2 - 6 February 2006
by James Bradley & Naira Johnston
In early February 2006, we spent a few days in southern and eastern Sonora attempting to see some of the more tropical bird species that reach their northernmost distributional limits in this area. We spent 3 nights camping in the Alamos area and 1 night in the Yecora area. In total, we saw 129 species, spending a total of 5 full days in Sonora, two days of which were spent almost entirely in the car.
For the time spent in Alamos, we camped at El Caracol RV Park for 150 pesos (~$15) per night. We had the place practically to ourselves, with only one other RV present. The owner, Dee, is very friendly and offered us travel advice, even calling the tourist office on our behalf.
Whilst in the Yecora area, we stayed at some cabanas on a ridge approximately 6 or 7 miles west of Yecora for 300 pesos (~$30) per night. The cabins were rustic, with no electricity or hot water (though there appeared to be a gas water heater behind the cabin), but firewood was provided for the wood stove and candles and gas lamps were provided for lighting. There was also a gas stove for cooking but we had to use our own cooking equipment. Bedding was provided but again, we used our own. There is also a restaurant here.
We obtained tourist visas and the Sonora Only pass (free) at km21, south of Nogales. Apparently a vehicle pass is not required if you are in Mexico less than 7 days. The Sonora Only pass can also be obtained on the main highway (Hwy 15) just south of Empalme. Our car ran on diesel, which is almost half the price it is in the USA. Pemex stations are present in all but the smallest of towns and most carry diesel. Us dollars can be exchanged for pesos at any bank or at currency exchange booths located in most large towns and along most major highways. Gas stations will also usually accept dollars but you may not get the best exchange rate.
Travel to Alamos from Nogales (~ 450 miles) takes a full day due to time spent driving through towns, slowing for toll stations (~ $20 each way) and the occasional bathroom break/birding stop/food break. From Alamos we headed to the Yecora area via Navajoa-Ciudad Obregon-Rosario (there is a back road from Alamos to Rosario but we were recommended not to take it for security reasons – check with the tourist office in Alamos) and up to San Nicolas and east from there on Hwy 16 to Yecora. Again, this is a full days drive, despite being less than 300 miles. About 30 miles north of Rosario, the road becomes very twisty with plenty of ups and downs, and remains this way all the way to Yecora. Hwy 16 from Yecora back to Hermosillo is again very twisty for at least half of the distance. This drive took us the best part of 4 hours driving at a fairly steady pace.
The roads were generally very good (though beware of the frequent speed bumps in urban areas) and Mexican drivers also respectful of others. Driving there was nothing like driving in India for example and really not that different from the USA.
Overall the birding was excellent. Though we did see some of the specialties, we missed a lot as this was somewhat of a spontaneous trip and we had not done much birding research. A more thorough reviewing of all the available trip reports, many of which are very detailed (and can be found at Blake Maybank’s excellent repository at birdingtheamericas.com) would have no doubt added to our total. We used Steve Howell’s “Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America” and “A Bird Finding Guide to Mexico” by the same author. I believe there is also some older literature available on the birds of Sonora specifically if you have the time to search it out.
Birds were everywhere we looked on this trip and included many northern species in their wintering ranges. You really do start to get a taste of the tropics in the Alamos area. To see birds different to those of the Southern USA however you really have to bird the thorn forest and pine/oak forest of the medium and higher elevations respectively, of the Sierra Madre Occidental (and be either east or south of Hermosillo as well). There are also many interesting looking back roads that probably hold many good birding sites that we did not have much chance to explore, being new to the area and lacking a decent map.
Species in bold are those either of personal interest to us or those with limited distributions in the USA
Sites and Birds
El Caracol Campsite
A good place to bird. The grounds of the RV Park are open with several large trees. At one end of the site is a cattle corral with a drinking trough, which proved very popular with the local birds. There is extensive thorn forest behind the RV Park (4 square kilometers of which belongs to the RV park owner), with some good trails.
We birded this area for three mornings and afternoons, finding some of the sought after species. Black-throated Magpie-Jays were common and easily seen, as were White-fronted Parrots, Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, Rufous-winged Sparrows, Black-capped Gnatcatchers, Pyrrhuloxias and White-winged Dove.
The drinking trough at the corral was especially popular with doves, attracting White-tipped, Common Ground and Inca Doves. A few Red-billed Pigeons were usually present in the large trees adjacent to the corral but were very skittish. Sinaloa Crows also came to the corral one morning and were otherwise seen flying over the RV Park in small numbers on a couple of occasions. At the other end of the park, around the swimming pool area, some green shrubbery, wood piles and grasses attracted Elegant Quail, Vermillion Flycatcher, Rufous-winged, Brewer’s, Lincoln’s and Vesper Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhee, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Cactus Wren along with a single Bell’s Vireo and Streak-backed Oriole. On the morning we left, this area turned up a Greater Pewee and a surprise Brown-backed Solitaire.
The thorn forest behind the park was very dry while we were there (due to very little winter rain), and was quieter than we had hoped. Despite this we did see Black-capped Gnatcatchers, Hermit Thrush, Gray Flycatchers, Dusky-capped, Brown-crested and numerous Nutting’s Flycatchers. Some flowering trees attracted small numbers of Broad-billed Hummingbirds and some other visitors to the RV Park reported a Magnificent Hummingbird from the trails too. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was seen twice: in the thorn forest and along the forest edge.
Rio Cuchujaqui (SE of Alamos)
We reached the river about mid-afternoon on the 3rd Feb after driving 15 minutes southwest from Alamos towards the town of Cuchujaqui. From the new bridge across the river, access to the riparian woodland was limited to about 200 meters upstream although with some scrambling, one could probably proceed further downstream.
This area produced some good birds and I’m sure that with a more thorough effort has much more to offer. A Belted Kingfisher was present, but we did not see Green Kingfisher as hoped. We did see our only Happy Wren, White-throated Thrush and Tufted Flycatchers of the trip here with singles of each species. More Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Inca Doves and a single Hepatic Tanager were also seen. Along with other riparian corridors and greener areas that we birded this location seemed to be the place to find northern migrants, with several Wilson’s Warblers, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Spotted Sandpiper and Wilson’s Snipe as well as a single Red-naped Sapsucker.
Adolfo Presa Ruiz Cortines Reservoir
A left turn (northwards) onto a good dirt road about 5-6 miles before reaching El Caracol takes you to the Adolfo Presa Ruiz Cortines Reservoir (about a 20 minute drive). En route to the reservoir we had our only Harris’s Hawks of the trip along with the first Cassin’s Kingbirds and Greater Roadrunner. The reservoir itself produced small numbers of Northern Pintail, Ring-billed Gull and American Coot along with some American White Pelicans. We were more interested in the outflow however which we found by following the dam wall eastwards. A substantial river flows from the reservoir here and there is lush riparian growth on both sides. Here we found 4 Social Flycatchers along with single Common Black Hawk, Osprey, Gilded Flicker, Great Kiskadee and Thick-billed Kingbird. Great Egrets, Broad-billed Hummingbirds and Northern Rough-winged Swallows were common, and wintering northern migrants were also in abundance with Warbling Vireo, Black-throated Gray, MacGillivray’s and Orange-crowned Warblers seen.
Though we birded some small wooded valleys just east of Yecora, we didn’t see anything there (with the exception of Rufous-crowned Sparrow) that we didn’t see in the better known areas to the west of Yecora. In the high altitude pine/oak forest from kms 170-178 (east of the pass) most of the birds seen can also be found in SE Arizona. Bridled Titmouse was common as was Hepatic Tanager, Mexican and Steller’s Jay, Brown Creeper, White-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush and Hutton’s Vireo. A small group of Yellow-eyed Juncos was seen along the roadside and singles of Arizona Woodpecker, Canyon Wren, Brown-throated House Wren and Flame-coloured Tanager were found in small roadside canyons. We also saw the black-faced race of Bushtit (personatus) here. The best canyon to bird (though we didn’t know at the time) can be found at km 161. Though steep, one can walk up (and presumably down) this canyon, which offered better birding than much of the surrounding area. Here we heard Wild Turkeys and saw White-eared Hummingbirds, Rufous-capped Warblers, Painted Redstarts, numerous Orange-crowned Warblers, Rusty Sparrows and a Greater Pewee. Had we been able to spend longer than the half hour we did, I’m sure we would have seen much more.
Other areas and birds seen
A few other species of note were seen in
areas not mentioned above.
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