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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: Oaxaca and Western Chiapas

2022 Narrative

In Brief: Our tour of Oaxaca and western Chiapas is designed to sample a variety of habitats across the isthmus and search for many of the specialty birds of the region. Beginning in Tuxtla Gutierrez, our birding ranged from the bamboo-choked woodland at Sumidero Canyon to the high-elevation pine-oak forests of San Cristobal to the humid rainforest at El Ocote, with birds like Belted Flycatcher, Pink-headed Warbler, and Nava’s Wren keeping us duly entertained. From Tuxtla, we descended to the Pacific slope, through gorgeous Rosita’s Buntings (and bonus Great Swallow-tailed Swift!) to conspicuous Giant Wrens and Spot-breasted Orioles. Heading across the isthmus of Tehuantepec, habitats and birdlife changed dramatically. We appreciated amazing views of most of the Oaxaca specialties, including multiple Slaty Vireos, a pair of stunning Ocellated Thrashers, many Boucard’s Wrens, and Dwarf Jay, and Bridled Sparrow… Add to these great birds an easygoing group, only minor logistical hiccups, and great food, and it’s easy to see why this tour deserves its popularity. I’m excited to come back in 2024!

In Detail: Our tour through southern Mexico began, as usual, in the bustling city of Tuxtla Gutierrez. From here, we had ample opportunity to survey the wide range of nearby habitats over the coming days. Starting at the incredibly scenic Sumidero Canyon, we got accustomed to the conspicuous White-throated Magpie-Jays, savored a Russet-crowned Motmot in the scope, and puzzled over Myiarchus flycatchers including a very confiding Nutting’s along with Ash-throated, Brown-crested, and Dusky-capped. We enjoyed a delightful picnic breakfast off on a side track, followed by some frustrating moments with heard-only Belted Flycatchers and the briefest glimpses of a Blue-and-white Mockingbird.  

Birding at Sumidero can be quiet, and it takes some time to pull out the real prizes. We worked our way up to the next overlook, La Coyota, and spent some time tracking down a Belted Flycatcher…finally, peering through the dense bamboo, everyone could appreciate the tawny wingbars, spiky crest, and orange breast! Awesome. On our way back to the bus, our friend and local guide extraordinaire Alberto had found a Middle American Screech-Owl roosting deep in the thicket…wow! A great way to wrap up our first morning.

The afternoon was spent at the famous Tuxtla zoo, which we visit primarily to gawk at the semi-wild (?!) Great Curassows and Crested Guans, along with throngs of Plain Chachalacas, and Green Jays, and more Russet-crowned Motmots, and Louisiana Waterthrush…all quite accustomed to people. Most entertaining was perhaps the giant antswarm, and although there weren’t a ton of attendant birds, it was fun to watch the party of Groove-billed Anis and an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper up close.

Due to some demonstrations and roadblocks, we changed our normal plan and went to Sumidero again the next morning, this time starting on the higher stretches of road. The weather was downright unpleasant when we arrived, with dense fog, whipping wind, and intermittent drizzle. And it was cold! But, as we walked along, the clouds lifted slightly and we realized that this weather might be just about perfect. Throughout the morning, we racked up a whole suite of amazing birds: a beautiful male Bar-winged Oriole (seemingly traveling with a flock of Black-headed Saltators) stole the show, with a supporting cast of Yellow Grosbeak, Northern Emerald-Toucanet, Lesson’s Motmot, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (seen!), Slender Sheartail, Long-billed Starthroat, and Canivet’s Emerald…we won’t mention the Red-breasted Chat that was calling its head off, unseen, for a very frustrating fifteen minutes…

After a picnic lunch overlooking the canyon and a siesta back at the hotel, we ventured to El Ocote in the afternoon, hoping to connect with a very special range-restricted bird, Nava’s Wren. Well, the weather didn’t look too promising…still cold, windy, and foggy. Nevertheless, we persevered, and were rewarded with absolutely spectacular views of a Nava’s Wren bouncing around on the limestone just a few meters in front of us! And then singing almost too loudly! Thank goodness, too, or else the hour-and-a-half delay on the drive back to Tuxtla (due to a collision on the highway) would have been much more painful.

Changing gears, the next day was spent exploring the cool pine forests around the town of San Cristobal, about an hour east of Tuxtla. A new reserve just outside town provides habitat for the much-desired Pink-headed Warbler, and we were glad to score great views of this little stunner after some huffing-and-puffing uphill. There are plenty of other great birds here that we don’t see elsewhere on the tour, including Rufous-collared Thrush, Garnet-throated Hummingbird, Strong-billed Woodcreeper (the Central American one, sounding very different from Sclater’s which we saw later in Oaxaca), Unicolored Jay, Blue-throated Motmot (briefly, ugh!), Black-capped Swallow, and Rufous-browed Wren. Other nice highland species included eye-level Olive Warbler, our first Golden-browed Warblers, Steller’s Jays, Rufous-collared Sparrows…and…a flyover Brown Pelican?! Certainly the most unexpected bird of the day!

We departed from Tuxtla the next morning and headed to our next base, Arriaga, via some productive morning birding again at El Ocote. We started with a bang, hopping off the bus to find a low Green Shrike-Vireo in an open roadside tree. That doesn’t happen every day! The hits kept coming, with a visual Spot-breasted Wren (finally), gorgeous Barred Antshrikes, Red-throated and Red-crowned Ant-tanagers, a ridiculous White Hawk, Rusty Sparrow, good studies of white-bellied and brown-bellied Brown Jays, Collared Trogon, best-view-ever of Bright-rumped Attila, a brief Black Hawk-Eagle, heard-only Pheasant Cuckoo, White-crowed Parrot perched in the sun, and even a Long-tailed Sabrewing on a nest! Again, the weather was perfect, and our full morning here was excellent.  

After a picnic lunch, it was time to continue to Arriaga, where our impromptu stop at the mirador produced a surprise Great Swallow-tailed Swift (!) and a much-wanted female Red-breasted Chat, along with our first Green-fronted Hummingbird. Dropping down further into the foothills, we continued our successful run with one of the best birds of the tour: Rosita’s Bunting! Adult males, young males, and females came in to our pishing and squeaking, providing multiple views of this indescribable beauty. To top it all off, another quick stop (under a magnificent Guanacaste tree) produced Orange-breasted and Painted Buntings perched together in a small bare tree, with a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher perched right on top for good measure. Phew…it was a whirlwind day, with too many highlights to choose from.

The next two days saw us birding in the coastal lowlands around Puerto Arista and El Paredon, which held a whole new suite of birds. Our list was padded with some waterbirds including lots of Magnificent Frigatebirds, Wood Storks, White Ibis, Green, Belted, and Ringed Kingfishers, Anhingas, and even a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. The main target in this area is the impressive Giant Wren, which proved quite easy and cooperative, bouncing around the bushes and trees. We even found a pair building a nest! The supporting cast was just as fun, with loads of Western Kingbirds, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Barn, Cliff, and Cave Swallows migrating overhead, hundreds of Swainson’s Hawks and Turkey Vultures, a distant White-bellied Chachalaca, and vibrant Spot-breasted Orioles. We even connected with the should-be-split Ridgway’s Flycatcher, which sounds completely different from the other Nutting’s, and some weird hybrid-looking mockingbirds.

A long afternoon drive brought us to Tehuantepec, where we enjoyed an evening of owling in the dry thorn scrub. The most cooperative Buff-collared Nightjar in the history of the planet was certainly the highlight, but Collared Forest-Falcon and Mottled Owl weren’t ignored, and it was a relief to see Cinnamon-tailed (Sumichrast’s) Sparrow in the evening to save us some pressure the next morning. Speaking of the next morning, with some potential road blocks between Tehuantepec and Oaxaca, we got an earlier start than usual. No worries, however, and some random roadside birding was super productive…the recently-split (officially) Turquoise-crowned Hummingbird was appreciated along with several Plain-capped Starthroats buzzing around at arm’s length! Plus over a dozen eyeball-melting Orange-breasted Buntings, and “real” Nutting’s Flycatcher, and Rufous-naped (or Sclater’s) Wrens.

Into the real Oaxaca Valley, where lunch at Rancho Zapata gave us our first taste of the new suite of birds: Boucard’s Wrens bouncing around while we learned how to make mezcal, and Gray-breasted Woodpeckers noisily flying around the cactus. A quick stop at the Teotitlan reservoir in the wind was good for Rock Wrens and a whole bunch of Least Grebes, but the wind drove us away with time to rest and gear up for the next three days of birding.

The road up Cerro San Felipe was our first port of call, starting in the oak scrub and ending in cool pine forests at over 9,000 feet. As the sun hit the lower slopes, the birds came fast and furious…Black-vented Orioles on the ridge! Elegant Euphonias in the flowering tree! Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush behind the house! Blue Mockingbird in the open! Gray Silkies everywhere! And even a Slaty Vireo flitting around the shrubs. Phew! From here we moved slightly higher, where Oaxaca Sparrow performed better than ever (sitting atop a tree, singing its heart out for ten minutes!), although the “Oaxaca” Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were perhaps of less interest…

…but up into the pines, our first Red Warbler was duly savored, followed by at least fifteen more in just a couple hours. And Collared Towhees, Golden-browed Warblers, Gray-barred Wrens, Mexican Chickadees, Bushtits…a whirlwind of birds. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch nearby (with Blue-throated Mountain-gem at the feeders) before continuing birding at another nearby road, where we were stunned by a singing Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo in the scope for as long as we desired.

The next day was spent at lower elevations, starting at Yagul with more Boucard’s Wrens, Curve-billed Thrashers, Rufous-backed Thrushes, and eventually great views of Beautiful Hummingbird for everyone! A Pileated Flycatcher played hard-to-get for a while, before foraging naturally below eye-level for several minutes. Continuing further south, we connected with the much-desired Ocellated Thrasher and saw another Slaty Vireo, but Dwarf Vireo stayed mostly hidden while singing in the dense oak scrub.

After a visit to the Tule tree (the stoutest tree in the world!) and a nice siesta, we ventured up yet again into the pine forests for a picnic dinner and some owling. Conditions were great: it was remarkably still, and we could hear for what seemed like miles. And hear we did! Fulvous Owls duetting, Mexican Whip-poor-wills singing all around at dusk, and even a Northern Saw-whet Owl tooting away from the pines straight overhead…all remaining invisible, only treats for our ears.

Our final day was spent north of Oaxaca city, covering a long stretch of habitat from oak scrub to pines again. We started with large numbers of Cassin’s Kingbirds leaving their roost, along with a few Thick-billed Kingbirds, Western Tanagers, and even Black-vented Orioles. We then worked our way uphill, with Sumichrast’s Scrub Jay, even more Slaty Vireos (!), and the most hyperactive Bridled Titmice I’ve ever seen! Up in the pine forest, we hit a stroke of great luck with two of our main targets, Sclater’s (Strong-billed) Woodcreeper and Dwarf Jay appearing at the same time. Phew! After soaking in prolonged views of both of those, we could relax a bit and enjoy repeats of the many great birds up here…Crescent-chested, Golden-browed, Red, Olive, and Hermit Warblers, Slate-throated Whitestart, White-eared Hummingbird, and more. Not bad for a final day in Oaxaca!

All too soon, it was time to head back to the hotel for our Covid tests and a final delicious dinner (mmm, mole). Thank you, everyone, for such a wonderful tour full of great birds, food, scenery, and camaraderie! Until next time…

- Luke Seitz


Created: 04 April 2022