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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Mexico (Oaxaca state, Puerto Arista & surroundings of Mexico City),
18 November - 3 December, 2000
Gruff Dodd, 2 Clos Tawe, Barri, Bro Morgannwg, Cymru/Wales; Gruff@doddg.freeserve.co.uk
We thoroughly enjoyed the trip, although the birding was a lot tougher than I had expected, and November doesnt appear to be the best time for a birding trip - bird activity would probably be much more noticeable in February or March. In particular the birding in the humid pine-oak forest of La Cumbre and Valle Nacional was pretty desperate, although the generally poor weather when I was in these areas didn't help at all. However, the weather was absolutely perfect most of the time and the usually high altitude kept things nice and cool. Mexico was a much easier destination than I had expected from a logistical sense - the roads were generally very good, and we had no trouble finding good-value nice hotels almost everywhere we stayed. And as for the food, I've rarely eaten better!
I was somewhat disappointed in the total number of species seen (232) and the number of lifers I recorded (112), the latter representing only some 30% of the species on offer. I also missed quite a few of my target species, including Oaxaca and Sumichrast's Sparrow, Doubleday's Hummingbird, Giant Wren, Dwarf Jay and Ocellated Thrasher.
However I have no complaints about the quality of the birds I did manage to see, which included many other localised endemics including Sierra Madre Sparrow, Black-polled Yellowthroat, Strickland's Woodpecker, Rosita's Bunting, Pacific Parakeet, Boucard's Wren, Grey-breasted Woodpecker, White-throated Towhee, Bridled Sparrow, Beautiful Hummingbird and Pileated Flycatcher. I also managed to see some not-so-localised but spectacular species, including Keel-billed Toucan, Barred Antshrike, Orange-breasted Bunting, Collared Forest Falcon, Violaceous Trogon as well as several species of tanager, euphonia, warbler etc.
The Mexican people were extremely friendly and hospitable, although unfortunately we had one very bad experience in Mexico City when we were completely ripped off by one of their notoriously corrupt policemen.
Finally, many of the areas visited were both scenically attractive and historically interesting. Oaxaca City in a particular was a real delight, and combined with nearby Monte Alban has to be one of the most interesting places we've ever visited.
On the whole it was a very successful and enjoyable trip, and we will certainly be returning to Mexico some day, and probably even to the Oaxaca area for some of those species I missed on this trip.
Many thanks to Clive and Eleanor Hurley for being such excellent companions during our brief time together in the field. Special thanks to Francis Toldi who was a real mine of information during the planning stages and who was especially helpful in those last few days before departing. I am also grateful to the following who provided a great deal of help and advice in planning the trip - Bob Ballard, Jan-Joost Bouwman, Libby Huffman, Ann Johnson, Bob Mugele and George Scott. Finally, as always, a big thank you to my non-birding wife Sara for making these trips such good fun.
My aim on this trip was two-fold:
1. To see as many of the localised Mexican endemics as possible, especially those restricted to the Central Highlands around Mexico City and those restricted to the Oaxaca Valley; and
2. To see as many lifers as possible, hopefully including some spectacular species, and some genera I had not seen previously.
I therefore concentrated most of my initial effort on the area around Oaxaca, down as far as the state border with Chiapas. We then made a quick trip down to Puerto Arista, before spending some time in the Tuxtepec area for some Atlantic slope birds, and ended up in the Mexico City area for the regional endemics.
We flew from London Gatwick to Miami with Virgin Atlantic, and from Miami to Mexico City with Aeromexico. Flights were booked through Airline Network (Tel 0800 727747) and cost UKP 350 each, including taxes.
Flight times were as follows:
Depart London Gatwick 18.11.00 10:45, arrive Miami 18.11.00 15:30
Depart Miami 18.11.00 18:00, arrive Mexico City 18.11.00 20:30
Depart Mexico City 03.12.00 10:50, arrive Miami 03.12.00 14:50
Depart Miami 03.12.00 18:00, arrive London Gatwick 04.12.00 06:55
Note that Mexico City is 1 hour behind Miami and 6 hours behind London in November.
If I were doing a solely Oaxaca-based trip Id definitely consider taking an onward flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca. Driving around Mexico City is a bit of a nightmare, especially after dark, and it's a very long haul (about 6 hours non-stop) from there to Oaxaca. However, I was keen to try to see some of the localised endemics of the Mexico City area, so planned the trip so as to start and finish in that area.
We booked the car in advance through Hertz, who were again the cheapest option I found. However, it was far from cheap - we paid MXP 7,527 (UKP 579) for 14 days hire, although this included all insurance with no deductible excess in the event of an accident or theft - the possibility of the latter was especially of concern. We had hired a VW Beetle, but on arrival they upgraded us to a Nissan Tsuru, which had the huge advantage of air conditioning.
Driving around Mexico was surprisingly easy, with most roads in pretty good condition, especially the fast toll highways. There were a few poor roads around - Route 147 from Palomares to Tuxtepec was really awful, and in fact we turned back after about 15 km. I didnt drive the notorious Route 175 all the way from Oaxaca to Tuxtepec, but Clive and Eleanor Hurley did, and assured me that it was just as bad as I'd heard - the trip of 220 km took them over 6 hours to complete without stops!
Other than that, we found the road surfaces to be generally very good - the main problem on most roads is their very windy nature - try the old road from Cuernavaca to Mexico City via Coajomulco and La Cima and you'll see what I mean. The toll highways are pretty expensive, but for long distance driving you haven't really got any choice on a short trip. For example, it's about 6 hours by toll road from Mexico City to Oaxaca, and 10 or 11 hours by the old road. You will inevitably end up on some dirt roads, which are usually passable with care, but can be rough, e.g. the El Polvorín Loop, the road north of Teotitlán del Valle or the road up the Nevado de Toluca. Most however, e.g. La Cumbre or the Arista salt pans are fine.
Having said that, I'd be very hesitant before driving any significant distances at night - we saw too many dead burros and cows and wrecked cars and buses to get that relaxed! Some night driving was necessary, mostly in order to get to chosen spots by dawn, but I always tried to start as early as possible and take my time getting there. The only serious distances we travelled by night were on the toll highways from Mexico City to Cuernavaca on the first night we arrived and back from Toluca to Mexico City on our last night, and I didn't enjoy either very much.
I also found signposting to be variable in quality. Throughout most of the areas I visited it was pretty good, but in the main cities, and especially Mexico City (but also Toluca and Puebla), it is almost non-existent. I dont believe that I saw a single sign anywhere in that city directed towards another town or city, and not many signed for suburbs or areas of Mexico City itself. Most would simply be signed towards the next few roads intersecting the one you're on, which makes navigating a real seat of the pants exercise. We actually did most of our daytime navigating within the city by the sun - head in a generally southern direction, and sooner or later you should exit the city at which point you can try to find out where you are!
All this wouldnt be so bad, but I've never been anywhere with as much traffic as Mexico City, or with such rude and ignorant drivers. If you wait for someone to allow you to change lane, you'll be tripping over your beard by the time they do, so you just have to put on your signal and go for it. Even then, expect them not to give way - you'll have a lot of close calls in Mexico City!
Finally, just to add to the overall driving experience, you have to be constantly on your guard for the notoriously corrupt Mexico City police force. Despite a warning in Howell, and from the same thing having happened to Clive and Eleanor at the start of their trip, we also fell victim to one of these bandits (further details below). Don't let it get to you - just accept it as a minor annoyance.
One last thing you need to consider in respect of Mexico City is that the government, in an attempt to reduce traffic congestion, have brought in a rule prohibiting 20% of cars from entering the Distrito Federal on each weekday. This is done using the last digit on your licence plate so, for example, any car with 1 or 2 as its last digit is prohibited from entering on e.g. a Monday. In this respect, check your rental car when you collect it, and make sure it fits in with your travel plans - if you're flying home on a Thursday and have a rental car which prohibits you getting to the airport on that day, you've got a problem!
Petrol was widely available throughout the area we visited (Pemex stations only).
Costs & Money
The local currency is the Mexican Peso (MXP), although some hotels, restaurants etc charged in US Dollars (USD). The approximate exchange rates against sterling (UKP) at the time of my visit (which I have used in translating costs throughout this report were as follows:
Ø UKP 1 = MXP 13;
Ø UKP 1 = USD 1.50
I took along a mixture of USD cash and travellers' cheques, as well as credit cards. However, it wasn't as easy to change USD into MXP at hotels as I had expected, and I got caught short a couple of times, before I realised that I could withdraw cash from many "hole in the wall" machines, especially those belonging to Bancomex.
Credit cards were pretty widely accepted in most hotels, restaurants, shops etc, although not everywhere. Petrol stations mostly took cash only, although a few accepted credit cards (e.g. the one next to the Hotel Hacienda in Tuxtepec) albeit at a hefty surcharge.
Petrol prices averaged about MXP 5.25 (UKP 0.40) per litre - horrifying for North Americans, dead cheap for most Europeans!
The total cost of the trip is estimated at UKP 2,300 for 2 people (UKP 1,150 each), which was pretty expensive for a 14 day trip with no professional guiding:
Ø Flights - UKP 700
Ø Car hire - UKP 579
Ø Hotels - UKP 585
Ø Fuel (est.) - UKP 250
Ø Meals (est.) - UKP 200
Accommodation and food
The quality of accommodation was a pleasant surprise. In Cuernavaca, Oaxaca and Mexico City we stayed in pretty expensive but very high quality hotels, but I was especially pleased to be able to find such nice and inexpensive places to stay in Tehuantepec, Tuxtepec and Metepec. I can especially recommend the Hotel Guiexhoba at Tehuantepec - a lovely place to stay. The only disappointing place we stayed was Andrea's Hotel in Puerto Arista. It was OK as far as it goes, but pretty basic and highly over-priced, and with no restaurant - I can't really recommend it, but is there anywhere better in the town?
We stayed at the following places (all accommodation prices are per room):
Hotel Parador de Manolos, Temixco, Morelos Tel +52 (0) 17 325 0480 Fax +52 (0) 17 325 0841 E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Room MXP 610 (UKP 47) per night
Holiday Inn Express, Oaxaca Tel +52 (0) 951 29200 Fax +52 (0) 951 29292 E-mail email@example.com Room USD 92 (UKP 66) per night
Holiday Inn Express, Oaxaca Room USD 92 (UKP 66) per night
Holiday Inn Express, Oaxaca Room USD 92 (UKP 66) per night
Holiday Inn Express, Oaxaca Room USD 92 (UKP 66) per night
Hotel Guiexhoba, Tehuantepec, Oaxaca Tel +52 971 51710 Room MXP 270 (UKP 21) per night
Hotel Andrea's, Puerto Arista, Chiapas Room MXP 500 (UKP 38) per night
Hotel Guiexhoba, Tehuantepec, Oaxaca Room MXP 270 (UKP 21) per night
Hotel Hacienda, Tuxtepec, Oaxaca Tel +52 287 51500 Fax +52 287 51998 E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Room MXP 225 (UKP 17) per night
Hotel Hacienda, Tuxtepec, Oaxaca Room MXP 225 (UKP 17) per night
Hotel Hacienda, Tuxtepec, Oaxaca Room MXP 225 (UKP 17) per night
Hotel Hacienda, Tuxtepec, Oaxaca Room MXP 225 (UKP 17) per night
Hotel Parador de Manolos, Temixco, Morelos Room MXP 610 (UKP 47) per night
Hotel El Cortijo, Metepec, México Tel +52 (0) 21 76969 Room MXD 250 (UKP 19) per night
Hotel JR Plaza, Mexico City, D.F. Tel +52 (0) 5 785 5200 Fax +52 (0) 5 784 3221 E-mail email@example.com Room USD 84 (UKP 60) per night
I can't say enough nice things about the food, which was a real treat throughout - I've rarely eaten better on any trip. This goes for just about everywhere we ate, from the posh restaurant in the Hotel JR Plaza in Mexico City to the small roadside snack bars at which we frequently ate lunch. The restaurant at the Hotel Guiexhoba in Tehuantepec was especially good, and we also found a very unremarkable little café in Oaxaca called Quicklys at the bottom of Calle Alcalá, just north of the zócalo, which was a reliable stomach-filler.
I'm afraid we bottled out of trying the chapulines (deep-fried grasshoppers), but the combination of excellent fish and seafood, a multitude of different tacos and the best guacamole I've ever tasted did the business. Another treat was a superb strong dark beer we found called Modelo Negro - lovely served cold at the end of the day.
This wasn't much of a problem. Immigration and Customs was very straightforward both arriving and leaving. We encountered many roadblocks, both police and army, especially south from Oaxaca into Chiapas. They seemed to be present for many reasons - immigration, anti-narcotics, agricultural checkpoints and just general checks - but were no problem and seemed mostly interested in trucks. We were rarely stopped, and never asked to show any documents.
We also saw a lot of police, but again on the whole they didnt seem particularly interested in things like enforcing speed restrictions or parking regulations. However, we did have one bad experience with a policeman (not sure which force - brown uniform with tan trim) who completely ripped us off in Mexico City. He came running over three lanes of traffic while we were waiting at traffic lights, initially asked where we were going and offered to give us directions, and then insisted on getting into the car, and told me to turn down a small side street and park the car.
Once there he told me that I had to pay a fine. I asked him what for, and he told me that I had gone through a red light. I disagreed forcibly as this was nonsense, and he changed his mind and told me that I had turned left against a signal. I pointed out that I had been in the middle of the three lanes turning left at that point, but he wouldnt listen and said that I had to go to the office to pay a fine of MXP 2,600 (UKP 200). In order to emphasise the point he pulled out a very fat wallet, opened it up to show a thick wad of notes, and said "Americans, English, Germans - they all pay" - I guess that was supposed to make me feel better somehow!
He then said (wait for it!) that if I didnt want to go to the office I could pay him now in cash. I asked how much, and he said MXP 2,000. There then followed a very disagreeable bartering session, during which I several times started up the car and made as if to drive on to the office, at which point the price came down, and we eventually agreed on MXP 700 (UKP 54).
I went to pay him, and he then decided that payment would have to be in US Dollars, and he announced that the sum would be USD 80 (UKP 53). In total disgust, both with him and with myself, I paid up, at which point he very quickly got out of the car and walked briskly away.
I spent the rest of the evening thinking about what, if anything, I could have done differently and concluded that there was nothing. I could have called his bluff and gone to the station, but I didn't know how much time that would waste, and there seemed at least half a chance that I would end up paying out even more. About the only thing I could do was barter hard, and cut my losses. Ultimately, he probably does this several times a day, and he had my licence in his pocket (he took it right at the start, but never even looked at it), so I was pretty powerless.
This seems far from an isolated incident. Howell mentions that the area between Mexico City Airport and the Puebla Highway (the general area I was in) is notorious for this kind of incident, and almost exactly the same thing had happened to Clive and Eleanor just after they arrived. They apparently stand on street corners and look out for drivers who appear to be foreigners - our guy ran about 200 metres to catch up with us! I don't know what advice to offer (other than to avoid driving through Mexico City during daylight!) - just accept it as part of the trip.
The weather was generally superb throughout our trip. It was sunny almost the whole time, with very little rain (just a little in the late afternoon on 20.11, all morning of 21.11 at La Cumbre (but possibly altitude-related), and a quick shower on 29.11), and the high altitude at most sites visited kept things pleasantly cool throughout. Even at sea level down in Puerto Arista, the heat wasn't a problem.
Health, safety & annoyances
No compulsory vaccinations but I always keep up to date with tetanus, typhoid, polio, hepatitis A and meningitis jabs. There is some risk of malaria, and after much deliberation I took my doctor's advice and took weekly Chloroquine (Avloclor) prophylactics. In truth, mosquitoes weren't a serious problem, although I did get bitten a few times. Other than that, it was a very nuisance-free trip - I didn't see a single spider throughout, let alone snake or scorpion, and we had no bother with ticks, chiggers or anything like that.
We'd also heard some worrying stories about human dangers - muggers, car-jackers and bandits in general, but again we didn't encounter any problems of this nature. We avoided a couple of areas, e.g. the Uxpanapa Road Nava's Wren site as I had heard rumours of problems with local cannabis-growers, and avoided driving at night if we could avoid it, but all the Mexicans we met were extremely friendly and we were made to feel very welcome. There again, we didn't spend any time at all in the big cities, where I am sure there are more problems. A few words of Spanish helps a lot - I only know a few words that I've picked up on previous trips to Spain - but they were enough to get conversations started, ask directions etc.
· A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America - Howell and Webb. The standard guide, and very good indeed, but too big to carry about in the field. Some of the illustrations didnt seem quite right in terms of coloration. For example, I saw several Yellow-winged Tanagers, some at pretty close range, but none were as colourful as shown in the book. In contrast the Bridled Sparrow I saw was much brighter than illustrated. These are, however, very small criticisms of a superb book. Please note however that it doesnt generally illustrate North American species.
· National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Especially useful for warblers and shorebirds, which are not illustrated by Howell and Webb, although they do cover them extensively in the text.
· Where to Watch Birds in Mexico - Howell. This is an absolutely essential book if planning a Mexican trip. The directions and maps are excellent, and just about everything you are likely to see is included in the site by site checklist. The only criticism I have is directed more at the user than the book itself - it must be appreciated that these checklists are the accumulated results of many months fieldwork by Howell over a period of 17 years. Consequently, you are likely to see only a relatively small proportion of the birds listed for most sites, especially the forests. Until you realise this, you are likely (as I was!) to feel that you are failing badly in some way. This was only really brought home to me when I compared notes with Clive and Eleanor, who also expressed concern that they were seeing a similarly small proportion of the birds listed for each site, but were often seeing different birds from those I had seen.
· Mexico - Lonely Planet
These were primarily obtained from Blake Maybank's excellent on-line repository of trip reports on the Americas - http://www3.ns.sympatico.ca/ns/maybank/Trips.htm
· Mexico City (collective 1998 - 1999) - Libby Huffman
· Mexico - Oaxaca and Chiapas - 20.3.98 - 28.3.98 - Francis Toldi and Peter Metropulos
· Mexico - Oaxaca - 6.2.99 - 16.2.99 - Norman Erthal
· Mexico - Oaxaca - 19.2.00 - 25.2.00 - Mark Stackhouse and David Wheeler
· Mexico - Oaxaca - 11.3.95 - 18.3.95 - Jim Hengeveld
· Mexico - Oaxaca - Winter 1999 - Clifford Shackelford
· Mexico - Oaxaca - 10.1.99 - 17.1.99 - David and Linda Ferry
· Mexico - March 1996 - Paul DeBenedictis
I used the AAA 1:3,675,000 map of Mexico and Central
America. This was very small scale, but was god enough for getting from place
to place, while the maps in Howell were more than adequate for finding and getting
around specific sites. The AAA map also had a n useful larger scale inset map
of the Mexico City area which was handy for the Cuernavaca and Toluca areas,
and overleaf a street map of most of central Mexico City which was just about
adequate for crossing the city, finding the airport etc.
Sites visited were as follows:
La Cima. Drive to Oaxaca
Teotitlán del Valle
Garbage Gulch, La Cumbre, Yagul, Teotitlán del Valle
Monte Alban, Yagul
Monte Alban, drive to Tehuantepec via Microondas Nueve Puntas. La Ventosa (Salina Cruz)
Tehuantepec, La Ventosa pond (Juchitán), Tapanatepec, Puerto Arista
Puerto Arista, Tehuantepec
Tehuantepec, drive to Tuxtepec, Camelia Roja
Camelia Roja, Presa Miguel Aleman
Metates area south of Valle Nacional
Camelia Roja, Presa Miguel Aleman
Drive to Temixco (near Cuernavaca)
Coajomulco, Almoloya del Río
Temascaltepec, Nevado de Toluca
Details of these sites are given in the Daily Account section. In retrospect, I would have liked to have spent more time at the higher elevation forest sites (La Cumbre and Valle Nacional). However, I was discouraged by the very low bird activity and poor weather - La Cumbre was wet, foggy and extremely cold during my visit, and this area of mountains was obscured by a thick cloud blanket during the whole of my stay in Oaxaca, discouraging further visits.
The biggest problem was that bird activity was so much higher in the first 2 or 3 hours of daylight than the rest of the day that it was essential to be in the right place at that time. Areas such as Camelia Roja, Teotitlán and Tehuantepec were absolutely dead after mid-morning. This made me very reluctant to take a chance on going back to an area like La Cumbre (an hour's drive from Oaxaca) on the off-chance that the weather might be OK by the time I got there, as if it was not I would not have time to get to another site before bird activity waned. If I return in spring I will certainly spend more time at these sites.
Otherwise, I have no real regrets about any of the sites visited. The wetlands at La Ventosa (Salina Cruz) and Boca de Cielo (near Puerto Arista) were very disappointing but could be visited at non-peak times of day such as late afternoon, and so didnt detract from any other sites which I could have visited. Perhaps I would have been better advised to take a connecting flight to Oaxaca, and spend more time there rather than in the Central Highlands, leaving those for a future visit. However, places like La Cima, Coajomulco and Almoloya del Río were among the most successful sites visited.
With the exception of more time at La Cumbre and Valle Nacional, the only other site I could have visited was the coastal area of Puerto Angel. I would also have liked to visit more sites in Veracruz, such as Catemaco, Sierra de los Tuxtlas, Uxpanapa Road and Amatlán but there is enough there to justify a separate trip of it's own. Similarly, I barely scratched the surface of Chiapas, and look forward to another trip there to do it justice.
Only brief details of the sites visited are given, as full details, including maps, are given in "Where to watch birds in Mexico" by Steve Howell. I have instead detailed where specifically I found to be productive. Where site numbers are given, these refer in all cases to Howell's book.
This refers to the grounds of the Hotel Parador de Manolos in Temixco, just south of Cuernavaca
Site 8.4. The track described by Howell turns west from Route 95 and then curves back to the north. After about 200 metres, there is a large field on your right which extends back as far as the main road. The most productive area I found was at the far end of this field, along the brushy field edges, with at least 2 Sierra Madre Sparrows and lots of Striped Sparrows
Cuernavaca - Oaxaca
Birds seen from the roadside between the two cities
Teotitlán del Valle
Site 11.2 Two areas were especially good, both north of the town of Teotitlán del Valle:
· Teotitlán scrub - scrub c. 9 km from Route 190
· Teotitlán Reservoir - around the reservoir c. 6 km from Route 190, and especially around the picnic site at the inflow at the north end (c. 7 km)
Route 175 north from Oaxaca
Site 11.4 Garbage Gulch - gully on west side of the road c. 8 km north from junction with Route 190
Site 11.5 I only tried the track to the west of Route 175, concentrating on the stretch between 2 km and 4 km from the entrance
Site 11.3 The scrub both
below and especially above the ruins was excellent, and the ruins themselves
are worth checking
Site 11.1 Three areas were productive:
· The scrub behind Tomb (Tumba) 107 (now apparently renamed Tumba 7);
· The bushes and trees around the eastern end of the parking lot; and
· The ruins themselves
Microondas Nueve Puntas
Site 11.12 The best area was not along the path itself, but around its junction with Route 190
Oaxaca - Tehuantepec
Birds seen while in transit between these 2 towns - no stops made
La Ventosa, Salina Cruz
Site 11.14 - this area was disappointing as the water level was very high, with no exposed mud.
Site 11.13 - scrub between 7 and 9 km west of Tehuantepec along Route 190 towards Oaxaca
Sand and gravel bars in the river just west of Tehuantepec. Access was possible by a track which led down on the eastern side of the bridge.
La Ventosa pond
Not to be confused with La Ventosa, SC above. This was a dirty, smelly-looking but quite productive pond on the south side of road c. 6 km east of the village of La Ventosa, east of Juchitán, on Route 190 towards Tapanatepec.
Site 11.15 I only tried the roadside stop after km 10 from Tapanatepec for Rosita's Bunting
Tapanatepec - Puerto Arista
Birds seen while in transit between these 2 towns
Cabeza del Toro
Site 12.3 The hedgerows around the junction between the road to Puerto Arista (1 km from P.A.) and the road towards Boca del Cielo were excellent in early morning
Cabeza - Boca
A random stop along the road east of Cabeza del Toro on the way to Boca del Cielo
Boca del Cielo
Scrub and hedgerows around Puerto Arista, especially from the centre of town west to Hotel Andrea's
Site 12.3 An excellent set of lagoons accessed by means of a dirt road just south of the bridge over the river, north of the junction with the road to Cabeza del Toro. (A second track directly opposite this junction leads to a junction with this first track, but is longer with no additional good habitat). You can apparently follow this track for some 10 km but I only managed to get some 2 km along, as there were so many birds to see.
Tehuantepec - Tuxtepec
Birds seen while in transit between these 2 towns
Site 11.8 Hillside forest along the dirt road north from village of Camelia Roja, as well as the adjacent stretch of river.
Presa Miguel Aleman
Site 11.8 Probably the most productive single site visited. This refers to the reservoir itself, and the trees and hedgerows along the first 2 or 3 km of the road back towards Camelia Roja
Site 11.7 Several roadside stops above and below the village of Metates, south of Valle Nacional along Route 175 between Tuxtepec and Oaxaca
Site 8.5 Howell recommends an area of forest on the south side of the road, but I couldnt find much in the way of decent forest here, on albeit a brief visit. Most of the area seemed to be open fields, with a few trees and bushes, with thick woods only along a gully just down from the road. However, I found an extremely productive area on the other aide of the road - walk back from the pull-off towards the junction with the main road, and just before it walk up the hill into an area of open fields and mixed trees. There was an excellent selection of birds in a very small area here in early morning, and I would have liked to have had more time to explore this area more thoroughly.
Almoloya del Río
Site 8.8 Howell recommends the first 2 km along the embankment as the best area, but while this stretch was certainly very birdy, the areas adjacent to the track was mostly wet open grazing, with the reedbeds too far away to be able to check for yellowthroats. However, after some 2 km the embankment bends sharply around to the right, and a long straight stretch goes between reeds and open water on both side of the road. Walking slowly and pishing along this next 0.5 km or so quickly produced both Black-polled and Common Yellowthroats, as well as various other birds.
Temascaltepec Swift Overlook
Site 8.9 Pull-off 1.2 km north of Valle de Bravo junction on the way out towards Toluca
Real de Arriba
Site 8.9 The outskirts of this village near Temascaltepec
Site 8.9 Roadside stops on either side of Las Mesas village were very productive
Site 8.9 I have used this notation to denote a stop c. 0.5 km from the junction with Routs 134 along the El Polvorín loop
Site 8.9 I parked by Km 51 just on the southern outskirts of Cieneguillas, and briefly had a look down the path that leads down through the trees towards the river.
Nevado de Toluca
Site 8.9 I birded around the junction of the dirt road to the summit of the volcano with the road to Sultepec and again some 5 km up the mountain along the dirt road
Saturday 18 November 2000
We arrived late in the evening in Mexico City after a long flight from London, not helped by spending 3 hours on the ground at Miami waiting for our connection. We collected our car without any difficulty, set out for Cuernavaca, and promptly got lost! Mexico City is very hard driving, with heavy traffic and poor signing. Driving in the dark was of course even worse than normal. Somehow we managed to head in vaguely the right direction, and eventually managed to find the Cuernavaca highway, but it still took us about 2.5 hours to do the 60 km from the airport.
We had pre-booked accommodation for tonight at the Hotel Parador de Manolos at Temixco, which we found without too much difficulty, and on arrival we crashed out in our room.
Sunday 19 November 2000
Today was to be mostly a driving day, as we had a 6+ hour journey to Oaxaca ahead of us. However, I was keen to try to find the extremely localised Sierra Madre Sparrow before we set off, as well as getting an early taste of Mexican birding. So, dawn had me watching my first lifer of the trip, Rufous-backed Thrush, in the gardens of the hotel, lit by one of the hotel's spotlights. Funnily enough, this was the only place I saw this bird on the whole trip, with a good flock there again when we returned on 30.11
I was soon on my way to La Cima, which is just about the only place in the world where this sparrow can be found. It is at a pretty high altitude and it was bitterly cold when I got out of the car. I had hoped that some birds would be singing, but it was deathly quiet, so I'd have to find them the hard way. The landscape here was of lava flows (watch your footing) covered by tall couch grass and scattered pine trees. Trudging around an area to the south of the track produced only a few Eastern Bluebirds and some Mexican Juncos, so on getting back to the car I read Howell a bit more carefully and saw that he states that they particularly like field edges where this meets the taller couch grass.
On the north side of the road was a large field of hay, recently cut, which stretched back right as far as the main road. I started walking along the left hand edge, and soon started flushing birds. One was definitely a Striped Sparrow, and another might have been a Sierra Madre Sparrow, but I was walking into a low sun and visibility was poor. When I reached the far end of field and turned right, the light was much better, and I soon found a pair of Sierra Madre Sparrows among the more numerous Striped Sparrows. The Stripeds were much more active and perched more openly, and responded to pishing like no bird I've ever seen. The Sierra Madres in contrast reacted less strongly, and skulked a little more, but were seen well with a little patience.
Heading back to the car along the right hand edge of the field produced more Striped Sparrows, and several small birds in a nearby pine tree, of which only a Yellow-rumped Warbler was identified with certainty. A little further along a very nice Curve-billed Thrasher flew into a small bush and gave excellent views - the first of several Californian and Texan misses from past trips to be nailed on this trip.
Then, it was back to Cuernavaca to collect Sara and head off on the long drive to Oaxaca. Rather than go back into Mexico City, we took Route 160 to Cuautla and Izúcar de Matamoros, then Route 190 to Puebla where we picked up (eventually!) the 150 highway then the 135 to Oaxaca. Note that while the maps may show this whole road from Puebla to Oaxaca as a multi-lane highway, this is not the case, and it becomes single lane from where you pick up the 135 near Tehuacán. It's still a good road, but you need to allow more time. The whole journey took us about 7.5 hours including a lunch stop and getting lost in Puebla - useless signposting again.
Be warned that this is also an expensive journey, with regular tolls all along the way. The stretch from Puebla to Oaxaca cost us a total of MXP 189 (UKP 15) one way, and it's obviously more if you go on the toll road all the way from Mexico City. On the other hand, the alternative is the old road which is at least 4 hours longer, so it's your call!
We arrived in Oaxaca a little after dark, and found our hotel without too much trouble. The Holiday Inn was perfect for our needs, and quite easy to find from the main road that skirts the northern edge of the city. Look for a road called Calle Alcalá on your right (south), (which leads right to the heart of the city and the zócalo), and turn immediately to the left which leads to the back entrance of the hotel garage.
Having checked in we set off on foot to explore this lovely old city and stuff ourselves silly with the many snacks and dishes served from stalls in the zócalo.
Temixco - Rufous-backed Thrush
La Cima - Eastern Bluebird, Curve-billed Thrasher, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Striped Sparrow, Sierra Madre Sparrow, Mexican Junco
Cuernavaca - Oaxaca - Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Raven
Monday 20 November 2000
Up early today, and out to start my search for the many Oaxaca valley specials. I decided to start off in the scrub above Teotitlán del Valle, and was in place before dawn waiting for it to get light enough to start tracking down the various sounds coming from the surrounding bushes.
An hour later and I was getting extremely frustrated. There was a certain amount of bird noise to be heard, although not as much as I had expected, but actually seeing anything was another matter, and all I'd managed to positively identify was a pair of Scrub Jays and a flock of Common Ground Doves. Gradually, however, things improved, starting with a Grey-breasted Woodpecker which flew in and landed on an organ-pipe cactus. First localised endemic accounted for!
A flock of small birds in bushes below the road were being a bit difficult, but I eventually identified Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and Yellow-rumped Warbler, before getting great views of a Dwarf Vireo. Everything you've ever read about them looking like Ruby-crowned Kinglets is absolutely true - the best ID features are probably the stouter bill and the big white lore patch, but you need good views. An oriole flew across but wasn't seen well enough to be identified, but it eventually appeared again and was seen to be a nice male Black-vented.
This set off a little burst of lifers with a Rufous-capped Warbler showing very well and 3 Grey Silky Flycatchers perched in a nearby bush. There were many kingbirds flying around, and they were eventually seen close enough to see the forked tail, identifying them as Tropical Kingbirds. Finally, random scoping of a clump of organ-pipe cacti produced my first White-throated Towhee sunning itself atop one of these.
By now it was late morning, and bird activity had ground to a very abrupt halt. I was a bit disappointed about the relatively short list I had accumulated, and in particular at my failure to see either Oaxaca or Bridled Sparrow, for which this is supposed to be a reliable spot. I therefore moved down to the small picnic site at the inflow into the reservoir to see what was around. Despite it being nearly midday, this area was surprisingly birdy. As I arrived I flushed a cracking male Vermilion Flycatcher from its perch, and there were several hummingbirds flitting about the flowering bushes. I didn't manage to get good looks at most of these - I always find hummers a real struggle early into a trip before I get used to their speed - but the few I did see were all Dusky Hummingbirds.
There were lots of Northern Roughwings hawking over the water, and at least one Violet-green Swallow among them, while the muddy edge held a Wilson's Snipe and a small group of Least Sandpipers. Turning my attention back to the flowering bushes and to the large tree in the middle of the picnic area soon produced dividends - firstly a Wilson's Warbler, quickly followed by Red-eyed Vireo, Slate-throated Redstart and a small flock of House Finches.
I slowly followed a wide track back along the inflow checking the bushes and undergrowth as I went, picking up Great Kiskadee and Plumbeous Vireo, with a Least Grebe on the water and a fly-by American Kestrel. Eventually, on the other side of the water I found a lovely Tufted Flycatcher, then another, as well as a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher.
I was pleased with this little spot, which was surprisingly productive given the time of day, and as such a nice complement to the scrub area which really died a death by mid morning. Time was ticking away, however, and I decided to drive back to Oaxaca and try the Garbage Gulch area along Route 175 North before it got dark. This didn't work out as by the time I got here it had started raining, and birds were very few and far between. In about an hour I managed just an overflying Red-tailed Hawk, Tropical Kingbirds and a small group of flighty Lesser Goldfinches.
I therefore decided to head back to Teotitlán in the hope that the sparrows might be a bit more forthcoming in the late afternoon. Sadly they weren't, and I had also underestimated how quickly it would go dark, which left me with very little birding time when I got there. The only new birds I managed to add were Black-necked Grebes on the reservoir and a flock of Lark Sparrows on the hillside beyond, which briefly got me excited.
Heading back in the evening gloom towards Teotitlán town, I noticed some birds hawking over the road as I skirted the reservoir. As they looked too big for swallows, I got out to have a look, and to my delight found that they were nighthawks - at least a dozen of them, and probably more. They came extremely close, even hawking in the beam of the headlights as it got dark, and gave brilliant views, and I was able to identify them as Lesser Nighthawks based on the rounded shape of the wing tips - this is shown very nicely on page 372 of Howell and Webb.
Teotitlán scrub - White-winged Dove, Common Ground Dove, Grey-breasted Woodpecker, Tropical Kingbird, Scrub Jay, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Grey Silky-flycatcher, Dwarf Vireo, Plumbeous Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Rufous-capped Warbler, White-throated Towhee, Lark Sparrow, Black-vented Oriole
Teotitlán Reservoir - Least Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, American Kestrel, American Coot, Least Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe, Dusky Hummingbird, Lesser Nighthawk, Tufted Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Violet-green Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Wilson's Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, House Finch
Garbage Gulch - Red-tailed Hawk, Tropical Kingbird, Lesser Goldfinch
Tuesday 21 November 2000
Back to Garbage Gulch this morning for another try for Oaxaca and Bridled Sparrows, but the weather was even worse today. It wasn't raining, but it was very windy, which inhibited bird activity. Not only did the sparrows fail to show but I also failed to see the site's other major speciality, Slaty Vireo, although I did eventually manage good views of Pileated Flycatcher. The Red-tailed Hawk was again seen overhead, and some kingbirds were seen well on the open area on top of the bluff and identified as Cassin's Kingbirds.
Back in the bushes near the road, some small birds were finally seen, including Bushtit, Warbling Vireo and Rufous-capped Warbler, although most birds were skulking and it was still very windy which made seeing birds well extremely difficult.
Eventually, I gave up and continued north up Route 175 to La Cumbre. If the weather was poor at Garbage Gulch it was really awful at La Cumbre - even windier, thick fog and drizzle, occasionally turning to heavy rain, and extremely cold. I couldn't believe that it could get this cold in Mexico!
I drove for 2 km west along the lumber tracks, having first paid the requested MXP 50 (UKP 4) fee charged to lower the chain across the road. Note that this payment was referred to as a cuota (toll) rather than a propina (tip) so it seems that the process of legitimisation of the charge is now complete! The amount of the fee still seems quite fluid however, and I was quite pleased to get away with MXP 50 as others have been charged quite a bit more - presumably this was because I was a single occupant.
My main target at La Cumbre was Dwarf Jay, so undaunted by the weather I parked and set off hoping to encounter a flock of the Grey-backed Wrens and Steller's Jays with which they associate. Some chance! There could have been thousands of birds 20 metres away from the road and I wouldnt have seen or heard them! Occasionally a silhouette would fly from one group of wildly waving trees and disappear into another, but I had no idea what they were.
Eventually, after over an hour without identifying a single bird, I found a more co-operative flock of warblers low down in bushes along the side track around the 3 km mark. Most of these were familiar North American birds - Ruby-crowned Kinglets were especially common and I also saw a Black-and-white Warbler before I got a tantalising glimpse of a superb Golden-browed warbler. Eventually I lost the warbler flock in the gloom, with most of the birds frustratingly unidentified. Just then I found a Steller's Jay, which raised my hopes, but sadly it proved to be a lone bird, with no small blue jays following behind it.
Back up the path I stumbled onto the warbler flock again, and this time was able to identify a few more birds including Wilson's, Hermit and Black-throated Green Warblers, before being completely blown away by my first Red Warbler of the trip. What a superb bird!
Despite the excitement of the warbler, by now I was soaked, my scope was fogged up and useless and my hands were completely frozen, so I set off back for the car. Along the way, I saw two large silhouettes in a tree overhanging the road, and by slowly creeping closer and eventually managing to clear my scope, I got great views of a pair of Brown-backed Solitaires. They never called during the whole time I watched them, and so could have sat completely undetected just yards from the roadside.
Back at the car I continued up the road to about the 4 km mark and back, cruising slowly looking for more bird flocks. Eventually I found the same or another warbler flock, seeing much the same birds as before including another Red Warbler, but with one more surprise in the form of a Painted Redstart.
By now the weather was if anything deteriorating, and I gave up and headed back down the valley to find somewhere warmer to bird for the rest of the day. Sadly the weather up at La Cumbre remained poor throughout the rest of my stay at Oaxaca - thick clouds permanently on view from the valley bottom - and as a result I never managed a return visit. As a result I dipped not only Dwarf Jay but lots of other humid pine-oak species. If I went again I'd certainly try to spend more time here, although February or March would probably make for much easier and better birding. However, I believe that Dwarf Jay are supposed to be easier in winter, as they do not follow the wren and jay flocks when they are breeding.
Yagul seemed to meet the criteria for a nice warm place to bird, and also offered the possibility of Bridled Sparrow, Boucard's Wren and Beautiful Hummingbird, so this was my next destination. Unfortunately this was not at its best in the late afternoon, and none of these birds would co-operate. Grey-breasted Woodpecker were, however, pretty easy, and a White-trailed Hawk soared along the valley floor below me while several Dusky Hummingbirds fed around the bushes and cacti.
Back to Teotitlán therefore for another try for the sparrows, but no luck again. The only new trip bird here was a Black-throated Gray Warbler, although the nighthawks again put on a show, and were worth the return visit alone.
Overall this was a very disappointing day. When birding in Mexico in November it seems essential to make the most of the first few hours of daylight. After that, it is a matter of luck whether activity continues at a reasonable level later into the day. This morning at Garbage Gulch was a bit of a failure, while La Cumbre was a washout, from which the day never recovered.
Garbage Gulch - Red-tailed Hawk, Pileated Flycatcher, Cassin's Kingbird, Bushtit, Warbling Vireo, Rufous-capped Warbler, Lesser Goldfinch
La Cumbre - Steller's Jay, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Brown-backed Solitaire, Hermit Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Red Warbler, Painted Redstart, Golden-browed Warbler
Yagul - White-tailed Hawk, Dusky Hummingbird, Grey-breasted Woodpecker, Northern Raven, Northern Mockingbird
Teotitlán scrub - Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Grey Warbler, Lark Sparrow
Teotitlán Reservoir - Black-necked Grebe, American Coot, Lesser Nighthawk, Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Wednesday 22 November 2000
In contrast to yesterday today was extremely enjoyable. I started off at Monte Alban, where bird activity was high, and remained so just about all day. As I arrived in the car park I disturbed a flock of Clay-colored Sparrows and some Common Ground Doves, before heading for the hillside scrub beyond Tumba 7. First bird out here was a White-throated Towhee, as well as several each of Dusky Hummingbird and Western Kingbird.
A good tactic here seemed to be to regularly scan the bare trees on the horizon, and in this way I found Northern Mockingbird, Black-vented Oriole and Western Tanager, before eventually striking lucky with a cracking Boucard's Wren, a bird I had been afraid I would miss. Other birds seen here were Ash-throated Flycatcher, White-winged Dove, Grey-breasted Woodpecker and several Rufous Hummingbirds.
Mid morning I started wandering back to the car park, where the bushes around Tumba 7 proved very productive. There were many hummers flying around the trees, being their usual awkward selves, although I eventually identified both Berylline and Rufous Hummingbirds. Warblers were also well represented, including Canada, Townsend's, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Black-throated Green and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Painted Redstart, as well as Ruby-crowned Kinglets. White-throated Towhees were both common and very active here, constantly flying across the path and feeding on the ground on the edge of the road.
We had planned to visit the Monte Alban ruins themselves today so around midday I returned to the hotel to collect Sara, and we went back to the site, where the car park was still relatively quiet. Tripods arent allowed within the ruins, but I took my bins with me in the hope of seeing the Canyon and Rock Wrens which occur here. Unfortunately, neither were seen, although there were plenty of other birds in the site - Vermilion Flycatchers were seen on several occasions, and other birds included Orange-crowned and Wilson's Warblers, Rufous Hummingbird, Pileated Flycatcher and another (or the same) flock of Clay-colored Sparrows.
The ruins themselves are absolutely awesome, and an essential break from the birding, even for a hardened philistine like myself. The sheer scale of them is mind-blowing, as is the neat elegance to the structure as a whole and the state of preservation of the buildings. The only thing that spoiled it somewhat is the fact that some hawkers had found their way into the ruins themselves, and pestered you a bit trying to sell you jewellery and (presumably) fake artefacts. It is bad enough to be harassed by these people on the way from the car park to the entrance, but to be bothered once inside was disappointing. Nevertheless, the experience as a whole was magnificent, and the entrance fee of just MXP 30 (UKP 2.30) each is the bargain of the century.
From here we set off for a return visit to Yagul, as Sara was quite keen to see those ruins, and I wasn't averse to another crack at the Oaxaca Valley specials I had missed yesterday. As with Monte Alban, there was lots of bird activity here today, much more so than yesterday, although the weather seemed about the same. We firstly explored the ruins, which we had virtually to ourselves, there being just one other couple at the site. While not in the same league as Monte Alban, and on a much smaller scale, they are nevertheless interesting.
An Ash-throated Flycatcher was seen well at the entrance and several Dusky Hummingbirds were again in evidence. Within the ruins Lark Sparrow and Vermilion Flycatcher were seen on the left just after the entrance, but again no sign of either Canyon or Rock Wren. The scrub below the rock outcrop at the extreme north edge of the ruins is supposedly a good spot for Bridled Sparrow, but the wind here was very strong and the scrub was quiet. On the way back down., however, bird activity in the scrub above the car park started hotting up.
First of all a pair of Grey-breasted Woodpeckers flew in and chased each noisily around the cactus, while a group of White-throated Towhees did likewise at ground level. A Plumbeous Vireo also showed, before I got a quick glimpse at the rear end of a small bird with a rich rufous belly and vent before it disappeared into some scrub.
Scanning the cliff line above produced a pair of Ravens, White-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, Red-tailed Hawk among the many Turkey Vultures. Just then the mystery red-bellied bird reappeared and proved to be a superb Bridled Sparrow. This is a much brighter bird than shown in Howell and Webb with a rich rufous lower belly and vent, chestnut scapulars, and boldly marked face markings - well worth all the searching.
Sara was by now back at the car relaxing, but I decided on one more quick stroll through the ruins in the hope of finding some wrens. Almost immediately I struck lucky with a superb Canyon Wren on the big rubble slope first left from the entrance. It was in the company of a Lark Sparrow and gave great views - this was a bird I had missed on 2 previous trips to California and South Dakota, so it was nice to finally tick it off. Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a mouse-like movement from a nearby stone wall, and this proved to be a Rock Wren - not a bad five minutes' birding!
Even better was a Myiarchus flycatcher which perched obligingly in the open near the car, giving excellent views of its brown ear patches which identified it as a Nutting's Flycatcher, and just to make it easier the Ash-throated Flycatcher then appeared nearby allowing nice comparison opportunities. Finally a Black-vented Oriole flew over and landed on a cactus - a good end to a great day.
Monte Alban - White-winged Dove, Common Ground Dove, Dusky Hummingbird, Berylline Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Grey-breasted Woodpecker, Pileated Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Boucard's Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Northern Mockingbird, Yellow Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Grey Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Painted Redstart, Western Tanager, White-throated Towhee, Clay-colored Sparrow, Black-vented Oriole
Yagul - White-tailed Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, Dusky Hummingbird, Grey-breasted Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Nutting's Flycatcher, Northern Raven, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, Plumbeous Vireo, White-throated Towhee, Bridled Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Black-vented Oriole
Thursday 23 November 2000
Not much time for local birding today, as we were due to make our way south east to Tehuantepec. I therefore made an early start and I arrived back at Monte Alban in the dark at 07:00 From reading other TR's, I had expected there to be some sort of barrier across the entrance road, but I was able to drive straight through to the car park. As I sat in the car waiting for dawn, there was a knock on the window, and a security guard seemed to be trying to tell me that the ruins weren't open yet. However, I showed him by field guide, said "pajaros" and looked suitably insane, and he wandered off shaking his head!
I had decided to try Monte Alban again as it was very near to Oaxaca, had been excellent yesterday, and was a possible site for some still wanted local specialities such as Beautiful Hummingbird, Ocellated Thrasher and Slaty Vireo. Strangely, it was much quieter than the previous day, although the weather seemed identical. An Orange-crowned Warbler was seen in the car park, and Rufous Hummingbirds and Cassin's Kingbirds were very evident on the walk past Tumba 7. Again, the security guard objected to me taking the direct route to the left of the tomb, but I just went around the right hand side instead, and rejoined the main track without any problem.
White-throated Towhees were again present, but were also strangely subdued compared with the previous day, and a Western Tanager was seen in one of the bare trees. No sign of my main target birds yet, although a Loggerhead Shrike was new for the trip. Some of the hummers were playing hard to get, and eventually, as I reached the back of the tomb on my way back to the car park, I eventually got good views of a Beautiful Hummingbird catching some sun on an exposed branch.
Back to the hotel to collect Sara and say a sad farewell to the Oaxaca Holiday Inn, which we had enjoyed thoroughly, and which I have no hesitation in recommending. We proceeded down Route 190 towards Tehuantepec, and stopped off at the Microondas Nueve Puntas site. I didn't fancy trying to take the car up the track to the towers, so I parked at the bottom and started walking up. However, it was very hot as it was approaching midday, and almost totally birdless, with the exception of one Rufous-sided Towhee flushed from a path-side bush.
Back at the main road things were a bit better. Dusky Hummingbirds were perched on the telegraph wires, Scrub Jay and Lesser Goldfinches flew into nearby trees and several White-throated Towhees were also present.
It was, however, too hot to stand around and I retreated to the air-conditioned comfort of the car, deciding to forego any further stops and continue directly to Tehuantepec. As the driver and sole birder I didn't really notice much in the way of birds on the way - a pair of Grey Silky Flycatchers flew across the road, and a bird which flew into the scrub beside the road near the village of La Reforma was almost certainly a West Mexican Chachalaca, although I eventually reluctantly concluded that I hadn't seen it well enough to tick it (although what on earth else could it have been?!)
On arriving at Tehuantepec we headed first for the lagoon at La Ventosa near Salina Cruz for some wetland birding. Access proved a bit more difficult than we had expected and we ended up at the beach to the west of the lagoon mouth, where we found some nearby Brown Pelicans and Laughing Gulls, while several Magnificent Frigatebirds flew overhead. There are several tracks leading down to the lagoon, several of which are private, but there is a fairly rough dirt track which runs broadly parallel to the edge of the lagoon, and which approaches quite close in places.
This area was, however, extremely disappointing as the water level was very high, with no exposed mud. Consequently the only birds I saw were a flock of American White Pelican, a Great Egret and several overflying Magnificent Frigatebirds. The surrounding scrub was similarly quiet in the late afternoon, with just an Inca Dove recorded. We therefore decided to give up for the day, and wandered back to Tehuantepec where we booked into the Hotel Guiexhoba on the outskirts of town. This was a cracking little hotel - much nicer than it looks from the outside, with a fabulous restaurant, and perfectly situated for birding, being out of town, and very near the best scrub areas.
Monte Alban - Beautiful Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Cassin's Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Orange-crowned Warbler, Western Tanager, White-throated Towhee
Microondas Nueve Puntas - Dusky Hummingbird, Cassin's Kingbird, Scrub Jay, Rufous-sided Towhee, White-throated Towhee, Lesser Goldfinch
Oaxaca - Tehuantepec - Common Ground Dove, Grey Silky-flycatcher
La Ventosa SC - American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, American Egret, Laughing Gull, Inca Dove
Friday, 24 November 2000
The priority today was Sumichrast's Sparrow, so I headed the 7 km or so back up Route 190 towards Oaxaca to try the scrub here which Howell recommends as the best place for that species. Howell suggests that imitating the whistle of Ferruginous Pygmy Owl is a good way to get a reaction from the birds here, and sure enough even my poor imitation produced almost immediate results.
First bird up was a stunning male Orange-breasted Bunting, closely followed by an Ash-throated Flycatcher. Then, White-lored Gnatcatchers arrived in force, and joined the mobbing flock, which soon contained at least one female Orange-breasted Bunting as well as the earlier male. A Golden-fronted Woodpecker flew in, and a pair of magnificent White-throated Magpie-Jays flew over before a West Mexican Chachalaca crashed into a bush in front of me, giving brief but excellent views before pushing on through the undergrowth. Four lifers in as many minutes - not a bad start!
No sign of any sparrows, however, so I walked a few hundred metres further along the road and tried again. Again, I was soon surrounded by a mobbing flock of birds, mainly Orange-breasted Buntings, White-lored Gnatcatchers and Ash-throated Flycatcher, but this time additional birds which seemed to be attracted in but didn't join in the mobbing included both Altamira and Streak-backed Oriole. Deciding to try a little further I stopped whistling and started along the road, when I stopped in my tracks at the sound of an owl answering my whistle! Furthermore, it sounded quite near.
Luckily I was at the entrance to a wide track heading south into the scrub, from which the sound seemed to be coming, so I climbed over the gate and walked into the light woods for about 100 metres, and whistled again. This time, the answering call came from much nearer, and just then a bird swooped down and landed no more than 20 metres away - a stunning Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in plain sight looking straight at me. Then it flew down again, passing me by some 5 metres and disappeared into the scrub behind. What a result!
Back at the road I tried again a little further along, but still no sparrows. It was now about 10:00 and bird activity was already starting to wane noticeably. The next stop produced another mix of birds, this time mostly flycatchers, including Ash-throated but also Brown-crested (a nice opportunity to see these side-by-side) and Least Flycatchers.
A final roadside try resulted in much the same birds as before, but yet again I was answered by an owl, from the north side of the road. It got progressively closer, and then appeared in the open in some bushes right along the side of the road, just two lanes away from where I was standing - another stunning Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. This one put on a real show, however, staying in view for some twenty minutes, hunting small birds through the bushes, and watched continuously at a range of just some 10 metres - breathtaking stuff, and one of the big highlights of the trip.
Back near the car I could hear a loud mewing call coming from a tall tree near the road - a Roadside Hawk, my first of the trip and another lifer. This again stayed put for some 10 minutes while I scoped it from just across the road, calling continuously, and it was still going strong when I got into the car and drove away.
It was now getting hot and bird activity was virtually nil - even whistling was producing no more than the odd gnatcatcher - and so I gave up on the sparrow and returned back to the hotel to collect Sara. Our next destination was to be the Tapanatepec area for a hoped-for Rosita's Bunting, then on to Puerto Arista in Chiapas for the night.
We passed the town of Juchitán on Route 190, and then the village of La Ventosa - a bit confusing given the existence of the more famous La Ventosa lagoons near Salina Cruz. Some 6 km to the south of the junction between Route 190 and Route 185 to Matias Romero, there was an area of reeds and open water on the right hand (south) side of the road. It looked dirty, smelly and generally very unattractive, but seemed to have lots of birds, so I pulled over for a quick scope. There was nothing special here, but a very nice selection of the commoner wetland birds, the highlights of which were a Northern Jacana and a pair of Greater Yellowlegs.
A little further along, near the village of El Porvenir, we saw the first of many Scissor-tailed Flycatchers along the roadside telegraph wires, as well as an American Kestrel and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
By the time I had forked north onto Route 190 towards Tuxtla Gutiérrez just beyond Tapanatepec (the road straight ahead is Route 200 towards Arriaga), and driven the 10 km or so to the site Howell recommends for Rosita's Bunting, it was midday and extremely hot. Bird activity was virtually nil, and I wasn't at all confident of striking lucky, but I did my owl whistle a couple of times, and an Orange-breasted Bunting appeared in the scrub on the other side of the road.
Just then, I heard a noise above my head, looked up and was rewarded with point blank looks at a male Rosita's Bunting! This is a truly stunning bird - much better than it looks in Howell and Webb. The blue is brighter and more metallic, the pink underparts much louder and more extensive, and the broken white eye-ring looks completely artificial, as if it had been painted on. Well worth making the trip down to find it.
The whole area around here looked very promising for birds, and would probably be worth a few hours in early morning, but it was baking hot at midday, and far too much like hard work. So, mission accomplished, it was back in the car to Tapanatepec, and left on Route 200 through Arriaga and Tonalá, before turning right to Puerto Arista.
It was still reasonably early, so before driving into Puerto Arista itself, we turned left on the minor road through Cabeza del Toro towards Boca del Cielo. A pair of Yellow-winged Caciques flew through Cabeza village, while a random roadside stop produced Crested Caracaras, Inca and White-winged Doves and Orchard Oriole, while Magnificent Frigatebirds flew overhead. At Boca del Cielo, I tried to get down to the mudflats to scope for waders, but every time I got out of the car, and often before I'd done so, we'd get hassled by hustlers trying to get you into their restaurants. All a bit unpleasant, and I managed just one Hudsonian Whimbrel before giving up and heading back to Puerto Arista.
We saw a sign for Andrea's Hotel on the outskirts of town which looked promising, so we turned right at the T-junction in the middle of the town, and drove right out of the village before finding it about half a mile further on. Puerto Arista is supposedly a tourist resort, but we had the place virtually to ourselves, and it was almost dead - very rundown and a bit grubby.
As I carried the bags upstairs to our room, I saw some movement in a bush over the road, got out my bins, and enjoyed great views of both Orchard and Streak-backed Orioles and Groove-billed Anis, as well as an American Kestrel which flew over. The hotel didn't do food, so it was back into town after dark for an OK meal at a roadside shack - nothing special, and a bit disappointing after the superb cuisine so far, but not too bad.
Tehuantepec scrub - Roadside Hawk, West Mexican Chachalaca, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Least Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, White-throated Magpie-Jay, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Orange-breasted Bunting, Streak-backed Oriole, Altamira Oriole
La Ventosa pond - Least Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Duck, Common Moorhen, American Coot, Black-necked Stilt, Northern Jacana, Greater Yellowlegs
Tehuantepec - Tapanatepec - Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Kestrel, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Tapanatepec - Rosita's Bunting, Orange-breasted Bunting
Tapanatepec - Puerto Arista - Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Cabeza - Boco - Magnificent Frigatebird, Roadside Hawk, Crested Caracara, White-winged Dove, Inca Dove, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-winged Cacique
Boco del Cielo - Hudsonian Whimbrel
Puerto Arista - American Kestrel, Groove-billed Ani, Orchard Oriole, Streak-backed Oriole
Saturday 25 November 2000
My main reason for coming this far south was to look for Giant Wren, for which the Cabeza del Toro area is recommended, so this was where I headed this morning, but not before enjoying a White-throated Magpie-Jay which flew over the road. Sadly, Giant Wren appears to be another bird for which an early spring visit is preferable - despite several hours searching, and lots of other birds seen, there was no sign of this very localised endemic. This compares with Francis Toldi's trip in March 1998 when the wrens were very vocal and conspicuous.
Nevertheless, the birding at this site was excellent right up to lunchtime when it was regretfully time to move on. First birds seen were a perched Roadside Hawk, again mewing loudly, and the first of several Great Kiskadees. There were lots of birds feeding in the scrub-filled ditches and hedgerows on both sides of this road. These included the very attractive Stripe-headed Sparrows, several Orchard Orioles and a Mourning Dove, as well as a flock of small birds that I could not yet identify.
The highlight of the morning came in the form of a largish screeching flock of the localised endemic Pacific Parakeet, which Howell treats as a probable split from Green Parakeet. A flock of half a dozen Red-billed Pigeons flew in and perched prominently in a large fruiting tree across the field. Magnificent Frigatebirds were continually in the air overhead, and scanning these birds revealed a Crested Caracara among them.
Eventually good looks were obtained of the small finch-like birds feeding in the roadside vegetation, and they proved to be the hoped-for Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters. These were in basic plumage which made the ID a little tricky, but with patience the reddish rump and cinnamon wash to the underparts could be seen.
Streak-backed Oriole and Yellow-winged Cacique provided a splash of colour before a cracking pair of White-tailed Kites, another species missed on previous NA trips, glided over. Among the kiskadees flycatching from roadside bushes, one smaller bird had been bugging me as it didn't look quite right, and eventually I realised that it was in fact a Social Flycatcher. In the same area were a Least Flycatcher and several each of Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Ruddy Ground Dove.
I still had a little time before I needed to return to the hotel to collect Sara and check out, so I decided to take the track on the other side of this junction which leads to the salt pans, in order to look for water birds. This was a really superb spot - I have rarely seen as many birds in one place. There were large flocks of Willets, Hudsonian Whimbrels, Marbled Godwits, Black-winged Stilts and American Avocet feeding in the shallows, with American White Pelicans, Neotropic Cormorants, Ring-billed Gulls, Blue-winged Teals and Shovelers further out.
Herons and egrets were very well represented, and among the dozens of Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets were a single Roseate Spoonbill, and a few Tricolored Herons, White Ibises and Wood Storks. Other shorebirds, in smaller numbers, included Baird's Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs and American Golden Plovers. This whole site was really worth much more time than I was able to spend here, and a longer visit would, I am sure, have produced an even more extensive list of water birds.
Returning back to Puerto Arista, and turning right towards Andrea's Hotel, I made a random stop at the western outskirts of the village, where the road bends to the right, and in a brief period of time recorded a nice selection of birds, including Golden-crowned Woodpecker, Yellow-winged Cacique, Streak-backed Oriole and White-throated Magpie-Jay.
Having checked out of Andrea's, it was back on the road to Tehuantepec for another go at Sumichrast's Sparrow. I didnt stop for any roadside birding along the way, with the exception of a Grey Hawk seen perched alongside the road near Puente Novillero, near Tapanatepec.
Arriving back at Tehuantepec we again checked into the Hotel Guiexhoba, and I returned back to the area of scrub along the road to Oaxaca. First bird out of the car was a Tropical Mockingbird and a White Ibis flew over, but the scrub was very quiet in the late afternoon - even imitating Ferruginous Pygmy Owl produced only an Orange-breasted Bunting and a pair of White-lored Gnatcatchers.
We decided to pay a visit to Tehuantepec town itself, but there wasn't much to see. However, in the centre of the town there is reputed to be a large roost of Purple and Gray-breasted Martins - the former would be absent having migrated southwards, but the latter would be a life bird. We spent some time trying to work out where this roost was before darkness fell, before realising from the numerous droppings that it must be in the small bandstand structure (referred to by Howell as a glorietta, but I didnt know what that meant!) right in the middle of the small park in the main square.
Sure enough, this was the place and as dusk approached we were treated to crippling close-up views of these birds as they swooped down to roost just a few feet above our heads. Even the local kids playing football came over to see what the strange gringo with the binoculars was looking at, and were still watching in fascination when we left!
Cabeza del Toro - Neotropic Cormorant, Magnificent Frigatebird, White-tailed Kite, Red-billed Pigeon, Mourning Dove, White-winged Dove, Inca Dove, Ruddy Ground Dove, Pacific Parakeet, Least Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Orchard Oriole, Streak-backed Oriole, Yellow-winged Cacique
Arista Lagoons - American White Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Magnificent Frigatebird, Snowy Egret, American Egret, Tricolored Heron, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Golden Plover, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Baird's Sandpiper, Ring-billed Gull
Puerto Arista - Magnificent Frigatebird, White-winged Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Social Flycatcher, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Streak-backed Oriole, Yellow-winged Cacique
Tapanatepec - Gray Hawk
Tehuantepec scrub - White Ibis, Tropical Kingbird, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Tropical Mockingbird, Orange-breasted Bunting
Tehuantepec town centre - Grey-breasted Martin
Sunday 26 November 2000
An early morning return visit to the scrub produced much the same birds as before - White-throated Magpie-Jay, Roadside Hawk, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Orange-breasted Bunting and White-lored Gnatcatcher - and another Ferruginous Pygmy Owl was calling, but again no Sumichrast's Sparrows. That would have to wait for another trip.
Before returning to the hotel I made a brief side trip down to the river on the outskirts of Tehuantepec, accessed on foot down the track on the east side of the bridge. There was a lot of human disturbance here, but nevertheless I recorded the first Green Heron and Spotted Sandpipers of the trip, as well as several Northern Jacanas.
Most of the rest of the day was spent travelling from Tehuantepec to Tuxtepec. I drove east on Route 190 to Juchitán, then north on Route 185 to Matias Romero. Further north at Palomares I tried taking Route 147 north west to Tuxtepec, but this road was really terrible - huge potholes everywhere, which kept our speed down to a maximum of 50 kph. Eventually, after 15 km with the condition if anything deteriorating and a further 115 km to go, we reluctantly turned around and headed back to Palomares.
From there we continued north on Route 185 to Sayula, then took Route 145 west through Loma Bonita to Tuxtepec. This was a much better road, allowing a speed of 100 kph+, and although this route was some 60 km longer, it was probably quicker, and much less damaging to the car.
On arriving at Tuxtepec, before looking for the recommended Hotel Hacienda, we headed for Camelia Roja for some brief birding. The light was fading, and we had no time to explore the trackside forest, but half an hour or so of scanning the river from here produced a decent range of birds. The best were the flock of Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallows which flew over, giving good views of their undertail patterns, a Yellow-winged Tanager on overhead telegraph wires and Caspian Tern and Amazon Kingfisher which flew past. Birds on the shingle islands in the river below included Great Blue and Little Blue Herons and more Spotted Sandpipers.
Tehuantepec scrub - Roadside Hawk, White-winged Dove, Common Ground Dove, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Ash-throated Flycatcher, White-throated Magpie-Jay, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Orange-breasted Bunting
Tehuantepec river - Neotropic Cormorant, American Egret, Green Heron, Common Moorhen, Northern Jacana, Spotted Sandpiper
Tehuantepec - Tuxtepec - Roadside Hawk, Brown Jay
Camelia Roja - Neotropic Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Blue-winged Teal, Black-necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, Caspian Tern, Amazon Kingfisher, Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallow, Wilson's Warbler, Yellow-winged Tanager
Monday 27 November 2000
Back down this morning to Camelia Roja near Tuxtepec to investigate the forest along the dirt road recommended by Howell. This was, however, another rather frustrating experience. For an hour or so after first light there was bird song and calls coming from everywhere - wonderful exotic sounding bird calls - but not a bird to be seen! With patience, however, I eventually started seeing birds.
First species identified was a stunning Crimson-collared Tanager, quickly followed by Greyish Saltator and Social Flycatcher. A Bananaquit flitted around in the low scrub, where it was joined by a Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher as well as Wilson's Warbler and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
As usual there were several hummingbirds flying around but by now I was getting better at getting good views of them, and I soon identified my first Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. A series of distinctive whistling noises led to the first Melodious Blackbird of the trip, as well as several Groove-billed Anis. Warblers were quite prominent, including a very smart Blue-winged Warbler, as well as Yellow-breasted Chat and Rufous-capped Warbler, and other birds seen here included Least Flycatcher and Golden-fronted Woodpecker. Finally, some small birds in long tussocky grass eventually proved to be Blue-black Grassquits in basic plumage.
By mid-morning bird activity had again declined greatly, so I went back to the end of the track and scanned the river below. Birds were much as the previous evening - Amazon Kingfisher, Lesser Yellowlegs and Snowy Egrets, with Social Flycatcher and Lesser Goldfinches nearer the road.
My next stop was at the end of the road at the large reservoir known as Presa Miguel Aleman. I stopped briefly at the outflow, but there were quite a few people about here. A Caspian Tern flew past and an Osprey was overhead, while more Groove-billed Anis skulked around the nearby bushes, but there was little of interest here. However, I drove back down the road for a couple of hundred yards to where some bushes are on the right hand side of the road, and soon found some significant bird activity. The rest of the afternoon was spent slowly working my way back along the road - driving for 200 or 300 metres, stopping and scanning the roadside trees and bushes to see what was about. The birding was very good and I managed to cover no more than a mile or so in a whole afternoon.
The first stop had a couple of new warblers for the trip in Northern Parula and Ovenbird, as well as decent numbers of White-collared Seedeaters and Orchard Orioles and a Blue Grosbeak. A Golden-fronted Woodpecker flew into a nearby tree, where to my great pleasure I found a cracking Laughing Falcon perched in full view. There were several kingbirds in the area with forked tails, but I couldn't identify them with certainty until one called revealing it to be a Tropical Kingbird. No Couch's whatsoever on this trip.
Next stop was alongside a group of green buildings on the right hand (south) side of the road, where there were some large trees. This immediately produced very frustrating views of an oropendola flying away, but I couldnt tell which species. A mixed flock of small doves contained Inca, Common Ground and Ruddy Ground Doves, and another warbler flock held Magnolia, Yellow, Blue-winged and Wilson's Warblers.
Just then the oropendola flew back in landing in a large tree above my head - a magnificent Montezuma Oropendola, which perched in full view making its selection of weird calls. The most bizarre was one which sounded like static electricity, or perhaps like a telephone directory being ripped in half - an incredible sound. Some Brown Jays were also in this area, as well as Groove-billed Anis and a Roadside Hawk.
A little further along there was a house on the right, with a concrete hard standing opposite. There were more Ruddy Ground Doves around here, and in an adjacent small patch of long grass were Thick-billed Seedfinches, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Orchard Orioles. Just beyond this was a row of small trees along the north side of the road, with sparse foliage, which held a very nice selection of birds. The highlight was a Masked Tityra which gave great close-up views, quickly followed by a Lesser Greenlet and Black-throated Green Warbler, and a Common Yellowthroat in the low cover.
The last half an hour produced nothing new, so it was back to Tuxtepec, stopping briefly for excellent views of the Amazon Kingfisher at Camelia Roja, perched in the low branches of a tree near the river bridge.
Camelia Roja - Neotropic Cormorant, Snowy Egret, Lesser Yellowlegs, Groove-billed Ani, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Amazon Kingfisher, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Social Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Bananaquit, Crimson-collared Tanager, Greyish Saltator, Blue-black Grassquit, White-collared Seedeater, Melodious Blackbird, Lesser Goldfinch
Presa Miguel Aleman - Neotropic Cormorant, Snowy Egret, Osprey, Roadside Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Caspian Tern, Inca Dove, Common Ground Dove, Ruddy Ground Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Tropical Kingbird, Masked Tityra, Brown Jay, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Lesser Greenlet, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat, Wilson's Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue Grosbeak, Thick-billed Seedfinch, Orchard Oriole, Montezuma Oropendola
Tuesday 28 November 2000
Today we decided to explore the higher elevations referred to generally as Valle Nacional, on Route 175 from Tuxtepec towards Oaxaca. Unfortunately, we badly underestimated how long it would take to drive here - it's a good two hours from Tuxtepec to the humid pine-oak forest some 100 km south - and therefore we arrived in good looking habitat about an hour after dawn, losing us some of the best birding time. The bird list today was quite short, but had a lot of quality. All Km readings below are odometer measurements on my rental car from the southernmost roundabout in Tuxtepec, just north of the Hotel Hacienda, and should not be regarded as totally accurate.
First stop was 57 km south of Oaxaca, some 10 km north of the village of Metates, where we stopped at a wide pull off on the west side of the road just after a hairpin with a wooden building. As with Camelia Roja yesterday, I heard a lot more than I saw, and most of the earlier birds were old friends from North America - Wilson's and Black-throated Green Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Baltimore Oriole, with a group of slightly more exotic Brown Jays thrown in as well.
Things then started hotting up very quickly. The next birds were a pair of Yellow-winged Tanagers, followed by Black-headed Saltator and Blue-grey Tanager, then Social Flycatcher and Black-cowled Oriole. I then heard a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl calling from trees a little further down the hill, accompanied buy loud noises from a flock of mobbing passerines.
The owl didnt want to show himself despite imitating its calls, but that did bring some of the small birds closer, allowing me to identify Buff-throated Saltator, a pair of Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers and several Melodious Blackbirds. Back at the car was a White-collared Seedeater and several hummingbirds, one of which was eventually identified as a Berylline Hummingbird.
At Km 67, in the middle of Metates, I brought the car to a quick halt when a large reddish bird with a long tail flew across the road, and it was refound clambering around in the branches of a large tree - a superb Squirrel Cuckoo. Another Baltimore Oriole was seen here.
I was conscious that time was passing quickly, and I decided to press on to the humid pine-oak forest higher up, finally stopping at Km1 102. As with La Cumbre, however, birding here was very disappointing - thick vegetation, very little bird noise and very little to see. Next time I will definitely visit in early spring. An hour in this area produced just one mixed warbler flock containing the usual suspects - Wilson's, Hermit and Townsend's Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.
Deciding to slowly work my way back towards Tuxtepec, I made another random roadside stop at Km 94.5. This area was again quiet, although I quickly found both Red Warbler (never get bored of these!) and a Common Bush-Tanager, before getting prolonged crippling views of a Golden-browed Warbler creeping about in the very short roadside vegetation at ranges down to some 6 feet.
Just then another car pulled into the same pulloff, and to my surprise a Scottish voice called out "Are you birding?" The first birders I had met since arriving in Mexico (and, as it turned out, the last!) were Clive and Eleanor Hurley from Scotland, on their way from Oaxaca to Tuxtepec, having already spent some 4 hours driving "El Camino Diablo"! We spent some time comparing notes and generally "talking birds", and as they were also heading for the Hotel Hacienda in Tuxtepec, we decided to slowly bird our way back north.
We stopped again at around Km 62, next to a small roadside snack bar, where there were some isolated tall trees which seemed quite birdy. Sure enough, we quickly found Yellow-winged and Blue-gray Tanager and Boat-filled and Social Flycatchers. A group of about 25 Barred Parakeets flew over, quickly followed by 4 Red-lored Parrots, before a gorgeous Black-cheeked Woodpecker flew in and perched in plain view. An oropendola flew over but sadly wasn't seen well enough to identify down to species level.
With darkness fading and light rain settling in, we ended up back at Km 57 in the hope of locating the owl which was calling this morning. No such luck, but there some Brown Jays flying around. Thoughts of both these and the increasingly heavy rain evaporated extremely quickly when a shape in a tree on the skyline proved to be a Keel-billed Toucan, soon joined by another. Definitely the most spectacular birds of the trip, which gave prolonged views to three very happy birders - even Sara, a committed non-birder, came out of the car to look through the scope, which I guess now officially makes her a birder!!
Metates - Barred Parakeet, Red-lored Parrot, Squirrel Cuckoo, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Keel-billed Toucan, Berylline Hummingbird, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Social Flycatcher, Brown Jay, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Townsend's Warbler, Hermit Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Red Warbler, Golden-browed Warbler, Blue-grey Tanager, Yellow-winged Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Common Bush-Tanager, Black-headed Saltator, Buff-throated Saltator, White-collared Seedeater, Melodious Blackbird, Black-cowled Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, Lesser Goldfinch
Wednesday 29 November 2000
Today was, without any doubt at all, the best day of the trip. Clive, Eleanor and I decided to join forces, and spend the day birding together, and my day list certainly reaped the benefits! Not only that but today was one of those odd days when, for no apparent reason, bird activity didnt die down mid-morning but kept going at a great pace right through from dawn to dusk.
We decided to basically repeat the strategy and route I had followed on 27.11, and we started at Camelia Roja at dawn. Again, much more was heard than seen, but at least with three pairs of eyes we managed to see more birds than I had managed alone last time. Funnily enough, with the exception of a Northern Parula, the first birds seen were again a pair of Red-collared Tanagers, as on 27.11, and as on 27.11 having seen them once they were not seen again that morning.
One of the day's highlights followed shortly afterwards when I saw the back end of a bird disappearing into a bush. It looked unlike anything I had seen before, which was explained when Clive relocated it and identified it as a Barred Antshrike - another new genus for me. Surprisingly, it posed in full view for a fair while giving great views, before pushing on. Plain Chachalacas were very noisy, and eventually Eleanor found a flock feeding up on the hillside on the right. Groove-billed Anis were much in evidence, and other birds seen here included a Yellow-breasted Chat, Least Flycatcher, White-collared Seedeater, Rufous-capped Warbler and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.
Both Greyish and Black-headed Saltators were also seen here, but the Blue-black Grassquits seen previously were nowhere to be seen. Thoughts of them were quickly dispelled, however, when a large long-tailed raptor glided across thr road from north to south and disappeared into the trees - a superb Collared Forest Falcon, and a bird which we very lucky indeed to see.
By now it was getting extremely hot so we retired to the air-conditioned coolness of the car, and drove back to the river. The usual birds were here - Little Blue Herons, Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-winged Stilts and Neotropic Cormorant. The Amazon Kingfisher was again near the bridge a little further along, but wasn't as obliging as the other day, being flushed easily and only seen in flight. A Gray Hawk was also perched on the telegraph wires here, as well as an American Kestrel. Several Ridgway's Roughwings were flying around, some very close, giving great views of their undertail pattern, and one even obligingly perched facing us on a nearby wire, allowing close scrutiny.
From here we drove up to the reservoir (Presa Miguel Aleman), where we enjoyed the cool breeze blowing in from over the water. The reservoir itself held an American White Pelican and a large flock of gulls, which were too distant to identify. However, one bird a little closer was identified as a Laughing Gull. Eleanor scoped a large flock of Black-necked Grebes far out on the water, but I couldnt make them out in my scope, and besides I was being distracted by the flock of Ridgway's Roughwings flying around our heads.
Then, a couple of birds were seen which had white rumps, and sure enough they proved to be Mangrove Swallows, a species I had previously looked for down at Camelia Roja without success. The usual Tropical Kingbirds and Social Flycatcher were also seen here.
We then drove back a little way towards Tuxtepec, stopping where I had seen the Montezuma Oropendola two days previously. Here there are some large green buildings and mowed lawns, and access to the river. There is a fence here, but it was easy to crawl under it and find shelter from the sun under some big trees. We spent a couple of hours in this one spot, and it really produced the goods, even in the midday heat.
First up were a pair of Hepatic Tanagers, Vermilion Flycatcher and another Squirrel Cuckoo. A particularly attractive spot were the trees either side of the small track leading down to the river. A bird flycatching from here proved to be a female Rose-throated Becard, but that was soon forgotten when Clive called out that he had a trogon in the trees to the left of the path. This bird put on a real show - first facing us showing its underparts, then facing away showing its upperparts, before giving a profile view. It was in view for at least a quarter of an hour giving us time to see all the detail necessary to identify it as a female Violaceous Trogon - another highlight of the trip.
A large striped wren in some low brush was identified as a Band-backed Wren, and a Black-cowled Oriole played hide-and-seek, eventually giving decent views. A small warbler flycatching from the low branches of a nearby tree had us all guessing for a while, before splaying its tail exposing the yellow basal patches that identified it as a female American Redstart.
A Roadside Hawk flew over, shortly followed by a flock of American White Pelicans and a White-tailed Kite. Another small passerine got us scratching our heads, before we realised that it was a Lesser Greenlet, and Black-and-white Warbler, Golden-fronted Woodpecker and Brown Jay were also seen here.
Reluctantly we dragged ourselves away from here and pushed on, stopping next at the patch of tall grass opposite the house where I had seen Thick-billed Seedfinch two days earlier. One again gave brief but good views, together with Blue-black Grassquits and several Ruddy Ground Doves were also in the area. Then, we noticed a large bird perched on top of a nearby telegraph pole - it was the Laughing Falcon again, probably the same bird as I had seen previously, and again showing brilliantly.
This spot wasn't done yet, however. A couple of Vaux's Swifts flew over, then Clive found a much-wanted bird, a Grey-collared Becard in a tree along the roadside. As we were watching it, a splash of colour showed nearby, and we had a Scrub Euphonia - a really gorgeous little bird. Another swift flew over, but this one was much larger - a White-collared Swift.
Unfortunately, at that time, the bank of clouds which had been steadily rolling on over the last hour arrived, and it started to rain heavily. The skies were very dark, and it looked as if birding was finished for the day, so we got back into the car and drove back to Tuxtepec. However, by the time we had reached Camelia Roja, although it was still raining it seemed to be easing somewhat, so we parked up and waited, and sure enough after about quarter of an hour it stopped.
We still had about an hour and a half of daylight left, so we drove back a short way towards Presa Miguel Aleman, stopping at random when we saw some birds flying onto a large tree in a field alongside the road. This proved to be yet another inspired stop, and we didn't move from here until darkness fell.
The birds we had seen were identified as Blue-gray Tanagers, and the tree also held Rose-breasted Grosbeak and American Redstart, as well as a flock of Baltimore Orioles feeding on fruit. A Roadside Hawk flew over, and a Melodious Blackbird was also present, while we completed a hat trick of saltators for the day with a Buff-throated Saltator. A bright red male tanager in the first tree was thought to be another Hepatic, but gave great views and was seen to be a Summer Tanager, with another Lesser Greenlet nearby.
Just then a Montezuma Oropendola flew over, but this time was seen landing in a nearby tree, and gave fantastic views feeding on oranges. More were soon found, and we eventually saw at least 8 of these superb birds. There were other more non-descript birds also feeding on the oranges, and after some confusion were eventually identified as Clay-colored Robins.
Finally, we again struck lucky with two more euphonias, but this time they were Yellow-throated Euphonias, while some Yellow-winged Tanagers flew in and a pair of Crested Caracaras drifted over before it finally got dark and we packed it in for the day.
Camelia Roja - Neotropic Cormorant, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Osprey, Gray Hawk, Collared Forest-Falcon, American Kestrel, Plain Chachalaca, Black-necked Stilt, Lesser Yellowlegs, Groove-billed Ani, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Amazon Kingfisher, Barred Antshrike, Least Flycatcher, Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Parula, Black-throated Green Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Crimson-collared Tanager, Greyish Saltator, Black-headed Saltator, White-collared Seedeater, Melodious Blackbird
Presa Miguel Aleman - American White Pelican, White-tailed Kite, Roadside Hawk, Crested Caracara, Laughing Falcon, Laughing Gull, Ruddy Ground Dove, Squirrel Cuckoo, White-collared Swift, Vaux's Swift, Violaceous Trogon, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Social Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Grey-collared Becard, Rose-throated Becard, Mangrove Swallow, Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallow, Brown Jay, Band-backed Wren, Clay-colored Thrush, Lesser Greenlet, Blue-winged Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Scrub Euphonia, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Blue-grey Tanager, Yellow-winged Tanager, Hepatic Tanager, Summer Tanager, Buff-throated Saltator, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue-black Grassquit, Variable Seedeater, Thick-billed Seedfinch, Melodious Blackbird, Black-cowled Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, Montezuma Oropendola
Thursday 30 November 2000
If yesterday was the best day of the trip, today was undoubtedly the worst. Having enjoyed a rare lie-in, and said our farewells to Clive and Eleanor who were setting off for Catemaco, we started on our long trip back to Cuernavaca. It was a long enough journey of about 6 hours as it was, but we managed to miss our turning on the outskirts of Mexico City in the rush hour traffic, and lost about another two hours trying to find our way back out of the madness, with the result that we didnt have time for a planned return visit to La Cima on the way to Cuernavaca.
Furthermore, just to finish the day off nicely, we fell victim to one of Mexico City's bandit policemen who pulled us over on some ludicrous pretext, fined us, and then offered to let us go as long as we paid him a cash sum. The whole episode left us with a very sour taste in our mouths, a subsequent (and totally unjustified) distrust of all Mexican policemen, and a sudden desire to be back home. This probably sounds like an over-reaction, but it came at the end of a hectic two week trip, and really was an unpleasant experience.
On arriving back at Temixco we again booked into the Parador de Manolos, where the sum total of birding for the day amounted to a few Great-tailed Grackles and a decent flock of Rufous-backed Thrushes in the rapidly failing light.
Temixco - Rufous-backed Thrush
Friday 1 December 2000
I found it difficult to get motivated this morning after the events of yesterday afternoon, but nevertheless dawn saw me well on the way back up into the hills north of Cuernavaca. This morning's destination was the area of woods near Coajomulco, and having parked my car in the pull-off I walked down hill as recommended by Howell. However, I found this area a little disappointing - Howell talks of extensive woodland, but there were few trees here with the exception of a dark wooded dry stream bed - the rest of the area seemed to consist primarily of open fields with scattered trees and bushes.
There were plenty of hummers around, and I eventually managed to identify some Rivoli's Hummingbirds around some flowering bushes, with a pair of Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers also in attendance. There were Gray-breasted Jays continuously flying around calling loudly, but they were reluctant to show themselves well, and it took some time to see them well. There was also a Grey Silky-flycatcher in this area.
A little disappointed, especially having come so far from Cuernavaca I returned to the car, but then decided to have a wander up the hill on the other side of the road. This proved to be a good move, and I found a very productive spot consisting of some big pines, open field and low bushes, which produced a very nice mix of birds in a small area. Mexican Juncos were present on the ground and low in the bushes, while at least one Acorn Woodpecker flew around in the pines. There were again lots of hummers here, but all identified were White-eared Hummingbirds.
Some extremely noisy Gray-barred Wrens flew in and gave superb close-up views in the scrub and pine trees - an extremely well marked bird, and much appreciated after dipping so miserably at La Cumbre. Surprisingly, the pine trees themselves were more productive than the lower bushes and scrub. Firstly, a cracking Olive Warbler, quickly followed by some Black-headed Siskins and a Greater Pewee before the morning's highlight arrived in the form of a magnificent pair of Blue-hooded Euphonias. I couldnt decide whether to watch the male or the female, as both were staggeringly beautiful, and much brighter than in Howell and Webb, especially the female.
Next was a Hairy Woodpecker, looking very different from the ones I have seen in North America with its smoky grey underparts, as well as a Black-headed Grosbeak and a Rose-throated Becard. Finally, I picked out a Rufous Hummingbird among the White-eareds and a Yellow-rumped Warbler on the way back to the car. This is a really beautiful spot, and standing here in the cool mountain air, in bright sunshine watching euphonias, becards and flowerpiercers certainly put yesterday firmly in context!
Having already ticked off Sierra Madre Sparrow on the first day of the trip, my priority over my last day and a half was to try to find two other highly localised endemics, both with global ranges restricted to the surroundings of Mexico City, namely Black-polled Yellowthroat and Strickland's Woodpecker. The former of these is restricted to the fast disappearing wetlands of the Lerma Valley south west of Mexico City, so having collected Sara from our Temixco hotel, we set off for the marsh at Almoloya del Río, which is probably the easiest place to find it.
This was an enjoyable drive, although quite a slow one on the twisting mountain roads before dropping down into the Lerma Valley - an interesting contrast scenically from other areas visited, with high montane grasslands and a Wild West feel to the towns and villages. Arriving at the wetland, we followed Howell's advice and turned onto the dirt road leading to the left along the edge of the marsh.
This whole area was absolutely dripping with birds - the open water had large numbers of American Coot, with a few Moorhens around the edges, while a large flock of White-faced Ibises fed in the soggy fields alongside the reeds. There were huge numbers of icterids in the area, with clouds of them periodically lifting off like a swarm of flies, before settling down again in the reeds or on the fields. The most obvious species were Yellow-headed and Red-winged (Bicoloured form) Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds, although there could well have been Brewer's Blackbirds or Bronzed Cowbirds in with them. A Northern Harrier also glided over quartering the reedbeds.
However, the reeds were too far away to be able to pick out yellowthroats, and the few muddy and reedy ditches nearer the car were unproductive, while the fields were far too wet to consider walking out to the nearest reed stands. I therefore pressed on hoping to find a stretch of road where the reeds were nearer. After about 2 km, the road bent sharply to the right, and there were reedbeds close up on both sides of the road. I parked the car next to a small pumping station and walked slowly down the road, scanning both sides. There were smaller areas of open water on the right, which soon produced good variety of ducks - Pintail, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teals, Shoveler and Ruddy Ducks.
I stopped in front of a promising looking area of reeds and started pishing, and almost immediately up popped a small yellow bird with a solid black face and fore-crown - Black-polled Yellowthroat! Just to make things really easy it was soon joined by a Common Yellowthroat, giving excellent side-by-side comparison opportunities. The Black-polled Yellowthroat didn't seem too keen to come right out into the open and show himself, but instead skulked just inside the front row of reeds, but gave decent if brief views, and I had no complaints!
Walking very happily back to the car I saw a pair of extremely dark little birds hopping around at the base of the birds, and these turned out to be the local subspecies of Song Sparrow. This is one of a group of central Mexican races which are pretty geographically isolated from the more northern populations and are very attractive birds, being very well marked especially below - well worth making an effort to see if you're in the area.
Mission accomplished, and with the light fading, we drove slowly back along the embankment, stopping briefly to watch some Pied-billed Grebes, Red-tailed Hawk, Vermilion Flycatcher and Loggerhead Shrike, before heading off for the city of Toluca to find a hotel for the night. One down, one to go!
Coajomulco - White-eared Hummingbird, Rivoli's Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Greater Pewee, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Rose-throated Becard, Gray-breasted Jay, Grey-barred Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Grey Silky-flycatcher, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Olive Warbler, Blue-rumped Euphonia, Cinnamon-bellied Flower-piercer, Mexican Junco, Baltimore Oriole, Black-headed Siskin
Almoloya del Río - Pied-billed Grebe, White-faced Ibis, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, Common Moorhen, American Coot, Vermilion Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Common Yellowthroat, Black-polled Yellowthroat, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird
Saturday 2 December 2000
My plan for today was to head south to spend the morning in the area round Temascaltepec, before returning to the Nevado de Toluca area in the afternoon to search for Strickland's Woodpecker. My main hope at Temascaltepec was to see good numbers of swifts at their roost in the narrow valley above the town, but sadly it was an absolutely glorious cloudless day (typical birder attitude towards something that normal people would be pleased about!), and by the time we arrived at the outlook above the town they had long departed for their feeding grounds. I didn't manage to see a single swift all day, and the only birds seen here in half an hour were a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and a couple of House Finches.
I was getting worried (rightly!) about the effect this hot still weather would have on the other birds of the area, so we pushed on to the town of Temascaltepec itself, and started along the route described by Howell as the El Polvorín Loop. The village of Real de Arriba was absolutely charming, even to such a hardened birder, and if I came back here I'd definitely stay the night either here or in Temascaltepec which seemed to have at least one decent looking hotel. I found a couple of Black Phoebes and a small flock of Northern Roughwings around Real de Arriba, before heading along the El Polvorín Loop.
I made several random stops along here in good looking habitat, but by and large, it was pretty dead - virtually no bird song, and very little movement. One stop before the village of Las Mesas produced a female Hepatic Tanager, before another a little further along was a little more productive. However, I'd have been forgiven for thinking that I was in California - birds seen consisted of Acorn Woodpecker, Red Crossbill, Black-throated Gray, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Baltimore Oriole, before Mexico reappeared in the form of a Grey Silky-flycatcher.
Another stop near some farm buildings in the scattered settlement of Las Mesas produced a lot of birds which flew up from and back down into some tall grass and weeds. Some were certainly sparrows, and I think there were also Lesser Goldfinches involved, but most defied identification, although Black-headed Siskins and Chipping Sparrows both perched briefly in a small tree nearby. A small hummingbird obligingly perched on overhead wires and was identified as a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, and a Northern House Wren skulked around in a roadside bush. Western Bluebirds and Bushtits were also seen nearby, and another stop some distance further along produced a Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer.
Eventually I arrived back at Route 134 north of Temascaltepec, but a last stop 0.5 km before the junction (the area named El Polvorín, which doesnt in fact exist!) was worthwhile. Acorn Woodpecker and Grey Silky-flycatcher were again seen here, with several Green Violet-ears calling and marking territories and a Brown-throated Wren was seen briefly. Black-throated Green Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet were also seen here.
Back on Route 134 I stopped at Km post 51, just south of the village of Cieneguillas, and walked briefly down along the trail which leads down to the river bed below. This was an extremely brief stop, no more than 10 minutes, but I still managed to record Slate-throated Redstart, Tufted Flycatcher, Painted Redstart and White-eared Hummingbird.
Sadly we didn't have time to tarry here, and so we pushed on back north east to Nevado de Toluca. On arriving there we parked on the junction of the track to the Nevado with Route 10 to Sultepec, as recommended by Howell, and started birding slowly along Route 10, looking for woodpeckers.
Very soon I picked up a lifer in the form of a number of Mexican Chickadees in a mixed species flock which also included Brown Creepers and Olive Warbler. No woodpeckers however, and no calling or drumming either, so I walked down to the first bend to the right, and started climbing slowly up the hillside. Just then a small woodpecker flushed from a nearby pine tree, and flew back across the road. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get on to it properly, although I thought I saw barring across the back, and indeed I eventually refound it and identified it as a Ladder-backed Woodpecker - something of an anticlimax.
By now the light was starting to fade, and I was starting to get worried, so I got back into the car, and we started to make our way slowly up the dirt road which eventually leads to the summit of the volcano. After about 3 or 4 km, by which time we were at a pretty high elevation, I heard and then spotted a feeding flock of birds in some pines about 100 metres away, and with the benefit of the scope this time I was able to confirm a pair of Strickland's Woodpeckers, as well as more Mexican Chickadees and Brown Creepers - an excellent end to the trip!
By now it was time to return to Mexico City. We needed to be at the airport quite early the next morning for our flight home, and had originally intended finding a hotel on the outskirts of the city and driving in the next morning, However, we were worried about getting stuck or lost in the very heavy traffic, and were also now worried about being picked out again as tourists by crooked police with the benefit of daylight.
We therefore decided to drive into Mexico City tonight in the darkness, drop off the rental car (thereby saving a day's rental charges as well!), and find a hotel. After a reasonable drive in the dark from Toluca to Mexico City, and a pretty harrowing drive right across the city in unbelievably heavy traffic, we eventually arrived safe and sound (and with our wallets intact) at the car rental depot. We dropped off the car, found a booking office in the airport who got us a great deal at a nearby luxury hotel who picked us up in their courtesy coach, and crashed out for our last night.
Temascaltepec Swift Overlook - House Finch, Black-headed Siskin
Real de Arriba - Black Phoebe, Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Las Mesas - Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Bushtit, Northern House Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Grey Silky-flycatcher, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Grey Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, Cinnamon-bellied Flower-piercer, Chipping Sparrow, Red Crossbill, Black-headed Siskin, Lesser Goldfinch, Baltimore Oriole
El Polvorín - Green Violet-ear, Brown-throated Wren, Black-throated Green Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Cieneguillas - White-eared Hummingbird, Tufted Flycatcher, Painted Redstart, Slate-throated Redstart
Nevado de Toluca - Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Strickland's
Woodpecker, Mexican Chickadee, Brown Creeper,
Full Bird List for the trip