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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: Oaxaca at Christmastime

2018 Narrative

This year’s Oaxaca at Christmastime tour was delightful. One day of blustery winds didn’t deter us from having great views of one of our main targets, the handsome Dwarf Jay. But then the rest of the tour had picture-perfect weather, and even in the Valle Nacional cloud forest, skies were so clear we saw Pico de Orizaba’s 18,491 foot peak from 113 miles away. We tallied a respectable 280 species, 17 of which were heard only, and there were some wonderful highlights. The bird with the most favorite votes was the Sumichrast’s Wren, and this was only the second time this tour has seen this rare, restricted, and elusive endemic. But a surprise Russet-crowned Motmot on our last morning was nearly as popular, as this gorgeous bird has the charisma thing down pat. Fulvous Owl cooperated nicely for those who came along for the picnic dinner at La Cumbre, while the pine-oak forests there were also fantastic for huge numbers of Gray Silky-flycatchers and a Gray-breasted Wood-Wren that hopped out in the open with no playback necessary. Our side trip to Tuxtepec added a huge number of species, and favorites from there included a very confiding Barred Antshrike at our breakfast spot in the foothills, a pair of stunning Crimson-collared Tanagers on the limestone forest trail, and a boldly perched Laughing Falcon that called as we watched it on our afternoon outing to the reservoir.

Our first morning of birding at Monte Albán began with a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers and a scarce Ovenbird. Hummingbirds of several kinds were active at the abundantly blooming Small-flowered Tree-Morning-glory, but a Broad-billed Hummingbird (Doubleday’s) was an unexpected addition to our fifteen-year-old master list. A Rock Wren on the ruins was something we come to expect here, but we were lucky to hear a nearby Pileated Flycatcher that came in very close for superb views. We had a wonderful and interesting lunch at Origen before having the rest of the afternoon off to enjoy the downtown festivities and amazing radish carvings and cornhusk and strawflower displays.

Our first morning up in the pine-oak forests of La Cumbre was hampered by persistent winds and cloud cover, but we were fortunate to not have any rain in the mix, and birds eventually showed themselves. Dwarf Jays appeared just before our picnic lunch, along with Steller’s Jays and Gray-barred Wrens. Golden-browed Warblers were very confiding, and we finally found a really busy mixed flock that contained many warblers, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, and the prize Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo. Collared Towhees and Chestnut-capped Brushfinches skulked in the lush forest undergrowth, and most people had decent views of them before we returned to town for a delicious dinner at La Olla.

The Piedra Azul reservoir above Teotitlán del Valle on Christmas morning was a bustle of bird activity at dawn. Duck diversity was very low, perhaps from the disturbance the place now receives from day tourists paddling around, but we still saw a huge number of Least Sandpipers pecking away at the mud while we had breakfast, and just up the road a Blue Mockingbird made itself visible for a brief moment. In the native scrub higher up the road Bridled Sparrows appeared, though Oaxaca Sparrows remained elusive. West Mexican Chachalaca was a nice catch, as they are largely silent this time of year. We worked our way up into the lusher forest where Golden-browed Warbler showed well once again, and nice additions to the bird list were Painted Redstart and Red-faced Warbler. After our picnic lunch we spent time at Jesús Hernández’ rug workshop, starting with a quick demonstration of wool carding, spinning, and dyeing followed by some serious bargain shopping.

Our second day at La Cumbre began with a huge explosion of Gray Silky-flycatchers as we breakfasted on the ridge. Numbers of them eventually settled down in the treetops to greet the sun, offering wonderful views of these classy birds. Activity was high all morning, and highlights included good views (finally) of White-eared Hummingbird, the very dark subspecies of Hairy Woodpecker, a wintering Olive-sided Flycatcher (most certainly of the western North American breeding population, not even described as a subspecies yet), a pair of Rose-throated Becards, our best views of the monotypic family Olive Warbler, and Hepatic Tanager. A nice bonus was a pair of Red Crossbills, recordings of which confirmed them to be the newly designated Type 11. Lunch was at the welcoming Rancho Pitaya B & B and horse ranch, where Dusky Hummingbirds fought with Berylline over the feeders, and a Virginia’s Warbler was new for the trip list. Half the group was game for a picnic dinner back up at La Cumbre, and within a short time we were looking at a very handsome Fulvous Owl, later also hearing its mate in the distance. A Flammulated Owl gave a couple of scold calls, though we never knew if it came in closer, and the local form of Whiskered Screech-Owl never did emerge from its dense thicket, calling quietly but persistently.

The birding on our drive to Tuxtepec started with breakfast at the Rio Grande where a Canyon Wren was declared the highlight. A very busy sunny slope was great for warblers, Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, and a Happy Wren, while a stop a few kilometers away resulted in yet another Happy Wren so that everyone had good views. The crystal-clear skies and overly sunny cloud forest wasn’t great for bird activity as we descended the gulf slope of the Sierra de Juárez, but we had excellent views of a pair of White-naped Brushfinches, a few Blue-crowned Chlorophonias, and a Northern Emerald-Toucanet during the stops we made after lunch. The plant life then took center stage as we marveled at the tree ferns and puzzled over a very strange flower that turns out to be the very local, bat-pollinated Marcgravia stonei.

The Guadalupe Trail was passable for the first time in a few years, not slippery from rain nor busy with hule (natural rubber) farmers packing out their crop, and with a fair bit of luck we were able to connect with a Sumichrast’s Wren that came in for wonderful views, perhaps only the second time ever on any WINGS tour. Spot-breasted Wren, Crimson-collared Tanager, and Least Flycatcher were other favorite birds from this morning’s outing as we admired the giant cycad Dioon spinulosum trees. On the way back to town we stopped by the roadside for a pair of Aplomado Falcons flying over the vast sugar cane fields. The afternoon highlight was undoubtedly the Laughing Falcon perched by a farm, and two Yellow-breasted Chats and a Blue Bunting by the reservoir were also good additions to the bird list.

The birding on the drive back to Oaxaca City was dominated by the dawn activity right at our breakfast spot. A super purple Violet Sabrewing, several Wedge-tailed Sabrewings, the aforementioned Barred Antshrike, a very cooperative Collared Trogon, and a Streak-headed Woodcreeper (new to the master list) were some of the highlights from there. Not far up the road we managed to call in a scarce Central American Pygmy-Owl, had great views of a Tufted Flycatcher, and just barely caught sight of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle before it soared up into the clouds. After that, birds seemed to go to bed for the day and we barely even heard one after about 11:00 a.m., other than a Common Raven at the summit Mirador.

Our final picnic breakfast in a very different biome – a giant cactus-dominated Tropical Deciduous Forest in the Tehuantepec drainage– resulted in a pile of new birds for the list. A surprisingly large number of Streak-backed Orioles, White-lored Gnatcatchers, White-throated Magpie-Jays, the single Russet-crowned Motmot, Golden Vireo, and a bold Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl were the exciting highlights from there. At the Ocotopec microwave station road bird activity wasn’t high, but an Ocellated Thrasher nevertheless responded and amazingly perched up at quite close range for extended spotting scope views. We did run into a small mixed flock here, getting at least brief views of a Slaty Vireo before having lunch and a short mezcal tour (and tasting) at Rancho Zapata. Mitla ruins and the nearby market were worth the short visit, and a final birding stop at the lovely Yagul ruins finally added Boucard’s Wren to the trip list, though Beautiful Hummingbird was nowhere to be found this year. A farewell dinner at La Quince Letras (count the 15 letters in the name!) was a superb way to end the tour with some of the best food Oaxaca has to offer.

-        Rich Hoyer

Created: 25 January 2019