26 - 28 December 1995
by Craig Faanes
December 26 - Crossed the border at Lukeville, Arizona y Sonoita, Sonora about 10:00 a.m. Aduana here was a snap with only a brief check of the contents of the trunk. We had to beg the Migracion official for a passport stamp because no documentation is needed for travel just to Puerto Penasco (hereafter just PP).
Habitat quality changed dramatically as we followed Mexico Highway 8 south from the border. Vegetation at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (closed thanks to the furlough) was abundant and lush. Yet just a few meters south of the border the same vegetation type was incredibly sparse. I wonder if this wasn't related to past overgrazing by bovines and goats because the soils could not change that drastically at the border. We found a few typical desert birds in the first 20 km below the border including numerous Phainopepla and an Abert's Towhee, but only a Cooper's Hawk darting up an arroyo was noteworthy. About 35 km south of Sonoita the sparse desert vegetation becomes even more sparse as the elevation drops. Cactus and cholla gives way to saltbush and other dry desert plants. This stark vegetation remains dominant all the way to PP.
Got a room at the Best Western Playa Inn off Blvd. Fremont for $35 US for a double. I had made a reservation through the Best Western 800 number before leaving the states but they had no record of that reservation when we arrived. This continues the tradition begun in 1985 of never having a reservation made for a Mexican hotel exist when I got to Mexico.
From the hotel we followed the highway (Blvd. Fremont) toward Caborca for about 3 km and took the first right at the SEDO sign and followed this road to its end at the La Concha development. Walked to the beach and saw large numbers of gulls further east. Apparently in the past travelers have been able to drive through the La Concha but the place was gated today so we had to find alternatives. Returned to the Caborca Highway and turned east. In a couple km we found the dump with its standing, putrid water, and stopped to check out the gulls. Best here was an immature Glaucous-winged Gull, a nice tick on the Mexico list.
Followed the Caborca Highway further east to the road to Playa Encanta and turned south toward the ocean. This, like virtually all other roads off the few main roads was a widened sand track. At first I was a little nervous on the roads fearing that I would get stuck but it was apparent that there was no problema if you did not pull off the road and park anywhere. These roads might be a bit tricky if and when it ever rains in PP however! Best bird (in fact the only bird) along the dirt road was a Sage Sparrow.
At the ocean we turned back west and followed the road through the development until we reached a right fork with a sign pointing to the Estero. Turn right (north) here and go over the top of the hill to an overlook of the estero. Turn left at the bottom of the hill and follow this dirt track east. Parked at the end of the trail where it comes out on the beach, and then proceeded on foot to the mouth of the estero. Ring-billed Gull was bordering on abundant here; Heerman's Gull was second in abundance. Found a number of Red-breasted Merganser in the estero along with several Western Grebe. Shorebirds were quite numerous on the mud flats of the estero including several noisy and conspicuous Long-billed Curlews. American Oystercatcher was scattered among the numerous peeps; one Black Oystercatcher was among the more common American's. Best bird of the day, however, was the immature Sabine's Gull sitting on a small island of mud in the flats.
We returned to town in late afternoon and followed the signs for the
Malecon. Made a brief stop at the port where shrimp were being unloaded
where we found the first of many Yellow-footed Gulls, several Western
Grebes and a Black Turnstone. Followed the Malecon and parked in front
of Lily's Restaurant. The rocks below the street were littered with
Heerman's Gull; the only Elegant Tern of the trip flew by as we watched
them. Hung out on the malecon and caught
the green flash - Debbie's first. Had dinner at Lily's one of many
gringo restaurants in town. The shrimp fajitas and shrimp scampi are
December 27 - Up early and on the road to Cholla Bay which is well-marked from the main road. We took this dirt track west for about 10 km to the village and then proceeded up the hill to the rocky area which is appropriately named Pelican Point. Parked in the large open area in the center of the houses and walked south, between two houses, to the rocky coastline. Immediately found a large feeding flock of seabirds that was made up primarily of Brown Booby. Searching among them we found about a dozen Blue-footed Booby as well as the Brown Pelican's and numerous gulls. Saw one small group of diving ducks that turned out to be Greater Scaup, and also found 2 Surf Scoter. Walking west along the rocks we picked up the only Western Gull of the trip.
From Pelican Point we returned to the village and took a road to the boat ramp and drove out on the beach. The tide was returning, but there was still a huge area of mud flats exposed. We worked this area for an hour, turning up more curlews, several Whimbrel, numerous Snowy Plover and several Wilson's Plover. In the distance was a group of 4 American Avocet. Returning toward PP we turned south at a sign for The Reef but there was little on the beach. Back on Highway 8, we turned south toward PP. There seems to be a general dearth of birds in the settlement. Not much more than starlings, Great-tailed Grackle and Inca Doves could be found.
Turned right off Highway 8 toward the glitzy, new, Hotel Las Glorias on the beach. Just before it we turned left (south) at a sign for Sector Naval Militar and followed this road to the north side of the harbor. Wound our way past the Mexican Navy installation to the north side of the rocky harbor and scanned the ocean below the Las Glorias. An unidentified porpoise was cavorting in the wake of some returning shrimp boats and a Clark's Grebe was swimming offshore. Other than that there was little of interest. Ate lunch at Lily's and watched the Heerman's Gulls patrolling the ocean rocks. After lunch we made the obligatory run through the markets before heading out toward Playa Encanta again.
Just before the Playa Encanta road there is another road to Aguamar which also runs south to the estero. We took this road through typical desert scrub and picked up one obliging Le Conte's Thrasher before reaching the estero. Returning to the Caborca road we continued east to Playa Encanta road. This afternoon the best bird along the dirt road was an Ash-throated Flycatcher.
Just before the end of the road at Playa Encanta, there is a sign informing you about the settlement. The first house on the right beyond this sign has a hummingbird feeder (the only one we saw in PP). It had one bird coming to it - an adult Allen's Hummingbird. Leaving the hummingbird feeder we returned to the beach and scanned the rocks offshore. On one of them was a Surfbird which turned out to be Debbie's 500th life bird. Not bad for having birded only a year. Stayed here until sunset catching our last green flash over the Sea of Cortez, then returned to PP for dinner.
The restaurant of choice tonight was the Happy Dolphin just up the
street from the Malecon. Like Lily's last night this place was packed
with gringos. When we were served our meal we found out why. This place
had the best seafood I have ever eaten anywhere. We both had the shrimp
in orange and honey sauce which was incredibly delicious. I recommended
Lily's from last night and recommend
the Delphin Agridable even more. Also, the food at the Dolphin is
than at Lily's.
December 28 - Up early and had the continental breakfast at the Playa Inn before heading north. We made numerous stops along the way after leaving PP. The first was about 5 km north of the PP Airport where we found a small group of Lawrence's Goldfinches foraging on some weeds.
We arrived back in Sonoita about 10:00 and I asked directions to the
presa on the Rio Sonoita which Alden mentioned briefly in his
now-30-year old book on birding western Mexico. As you travel north
following signs to the USA you will cross over the Rio Sonoita. Perhaps
20 meters north of the bridge there is a dirt track leading east along
the north bank of the river. We took
this track east about 2 km to the dam. Along the way you pass through
desert scrub that produces Crissal, Bendire's and Curve-billed
Rufous-winged Sparrow, and other typical desert species. Below the dam
is a rather lush growth of riparian vegetation which produced
Black-throated Gray, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black Phoebe, Anna's
and others. I would love to return to this patch of riparian vegetation
spring or fall migration to see what's lurking there. We crossed the
about noon and ended a short but fruitful trip to northern Mexico.
The most obvious thing about Puerto Penasco is that even though its located within the borders of Mexico, it is a suburb of Phoenix and Tucson. I was shocked to have to beg to find Mexican pesos because everyone everywhere accepts U.S. dollars. There is no need to have to worry about not knowing spanish here either. Whenever I would address someone in spanish, no matter if a waiter or a street vendor or a gas station attendant, they would invariably reply in almost perfect english. Making matters even more American you can drink the water here!
Although there are no "real" Mexican birds here you can pick up a number of good birds for a Mexico list either in PP or on the way down. PP must be a bonanza for northern migrants that barely make it over the Mexico frontera.
Access to PP is a snap. The town is 212 miles from either Phoenix or Tucson and can be reached in about 4 hours from either making this a nice place for a long day of Mexico birding or even better as a weekend jaunt. Airport listers will be happy to know (at least I am) that PP has a new international airport that is supposedly going to be served by Arizona Airways from either Phoenix or Tucson or both in the near future.
While birding at Playa Encanta we could see three large rock islands a number of miles offshore to the southeast. These are known as Bird Island and lie about 25 miles from PP. Getting to them would make a nice mini pelagic trip. A company offers trips out to the islands. I forgot the name of the outfit, but they are located in the harbor in PP and advertise in the Puerto Penasco Times. There are records for Black-vented Shearwater, Black Storm-Petrel and Least Storm-Petrel (among others) for the PP region, so a boat trip might be an ideal way to watch them.
Birding information about PP seemed to consist only of the now-ancient write up in Alden's book and scattered trip reports. However, after being in Mexico I picked up the newest edition of the Davis and Russell publication "Finding Birds in Southeastern Arizona" (available from ABA Sales, Tucson Audubon Society, and others) which contains a nice description of birding potential at PP. The article also includes a map of the area. I wish now that I had known about this description before going because Davis and Russell mention a grove of trees in the town that serve as a vagrant trap, and talk about the potential at the sewage lagoon which I did not know existed while there. Had we known about either location we may have done even better on our trip list.
The Lonely Planet travel guide to Mexico makes PP sound like there are few tourist facilities available, and the Mexico and Central America Handbook are equally weak on the town. However there is an abundance of tourist facilities here. Prior to crossing the border at Lukeville, Arizona, we stopped at Gringo Pass where I found a little book titled "The Rocky Point Gringo Guide - A Travel Guide to Puerto Penasco, Mexico" in curios shop next to the restaurant. This 1994 publication authored by Mary Weil, is packed with all sorts of tourist information - mainly directed at the beach crowd but quite valuable to nature lovers as well. The store in Lukeville was the only place I saw this book for sale in southeastern Arizona. However, if interested, you can order one from the publisher:
Frontier Travel Adventures 925 W. Baseline Road, Box 105-H1 Tempe, Arizona 85283-1100 (602-345-8659)
I paid $9.95 plus tax in Lukeville. The order form in the book shows the price as $9.95 plus $0.66 tax, plus $2.00 for postage and handling. Its well worth the trouble to pick up a copy to help you plan a jaunt to PP and environs.
One last thing. We flew into Tucson for Christmas and took a rental car over the border. Just like in San Diego, the only rental car company that lets you do that is AVIS. They charged $38 for 3 days of Mexico insurance on top of any regular insurance you would pick up for a rental vehicle. Mexico insurance is readily available all over southeastern Arizona for personal vehicles. Sanborn's is probably the largest and best known (most reliable???) company offering Mexico insurance anywhere along the Mexican frontera. No matter what you may have been told, your personal vehicle insurance on vehicles in the United States is totally invalid once you pass aduana and enter Mexico so to be safer than more sorry buy Mexico insurance before you cross into the country.
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