Sierra Madre Sparrows and Strickland’s Woodpeckers in Milpa Alta

7 Sept 2013

Although we’ve barely scratched the surface of the places we will go, we have already had to face a lot of choices of whether to drive a long distance to chase a single bird, whether to go to a potentially less than fully safe place for an endemic, and whether to stay somewhere to keep trying for a hard bird or to keep moving. Of course none of it really matters…we’re traveling, having great fun and seeing a ton of great places and great birds. Nonetheless, we are trying to see as many of the endemic and hard birds as we can, so we very much wanted to go to the Mexico City/Toluca area to look for a few key species – Strickland’s Woodpecker, Sierra Madre Sparrow, and Black-polled Yellowthroat. The Black-polled Yellowthroat can be found in some gorgeous locations in Michoacan and other areas further west of Mexico and Morelos, but the remnant marsh near Almoloya del Rio was the closest place for us. It’s a diked remnant patch of wetland surrounded by agriculture and industrial sprawl coming from Toluca. Not pretty, but it was a lot easier than driving to Michoacan. Close by is La Cima, the long-known “best” location for the Sierra Madre Sparrow, an endangered sparrow with a tiny range in the southern portion of Distrito Federal and northern Morelos. However, La Cima has a long and ugly history of mugging and robbery targeted at birders. It sits right on Hwy 95 and you’re in plain view with your expensive binoculars, cameras and the like when you visit the site. Many birders over the years have had problems there and we’ve heard that there are still seriuos security concerns there. We really weren’t keen on getting robbed, so we started looking for other places to find the Sierra Madre Sparrow, to make it worth our while to drive in and around Mexico City.

Sierra Madre Sparrow at Milpa Alta.

Sierra Madre Sparrow at Milpa Alta.

There is another great location for the Sierra Madre Sparrow, as it turns out. Just south of Mexico City, and just over a row of hills to the east of La Cima, is another agricultural valley at 10,000 feet elevation with a good bit of bunch-grass remaining and pine covered hillsides. There is a great road that runs the length of the valley, and although the agricultural fields are private property and should be respected, the bunch-grass covered hillsides and the pines are readily accessed from the road. We explored down the road, passing a gate and a little shack where a security guard is stationed (permission was freely given although we were advised that we just need to check in and that the fields are private property). It did not take long to locate a pair of Sierra Madre Sparrows, Striped Sparrows were abundant (and the only ones we found on our circuitous route that man aged to miss them otherwise!) and we also found a Strickland’s Woodpecker with a little work. We almost missed the Strickland’s Woodpecker and were, in fact, nearly ready to give up as we drove out the road to head toward Almoloya del Rio. At the last moment I heard a bunch of warbler chatter, so we pulled over to check out the mixed species flock. Kathi spotted a woodpecker in a distance oak. At first glance, Kathi thought maybe it was just a Hairy Woodpecker as it was back-lit and the woodpecker flew before I got to see it. A bit of a jog down the road and a glance in a prominent snag rewarded us with a Strickland’s Woodpecker! We expected to find the Strickland’s Woodpecker in more open pine forest but we found our pair in an oak grove on the edge of the pines.

Habitat at Milpa Alta where we found Sierra Madre Sparrow.

Habitat at Milpa Alta where we found Sierra Madre Sparrow.

In an entire morning on the road we saw two other vehicles (both local farmers) and dozens of runners. This is a much quieter and much safer alternative to La Cima, though getting to the road in question requires a lot of navigation of southern Mexico City that is way beyond what can be explained in a few paragraphs. However, if you have a cellular phone that works in Mexico, Google Maps will do a perfectly fine job of getting you there. GPS coordinates for the spot along the road where we found Sierra Madre Sparrow are 19.14502, -99.12237. You can also see our eBird checklist for the morning here:, and if you click on the map link in eBird you’ll see the road in question, which is accessed via the tiny town of San Salvador Cuauhtenco. One other small bit of advice – if you do try to get out here, make sure you are aware of the Hoy No Circula ( restrictions and how they apply to whatever vehicle you are in, as you’ll need to drive through Distrito Federal and the state of Mexico to get there!

Kathi scoping bluebirds and Striped Sparrows

Kathi scoping bluebirds and Striped Sparrows


2 Comments on Sierra Madre Sparrows and Strickland’s Woodpeckers in Milpa Alta

  1. After looking over a handful of the blog posts on your website, I
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  2. We spent hours trying for the GPS ‘s point Katia gave above. We gave up and found both Sierra Madre Sparrow and Striped Sparrow along main roads.
    The Sierra Madre Sparrow was at Laguna Zempoala, 8km west of Tres Marias : GPS 19.053271 -99.313002
    The Striped Sparrow was at 6km north of Tres Marias : GPS: 19.0954 -99.213617
    The Black-polled Yellowthroat at Katia’s site around the Almoloya del Rio Laguna
    Claude and Marie-Jo Blog :


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