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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: Oaxaca and Western Chiapas

2019 Narrative

In Brief: Our tour of Oaxaca and western Chiapas is designed to sample a variety of habitats and 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, Garnet-throated Hummingbird, and Nava’s Wren keeping us duly entertained. From Tuxtla, we descended to the Pacific slope, through throngs of Rosita’s Buntings (so bright you might need sunglasses!) to conspicuous Giant Wrens and White-bellied Chachalacas. Heading across the isthmus of Tehuantepec, habitats and birdlife changed dramatically. Our final few days in the Oaxaca Valley gave us a whole new suite of exciting sightings – we cleaned up nearly all of the desired species, with the unique Slaty Vireo, flashy Red Warbler, mega Fulvous Owl, and sneaky Ocellated Thrasher topping the list…among many, many others! Add to these great birds an easygoing group, no logistical hiccups, and great food, and it’s easy to see why this tour deserves its popularity. I’m excited to come back next year!

In Detail: Our tour started in the bustling city of Tuxtla Gutierrez, a strategic base for birding day trips to various distinct habitats within relatively short driving distance. We visited Sumidero Canyon first, a beautiful and strange location with a unique mix of birds. Working our way upslope, we enjoyed scope views of things like Plain-capped Starthroat, Russet-crowned Motmot, and White-throated Magpie-Jay along with wintering Black-and-white, Black-throated Green, and Magnolia Warblers. The weather wasn’t the greatest, which was probably a contributing factor to the overall quietness of the morning – Belted Flycatcher remained heard-only, and we didn’t come upon any big mixed flocks. After lunch in town, we had a siesta and then headed to the Tuxtla zoo for a couple hours in the afternoon, with its semi-wild (?) Great Curassows and Crested Guans wandering around at our feet, along with tons of Plain Chachalacas, a wintering Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and repeat views of Streak-backed Orioles.

An early departure the next morning brought us to the town of San Cristobal, the best area within striking distance for various highland specialties found only from Chiapas to Honduras. Terrible weather again made for some difficult birding, but we were thrilled with stunning views of Black-throated Jay to start things off, along with a stunning male Garnet-throated Hummingbird, some sneaky Rufous-browed Wrens, tons of Rufous-collared Robins, Gray Silkies, Crescent-chested and Golden-browed Warblers, and a rare Golden-cheeked Warbler – not a bad haul given the dense fog and persistent drizzle! We descended back into town for lunch and continued birding at some nearby reserves, where the weather was somewhat improved and birds were more active. Amethyst-throated Hummingbird was appreciated at length in the scope, and Blue-and-white Mockingbird finally gave some quick glimpses. Some big mixed flocks included Rose-throated Becards, Band-backed Wrens, tons of Rufous-collared Robins, Townsend’s Warblers, and Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers.

Back to Sumidero the next morning, this time starting higher up. The weather was – you guessed it – not great, but we persevered and scored mega views of the much-desired Belted Flycatcher along the road. Phew!  Conditions steadily improved through the morning, and we did well cleaning up a bunch of other nice birds, including a quick male Red-breasted Chat, a female Blue Bunting, scope views of a Collared Trogon (not really a Collared Trogon, if you’ve ever heard the ones further south!), plenty of Azure-crowned Hummingbirds, Couch’s Kingbird, lots of Green Jays, Spot-breasted and Banded Wrens, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Olive Sparrow, and at least one very sneaky Fan-tailed Warbler. Not bad! The fog lifted just enough at the upper overlook to give us great views of the canyon before we started heading back downslope for lunch and a siesta.

The afternoon was spent descending in elevation to the humid rainforest at El Ocote, where steady rain and dense fog prevented us from doing much birding – and much of what we did see (Black-faced Grosbeaks, White-winged Tanagers) were merely shapes that briefly materialized in the mist. We decided to cut our losses and head back to Tuxtla early for a nice dinner and somewhat earlier night!

The next morning at El Ocote was not much different – dense fog, wind, and drizzle made birding a challenge. However, it was marginally better than the previous afternoon, and we ended up scoring some major highlights. A pair of Green Shrike-Vireos performed brilliantly at nearly eye-level (when does this ever happen?!), and a Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet did the same. A Long-tailed Sabrewing sang just deep enough in a thicket to avoid visual detection, and we enjoyed the stunning song of Slate-colored Solitaire ringing through the misty forest. Our main target here, Nava’s Wren, was very difficult to locate but eventually scampered atop a fallen log for a few brief seconds. Green-backed Sparrows performed well, and flocks of migrants abounded – including Worm-eating and Blue-winged Warblers among others. Eventually it was time to head towards Arriaga, with a picnic lunch stop on the way…complete with one of the highlights of the tour, the otherworldly Rosita’s Bunting giving perfect views as usual!

From our base in Arriaga we headed to the coastal lowlands around Puerto Arista, where a combination of migrants and regional specialties kept us busy. Overhead, a constant stream of Western Kingbirds and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers passed by, and closer to the ground we enjoyed several pairs of the near-endemic Giant Wren (barely occurring in Guatemala) and other treats like Painted Bunting and Cinnamon Hummingbird. A fruiting tree gave us a whole suite of perplexing Myiarchus flycatchers, thankfully all vocalizing eventually: Ash-throated, Brown-crested, and Ridgway’s (a split from Nutting’s). The nearby lagoons were fairly quiet, although we padded the list with some coastal species like Whimbrel, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, and Reddish Egret. 

As the heat of the day really set in, we enjoyed a lunch overlooking the Pacific before heading back to the hotel for a siesta. Afternoon birding saw us again up in the foothills above Arriaga, this time focusing on Green-fronted Hummingbird. We nearly had to kick all the Rosita’s Buntings out of the way (a “problem” I’m definitely okay having), and eventually had stunning views of at least three Green-fronted Hummingbirds feeding in a flowering bush within spitting distance. Success!

With most of the local specialties cleaned up, the next morning was spent enjoying some relaxed birding again near Puerto Arista before heading west towards Tehuantepec. We stationed ourselves on a bridge and watched the morning flights of various waterbirds, including Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibis, and plenty of Neotropic Cormorants, all while keeping an eye on the nearby scrub where Citreoline Trogons and Streak-backed Orioles performed nicely. Spot-breasted Orioles were not quite so cooperative, seemingly flying away whenever I put the scope on one, but most of the group got on one eventually. On a whim, we decided to try the road to El Paredon on the way back to the hotel for the increasing-but-hard-to-nail-down White-bellied Chachalaca, which took all of five minutes to show up – excellent. A little bit further down the road, the Double-striped Thick-knees were just where we left them during scouting, a fitting way to end another active morning of birding.

After the long drive to Tehuantepec through the sea of wind turbines, we checked in to our hotel for a siesta before heading out for some evening birding. It was quiet, as usual in the afternoons here, but we managed to see the important Sumichrast’s (Cinnamon-tailed) Sparrow and a Collared Forest-Falcon perched high up on the hillside. As dusk fell, Buff-collared Nightjars started to sing, and a pair of Mottled Owls showed extremely well in the spotlight – awesome – but their noisy persistence did not bode well for seeing the smaller owls (Pacific Screech and Colima Pygmy) calling nearby!

The weather around Tehuantepec is hot and humid, giving us only a few hours of enjoyable early-morning birding before heading to Oaxaca. We took full advantage of these precious few hours, spending time wandering some dirt tracks through the scrubby thorn forest. Sumichrast’s Sparrow again showed very well, as did Doubleday’s (Broad-billed) Hummingbird – two of the major targets in this zone. Myiarchus flycatchers were plentiful, mostly Ash-throated but also Nutting’s (real Nutting’s this time, with a different voice than the Ridgway’s from a couple days ago) and Brown-crested.  Orange-breasted Buntings were delightfully common, including several stunning males, and we enjoyed a nice male Long-crested (Northern) Cardinal.

Before long, it was time to head towards Oaxaca, with a few stops on the way for some new birds – Bridled Sparrow, Gray-breasted Woodpecker, and Dusky Hummingbird gave us a taste of the days to come. We broke up the drive with a leisurely lunch at Rancho Zapata before arriving at our hotel with some time to settle in before dinner.

Based in Oaxaca, we spent three full days exploring the surrounding habitats and trying to nail down as many local specialties as possible. We started working our way up to the pine forests of La Cumbre, from Oaxaca Sparrow and Dwarf Vireo to Red Warbler and Mountain Trogon. A pair of Collared Towhees performed extremely well, and we enjoyed a Black Thrush in the scope. A lunch break at a little restaurant along the main road proved quite productive – Blue-throated Hummingbirds visited the feeders while Gray Silkies and Russet Nightingale-Thrushes fed from a fruiting bush just below the veranda. A Dickey’s (Audubon’s) Oriole showed off and two Red Crossbills flew in and perched atop a pine. Not a bad haul for a lunch stop! The weather was quite nice so we continued birding into the afternoon, and although Dwarf Jays were still being elusive, we had decent views of Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, plenty of Gray-barred Wrens, and a few White-throated Thrushes.

Our second Oaxaca day began along the entrance road to Yagul, where we enjoyed great views of Gray-breasted Woodpecker, Bridled Sparrow, and Boucard’s Wren. Our primary target, Pileated Flycatcher, eventually perched up and sang – completing the genus (Xenotriccus) along with Belted Flycatcher from earlier in the tour. A Blue Mockingbird performed unusually well, perching in clear view atop a little shrub – wow! There were birds everywhere – Cassin’s Kingbirds, Cinnamon-rumped Seedeaters, Rufous-backed Robins, White-throated Towhees – but we eventually had to pull ourselves away and head to our next destination. This little dirt road is in great oak-scrub habitat, and provided us with the much-desired Slaty Vireo, although they were extremely tricky to see! Another Dwarf Vireo flitted around the roadside scrub, Rufous-crowned Sparrows came in nicely, and Painted Redstarts worked the taller oaks in the valley. The hoped-for Ocellated Thrashers weren’t playing, so we headed back towards the hotel for lunch, with a quick stop at the Teotitlan reservoir on the way (with tons of Least Grebes, Least Sandpipers, and a brief American Pipit).

Our evening plan was to head back up to La Cumbre for a picnic dinner followed by owling. At first, this plan seemed close to failure…as we waited for dusk, there were almost no birds singing, and the Mexican Whip-poor-wills did not want to show themselves. Our first several attempts for Fulvous Owl were met with dead silence. Even the Whip-poor-wills had shut up; nothing else was calling. Finally, one more stop for Fulvous Owl, and boom…it started calling back, and a quick check with the spotlight found it perched totally in the open on a pine branch! Wow – a perfect view already, and then it flew towards us…closer…closer…landing in the closest tree RIGHT above our heads, only 30 feet away. Amazing! This was surely one of the highlights of the tour, and a good lesson that even though owling can often feel like a boring and pointless endeavor, the rewards can be spectacular…

Our last day of birding saw us on a long dirt road north of Oaxaca City. I had scouted this spot the week before the tour, and was impressed with the amount of habitat and diversity of birds on offer. Starting lower down, our primary target was Ocellated Thrasher, which eventually perched atop a distant ridge – not a stunning view, but you could make out the spotting if you squinted hard! Further up, a pair of Slaty Vireos gave very nice views – cleaned up for the whole group – and a Red-headed Tanager perched in the shrubs in perfect light. We worked our way up into the pine forest, hoping for the Dwarf Jays that had eluded us at La Cumbre. Combing through flocks of Gray-barred Wrens and Steller’s Jays, we finally found a flock with Dwarf Jays in it, much to everyone’s delight! During our picnic lunch, we decided on a whim to try for Sclater’s Woodcreeper (a painfully obvious split from Strong-billed Woodcreeper)…and magically a pair came right in, showing off in the open pine trees right around our van. Awesome!

Eventually we descended back to Oaxaca City for a farewell dinner at the hotel, full of stories and memories and photos from a great tour. Despite challenging weather for the first couple days, we ended up with an excellent highlight reel and a great finale in the Oaxaca Valley. Thanks to everyone for making the tour fun and easygoing – until next time!

   -    Luke Seitz

Created: 10 May 2019