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MEXICO -- VERACRUZ &
23 March - 1 April 2003
by Nathan Pieplow and David Whiteley
itinerary/list of places stayed (Note: all prices are in
Arrived Mexico City Airport 4:00 PM. Exchanged money, picked up
rental car. Drove to Córdoba via cuota highways.
Stayed at the basic Hotel San Gabriel (Av. 11 Calle 4 No. 407 esquina,
Córdoba, Veracruz, tel. 712-34-11, double room $150).
birded Amatlán. Drove to Tuxtepec. Stayed at the
Hotel Hacienda (double room $300).
birded the Camelia Roja area. Drove to Valle Nacional.
Stayed at the very basic Hotel Contreras (double room--$160).
birded above Valle Nacional. drove to UNAM Biological Station
near Catemaco. Spent night in car outside UNAM.
birded UNAM Biological Station. Took boat ride on Laguna
Sontecomapan. Stayed at Hotel Playa Azul, Catemaco (double
birded Nanciyaga and other areas near Catemaco; drove to
Tehuantepec. Stayed at Hotel Calli (double room--$600)
birded Tehuantepec, where our car was broken into while we were birding
the scrub. Drove to Puerto Angel. Stayed in room rented out
by a woman named Sara who worked at the restaurant adjacent to the
Restaurante-Bar Viricocos. Basic room with two beds: $120.
birded Puerto Angel. Hired a fishing boat for a self-styled
pelagic trip. Same lodgings as previous night.
birded La Soledad. Drove to Oaxaca. Stayed in some nameless
basic hotel on Rte. 175 on the south edge of the city. Double
birded Garbage Gulch and Monte Alban. Stayed at highly
recommended Hotel-Posada Los Arcos, on Rte. 200 not far east of the
turnoff for 175 North. Luxurious double room: $390.
birded La Cumbre. Drove to Mexico City, birding briefly off the
cuota highway in the pines west of Puebla. Turned in rental car,
got a hotel with an airport shuttle for our morning flight.
Day 1 (3/22/03):
We arrived Mexico City at 4:00 PM on a Saturday afternoon. The
pollution gave me almost immediate sneezing fits, which lasted until we
were out of the valley. The traffic was indescribable. Only
Cairo sees its equal.
After exchanging some money, we went to pick up our Hertz rental
car. The grassy lawn next to the rental office was surprisingly
birdy, and we ticked our first eight species, including Loggerhead
Shrike, a male Vermilion Flycatcher, and our only two European
Starlings of the trip!
Then we drove out of the city. Or rather, we TRIED to drive out
of the city. We had heard that corrupt Mexico City “policemen”
stake out the route from the airport to the Puebla cuota highway, and
sure enough, right at the corner where you turn left onto Ignacio
Zaragoza (which becomes the Puebla highway), we were waved over by two
uniformed men with notepads. No patrol car, no badges really,
just uniforms and the apparata for writing “tickets”. In
retrospect, they may not even have been cops.
If you’ve done your homework, you know the scam. They catch you
on some trumped-up traffic offense and claim you must pay the fine at
the downtown office, unless of course you’d like to “pay the fine on
the spot,” thereby further greasing some already slimy pockets.
Luckily one of us was a Spanish teacher, and the other had done some
fruitful research on ways to wiggle out of this trap. I explained
to the man that we were perfectly willing to pay the fine downtown if
he would just give us the address, and also that we had been explicitly
told that bribing policeman was a criminal matter for which we could be
seriously punished. That was all I really needed to say, as it
turned out. He gave David’s license back and two minutes later we
were cruising east, our wallets perfectly intact.
As we followed the highway into the mountains, I saw a bird fly across
the road and suggested that we spend our remaining daylight (<30
minutes) seeing what we could find in an unscheduled stop. We
took advantage of the first available pullout and there, sitting on a
guardrail mere yards from rushing traffic, was our first Russet
Nightingale-Thrush. It was briefly joined by another—the only two
we would see on this trip! A great bonus bird.
Our remaining daylight netted us a possible Green-striped Brushfinch, a
definite Spotted Towhee and a Slate-throated Redstart that only David
We continued on our way, getting into Córdoba rather late.
Our hotel was, in retrospect, a good value, and the walls were thick
enough to nearly mute the nightclub next door.
Day 2 (3/23/03)
An early start for Amatlán.
Note: trying to follow the directions in Howell’s site guide through
downtown Amatlán was frustrating in the extreme. The town
is simply much more complicated than it’s made out to be. The
church is a prominent landmark, but the Zócalo isn’t.
Somehow we found our way, though.
As we approached the parking site, we were awed by the number of Black
Vultures leaving roosts with the dawn. (We ended the day with an
official count of “millions”). Groove-billed Anis, Rufous-capped
Warblers and Great Kiskadees greeted us at the quarry, where Plain
Chachalacas and Thicket Tinamous were doing their best to drown out the
Black-headed Saltators and Melodious Blackbirds in the dawn chorus--no
easy task, if you know the latter two species. Montezuma
Oropendolas were hard to miss, and a flock of White-crowned Parrots
As we hiked up the trail, we added lifers left and right: Masked and
Black-crowned Tityras, Violaceous Trogon, Yellow-throated and Scrub
Euphonias, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Tropical Parula, Golden-crowned
Warbler, Common Bush-Tanager, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Band-backed Wren,
Azure-crowned Hummingbird. Sumichrast’s Wren was quite vocal, but
we never saw it (couldn’t tear our eyes off the other birds!) The
day was gray and rainy, and there was a large flowering tree on the
slope; these two factors combined to give us a fantastic level of bird
activity which really was never again matched on the trip. Indigo
Buntings were abundant—annoyingly so. Little Hermit was the most
conspicuous hummer. Keel-billed Toucans were noisy and with some
persistence, we were able to get distant views of this, my most-wanted
bird...peanuts compared to what would come later!
We hiked up beyond a small shrine, adding great birds along the way:
Zone-tailed Hawk, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Spot-breasted Wren,
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Blue-crowned Motmot, Collared Aracari,
Squirrel Cuckoo, and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, as well as the more
familiar Black-throated Green, Nashville, Black-and-White, Hooded,
Wilson’s, MacGillivray’s, Magnolia, Worm-eating and Blue-winged
Warblers, American Redstart, and Blue-headed, Cassin’s and White-eyed
Vireos. Two gorgeous Fan-tailed Warblers were the only ones we
would see all trip. I wasn’t fast enough to get on David’s Rufous
Mourner, and he never saw my Ochre-bellied Flycatcher—two more birds we
would never refind!
Back down by the quarry we found a Yellow-breasted Chat and a rather
surprising pair of Berylline Hummingbirds which appeared to be on
territory. At last, we reluctantly got in the car and headed for
the autopista and Tuxtepec.
We ate lunch at a place along the autopista, where they assured us that
the libre highways were not much slower than the cuota, so we opted to
give them a try. We found the reports to be accurate, not just
along this route but practically everywhere we went in Veracruz and
Oaxaca: the roads, with a few notable exceptions, were in good to
excellent condition, and we found the libre highways to be plenty
efficient for getting from place to place, particularly when David
(“the Passmaster”) was doing the driving. Between the cuota and
Tuxtepec, our vigilance netted us Roadside Hawk, Merlin, and Blue-gray
and Yellow-winged Tanagers.
We ended this mind-boggling day at the Hotel Hacienda, perhaps a bit
pricey for what you get, although the amenities included quiet and
air-conditioning, two rare qualities indeed in a Mexican hotel.
Day 3 (3/24/03)
This morning found us on the road to Camelia Roja, a paved road into an
apparent hinterland which nonetheless featured an astonishing amount of
morning commuter traffic, including busses whizzing past at startling
speed. Be careful if you bird along the road, as we did, finding
Red-lored and White-fronted Parrots, Social Flycatcher, and a
copulating pair of Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets, among other more
Once past Camelia Roja, things started picking up, though birds were
often more easily heard than seen at this site. Bright-rumped
Attila, Blue-crowned Motmot, Sumichrast’s Wren and Thicket and Little
Tinamous sang from far up the hills, while a close-in skulker that
sounded rather like a Black Rail turned out to be a Rufous-breasted
Spinetail—the first of several we heard. The corn stubble and
weeds below the road held White-collared Seedeater and Blue-black
Grassquit, and David saw a Thick-billed Seedfinch.
Every other bird was an Indigo Bunting, but in between them came a
couple of Painted Buntings, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Keel-billed
Toucans (nice scope views this time), Blue-black Grosbeaks, Aztec
Parakeets, and a magnificent pair of Crimson-collared Tanagers.
David managed to get me on one of the Barred Antshrikes he’d heard
calling, and we renewed our acquaintance with some birds from
yesterday: Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Spot-breasted and Band-backed
Wrens, Squirrel Cuckoo and the two euphonias. White-collared and
Vaux’s Swifts winged overhead, and Violaceous Trogon and Ferruginous
Pygmy-Owl vocalized simultaneously, offering us nice comparisons of
their startlingly similar calls: VITR slurs down, FEPO slurs up.
We were thrilled to actually spot the owl in a tree up the slope and
get nice scope views. (Yawn! We would see a half-dozen more
on the trip!)
A little further down the road we found another Keel-billed Toucan, in
the company of a couple of beautiful Yellow-tailed Orioles, and I saw a
Blue Ground-Dove fly by. The Little Tinamou sounded close enough to
touch, but did not show itself. In the more open country beyond,
raptors started appearing. Roadside Hawk, Gray Hawk and American
Kestrel were common; one great tree was adorned with a sitting Laughing
Falcon, while another, at our approach, let loose a White-tailed
Kite. At a tiny roadside woodlot, I found a flycatcher
which I called a Myiarchus; David, with his Costa Rica experience,
recognized it as a Yellow-bellied Elaenia, but by that time I'd lost
the bird. Rats! Luckily, I redeemed myself by recognizing
the strange, simple whistles of a distant Striped Cuckoo.
Vermilion Flycatcher, Black-crowned Tityra and Blue-winged Warbler
rounded out the stop.
With afternoon now upon us, we headed back through Camelia Roja towards
the dam at Presa Miguel Aleman. The main river bridge between
C.R. and the dam is still out, but we were able to get through on a
temporary bridge that the construction crews had installed just
upstream. Howell says that Sungrebe and various kingfishers have been
seen from the bridge, but that seemed unlikely on our visit, with flow
from the river tributary reduced almost to zero and a lot of heavy
machinery moving earth down in the channel. Ah well.
By this time passerine activity seemed to have waned, but just below
the dam, in the trees along the road, David came up with a female
Lineated Woodpecker, so I didn't see fit to complain. The reservoir was
nearly birdless, though there were a few pelicans and cormorants way
out there, and swallows were wheeling over the dam. Most of these were
Northern Rough-wings, but a few were Mangroves, and some investigation
revealed that the latter species was nesting in some telephone-pole
type structures down along the water's edge to our right.
We returned to the base of the dam and turned right, soon finding
another bridge, which was missing only pieces of itself—rather an
improvement over its counterpart. Here we found Northern Jacana,
Black Phoebe and Amazon Kingfisher (what a bill!). We took a left
beyond the bridge, and down this road found some flowering trees, which
in a half hour produced Rose-throated Becard, excellent looks at both
sexes of Green-breasted Mango, and our first northern House Wren, as
well as more seedeaters, grassquits, Aztec Parakeets and Rufous-tailed
Hummingbirds. A stream crossing farther down contributed Louisiana
Waterthrush and Limpkin to our list, to say nothing of Many-banded
Daggerwing for a butterfly Grand Prize!
We turned around when we came to a town; it looked like the habitat
wouldn't get any better. Imagine our surprise when, passing a certain
tree for the second time in two minutes, we found it to have sprouted
an Aplomado Falcon in our absence! Imagine our further surprise
when the bird sat still enough for David to walk right up to its tree,
camera shutter blazing! (Tragedy, we later learned: none of the
pictures came out!)
After running some errands in Tuxtepec, we set off for Valle Nacional,
where we reserved a room at the very basic Hotel Contreras, then went
to find what we could with the remaining daylight. We opted to
walk the trail along the river starting from the bridge where the
highway leaves town on the way to Oaxaca. This trail had quite a
bit of human traffic, but we managed to kick up some decent birds
before dark: Montezuma Oropendola, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Social
Flycatcher, and a number of the commoner North American warblers.
As we walked back to the car just at dusk, a nighthawk sp. flew over us
silently and was gone.
Day 4 (3/25/03)
We headed up the mountain above Valle Nacional before dawn. Our
first stop was around mile marker 75, where we got brief looks at a
Spectacled (Scaly-throated) Foliage-Gleaner and heard Wood Thrush,
Gray-breasted Wood-Wren and Emerald Toucanet. A kilometer further
up we came to the town of La Esperanza, and the pullout just downslope
of the town provided a fantastic scoping point. Crested Guans
serenaded us from somewhere down in the valley, while a
Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer fiddled around at our very feet.
As we waited, excellent birds made appearances, starting with an
eye-popping female Blue-crowned Chlorophonia and eventually including
MacGillivray’s Warbler, Bullock’s and Audubon’s Orioles, a female
Flame-colored Tanager, Unicolored Jay, and a bunch of White-crowned
Parrots. As we moved on to spots upslope from the town, we
finally got a good look at one of the Emerald Toucanets, which had been
quite vocal; it was far closer than we had suspected, and stayed down
in the denser foliage, rather than up on exposed high perches as the
Keel-billeds had done. Yellow-winged and Common Bush-Tanagers,
Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, Cordilleran Flycatchers and Slate-throated
Redstarts were numerous. The ethereal songs of Slate-colored
Solitaires rang forth at every stop, but we never did see one despite
prolonged and determined neck-craning. A flowering tree held
little for hummers, but did offer us a better look at a Spectacled
Foliage-Gleaner, and eventually we got a male chlorophonia in the
scope, a bird which immediately zoomed to the top of the “most
Somewhere around km marker 86, essentially up in the pine stuff, we
found a little shrine with a big pullout, which produced a nice
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper and a heard-only Collared Trogon along with
the obligatory Slate-throated Redstarts. By this time butterflies
were coming out, and I was totally blown away by my most-wanted bug of
all time, the magnificent Diaethria anna, known to laymen as the
eighty-eight. Hereafter we saw them at every stop! At a few
stops we were lucky enough to see a terrific hairstreak as well,
zebra-striped below and morpho-blue above. I wish I had had a
good resource on Mexican butterfly ID.
Above km 99 we started to run into some more typical pine-oak birds:
Slate-colored Solitaires gave way to a single singing Brown-backed, and
we picked up Hutton’s Vireo and Violet-green Swallow before turning
around at the crest. Birding was pretty slow on the way back down
the hill, but we did manage to find a flock of Chestnut-collared Swifts
high overhead, and the overlook just before La Esperanza produced our
first Broad-winged Hawk, as well as another singing toucanet and a male
Flame-colored Tanager for me. Farther downslope, the town of
Metates came through in a pinch, gifting us with terrific eye-level
views of a flock of eight Red-legged Honeycreepers. This,
however, was our last lifer on the way out of the area.
Ahead of us lay the long drive to Catemaco. We tried not to stop
too much so as to make decent time, especially considering that we had
decided again not to take the cuotas, and the circumnavigation of
Tuxtepec got us very nearly lost on rural roads before we finally
refound the main highway. Our resolve finally broke at the bridge
at km 57 east of Loma Bonita, where I thought I had seen a funny-shaped
heron standing at the edge of the water. When we stopped, we got
terrific views of the bird--an adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, our
only one of the trip. The stop got even better when we
found a pair of Gray-breasted Martins in among the Northern
Rough-winged Swallows over the river. A Mangrove Swallow was
there too. And along the path, in addition to yet another
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Blue-gray Tanagers and a nice Ringed
Kingfisher, David managed to turn up a Yellow-bellied Elaenia, and I
was finally able to recoup this lost lifer from the day before.
After turning north towards the autopista in waning light, we pulled
over once more, this time at a lovely little pothole with shorebirds
and waders. Here we found 10 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and 6
Snowy Egrets, with a few Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpipers
and (probably Long-billed) dowitchers scattered among the abundant
Jacanas. But the real treat was closer to the road: a stunning
Fork-tailed Flycatcher hunting from a bush along the
fenceline! In the air, this bird was a spinning ball of
wings and tail streamers such as I have never seen. It vocalized
constantly on the wing, and spun seemingly too fast and too randomly to
be chasing insects--were we perhaps seeing some kind of display?
Just as we were about to kiss the pond and the daylight goodbye, an
Aplomado Falcon cruised past us, as if to put an exclamation point on
yet another fantastic unscheduled stop.
We got to Catemaco rather late, and headed first to the Hotel Playa
Azul, where many have stayed and birded the grounds. Yikes!
It turned out the price of a double room was up to $750. We
pushed on towards Montepío, but never quite got there. For
one thing, the road between Sontecomapan and the coast presented some
real problems for our belly-dragging rental car, slowing us to a
crawl. For another thing, the map and text in Howell’s site guide
gave different accounts of the distance involved, and unfortunately the
longer estimate turned out to be the more accurate. All this
culminated in our running out of energy by the time we got to UNAM
Biological Station, and so we simply decided to pull over and sleep in
the car, with the windows open of course in case any owls should care
Within minutes we had been serenaded by Mottled Owl, Pauraque and Great
Tinamou. Something else in the forest was making a growling noise
which was somewhat similar to Crested Owl, but didn’t quite match the
tape in pitch or tone. A frog, perhaps? All in all it was a
pleasant night, despite the fact that we were sleeping in car seats,
and even with the windows down all night, bugs were not a problem in
Day 5 (3/26/03)
The dawn chorus started out with the same birds from the night before
and added many more as the light came up, starting with a
Slaty-breasted Tinamou to complete our Tinamou Slam. Howler
Monkeys roared in the distance. One of the several calling
Pauraques fluttered around on the road in front of the car; two other
road-sitters turned out to be Blue-crowned Motmots. At the gates
of the Biological Station, we got our best looks yet at Keel-billed
Toucan and Collared Aracari, which were moving through the trees in the
company of Clay-colored Robins, Montezuma Oropendolas, a female
Slaty-tailed Trogon and a couple of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers. A
White-bellied Emerald sang from a perch over the path to the dorms,
which was cool...but an even cooler hummer was the Long-tailed Hermit
visiting flowers nearby. Beyond the dorms we got into the woods
proper, where we added birds slowly but surely: White-breasted
Wood-Wren, Bright-rumped Attila, Olivaceous Woodcreeper,
Yellow-throated Euphonia, Collared Trogon. Somewhere deep in the
woods we came face-to-face with a Great Tinamou, and David spotted a
Tamandua Anteater fifty feet up in a tree. A nearly-dry streambed
was not dry enough to drive off its Green Kingfishers, nor the Great
Black-Hawk that came swooping over David’s head while I was off looking
at a Long-tailed Sabrewing.
Birding was all right on the forest understory, but we decided we’d had
better luck (or at least better views) in clearings and edges, so we
sought out a clearing and I tried out my Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
imitation, waking up all the Lesser Greenlets in the area, along with
Masked Tityras, Baltimore Orioles, Red-legged Honeycreepers and
warblers including Golden-crowned and Blackburnian. After being
mobbed by this lot, we decided the FEPO call was a pretty good trick,
but over the course of the trip we were surprised to find that its
effectiveness varied from fantastic to almost zero in accordance with
some factors we could never discern. Also, the attention span of
the mobbing flock always seemed pretty short, so we had to look fast.
Eventually we had to take a break for “lunch” (read: bird near the car
with food in our hands). We heard a raptor scream and David
instantly cried, “White Hawk!” We looked up and there it was,
soaring right overhead in all its glory. Now suddenly interested
in raptors, I scanned a kettle of BLVUs for a non-vulture and found
one, which I immediately called a Swallow-tailed Kite. But no: it
turned out to be a Magnificent Frigatebird. I guess we were
closer to the ocean than I thought!
We headed back into the woods for a while and found some more good
birds: Tropical Gnatcatcher, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Ivory-billed
Woodcreeper, Stub-tailed Spadebill. But the rain showers were
becoming rather more frequent and more intense, and our rate of return
was starting to drop, so we decided to head for Sontecomapan to try to
arrange a boat tour on the Laguna. Along the road we stopped to
scan a few foraging flocks, picking up Lineated Woodpecker and
Yellow-bellied Elaenia again, as well as many nice Neotropical
migrants, including our first Yellow-throated Vireos and Northern
Parulas of the trip.
At the dock in Sontecomapan, we were mobbed by people offering us boat
tours. A slight warning here: we did meet Ismael, the guide
mentioned in Howell’s book, but only after we got back from our
trip. Had we gone out with him in the beginning, we might have
had better luck. The guys we went with were very nice and we did
see fifty species of birds, but we got none of the real specialties of
the boat tour (Sungrebe, Pygmy Kingfisher, Pinnated Bittern,
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron). The guys on the dock will give you an
enthusiastic response if you show them a copy of Howell & Webb, and
they will point out all the above birds on the plates, saying “yes, we
see these all the time”…but Ismael is probably the guy to actually find
them for you. Make sure to ask for him by name. Even though
we didn’t go with him, our trip was also fun, and did get us some
spectacular views of Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and a female
Black-headed Trogon, Common Black-Hawk, Snail Kite, and Laughing
Falcon, among other things.
After our excursion we headed out towards the coast at La Barra in
hopes of plovers, crakes and the like. Unfortunately, contra
Howell, we found absolutely no marshes along the route. One wet
spot had a lot of jacanas (29 to be exact), but that was it. The
coast was similarly disappointing, with only Spotted Sandpiper,
Laughing and Herring Gulls, Black Skimmers, and Common and Royal Terns.
Faced with the prospect of another night in the car, we broke down at
the end of the day and drove back to the Hotel Playa Azul for showers,
telephones, etc. It was nice, but it wasn’t $750-nice.
Day 6 (3/27/03)
Rather than spend two hours of our birding day getting to UNAM
Biological Station and back, we opted to bird areas closer to the Playa
Azul. In retrospect, UNAM might have been a better choice.
We started out at the Nanciyaga preserve mentioned in Howell.
Habitat was good, but try as we might, we could not come up with any
lifers. Highlights included Blue-crowned Motmot (heard),
White-breasted Wood-Wren, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Black-headed and
Violaceous Trogons (heard), Least Bittern (heard at the lakeside
marsh), Purple Gallinule (seen there), a male Green-breasted Mango,
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Yellow-olive Flycatcher. Also the
most ridiculously tame Louisiana Waterthrushes, Wood Thrushes and
Ovenbirds that either of us had ever seen. We took a moment to
watch the Plain Chachalacas taking a dust bath in the mock ceremonial
site by the cabañas, where we also flushed a two-foot lizard
that took off running on its hind legs—evidently a basilisk relative.
Somewhat less than thrilled with our success so far, we decided to head
back towards the Playa Azul to see about birding the grounds.
Unfortunately we’d checked out already and would have had to pay to
park there again to bird, so we parked outside the wall instead and
walked down an adjacent road to see what we could find. This
quickly paid off with a nice male Canivet’s Emerald, followed by a
nesting pair of Rose-throated Becards, Piratic Flycatcher,
Yellow-winged Tanager, Band-backed Wren and Rufous-tailed and
After this we backtracked to the bottling plant. It seemed
deserted from the road so we crawled under the fence and walked on
in. A couple of Ruddy Crakes were having a shouting contest in
the nearby marsh; our low-volume tape playback brought them closer, but
not into view. A few other birds were around, including orioles
and both euphonias and our first Red-eyed Vireo, but not much
else. A close approach to the bottling plant proved that it was
actually in operation, and this fact, along with the electric fence
nearby, complicated access to the forest patch beyond, so we just
At this point we faced something of a dilemma. Our itinerary had
us driving that afternoon to Matias Romero in order to try the Nava’s
Wren site on Uxpanapa Road the next morning. Torn between a
repeat visit to UNAM to redeem the day and a headstart south, we chose
to head south. In fact, we decided to breeze into the Nava’s Wren
site that very afternoon, just to check out the situation.
This we did with less trouble than we anticipated. The Uxpanapa
Road has been paved as far as the toll bridge at km 17, and is now
really quite fast. As we had heard, most of the habitat along the
way was totally degraded, but the actual Nava’s site remains heavily
forested. A quick foray into the trees revealed ridiculous
limestone cliffs, the reason for the survival of this forest patch so
far, and I daresay its ticket into the future. Unfortunately, at
3:00 PM the forest was nearly silent, and we had to work hard to
scrounge up Aztec Parakeet, Montezuma Oropendola and Yellow-olive
Flycatcher. We were decidedly pessimistic about our chances for
Nava’s Wren even should we return the next morning, since we had no
tapes of this notorious skulker, and so we made the decision to press
on to Tehuantepec, forsaking the southeast lowlands a day early and
freeing up time for a visit to Puerto Angel.
Our timing allowed us a late-day stop at the Rosita’s Bunting site
mentioned in Wheatley’s Central American site guide (a dirt track
running east from the highway at km 229 south of Matias Romero).
Just short of this spot, we found our first White-throated Magpie-Jays,
vanguard of the new western avifauna.
The dirt track east was birdy late in the day. Not far from the
highway we heard chipping and responded with a FEPO call.
Zoom! A Stripe-headed Sparrow high-tailed it out of the bush,
eluding David even as it became my hundredth lifer of the trip.
Next came the Orange-breasted Buntings: first a female, then a male,
which immediately knocked the chlorophonia out of first place on the
“Most Beautiful” list. (OBBUs, as we came to call them, were
abundant throughout the Pacific-slope thorn forest, but their abundance
failed to make them mundane. When all was said and done, at the
end of the trip, we would both agree that OBBU had successfully
defended the Most Beautiful title against all comers.)
After the buntings came the Streak-backed Orioles, seven in the first
flock alone. Neither of us had ever seen so many orioles in one
place. All were Streak-backeds. Heartened by our success
with the owl imitation, we moved down the track and tried again, and
this time tooted up a Banded Wren and a Sumichrast’s (Cinnamon-tailed)
Sparrow, not to mention a plethora of buntings, orioles, and…oh yeah,
Myiarchus. Most were Ash-throated but some were probably
Nutting’s…we didn’t get any definitive views of the latter on this day.
No new passerines with our third pygmy-owl call…we got a pygmy-owl
instead! At closest approach we were twenty feet from the bird at
eye level, with crippling scope views. Eventually the bird flew
off but continued calling in the distance, while another one flew in
from the other direction! We got several excellent looks at FEPOs
during the trip but these were unquestionably the best.
With dying light, we headed back towards the car, minus Rosita’s
Bunting but richer by a singing Canyon Wren and a screaming horde of
chachalacas. It wasn’t until much later that night that we
realized we had left Plain Chachalaca on the eastern slope of the
Isthmus…these had been our life West Mexicans.
We stayed at the hotel Calli in Tehuantepec for $600. Yet another
FEPO was singing in the parking lot when we pulled up, for the official
last bird of the day.
This was an interesting day.
We started off in the thornscrub west of town on Hwy 190, per Howell’s
instructions. We parked along the highway next to a bus stop at
kilometer 244. Howell describes the area as overgrazed, and says
that the resulting lack of underbrush should result in killer looks at
ground-cuckoos, if you follow tracks back from the highway. We
found that in reality there was a lot of underbrush, such that the
going was difficult after a hundred yards or so. Furthermore,
FEPO calls were not the hot commodity here that they had been
previously. Nevertheless, we did see many of the birds from the
night before, with one noteworthy addition: White-lored Gnatcatcher,
also known as My Favorite Gnatcatcher. It is a really
nice-looking bird. No Sumichrast’s Sparrows or cuckoos of any
As we headed back towards the car, it gradually dawned on me that I was
hearing a familiar and most unwelcome call. “Is that…our car
alarm?” I asked David.
We saw flashing police lights as we came to the edge of the
brush. It was our car, all right. The hood was open, a
window was down, and the police were already there in numbers.
The officers confirmed what we had already guessed: someone had tried
to break in. David had left the driver’s side window cracked, and
it appears the would-be thieves had slipped something inside and rolled
down the window, since there was no sign of forced entry.
Luckily, either the car alarm or the resulting police presence had
scared away the culprits before they could take anything, but we got
quite a talking-to from the officers, who told us that this stretch of
highway is notorious for crime, including violent crime, and is no good
place to be wandering around. They recommended that birders check
in with the police before visiting the area, or else limit their
explorations to the area around the military checkpoint a couple of
miles further from town. I leave you to make of this advice what
you will. We had not had any problems before, nor did we have any
thereafter; but after that particular incident, we found we had lost
our taste for Tehuantepec, and decided to move on towards Puerto
After fixing a flat tire (more work of the banditos?), we headed for La
Ventosa lagoon. Since Howell’s guide was published, the road he
describes to La Ventosa has been paved, and another paved road has been
constructed to the town; you will see the signs for it off the main
highway south from Tehuantepec. The beach in town hosted a large
flock of larids, primarily Laughing Gulls and Sandwich Terns, along
with some Royals, a Gull-billed, and one adult basic Black Tern.
We heard Melodious Blackbirds singing their R2-D2 songs. The rest
of the lagoon was rather difficult to access but we did find some
scanning spots, which turned up little exotic from an ABA point of
view, though we did get both pelicans, Neotropic Cormorant, Reddish,
Snowy and Great Egrets, White Ibis, Great Blue and Tricolored Herons,
Blue-winged Teal and hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.
We had been hoping for shorebirds but could turn up only a Spotted
Sandpiper in that department. In the brush along the lagoon we
found a few specialty scrub birds, but nothing we hadn’t already seen.
We continued on towards Puerto Angel, still hungry for
shorebirds. At km 303 we saw what we thought were mudflats south
of the road, and pulled off on a dirt track to investigate. The
“mudflats” turned out to be some type of fish farm which did not seem
to be attractive to birdlife, but the scrub along the track was a
different matter. Here, among the Magpie-Jays, we found our first
Yellow-winged Caciques, a pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds, and best of
all, nice views of a Russet-crowned Motmot, which in my opinion far
surpasses Blue-crowned in beauty! On a herp note, it was not far
from here that we saw our first Black Iguana (Ctenosaura similis)
crossing the road.
We pulled into Puerto Angel in the late afternoon. Brown Boobies
were cruising the harbor along with Magnificent Frigatebirds and the
other usual suspects. After scouting Playa Zipolite, we continued
along the paved road past the beach resorts up onto the large hill to
the west, immediately across from the seabird stack described by
Howell. We found a dirt track leaving the main highway at the
crest of the hill; although our passenger car couldn’t make it much
farther than the first fifty yards, a walk up the rest of the road was
very productive, producing Rufous-naped and Banded Wrens, Olive Sparrow
and Bell’s Vireo. At the top of the hill we were able to scope
the offshore rock, and found it ringed with flying Red-billed
Tropicbirds and sitting boobies and frigatebirds.
While exploring some of the footpaths through the scrub, we decided to
try our hands at the flycatchers and soon came up with scope views of a
calling Nutting’s. Ash-throateds were more common, however, and
Orange-breasted Bunting and White-lored Gnatcatcher were easy to come
by. David came face-to-face with a male Doubleday’s
Hummingbird...one I would have to wait until morning to see.
Although the birds were good, it was hard not to notice that most of
the underbrush had been cleared in this area. At times we even
heard the ringing of machetes from down in the valleys. But this
was far and away the best spot we found in the Puerto Angel area, and
the regional specialties persisted. Ironically, it was probably
the lack of underbrush that helped me spot the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo
just as we were about to get back into the car. This is one of
those birds to which the field guide cannot do justice, and we were
unprepared for those metallic bronzy upperparts, that bright blue
facial skin, and that remarkable slow-motion walk. What a great
On this high note, we headed back into Puerto Angel, stopping for a
couple caciques and another FEPO on the way. We ate on the beach
at the Restaurante-Bar Viricocos and struck up a friendship with the
owner, Alberto. His seafood pasta was fantastic. We talked
to him about the possibility of renting a fishing boat for a makeshift
pelagic trip, and he told us he would talk to a friend of his about a
possible excursion the next day. We also asked him if he knew of
cheap accommodations in the area, and he introduced us to the owner of
the restaurant next door, a woman named Sara who rented us a basic room
with two beds for $120/night. It was quite adequate to our needs
and helped balance our budget after our expenses in Catemaco and
Dawn found us back up on our favorite hill, eager to clean up on
Pacific Coast specialties. Slowly but surely, we did so.
Our first good find was a perching hummingbird which didn’t match
anything in the field guide, causing us a good deal of head-scratching,
all of which ended when it begged for food, and received it, from an
adult female Doubleday’s.
We continued exploring further down the path towards Zipolite.
After a long fight, the woodpeckers we had been hearing since the night
before granted us views, and turned out to be of the Golden-cheeked
variety rather than the Golden-fronteds we had come to expect. At
one spot near the water, we found Gray-breasted Martins soaring
overhead with the vultures and frigatebirds, but landbirds were rather
scarce. The trip’s first Orange-crowned Warbler seemed to be all
we could turn up, and at length we decided to turn back towards the
car. Somehow this decision seemed to have a magical effect.
In minutes we had hit the jackpot with a female Red-breasted Chat
popping through the underbrush at our feet, flying her tail like a flag.
The magic wasn’t done yet. Back up on the crest of the hill, we
kicked up a rich brown finch with a curved culmen: a female Blue
Bunting. This was fifty yards from the car. I believe we
actually had the car doors open when we heard the screeching of
parrots, and turned around to see the Orange-fronted Parakeets fly in,
land briefly just upslope, and fly off again in cacophony. We got
the message. We shut the car doors, walked ten feet down the
road, and were rewarded with unobstructed views of a Lesser
Ground-Cuckoo stalking through the leaf litter, presumably the same
bird we’d seen there the night before.
When we did get back in the car, we continued westward along the paved
road, searching for more scrub habitat, but found only more degraded
areas than those we’d left. A side road to the beach produced a
flock of Elegant Terns, but that was the only novelty.
Feeling rather lazy, we returned to Alberto’s restaurant in Puerto
Angel for a leisurely lunch while we waited for his friend with the
boat to show up. Having seen essentially all the area
specialties, with the notable exception of Citreoline Trogon, and being
chronically short of sleep, we were not too upset about the long
wait. Eventually Mario wandered in, and there ensued a relaxed
bargaining session, at the end of which we agreed to go out with him
for two hours to the tune of $500. Having explained to him the
concept of chum, I convinced him to head over to the fish cleaning
station for a bag of blood and guts, with which we hoped to bring the
birds close to the boat.
Our craft turned out to be an eighteen-foot dinghy with an outboard
motor. The sea was calm and the sun was bright, and we made good
time on the water, but our schedule only allowed us to get a few miles
offshore. On the way out we spotted several Black Storm-Petrels,
along with all the coastal species we’d seen in the harbor. A
mile or so offshore, Mario swung the boat around unexpectedly and
pointed to a head sticking out of the ocean just a few yards
away. It was the first sea turtle David or I had ever seen; Mario
called it a carey (Hawksbill Turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata). A
little farther on, I spotted something weird, like a giant dragonfly,
whizzing over the water and disappearing beneath the waves: my first
When we reached our chumming spot, I dumped about a half-gallon of fish
blood in the water. It did not create quite the slick I had been
hoping for, and I learned that fish blood does not float. The
artificial chum I’d seen used on North American pelagics had been
composed of two principal components: fish oils, to attract sharp-nosed
seabirds from beyond the horizon; and popcorn, to provide the hungry
arrivals with a conspicuous floating food. Having little of the
first component and none of the second, our more traditional chum
didn’t work quite as well for seabirds, although before long we had
attracted a long dark shape in the water which Mario identified as a
Great White Shark. I got only vague looks at it.
Birds did come to our “slick”, but they were few and far between.
Black Storm-Petrels passed us every couple of minutes, and eventually a
pair of phalaropes flew in to spin on the water. With some
caution we were able to bring the boat within a few feet of them, and
to our pleasant surprise found that we had both a Red and a
Red-necked. Later, a Pink-footed Shearwater glided by us.
Other than that, it was just the occasional Laughing Gull, despite
repeated reapplications of fish blood to the water.
As it was getting to be time to go, Mario took a piece of fish guts and
threw it high into the air in the direction of the only Laughing Gull
in view. We should have thought of that before! In minutes
we had an escort of thirty screaming gulls, and I knew that other
seabirds could not be far behind.
Suddenly, though, all the gulls took off, departing simultaneously as
though someone had barked an order. A dark-morph Pomarine Jaeger
had come out of nowhere, tearing into the gull flock like a wolf into a
chicken coop. While the jaeger terrorized the hapless gulls,
Mario kept throwing fish in the air, and the Pink-footed Shearwater
reappeared, along with the Black Storm-Petrels and one Brown
Booby. Then the frigatebirds arrived, and the real show
If you think a jaeger can wreak havoc on gulls, you have got to see a
frigatebird in action. I was totally unprepared for the
spectacle. I had only seen frigatebirds off-duty, hanging in the
sky like ornaments, pinned to a point in the air, sliding from one
updraft to another without moving a feather. Such grace seemed
incompatible with speed and savagery. Little did I know.
Before the arrival of the frigates, not a single Laughing Gull, for all
its screaming and flapping, had managed to catch a fish in the
air. Once the frigates had appeared, it was a rare fish indeed
that hit the water. Mario would let one fly, and a great black
shape would shift ever so slightly, turning into a rocket with the
merest fold of a wing, and that wicked bill would snap, and the fish
would disappear right over our heads. I wanted to point in
amazement, but refrained for fear of losing a finger. In the rare
event that a gull got a scrap, it didn’t keep it long. The
frigate would slice down on six-foot wings, effortlessly matching the
gull’s every desperate swerve until it coughed up its lunch in order to
escape. I had been fond of frigatebirds before, it’s true, but
never truly in awe of them until this day.
The little bash broke up when we ran out of fish. After a
pleasant ride back to shore, we showed our appreciation to Mario with a
ten-dollar tip, all the more deserved because we had spent well over
our allotted time on the water. Even though this little side trip
netted us only one lifer apiece (the storm-petrel), we both looked back
on it as one of the clear highlights of the entire trip.
Our last few hours of daylight were spent exploring brush and fields
just southwest of Pochutla, where we renewed our acquaintance with a
number of species and added some trip birds in the form of Blue
Grosbeak and Willow Flycatcher. A trail that led north to a
trash-filled overlook got us our third (!) Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, our
second Rufous-crowned Motmot, and our first Rufous-backed Robin.
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper also made a brief encore appearance.
After our final wonderful meal at Alberto’s restaurant, we headed back
up to the hill for a little owling. Taping for Pacific
Screech-Owl and Colima Pygmy-Owl proved fruitless, but we did flush a
Pauraque off the road, and a Mottled Owl called from down in the
valley. Back in town, we slept again in the same room in Puerto
Angel, rather gratefully putting an end to a long but very enjoyable
4:00 AM came rather too early, it seemed, but we went along with the
clock, not wanting to miss any birds. David offered to drive, and
I slept in the car on our way to La Soledad. Once we got there,
David needed a short nap before hitting the trail, so I walked out
alone into the half-light to see what I could find.
Bright-rumped Attila and Brown-backed Solitaire were leading the dawn
chorus down in the gully. I followed the path into the woods and
was immediately greeted by a dapper little Blue-capped
Hummingbird. Then I spent quite a bit of time trying, and
failing, to get adequate views of a singing woodcreeper. I never
did get a good look, but a little research in Howell and Webb found a
match for the range and the song: Ivory-billed. Golden-crowned
Warbler and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch were the only other birds I
could come up with on my way back to the car.
David was up when I got there, and had found “Wagler’s” Emerald
Toucanet and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher across the road, both of which
I was able to see, along with some “Dickey’s” Audubon’s Orioles,
a Gray Catbird, a flock of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and a Veery.
Then we headed down the trail together. David got a lifer over me
in Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, which I didn’t see well enough to
count, and then I did the same to him with a Golden Vireo. A male
Varied Bunting which popped up was a real surprise, and a real
disappointment when I was unable to show it to David, just as I had
been unable to show them to him in Florida Wash on our first birding
Following the trails down towards a couple little houses which preside
over a long-defunct basketball court, we found more open forest with
some better views of the birds. Tufted Flycatchers, Greater
Pewees, White-throated Thrushes and Gray Silkies were easy to
find. A spectacular bird appeared to me, but not to David: a male
Red-headed Tanager. David retaliated by being the only one to see
the Golden-browed Warbler. He then found us a pair of Blue
Mockingbirds and a couple Red-legged Honeycreepers.
A warning on this next bird: it can make you look foolish. When
David asked me for an opinion on the little green job, I identified it
with a glance. “Empid,” I said, and started looking elsewhere for
excitement. “No wingbars,” he pointed out. I looked again;
he was right. It had an eyebrow, too. “My
mistake—Orange-crowned Warbler,” I said, and started to move on.
“It’s sitting like a flycatcher,” he patiently replied. Finally I
started to study the bird, which just then let loose with a
high-pitched “seet-seet-seet”. “Greenish Elaenia,” David said,
and I sheepishly agreed.
Then we heard something exciting, something that sounded like
jays. And here they came, two of them low right over us.
Backlighting could not hide their contrastingly paler throats.
Dwarf Jays! A great find of a localized endemic.
Soon thereafter we got brief looks at a White-faced Quail-Dove that we
flushed off the path. When I say brief, I mean brief—and
blurry. But what other bird is the size and shape and color of a
To round out our lifer list for the site, we got two nice skulkers:
Rusty Sparrow and Happy Wren. A Zone-tailed Hawk sailed over the
car as we started north.
I drove the next stretch. I didn’t drive much during the trip at
all—in fact David usually called me in only when the road was
bad. This time he was just sleepy, but seeing me behind the
wheel, the road decided to deteriorate in my honor. Besides the
road to UNAM, the twenty-mile stretch north of La Soledad ranks as the
worst road I saw in Mexico. Though paved, it had been the victim
of several washouts, which in at least two cases had swallowed the
entire right lane. Then there were the rockslides, in whose
aftermath nobody had bothered to clear the pavement, leaving drivers to
use their wheels to blaze a double track through a blanket of
A pair of stops in the first few kilometers were mostly uneventful,
though the second netted us our first Acorn Woodpecker of the
trip. We prepared for an extended excursion, however, down the
logging road 25 km north of La Soledad, which Howell mentions as a
possible site for White-throated Jay.
Our first bird was a singing Mountain Trogon, heard but not seen.
Warblers were flitting through the denser growth along the stream, and
walking up the road, we came upon a terrific flock with Golden-browed
and Red Warblers, perhaps the two prettiest birds in that whole
gorgeous family. A Chestnut-capped Brushfinch was also in the
mix, and a little farther along we got good looks at a Spot-crowned
About a kilometer up the road, we rounded a steep hairpin turn to the
right, and discovered a number of flowering trees in the bend of the
road. This site occupied us for the next two hours. The
hummingbirds were the real stars of the show here: we got many
spectacular views of Green Violet-Ear and Magnificent Hummingbird, both
of which were common; White-eared Hummingbirds were a little scarcer
but no less exciting; and a short visit by a female Garnet-throated
Hummingbird made our day. Passerine variety was also good,
featuring Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer and trip birds Western
Tanager, Tennessee Warbler and Steller’s Jay. Brown-backed
Solitaires gave good views for the first time, and both David and I
independently saw things that looked like Rufous-capped Brushfinches,
but were foraging high in trees, which seemed un-brushfinch, so we held
off on the identification. The intermittent rain showers probably
helped bird activity, and kept us lingering happily at this spot until
nearly five o’clock, when we finally tore ourselves away and continued
on towards Oaxaca.
Our long but wonderful day finally ended on the southern outskirts of
Oaxaca, at a nameless basic hotel where a double room cost $200.
Even though we’d skipped breakfast and lunch, we were too tired for
This was to be our day in the Oaxaca valley. From what we had
read in the trip reports, it seemed Garbage Gulch was probably the
place to start, so that is where dawn found us, 8 km north on Highway
We got Oaxaca Sparrow and Pileated Flycatcher within two minutes of
leaving the car along the main trail westward. And
then—nothing. Okay, there were Vermilion and Tufted Flycatchers
and Rufous-capped Warblers , and we did hear and see several vireos—but
unfortunately the latter did not include Slaty, and only a possible
Dwarf. Nothing else, in terms of Oaxaca valley specialties or
even lifers in general. We explored both sides of the road until
mid-morning and then headed up towards La Cumbre to try our luck there.
Unfortunately, gale-force winds met us at the pass where one pays the
gate fee. Discouraged, we turned around. A dark-morph
juvenile Short-tailed Hawk did only a little bit to cheer us up as we
debated what to do next.
Eventually we decided to head over to Monte Albán. We
arrived for the tail end of the morning’s bird activity. Our
first find was White-throated Towhee, which was abundant and
conspicuous, along with Vermilion Flycatchers. Our next find was
much rarer: four other people in the parking lot with scopes and
binoculars! They were Brits, as close to the beginning of their
trip as we were to the end of ours. They’d been to Garbage Gulch
the day before with similarly disappointing results, and had enjoyed
rather better luck at Monte Albán, but were still missing
several hoped-for endemics. We swapped some bird tales before
David and I left them to chase a couple of Boucard’s Wrens,
successfully as it turned out. Then, on their advice, we went to
stake out the flowering trees on the edge of the ruins for the local
After trying to sneak a scope inside and being caught in the act, we
returned with bins and sat to watch the flowers. Soon a Dusky
Hummingbird dropped by. Nearby we got super looks at a couple of
Blue Mockingbirds, but before long it was evident that bird activity
was nearly dead. Under a tree near the visitor’s center, we
discovered what was unquestionably the ugliest bird of our trip: an
unfortunate White-throated Towhee which was missing all its head
feathers, and consequently looked like something out of an Edward Gorey
book. Things got progressively slower. Highlights of the
afternoon were a Virginia’s Warbler and our first encounter with the
black-eared form of Bushtit.
We headed back across town, hoping to find a reasonably priced hotel
near where Route 175 heads north from Route 190. We were in
possession of a trip report which claimed that only “love hotels” could
be found in the area. What this meant, we found out soon enough:
extremely cheap hotels, lacking double rooms, with curtains drawn
across every carport so as to maintain the privacy of customers.
Not the kind of place we wanted to stay. However, a clerk at one
of these establishments directed us just a short distance east along
Route 190, to the Hotel-Posada Los Arcos, which turned out to be our
favorite hotel of the trip. $390/night: an excellent value, and a
terrific location for birders headed north out of town. We highly
After checking in, we headed out to kill the last hour of daylight back
at Garbage Gulch. We wandered the same route as the morning
without hearing a sound. Finally we turned back, and then, in the
last minutes of daylight, stumbled upon a pair of Blue-hooded Euphonias
foraging at eye level. These spectacular birds rounded out our
trio of most-beautiful contenders for the trip, and did wonders for our
opinion of the day’s success.
Last bird of the day was a calling Cassin’s Kingbird near the car.
Although (or perhaps because) we had been somewhat disappointed by our
success in the Oaxaca valley, we decided to spend our last birding
morning higher up the mountain, at La Cumbre, where more potential
lifers might be waiting.
Unfortunately, even just after dawn, the winds were pretty ferocious up
on the pass. This time, however, we bit the bullet and paid the
fee to get past the chain up the northwest logging road. Much has
been written about this fee and its legitimacy; when we were there,
they charged us $80 ($40/person) and told us that the proceeds went to
the preservation of the forest. One tangible result of this fee
seems to be the new nature center right beside the gate. The
locals seemed quite proud of it and invited us to visit, but we
declined, citing bird fever. It looked quite respectable from the
outside, albeit small. I’m not sure about the nature of
preservation efforts, however, since we did run into several trucks
heading up the road during the course of the morning, some of them
loaded down with young men presumably commuting to their work in the
Once we passed the chain and started up the road, we found the wind to
be less of a problem, since the road was mostly in the lee of the
hill. Around the 1 km mark, we discovered a single flowering tree
sporting no fewer than three White-eared Hummingbirds.
Brown-backed Solitaires and Mountain Trogons were singing nearby.
The first lifer of the day came quickly, in the form of a Rufous-capped
Brushfinch, which really was foraging high up in the trees! I
felt good about reaching my goal of 150 trip lifers, since I now had
only three more to go.
Unfortunately, things proceeded to slow down in a hurry. After a
long stretch without Mexican specialties, we were very pleased to get
Crescent-chested Warbler, which pretty much rounded out our Mexican
warbler wish list. Then, after that first one, they seemed to be
everywhere. In fact, warblers were abundant all along the road
all morning—warblers, and precious little else. A Mexican
Chickadee here, a Band-tailed Pigeon there...but everything else was
warblers. Most numerous were Townsend’s, Hermit and
Black-throated Green, in addition to decent numbers of Yellow-rumped
(Audubon’s), Crescent-chested and Red Warblers. Halfway up the
road we ran into the Brits again, who didn’t have much different to
report, except for a Chestnut-capped Brushfinch. We continued in
this same vein all the way to the 9-km mark. Towards the top we
got a few treats, with brief views of solo Red-faced and Golden-browed
Warblers, in addition to another pair of magnificent Blue-hooded
Euphonias and our first and only Hairy Woodpecker of the trip.
But by then it was nearly noon, and time for us to be heading back
towards the airport. On our way down we stopped for a little bird
which I called a Warbling Vireo, only to hear it rebuke me with a high
“seet-seet-seet”. Damn Greenish Elaenias!
The hummingbird tree from earlier that morning was no longer deserving
of its moniker when we returned, but we did see Gray Silkies, a Brown
Creeper and an Olive-sided Flycatcher at the spot. Then we headed
down the mountain and out onto the autopista, D.F.-bound.
Other than a pair of Harris’ Hawks in Puebla state, we didn’t see too
much from the autopista. We wanted to make good time so as to
spend the last hour or two of daylight in the mountains near Mexico
City, just as we had on the first day of the trip. (I was itching
for two more trip lifers). Eventually we pulled over at a
roadside well, somewhere around five kilometers west of the Puebla
state line. The habitat was open pine forest with little to no
understory, bounded on all sides by busy highways. It didn’t seem
like a likely spot for much bird activity, but it was all we had.
To our astonishment, within a minute of slamming the car door, we were
staring at our first Strickland’s Woodpecker, the bonus bird we had not
even dared to hope for. And then, sixty seconds later, we popped
up a pair of Striped Sparrows. Two minutes, two serendipitous
Mexican endemics...and for me, a cool sesquicentenary of lifers.
We were both ecstatic.
In the remaining daylight, we rounded out our trip list with Olive
Warbler, Western Bluebird and Black-headed Grosbeak. David saw
another Rufous-capped Brushfinch, down in the brush this time, and I
got a closer look at the weird olive-backed race of Spotted
Towhee. But all too soon the light was gone.
Our birding done, we made the decision to try to drive to the airport,
drop off the rental car a half-day earlier than planned, then find an
airport hotel with a shuttle so as to save ourselves stress in the
morning. As it turned out, this was our best logistical decision
of the trip. Although traffic in the city was perhaps even worse
than the last time we’d been there, the darkness hid us from corrupt
police, and with a little attention to the signs and some good
old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants navigation (and a fair dose of luck),
we managed to make it back to the Hertz office in one piece. Our
early return of the car saved us a good chunk of money, which covered
the price of the airport hotel. We couldn’t have planned a
smoother end to our trip.
In summary, then, here are some of the highlights we hashed out in the
Atlanta airport just before parting ways:
Nathan - Keel-billed Toucan (honorable mentions: Fork-tailed
Flycatcher, Red Warbler)
David - White Hawk (honorable mention - FEPO)
Most Beautiful Bird
Nathan - Orange-breasted Bunting (honorable mention: Blue-hooded
David - Orange-breasted Bunting (honorable mention - Blue-crowned
Nathan and David - mangy White-throated Towhee at Monte Alban
Nathan - Amatlán, La Soledad, UNAM
David - Amatlán, La Soledad
Nathan and David - Garbage Gulch
Nathan - The night before departing (serendipitous lifers, getting to
Mexico City in one piece)
David - Puerto Angel pelagic trip
Nathan - Narrowly averted mugging (maybe worse) in Tehuantepec
David - Bad Road to UNAM
Nathan - Seafood pasta at Alberto's
David - Guacamole and tomate pasta at Alberto's
Nathan - bowl of "fish parts" on the way to Tuxtepec
David - head meat tacos in Valle Nacional
Best Room Value
Nathan and David – Hotel-Posada Los Arcos in north Oaxaca
Worst Room Value
Nathan and David - Playa Azul near Catemaco
Best Trip Food
Nathan - Totopas de Maiz with avocado (very cheap), nut bars
David - Totopas de Maiz, apples (honorable mention - Chiclets)
* Use of recordings in the field was worth trouble of making cd's and
carting CD player and speakers around (however, put play list with
plates to reduce amount of info to cart around, also put site species
* Always carry valuables in case of break in.
* Never leave windows rolled down, not even a little bit.
Other impressions (in no particular order) - topes (speed
bumps—astonishing in their severity and number), many dogs,
friendliness of people, inability of most people to give good
directions, Mexico City traffic, higher than expected quality of roads,
Mexico City pollution, excellence of Mexican cheese, high quality of
Aeromexico flights (with meals!), ease of using ATM (no bank fees to
withdraw money from ATM), difference between crooked Mexico City
traffic cops and rest of Mexico police, frequent passing by cars in
no-passing zones, high number of roadside snack bars, pedestrians
observed in the middle of nowhere walking on the roads, ability to stop
on roads to bird due to number of topes/pedestrians/other stopped cars
which seems to create heightened awareness by native drivers
To download an Excel Spreadsheet file with a detailed daily species
list by site, right click here.)
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
West Mexican Chachalaca
Great Crested Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Black-throated Green Warbler
Total Trip Species: 345
We would be glad to answer any questions about our trip.
Nathan Pieplow (firstname.lastname@example.org),
David Whiteley (email@example.com),