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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: San Blas - Mangroves and Forests

2017 Narrative

In Brief: “The Fan-tailed Warbler is left of the 2 Wilson’s, below the Townsend’s and Black-throated Gray, near the Streak-backed Oriole, now by the White-throated Thrush and just right of a MacGillivray’s Warbler. Oh, and there’s a Sinaloa Wren…” A pile of rotting tomatoes and avocadoes, plus the insects they attracted, provided fabulous views of some 16 species in as many minutes, just one birding experience among many from our wonderful week at San Blas. The birds kept us busy, but in a relaxed way based at a very comfortable hotel with excellent food and hospitality. From colorful trogons and motmots to cryptic potoos and retiring Boat-billed Herons, from tail-flapping Black-throated Magpie-Jays to a bill-snapping Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, from poetry and a green-flash sunset to large crocodiles and stunning butterflies, and from Snail Kites along a quiet waterway and frigatebirds soaring overhead to the sounds of the forest and mangroves, it was a very special week and a wonderful group to be with. The weather was near perfect—warm and sunny but for one cold early morning, but just hot enough to make siestas a good idea. The great range of habitats, from mangrove tunnel boat rides and cool pine-oak forest to deserted beaches and shade-coffee plantations, produced over 250 species in a relaxed week of birding, but all too soon it was over.

In Detail: Most folks arrived in time for a little birding near the hotel the first afternoon, where we got an early appreciation for just how birdy this part of the world is in winter, even along a city street, where we saw Short-tailed Hawk, Rufous-backed Thrush, and a nice selection of warblers. The next day was a travel day, but with some early morning birding near Puerto Vallarta before making the drive to San Blas. Morning highlights included San Blas Jays, a dumpster of White Ibis and calling (!) Black Vultures, and numerous waterbirds including up-close Magnificent Frigatebirds with red pouches showing. After brunch we headed to San Blas, with stops for some tasty local fruit and a lagoon full of shorebirds. After checking in at the hotel we headed to the fort overlooking town for some birding, history, poetry, a cold drink, and a fine sunset.

Our first morning in San Blas we simply walked from our rooms to areas around town. The great variety of birds around San Blas was typified by birds ranging from Russet-crowned Motmot and Sinaloa Wren to Great Black Hawk and Vermilion Flycatcher. Also notable were Citreoline Trogon, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, Squirrel Cuckoo, and our first Black-throated Magpie-Jays. After lunch and a siesta we took a boat ride along the Río San Cristobal and then through mangrove tunnels (an amazing experience at night) to La Tovara, staying out in search of the bizarre Northern Potoo—of which we had great views. Birding from a boat is fun and relaxing: as well as waterbirds such as Boat-billed Heron, and, after some hunting, the elusive Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, we also enjoyed lots of kingfishers, the handsome Mangrove Warbler, and an impressively large American Crocodile. The next morning we traveled inland a few miles to the village of Singayta and a pleasant walk along shady forest edge. We started well, with a flight of White-fronted Parrots, a surprise Purplish-backed Jay, and side-by-side Streak-backed Oriole and Golden-cheeked Woodpecker glowing in the morning sun; birds continued with various flycatchers, a low-flying Crane Hawk, Fan-tailed Warbler, and great looks at Happy Wren. After lunch and a siesta we birded some areas around Matanchen Bay, including a marsh full of whistling-ducks; other species included a confiding Laughing Falcon, flocks of seedeaters, and a well-hidden tiger-heron, and we ended the day with a cold beer and a beautiful green-flash sunset.

An early start the next day saw us on the lower slopes of Cerro de San Juan, in lush pine-oak forests with very different birds from San Blas. After a decidedly cold start the day quickly warmed up, and bird activity with it, starting at a pile of rotting tomatoes and avocadoes that attracted 16 species in as many minutes, including Wilson’s, Fan-tailed, Nashville, Orange-crowned, Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, and MacGillivray’s Warblers, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and Sinaloa Wren! Other highlights included Black-capped and Golden Vireos, Colima Pygmy-Owl (thanks Matt!), the very local Mexican Woodnymph, confiding Spotted Wrens, Red-headed Tanager, Dickey’s [Audubon’s] Orioles, and the elusive Bumblebee Hummingbird. Stops on our way home produced spectacular views of sunlit Military Macaws, a pair of Bat Falcons, and a calling Collared Forest-Falcon. After a long day yesterday we took it easy with a relaxed morning boat trip up the Río San Cristobal to the Laguna de Pájaros, a spectacular winding journey as we passed by numerous herons, egrets, and ibis, as well as seeing how the ‘San Blas Black Hawks’ did against the ‘Invader Snail Kites’—the kites took it easily, 16:7, with Ospreys a poor third. Also notable were a roosting Lesser Nighthawk, a slew of warblers, Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, some large crocodiles, and nesting Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills. In the afternoon we took the short trip across to Peso Island for a very pleasant beach walk with a selection of shorebirds, gulls, and terns, including American Oystercatcher, a Wilson’s Plover within a few yards of a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and scope views of Blue-footed Boobies.

Our last two days we visited two very different sites in the foothills. The first day we headed inland to El Limon and spectacular tropical deciduous forest (despite the atypical morning fog) where birds started with a young Gray Hawk eyeing the garbage pile, followed by Masked Tityras, Red-breasted Chat, skulking Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrows, an amazing Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, and good views of Louisiana Waterthrush. After lunch and a siesta we birded the shrimp ponds out towards Chacalilla, finding a variety of waterbirds and ‘weedy birds.’ Good studies of shorebirds, included Long-billed Curlew and hundreds of Stilt Sandpipers, plus an underfoot Sora and ‘singing’ Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. Our last full day we birded in humid, semi-evergreen ‘shade-coffee forest’ near Tecuitata. The day started with a mind-blowing (and ear-splitting!) fruiting fig frenzy of hundreds of birds, as figs rained down around us: thrushes, parakeets, warblers, pigeons, woodpeckers, tityras, orioles, tanagers, caciques, magpie-jays, and trogons, even motmots and Crested Guan. Away from the noise we found the skulking Rosy Thrush-Tanager, plus Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Gray-crowned Woodpecker, and a nice Black Hawk-Eagle. After lunch, we checked the amazing fruiting figs one more time and then headed back to the hotel by mid-afternoon, with time to relax and pack before a wonderful last night dinner at the hotel.

Flight times allowed departure from San Blas after a leisurely breakfast, but then, all too soon it was time to leave, after a great week of birds, beaches, mountains, friendly people, good company, and fine cuisine. Thanks to all for making this a wonderful trip.

- Steve Howell

Created: 20 January 2017