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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: San Blas - Mangroves and Forests

2019 Narrative

In Brief: 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 colorful trogons and warblers to cryptic potoos and retiring Boat-billed Herons; from flashy Black-throated Magpie-Jays and Painted Buntings to elegant Elegant Quail and a tiny Golden-crowned Emerald on her nest; from poetry and a sun-downer beers to large crocodiles and stunning butterflies; and from Bare-throated Tiger-Herons along a quiet waterway and frigatebirds soaring overhead to the sounds of the forest and the surf, it was a very special week and a great group to be with. The weather was near perfect—warm and sunny, but just hot enough to make siestas a good idea. The great range of habitats, from mangrove tunnel boat rides and cool pine-oak forest to offshore booby rocks and shade-coffee plantations, produced almost 250 species in a week of birding, but all too soon it was over. 

In Detail: Some folks arrived in time for a little birding near the hotel the first afternoon, for an early appreciation for just how birdy this part of the world is in winter, even along a city street. 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, and numerous waterbirds including a surprise Franklin’s Gull, good shorebird diversity, and diving groups of Blue-footed and Brown Boobies over Bottlenose Dolphins. After brunch we headed to San Blas, with stops for some tasty local fruit and to investigate a site near San Blas—with a bonus Laughing Falcon. After checking in at the hotel we headed to the fort overlooking town for some birding, history, poetry, a cold beer, and a fine sunset. Highlights at the fort included a beautiful Russet-crowned Motmot and great views of a young Zone-tailed Hawk.

Our first morning in San Blas we simply walked from our rooms to areas around town. The great variety of birds was heralded by a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers on a post right outside the hotel, and continued with warblers, flycatchers, tanagers (including Cinnamon-rumped Seedeaters and Grayish Saltators, formerly considered sparrows and grosbeaks, respectively!), and a selection ranging from Roseate Spoonbill and Citreoline Trogon to Painted Bunting and the sought-after Rosy Thrush-Tanager—no longer a tanager, but now in its own family. Also notable were dazzling Purple Gallinules, a nice Happy Wren, and the overlookable Ruddy-breasted Seedeater. After lunch and a siesta we took a boat ride along the Río San Cristobal and then through mangrove tunnels (an amazing experience at night) to La Tovara, staying out in search of the bizarre Northern Potoo—of which we had great views. Birding from a boat is fun and relaxing: as well as waterbirds such as Boat-billed Heron, and, after some work, the dashing Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, we also enjoyed Green and Belted Kingfishers, a ghostly Barn Owl, and the tantalizingly close sounds of a Spotted Rail. 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 flights of White-fronted Parrots and Orange-fronted Parakeets, followed by a small covey of Elegant Quail. Birds continued with various flycatchers and woodpeckers, an obliging Pale-billed Woodpecker, and an absolutely wonderful little Golden-crowned Emerald on her nest beside the track. After lunch and a siesta we took a boat out to Virgin Rock for up close and personal views of blue-footed Blue-footed Boobies, plus a few Brewster’s Brown Boobies and a surprise Olive Ridley sea turtle, followed by a visit to Peso Island and good views of Purplish-backed Jays. To end a great day’s birding we enjoyed superb views of a Mottled Owl, followed by another fine dinner and celebratory margaritas.

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, starting with Gray Silkies, a Brown-backed Solitaire, and numerous hummingbirds before a nice male Black-capped Vireo popped into view. Other highlights included dapper Rufous-capped and nuthatch-like Black-and-white Warblers, adorable Spotted Wrens, flashy Red-headed and Hepatic Tanagers, a puzzling sapsucker, the very local Mexican Woodnymph, and—with some work—the tiny Bumblebee Hummingbird. Stops on our way home produced cliff-clinging Military Macaws, a handsome Bat Falcon, and a group of spectacular Black-throated Magpie-Jays. 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 spectacular winding journey as we passed by numerous herons, egrets, and ibis, including (finally!) some spectacular Bare-throated Tiger-Herons. The mangroves also held numerous warblers, including Tropical Parula and the handsome Mangrove Warbler, and a good variety of raptors with Snail Kites the most numerous species. And let’s not forget those large crocodiles or the White-throated Flycatcher perched in the same bush as a male Vermilion Flycatcher—quite a contrast. In the afternoon we birded the shrimp ponds road where hundreds of waterbirds included several species of ducks and sandpipers, and landbirds featured a stunning male Painted Bunting perched in the sun, plus the very local Mangrove Vireo.

Our last two days we visited two very different sites in the foothills. The first day we headed inland to some spectacular tropical deciduous forest and a nice variety of species ranging from Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrows and Nutting’s Flycatcher to Ivory-billed Woodcreeper and Godman’s [Scrub] Euphonia. After lunch and a siesta we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon around Matanchen Bay, where birds included handsome Harris’s Hawks, laughing Laughing Falcons, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks among the hordes of Black-bellied, and of course the incomparable Least Flycatcher. Our last full day we spent in humid, semi-evergreen ‘shade-coffee forest.’ The day started under some huge fruiting figs where among the caciques, magpie-jays, tityras, and others we found a Gray-crowned Woodpecker before being distracted by a pair of Lilac-crowned Parrots. The endearing little Colima Pygmy-Owl took some work but was then somewhat eclipsed by a very obliging and spectacular Collared Forest-Falcon. Our morning continued with parakeets, parrotlets, flycatchers, vireos, woodpeckers, and a good selection of raptors. A short walk after the scenic picnic lunch produced nice views of Brown-backed Solitaire and a chorus of distant Crested Guans before we headed back to the hotel by mid-afternoon, with time to relax and pack (or bird some more), followed by a wonderful last night dinner at the hotel. The die-hard birders made one last trip to the shrimp ponds road and were rewarded with a nice selection of species including Redhead, a mass of ‘white waterbirds’ (with hundreds of Wood Storks and White Pelicans), and numerous wintering migrant landbirds.

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: 17 January 2019