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1 - 8 February 1998

by Pat Hodgson

I visited Jalisco (and a bit of Colima) on the west coast of Mexico from February 1-8, 1998.  It was not a dedicated birding trip, but a lot of time and effort was devoted to birding nevertheless.  It was a packaged resort trip (Club Med Playa Blanca), but chosen to be suitable for birding.  Some of our friends had been to this resort before and reported that it was quite isolated and surrounded by natural landscapes.  I went with my wife, who likes large, close, still, colorful birds for not more than two hours per day, and in Mexico met four friends from New York who are not birders.

Given the fact that I was staying at a beach resort with no mobility, I think I saw a lot of great birds.  I saw 101 species, and 56 were lifers.  I put in quite a bit of preparation which helped a lot.  Using the incredible "A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Central America" by Howell & Webb, I created a checklist for myself of everything that they indicated could be present near sea level in southern Jalisco in February, which was about 300 species.  Then I used little (removeable) stickers to mark those birds on the plates.  This was critical to studying only those things I really had to worry about.  I also put the stickers in "Mexican Birds" by R.T.Peterson & Chalif, since it was possible to carry that in the field.  Peterson was not good enough for tough ID's, however.  I also needed my Nat'l Geographic North American field guide, since the Mexican books don't show most North American species, such as seabirds, gulls, terns, shorebirds, and warblers.  I had never been to this part of Mexico before, nor Arizona or California, which shares some species.

I am not going to give a day-by-day account since I didn't really go to different places for the most part.  We flew directly (about 4 1/2 hours) from Toronto to Manzanillo in the state of Colima.  A flock of 75 Crested Caracaras cruised by the airport, and that was the only time I saw them.  We got on a bus and went 94km north on Highway 200.  The airport is (I think) landfill at the edge of a marsh that looked productive.  The first half of the drive went through mostly small towns and disturbed land - cattle grazing and coconut/banana/papaya/corn plantations.  I couldn't identify much from the drive other than cattle egrets and turkey vultures, as well as a pair of black-necked stilts in a streambed.  The second half of the drive followed a twisting road in very hilly country, which quickly became fairly unspoiled thorn forest, the main ecosystem of coastal Jalisco.  It is the dry season in the winter, and most of the trees of the thorn forest had shed their leaves.  It is not a tall forest, but more like a dry thicket with some large cacti.  A few areas were a bit wetter and greener, and of course the resort had some plantings supported by irrigation.  Our resort was not near any towns, but there were two other resorts and some fancy private homes nearby.  Most of the shoreline was rocky cliff, but with some beaches.  We were in a bay and not really overlooking the open ocean.

Our resort offered horseback riding, which was of great benefit since there was quite a network of trails through the thorn forest, although I saw lots from the access roads as well.  Most of my birding was from walking the trails in the morning and late afternoon.  Daylight came around 7:15 am so there wasn't much need for getting up early.  Birds were fairly active within the shady areas of the resort in mid-day, but it got pretty hot, and quiet, in the thorn forest.  Generally it was cool at night, (low 60's F) and warm to hot in the day (usually mid-80's F).  It never came close to raining, and was rarely more than slightly cloudy.

There were two half day trips away from the resort.  The first was a picnic at a very large beach about 10 km north of the resort, at the small town of Puenta Perula.  I walked along the beach and found that where it ended at a rocky cliff there was a stream coming in.  The tide was out so we could walk up the sandy banks of the stream quite a ways, seeing shorebirds and waders which quite obviously do not spend any time in the thorn forest.  The second trip was a boat trip on the ocean to "Bird Island" in Perula Bay offshore from Puenta Perula.  The ocean was quite rough with 8-10' swells coming in from the northwest, presumably related to the stormy weather in California.  I didn't see any seabirds at all, and probably couldn't have ID'd them anyways.  There were a lot of phalaropes (basic plumage) but I never quite determined if they were red or red-necked, although red is more likely.

The bird island itself was quite interesting, since it is a nesting colony for brown booby, which were sitting all over, including on top of huge cacti.  The boobies are very unwary, allowing people to walk right by them.  The juveniles had fledged but were still hanging around getting fed by their parents.  There were also a lot of black vultures observing.

Again, I mostly walked in the thorn forest, but also discovered I could walk to a mangrove marsh about 2 miles south of the resort as well.  Also, we had lots of time at the airport before our flight out, and I walked back along the access road to the airport, seeing lots of good marsh stuff.

A complete list follows, but first:

Favorite birds (most beautiful): citreoline trogon, golden-crowned emerald, red-breasted chat, golden vireo, grey hawk, yellow-headed parrot, squirrel cuckoo, tropical parula, streak-backed oriole

Favorite birds (other reasons): Pale-billed and lineated woodpeckers, because I think seeing big woodpeckers is a great indication of healthy forest.  Happy, Sinaloa, and white-bellied wrens, because I was really pleased to get all of them.  Not too hard to ID with good views.

Toughest ID's: Flycatchers, without question.  I saw many Myiarchus sp., but only a few could I call Nutting's flycatcher, based on the undertail pattern shown on Plate 41 of Howell & Webb.  I couldn't get anywhere with call notes.  These guys were really tough, especially for someone from the east who is not used to having to know anything other than great crested flycatcher.  I didn't see as many Empidonax, and they all looked like Pacific-slope, but were silent.

Also, I failed misearbly with swallows and swifts.  Many were overhead at times but generally at twilight and I got very few decent views.

Some birds to go back for (neat birds that should be there but I completely failed to see): rosy thrush-tanager, lesser ground-cuckoo, russet-crowned motmot, blue mockingbird, etc.

Birds I might have seen but failed to ID positively:
- 2 black hawks, not sure if common or great
- phalaropes as mentioned above
- about 10 terns, either royal or elegant
- 2 tiny parrots, probably Mexican parrotlet but too far off to see
- 1 Bell's vireo ?
- 1 northern or Louisiana waterthrush
- varied bunting females ?
- blue-black grassquit females ?
- assorted Myiarchus, especially ash-throated and dusky-capped, as I'm fairly sure I didn't see brown-crested or flammulated flycatchers

 Here's the list: (numbers are estimates, * = lifer) 101 species seen (56 lifers) The numbers give an approximation of how difficult it was to find something here.  Basically, for most species that I saw less than 5, I think you could easily miss seeing them, those I saw 5-20 seemed like things that were likely to be found with time and effort, and those I saw more than 20 were basically hard to miss.  Keep in mind that I was on foot in limited habitat diversity and really unable to explore the amount of terrain most of us are used to covering on birding expeditions.

100 brown pelican - coast
*250 olivaceous (neotropic) cormorant - marsh
*1 anhinga - airport marsh
50 magnificent frigatebird - coast
10 great blue heron - marsh and coast
20 great egret - marsh
30 snowy egret - "
3 tricolored heron - "
*3 reddish egret - "
150 cattle egret - fields
5 green heron - marsh
*3 yellow-crowned night heron - "
*7 white ibis - "
350 brown booby - coastal
15 white-faced ibis - marsh
*4 wood stork - "
13 blue-winged teal - "
12 northern shoveler - "
60 black vulture - everywhere
300 turkey vulture - "
5 osprey - marsh and coast
*4 grey hawk - thorn forest
*1 zone-tailed hawk - "
*75 crested caracara - airport
6 American kestrel - open areas
*45 West Mexican chachalaca - thorn forest
2 sora - marsh
1 common moorhen - "
45 American coot - "
2 American oystercatcher - beach
33 black-necked stilt - marsh and stream
1 American avocet - marsh
13 willet - beach
8 spotted sandpiper - marsh and coast
*3 long-billed curlew - stream
3 marbled godwit - stream
*1 long-billed dowitcher - marsh (plus 5 more unknown dowitcher sp.)
40 laughing gull - coast
*90 Heermann's gull - coast
4 Caspian tern - marsh
1 Forster's tern - marsh
*8 white-winged dove - thorn forest and marsh
*80 Inca dove - thorn forest
25 common ground-dove - "
*5 white-tipped dove - "
*1 (and probably 2 more) yellow-headed parrot - "
*3 squirrel cuckoo - "
*10 groove-billed ani - roadside brush
*4 golden-crowned (fork-tailed) emerald - flowering vines
*7 broad-billed hummingbird - "
*60 cinnamon hummingbird - "
*15 citreoline trogon - thorn forest and one fruiting tree in resort
8 belted kingfisher - marsh and coast
*3 green kingfisher - marsh
*25 golden-cheeked woodpecker - thorn forest and trees in resort
*2 lineated woodpecker - thorn forest
*6 pale-billed woodpecker - "
*7 Pacific-slope flycatcher - "
*4 bright-rumped attila - "
*3 Nutting's flycatcher - "
*2 vermilion flycatcher - both in a grassy area near a marsh
*9 great kiskadee - thorn forest and marsh
*3 social flycatcher - "
*110 tropical kingbird - everywhere
*3 thick-billed kingbird - thorn forest
1 tree swallow - marsh
*30 mangrove swallow - stream
30 northern rough-winged swallow - marsh
*9 white-throated magpie-jay - thorn forest
*50 San Blas jay - "
*5 happy wren - "
*2 Sinaloa wren - "
*9 white-bellied wren - "
90 blue-grey gnatcatcher - everywhere
*8 rufous-backed thrush - thorn forest, same fruit tree as trogons
*5 white-throated thrush - same fruit tree as trogons
7 northern mockingbird - thorn forest
2 plumbeous vireo - "
*2 golden vireo - "
5 warbling vireo - "
95 Nashville warbler - everywhere
*30 tropical parula - thorn forest and trees in resort
8 yellow warbler - "
4 black-and-white warbler - thorn forest
3 Wilson's warbler - "
*4 red-breasted chat - "
*2 scrub euphonia - "
7 western tanager - same fruit tree as trogons
*2 yellow grosbeak - thorn forest
*3 grayish saltator - "
*25 blue bunting - roadsides
*300 orange-breasted bunting - "
*8 olive sparrow - thorn forest
*30 ruddy-breasted seedeater - roadsides
*21 stripe-headed sparrow - "
200 great-tailed grackle - mainly at airport
3 orchard oriole - trees near stream
*25 streak-backed oriole - thorn forest
2 Baltimore oriole - trees in resort
*135 yellow-winged cacique - everywhere
1 house sparrow - in town of Cihuatlan

Overall, a very fun trip combining birding and non-birding activities.  I welcome your comments and/or questions.

Pat Hodgson
Toronto, Canada