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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: Oaxaca and Western Chiapas

2017 Narrative

In brief: From frosty-shawled Pink-headed Warblers to brilliant Red Warblers and from a very confiding Nava’s Wren to garrulous Giant Wrens we traveled through southern Mexico on this remarkable tour. Migrants ranged from Blue-winged and Red-faced Warblers to Upland Sandpiper and Cedar Waxwing, exemplifying the diversity of species and habitats, while cryptic taxa such as ‘Ridgway’s Flycatcher’ and ‘Sclater’s Woodcreeper’ showed that there is much still to learn in this region. One day we were in tropical scrub with Belted Flycatcher and Russet-crowned Motmot, the next in humid montane forest with Pink-headed Warbler and Guatemalan Pygmy-Owl, the next in elfin oak forest with Emerald Toucanet and Bar-winged Oriole. Among many other highlights were those gaudy buntings (male Rosita’s, Orange-breasted, and Painted all in one day!), a mountain flower bank full of hummingbirds, a roadside Highland Guan, and ‘yard birds’ such as Turquoise-browed Motmot and Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. Our ten days of birding in southern Mexico produced many wonderful birds, including over 30 Mexican endemics and another 30 or so regional endemics, plus a great time with a fun group.

In detail: Our first morning we headed out to the spectacular Sumidero Canyon north of Tuxtla Gutierrez, where the day started with a bang as we stepped from the van to be greeted by spectacular White-throated Magpie-Jays, colorful orioles, and noisy flycatchers. Things continued with Russet-crowned Motmot, the handsome little Belted Flycatcher, an amazing male Highland Guan, and of course those Magnolia Warblers. After a picnic lunch and siesta we headed to the world famous Tuxtla Zoo, displaying only regional fauna and emphasizing environmental education. There were also plenty of birds outside the cages, notably Great Curassows, Plain Chachalacas everywhere, and great studies of Russet-crowned Motmot and a Louisiana Waterthrush.

The next day we headed east to San Cristobal, a very different environment from Tuxtla, with humid pine-evergreen forest laden with bromeliads, and were joined by local biologist and guide Alberto Martinez. The morning started with Rufous-collared Thrushes and Rufous-collared Sparrows, continued with Guatemalan Pygmy-Owl and Strong-billed Woodcreeper, and climaxed with a When-Harry-Met-Sally-moment as we enjoyed prolonged views of the much sought-after Pink-headed Warbler, with its frosty pink shawl. After a relaxing lunch in town we found a few more species, including a skulking Rufous-browed Wren and the very local Black-capped Swallow. Our third day of birding featured another morning at Sumidero, then an afternoon in some montane Atlantic Slope rainforest now accessible ‘thanks’ to the building of a big new toll highway to Mexico City. Morning highlights included stunning Emerald Toucanets, flowering trees with Bar-winged Orioles and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, a Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Ovenbird, Slender Sheartail, and that flight-displaying Highland Guan! The afternoon was quite a contrast, starting with a screaming roadside group of Green Parakeets, followed by a tiny Northern Bentbill and an amazing Nava’s Wren (described to science as recently as 1973), all to the backdrop of Slate-colored Solitaire songs.

After four days based out of Tuxtla we headed for the coast, via a very birdy morning at El Ocote, where the misty conditions kept things active, with flock after flock swirling around in the roadside trees. Color was provided in the form of Green Shrike-Vireo, Keel-billed Toucan, and White-winged Tanager, with more subtle shades worn by Long-tailed Sabrewing and Gray-collared Becard. After a picnic lunch we headed to the coast, stopping along the way to gasp at the colors of Rosita’s and Orange-breasted Buntings, before settling in to our hotel for a good dinner and sleep as the wind howled outside.

The next day we headed to the coastal lowlands near Puerto Arista, where birds kept coming thick and fast, starting with dawn flights of Swainson’s Hawks. We wandered along a quiet dirt road where Giant Wrens were conspicuous, plus parrots (including a single Yellow-naped Parrot), flycatchers, warblers, orioles, and even a fly-over Upland Sandpiper. Other birds in the morning included Laughing Falcon, the enigmatic Ridgway’s [= not Nutting’s] Flycatcher, and the handsome Rufous-backed Wren. After a leisurely seafood lunch in the welcome shade we took an impromptu short boat ride out around a bird-filled sandbar before enjoying the ‘bathroom tiger-heron’ and heading back for a siesta. In late afternoon the nearby hills produced a surprise, low-flying King Vulture battling the gale (wind strong enough to blow over a two-thirds full beer!), plus more Rosita’s Buntings, the rather local Green-fronted Hummingbird, and our only Stripe-headed Sparrows of the trip.

A morning near the coast provided good diversity and very pleasant birding that featured a white-morph Reddish Egret, displaying Roadside Hawks and Yellow-winged Caciques, tooting Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, a pair of Spot-breasted Orioles, flocks of Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, and a low-flying Zone-tailed Hawk. After lunch we loaded and drove to Tehuantepec (through the wind-farm infested isthmus of the same name), where we arrived in time for a siesta. Late afternoon birding nearby was quiet in the heat, but we did find an obliging Collared Forest-Falcon that sat and ‘sang’ for prolonged scope views. As the sun set we enjoyed a warm calm evening with cold beer and snacks before a star-studded sky materialized, followed by a Buff-collared Nightjar. An early start the next morning found us out in the thorn forest again, where birds included the very local Sumichrast’s Sparrow plus nice Sclater’s (née Rufous-naped) Wrens, Doubleday’s Hummingbirds, and even a male Northern Cardinal. We then made the long, winding, and spectacular drive up to the Oaxaca Valley, with stops to stretch and bird (Gray-breasted Woodpecker, Dusky Hummingbird, and Bridled Sparrow indicated our transition into a new avifauna). A pleasant lunch at a colorful restaurant was followed by a mezcal production tour before arriving in Oaxaca City to relax and enjoy the settings of our new home for the last four nights.

Our first full day in new surroundings featured good views of many birds and also revealed how much the birds had changed from those of the Chiapas highlands: brilliant Red Warblers instead of Pink-headed, Blue Mockingbird instead of Blue-and-white, sun-drenched Oaxaca Sparrows, stealthy Dwarf Jays (at the 11th hour—thanks Jorge!), a stunning male Red-headed Tanager, and the impressive cryptic species, Sclater’s [Strong-billed] Woodcreeper. Our morning at Yagul was a striking contrast, amid beautiful cactus desert and spectacular vistas from the ruins. Bird activity picked up as the sun hit and species included Beautiful Hummingbird, stunning Bridled Sparrows, the understated Pileated Flycatcher and overstated Vermilion Flycatcher, plus Boucard’s, Canyon, and Rock Wrens. After the Tule tree, lunch, and a siesta we headed up to Cerro San Felipe for late afternoon birding and a picnic dinner. A Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo posed for the scope, before a chorus of Brown-backed Solitaires, Black Thrushes, and Mountain Trogons closed out the day. Our luck had been running really high up to now, but after a short burst of Mexican Whip-poor-wills we just couldn’t raise any owls—perhaps the spectacular thunder, lightning, and rain showers that came in later, around midnight, had something to do with it?

The last full day we started at a reservoir that held rafts of Least Grebes and some migrant Pectoral Sandpipers, and then headed up through oak scrub to 9500 feet in the humid pine-oak forests above Teotitlán. Birds appeared steadily throughout the day, including groups of stunning Black-vented Orioles, a West Mexican Chachalaca, Red-faced and Olive Warblers, Mexican Violetear, amazing Blue-throated Hummingbirds, Collared Towhee, Bridled Titmouse, Mountain Trogon, Spot-crowned Woodcreepers, and of course more of those pesky Red Warblers. We headed back to Oaxaca in time to rest and pack before a fine last night dinner. All in all a remarkable range of habitats and a great selection of birds—thanks to all for coming, and I’m sure we’ll meet again somewhere along the long and winding road of birding.

   -    Steve Howell

Created: 29 March 2017