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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: Baja California’s Cape Region

2017 Narrative

Baja California’s Cape region was incredibly birdy and a delightful place to spend a week in early February this year. We had a blissful time wandering through migrant-filled oases, taking aimless, unhurried walks through fascinating deserts and along remote beaches, and taking a morning boat ride on Magdalena Bay with an unforgettable whale experience as well as countless birds. We also had one amazingly delicious fresh seafood meal after another while enjoying each other’s company in a small group that meshed really well.

We connected with the three currently accepted Baja endemic species even before lunch on our first day, with Belding’s Yellowthroats followed shortly by a Gray Thrasher that sat confidingly only a few yards away at the San José estuary. Magnificent Frigatebirds put on a big display bathing in the mouth of the estuary, which was full of ducks, coots, and gallinules, and two Palm Warblers were a moderate rarity here. We had our first Xantus’s Hummingbird, a female, at Miraflores, while a Thick-billed Kingbird came in for excellent views. We had two skulking Varied Buntings, fleeting looks at Lazuli Buntings, and a confiding MacGillivray’s Warbler. The trees were utterly full of Orange-crowned Warblers. One of our favorite meals was at a tiny hole in the wall in town where we had fresh fish and lobster tacos before we made our way north and east to the remote Punta Arena were we finally caught up with the large group of Snowy Plovers and spotted a Least Tern, one of very few winter records for the entire peninsula. We also had fabulous views of Loggerhead Shrike before we got stuck in the sand, which pretty much finished our day’s birding, getting us to the hotel only a little later than planned.

We had an early departure on a cool morning to the Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve at the San Antonio de la Sierra washes. We found a sunny spot to enjoy our picnic breakfast after a very early burst of activity that included a Black-and-white Warbler among many other warblers and sparrows. Shortly after breakfast we were looking at what would be only the first of two Northern (Cape) Pygmy-Owls, patiently enduring the harassment of Northern Mockingbirds, Western Scrub-Jays, Gila Woodpeckers, and several other birds. We had spectacular views of several Black-throated Gray Warblers, but the adult male American Redstart, a first for the tour’s master list was particularly enjoyable. We saw several Pacific-slope Flycatchers in excellent light, and Ash-throated Flycatchers were particularly cooperative, especially in the drier hillsides away from the wash proper. A Cassin’s Vireo was in one mixed flock of migrants, several American Robins (San Lucan) flew out of hiding into some open cottonwoods, and a Canyon Wren came in low and close to inspect us. On our way out we had a wonderful experience with a gorgeous male Xantus’s Hummingbird that seemed to be gleaning from newly budding inflorescences on the Brandegee’s Fan Palms, and between bouts would perch below eyelevel at close range.

Our next day featured a very relaxed morning, now that we had had our fill of all the endemic subspecies, but we added some nice birds. Gray Vireo, California Gnatcatcher, and Black-throated Sparrow were some of the highlights on our stroll on the scenic nature trail below some sandstone cliffs in a very unusual and dry type of desert with fascinating plants, including some endemic cactuses. Driving to our next destination there was a glimpse of yet another Greater Roadrunner. On our stroll to the mouth of the Eureka wash north of La Ribera we saw more Cassin’s Kingbirds, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and our only Bell’s Vireo of the tour. The mouth had some surprises in the form of four rare Groove-billed Anis and an uncommon Glaucous-winged Gull, both new for the tour list. With no getting stuck in the sand issues this day (and a happily recovered pair of binoculars at our lunch restaurant), we arrived at our hotel in La Paz in good time to enjoy the view and free time strolls along the waterfront.

Too many birds, too little time was the fitting phrase for our morning along the edges of Ensenada de La Paz, from the marine sciences college to the mudflats of El Centenario, to the sewage ponds of Chametla. Besides the thousands upon thousands of shorebirds, favorites included the incredible Long-billed Curlew and hunting Gull-billed Terns on the mudflats. We looked up just in time to catch two Peregrine Falcons flying over, while Yellow-footed Gull was much more reliable in small numbers here and there on the waterfront. Vermilion Flycatcher and American Pipit were the memorable birds from the sewage ponds (as well as Black-necked Stilts and the tour’s first ever Yellow-headed Blackbirds), and at the end of the day we heard a close Ridgway’s Rail that refused to emerge from the mangroves.

The next day however, a Ridgway’s Rail did in fact walk out of the mangroves, but it was behind them most of the time for us, and those who saw it got only a glimpse. But it was still a delightful morning as we wandered a desert wash with California Gnatcatchers and Verdins and saw flocks of Black-throated Sparrows fly from the roadsides. On the beach we saw Snowy Plover and Sanderling, flushing a locally scarce Say’s Phoebe, a new one for the tour’s master list. Before getting back to the hotel we stopped for a pair of very handsome and obliging Yellow-footed Gulls, alongside a Turkey Vulture and a Willet being friendly with a Marbled Godwit. We took a break in the desert before arriving at Puerto San Carlos, where a California Quail was glimpsed. A male Costa’s Hummingbird came out of nowhere and chose a perch right in front of the group while a shaft of sunlight glinted off of its gorget. A pair of Harris’s Hawks perched on the giant Elephant Cardon cacti offered a classic scene. We stopped at a roadside pond where the most cooperative Ridgway’s Rail walked out in the open, momentarily forgetting that it was a rail; we returned to the same spot to watch the sun go down as numbers of ibis and herons came in to roost.

There were some amazing birds on our boat ride on Magdalena Bay, favorites being gorgeous Heermann’s Gulls, Brant, Western Gulls, super close Black-vented Shearwaters (a first for the master list), many Long-billed Curlews, and a surprise Pomarine Jaeger that briefly tried to chase one of the shearwaters. It was also a surprise to find that the dolphins with the shearwaters were in fact Long-nosed Common Dolphins, with their distinctive gray swath down the length of the body behind the eye. But of course it was the display of Gray Whales at the mouth of the bay that was so captivating and will remain the highlight of the trip. One must have gone right under our boat, several showed their flukes well, and another trio or maybe even 4 or 5 were so engaged in a writhing mating display that they forgot we were even there. We finished this fun day with a sunset vigil on the beach down from our lodging where we watched a several-minute, continuous tail-slapping display of a distant Humpback Whale, ending with a release of some 90 baby Green Sea Turtles into the rising surf.

A final last morning in Todos Santos was a relaxing way to end the tour. We added Green-tailed Towhee, Brewer’s Sparrow, and oriantha White-crowned Sparrows to the tour’s list, while getting good views of California Quail, Costa’s Hummingbirds, Scott’s Oriole, and a reprise of Gray Thrasher on our pre-breakfast walk.

So, in just 6 1/2 days of birding, we tallied almost 175 species of birds, several endemic species and subspecies, delighted in some amazing desert plants and habitat, identified several species of butterflies and other critters, and had a wonderful natural history experience in great company.

- Rich Hoyer

Created: 13 February 2017