18 July – 22 July 2013
Early on the 18 of July we headed up the Mázatlan-Durango Highway in great anticipation of the amazing birds we could see… Tufted Jay, Purplish-backed Jay, Citreoline Trogon, Elegant Trogon, Mountain Trogon, Military Macaw… and the list goes on. Being in the tropics, the list of possible birds just keeps getting better!
Our first stop along the highway was Patitlan Road. Shortly after getting out of the car, we heard a warbler that we did not recognize and scanned the thick thorn forest to find out who was singing. While scanning the thicket I picked up a Red-breasted Chat and yelled for Josh to come quick! How exciting, our first bird along the highway, the elusive and often difficult to see Red-breasted Chat, sitting up in clear view! The Red-breasted Chat was singing a simpler song than the recordings we had studied, and we were able to make pretty good recordings of it. Wow! We were both ecstatic! On the other side of the road we heard a Happy Wren singing, but that little guy proved more difficult to find. I was able to get good looks but Josh had to wait until a couple stops later to get a good look at the Happy Wren. Black-throated Magpie-Jays were abundant along the roadside and I never tire of looking at them, such a beautiful bird! As we walked back to the car we heard Purplish-backed Jays calling in the distance and were able to get really good looks at a family group of Purplish-backed Jays. The Patitlan road makes for a good first stop in thorn forest along the highway. For a complete list of species seen see our EBird report.
The Mazatlan-Durango Highway can be difficult to bird with the heavy and often fast moving traffic, but there are a few pullouts along the highway that can be checked. At Km 268, we hopped out of the car and followed an old two track and got our first looks at a Citreoline Trogon, Rufous-backed Robin, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and Yellow-Green Vireo (a very abundant bird in the thorn forest). Along the roadside we also had our first Masked Tityra and continued to have Sinoloa Wrens, Grayish Saltators, and Yellow-green Vireos serenading us at nearly every stop.
The thorn forest between KM 270 and 252 is also supposed to be a good location to find the elusive West Mexico endemic Flammulated Flycatcher. The Flammulated Flycatcher vaguely resembles Myiarchus flycatchers (Nutting’s, Ash-throated Flycatcher), but it is smaller and has plumage features that are atypical of other Myiarchus Flycatchers. Flammulated Flycatchers are also retreating and are difficult to spot unless singing, unlike other Myiarchus Flycatchers. Hence the flycatcher is in its own monospciefic genus (Deltarhynchus). We checked nearly all of the pullouts along the highway that afforded access or views down into the thorn forests in hopes of seeing the Flammulated Flycatcher. However, despite several hours of effort on two different occasions, we did not hear or see this tough bird.
We stopped for lunch along the roadside in the only bit of shade we could find. While munching on our cheese and avocado sandwiches, Josh stands up and looks at the tree across the way and screams Mexican Parrotlet! We had good if fleeting looks at two Mexican Parrotlets, along with a pair of Russet-crowned Motmots, a nice way to spend lunch!
On the way up we also made quick stops at Panuco Road and Petaca Road. We were trying to make it up to the Reserva Chara Pinta (Tufted Jay Preserve) around 3 pm, so we did not have much time. In our brief 20 minute stop at Petaca road we were calling out new birds left and right…. Golden Vireo, Blue Mockingbird, and Black-headed Siskin. We also made a quick stop at KM 211 a location known for the rare and endemic Sinoloa Martin and the excitement continued. As soon as we got out of the car, I fumbled in excitement to describe the bird that I was seeing to Josh…a Red-headed Tanager…what a looker! We also saw Crescent-chested Warblers, Plumbeous Vireo, White-striped Woodcreeper, Arizona Woodpecker, Rufous-capped Warbler, Greater Pewee, Slate-throated Redstart, Eastern Bluebird, and Olive Warbler. Quite a good list for a 20 minute roadside stop.
Around 4 pm we arrived in El Palmito to meet Don Santos, a local guide at the Reserva Chara Pinta. While waiting for Don Santos at the Centro de Salud, we heard a bunch of squawking that sounded like parrots. Parrots, in town, no way I thought, but then we looked up we found 6 Military Macaws gorging themselves on a fruiting tree right behind the Centro de Salud! Wow! I’ve missed the Military Macaw other times I’ve been in Mexico, so I was thrilled to have such great looks. While in the mountains we saw dozens of Military Macaws flying through the canyons, but if you want good looks, be sure to check the fruiting trees in El Palmito as they were there in the same place each time we passed by.
We arrived at the Reserva Chara Pinta at 5:30 pm and headed out to explore the area in hopes of seeing the endemic and endangered Tufted Jay. Josh and I were still on a birding high from all the amazing birds we saw on the way up to the reserve and I thought how could our day possibly get any better. In an hour and 40 minutes we saw 22 species! We had amazing looks at the Green-striped Brushfinch, a skulker which can sometimes be hard to see. Russet Nightingale-Thrushes bounced along the trails and Brown-backed Solitaire’s sang their synthesizer song. Within a short period of time we were each calling out new birds… over there… look a Red Warbler, and a Golden-browed Warbler … quick… a Mountain Trogon… Oh and there is a Rufous-capped Brushfinch, a Blue-throated Hummingbird, and Oh my… look! It’s the Tufted Jay!
There are few words that can describe the Tufted Jay other than outlandish and spectacular! Perhaps the only more stunning bird I’ve seen in the neotropics thus far is the Resplendent Quetzal. We had great looks at about 7 Tufted Jays foraging and feeding their young. We birded the Jay preserve several times during our stay and highly recommend visiting the preserve, it’s a truly magical place! For a complete list of species seen see our eBird reports for the 18th and 19th. For more information about the Reserve Chara Pinta and to make reservations see their Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/charapinta.tuftedjay
We revisited the roadside pullout at KM 211 in hopes of seeing the Sinoloa Martin. With eyes to the sky we eagerly looked for the Martin. Within five minutes I spotted a Martin flying around the cliff and then we see not one but four Martins flying about. We even saw one Martin fly into a crevice on the cliff (where they are nesting). Seeing the Sinoloa Martin was an ultimate treat, as not much is known about this species.
After watching the Martins for a bit, we attempted to get a recording of them. The Martins were flying around the cliff face approximately 100m from us and we were right along the highway. Facing highway noise and such a great distance we attempted to climb up the side of the canyon to try to get closer to the Martins for a better recording, however the hillside was very steep and slick with loose rocks that prevented us from getting any appreciable distance above the highway. So we did the best we could between semis roaring by and managed to record some vocalizations of the Sinoloa Martin.
Next we headed back to Petaca Road where we had such great birds on the way up to the Reserve and the great birding continued. Right along the roadside in somewhat cut-over area we found Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrows foraging in the open. A Berryline Hummingbird perched briefly for both of us to get great looks, which was a nice treat and a female Gray-throated Becard foraged in the open along the roadside. Up the canyon we heard what we thought was a Gray-crowned Woodpecker, a bird that can be difficult to see. A quick run back to the truck for the spotting scope revealed two Gray-crowned Woodpeckers! Another surprise for us were four Red Crossbills foraging in one of the only pine tree along the roadside! Towards the end of the morning, the birding started to slow down when Josh looks up and says Swifts! Black Swifts! We saw 5 Black Swifts flying around over the canyon displaying the typical field marks of Black Swifts; large all dark swifts, some individuals with forked tails (males) and others with square tails (females). Right when we decided to turn around and head back to the reserve we saw two Rusty Sparrows foraging in a cut-over area. For a complete list of species seen, see our eBird list.
On our last day we decided to explore a little bit into the state of Durango and take in more sights along the Mázatlan-Durango Highway. The views and utter ruggedness of the Sierra Madre Occidental is spectacular! We drove to Parque Natural Mexiquillo to check out a different habitat late in the afternoon. Here the habitat changed from humid pine oak forest to drier, higher altitude (2600 m) pine forest. We arrived a little late for prime birding and did not see many species. However this area is known for Eared Quetzal (which we missed) and seems like a great place to go birding. At the waterfall we saw 18 Black Swifts foraging low over the falls, presumably they are nesting behind the falls. In the grassy area around the park entrance we also had five Chipping Sparrows.
On the drive back from Parque Natural Mexiquillo, we hit the afternoon rains that come in torrents this time of year nearly every afternoon. Sheets of rain came pouring down, the cliffs turned to waterfalls, and rocks came tumbling down the hillsides. The storm definitely made for an exciting and somewhat nerve-wracking drive on one of the most dangerous highways in Mexico.
On our last day in the mountains we got up really early to head down to Panuco Road. We heard from the folks at the Reserve that Panuco Road was safe during the day, but after our visit to the area we heard that this area can be really dangerous. While we had no problems during our visit, and everyone who passed us on the road smiled and waved, it is best to ask around before birding this area. Panuco Road offers some great mid-elevation forest but can be difficult to bird because the vegetation is so thick, the terrain very steep, and many of the birds were singing off in the distance. Despite the challenging birding we did manage to get good looks at Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Elegant Trogon, Nutting’s Flycatcher, Citreoline Trogon, Golden Vireo, Yellow Grosbeak, Squirrel Cuckoo, and a male Golden-crowned Emerald. We also had fleeting looks at what was most likely a Sparkling-tailed Woodstar. I saw a long forked black and white tail whiz past me but never managed to get my bins on it… the one that got away. For a complete list of species seen see our eBird list for Panuco Rd.
Our five days along the Mázatlan-Durango Highway were absolutely amazing! In total we saw 113 species.