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11 - 30 January 2001

by Burke Korol

Here is a summary of a driving/birding trip through Baja California and northern Baja California Sur, Mexico.  A non-birding friend and I drove from Tijuana and made it to just south of Mulege between 11 and 30 January 2001.  I am an avid birder, but the birding on this trip was compromised because my buddy was not very interested in birds and I didn’t even get a chance to search for the endemic Vizcaino Thrasher, despite having driven through the heart of it’s range.  I have only reported each bird once (i.e., the first time I saw it, but I can provide more details upon request:

I did not take my (newly purchased) spotting scope - for security reasons, which in hindsight, were largely unfounded.  Driving across the border was painless and we also found out that a vehicle permit is no longer required (but insurance still is) by the Mexican authorities to take a (Canadian) vehicle into Baja.  Except for some irrelevant questions at a few military checkpoints, I found the Mexican people to be friendly and easy-going and could recommend this trip to anybody.  I speak very little Spanish, but didn’t have much difficulty communicating with the locals.

We arrived at the Mexican border at Tijuana just after lunch and all we did was buy our tourist cards (21$ USD) and we were off.  We drove south on Hwy 1-D (a well-maintained toll-freeway) to Ensenada and then made it to Puerto San Isidro on the Pacific Coast by nightfall.  We didn't stop much, but from the road I identified Western Gull, White-tailed Kite and Brown Pelican.  As we neared the coast there were several California Thrashers (lifer) zipping across the road at dusk.

On the morning of the 12th a walk in our campsite (Malibu Beach RV Park) on the coast just south of San Isidro turned up White-crowned Sparrow, Sanderling, Western Grebe (probably Clark's out there too), Surf Scoter, Pelagic Cormorant, Horned Lark, Spotted Towhee, Black Phoebe, Yellow-rumped Warbler, House Wren, Double-crested Cormorant, Common Raven, American Crow (apparently not common here), House Finch, Whimbrel, Say's Phoebe, American Pipit and Northern Mockingbird.

After breakfast we went back east to the main highway where I found a Wrentit and California Quail near the junction of the San Isidro Road and Hwy. 1-D.  We then went south towards Colonet where I saw a Turkey Vulture.  South of Colonet we headed inland (east) to Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir.  The gravel road to the park was only 100 km, but it took 3 hours to drive because it is so rough, steep and dusty. Found Cassin's Kingbird and Loggerhead Shrike in the lower elevation deserts near the base of the road.

The drive to the park was worth it because the mountains, (Jeffery?) Pine forests and scenery here are spectacular. We camped and hiked in this park for the next three days.  With the below freezing night temperatures (we camped at 2400 m) it was easy to understand why we were the only ones in the park.  At least we could make a fogata (bonfire) at night.  In the pine forests there were Western Scrub-Jay, Pygmy Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush, Hairy Woodpecker, Mourning Dove and Northern Flicker. At our campsite, just as dark was falling, we had Great Horned Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl calling from very nearby.  Apparently the latter is a pretty good bird for Mexico.

The next morning (13 January) a huge flock (~200) of Pinyon Jays came through our camp.  During the next few days of hiking I found Mountain Chickadee, Williamson's Sapsucker (fed in our campsite each morning), Pine Siskin, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Cassin's Finch (uncommon), Wrentit, Canyon Wren, Spotted Towhee, White-breasted Nuthatch, 12 Mountain Quail (only my second record!!), Dark-eyed Junco and Cedar Waxwing.

We drove out of the park on the 15th and along the gravel road to the highway I added Northern Cardinal, California Towhee, Brewer's Blackbird and the only Greater Roadrunner of the trip.  Our next stop was at Bahia San Quentin, on the Pacific Coast, where we enjoyed hot showers, fine seafood and some top quality tequila!  That evening and the next morning I birded the tidal lagoon at our campsite and there were lots of waders and waterfowl, including: Great Blue Heron, Whimbrel, Brant (Baja is an important wintering area for this species), Willet, Great Egret, Caspian Tern, Ring-billed Gull, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, Belted Kingfisher and Common Loon.

After breakfast on the 16th we headed south again and after a long, but impressive, drive through the interior desert, where I had White-winged Dove, we ended up on the Sea of Cortez side at the scenic Bahia de Los Angeles.  We rented kayaks on the 17th and paddled around this bay for the day.  We also checked out our campground host's endangered sea turtle research project.  This was a productive area for birds and I added the following birds: Black Skimmer, Yellow-footed Gull (lifer), Heermann's Gull, Osprey, Magnificent Frigatebird, Reddish Egret, American Oystercatcher, Eared Grebe, Blue-footed Booby (lifer), Red-breasted Merganser, Royal Tern, Gray Thrasher (endemic, lifer), California Gnatcatcher (lifer), Red-billed Tropicbird (lifer), Pacific Loon (kayaked right up to them), Spotted Sandpiper, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brewer's Sparrow (very common in large flocks here) and Verdin.

WE broke camp on the 18th, which was another long travel day.  After basically being waved through all of the heavily gaurded military checkpoints near the BC-BCS border at Guerrero Negro, we got to the oasis at San Ignacio. We just had time to walk around the date palm groves in this town before setting up camp.  Before dark I got a few marsh birds like: Ruddy Duck, Marsh Wren, Pied-billed Grebe, Orange-crowned Warbler, Belding's Yellowthroat (endemic, lifer), American Redstart, Green Heron, American Coot, Song Sparrow and Snowy Egret.  Added Vermilion Flycatcher to my Mexican list in the village the next morning.

On the 19th we went into the village of San Ignacio to get supplies, do a bit of sightseeing and then we began the epic journey to the Pacific Coast and Laguna San Ignacio.  I say epic because this 60 km of washboard road took us nearly 4 hours to drive.  The sunset margaritas over the Pacific were especially well deserved today.  I did a walk on the shores of the laguna and got lots of good waders and waterfowl and the following trip birds were found: California Gull, Semipalmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Savannah Sparrow (large billed form) and 'Mangrove' Yellow Warbler (when are they gonna split this one??).

Sunday the 20th was a pretty special day. We came to this laguna because we were told that it was one of the better places for whale watching. We got a guide and panga (boat) and had three hours of great watching. We got to see the whales do all of their little tricks (spy-hopping, fin-waving, breaching) but as an added bonus, one of these huge beasts came under our boat and moved it around a bit, while we actually petted it! The Gray Whales come here each January-March to calve and feed in this shallow (30 m) laguna.  While on the water and back on shore I found Brandt's Cormorant, Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Long-billed Dowitcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlin, Violet-green Swallow and Peregrine Falcon.

On the 21st we had to drive out (back east to the highway) again and we ended up a bit further south in Mulege on the Cortez side.  We found a nice RV park with hot showers (scarce in this part of the world) and spent the night in another date palm and banana grove.  The RV park had lots of good dickie birds including: Gila Woodpecker, Common Ground-Dove, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Cactus Wren, Anna's Hummingbird, Allen's Hummingbird, Xantus's Hummingbird (my British Columbia record is still legit though!!!) and Hooded Oriole.  Heard a Sora as we were driving across the river in town too.  

On the 22nd we got supplies in Mulege and then went about 25 km south to Playa Coyote on Bahia Concepcion.  Here we rented a decent palapa (shelter made of palm leaves) at Ecomunco Lodge and just hung out for the next several days.  On the 23rd we rented kayaks again and did some snorkeling and clamming.  This campsite was very birdy and the owner was quite knowledgeable about natural history.  On the 24th tried a mini-big day one morning - I got 50 species in three hours just looking at the coastal birds and hiking in the local desert hills.  New additions here were: Costa's Hummingbird, Brown Booby, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (came in to feed at campsite after dark each night), Sharp-shinned Hawk, Black-crowned Night-Heron, American White Pelican, Chipping Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Pacific-slope Flycatcher (field marks seemed to fit, but I relied heavily on the range map), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-chinned Sparrow (a long overdue lifer) and Western Scrub-Jay.

On the 27th we did a bit of hiking and went back into town to hunt for souvenirs.  We stayed in Mulege in the 'hot shower' campground again and after visiting the local museum (actually very good for birds and natural history) started to head north on the 28th.  On theroad, heading north I got a Crested Caracara.  We camped at Catavina that night and the next day (29th) a six hour hike in the desert revealed Killdeer, Cooper's Hawk, Bewick's Wren, Lesser Goldfinch, Gilded Flicker, Black-throated Sparrow and American Robin.  Catavina is in the middle of a very scenic boulder desert.  It is also in the heart of the range of some very bizarre and characteristic plants of the Baja desert.  We were surrounded by Boojum 'Trees', Elephant Trees and giant Cardon cacti.  Barrel cacti, ocotillo, prickly pear and cholla were all over the place too.

On the night of the 29th, there was a stunning full moon, which rose over a distant mountain and lit up the entire desert.  We sat sipping tequila on a big cliff overlooking a sandy wash near our campsite.  In the moonlight I called in a Great Horned Owl and he buzzed over us for the next hour as he flew between cacti and palms.  It was pretty chilly that night and the next day as we drove north, we saw a bit of fresh snow – even in the lower elevation deserts.

We left Catavina on the 30th and made it to Tijuana by midday, but not before adding Western Meadowlark and White-throated Swift to my Mexico list.  There were hundreds of cars at the US border but fortunately the 'increased security measures' included only a few questions by the gaurds.

All in all, it was a pretty good trip – no safety or health problems.  Of the 145 birds found on this trip, I added 131 species to my Mexico list.  I found all three of the Baja endemics (Xantus's Hummingbird, Belding's Yellowthroat, Gray Thrasher) that I actually looked for.  We were never stopped in the area where Vizcaino Thrasher occurs (split from LeConte's Thrasher) and the other two Baja endemics (Baird's Junco and Cape Pygmy-Owl) are only found near the southern tip of the peninsula.  If you’d like to contact me, please do so at:

Burke Korol
Huntsville, Ontario, Canada