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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: San Blas - Mangroves and Forests

2023 Narrative

As always with our wonderful week in San Blas the birds kept us busy, but in a relaxed way based at a very comfortable hotel with excellent food and hospitality. From elusive rails and confiding pygmy-owls to cryptic potoos and stunning thrush-tanagers; from flashy endemic jays and majestic Military Macaws to elegant Elegant Quail and sought-after woodpeckers; from poetry and sun-downer beers to large crocodiles and colorful butterflies in tropical green forest; and from an oh-so-slow Lesser Ground-Cuckoo and the clamor of nesting Wood Storks to the sounds of the forest and the surf, it was a very special week and a great group of folks to be with, away from the madness of the so-called ‘developed’ world. The weather was hotter than usual, which made siestas a fine idea. The great range of habitats, from mangrove tunnel boat rides and cool pine-oak forest to deserted sandy beaches and shade-coffee plantations, produced around 250 species in a week of birding, but all too soon it was over.

Everyone arrived safely into lovely warm weather, and the early arrivals had time the first afternoon for a little ‘pre-tour’ birding near the hotel, and an early appreciation for just how birdy this part of the world is in winter. ‘Bonus birds’ included Zone-tailed Hawk, Roseate Spoonbill, Russet-crowned Motmot, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Elegant Quail, and the much-desired Golden-cheeked Woodpecker. After the intro meeting and dinner we all retired for a good sleep. The next day was a travel day, but with some early morning birding near Puerto Vallarta before making the drive to San Blas. Morning highlights included San Blas Jays, walk-away showy Painted Buntings, a selection of waterbirds, and of course the dumpster dogs and vocalizing Black Vultures. After brunch we headed to San Blas, with stops for some tasty local fruit and a lovely Laughing Falcon. After checking in at our home for the next week we headed to the fort overlooking town for some birding, history, poetry, a cold drink, and a very fine green-flash sunset, along with more birds—where else can one find Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Magnificent Frigatebird, and Kentucky Warbler without moving from one spot?

Our first morning in San Blas we simply walked from our rooms to areas around town. The great variety of birds was heralded by the cryptic Ruddy-breasted Seedeater and hundreds of Sinaloa Crows, followed by a selection ranging from Brown-headed Cowbird and Russet-crowned Motmot to a family of Crane Hawks and the stunning Rosy Thrush-Tanager—no longer a tanager, but now in its own family. Also notable were Black-throated Magpie-Jays, a very obliging Happy Wren, brilliant Vermilion Flycatchers, flashy Northern Jacanas, and superb views of Spotted Rail. After lunch and a siesta we took a fantastic boat ride along the Río San Cristobal and then through mangrove tunnels (quite an experience at night) to La Tovara, staying out in search of the bizarre Northern Potoo—of which we had fabulous views. Birding from a boat is fun and relaxing, and the many highlights included the bizarre Boat-billed Heron (at point-blank range), a handsome Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, and even a Mangrove Cuckoo. The next morning we traveled inland a few miles to the village of Singayta and a pleasant walk along shady forest edge. We started well, with a good flight of White-fronted Parrots as the morning fog cleared, followed by Muscovy Ducks, a pair of Collared Forest Falcons book-ended on a palm frond, a stunning male Elegant Quail, and a good selection of sundry other species including Pale-billed Woodpecker, Squirrel Cuckoo, and, with much work, the elusive Fan-tailed Warbler. After lunch and a siesta we took a ferry over to Peso Island, with a long open beach, a chance to seek seashells and dip toes in the Pacific Ocean. Birds ranged ranging from American Oystercatcher to Black-capped Gnatcatcher, plus a pond alive with bathing warblers, and—with perfect timing—handsome Purplish-backed Jays, followed by great views of a Mottled Owl and another fine dinner.

An early start the next day saw us on the lower slopes of Cerro de San Juan, in pine-oak forests with very different birds from San Blas. It was a day full of numerous good birds amid beautiful forest, starting with a group of Black-throated Magpie-Jays, the songs of Brown-backed Solitaires, a trio of Rose-breasted, Black-headed, and Yellow Grosbeaks in the same tree (!), and perky Rufous-capped Warblers. Other highlights included flashy Red-headed Tanagers, and a nice selection of hummingbirds, including Berylline and White-eared (both rare in the US, but at home here in Mexico) and—finally—the very local Mexican Woodnymph. Our stop on the way home at Mirador del Aguila produced breath-taking views of Military Macaws glowing in the late afternoon sun. After a long day yesterday we took it easy with a relaxed morning boat trip up the Río San Cristobal to the Laguna de Pájaros, a winding river journey as we passed by sundry herons, egrets, and ibises, plus close-up Common Black Hawks and Snail Kites. The mangroves also held numerous warblers, including the dapper Mangrove Warbler, while other species included singing Bare-throated Tiger-Herons and nesting Wood Storks, plus superb views of the understated White-throated Flycatcher and—with patience rewarded—the elusive little Yellow-breasted Crake. After lunch and a siesta we birded in the shrimp ponds north of town, starting with a good selection of shorebirds, followed by Lilian’s (aka Chihuahuan) Meadowlarks, a swimming (!) close-range Sora, and ending with swarms of feeding Lesser Nighthawks.

Our last two days we visited two very different sites in the foothills. The first day we headed inland to some tropical deciduous forest, where things started slowly, but picked up with a fine Colima Pygmy-Owl, followed by amazing, road-crossing views of the pharaoh-faced Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, migrant Louisiana Waterthrush, and ending with walk-away views of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. In late afternoon we enjoyed an unhurried birding walk along Crocodile Road, where flocks of blackbirds entertained as a confiding Bare-throated Tiger-Heron looked on; good views of Least and Willow Flycatchers were also notable as was a sunlit perched Bat Falcon while we enjoyed sunset beers. The last full day we spent in humid, semi-evergreen ‘shade-coffee forest,’ starting by a fruiting fig tree with numerous thrushes and tanagers, plus Blue Mockingbird and Citreoline Trogon. Other highlights included the local Gray-crowned Woodpecker (finally!), aerobatic Bat Falcons snatching dragonflies, handsome Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrows, a male Gray-collared Becard, and numerous Colima Pygmy-Owls. After a scenic picnic lunch we headed head back to the hotel by mid-afternoon. The last afternoon was free to relax and pack, followed by a wonderful last night dinner at the hotel.

Flight times meant another early breakfast and departure from San Blas, but then, all too soon it was time to leave, after a great week of birds, beaches, mountains, friendly people, good company, and fine cuisine. Thanks to all for making this a wonderful trip.


-          Steve Howell

Created: 22 January 2023