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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: Oaxaca at Christmastime

2023 Narrative

In Brief:  The festive atmosphere, great food, cultural attractions, and above all, the great birds made Oaxaca a fabulous place to spend the last nine days of the year 2023. The ruins of Monte Alban and Yagul were complemented by a walk around the amazing carved radish displays for the 126th annual competition in the Oaxaca City square and a visit to an exquisite rug studio in Teotitlán del Valle. In between our cultural stops were bouts of birding where Elegant Euphonia, Red Warbler, Ocellated Thrasher, Slaty Vireo, Bridled Sparrow, Happy Wren, and White-tailed Kite were memorable sightings from the Oaxaca Valley and Cerro San Felipe north of the city. Our two-night side trip to the wetter Gulf of Mexico slope in the north of the state yielded Orange-billed Sparrow, Gray Hawk, Collared Trogon, and White-winged Tanager to name a few favorites among the more than 130 species that this side trip added to the bird list (almost doubling the total in just three days). To top it all off, we got to sample the rich local cuisine highlighted by several kinds of moles in a variety of local restaurants, tasted several varieties the locally produced mezcal, and enjoyed picnic breakfasts and lunches (and even one picnic dinner) in the field prepared by our wonderful driver Basilio.

In Detail:  Our first morning saw us at the gate to Monte Alban for picnic breakfast with a chorus of Cassin’s Kingbirds greeting the day, joined by a single Thick-billed Kingbird. Just as breakfast was served, a surprisingly visible Blue Mockingbird joined the noise with its imitations of Cassin’s Kingbird and Western Wood-Pewee among others. We walked up the road to the ruins, seeing two Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, a notorious skulker, and most of us at least heard a Blue Bunting female that popped up out of the undergrowth for a second – the first record for the Oaxaca Valley. The first of several Vermilion Flycatchers greeted us at the parking lot, and then after we entered the ruins, we continued birding around the perimeter before entering the central plaza. Rufous-capped Warblers were abundant and easy to see, a single Canyon Wren sang from the bushes, and a few Rock Wrens hopped about the ruins. After we had our fill of the impressive former city, a pair of stunningly beautiful Elegant Euphonias obligingly fed on the fruits of a mistletoe clump only a few feet away at eye-level. After a late lunch at Origen downtown, we walked around the zocalo, seeing the impressive work of local artists competing in the 126th annual Night of the Radishes festival. The corn husk and dried flower creations were almost as impressive.

Our second day of birding saw us in a totally different habitat, up in the mountains north of the city. We walked forest roads through the pine-oak, seeing about the same number of species as the first day, but with so little overlap we essentially doubled our trip list. A seldom-seen Pine Flycatcher right after breakfast was a nice addition, and we were able to compare it to a nearby Hammond’s Flycatcher and hear its distinctive call. A Collared Towhee surprised us by singing just a few feet away almost in the full open, while a Gray-barred Wren at the same location was also astonished by going up into an open bush in plain sight. We continued looking for mixed flocks, mostly finding warblers and kinglets, seeing several amazing Red Warblers, and stumbling into a single Golden-crowned Kinglet at the very southern edge of its range. When we found a large group of Gray-barred Wrens, we scoured it carefully for jays. The prize here though was a very responsive Northern Pygmy-Owl. As we were preparing lunch another wren flock was found, and in it was a group of the very local Dwarf Jay. After lunch the rest of the group was able to catch up with one of the jays, hanging out with Steller’s Jays, while we added Spot-crowned Woodcreeper and two very handsome Tufted Flycatchers. Dinner at Las Quince Letras featured a long list of different mole dishes in a festive atmosphere.

Christmas morning saw us at the Piedra Azul Reservoir. Our picnic breakfast was difficult to consume, owing to the abundance of birds in all directions diverting our attention. The water levels were quite low, reflecting a bad summer of rains, but perhaps responsible for concentrating the local rarities of White-faced Ibis, Northern Pintail, and Canvasback, the latter two new to the all-time list for this tour. Lots of sparrows and warblers coming to the water were joined by a Blue Grosbeak, while a very confiding Black-vented Oriole fed in a tree morning glory. We struggled to find birds of any kind in the lower foothill scrub, the driest it’s ever been, but astounding was a Oaxaca Sparrow foraging out in the open on the road shoulder when we arrived. A little higher in the canyon the forest was a bit moister, and here we found Painted Redstart and our only Red-faced Warbler of the tour. A delightful lunch in the pine-oak zone was accompanied by a mixed flock of Steller’s Jays and Gray-barred Wrens with a single female Black-backed Oriole, something of a rarity here. A final highlight of the day was a gleaming White-tailed Kite by the highway just outside the town of El Tule.

We started Boxing Day below the little-visited ruins of Yagul in a rather different habitat dominated by columnar cactuses, acacias, and mesquite. A couple of Curve-billed Thrashers performed nicely when we arrived, but the local Boucard’s Wrens were clearly waiting for the sun to creep a bit higher before announcing their presence. Bridled Sparrows were decidedly on the tardy side, giving us their best views only as we were about to leave the ruins. We drove for a bit to dip into the Pacific Coast avifauna on the highway towards the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and the dry wash did not disappoint. Streak-backed Orioles were in small groups, a single female Orange-breasted Bunting was joined by a female Varied Bunting, and two pairs of Orange-fronted Parakeets announced their presence on the hillside. At our farthest point, a pair of handsome Rufous-naped Wrens charmed us as did a male of the adorable White-lored Gnatcatcher. This was our night to try for owls up at La Cumbre, though the full moon did not portend well. Indeed, just as we finished our dinner, a Mexican Whip-poor-will called right by the vehicle a few times, then stopped. Over the next 2 ½ hours we walked slowly, listened, and played the songs of five species of owls, and not a single bird responded.

After four days birding out of Oaxaca City, it was time for a bit of a change. Our first stop on the way to our two-night stay in Tuxtepec was in the Rio Grande Valley. The tropical thornscrub here was packed full of birds, and we breakfasted with the constant chatter of Gray Silky-flycatchers and singing Brown-backed Solitaires. Right by our breakfast spot was a pair of the scarce Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrows in one of the only places where the species occurs on the Atlantic side of the continental divide. A Common Black-Hawk was sitting on a rock in the river where a Belted Kingfisher flew by. While trying to get looks at a joyous pair of Happy Wrens, we became the happy ones when a stunning Slaty Vireo moved through the roadside thicket. A bit more driving and we found ourselves in the drastically different cloud forest with ferns and orchids everywhere. Slate-colored Solitaires were silent, but we spied a couple feeding in fruiting trees, while in a mixed flock dominated by Common Chlorospinguses we teased out an attractive Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner. We descended through a belt of fog, arriving in the lower elevations to find a Gartered Trogon perched over the road on the low powerlines. A nice flurry of activity followed, with our only Azure-crowned Hummingbird, a write-in Black-cheeked Woodpecker at the very northern edge of its range, and a super confiding Rufous-browed Peppershrike in the weedy vegetation on the roadside.

A day in the lowlands near Tuxtepec targeted the very local Sumichrast’s Wren, and those who dared the rough limestone trail in the forest understory got a very good auditory experience with a close one. It didn’t show however, and with the passing of a cold front, the forest was very quiet; perhaps the big mystery raptor that flushed from the canopy had something to do with it as well. On the open road, though, bird activity was super high, with loads of Orchard Orioles, a Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow-olive Flatbill, and a clean sweep of all three saltators – Buff-throated, Cinnamon-bellied, and Black-headed all vying for our attention. One fortuitous roadside stop before lunch resulted in a surprise pair of Double-striped Thick-knee, barely known from this part of Oaxaca, a gorgeous male Summer Tanager perched in the open, and a wintering White-throated Flycatcher in its typical but rather un-empidonax-like habitat of open grass. Our sharp-eyed driver Basilio spotted an Aplomado Falcon perched by the road on our way to lunch. After lunch we birded our way up to the Cerro de Oro dam where we found a scarce Blue-winged Warbler, a very responsive pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, and American White Pelicans feeding below the dam, reminding us of summer back north.

The pre-dawn weather on our way to picnic breakfast for the return drive to Oaxaca didn’t look so great. But as it dawned near Valle Nacional, the skies dried out, visibility improved, and Basilio did it again by spotting a Bat Falcon perched on an antenna right in town. We drove only a few curves up into the lower cloud forest for breakfast at a spot that looked promising. Activity was nicely moderated – a constant trickle of good birds kept us on our toes. A normally very secretive Blue-black Grosbeak fed on the shoulder of the road, and a stunningly red male White-winged Tanager sang from a small treetop, later joined by his yellow female. A trio of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks included a young male that had the full rose-red bib. Back at the breakfast spot, a write-in Orange-billed Sparrow sang and skulked in the undergrowth right by the van, while checking the more distant trees resulted in a scarce Olive-sided Flycatcher and a troop of Collared Aracaris. The only Keel-billed Toucan was only in flight, but in full sight. We arrived at our big lunch pullout with an hour and a half to bird the middle-elevation cloud forest, hampered a bit only by fog and intermittent drizzle. We soon spotted a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing feeding on roadside flowers and a very handsome Rusty Sparrow came out of the very dense bushes to have a look. Crested Guans were a nice surprise quietly bounding through the trees, and a Stripe-tailed Hummingbird came out of hiding to forage on a red canna. We made only one more stop in the cloud forest when a flock of Unicolored Jays stopped in trees over the road, after which we exited the clouds and fog once we descended into the rain shadow of the Sierra. An almost-coincidental mini-reunion on the highway with some friends of Rich embarking on a multi-day trip to the north of Oaxaca and Veracruz gave us an opportunity to stretch our legs and enjoy a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker before continuing the long drive back to the city.

We tried something new for our last morning, birding some lower foothill thornscrub close to the city rather than going back up to what looked to be a chilly and foggy La Cumbre. The tree morning glories were abuzz with Dusky and Berylline Hummingbirds, and we had more views of female Beautiful Hummingbirds in the lower bushes. Chipping, Lark, and Bridled Sparrows were joined by Ash-throated and Nutting’s Flycatchers for a busy morning. A lovely White-tailed Hawk greeting the sun from a perch was yet another nice spot by Basilio. After our breakfast we concentrated on searching for birds we were still hoping for, finding our second Slaty Vireo along the way. Then thanks to a tip from Micah Riegner and Dan Lane who had been here a few days earlier with their Field Guides group, we connected with a very close and skulking Ocellated Thrasher, followed by a pair of the deceitful Dwarf Vireos, looking so much like Ruby-crowned Kinglets. We had great views of a lovely Audubon’s Oriole on the way out, then stopped by a small reservoir where we added Savannah Sparrow and Gadwall to the trip list, also finding an unusually easy to see Louisiana Waterthrush. Lunch was followed by a walk around the amazing El Tule Montezuma Baldcypress tree, and a fitting farewell dinner was at the splendid La Olla.

-          Rich Hoyer

Created: 08 January 2024