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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: Oaxaca at Christmastime

2021 Narrative

In Brief: It can’t have been a surprise that the Red Warbler was mentioned by the most participants as one of their favorite birds on this year’s Oaxaca at Christmastime tour. The first one we saw was up high and difficult, the second was a bit better but in the dark forest understory, the third was brilliant and gorgeous, the fourth was just as cooperative, and then we saw a fifth and realized that there might be too much of a good thing – turning our attention instead to a Golden-browed Warbler and later the Dwarf Jays. Other birds on the pine-oak zone that made this tour especially memorable included the amazingly adorable “Black-eared” Bushtits, a female cooperative Bumblebee Hummingbird, and a trio of smart Gray Silky-Flycatchers right outside the van windows. Our owling night was also popular, maybe because it was a beautiful evening, maybe because the dinner and wine were delicious, or maybe because we saw three species of scarce and especially difficult owls – Northern Saw-whet, Flammulated, and Fulvous – all within a single hour. Most memorable birds from the drier parts of the Oaxaca Valley and upper Tehuantepec drainage included Boucard’s Wren and White-lored Gnatcatcher, both familiar for their similarity to some of our North American birds, yet still quite distinctive and beautiful. Our three-day side trip to Tuxtepec resulted in some fine favorites: Black-headed Trogon was one of a record five species of this family that we saw. A Keel-billed Toucan spotted outside the van window stayed as we parked, got out, and watched it joined by a second as well as a flock of Montezuma Oropendolas. And a Barred Antshrike, so utterly unlike any other bird we saw, came in very close and sang its bouncing song while pumping its tail with every syllable.

In Detail: Our first morning was an easy start – not too early and right on our hotel grounds where a swarms of winter visitors from the north had us looking in all directions. After we began to mentally filter out all the Yellow-rumped Warblers, Nashville Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Western Tanagers, we started seeing some exciting birds. Top among them were the pair of stunning Black-vented Orioles feeding on the flowers of an Erythrina tree, later joined by Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles. A handsome male Cinnamon-rumped Seedeater perched up briefly, and a Tufted Flycatcher also added to the interest. A Blue-headed Vireo was rather a good find in the Oaxaca Valley as well. We then spent the later morning walking around the perimeter and then through the amazing plaza of Monte Albán, where a Rufous-capped Warbler and Vermilion Flycatcher were the bird highlights.

Our first day in the Cerro San Felipe area north of the city was full of new birds. The singing Brown-backed Solitaire during our breakfast was amazing to listen to, and we saw it sing in flight and had great views through the scope after we were done eating and ready to find more mixed flocks. The mixed flock right after breakfast with pairs of Gray-barred Wrens flying back and forth in the canopy amidst a mixed flock of our first Crescent-chested Warblers, Olive Warblers, and Steller’s Jays was a fun burst activity, though it was hard to keep up with all the new birds appearing at once. But then it got very quiet for the rest of the day, and we only slowly added one new bird after the next after that. A pair of Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens sang their antiphonal duet after we saw the male perched boldly on the side of a tree trunk right next to us, though a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush offered only a glimpse as it called from the thickets. Then a Red Warbler appeared, and we eventually had great views of several more of this incredible bird. A canopy flock up in the pines at our picnic lunch spot had lots of birds, but they were nearly silent, and only when we spent time searching through the movement did we see Mexican Chickadees, Hutton’s Vireos, and a single very silent Brown Creeper. The jay-wren flocks seemed absent from all the likely spots, but as we kept looking, we stumbled across a family of Chestnut-capped Brushfinches feeding on the forest floor below the road. Then another quiet mixed flock produced a lovely Golden-browed Warbler that just as quietly melted back into the forest undergrowth. Finally, we found the jays – first a bit of motion, then a blue blur, then a good scope view, and then all around us on mossy branches in plain sight were the Dwarf Jays we had been hoping to find all day. They were accompanied by a few Steller’s Jays, Gray-barred Wrens, Rose-throated Becards, and a very elusive Spot-crowned Woodcreeper.

In past years, Christmas day took us to Teotitlán del Valle, but this year we switched things around and birded the far eastern end of the Oaxaca Valley and the upper end of the Tehuantepec watershed, starting with picnic breakfast by the Yagul ruins. Nutting’s Flycatcher gave us a great showing just after we had had good views of Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Boucard’s Wren was one of top specialties of the area we scored quickly. But the ruins were not slated to open until later in the morning, so we made a check of the Ocotepec microwave station road, where Ocellated Thrashers sang but remained invisible. While we tried to squeak out a heard Slaty Vireo, we saw the even more difficult Dwarf Vireo instead and had great views of a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers. A cooing Lesser Roadrunner was perched too close to the road and dashed off before most of the group had a chance to see it. The best birding of the day was the last hour and of half before lunch at the Totolapan nature reserve. We first quickly nailed the hoped-for White-lored Gnatcatchers, eventually seeing several of this very attractive polioptilid. A huge flock of orioles feeding in the blooming Ceiba aesculifolia trees provided at least a few Streak-backed Orioles, but there were so many feeding so quickly, we had to guess at the numbers; a big surprise a bit apart from the group but feeding on the same trees was an Altamira Oriole, a rare wanderer upslope from the coastal lowlands. Even more fun than the orioles was a large group of White-throated Magpie-Jays, first on a distant hillside and acting elusive, then flying right over our heads and perching out in the open. The pair of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers were a lovely, colorful contrast with the more subtle Gray-breasted Woodpeckers, and the “Sclater’s” Rufous-naped Wrens were also good to spot. After marveling at the distinctive ruins of Mitla, we returned to Yagul where a female Beautiful Hummingbird was very elusive to most of the group, while two female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds perched quite cooperatively for some time. Alas, the Yagul ruins never did open this day, disappointing us and the several cars of tourists that arrived and departed while we were birding.

On our fourth day, we visited the pine-oak woodlands again, first taking the road to the east of La Cumbre, but the sunny weather and increased traffic resulted in surprisingly few birds; a female Bumblebee Hummingbird that perched and fed at length, allowing us to see every detail of the plumage was a highlight, and White-eared Hummingbirds were much easier to see here; a lowlight was seeing a Northern Raccoon caught in a leg trap at the edge of the field. In the late morning we returned to the west side road which was indeed much birdier, with a good flock of Mexican Chickadees, Olive Warblers, and others leading to a Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo that furtively popped up right in front of only one person before vanishing amidst the bromeliads. An amazing lunch at Carmen’s café in the cloud forest allowed everyone to enjoy a Blue-throated Mountain-gem at the feeders, and before long we found ourselves dining once again in the pine-oak forest for our picnic dinner of fresh guacamole, roast chicken, and several sides. This was then eclipsed by our owling. While a Northern Pygmy-Owl taunted us by only tooting from a hidden perch, and a Mexican Whip-poor-will dared show only its eyeshine, the normally elusive Northern Saw-whet Owl flew from its first hidden perch only to land out in the open for all to see. Then came the normally devilishly difficult Flammulated Owl, a distant hooting bird surely bound to give us the run-around and make us late for bed. But against all odds its next move would be to perch on an open branch where we could get the scope on it and watch this tiny baritone at length. We were then set to miss the Fulvous Owls, which did not respond on cue and seemed to allow us to continue back to the hotel. But wait – one last scan with the spotlight just to see…and there was a Fulvous Owl in plain sight on a trunk just off the side of the road at eye level. We admired this silent beauty when the female began calling at a distance. This bird changed perches by a few yards and also began his bass, syncopated rhythm, revealing him to be the male of the pair. With three owl species seen within an hour, we headed back for the hotel and arrived well before our target of 10:00 p.m.

It was very birdy at our breakfast spot on the Rio Grande River an hour and a half into our drive to Tuxtepec, despite the van’s thermometer reading -1°C. As soon as the sun came over the hills, the temperature rose and there were even more birds. Some of us finally got our best views of Rufous-capped Warbler here before we continued on into the cloud forests. Right at the pass a pair of Rufous-capped Brushfinches came in nicely, and attracted to the commotion was a female Garnet-throated Hummingbird. A bit farther down the road Golden-browed Warblers lost their shyness and a male Bumblebee Hummingbird displayed overhead, eventually perching high on a twig over the road. At about the midpoint on the road we stopped at Vista Hermosa for the beautiful view (ahem), and while a trio of Brown-hooded Parrots weren’t cooperative, a stunning Azure-crowned Hummingbird did repeatedly visit some canna flowers until everyone had views. We made one last stop at an almost tropical elevation to a bustle of activity that included a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and two lovely Blue-gray Tanagers.

A Gartered Trogon was the first highlight from our morning in and alongside of healthy patch of lowland rainforest. A male Hooded Warbler was right next to our breakfast table and write-in Green-breasted Mango and White-necked Jacobin fought over an African tulip tree just down the road. On the forest trail in the limestone hills, we tallied many more birds, including Black-headed and Slaty-tailed Trogons, but the Sumichrast’s Wrens did not want to play. The constant stream of caballeros transporting bricks of raw rubber seemed to transport us back in time (though most surely had cell phones in the pockets), and they did make taping in shy birds more of a challenge. In the afternoon we sorted out Couch’s Kingbird, added a few more list-padding water birds, and came across a wintering flock of grosbeaks and buntings feeding on roadside grasses, among which was a male Painted Bunting. Our second Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl of the day came in towards the end of the afternoon, this one much more aggressive than the first and arriving as if ready for mortal combat.

We had to make a quick stop in San Mateo de Yetla before arriving at our breakfast spot in the foothills for what would turn out to be our only toucans of the tour, a pair of Keel-billed Toucans next to the highway, soon joined by a roving flock of Montezuma Oropendolas. Our breakfast spot had a blooming hedge of turk’s-cap mallow that hosted our only Stripe-tailed Hummingbird and a Bananaquit, while just down the road we tallied over 30 more species including Collared Trogon, our fourth species of this family, a Barred Antshrike, three Red-capped Manakins (including a male), and both species of ant-tanager. The birds of the cloud forests above here weren’t so fond of the sun, but it made for perfect soaring conditions, allowing us to spot a handsome Gray-headed Kite, yet another addition to the growing master list. In the afternoon we made one last stretching stop in the lower oak scrub zone where there were some nice additions. We heard call notes (rarely heard) and then very quiet song of Ocellated Thrasher, but these didn’t want to play reveal themselves. Skulking Spotted Towhees, prominently perched Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays (possibly to be split as Sumichrast’s), and a rambunctious party of “Black-eared” Bushtits rounded out the list before we headed on to the hotel.

Our last morning of birding above Teotitlán del Valle began with more list-padding water birds as well as a chorus of West Mexican Chachalacas on a distant hillside; one might have been scopeable had a cheeky accipiter not flown at it. A gorgeous Bridled Sparrow was joined by some Lark Sparrows, two of the prettiest members of an otherwise plain group of birds. We continued up the road into the foothill scrub in search the scarcer specialties, finally scoring with a rather quiet group Oaxaca Sparrows that were consorting with several Bridled Sparrows and White-throated Towhees. While searching for the sparrow we came across more Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays and lucked into a female Beautiful Hummingbird that perched close by for excellent studies. We just barely had time to check the lower pine-oak zone where a couple of Mexican Violetears sounded like a dozen. It didn’t take long to get a vocal response from a Mountain Trogon, and though it didn’t come in close, we all had decent views of it in the scope. Once before in 17 years has this tour recorded up to four species of trogon, and this was our fifth, a new record. We finished the morning at Nelson Perez Mendoza’s rug weaving studio, followed by lunch at Mary Jane Gagnier’s Rancho Pitaya B&B where Gray-breasted Woodpeckers dominated the scene. After paying our respects to the 2000+ year-old Tule Tree, we finished the tour at La Olla, one of Oaxaca’s finest restaurants.

-          Rich Hoyer

Created: 07 January 2022