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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: San Blas - Mangroves and Forests

2018 Narrative

In Brief: Brown-backed Solitaire below the Rufous-backed Thrush, left of the Citreoline Trogon and above the Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, oops, just replaced by a male Summer Tanager, and there’s the Swainson’s Thrush, just right of a Boat-billed Flycatcher, where the Masked Tityra was…” A fruiting fig-tree frenzy occupied us for over an hour one morning, a snapshot birding experience among many from our wonderful week at 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 Red-breasted Chat and Fan-tailed Warbler to elegant Elegant Quail and a bill-snapping Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, from poetry and a sun-downer beers to large crocodiles and stunning butterflies, and from Snail Kites 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 wonderful 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 deserted beaches and shade-coffee plantations, produced over 250 species in a relaxed week of birding, but all too soon it was over.

In Detail: Most folks arrived in time for a little birding near the hotel the first afternoon, where we got an early appreciation for just how birdy this part of the world is in winter, even along a city street, where we saw Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Rufous-backed Thrush, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and a nice selection of warblers. 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, a dumpster of White Ibis and calling Black Vultures (or ‘Sneezing Puppy Vultures’), and numerous waterbirds including up-close Magnificent Frigatebirds, one male with red pouch inflated. After brunch we headed to San Blas, with stops for some tasty local fruit and a river mouth with roosting Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers. 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 (with a debatable green ‘smudge’!). A memorable bare tree ‘alive’ with birds (16 species in 5 minutes, including Rose-throated Becard and 6 warbler species) was a taste of things to come.

Our first morning in San Blas we simply walked from our rooms to areas around town. The great variety of birds around San Blas was typified by birds ranging from Roseate Spoonbill and Happy Wren to Rosy Thrush-Tanager and Crane Hawk (dining on a frog!). Also notable were dazzling Purple Gallinules, an aptly named Squirrel Cuckoo, and a Dickcissel. 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 lots of kingfishers, a ghostly Barn Owl, and a very obliging Common Pauraque. 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 covey of Elegant Quail. Birds continued with various flycatchers and woodpeckers, Fan-tailed Warbler, and great looks at the understated White-throated Flycatcher. After lunch and a siesta we birded some areas near town, with good studies of shorebirds, included Long-billed Curlew and Stilt Sandpipers, plus a walk-by Sora and a ‘singing’ Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.

An early start the next day saw us on the lower slopes of Cerro de San Juan, in lush pine-oak forests with very different birds from San Blas. It was a day full of numerous good birds, starting with Green Jays, Golden Vireo, and Calliope Hummingbird, before a nice male Black-capped Vireo popped into view. Other highlights included Crescent-chested and Grace’s Warblers, Spotted Wren, Red-headed Tanager, a ‘leaping’ Slate-throated Redstart (= Whitestart), the very local Mexican Woodnymph, and a male Bumblebee Hummingbird. Stops on our way home produced spectacular views of Military Macaws, a handsome Bat Falcon, and some foraging Coatis in a classic Mexican setting. 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, as well as seeing how the ‘San Blas Black Hawks’ did against the ‘Invader Snail Kites’—the kites took it easily 21:3, although both were beaten by a record count of 23 Green Kingfishers. Both Common Black-Hawk and Osprey clocked in this year with all-time low counts—hopefully just a passing blip rather than a trend. Also notable were noisy ‘blossoms’ of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks in the water hyacinth, a slew of warblers including the handsome male Mangrove Warbler, Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, some large crocodiles, and nesting Wood Storks. In the afternoon we took the short trip across to Peso Island for a very pleasant beach walk and birds ranging from Elegant Trogon and Purplish-backed Jay to American Oystercatcher and Blue-footed Booby.

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 where birds started with a group of Black-throated Magpie-Jays, followed by Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrows, a stunning male Red-breasted Chat, singing Bright-rumped Attila, Citreoline Trogons, a mini Preying Mantis, and an amazing Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. After lunch and a siesta we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon around Matanchen Bay, where birds included a Limpkin dispatching a snail, gangs of Northern Jacanas mixed with cryptic Killdeers, the overlookable Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, and the distinctive Eastern Meadowlark. Our last full day we birded in humid, semi-evergreen ‘shade-coffee forest.’ The day started with a fabulous fruiting fig frenzy: thrushes, parakeets, flycatchers, trogons, woodpeckers, tityras, tanagers, caciques, and orioles all animating a huge strangler fig tree; some low bare twigs provided great viewing as the cast of characters changed constantly—some 20 species rested on the twigs in 30 minutes, including Brown-backed Solitaire, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and the diminutive Godman’s [Scrub] Euphonia. Away from the noise and fig action we enjoyed great views of Pale-billed and Lineated Woodpeckers, an obliging Colima Pygmy-Owl, and a vagrant Hooded Warbler. After lunch with a view we headed back to the hotel by mid-afternoon, with time to relax and pack (or bird some more) before a wonderful last night dinner at the hotel. A few die-hard birders made one last trip to the sewage ponds and were rewarded with Russet-crowned Motmot, Laughing Falcon, some sunlit Purplish-backed Jays, and a beautiful sunset.

Flight times allowed departure from San Blas after a leisurely breakfast, 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: 23 January 2018