3, 4 & 5 July 2013
In the cape region of Baja California Sur are a couple of isolated mountain ranges, the best known being the Sierra de la Laguna. The Sierra de la Laguna has several endemic birds and is a good spot to a find a few others that are not otherwise anywhere near the area. There are four endemic subspecies, or species depending on which authority you consult, in the area. The four are the Baird’s Junco (considered a subspecies of Yellow-eyed Junco by the AOU), the San Lucas Robin (considered a subspecies of American Robin), the Cape Pygmy Owl (still considered part of Northern Pygmy Owl though it is closer to the double tooting form found in Arizona than the single tooting form in California), and an endemic, non-migratory subspecies of Cassin’s Vireo. There is also an Acorn Woodpecker here with a red eye which is a bit distinctive.
There are several options for accessing the Sierra de la Laguna – from the north via the San Antonio de la Sierra from the east via a couple of ranches and canyons involving some strenuous and largely off trail hikes, in the south via the Las Naranjas Rd, and from the west, accessing the La Laguna meadow (named La Laguna as this area was formerly a shallow lake, which was drained in the 1800’s, either naturally or by humans depending on what you read) by hiking in from La Burrera ranch near Todos Santos. We drove up the Las Naranjas Rd after visiting the San Antonio de la Sierra area and in our opinion San Antonio de la Sierra is the better destination, offering a much better location to camp, trails to access higher elevations, more extensive and accessible riparian habitat, and being on the north slopes of the mountains rather than the south slopes, it is significantly less hot.
The San Antonio de la Sierra area is accessible from Hwy 1 (the old road around the cape). Hwy 1 passes through the towns of El Triunfo to San Antonio and goes through good thorn forest / thorn scrub habitat but there are not many places to pull off the road and most of the road sides are fenced. The San Antonio de la Sierra Rd heads south from Hwy 1 about 7 kilometers south / east of the town of San Antonio. The turn off is signed for the Reserva Biosfera and San Antonio de la Sierra. Once you turn onto the San Antonio de la Sierra road, you are in great habitat again, ascending slowly through thorn scrub with many riparian crossings. It’s easy to stay on the main road, and in the one or two places where there are Y’s where both directions look equally well maintained, it doesn’t matter which you take as they soon rejoin. At 28km you descend into a broad (100m across) arroyo with tall mature cottonwoods and palms. There is a concrete stretch of road across the arroyo and an interpretive sign for the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra de la Laguna that talks about restoration in Spanish and English. You can camp in the wash here under the cottonwoods, you should be able to see a few obvious spots and fire rings from the road. We stopped and chatted with a few ranchers on the way up and they were very helpful in providing directions and confirming that it’s no problem to camp in the wash.
We found the birding to be excellent here, the riparian areas provide great habitat and the one signed “Las Termopilas” is particularly excellent. In a half hour in mid-afternoon heat we found one or perhaps two Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Varied Bunting, Acorn Woodpecker, Gilded Flicker, Scott’s Oriole, Cassin’s Vireo, Xantus’s Hummingbird (a southern Baja endemic that is also found outside the Sierra de la Laguna), and more Hooded Orioles than can be sanely counted (at least 30 in about 100 yards of road). The birding at the camping area is also terrific and our dinner was interrupted by a pair of Elf Owls calling from the trees overhead, with Cassin’s Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Xantus’s Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Crested Caracara and more in our camp as well.
If you continue through the wash, a few hundred meters further on there is a clear fork. Taking the right fork will put you on what the locals call the La Victoria Rd, as it eventually leads to Rancho La Victoria. You will reach a locked gate in a few kilometers, and you can park off the road just before the gate if you have a bit of clearance. From this gate it is about a 6 kilometer hike ascending about 800 meters to a minor summit with an abandoned structure that is visible from a good distance. If you do the hike, it is steep but shady in the morning until the last bit which bakes in the sun. At 3.25 kilometers from the gate you will reach a prominent right fork, take it. The road quickly deteriorates but is easy to hike the entire way. At the top, there is an old dam along with the abandoned structure (some sort of house or lodge or lookout with a heck of a deck and view). We found at least a dozen Baird’s Junco here and they were very confiding, coming within feet of us. Too bad we didn’t carry our camera, too hot for that in July.
On the way down we found a single San Lucas Robin, the calls and the song are similar to our regular American Robin but the song seems a little more slurred and perhaps deeper. In any case, the song and call are notably different, unfortunately we were not able to get a recording. We at first thought it sounded a bit like Hooded Oriole chatter. We only found 2 San Lucas Robins in about 12 hours of birding in the area, they seemed scarce, presumably due to our being there at the very end of the dry season and berries and other food being quite scarce.