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4-11 October 1996

by Wayland B. Augur

Many thanks to those of you who responded to my inquiries about birding in Puerto Vallarta! The information you sent was invaluable, and I had a great trip, getting 77 species (41 lifers!) without travelling far from the P.V. area. Next time I'll have to fit in San Blas as well.

The trip was booked as a social trip, with 5 couples going down there to relax, catch some sun, and sample the local Tequila and night life. Well, plans like that don't always stay set in stone when a frothing-at-the-mouth birder is concerned! Our friends own a timeshare at Velas Vallarta, in the Marina Vallarta area at the north end of town. Being so far from downtown certainly helped the local birding situation, and is in a large part responsible for my good fortune; the door to our room was on the north end of the complex, and overlooked a small undeveloped area containing lots of scrubby plants and a small pond. A tropical storm had just passed by as our plane was landing, raising my hopes for bizarre vagrants. We were wiped out when we arrived, having been traveling since 3 AM (and I didn't bother sleeping prior to leaving, as I was still packing). So, of course the first thing I did was pull out the binoculars and set up the scope!

Of course, with the heat and humidity, all lenses fogged immediately! (it was quite warm and humid the whole trip, which unfortunately curtailed my wife's birding enjoyment, so I did over 95% of my birding alone -- made it hard to get confirmations!). After the lenses cleared, I looked out over the ocean and enjoyed the Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans for a few minutes before looking into the field to the north, where I spotted a Great Kiskadee and a small black bird that I later ID'd as a Blue-Black Grassquit. Scoping out the small pond, I saw some grebes, which I thought might be pied-billed (still some fog in the brain!) but then got distracted by a family of Elegant Quail doing some post-storm foraging! Looking back at the pond, I noticed a small group of Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks, then looked at the Grebes again; they were actually Least grebes. Great-Tailed and Common Grackles were present in the courtyard as well. Gee, so far 5 lifers, and I hadn't left the hotel yet -- not a bad start! We went to have some dinner, then fell over unconscious.

The next day, I woke up bright and early, and looked out over the ocean to see a flotilla of White Pelicans circling upward - Pretty! Over the golf course to the north, I noticed more lifers - many White Ibis were winging their way to and fro. I also noticed an Osprey working the shoreline, and Northern Rough-Winged Swallows catching insects above; one of these landed, and I looked more closely; no brown chest, it was a tree swallow (the only one I saw in the area, but I didn't look at that many swallows that closely). Wandering north on the beach towards the golf course, I noticed a few Willets on the beach, but no other shorebirds (I generally saw fewer shorebirds on this trip than expected, since migration has been going full speed on the California coast). Near the golf course, I saw another Blue-Black Grassquit (this one close enough to ID) and White-Collared Seedeaters. Looking into the golf course, I saw Great and Snowy Egrets (sort of ho hum as I live in the California Central Valley), and also Tricolored and Little Blue Herons (2 more lifers!).

Looking out over a small breakwater just past the golf course, I saw Forster's and Common Terns, and 1 Black Tern. I was a bit surprised not to see Least Terns, as an earlier report had noted them, but it's possible that they weren't around at that point. Continuing around the golf course and back towards Velas, I noticed that the Kingbirds, which I had sort of been ignoring since they were everywhere (oops!) were more lifers; Tropical and Thick-Billed were both pretty common throughout the area. On the road back to the hotel I also saw Ruddy Ground-Doves, Inca Doves, and White-Winged Doves, as well as many Groove-Billed Anis and some Yellow-Tailed Caciques (beautiful!). There were many Yellow Warblers present also; I only saw a few other types of warblers (Wilson's and Yellow-Breasted Chat) throughout the trip. Near the hotel was a Greyish Saltator (although its throat was not as white as the picture in the Peterson's) and a Social Flycatcher (relatively near a Kiskadee so I could easily tell the difference).

I then caught a cab up to Nuevo Vallarta to check out a pond that Barry Levine had recommended in a post to me I misunderstood his directions, though! After taking a bus to Nuevo Vallarta, I talked to a tour arranger (who tried to get me to rent a jeep or scooter, as I wasn't interested in his tours) and he told me of a lagoon to the north with a lot of birds. That sounded a bit like what I was looking for, so he grabbed a cab and gave the driver directions We went north to the small town of Mezcal, and took a left onto a dirt road and went through town; after about a mile we reached "Rancho Laguna", a closed ranch that I had gotten permission to walk around (apparently during high season, starting in November, there are tours to the ranch to birdwatch).

Eventually I came to the lagoon, which had some wooden structures to bird from; climbing one of these got me a great look at a Cinnamon Hummingbird, and I scared off an unidentified nightjar -- rats! I did see some large pink birds, but I didn't have my scope, so I mis-ID'd them as Flamingoes (many streets/developments in the area are named "Flamingo this" and "Flamingo that" I guess they really WANT to have Flamingoes!). I later found out that they were actually Roseate Spoonbills - a missed lifer! This area had many Herons (but I didn't find Boat-Billed anywhere this whole trip) including many Black-Crowned Night Herons. I walked around this lagoon area for quite a while, and heard a whole lot of stuff that I couldn't see, as it stayed in the canopy or on the other side of reeds some fascinating an beautiful brightly-colored land crabs were here, though.

Caught a bus back to town, spent the rest of the day downtown sampling restaurants and comparing different flavors of Margaritas.

The next day, my wife and I took the "Jungle Tour", which was a good educational tour showing how some of the local people live; we visited some Ironwood artisans, a small town that produces goat cheese, and a few other interesting places, and picked up bits of interesting trivia and culture (and the artisans were a great place to buy gifts more cheaply than in town). At the beginning of the tour, our guide noticed our binoculars and, on determining we were birders, stopped by a little place on the road to Nuevo Vallarta to show us the whistling ducks - the "Laguna Restaurant and Bar", which was actually the pond that I had been looking for the day before! We had lunch at a little seafood place on the coast where we picked up Blue-Footed Boobies and Spotted Sandpiper.

There's also a "Tropical Tour" that most of our friends took, which covers more of the town and drives up the hill from Mismaloya to El Eden.

That night, it poured rain. On the way back from dinner, we were treated to a group of Lesser Nighthawks working a pond near our hotel.

The next morning, I got a late start to hike from Mismaloya to El Eden; didn't get started until about noon. I ran into a group of 4 folks from Washington (state), 2 of whom were birders, so we sent up more or less together - one woman and I tended to fall behind looking at things, while the others got bored / frustrated and moved on. We got good looks at Masked Tityras on the way up, and some parrots that came closest to Orange-Fronted Parakeets, but stayed pretty high up. At the top, we lucked out and got San Blas Jay and Linneated Woodpecker - very impressive! They had lunch at the top, and I realized that I had to head back right away to catch an evening cruise. The walk down was more productive that the walk up for me; I picked up Scrup Euphonia and Russet-Crowned Motmot, got a good look at the Orange-Fronted Parakeets; and in Mismaloya saw a Happy Wren.

On the evening Dinner cruise through Nuevo Vallarta, we saw many herons, etc., and one of the folks with us asked what the big white bird with the curved bill was I looked at it, said "White Ibis", and made a note to double-check the bird with black on the back of the wings I later discovered that my friend had pointed out my life Wood Stork, and I had only glanced at it long enough to make a quick field note! Ack! I also saw a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on this cruise.

The next morning after breakfast, my wife decided she could brave the heat for long enough to rack up a few lifers, so we went just outside Velas to pick up Striped-Headed Sparrow, Orchard Oriole, some Kingbirds, and Painted Buntings (which she's always wanted to see), as well as several of the other common birds of the area. We also saw some Flycatcher Species (Empidomax and Myiarchus) that we couldn't positively ID.

The next day, we took a cruise to the Marietas Islands, a wildlife refuge for nesting Boobies and other birds. The trip wasn't quite what I expected; when I saw "Wildlife Refuge" on the tour description, I was expecting a trip with naturalists, etc. It turns out that most of the "wildlife" is on the boat, with open bar, music, etc.! On the way out, I saw several low-flying, darting, dark birds, which I think might have been Storm-Petrels, and later a large, low-flying dark bird that may have been a Shearwater (I think I saw it tip its' wing into the water at one point, but it might have just been a tight turn). There were also some small gulls that I couldn't ID (although I know the area has Laughing Gulls from another report) and a good number of Phalaropes that I believe were Red-Necked. Sorry I can't be more specific on a lot of these birds, but I've never done a pelagic and found identification to be quite difficult, and the day was quite overcast. Next time I'll at least try to go with someone who can give me a few pointers!

On the morning of the last day, I went around the golf course again but didn't get anything new; I then caught a cab up to the restaurant by the pond on the road to Nuevo Valarta. The proprietor was helpful, but spoke no English; he was quite proud of their friendly domestic Mallard, and their numerous Black-Bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks. I also picked up another few lifers there: Northern Jacana, Purple Gallinule, and Anhinga. After a while, the proprietor took me up the stairs to the roof and let me bird from there.

All in all, it was a great trip! I'd like to do it again with another birder who can put up with the heat; another person to work out Ids of complicated Flycatchers and Pelagics would have been very nice, and who knows how much my single pair of eyes missed!

Trip list:
Least Grebe Tachybaptus dominicus
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
Blue-footed Booby Sula nebouxii
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Fulvous Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna bicolor
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor
Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea
Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Great Egret Ardea alba
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nyctanassa violacea
Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
White Ibis Eudocimus albus
White-faced Ibis Plegadis chihi
Wood Stork Mycteria americana
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Elegant Quail Callipepla douglasii
Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinicus
Northern Jacana Jacana spinosa
Long-billed Curlew Numenius americanus
Spotted Sandpiper Tringa macularia
Willet Catoptrophorus semipalmatus
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
Heermann's Gull Larus heermanni
Black Tern Chlidonias niger
Caspian Tern Sterna caspia
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Forster's Tern Sterna forsteri
Rock Dove Columba livia
White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica
Inca Dove Columbina inca
Ruddy Ground-Dove Columbina talpacoti
White-tipped Dove Leptotila verreauxi
Orange-fronted Parakeet Aratinga canicularis
Groove-billed Ani Crotophaga sulcirostris
Lesser Nighthawk Chordeiles acutipennis
Cinnamon Hummingbird Amazilia rutila
Russet-crowned Motmot Momotus mexicanus
Lineated Woodpecker Dryocopus lineatus
Vermilion Flycatcher Pyrocephalus rubinus
Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus
Thick-billed Kingbird Tyrannus crassirostris
Boat-billed Flycatcher Megarynchus pitangua
Social Flycatcher Myiozetetes similis
Great Kiskadee Pitangus sulphuratus
Masked Tityra Tityra semifasciata
San Blas Jay Cyanocorax sanblasianus
Rufous-backed Robin Turdus rufopalliatus
Happy Wren Thryothorus felix
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor
Northern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Yellow Warbler Dendroica petechia
Wilson's Warbler Wilsonia pusilla
Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens
Stripe-headed Sparrow Aimophila ruficauda
Scrub Euphonia Euphonia affinis
Blue-black Grassquit Volatinia jacarina
White-collared Seedeater Sporophila torqueola
Grayish Saltator Saltator coerulescens
Painted Bunting Passerina ciris
Yellow-winged Cacique Cacicus melanicterus
Hooded Oriole Icterus cucullatus
Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius
Great-tailed Grackle Quiscalus mexicanus
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula

Also seen, but not ID'd or Mis-ID'd

Roseate Spoonbill
Storm-Petrel Sp.?
Shearwater Sp.?
Empidomax Sp., probably Grey
Myiarchus Sp., probably Brown-Crested, possibly also Ash-Throated

77 total species 78 counting the Spoonbills).


Wayland B. Augur
Chico, CA /