by David F. Smith
Chris Carpenter's request last month for info on birding sites in western Mexico around Colima and Manzanillo prompted me -- finally -- to put together the following report of a trip that Judy and I took to that area in March of this year. Our main purpose was participation in an Earthwatch project, but we went early and spent two and a half bird-packed days, mostly near Colima. Our rudimentary Spanish skills and our rudimentary manual-transmission skills got us through.
We arrived at the Manzanillo airport on Friday, March 17. The birding at the airport itself deserves mention. In the trees around the parking lot we found several birds that we saw nowhere else: Orange- fronted Parakeet, Rufous-backed Thrush, Yellow-winged Cacique, and Spot-breasted Oriole.
From the airport, we picked up our rented VW bug and headed for the little seaside resort town of Barra de Navidad, about 29 km west of the airport, where we checked into the Hotel Delphin. We immediately came back to the airport area to scout out the Playa de Oro road and bird the marshes along the airport road. We stayed there until dark, but the fierce mosquitoes drove us away without our hoped-for Boat-billed Herons.
The following morning we arrived early at the Playa de Oro road and drove, birded, and walked it all the way to the beach. This dirt/cobblestone road is quite easy to find, about 10 km east of the airport road. We may not have been early enough -- it was pretty quiet -- but we did see Citreoline Trogon, Stripe-headed Sparrow, and Streak-backed Oriole, among others. In the late morning we headed up to Colima on the toll road.
In Colima, we stayed at Motel Los Candiles in the northeast part of the city, on the road that heads out toward the volcano (Blvd. Camino Real). (By the way, Pacific Mexico Handbook, pub. Moon, has a pretty good map of Colima city, although not good enough to keep us from getting lost several times.) The staff at Los Candiles were able to direct us to a nearby supermarket, where we bought pastries and fruit for breakfasts and lunches on the trail.
In the late afternoon we headed for the Microwave Shrine. Directions: from the bypass around Colima, take the road heading southeast toward Tepames. (You can see your destination from miles away: a huge statue on a solitary hill, with radio towers.) Follow the road halfway around the hill until you get to a cobblestone road turning off to the right, with the sign "Microondas La Cumbre." Follow that road to the top; birding is especially good at and near the top. (We didn't have great numbers, but we did get fabulous looks at Black-chested Sparrow.) This would have been a good evening and night spot, I think, but we didn't stay because the road was steep and winding and the cobblestones were slippery.
On Sunday we got up very early and headed for the east side of the Volcan de Fuego, about 60 km north of Colima city. Directions: head northeast out of Colima on highway 54, which becomes the toll highway (Cuota) to Guadalajara. Exit at Atenquique, a pretty big town with a large paper mill, which you will see from a high bridge before you get to the exit. (Warning: this exit was not well marked, and we missed it. It's the next exit after you see the town and mill on your left from the high bridge.) From the exit, follow the signs for Atenquique and the free Colima highway (Colima Libre). After you go through Atenquique, the road goes steeply uphill, then starts to flatten out in a couple of km. Turn onto a dirt/cobblestone road on the right, with a Microondas sign. (Try to get to this point as early as you can, dawn if possible.) You will go through farm fields for a while, then later through various woodsy habitats up the mountain. The scenery is spectacular, and so is the birding, but watch out for the large holes and gulleys in the road. We got all the way to the Parque Nacional sign, where the road became a trail; you could probably walk farther, but we turned around. We were on that road from dawn until night without seeing another human. What we did see was birds, with good looks at, among others, White-eared hummingbird, Mountain Trogon, White-striped Woodcreeper, Tufted Flycatcher, Brown-backed Solitaire (easy to hear, hard to see), White-throated Thrush, Grey Silky, Golden Vireo, Rufous-capped and Golden-browed Warblers, Slate-throated Redstart, Blue-hooded Euphonia, Black-headed Siskin, Collared Towhee, and Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow.
On Monday morning, we headed up toward San Antonio, north of Colima on the southern slope of the volcano. Directions: from Colima, head northwest toward Comala, a nice little town with a scenic square, and keep going through Comala toward San Antonio. You will come to a shrine on the right with concrete amphitheater seats; the trees around there are very birdy. We stopped there for a breakfast of fresh cantaloupe and good looks at Russet-crowned Motmot, Masked Tityra, Blue Mockingbird, and others. Continuing on the road, there will be an intersection with San Antonio to the left or straight and Laguna Maria, on a dirt or cobblestone road, to the right; go right, through a ford in a small stream. There's a gate at the Laguna Maria park, on the left. Pay the small entrance fee and walk the trail toward and around the lake. We found Elegant Trogon, several very cooperative Grey-crowned Woodpeckers, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and Sinaloa Wren, among others. After lunch in Comala we scurried back to the Manzanillo airport to meet the rest of the Earthwatchers.
Our Earthwatch project was at the Biological Research Station near Chamela (northwest of Barra de Navidad). The researchers were studying the carnivores in the dry forest, so for about ten days we set traps along the trails every day. We caught, tattooed, measured and released seven or eight coatimundis and an ocelot, and we saw cougar tracks. The good news was that we had lots of free time for birding; the bad news was that during prime birding time (early morning and dusk) we were either working or we were forbidden to be on the trails so as not to spook the carnivores. Even so, we saw West Mexican Chachalaca, Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, Golden-crowned Emerald, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, White-bellied and Happy Wren, Red-breasted Chat (moving with an army ant swarm!), Orange-breasted Buntings (very tame and cooperative) and Blue Buntings, among others.
We also got taken to a nearby beach for a little free time, where we could swim in a protected cove while Brown Boobies, Brown Pelicans, and Heerman's Gulls dove in the water all around us.
Our complete bird list is available. It's not as long as it would have been if we had been birding with real pros or if we had had more time, but we got a lot of pleasure from figuring out everything we saw (and even from struggling with the ones we couldn't figure out, like the blasted Myiarchus flycatchers).
Acknowledgments: our trip would not have been successful without detailed suggestions and directions from Field Guides' Dave Stejskal and Birdchatters Duane Carmony and Carol Schumacher. We are also indebted to another Birdchatter -- Hank Brodkin, I think -- who posted the name of a store that received their copies of Howell and Webb's new field guide a crucial couple of weeks before anyone else. Despite occasional cat fights, the Birdchat community is populated with lots of knowledgeable, helpful people.
David F. Smith
Laboratory Automation Specialist Glaxo Wellcome Co.
Research Triangle Park, NC