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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: San Blas - Mangroves and Forests

2020 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 feisty pygmy-owls; from flashy endemic jays and impressive Military Macaws to elegant Elegant Quail and dapper Black-capped Vireos; from poetry and a sun-downer beers to large crocodiles and colorful butterflies in tropical green forest; and from Bare-throated Tiger-Herons along a quiet waterway and Collared Forest-Falcon in a lighthouse (!) 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 mostly ‘cold’ by local standards, but still 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 sandy beaches and shade-coffee plantations, produced around 250 species in a week of birding, but all too soon it was over.

In Detail: Everyone this year 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—highlights included a great little Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, an elusive Elegant Quail, and flame-colored Streak-backed Orioles. 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, an ‘unavoidable’ male Painted Bunting, flashy caciques, and good views of Sinaloa Wren, and diving Blue-footed and Brown Boobies offshore. After brunch we headed to San Blas, with stops for some tasty local fruit. 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 fruiting tree with Rufous-bellied Chachalacas and Citreoline Trogons and a pre-roost group of Gray-breasted Martins.

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 Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Orchard Oriole, and Yellow-winged Cacique vying for nectar right outside the hotel, and continued with seedeater swarms, warblers, flycatchers, orioles, and a selection ranging from Roseate Spoonbill and Russet-crowned Motmot to Laughing Falcon and the stunning Rosy Thrush-Tanager—no longer a tanager, but now in its own family. Also notable were Northern Jacana with small chicks, Happy Wren, and more Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, plus some colorful butterflies. 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 great views. Birding from a boat is fun and relaxing: as well as waterbirds such as Boat-billed Heron, we also enjoyed Green and Belted Kingfishers, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, 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 great studies of a small covey of Elegant Quail and continued with a good selection of species, notably at ‘the shady tree,’ where we watched Masked Tityras and Rose-throated Becards eating gumbo limbo berries, plus eye-level Mexican Parrotlets and a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers that appeared overhead. After lunch and a siesta we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon along Crocodile Road (after waterbird overload at one of the shrimp ponds), where birds included hordes of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, confiding Harris’s Hawk and Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and a surprise Blue Mockingbird.

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 pine-oak forest, starting with the songs of Brown-backed Solitaire, a group of magpie-jays, and the dapper little Black-capped Vireo. Other highlights included perky Rufous-capped Warblers, flashy Red-headed Tanagers, a roadside Elegant Trogon, and a nice selection of hummingbirds, including Berylline and White-eared (both rare in the US but at home here in Mexico), the very local Mexican Woodnymph, and—in record quick time—a stunning male (and then female!) of the tiny Bumblebee Hummingbird. Stops on our way home produced the spectacular Military Macaws, a handsome Bat Falcon, and look up, overhead—a line of American White Pelicans! 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, plus some impressive crocodiles. The mangroves also held numerous warblers, including the handsome Mangrove Warbler and a vagrant Magnolia Warbler, while other species included nesting Wood Storks, side-by-side Lineated and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, shy Purplish-backed (or Yellow-footed?) Jays, swarms of whistling-ducks, and the understated White-throated Flycatcher. After lunch and a siesta we took a ferry over to Peso Island, with a long open beach and a chance to dip toes in the Pacific Ocean, plus birds including a brief Elegant Trogon, our first Tropical Parula, and a spectacular Collared Forest-Falcon, followed by great views of a Mottled Owl and another fine dinner.

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—if Black-capped Vireo and Red-breasted Chat can be called slow…  The wind made birding challenging, but a calm spell with superb views of Fan-tailed Warbler, Happy Wren, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper in one spot was very notable, and later we enjoyed scope views of a male Godman’s [Scrub] Euphonia. After lunch and a siesta we birded the shrimp ponds road where hundreds of waterbirds included various species of ducks and sandpipers, and landbirds featured an ‘oriole onslaught’ as flock after flock of Orchard Oriole moved through the bushes, along with males of Hooded, Streak-backed, and Bullock’s Orioles. The last full day we spent in humid, semi-evergreen ‘shade-coffee forest.’ We started under some huge strangler figs, with magpie-jays, tityras, thrushes, tanagers, and woodpeckers, plus the increasingly scarce Lilac-crowned Parrot. The endearing little Colima Pygmy-Owl took some work but the scope-filling views of it being mobbed by unhappy Happy and Sinaloa Wrens were memorable; other notables included Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow, Brown-backed Solitaire, and, after the scenic picnic lunch, a spectacular yellow-tipped helicopterwing (damselfly). We headed head back to the hotel by mid-afternoon, retiring briefly in Aticama, where we saw Wilson’s Plover and a point-blank Citreoline Trogon. 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: 15 January 2020