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March 1996

by Paul DeBenedictis

My sister-in-law, Patricia, recently was transferred to Mexico City, so this March my wife, Virginia, and I decided to spend her spring break visiting, and I hoped to get in a little birding. Our itinerary had been decided in advance, so birding would have to fit in around other activities. I also was given a hard time by Virginia who objected to being called a non-birding spouse, in my appeal for information. You can judge for yourself as the tale unfolds.

I decided to bring my Peterson & Chalif Mexican Field Guide in favor of lugging Howell & Webb's guide. In general, that worked out well. There's more information in Howell & Webb, and I may buy a second copy and just take the plates for easy transport the next time I visit Mexico. If you are unfamiliar with southwestern U.S. birds, you'll need a North American bird guide as well. Unfortunately, it didn't occur to me until after we returned to review songs of Myiarchus flycatchers and kingbirds in the Western Field Guide to Bird Songs; I'd recommend that anyone taking a similar trip do that because I had more problems with these birds than anything else I found.

15 March.

Syracuse to Mexico City. Our trip down was uneventful, after the cab finally found our house, and although we were one the lucky groups to have our luggage inspected, the Mexican customs inspector was both amused by and interested in the supply of groceries we brought with us. Patricia picked us up about 3 PM and drove us across the city to her apartment. Mexico City is very urban and, at this time of year, very dry. I saw House Sparrows and one or two unidentifiable hummingbirds on the trip across town.

Patricia has a seventh floor apartment, and property everywhere in Mexican cities has the grounds fenced on all sides. There is little point in walking around a neighborhood to bird, because the sidewalks are mostly bordered by stone walls. There is a long wooded canyon behind the apartment, but nothing is singing there. As we relax in the yard in the warm afternoon, Rock Dove, Barn Swallow and Curve-billed Thrasher are added to my trip list. The power goes out as we prepare a late, but delicious supper, but it's back on by the time we hit the sheets.

16 March.

Mexico City. My plan was to try to find the Bosque de Tlalpan following the directions in Wilson & Ceballos-Lascurain's "The Birds of Mexico City" (2nd ed. BBC Printing & Graphics, Ltd., 4380 South Service Road, Unit Seven, Burlington, Ontario L7L 5Y6, Canada). The directions to the where-to-park spot worked fine. However, we were unable to locate the path into the woods (from which there was lots of avian noise) and rather than lose the morning searching, I decided to go (about 3 km north) to the Botanic Gardens just south of the Olympic Stadium, where we walked for the next 1.5 hrs, until about 10 AM.

The gardens were quite dry, and flowers were hard to find. There were lots of joggers and walkers. The cactus garden just inside the entrance had pools with water so there were a quite few birds here, but the dryer scrub that was supposed to be the home of Hooded Yellowthroat and Ocellated Thrasher was baked into silence by the time we had worked our way into it. Generally birds were not very noisy, but birding was ok. I found 3 hummingbirds of 2 species, but I couldn't tell which they were.

The most frustrating bird was an oriole singing from a tall tree (right over my head as it turned out) which flew out into a dense palm, where it vanished. The rotten view I had suggested it was a Black-backed Oriole.

Birds identified here included Inca Dove, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Bushtit, Canyon and Bewick's Wrens, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, American Robin, Loggerhead Shrike, Orange-crowned, Black-throated Gray, Black-and-white, and Wilson's Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeak, Canyon Towhee, Rufous-crowned, Chipping, Black-chinned and Song Sparrows, House Finch and House Sparrow.

From here we went to the market at San Angel. A large group of Vaux's Swifts appeared overhead here, and Inca Doves were common in the courtyard of the church by the market, where a Northern Mockingbird was a trip list addition. We went to the San Angel Inn for a delicious lunch (it's supposed to be one of the best restaurants in Mexico City), and after eating I discovered a Broad-billed Hummingbird coming to flowers in the court yard, and in the rear garden a fruiting tree attracted a nice flock of Rufous-backed Robins, my first new bird for the trip. They look surprisingly like American Robins from below, but none of them made any noise.

Otherwise, Boat-tailed Grackle, Rock Dove, and House Sparrows are the common birds of Mexico City. We spent the late afternoon in Coyacan and called it a day about 5:30 in the evening. There are beggars and streetside entrepreneurs [hustlers, actually] everywhere, and Mexicans have a great fondness for uniforms, not all of which are official. It takes some getting used to. But in general I felt as safe as I have in any large city - more so than in New Orleans or New York City. We are also impressed by the enthusiasm that the local children show in learning about their history. North of the border, we don't appreaciate what a vibrant culture exists so close to us.

17 March.

Teotihuacan and Mexico City. The power went out once or twice during the night. Patricia told us she had made a big investment in battery powered clocks. We realized that the cloud we could see from her window was the current irruption of Mt. Popocatepetl, far in the distance; it was fairly active this AM. We got off slowly - today there's a Scrub Jay in the woods behind the apartment - and drove to Teotihuacan, to see the remains of the large Aztec City with its pyramids, arriving about 9AM.

The pyramids are very impressive, visible as geometric hills quite a distance before you reach the archeological zone. The area is a ?mesquite/Opuntia savanna with grass, all brown (or burned off), and like every place else we've been, very dry. As we drove to the parking area by the museum, a short-winged, long-tailed bird (probably a roadrunner) flew out of the archeological area into the surrounding scrub, but it looked black against the sun. Birds are repeating their favorite trick of appearing between you and the sun, and I'm getting annoyed at this.

As we walk into the zone, two hummers are displaying in the garden by the museum, but again perch where they look black. My attempt to get a better view arouses the guard, who whistles me out of the garden. I decide to bird before it gets really hot and spend the next 2 hours walking the periphery of the archeological zone, occasionally crisscrossing the site to admire the ruins. It's very impressive! What would it have been like with 200,000 occupants? By 10 AM most birds have baked into what little shade there is, and are quiet, but the ladies who are supposed to meet at 11 AM don't appear until 12:30.

There is not a lot of variety here. The creek that runs across the archeological zone doesn't have enough brush to be very attractive to birds, which use the ?mesquite trees growing there. One of the common birds here still has me puzzled. It's a Campylorhynchus wren that sings like Cactus Wren, but looks like Boucard's Wren, including the back pattern; I thought they might be Spotted Wren (C. gularis) but my books don't list any member of the genus in this part of the State of Mexico.

Other birds I found included Cattle Egret, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Mourning and Inca Doves, Black Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cassin's Kingbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Bewick's Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Loggerhead Shrike, Blue Grosbeak, Canyon Towhee, Chipping, Clay-colored (more than I've ever seen before, with a wonderful tinkling early spring song unlike what they sing in the Midwest) and Lark Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlark, Great-tailed Grackle, ?Bullock's Oriole (female type seen briefly), Black-backed Oriole (imm. male, very distinctive facial pattern that resembles that of an adult), House Finch and House Sparrow.

We spent the afternoon in Mexico City, enjoying the sights of the central area, including the Temple Mayar (Rock Wren singing here; otherwise the just usual Great-tailed Grackle, Rock Dove and House Sparrow), entertainers of many stripes in the square of the old city, and the ceremonial lowering of the flag at sunset. The Diego Rivera murals in the national capital are very enjoyable. We ate at a restaurant in the City, got back to Patricia's apartment about 9 PM and collapsed for the big trip south tomorrow.

18 March.

Mexico City to Cuidad Oaxaca. We left for Oaxaca City about 7:45 AM, taking the Cuota (toll road -- and you don't want to cheat; there's a soldier or two with an assault rifle at every stop, usually discretely posted with a good view of the highway) from Mexico City to east of Puebla and the Cuota south to Oaxaca (Mexican highway 131). It turned out to be an easy 6 hour drive, including rest stops etc, mostly on two lane road.

It was a very interesting drive, but almost birdless. Leaving Mexico City we passed through open pine forest over bunch grass, that reminded me of se Arizona pine forest, but I'm hoping to get into similar habitat on our return and opt not to stop -- alas, it's almost the only forest on the entire trip. We see Red-tailed Hawk and Cassin's Kingbird as we pass through the mountains towards Puebla (where a teacher's demonstration slows progress), which is a very agricultural area with Cattle Egret and Great-tailed Grackles, and I spot the only Red-winged Blackbird of the trip. At a rest stop here, a cage holds a Northern Mockingbird and a Brown-backed Solitaire.

Popocatepetl is majestic from the mountains but hazes out as we approach Puebla. Near Teohuocan the first Turkey Vulture of the trip appears, and an unidentifiable Amazilia hummingbird is in the roadside scrub, where we can't stop.

Driving south, the country becomes drier and drier and at the Oaxaca-Puebla border the Cuota parallels a deep, scenic canyon, water far away at the bottom but only birdless scrub and cactus along the highway. There are few places to stop, either. Forget trees - not enough water! Nothing is making any noise, but a Black Vulture appears here. As we drop down into Oaxaca, we enter open dry pine-oak woodland, the understory parched and overgrazed, the oaks entirely brown and devoid of green and mostly of leaves. Pools are low and water is hard to find. A pattern is developing. No birds to be seen here either.

We arrived midafternoon, where another teacher's demonstration ("oh, those teachers" we say) is disbanding from the central square of the city. We manage to find our motel, and go back into town for the rest of the afternoon. It has become windy, and there are clouds, the first we've seen, peeking over eastern hills. Warblers chip indeterminately in the tall trees in the central square, but we can't find the squirrels that are also supposed to be here. Oaxaca is a lot like Mexico City, but smaller and more relaxed. Buildings occupy the border of their lots and any openings are either invisible from the sidewalks or full of people.

Birdlife duplicates that in Mexico City - Rock Dove, Great-tailed Grackle, House Finch and House Sparrow. Nothing is enjoying the many flowering Jacaranda trees. We have a good meal of Oaxacan style food, enjoy a dance performance in the evening (but have to leave early, so our vehicle isn't locked in the lot where we've parked), and I encourage the troops to arise early for the next morning's adventure.

19 March.

Oaxaca City and vicinity. After much discussion our plan is to visit the archeological zone at Yagul and Mitla, and to do Monte Alban the next morning. The troops get up early and we reach Yagul, ca 30 km s of Oaxaca, about 6:45 AM. The sun is just beginning to reach the desert scrub, and for a change, there is lots of bird noise.

The archeological site is closed off but we park along the road at the start of the scrubby area, and walk paths into the scrub north of the road and along the agricultural area south of the road until the workers arrive about 8 AM to open the archeological zone. Yagul is the site occupied after Monte Alban was abandoned, and we admire the Indian's choice of real estate; there's very nice scrub at the far end of the site that we don't have time to investigate, because Virginia wants to see Mitla.

At Yagul we find Cattle Egret, Turkey Vulture, White-winged, Mourning and Inca Doves, Beautiful (one female found by Virginia) and Dusky Hummingbirds, Gray-breasted Woodpecker (silent!), Ash-throated and Nutting's Flycatchers, Cassin's and Western Kingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher, Empidonax species (one), Common Raven, Bushtit, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Boucard's Wren (which does not sound like a Cactus Wren, though obviously related), Rock and Canyon Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Virginia's, Nashville, Audubon's [Yellow-rumped], and Rufous-capped Warbler, Varied Bunting (4-5 females coming to cactus flowers, unmarked about the color of female House Finches), White-throated Towhee (vocally distinct from Canyon Towhee), Bridled Sparrow (a neat very towhee-like sparrow), Great-tailed Grackle and a distant cowbird sp.

At this point I wanted to go to Teotitlan del Valle while it was still cool, but Virginia insisted on seeing the ruins at Mitla, which are located in the center of the village and pretty much birdless (a Great Kiskadee was calling here). We did find Northern Harrier, Crested Caracara, and American Kestrel on the way over, though.

We then drove to Teotitlan, and discussed my taking the car into the hills while the ladies shopped but eventually we decided to stay together. However, everyone wanted coffee so we stopped at a restaurant and the owner brewed up a fresh batch, disappeared across the street to get styrofoam cups, and after about 20 minutes we had the best coffee we enjoyed on the entire trip. Actually, the concept of takeout coffee is not well defined here so the cups had no lids, and were filled to the brim. And Teotitlan is paved in cobblestone.

So after a messy and painful drive out of the village we located the reservoir which was 2/3 dry - American Coots, Cattle Egret, Rough-winged and Violet-green Swallow here - and negotiating around the goat herds we found our way into the scrub above the reservoir, which by 11:30 was hot and almost silent. We spent about 30 minutes trying to coax anything to come out, without avail, and returned to the reservoir to try to find some plants -- it's really dry here and the goats have been hungry -- along the creek, where we located a few migrant birds and a male Broad-billed Hummingbird (which isn't supposed to occur in Oaxaca).

In this area we also found Mourning Dove, Dusky Hummingbird, Cassin's Kingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Nashville, Audubon's, Wilson's and Rufous-capped Warblers, White-throated and Spotted Towhees, House Finch and Lesser Goldfinch.

Teotitlan is a weaving center and we spend a long time shopping, getting hot and hungry too. (This is clearly not for the unsophisticated. At one point in our negotiations, as the pricing for goods was getting really complex, the shop keeper reaches into her sack of belongings and pulls out a pocket calculator to make sure we weren't bargaining below her minimum price!) We got back to Oaxaca mid afternoon and spent the rest of the day in town, after enjoying another great meal. Cedar Waxwings appeared in the square shortly before sunset.

Interest rates have been raised, and the local farmers assemble to protest, marching and lead by a band to the central square of the city -- a very civil way to express one's dissatisfaction. It's been the first time in many, many years I've found birds I'd never seen before in such rapid succession. It's fun, but a bit overwhelming. I'm ready to do it again.

20 March.

Monte Alban to Mexico City. Our plan is to eat, check out and spend the morning at Monte Alban, which we reached about 7 AM, before the large crowds arrive. Monte Alban is located on a hill top in dense scrub (mostly 6-12 ft high) with a few scattered trees. The site opens at 8 AM but we hoped to bird around the parking area until it opened, and that worked out well except that the wind failed to die down overnight, and at 40 degrees, it was so cold that we had to wear every layer of clothing we brought with us until about 9 AM.

There was a little, half hearted song in the early morning and birds were not singing in exposed sites because of the cold and wind. After the archeological zone opened, I again went in and tried to bird along the periphery, but this was probably the most disappointing place I visited given the possibilities versus what actually showed itself. There was almost no bird activity after 10:30 AM. Again, the ruins are spectacular, and everyone enjoyed them.

Birds here included Turkey Vulture, Cooper's Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Common Ground-Dove, Mourning Dove, Dusky Hummingbird (one male), Thick-billed and Cassin's Kingbirds, Brown-crested, Nutting's Flycatcher (finally saw one vocalize), and Vermilion Flycatchers, Rough-winged Swallow, Boucard's, Rock and Canyon Wrens, Robin sp. (singing out of sight), Curve-billed Thrasher and a mimid with a Mockingbird call that wouldn't show itself, Orange-crowned, Audubon's, Wilson's, and Rufous-capped Warblers, White-throated Towhee, Rufous-crowned and Chipping Sparrow, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch.

We returned to Oaxaca, ate lunch, returned via the same route, seeing several Black Vultures near Oaxaca and Barn Swallow and Loggerhead Shrike near Puebla, and Canyon Towhee just outside of Mexico City. Unfortunately we missed a key road sign and spent 2.5 hours driving (in circles) around Mexico City, turning an easy trip back into an exhausting journey.

21 March.

Mexico City. We survived the night. We've agreed to spend the early morning in the forest at 3000 m in the Desertio de los Leones, which turns out to be a 20 minute drive from Patricia's apartment, and to spend the afternoon the National Museum of Anthropology and the Zona Rosa where Patricia works. The forest here is tall, humid fir-pine forest, with a rich understory, and bird song is everywhere!

We entered the park from the north (off the Cuota to Toluca, at the first toll booth) and about 4 km. in I noticed a heavily vegetated canyon with a parking area, where we stopped for 30 minutes. A Yellow-eyed Junco is along the edge of the parking area, and I walk over and spish - out comes Slate-throated Redstart, Red Warbler, and a weird yellow and olive bird that proves to be Rufous-capped Brushfinch (of all the birds I saw, this one was the most unlike what I expected of any).

We move on to the old convent and park along the road. Even Patricia, who is feeling the effects of a salad she ate in Oaxaca, can't stand remaining in the car and walks the roadside, along with the throngs jogging and walking and who include the Cuban Olympic team in training for the summer games. Now the forest rings with the most remarkable song, which proves to be Brown-backed Solitaire, and we get the usual rotten view (into the sun) of a female Gray Silky-flycatcher. Crescent-chested Warbler emerges, but I finally decided to return to the original spot we'd stopped and Virginia and I hike up the canyon.

Virginia spots a female White-eared Hummingbird (very distinct from the many Broad-bills we've seen on this trip) and I a Russet Nightengale-thrush. It's another day filled with new birds. But it's 10 AM, song is dying down to the point where I can begin to sort them out, and Virginia is ready to quit in so we won't miss the Anthropology Museum. She prevails.

Other birds here include Blue-throated Hummingbird, Hairy Woodpecker, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Steller's Jay, Mexican Chickadee, White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatch, Brown-throated [House] Wren, Golden- and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, American Robin, Solitary Vireo (sounded like Blue-headed), Orange-crowned, Virginia's, Townsend's and Wilson's Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Spotted Towhee.

There were lots of songs and calls I had just begun to sort out when we departed. This is a place to revisit! We returned to Patricia's apartment, took a cab to the Anthropology Museum and enjoyed it immensely, but are overwhelmed by what there is to see -- do it on more than one day. Again, I'm impressed by the enthusiasm of children learning about their national heritage. Patricia picked us up about 3 PM and we spent the afternoon in the business district and hoped to end the day in Chapultepec Park, but the park closes at 5 PM, so we head back to the apartment and prepare for our trip north tomorrow.

22 March.

Mexico City to San Miguel de Allende. We decide to stop at Chapultepec Park on the way out of the city to see whether it's as a place to walk and perhaps bird. We arrive near the Museum of Modern Art about 7:45 AM and walk to the castle, leaving about 10:35 AM. Like most parks it is well groomed and the trees are white-washed from the ground to about 4-6 feet up (we asked why and were told it looks nice, but Mexicans will always give you an answer if you ask so we aren't sure that's the only reason; it is striking).

There is not much song here, because there isn't much undergrowth. The crowds are manageable, however, and the flowering Jacaranda trees have a few hummers. I found Rock Dove, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Bushtit (really took time to study these black-eared types, which are behaviorally indistinguishable from birds in coastal California), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Bewick's Wren, American Robin, Audubon's and Wilson's Warbler, Canyon Towhee (singing), House Finch and House Sparrow.

From here we drove north to Tepotzotlan, where there were no notable birds around the cathedral, and to San Miguel de Allende, which is in desert and desert farmland, mostly devoid of birds except for Great-tailed Grackle and Cattle Egret. At one stop, Lincoln's Sparrow and (Northern) House Wren hide in the brush around the waste water outflow, and there is a nice Loggerhead Shrike. We arrived at San Miguel de Allende in the late afternoon and spent the evening in town. It's urban, with the usual urban birds.

23 March.

San Miguel de Allende to Mexico City. The city map showed a park about 4 blocks from our motel, which was home to a disappointing variety of birds, so I walked up before breakfast and found more birds than I expected. The park holds a Great & Snowy Egret rookery, perhaps with a few Black-crowned Night-Heron, all of which were in the early stages of nest building. Flycatchers were very common, and I had another frustrating view of a large hummingbird with much buffy color on the flanks and tail.

I identified only Great and Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White-faced Ibis, White-winged, Rock and Inca Dove, Broad-billed Hummingbird (including a female feeding small young in a nest in an oak tree), Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Cassin's Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Barn Swallow, Bewick's and Canyon Wren (one of the latter singing lustily from a TV antenna), Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Rufous-backed Robin (note is a soft "chuck"; none were singing), Audubon's and Wilson's Warblers, Canyon Towhee, Boat-tailed Grackle, House Finch, and House Sparrow.

We spent the morning in the market shopping, and I added Cedar Waxwing to the list there, and we drove back in the afternoon, seeing much the same birds as on the trip out. We arrived about 7 PM to find the power out and spent the evening packing by candlelight.

24 March.

Mexico City to Syracuse. The power came back on fitfully in the morning and we finished packing so Patricia could drive us to the airport. Today on the route we've taken every morning through Mexico City, a male Gray Silky-flycatcher zips across the road in front of us and lands on an exposed perch. We can't stop to admire it. We reach the airport without incident, Patricia helps us bring our luggage in, and says goodbye. We are sad to leave.

She departs but suddenly, there's a cry, "Virginia, they're towing my car." Virginia shoves the tickets in my hands and rushes to the entrance, where three police cars have surrounded Patricia's car and a tow truck has hitched the bumper. Patricia and Virginia plead for help and an unknown gentleman comes to their assistance, and eventually the car is released and Patricia leaves for her apartment. (I figured two women would make a lot more progress with the police than I could). The line in front of us moves slowly, and when we finally reach the counter, the agent announces there are no seats left on our flight and that she would try to find alternate arrangements. Virginia is an unhappy camper!!

We leave Mexico City about 3 PM (instead of 11 AM) but reach Syracuse about the same time as we would have on the original flights. Syracuse is brown. Everyone at the airport is talking about the crowd that greeted the Syracuse University basketball team an hour earlier. Our luggage all arrives and we get home after midnight, and collapse with memories of a fun trip. Next time I'm going to claim more time to bird -- in forest.

Paul DeBenedictis
SUNY Health Science Center at Syracuse