17 November - 2 December 2000
by George & Ellen West
We drove south from Green Valley, AZ through the Mariposa entrance to Mexico, leaving about 7:30 AM on November 17. We obtained permits and visas 25km along the way on Route 15. As long as you have the proper documents (passports, title, registration, drivers licenses, etc.) your delay at this point will be very brief. Our first day through Sonora south to Navajoa was uneventful with only "wire" birds noted as we were in a hurry to get south to Mazatlan by the 18th. Red-tailed, Harris's, and Gray Hawks were common along with many Crested Caracaras, Black and Turkey Vultures. The usual blackbirds, grackles, kestrels, doves, and kingbirds (first Cassin's and then Tropical) were numerous along the toll (cuota) road south. Navajoa made a good halfway stop. The El Mayo Motel just one-half block east of Rt. 15 is clean, relatively inexpensive, and near the Tips restaurant that serves good and reasonably priced meals.
The second day along Rt. 15 took us to Mazatlan. Birds of interest on the way not mentioned above were White-faced Ibis, White-tailed Kite, Brewer's Blackbird, and Yellow-winged Cacique. Our rooms were on one of the back holes of a golf course that provided extensive vegetation and ponds for birds. Common were Neotropic Cormorant, Great and Snowy Egret, American Coot, White-winged Dove, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Gila Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher, Sinaloa Crow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warbler, Plumbeous Vireo, Black-headed and Blue Grosbeak, Lark Sparrow, White-collared Seedeater, Orchard Oriole, and Great-tailed Grackle.
We birded three days with Alwin (Alvin) van der Heiden as our guide. He may be reached at P. O. Box 964, Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico AP 82,000 or through his e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. His telephone number in Mazatlan is (69) 85-4086. If you are already in Mazatlan, you do not need to dial the (69). Alwin is about 28 years old, finishing his bachelor's research on the seasonal distribution of shorebirds on four estuaries in the Mazatlan area. He is proficient with shorebirds and the larger wading and land birds, and is working on learning the smaller birds (warblers, buntings, wrens, etc.). He is energetic and very helpful in getting you to the best places to bird in the area. He is Dutch by birth, but has been in Mexico for 23 years so his language is Spanish. However, he speaks English well, but sometimes did not know the English common names of birds. We got along with scientific names for most of the smaller birds.
Our first trip on November 20 was near El Palmito, about 6,500-feet elevation, in the Sierra Madre Occidental; this is about one hour's drive from Mazatlan up a winding steep but paved road that eventually leads to Durango. On the way out of Mazatlan, we got our first look at Purplish-backed Jays that were flying across the road and sat on treetops calling. Once in El Palmito, we parked near a farmer's house and Alwin talked to the young man there - asking to watch the car while we hiked into the woods. Since Alwin is fluent in the local dialect and is very out-going, it is no problem for him to obtain assistance from the local folks. While you might think these people would like some pesos for their help, Alwin says they prefer clothing and other goods that are difficult for them to obtain. Also, if you do not know them, it may be insulting to offer them money unless it is done correctly.
We hiked about one and one-half miles into the woods up a steep trail that bordered a stream. The vegetation was tall pines and oaks with underlying brush. While there were good birds all along the trail, our goal was an overlook from the top of a steep cliff (barranca) where parrots sometimes fly by. Alwin thought he saw a flock of small parrotlets in the distance but certainly not close enough for anyone to identify. The views at several spots along the trail were spectacular with little sign of human development anywhere except near the trail (old mining road). The locals cut trees on the hillsides to plant corn, which may eventually ruin the character of the forests there. Interesting birds along this trail were: A large flock of Band-tailed Pigeons flew over the tree tops and right in front of us with a rush of wings as we watched over the cliff edge. Several White-eared Hummingbirds were there. We found a few Elegant and Mountain Trogons - it was great to have comparisons of these two similar species. A few White-striped Woodcreepers were not expected.
Greater Pewees were very common and many Tufted Flycatchers were in the trees - in a group - perhaps similar in behavior to buff-breasted flycatchers. A flock of Black-throated Magpie-Jays was seen along the road up to El Palmito and a Yellow Grosbeak was at the same place. Tufted Jays were plentiful and unmistakable since they are so bright and obvious in the woods - all white and dark blue with a tuft like a crested auklet on the forehead. We saw one Tufted Jay that had been injured, perhaps by a local boy with a slingshot? It could not fly but was at the top of a 25-foot pine. Later we saw a flock of about 14 birds calling and moving through the woods. There were Mexican Chickadees, many northern warblers, but also Red-faced and Golden-browed Warblers, Painted and Slate-throated Redstarts. Three unusual sightings for us were White-throated Thrush (Robin), Orange-bellied Bunting, and Rufous-capped Brush-Finch.
We got back to our rooms after having dinner at Hotel Villa Blanca, once owned by a German couple, but now owned by the village of Capilla del Taxte. The meals reflect the German background with sauerkraut served with many offerings. This is also a great place for birders to stay while up in the mountains. They have about 20 rooms nicely appointed with baths down the hall. The rate is only about $39 per night which includes three meals! You can contact Lucio Perez Vizcarra for reservations at 85-3307.
The next day we birded the lowlands near the ocean. Alwin took us to the Escopama Ranch that is really a Mango orchard and a wide expanse of uncut tropical forest. Ponds provided some looks at ducks and some shorebirds, but mostly we chased Rufous-bellied Chachalacas around as they called from back in the orchard. We found more Purplish-backed Jays and Black-throated Magpie-Jays here. We got our first look at Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, found two Broad-billed Hummingbirds, and several flycatchers. The chachalacas were more common at El Yugo in northern Mazatlan where Alwin's parents are employed at the Centro de Investigacion en Acricultura y Manejo Ambeintal (spelling may be incorrect!). It is an ecological center with a research and educational mission. In the afternoon and again in the evening after dinner, we went north of Mazatlan about 10 miles to El Guayabal, a community-owned shrimp estuary to look for waders.
Here we found many Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Black-bellied Plover, Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, Willet, Western and Least Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls, Caspian and Forester's Terns. Two birds of great interest were Mangrove Swallows that became common along fresh water south to Puerto Vallarta, and Boat-billed Heron. The heron hunts only at night and rests deep in the mangroves during the day. It feeds only on crabs we were told. We carried a flashlight and were joined by a very cooperative area "guard" with a brighter flashlight to find the feeding herons after dark along the canals - in which we had found many crocodiles during the afternoon! We found three Boat-billed Herons and watched as they slowly stalked "ankle-deep" in the muddy water waiting for the many crabs that were in the area.
On November 22, we spent time around Mazatlan on our own, but managed to find a large estuary north of our place where there were hundreds of resting terns and shorebirds. Wilson's and Semipalmated Plovers were abundant along with American Oystercatchers and Western Sandpipers. Curlews, Whimbrel, Willet, avocets and stilts, gulls and terns were there in good numbers. There is a point at the far southwestern edge of the city that is a good look-out to the rocky islands in the ocean. Here were hundreds of Brown and a few Blue-footed Boobys. There was a decided lack of gulls and shorebirds on the rocks and on the beaches through the entire area.
On our final day with Alwin, November 24, we drove back up into the Sierra Madre to La Piedra Blanca at about 2,000-feet elevation. From here we made several trips into the woods trying to locate citroline trogons that Alwin had seen in the spring. However, they must move away from this area in the fall and early winter as we did not see or hear one. We drove down a good dirt road and stopped frequently to bird. Streak-backed Oriole is the common oriole here. We found Squirrel Cuckoos, Lineated Woodpeckers, an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and several Masked Tityras. In another steep canyon with a very rough dirt road leading down to the stream at the bottom, we found several singing Brown-backed Solitaires. Their songs are remarkable!
Nyarit & Jalisco
On November 25 we drove south to Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit. On the way, we stopped for lunch in San Blas, famous for its jungle boat rides. We found the La Familia Restaurant to be very clean and hospitable. We did not have time to bird the area and it was in the middle of the day so we pushed south now on Rts. 161 and 200 to Nuevo Vallarta. Puerto Vallarta, only a few miles south, is in Jalisco. The border is the Ameca River that ran just south of our hotel. The border is also the time zone boundary with Mountain Time in Nuevo Vallarta and Central Time in Puerto Vallarta. Thankfully, the hotels in Nuevo Vallarta operate on Central Time anyway. We were on the beach and at the mouth of the Ameca River.
The first day there we found some of the typical birds of the area - hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds, all the herons, White and White-faced Ibis, shorebirds, terns, swallows, seedeaters, and flycatchers. I was surprised to hear a Whip-poor-will calling at dusk one evening.
On Monday, November 27, we went birding with local guide Kimberly Baldwin. Kim and her husband, Dan, are environmental educators. Dan teaches in a local bilingual school and Kim teaches part-time and guides for a tour company that specializes in general ecology and marine biology. Kim is a good birder, knows the area very well, and can communicate with the local people. You may reach her on the web at www.Birding.20M.com. Her telephone number is 322 65072 and her e-mail address is: kdbaldwinmex @hotmail.com
We birded the south bank of the Ameca River (Jalisco) to the beach searching for collared plover but did not find one. We did see many Wilson's, Semipalmated, and Snowy Plovers, and a single Ruddy Turnstone. Western and Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, and Sanderlings were abundant. Along the farm field road leading to the south side of the river we found Groove-billed Ani, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Mangrove Swallow, Great Kiskadee, Social and Vermilion Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Happy Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Rufous-backed Robin, American Redstart, Orange-crowned and Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Lincoln's and Lark Sparrows, Grayish Saltator, White-collared Seedeater, hundreds of Bronzed Cowbirds, Streak-backed Oriole, and House Finch. In one pond near the highway were over 150 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.
At Punta de Mita north and west of Nuevo Vallarta at the northernmost point of Bandaras Bay, we birded some wet tropical forest to the beach. We watched two Nutting's Flycatchers, trying to remember how to tell them from Ash-throated, but we saw the nice tail pattern and the yellow mouth. The cheeks are a bit darker than Ash-throated. I could not say that I could tell much about the gradation of color on the wings. In a tall fig tree were two male Rose-throated Becards, two Masked Tityra, and several warblers. In the brush we found MacGillivray's Warbler and one Golden-crowned Warbler. A flock of San Blas Jays was calling from the trees across the road. We got a good look at them as they were scolding a Gray Hawk in a tall tree. We returned to the Baldwins's apartment in Puerto Vallarta and saw Cinnamon Hummingbirds that come to their feeder.
On November 28, we drove south around Bandaras Bay and up into the hills to the southeast of Puerto Vallarta in Jalisco. We spent most of the time around a village, Las Juntas y Los Veranos, at about 1,000-foot elevation. We stopped and parked right off the main highway as we heard parrot calls. Several flocks of Orange-fronted Parakeets flew by and we saw them easily in the tops of nearby trees. A few chip notes from some brush nearby were from Stripe-headed Sparrows. We drove another two miles up the road past the village to a bridge and parked to watch for parrots on the hillside. Motmots had been seen here but not this day. A Little Blue Heron was fishing in the rapid water below, Cinnamon Hummingbirds were in the brush on the hillside and nearby was a flock of San Blas Jays. Several Vaux's Swifts flew along the river canyon.
A single Black-throated Magpie-Jay flew across the river, then a flock of Yellow-winged Caciques moved through the area and a single Scrub Euphonia flew along the ridge. Happy Wrens are easy to hear singing, but hard to find in the brush. We drove back to the village and walked along a dirt road parallel to the nearby creek for about two miles. A Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was sitting in a mesquite tree by the road side, and another one was found a half-mile farther up the road. Thick-billed Kingbirds became more common as we looked harder among the many Tropical Kingbirds. Kiskadees and Social Flycatchers are everywhere. Some vultures were circling overhead, followed by two Cooper's Hawks. Then among them appeared a large black hawk with two large white bands across the tail and a terminal white border- a Great Black Hawk. Gnatcatchers and several warblers rounded out the walk. Again we did not locate the motmot or the citroline trogon.
We returned to Nuevo Vallarta and stopped at La Laguna restaurant on the road into Nuevo Vallarta. Behind the restaurant is a large pond with its surface completely covered with water lettuce. On one side of the pond was a large flock of ducks - over 200 Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks. A single Anhinga was in a tree nearby. On the surface of the water lettuce were many American Coots, Common Moorhens, Purple Gallinules, Northern Jacanas, and a few White-faced Ibis and Green Herons.
The next day we again went south of Puerto Vallarta up into the foothills of the Sierra Madre to El Tuito and the Altamira area at about 4,000-feet elevation. We drove through the village out a dirt road towards a large ranch. We stopped along the road and found a flock of Stripe-headed Sparrows and a single Blue Mockingbird. We walked the road into the ranch along the edges of grassy fields. The usual flycatchers were here and in the grass was a flock of Blue-black Grassquits. We then drove several logging roads among the tall pines and oaks and parked when we heard some chip notes. Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Gray, Townsend's, Grace's, Nashville, and Wilson's Warblers were here along with one Black-throated Green Warbler, a bit unusual for the Pacific coast forest. We heard several Hepatic Tanagers and Brown-backed Solitaires. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was working a pine tree for sap. A Squirrel Cuckoo hopped into view and a Military Macaw called as it flew past us and was visible for a minute as it went by. Other interesting species there were Berylline, Cinnamon and Broad-billed Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Nutting's and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Black-throated Magpie-Jay, Happy Wren, Spotted Wren, Plumbeous and Warbling Vireos, Streak-backed Oriole, and Yellow-winged Cacique.
From the top of a tall tree we heard an unusual call, but the bird at first glance looked like a kiskadee. However, there was no rusty on the wing and the bill was too large - Boat-billed Flycatcher. After lunch at the Altamira Restaurant (highly recommended) we continued birding and returned to an estuary in Mescales, just north of Nuevo Vallarta. The estuary at La Laguna de Quelele was a functional ranch with restaurant and hotel but is now vacant. The trails have gown over, but you can walk on a dike along one estuary and look for waders and shorebirds. On entering the area, we stopped at a field filled with buckwheat(?) in which were hundreds of Dickcissels. A flock of American White Pelicans flew overhead. Some local Mexicans were shrimping in the estuary but there were lots of herons and shorebirds. Of interest was a flock of Short-billed Dowitchers and Kim spotted a single Boat-billed Heron sleeping in the mangroves.
The next day friends invited us for a boat ride on Bandaras Bay. In the early morning we walked first to the mouth of the Ameca River and found over 300 terns on a sand bar at low tide. The water was teeming with small fish, each about two inches in length. Some were washed up on shore with wave action and were quickly devoured by Willets, grackles, and herons. The terns were also working the surf and catching the fish. We estimated that the flock consisted of about 100 Common Terns, 75 Forster's Terns, 50 Royal Terns, 10 Caspian Terns, and 100 Elegant Terns. We then went to meet our friends at their lovely home on a canal in Nuevo Vallarta. We crossed the bay following the shoreline so everyone could see the developments from Nuevo to Puerto Vallarta and then to a restaurant accessible only by boat at the far southern shore of the bay. After a good lunch, we made an arc out into the bay to look for marine mammals (none seen) and birds. We noticed large frothy boils of water in the distance and found these to be areas where skipjack (a small tuna) were feeding probably on the small fish that we had seen that morning near shore. In these boils were hundreds of Brown Boobys and mixed in with them were many Blue-footed Boobys. I could not see any red-footed or masked boobys in the flocks. We encountered one large flock of Pink-footed Shearwaters and with them were several larger all dark brown shearwaters that looked like sooty shearwaters but with smaller bills and with no white under the wing. I have not yet figured out what these birds were. If you have an idea, let me know!
The next day, December 1, we began our trip back to Green Valley. By pushing it we made Navajoa on the first day and were back in Green Valley by late afternoon on December 2. We will go down again sometime in the future. I would recommend going later in the winter. We arrived just after the end of the rainy season. While the flowering trees were spectacular, it was very humid and there were a lot of biting flies (no-see-ums we called them in Alaska) - small black flies that cause welts when they take a bite out of your skin to lick up the blood! The guides said that birding into the dry season in January and February might be better. Spring might also be a good time to find the citroline trogon and russet-crowned motmot.
The guides' fees were very reasonable. Each charged about $50 per person for a full day of birding at lower elevations and $60 at higher (and farther away) locations. We birded literally from dawn to dusk so these rates are a bargain. Each provided lunch, snacks, and water or lemonade. However, if we ate at a restaurant, we picked up the tab or ate Dutch. I would recommend both guides listed above to anyone who wishes to bird these areas. We used Howell and Webb as our reference, but you should bring along a North American guide also to refresh your memory of the warblers and other birds not pictured in Howell and Webb. I wish I had a seabird guide when looking at the boobys and shearwaters to refresh my memory. However, that is a lot of weight to carry. Bring your own scope if you want to get views of distant birds. Alwin did not have a scope (but will soon) and he did carry our scope. Kim carried her scope everywhere. Still having your own scope with which you are familiar is often better than using another.
Because many of the species in the foothills
and slopes of the Sierra Madre are endemic, these are the only places you
might find them. So a trip is strongly recommended.
George and Ellen West