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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: Oaxaca at Christmastime

2016 Narrative

The highlights from this year’s Oaxaca at Christmastime tour included a fun an interesting group of participants enjoying a rich mix of birding and some of the most delightful cultural festivities and sights anywhere in Latin America. Despite most days’ birding being finished by lunch, our afternoons were still full with activities, and we topped 270 species seen in just eight days (with several more heard only). By far the tour favorite experience was our replete picnic dinner on Christmas day in the lovely pine-oak woodlands at Cerro San Felipe (aka La Cumbre Ixtepeji) in the Sierra Aloapaneca, which was followed by a surprisingly quick response from a pair of Fulvous Owls, one of which perched on the very tip of a roadside pine tree where we had several moments to enjoy this ghostly apparition. It was a magical evening. Red Warblers, Mexican Chickadees, Dwarf Jays, and Mountain Trogons were other bird highlights from the highlands, while the drier foothills and the valley closer to Oaxaca City provided memorable sightings of the beautiful Bridled Sparrow, abundant and stunning Vermilion Flycatchers, a hard-earned Ocellated Thrasher, and an angelic White-tailed Kite with the sun shining through its tail. Despite being only three of our eight days, the side trip to Tuxtepec provided more than half of our favorite birds. In the higher elevations a Louisiana Waterthrush was uncommonly cooperative at our first picnic breakfast, while roadside stops yielded constant yet adored Wilson’s Warblers and Common Chlorospinguses. A few Emerald-chinned Hummingbirds showed well, including one stunning male, while a brief yet unforgettable (and nearly unbelievable) moment was provided by an Ornate Hawk-Eagle at an unusually high elevation as it flew over a gap in the forest over the road at the very moment everyone was already looking in that direction. In the lowlands near Tuxtepec we were treated to an on-cue Keel-billed Toucan, wintering Painted Buntings, charming Band-backed Wrens, a lovely Golden-olive Woodpecker, several American Redstarts of all plumage types, and a sparkling Canivet’s Emerald. Somehow we managed to mix in a visit to the incredible radish display contest on its 119th anniversary, shopping downtown and at various markets, a wool-dyeing and weaving demonstration, four different fine restaurants in the city, as well as visits to three different Zapotec ruins, making for the perfect holiday vacation.

Our first full morning of birding at Monte Albán started along the road where Berylline, Dusky, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fed from the abundantly flowering Tree Morning-glories. Birds mostly stayed quiet in the shady hillside, but we did hear chortles from a distant Blue Mockingbird, were teased by a Nutting’s Flycatcher, and heard the loud chips of a reluctant MacGillivray’s Warbler. Somehow we managed to coax an Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush out into the open, and were shocked when a lone West Mexican Chachalaca flew in several times in response to playback. Bird activity bloomed at the edge of the ruins where the sun lit up a Vermilion Flycatcher, a Black-vented Oriole, and Western and Summer Tanagers before we had a more quiet time walking through the fascinating ruins. Mexican Silverspots, Mexican Yellows, and a Mexican Checkerspot were all aptly named butterflies that flitted amongst the ruins, and a Rock Wren was equally appropriately placed. We also birded the hotel grounds in an effort to boost the Christmas Bird Count’s list, where we had Tufted Flycatcher, Greater Pewee, several Clay-colored Thrushes, and a furtive but definitely seen Blue Mockingbird. Later that afternoon we were entertained by the crowds even as we stood in line for the radish, corn husk, and straw flower displays, and we all agreed it was worth the wait for such a unique event.

Our two mornings up at La Cumbre Ixtepeji couldn’t have offered a stronger contrast, which was especially obvious when we were able to look down at the Monte Albán ruins through the spotting scope at breakfast on our second visit – it was 13.8 miles away and 2890 feet lower in elevation. We were very lucky with the weather too – calm and sunny, though that did mean birds were quieter than usual. We started our first visit with a Northern Pygmy-Owl tooting, even before we had started breakfast, and before long we were looking at this tiny yet fierce predator amidst the mosses and lichens in the oak trees overhead. We later heard another and on our second visit saw yet a third one. Flowers were more abundant this year than normal, and that meant an abundance of hummingbirds, including displaying Mexican Violetears (recently split from Green Violetear), many White-eared Hummingbirds, two Magnificents feeding from a giant thistle, and a lucky find of a Bumblebee Hummingbird. We never did bump into a huge mixed flock of warblers, but we eked out nearly everything in smaller flocks, with everyone eventually getting great views of Red Warbler, Crescent-chested Warbler, and Mexican Chickadee in them. A “big bird” mixed flock eventually produced many Gray-barred Wrens and superb looks at very close and nearly silent Dwarf Jays mixed with them. We had ok views of a Mountain Trogon on our first visit, followed by better views of a gorgeous bird on our second. Gray Silky-flycatchers were evident on both visits, but we finally caught up with cooperative birds sitting still on the second day. That same day we spent ages trying to see a singing Collared Towhee, which eventually sat out in the open as if it had never been shy, and our last bit of birding yielded some cooperative Rufous-capped Brushfinches and a memorable sight of two Black-headed Grosbeaks and Steller’s Jay sitting still together in a small, dense tree right next to the road. Our memorable lunch at Carmen’s Restaurante Colibrí was topped by delicious Oaxaca hot chocolate.

Our early morning at Presa Piedra Azul was very busy, and this year’s unusual duck came in the form of two female Hooded Mergansers, for the second Oaxaca record and one of the most southerly ever for the species. American Pipits, three Green Herons, an ornately patterned Wilson’s Snipe, and an immature Little Blue Heron were among the other highlights before we worked the drier habitats upslope. First finding Boucard’s Wrens, we moved to the lower mountain slopes where we nailed a Dwarf Vireo (really hard in winter), glimpsed a Slate-throated Redstart, scored huge on Oaxaca Sparrows (also really hard in winter), and enjoyed a gorgeous Bridled Sparrow. Higher up we had another experience with many hummingbirds, and a canopy flock included a mostly uncooperative Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo that everyone eventually saw. We finished the day with a delightful experience at a weaving cooperative, learning about natural dyes and the family tradition of weaving of rugs and honed our bargaining skills. Most of us came away with some killer deals and beautiful weavings.

The highlights of the side trip to Tuxtepec began with a Louisiana Waterthrush that responded uncommonly well to playback and a Belted Kingfisher perched on a rock berm above the Rio Grande. A Blue Mockingbird showed quite well before we moved up the road to find a huge flock of sparrows, buntings, tanagers, and grosbeaks, among which was a furtive Oaxaca Sparrow and a distant singing Happy Wren. As we drove over the Sierra de Juárez, weather quickly deteriorated, meaning we made good progress with no stops possible, other than a quick potty stop in a drenching drizzle. Miraculously the weather let up exactly as we arrived at the intended lunch stop halfway down the Gulf of Mexico slope, and birds began to happen. Common Chlorospinguses flocked with a Blue-headed Vireo, while an immense group of Black-faced Grosbeaks appeared out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly, joined by Rose-throated Becard and a briefly seen Green Shrike-Vireo. Further stops down the road resulted in Spotted Woodcreeper, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Green Jay, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird (showing the pink throat!), and White-bellied Emerald. We had to stop for an enchanting performance of Vaux’s Swifts cruising over a low ridge as well as for gorgeous Northern Green Longwings nectaring on a nearly tree-sized Poinsettia in a front yard.

On our full day out of Tuxtepec we weren’t yet to our breakfast spot, having passed through a dawn explosion of hundreds of Great-tailed Grackles, when a roadside flock of buntings, seedeaters, and grosbeaks caused us to stop and do a double-take – Tricolored Munias were mixed in, a new Mexico bird for Rich and only just recently documented for the first time Oaxaca; they seem to be spreading rapidly from an introduced population. We had to make one more stop for Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Northern Jacanas, and a Ringed Kingfisher before discovering that natural rubber harvesters had co-opted our picnic breakfast spot in order to load their harvest into trucks. No matter, we moved on and found a good spot to have our repast, across from which we found a responsive pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls and several neotropical migrants. Down the street we coaxed a Rufous-breasted Spinetail into view and added more warblers including lovely American Redstarts to the day’s list. We found a nice side road to walk on, where a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat popped up in a field alongside Lincoln’s Sparrows and yet another gorgeous Vermilion Flycatcher. At the end of our morning walk we came across a burst of tropical bird activity, first starting with a Black-crowned Tityra, then a pair of Squirrel Cuckoos, then a pair of Golden-olive Woodpeckers, then Collared Aracaris, to mention just a few. On our way back to the hotel for lunch we made an abrupt stop for a roadside Limpkin huddling in a small tree over a shaded ditch as well as a brief stop for a cooperative White-throated Flycatcher, where we also heard well and glimpsed a Ruddy Crake. In the afternoon we spied a Keel-billed Toucan in a fruiting Cecropia tree almost as if on cue, had all three saltators in the morning glory thickets, an extremely orange Altamira Oriole, and a few gorgeous Painted Buntings. A big surprise was a vagrant Palm Warbler that flew in close in response to pishing. Seeing Spot-breasted Wrens took a lot of work as we saw Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and many wintering passerines from the north. An immature Gray Hawk perched by the roadside was well spotted as we drove to the Cerro de Oro reservoir, where a flock of about 1200 Lesser Scaup, along with a few Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, and American White Pelicans made their way to our already huge day list.

The best bird on our return trip to Oaxaca City was not more than 15 minutes into the drive when we spotted a Striped Owl on the powerline by the Pemex Station where one has been seen hunting the edge of a sugar cane field from time to time over the past 30 years. We made a brief pause for a surprise Bat Falcon before our breakfast stop, above which we had better views of Black-faced Grosbeaks as well as the same flock of Vaux’s Swifts from two days earlier. Higher up we got good views of Unicolored Jays (but only heard the Azure-hooded which we had glimpsed before), and saw several White-naped Brushfinches, a couple Black-throated Green Warblers, and many Wilson’s Warblers. We made more stops in the higher elevations as the weather continued to stay nice (though quite cool in the shade), and Golden-browed Warbler, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, and Emerald-chinned Hummingbird were some of the more memorable finds. While not seeing the Bumblebee Hummingbirds that were singing just out of sight, we found a couple of nice blooming orchids, later identified as Stelis platystylis and Maxillaria cucullata. Topping off the day’s birding was the Ornate Hawk-Eagle flying so low we could see the fine details of the barring on the breast and flanks, the rufous sides to the head and neck, and the long black whisker framing the white throat. On one last pit stop back to Oaxaca we had a moment of tropical natural history with some leafcutter ants (genus Atta) carrying bits and pieces of plants, notably purple flower petals from Wigandia urens.

We began our last day’s birding in a totally different surrounding just a few kilometers over a low pass into the Tehuantepec watershed, an area famous among cactophiles for having the greatest diversity of giant columnar cactus species in the world. Some were in bloom, as were the showy trees Ceiba aesculifolia in the bombax family, which attracted several hummingbirds, namely the first Plain-capped Starthroats ever on this tour. Three White-throated Magpie-Jays were also another write-in, and Elegant Trogon and Pileated Flycatcher were also good finds not seen on every tour. Though more common, super confiding White-lored Gnatcatchers and stunning Bridled Sparrows were chosen as favorites for the day for obvious reasons. We finished the morning’s birding with essentially a vigil for Ocellated Thrasher, and our patience paid off as one eventually increased its song volume enough for us to locate it on the far hillside for extended scope views. In the meantime we entertained ourselves with lovely Rufous-capped Warblers and a Slaty Vireo that only a few of us saw. After a mezcal demonstration and tasting at our lunch stop, we visited the small but fascinating Mitla ruins and the busy textile and handicrafts market, followed by the ruins of Yagul. Birds were quiet in the mid-afternoon, but we still added Common Ground-Dove the tour list, had only our second view of Boucard’s Wren, finally saw the stunning males of the local subspecies of House Finch, and watched a magnificent White-tailed Hawk soaring over the cactus-clad limestone cliffs above the ruins. The final stop was the ancient and unbelievably huge Taxodium mucronatum in front of the Tule church, but to cap it all off was a fabulous meal at Los Danzantes where we relived the precious moments of this fun tour.

 - Rich Hoyer

Created: 10 January 2017