a small lake surrounded by lush vegetation. We would spend the next two nights here in some recently remodeled cabins ($10 per person per night). The cabins were comfortable and affordable, but there was no hot water. At dusk, a Lesser Nighthawk appeared over the cabins. Once it was dark, we headed down to the lake where we managed to track down a pair of Mottled Owls and briefly heard a distant Balsas Screech-Owl. (77 miles)
21 February (Wednesday)
This was our day to bird La Maria. Most of us walked the trails around the lake from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. in constantly changing groups. The birding here was excellent. Some of the more ubiquitous birds included Tufted Flycatchers, Nashville, Yellow-rumped, and Wilson’s warblers, and Northern Waterthrushes. Other birds seen around the lake included Least Grebe, Gray Hawk, West Mexican Chachalaca, Broad-billed, Berylline, and Bumblebee hummingbirds, a cooperative pair of Elegant Trogons, Green Kingfisher, single Smoky-brown and Gray-crowned woodpeckers, White-striped Woodcreeper, a Bright-rumped Attila, Masked Tityra, Rufous-naped and Canyon wrens, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Tropical Parula, Colima, Yellow-throated, MacGillivray’s, and Fan-tailed warblers, Painted and Slate-throated redstarts, Flame-colored Tanager, Yellow and Black-headed grosbeaks, and Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow.
The grassy areas around the cabins also had lots of birds including noisy flocks of Groove-billed Anis, Vermilion Flycatcher, Spotted Wren, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue-black Grassquit, White-collared Seedeater, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Lesser Goldfinch. At 3 p.m., we headed for Comala and dinner, first stopping at a spot along the south edge of town. We walked the road there for a few minutes and saw a flock of 75 Mexican Parrotlets, a cooperative Blue Mockingbird, and a flock of Cedar Waxwings. In town, we visited a local coffee business and several of us bought fresh ground (=still warm) coffee. Dinner wasn’t quite as exciting as yesterday (e.g., no dancing lessons), but the band played a song for “The Iowans” and several of our group bought their CD. We were back at La Maria at 6:30 p.m. (35 miles)
22 February (Thursday)
This was the day for our trip up Volcan de Fuego. The twin volcanoes (Fuego and Nieve) dominate the landscape north of Colima, and Fuego was especially interesting today. At 5:30 a.m. a loud boom awakened several members of our group. I managed to sleep through it, much as I did a year ago for an earthquake. Anyway, we soon forgot about the boom as we headed for Fuego at 7 a.m. Somewhere along Highway 54 northeast of Colima, we began noticing that the air and roads were unusually dusty. Well, someone finally figured it out – the “dust” was really volcanic ash, and the loud boom earlier in the morning had signaled an eruption! Part of an official excerpt on this eruption read as follows:
On 22 February, the Colima Volcano experienced a moderate explosion. The resulting ash cloud rose ~2 km above the volcano. Incandescent ballistics were thrown ~3 km away from the volcano and landed on the N, NE, and NW slopes of Colima. Large blocks (several meters in diameter) also rolled ~400 m from the summit. The eruptive column collapsed and produced small pyroclastic flows that moved towards the SW. The zone of exclusion remains at 6.5 km.
We arrived at the base of Fuego at 8:15 a.m. We made several quick stops here in scrub habitat interspersed with agricultural fields. There were lots of birds, mostly sparrows and Blue Grosbeaks, but we also enjoyed Cassin’s and Western kingbirds, Blue Mockingbird, Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow, and Stripe-headed Sparrow. The road then climbed quickly into a dry oak forest where we made several more stops. This stretch of road was very birdy and we saw three Lesser Roadrunners, Acorn Woodpecker, a cooperative female Red-naped Sapsucker, Hairy Woodpecker, a noisy flock of Bushtits, Spotted Wren, many warblers including Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, Red-faced, and Olive, and Lesser Goldfinch.
The road, or what was left of it, then climbed quickly into a humid oak forest and then finally disappeared in a mixed deciduous and coniferous forest near the edge of the volcano exclusion zone. The number of birds here dropped considerably, but we did see some interesting species including flocks of Vaux’s and White-throated swifts overhead, Mountain Trogon, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Olive-sided, Cordilleran, and Hammond’s flycatchers, Gray-collared Becard, Dwarf, Cassin’ s, Plumbeous, and Hutton’s vireos, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Rufous-backed Thrush, Colima, Crescent-chested, Hermit, MacGillivray’s, Red-faced, Rufous-capped, Golden-browed, and Olive warblers, Hepatic Tanager, and Collared Towhee.
At the end of the road near the exclusion zone, Tim and I had a great time tracking down an unusual ticking call coming from a thicket – a displaying male Green Violet-ear. We also saw a few White-eared and Calliope hummingbirds and a single Blue-throated Hummingbird in this area. At 4:30 p.m. we began our descent of the volcano.
We ended the day birding the expansive wetlands that lie along the western edge of Ciudad Guzman, where we arrived at 5:30 p.m. Birding along the busy highway was tricky, but we managed to stop a couple of times and found Western and Clark’s grebes, a Peregrine Falcon, Least Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Tree and Bank swallows, Marsh Wren, and a Song Sparrow. At dusk, the hordes of Yellow-headed Blackbirds were impressive with flocks extending for miles along the horizon. I conservatively estimated there were 50,000 birds. Lodging at the Hotel Zapotlan in Ciudad Guzman ($17 for a double room). (93 miles)
23 February (Friday)
This was the day to bird the other volcano, Volcan de Nieve. This volcano is inactive and we didn’t anticipate any of the excitement of the previous day. We left Ciudad Guzman at 7 a.m. and arrived at the base of the volcano by 7:30 a.m. This road is in far better condition than the road up Fuego and can be easily driven in a car. Because we had only a half-day to bird, we chose to bypass the dry oak forest along the lower road and proceed directly to the more humid deciduous forest farther up. We walked the better part of five miles of the road here, finishing in the spruce forest higher up. At our first stop we encountered a large mixed-species flock that included Mountain Trogon, Mexican Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Dwarf Vireo, Red-faced, Golden-browed, and Olive warblers, and Black-headed Siskin.
The small clusters of red flowers along the road were teeming with hummingbirds, mostly Green Violet-ear and White-eared and Magnificent hummingbirds, and we also found no fewer than 18 Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers. Crescent-chested Warblers and Slate-throated Redstarts were common and we also saw a flyover Peregrine Falcon, Ruby-throated, Calliope, and Bumblebee hummingbirds, Banded Wren, and Orange-billed and Russet nightingale-thrushes. As we climbed into the spruce forest the birdlife changed dramatically. The birds became fewer in number, but got more interesting: an Aztec Thrush, 20+ Red Warblers (easily my favorite bird in Mexico), several Collared Towhees, Yellow-eyed Juncos, and several small flocks of Red Crossbills. Most of the group continued to the top where they looked across to Fuego, still smoldering from the eruption the morning before. At 1:30 p.m. we reluctantly began our descent and headed for Zacatecas where we arrived at 9:15 p.m. Lodging at the Hotel Aristos ($66 for a double room). (314 miles)
Bob and I birded both volcanos in March 2000, and Bob has birded here on several other occasions. We are both in agreement that Fuego may not be worth the time or wear on a vehicle. The road up Fuego was in very poor condition, even though we were there during the dry season. For the last few miles before the exclusion zone, the birding was extremely slow. Contrast this with Nieve, where the road is not a problem and the birding was spectacular along the entire road. We recommend that visiting birders seriously consider spending most of their time on Nieve, with perhaps a half-day of birding along the lower road to Fuego.
24 February (Saturday)
Now the real fun began – the 1,600-mile trip home. We left Zacatecas at 7 a.m. and headed north on Highway 54. At kilometer marker 308, we turned east on a gravel road towards the small town of Rancho Arbolitos. After passing through the town, we continued east on a very rough road towards some large prairie dog colonies. This is supposed to be a good spot for Worthen’s Sparrows, but we hadn’t found any here last year. I was also interested in the possibility of finding more Mountain Plovers, but in this we were unsuccessful. We birded this area for about two hours and saw several Ferruginous Hawks, a Prairie Falcon, numerous coveys of Scaled Quail, several Sprague’s Pipits, Canyon Towhee, Cassin’s Sparrow, and a flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Aaron and I walked several grassy ravines in the hopes of chasing down a Worthen’s Sparrow.
Just as we were about to give up, Aaron found three very cooperative individuals. Aaron took the rest of the group back a short time later, but the birds were gone. We then returned to Highway 54 and headed for the border at Nuevo Laredo. On the way, we added two more trips birds: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and, lastly, European Starling. At the border, there were good numbers of migrant Scissor-tailed Flycatchers roosting in the trees around the buildings. After turning in our vehicle permits, we entered the U. S. at 7 p.m. and headed for Laredo. We grabbed a quick dinner, exchanged our remaining money, transferred luggage to the proper vehicles, and then headed our separate ways. It was here that we experienced our only vehicle trouble – Hank’s minivan had a nearly flat tire that he repaired before heading to Iowa. Our group from Colorado arrived home at 3:30 p.m. on 25 February after a 1,100-mile drive, and the Iowa group arrived a couple of hours later at 6 p.m. (490 miles to Laredo)
List of species (342 species)
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
West Mexican Chachalaca
San Blas Jay
N. Rough-winged Swallow
House (Brown-throated) Wren
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Elegant (Blue-hooded) Euphonia
Bob Cecil, leader
Steve Dinsmore, author