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29 July - 20 August 2002
by Sandy Ayer
Prairie Boy Does Mexico
I need to apologize at the outset for the too-frequent personal asides and
other non-birding references that make this an overly long report, but this
is the closest thing I have to a diary of the trip, and I’m simply too pressed
for time to do any more editing on it. I should also say that this was not
primarily a birding trip, but rather a family vacation. My wife Diane and
children Adam (17) and Hannah (14) spent our time in Mexico (July 29-Aug.
20, 2002) visiting the families of our “homestay daughters” Gaby, Leo, and
Brenda—three young women who’d boarded with over the past five years us while
studying English at the University of Regina. My family and I spent our time
shopping, visiting archaeological sites, traveling, doing assorted touristy
things, and hanging out with our friends—so there was little time for sustained
birding: I only got to three spots mentioned in Steve Howell’s A Bird-Finding
Guide to Mexico and I only managed to have one sortie in a birdy location
in the early morning. Hence the results—51 life birds and103 total species—far
less than I’d hoped for, but I did see some unforgettably beautiful birds.
Thanks to the advice I received from a number of contributors to Birdchat
and Mex-Birds, I did the following by way of preparation:
Prior to the trip my Mexico list consisted of a Rock Dove and House Sparrow
seen during a three-hour cross-border shopping spree in Nogales while visiting
Arizona in 2000. Our itinerary was to include extended times with our homestay
daughters and their families in Mexico City and Puebla as well as an extended
trip to Palenque, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Sumidero Canyon (while
based in Tuxtla Gutiérrez), Oaxaca, and other market towns and archaeological
sites. Palenque was chosen partly in deference to my birding interests (170
potential life birds, of which I hoped to see at least 30. I could hardly
wait to get there!
- Consulted Howell’s Bird-Finding Guide for tips on birding locations
near the stops on our itinerary and for the list of birds to be expected at
each potential site
- Familiarized myself with Steve Howell and Sophie Webb’s A Guide to
the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America (and especially with the
- Found the checklists in Howell for the locations I was likely to visit
and wrote down site codes next to the paintings of potential lifers in the
plates of Howell and Webb
- Had one of my library colleagues excise the plates and indexes from
Howell and Webb and bind them together in a buckram cover (I called this my
- Took only Howlin” Webb and the Peterson field guide to Mexico into
the field (the latter as a textual supplement to the former)
- Acquired some desiccant from a craft store, which I kept in a ziplock
bag in case I needed it to dry out fogged-up binoculars (I ended up not needing
it, although it did come in handy for keeping our well-used supply of Immodium
- Took along a long-sleeved white shirt and a high-DEET insect repellant
to minimize my attractiveness to mosquitoes (again, these precautions were
July 30 Teotihuacán.
The day after our gruelling fourteen-hour flight(s) Luis, the father of
our homestay daughter Gaby, drove us to this stunning archaeological site
(the most impressive of the four that we visited). It’s situated in the state
of Mexico about two hours northeast of Mexico City. Great-tailed Grackles
showed up almost as soon as we left the house, and if any bird could be said
to characterize the country this, along with House Finches, and the Black
Vultures that always seemed to be overhead (often in flocks of over 100),
was surely it. The site itself yielded what I first thought to be one of the
half-dozen varieties of large thrush I’d hoped to see, but turned out to
be another widespread and tame bird, the Canyon Towhee.
This was characteristic of my observations: I often got the identification
wrong the first time, but I’d spent enough hours poring over Howell and Webb
to know what the other one or two possibilities (one of them usually the correct
Northern Mockingbird, Inca and Rock Doves, and a Song Sparrow also fed among
the ruins, while Barn Swallows gyrated overhead. Nothing much else showed
itself (or if it had I wasn’t about to go off in pursuit, in deference to
our friends and the earnest and passionate guide we’d hired). At the last
stop on the tour, after admiring some stunning precolumbian friezes featuring
stylized parrots, I happened to glance over a wall and notice some avian motion
on a nearby tree trunk. It was a large wren, brown, with white supercilium,
and spotted belly. This described about half of the large wrens in the plates
of Howlin’ Webb, and I hadn’t got a good look at the throat to tell whether
it was spotted or unspotted. However, this was semiarid oak-dominated country,
the habitat of the SPOTTED WREN (although the maps in Howell and Webb indicate
no large wren species in this part of Mexico).
July 31 Las Arboledas (on the outskirts of Mexico
The next morning I hung out in the living room overlooking Luis’s tiny back
yard, hoping to see one of the hummingbirds that (according to Luis and his
wife) frequent the bougainvillea that overhang the barbed wire on the back
wall. After a number of frustrating encounters with a large nondescript female
hummingbird I finally caught sight of the small white corners of her tail
as she turned her back to me—Magnificent Hummingbird, a bird I’d seen a couple
of years ago in Arizona, but was delighted to see again. I’d also seen what
appeared to be a House Wren hanging around the yard, but its voice was different
somehow (it seemed to have a three-note introductory phrase), and I eventually
concluded that it was a subspecies, the Brown-throated Wren. My final sighting
was breathtaking: motion in the distant tree tops resolved itself into a large
Amazon parrot, green overall with a yellow face, a red patch just above the
bill, and a small red patch about halfway down the leading edge of each wing.
I still don’t know what it was (anybody have any ideas?) but it was undoubtedly
I got Luis’s wife Lulu to unlock the front door and the front gate so that
I could bird the nearby jogging trail that adjoins a street called Paseo de
los Gigantes (Giants’ Walk). The giants in question are the thirty-meter eucalyptus
trees that line the path and help give the neighborhood its name, Las Arboledas,
although the tiny woman who brushed by two-meter me—under my elbow, in fact—may
have wanted to expand the definition. Actually, I always felt somewhat out
of place everywhere I went in Mexico. Not only was I head and shoulders above
my hosts, but I was also one of the few bearded men, it seemed, in the entire
country. Add to that a pony tail and binoculars (I encountered no other birders
during the entire trip) and you can understand why I felt like conspicuousness
At any rate, I started scanning the treetops hoping to find something other
than House Sparrows and House Finches. An American Robin made an appearance,
and then something that looked like a robin but had a grayish throat; as it
turned its head just enough to reveal a ruddy back, I recognized my first-ever
RUFOUS-BACKED THRUSH. Further scans of the treetops revealed a Least Goldfinch
and a flock of Bushtits.
After a brutal night with little sleep, the five of us squeezed into Luis’s
Nissan Maxima for the 1000 km. drive to Palenque. As we left the last squalid
barrios of Mexico City and climbed the pine-forested pass into the state of
Puebla, I was expecting to see bird after bird flying over the highway. Nothing.
Nor was there anything other than a flock of House Finches at our first treed
stop. In fact, that morning the only “life” anything I saw was Popocatepetl,
my first-ever active volcano.
Avian activity began to pick up that afternoon after we made the 1000 meter
descent into the state of Veracruz. A circling flock of Black Vultures, at
least a hundred of them, opened things up. As we moved south through lowlands
reminiscent of African savannah, Snowy and Great Egrets, along with Neotropic
Cormorants, became the “default” birds. Raptors began to appear. Some
perched by the side of the road; one I caught a glimpse of was actually perched
on wires directly overhead. It had a long-legged look to it, and when I hauled
out Howlin’ Webb my initial impression was confirmed: ROADSIDE HAWK. A short
while later, just after entering the state of Tabasco, I saw a long, thin
raptor with a distinctive head fly into a tree. I knew instinctively that
it was a CRESTED CARACARA. My last bird of the day was an Ibis—odds are that
it was a White-faced Ibis—that narrowly avoided flying into our windshield
It was still light when we arrived in Palenque. Luis, who had been here
before, joked that if I failed to see a toucan he knew of a local hotel that
had a really lively specimen in a cage. I thanked him, but inwardly dismissed
the offer, certain that I’d see one at the archaeological site the next day.
We then made our way through ranchland that had once been jungle to Edcabanas
(firstname.lastname@example.org), part of the El Panchán cooperative situated
just outside the park entrance. In our e-mail correspondence Ed, a trained
ornithologist and herpetologist, mentioned that there’s an observation deck
on the top of his mini-hotel from which all sorts of birds and butterflies
can be seen, so I was eager to unpack and get down to business.
We had the only two air-conditioned rooms, and they were brand new, well
furnished, and the price was right. I made my way eagerly up to the roof,
but despite the seemingly ideal habitat, that included a creek, huge ceiba
trees, and flowering bird of paradise plants, my time on the observation deck
yielded nothing in the way of birds. The grounds were, however, full of butterflies
of every size and color, and I began to wonder whether it might be time to
After a fitful sleep, thanks to the all-night rooster and Luis’s snoring,
I woke up at 7:15—too late to do any birding; everyone else was up and ready
for breakfast. I took my binoculars along to the open-air restaurant, but
again there was zip, nada, zedro (as we Prairie boys are wont to say) in the
way of birds. Glimpsing motion in the foliage across from our table, I grabbed
by binoculars, and saw my first of several SCRUB EUPHONIAS. Another small
mostly yellow warbler-like bird accompanied it, but I couldn’t see enough
field marks to identify it. In hindsight, it was probably a Bananaquit.
After breakfast a commotion in the tree revealed a small flock of large
white and brown birds. I hauled out Howlin’ Webb. Funny, I hadn’t expected
BROWN JAYS to look like that.
We reached the archaeological site just after 9:00 a.m. and pulled into
the last available spot in the parking lot. The place was swarming with Mexican
and European tourists. So much for my chances of seeing a Bat Falcon on top
of the tower of El Palacio. Just around the corner from the entrance I spotted
a small flock of MASKED TITYRAS, but they spooked before I could hear their
“distinctive buzzy or fart-like calls” (Howell and Webb, p. 522). I didn’t
get a second chance. A small parakeet with a long pointed tail flew shrieking
by, but I didn’t have a clue at this point what it might be.
I joined the others, who were somewhat frustrated that the Temple of the
Inscriptions was closed, and we headed over to El Templo de la Cruz.
From the top of the temple I caught sight of two apparent falcons soaring
in the distance, one of which seemed smaller than the other. This bird turned,
revealing a buff rump, but when I looked in the field guide this didn’t turn
out to be a field mark, and I listed the birds simply as falcon sp. Had the
overflights of ultralight aircraft forced them to keep their distance from
I decided to join Luis at El Templo del Sol. A few minutes later, my two
teenagers, Adam and Hannah and I headed back to El Templo de la Cruz via a
path through the jungle. This brief jaunt provided me with my best birding
of the day. A small, slender, white-bellied, long-billed bird alighted on
a branch overhead. “Rufous-tailed Jacamar!” I thought at first, but the bird
was too placid, drab, and small to be anything but the other option: LONG-BILLED
GNATWREN. Next to show up was a small blue bird with red legs; this was an
easier call: RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER. At the foot of the path a woodpecker
darted into a nearby tree. Heart in mouth, I prayed “O God let me see this
one!” He obliged with the bird of the day: CHESTNUT-COLORED WOODPECKER.
On to El Palacio, where Adam collided with a cornice and went sprawling.
Once he recovered we went out onto the battlement. Birds were circling overhead.
One was not a vulture. It had the jizz of a kite, was light-phased, brownish,
and had a number of narrow dark bands on the underwing. Confused, I left it
at “kite sp.” But I later realized that part of my confusion lay in trying
to decide among three morphs of the same bird, HOOK-BILLED KITE.
We headed southeast, stopping in a clearing so the kids could barter with
some children selling pendants. The only tree in the clearing seemed to be
harboring birds. A very small female hummingbird was feeding near the crown.
It was quite nondescript: white below, green above, dark around the eye, had
a fairly straight bill, WHITE-BELLIED EMERALD. There was another very cooperative
tiny bird in the tree, one I’d been expecting to see, but I was surprised
at how small the WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER turned out to be. A much larger
bird flew into a tree at the opposite end of the clearing. Another breathed
prayer and a look at Howlin’ Webb to see which robin-like bird it was—CLAY-COLORED
Down the hill we went towards the Grupo del Norte. A woodpecker in a tree
served to delay a promised neck massage to still-smarting Adam—this species
would turn up quite often throughout the trip—GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER. It
was now well past eleven, and as the others headed for the car I caught sight
of a large flycatcher making barely audible vocalizations from midstorey.
It looked like a Great Kiskadee, but the absence of brown in the wings and
the subdued voice meant that it was a BOAT-BILLED FLYCATCHER.
At this point Diane suggested that I spend the rest of the afternoon (until
4:00 p.m.) birding. Weakened by the heat (which was somehow made all the more
oppressive by the earsplitting “z-z-zing” of the cicadas), the humidity, dehydration,
and hunger, and feeling discouraged by what I thought was a relatively unproductive
morning (about as many species as our team usually gets in Regina’s Christmas
bird count) I had to summon the will to accept her gracious offer. I bought
another 1.5 liter bottle of water, showed my ticket stub, and headed back
into the ruins to find the Temple of the Inscriptions Trail, which Howell
describes as being “famous among birders.” As the only birder present, I
had to take his word for that, but when I reached El Templo del Jaguar there
was a yellow ribbon across the trail with “prohibido el paso” written on
it. Likewise blocked and guarded was the creekbed below.
Doubly discouraged, I headed back to the main ruins. As I climbed a set
of stone steps I heard a couple of little boys who were sitting nearby joking
about “cuarenta” (40) (presumably their estimate of my metric shoe size).
I was too tired and dull-witted to tell them that they had had the good fortune
to mock someone whose age and metric shoe size just happened to coincide at
Pressing on, I heard a raucous wren-like sound coming from a tree just north
of El Palacio, and sure enough, what turned out to be a most obliging BAND-BACKED
WREN emerged and kept re-emerging over the next five minutes. Nearer the Grupo
del Norte I spied a smaller wren, hoping that it was one of the three possible
life bird possibilities from that subgroup. It turned out to be a Southern
House Wren, so I had to settle for a subspecies. Overhead some White-Collared
Seedeaters were cavorting on a low branch, but there was something small
and yellow and warbler-like with them. I didn’t get a good look at the head,
but it had a thin bill and a small white wing check. BANANAQUIT was the only
bird answering that description.
I then found a maintenance road and followed it for awhile, since it was
one of the few places that wasn’t crawling with people. Some loud, raucous
sounds coming from a nearby tree caught my attention, and my quick draw with
the binoculars was rewarded with a sighting of a large Saltator. But which
one? Try as I might over the next five seconds, I couldn’t get a definitive
view of the throat, but the large size, noisiness, and the fact that there
seemed to be at least two of the things present convinced me that I’d just
seen a BLACK-HEADED SALTATOR. Great, I’d been hoping to see at least one of
It was getting on for 2:30, and I would still have to walk 4 km. back to
our lodgings, so I bought another 1.5 liter bottle of purified water (I had
yet to relieve myself, which gives you some idea of how much I was sweating)
and headed down the steep hill to the valley floor. At the foot of the hill,
by some fluke, I happened to glance into shaded grove and saw a bird that
had a white bill that contrasted with an otherwise black body and a red chest.
CRIMSON-COLLARED TANAGER. Yes! The tanagers were one family I wanted to see
a lot of.
I walked on, swigging water as I went, down into the ranch country. A commotion
across the road revealed two more saltators that seemed smaller than the first,
but they were farther away, and, try as I might, I couldn’t get a good enough
look at their throats to tell if they were Buff-throated Saltators. A few
hundred meters farther along I noticed a small black bird on a wire. “A very
short song, weezit, given as the bird jumps a foot or two above perch and
returns” says Peterson of the BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUIT. And that’s exactly what
this bird did, much to my delight. A couple of those noisy pointy-tailed parakeets
flew over, too fast for me to make an identification. Switching to the shady
side of the road, I spied a large, very vocal hummingbird in such poor light
that I couldn’t pick out any field marks. It flew into a tree and scolded
me for the next five minutes as I tried in vain to get a decent look at it.
I awoke three times during the night with turista (must’ve been the salad),
falling off the bed and banging my head on the cinder block wall the third
time. I did manage to get up early, though, but when I left the room I encountered
Diane, who informed me that Hannah was sick and would I please go to the farmácia
with Luis to pick up some over-the-counter antibiotics. Thus ended my birding
at Palenque. Well, almost. I heard those raucous parakeets in the nearby
trees and then heard the same sound coming from the two caged parakeets in
the compound (Diane and Luis had been on me to add them to my life list).
I hauled out Howlin’ Webb and found that they were AZTEC PARAKEETS, something
I could’ve figured out from the long pointy tails on their wild cousins if
I’d been more observant.
With Hannah stabilized, and Luis (who’d also picked up turista) and me plugged
up with Immodium, we headed off to San Cristobal. But first Luis wanted to
show us the nearby attractions of Misol Ha and Agua Azul. At the former, a
waterfall of about 30 m. in height, I let the others take the trail under
the falls. I scanned the pools downstream. There was a kingfisher perched
on a log! It was about the size of a Belted but it was green and white with
a cinnamon chest patch, an AMAZON KINGFISHER, another species near the top
of my desiderata list. A couple of large passerines flew across the river
to a branch about 20 m. away. The facial patterns suggested Green Jay, but
the colors were wrong. Could they be juveniles? Howell’s bird-finding guide
didn’t show Green Jay as a possibility in this neck of the woods. Finally
I put two and two and the yellow tail and chestnut belly together and came
up with MONTEZUMA OROPENDOLA, a bird that Howell and Webb describe as “unmistakable”!
A Red-legged Honeycreeper rounded out my birding experience at the falls.
The cascades at Agua Azul were breathtaking, but produced nothing in the way
Now for the 200 km. five-hour trip to San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
Ed of Edcabanas had told me about the first leg of the journey, the Ocosingo
Road: “keep your eyes open. A few years back I saw something big soaring up
there, and I said ‘What’s a hang glider doing up here?’ Turned out to be
a Harpy Eagle.” Well, the tortuous road revealed little besides spectacular
mountain jungle, but a couple of hours into our trip, after Luis had slowed
down for yet another village—call it Santa Maria de los Topes—I saw a black
bird with a red rump perched out in the open alongside the road, a SCARLET-RUMPED
TANAGER, another bird high on my wish list.
I kept just missing definitive looks at birds until about 30 km. east of
San Cristóbal, when an all-blue jay that wasn’t either a Blue or a
Steller’s Jay alighted on a fence post. This one was a UNICOLORED JAY, and
I rejoiced that my apparent non-day had still produced some good sightings.
On reaching our hotel, I heard a vaguely familiar avian sound from a rooftop.
It was a truncated version of the song of the Rufous-collared Sparrow, a bird
I remember vividly from a brief stay in Bogotá, Colombia in March 1990.
There the abundant Rufous-collared is the “default” sparrow, as common as
the House Sparrow is in North America.
San Cristóbal de las Casas. Howell’s bird-finding guide mentions
that both Black-capped and Cave Swallows can be found in the zócalo
and adjacent areas of San Cristóbal. As it turned out, BLACK-CAPPED
SWALLOW was about the first bird I saw as we crossed the square. I had no
trouble seeing the strongly forked tail (Howell lists no Barn Swallows for
this location), and I later got a good look at the head as well. Cave Swallows
were another matter. I was simply too busy translating at the local markets
for my bargain-hunting kids to do the detailed observation necessary to separate
the Cave from Cliff Swallows, so they were all Cliffs as far as I was concerned.
Later that morning the five of us climbed to the top of a nearby hill. I
could see across the valley the microwave tower on Cerro Huitepec, a site
mentioned in Howell which has 46 life bird possibilities. So near, but yet
so far! Later that day our landlady at La Media Luna, having learned from
Diane that I was interested in nature, arranged for us to visit and dine at
the home of Suzanne, an Englishwoman who’d lived in Mexico for 42 years, 14
of those at the foot of Cerro Huitepec. While Suzanne cooked a Thai meal for
us in her wok, I was scampering around her phenomenal English garden in pursuit
of hummingbirds. I got great looks at both WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD and GREEN
VIOLET-EAR and also managed to see an Eastern Bluebird in a nearby field.
Then the five of us flagged down a taxi about the size of a Ford Focus, piled
in (stacked vertically!) and headed off at high speed through the narrow winding
streets to our hotel.
Aug. 6 Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
At about noon we headed off “downhill” on a two-hour trip to Tuxtla Gutiérrez,
capital of the state of Chiapas. The home in which we were staying was situated
in an exclusive guardhouse-controlled colonia and featured lime, coconut,
and tangerine trees in its large back yard. As we were getting settled, a
butterfly the size of a bat flitted through the living room.
Next morning I discovered that there were also quite a few birds around:
a noisy Great Kiskadee was perched in a nearby palm tree, and when I by chance
trained my binoculars on a pair of apparent Great-tailed Grackles they turned
out to be GROOVE-BILLED ANIS. A pair of small noisy parrots with yellowish
bill and face and red spots on the leading edge of each wing flew low over
the house. WHITE-FRONTED PARROT was the only local bird matching that description.
Golden-fronted Woodpecker and Clay-colored Thrush also put in an appearance.
Our hosts decided to take us to see the miradores above Sumidero Canyon
before taking us to Chiapa del Corzo for the guided boat tour of the canyon
itself. No time for sustained birding here, though it was a thrill to be
above the vultures for once, and we could even see Brown Pelicans cruising
just above the water 300 m. below. Luis explained that Chiapan warriors had
dived off these cliffs to their deaths rather than surrender to the conquistadores.
During our conversation I heard what I thought was a Red-eyed Vireo, except
that there are no Red-eyed’s here at this time of year. I consulted Peterson
and concluded that I could safely add YELLOW-GREEN VIREO to my “heard only”
list. As we emerged from the last mirador, Luis gleefully pointed out Pea
Fowl and Turkeys that were just dying to be observed, but I was trying to
find the source of a “squeaky toy” sound coming from overhead. Victor, one
of our hosts, located the bird, which, as you may have guessed, was a SULPHUR-BELLIED
“Boat trips offer spectacular views of the canyon, but not too much in the
way of birds” says Howell (p. 246), but I found it more productive than the
highlands (with their potential of 93 life birds!) because of the sustained
time I had for observation. While we were waiting for our lancha at the embarcadero
I noticed what I thought was a pair of BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS alighting
in the middle of the Río Grijalva, which a quick glance at Howlin’
Webb served to confirm. One of our first stops featured crocodiles, impressive
toothy five-meter specimens; but while others were clicking away with their
cameras I was focussing on the lone TRICOLORED HERON among the egrets and
cormorants. A calling Canyon Wren confirmed that we were indeed entering the
canyon, and just beyond “the Christmas Tree” rock formation an Amazon Kingfisher
flew low over the water. A lengthy stop near the power station at the far
end of the canyon provided me with a chance for a closer look at—yes indeed
those were MANGROVE SWALLOWS that had been accompanying us for the last couple
Aug. 8 To Oaxaca.
While we were stopped at a stop light on highway 190 heading west, I got
a look at a flycatcher that was about the size of a Western, but seemed a
deeper yellow. A glance at Howlin’ Webb informed me that I’d better look at
the extent of the forking in the tail next time if I wanted a chance at my
first-ever Tropical Kingbird. The rest of our trip through Chiapas yielded
little other than lush vegetation, although we did come upon an overturned
semi-trailer on the first hairpin curve we encountered. “We are, after all
crossing the Sierra Madre Accidental!” I kidded Luis.
Once we entered the state of Oaxaca I couldn’t help but notice the variety
of bird habitat. I long to bird this neck of the woods one day. A Red-tailed
Hawk, the only buteo of the trip, was soaring overhead in the hill country
just across the border from Chiapas. As we passed through Juchitán
I saw a large passerine from below as it flew overhead. It looked like a dove
with an extended ribbed tail. Later I saw a large pale jay flying low into
the bush. It took me awhile to put these two images together and realize that
I’d been watching WHITE-THROATED MAGPIE-JAYS. Awhile later, as we were driving
along near La Ventosa (it was indeed windy) I happened to catch a flock of
WHITE IBIS sitting out the gale. Oaxaca (city), our next stop, produced nothing
but some Cassin’s Kingbirds.
Back at Las Arboledas, I decided to get up and try the jogging path again.
I spent a lot of time observing a small perched mostly green hummingbird with
a bill that in good light proved to be red with a black tip. This Broad-billed
Hummingbird or one of its rellies later also showed up in Luis’s bougainvilleas.
I also saw a female oriole, which I took to be a Bullock’s, high up in one
of the eucalyptus trees. Then a pair of cowbirds flew low into some trees
a short distance away. They were slightly larger and stockier than Brown-headed
Cowbirds, and as light caught their eyes they glowed red. Finally, a BRONZED
COWBIRD, a bird my friends and I had searched for in vain all over Brawley,
CA a couple of years ago.
Aug. 12 Near Coajomulco.
Another set of friends drove us to their place in southern Mexico City and
thence to Tres Marías (or, as the locals, who’ve experienced the unsanitary
local market, call it, “Tres Diareas”). We then climbed a mountain road to
St. Moritz, a collection of luxury weekend cottages 3300 meters above sea
level, situated about three km. from Coajomulco, a prime birding site mentioned
As soon as we got out of the car, I spotted a noisy and conspicuous black
and white heavily striped bird, “zorzal azteca,” I exclaimed to our host;
but it turned out, on closer examination, not to be an Aztec Thrush, but a
wren, and a GREY-BARRED WREN at that. The thirty-meter-high pines and thick
underbrush (including pomegranite vines) made this prime bird habitat. Eastern
Towhees, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Mexican Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers, Canyon Towhees,
and even a Swainson’s Thrush showed up in our host’s back yard or in those
of his neighbors. We sat down to an exquisite meal of quail, and I caught
myself wondering whether I was eating a potential life bird. That evening
we went for a walk in the neighborhood. I saw no new trip birds until, toward
the end of our excursion something red flashed out of a bush and into a nearby
tree. Could it be? Time for another “O God, let me see it!” prayer. Request
granted: it was tiny and red and had a white cheek patch, the bird I’d most
wanted to see: RED WARBLER.
Next morning I rose early, tried to open the front door, but couldn’t. “Foiled
again by a Mexican security system!” I fumed. My fumbling awoke Brenda, our
host, who explained the workings of Mexican deadbolts, and I was free for
the first time ever in Mexico to bird a birdy location at morning feeding
Things started off slowly, those birds that were active turned out to be
either birds I’d seen back home, such as White-breasted Nuthatch, or birds
that I’d seen yesterday. About 20 minutes into my excursion I stopped at a
crossroads, trying to figure out which road to take, and one bird after another
started to show up: Grey-barred Wrens feeding on small white moths, followed
by an ORANGE-BILLED NIGHTINGALE-THRUSH, and on the top of a nearby shrub
a CHESTNUT-SIDED SHRIKE-VIREO, another species I’d been longing to see. After
a couple of minutes of observing a White-eared Hummingbird, I headed down
one of the two roads and heard a familiar sound, familiar because I’d read
about it in Peterson, “Song suggests cranking up of an old-time motor car,”
to which I might add “sound of motor has a flutelike ethereal quality.” Then
I saw the singer itself, a BROWN-BACKED SOLITAIRE.
It was getting on for nine o’clock, time for about five minutes more birding
before heading back. A Brown Creeper edged its way along a limb. “I’d really
like to see just one species of Woodcreeper,” I thought. And, as if by magic,
the only member of that family in that area, WHITE-STRIPED WOODCREEPER, suddenly
appeared! After a number of good looks at it, as well as an unsuccessful attempt
at figuring out what species of small, puffy, white-tinged-with-yellow vireo
was feeding overhead, I decided to head back to the A-frame.
A large growling Rottweiler appeared at the top of the hill. “God, surely
you haven’t brought me out here and given me such a fine morning to end it
like this!” I whined, recalling the words of one of our travel guides “rabies
exists in Mexico, and the best advice is simply to give dogs a wide berth.”
So I hightailed it and tried finding an alternate route back to the cabin.
Growls again. Deciding that there was nothing to do but brazen it out, I headed
back up the first hill. No dog. I kept going and found myself just a few
doors down from our hosts’ cabin. A bird flew onto a nearby roof. It looked
like a female Evening Grosbeak, a species that’s found in the area, but it
had a tiny pale check on the lower edge of its folded primaries, and, as
I found a few minutes later, when it reappeared in our friends’ yard, a head
that had a fair bit of black on it. All of which led me to conclude that
it was in fact a HOODED GROSBEAK.
While in the yard I also saw the male, along with a male Black-headed Grosbeak,
which, like the location itself, reminded me of British Columbia. Just then
the Red Warbler showed up again, this time with what appeared to be its mate
and one of their offspring. I watched them for about five minutes as they
fed in a nearby tree and chased one another around the yard. An hour
or so later, just as we were loading our luggage into the car, I happened
to notice a bird with a slaty back and a cinnamon belly alighting on a nearby
bush: CINNAMON-BELLIED FLOWER-PIERCER, my final lifer of the day.
One of our plans for this day had originally included Diane and the rest
going shopping for silver in Taxco and me birding one of the locations either
Howell or e-mail correspondents had suggested. In particular, I had been looking
forward to the possibility of birding, with a local guide, the Ejido San
Nicolas, a sort of ecologically-oriented cooperative farm and recreational
area (check out their website) south of Mexico City. To this end, I’d prepared
a local desiderata list in English and Spanish (Howell and Webb gives both
Spanish and English common names) (33 species in all). However, a surfeit
of shopping and the irresistible romance of (homestay daughter) Brenda’s suggested
alternative, an overnight trip to Acapulco, nixed these hopes.
Even if birds had shown themselves during the spectacular four-hour (600+
pesos in tolls each way) drive, I doubt I would’ve got a good look at them.
Brenda had set the cruise control on our Ford Escape at 120 k.p.h., supplementing
it manually to the tune of 150 k.p.h. on straight stretches. On arriving at
the beach, we parked the suv and headed off to check out hotels. As we walked
toward the beach a small yellow-bellied bird a little smaller than a Western
Flycatcher flew into a palm tree. I got a good look at its head, which was
striped black and white like a Kiskadee’s, rushed to catch up to the others,
hauled out Howlin’ Webb when we reached the lobby, and confirmed my suspicions
SOCIAL FLYCATCHER, a bird that I had expected to see before now—but particularly
enjoyed encountering in this urban plantation of highrise hotels.
That afternoon I noticed what appeared to be swifts overhead, and saw a
Clay-colored Thrush fly into the planters at the entrance to the hotel. I
spent the rest of the day “tarrying by the stuff” under the beach palapa
while the others got tossed around by the breakers. Every half-hour or so
a large tern would come by on its rounds, but I wasn’t able to get a good
look at its head, although I did notice that the bill was yellowish, indicating
Elegant, rather than my hoped for nemesis tern, the Royal. I also got several
extended (enough to get sunburnt) looks at the “swifts,” which turned out
to be swallows, but which kind? They resembled Northern Rough-wingeds, but
their strongly-forked tails convinced me that they were in fact GRAY-BREASTED
MARTINS. My biggest avian thrill of the day came while I was lying on my
back: a MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD, a species I didn’t think I’d have a chance
at, came gliding by just above the rooftops of the hotels
We’d stopped at a gas station so that Adam, who’d had an attack of double
tourista the night before, could use the washroom. I had a sense that I’d
see a life bird here. There it was on a powerline about 50 m. away! Another
flycatcher, bill larger and belly a darker yellow than a Western Kingbird,
and tail more deeply forked than a Cassin’s, ergo TROPICAL KINGBIRD.
Aug. 16 Oaxaca.
We bussed to Puebla to visit homestay daughter Leo and her family and (once
I’d recovered from my second bout of turista) joined them on an overnight
visit to Oaxaca, which included a stop to visit the ruins at Monte Albán,
which is also a birding site mentioned in Howell. It was too late for much
avian activity, and so all I saw in the vicinity of the ruins were Rock Wren,
Canyon Towhee, Least Goldfinch, and Vermilion Flycatcher. “Can I have 20 minutes?
I’ll meet you back at the museum.” I said to Diane. Off I went to try the
trails mentioned in Howell. Densely-vegetated and very birdy-looking, they
didn’t produce anything until I came to a clearing and was flashed by a green
hummingbird with purply-brown tail feathers, BERYLLINE HUMMINGBIRD, a fitting
conclusion to my lifers and the last “trip bird” of our Mexican vacation—even
though I tried in vain to manufacture an Ocellated Thrasher from a Curve-billed
Thrasher that I saw in the fabulous gardens at the Museo Regional de Oaxaca.
Trip List (Lifers in Capitals)
Falcon sp. (2)
House Wren (i.e., Brown-throated and Southern House Wrens)
YELLOW-GREEN VIREO (h)