21 September – 26 September 2013
Due to the tropical storms that dumped tons of rain in Oaxaca we had to take the long way around, heading to Tehuantepec before heading back down along the coast to get up into the Sierra Madre del Sur to try for a few of Oaxaca’s harder endemics. We headed up Hwy 175 from Puerto Angel and encountered hundreds of landslides along the road. Although the road was open there was still a lot of work that needed to be done and driving was slow. We saw a few houses that were literally teetering on the edge, some that had been partly buried, one that had been destroyed, and more mud than you can imagine. Our first stop was near La Soledad to look for the Blue-capped Hummingbird and the Wagler’s Toucanet (a subspecies of the Emerald Toucanet) and as luck would have it we saw both species readily from the road within a half hour. We decided not to dally long at La Soledad as our real target was further ahead… the White-throated Jay. We spent the afternoon searching the old logging road at Km 158.5 (this one is readily identified by its green gate), another more overgrown road further along around KM 159-160, and various other areas further along the road. With rain starting and stopping birding was slow at times, and unfortunately we missed the White-throated Jay, but we had phenomenal looks at several displaying male Bumblebee Hummingbirds and other great birds (see our eBird list). We spent the night at the Puesta del Sol Cabañas in San Jose del Pacifico. The cabins make a perfect birders retreat and kept us dry during the rainy night. (As a side note, unfortunately our truck is only mostly waterproof at the moment, and cooking in the rain can be miserable – we’re working on it while we’re in San Cristóbal. When upgraded, our “stage two intercontinental birding mobile” will feature a waterproof bassinet top. If it works you will see our proud pictures, if not forget we ever wrote this blurb.) In any case, the next morning we headed back out to the logging road at Km 158.5 to look for the Jay again. We thought we might have heard our bird at one point, and had an exciting and quite difficult chase up a very steep hill, but alas no White-throated Jays were in with the Steller’s Jays that we caught up with atop a ridge. As the morning progressed the clouds started building and the rain began pouring down. Not exactly what the communities up there needed after the storms, but the rain came down without a pause, increasing in intensity as the afternoon progressed. Given the current road conditions and a storm that did not look like it would not let up, we started debating whether we should stay another day and give the Jay another shot or head back down the mountains. As we were discussing our options, we watched an active mud slide starting to re-bury the road and decided it might be in our best interest to head back down before conditions get worse.
Back along the coast we stopped in at Hualtulco, a government built resort town, to check out some birding areas around there and to take a break from the long drive. There are some new roads that, at least for the time being, are essentially roads to nowhere, located on the western side of Huatulco. Until the pristine forest gets converted to international hotels, the roads are free of traffic and provide great birding. We birded along the roadsides and had great looks at perched Lilac-crowned Parrots as well as Rufous-naped Wrens, Doubleday’s (Broad-billed) Hummingbird, Olive Sparrow, Colima Pygmy-Owl, West-Mexican Chachalaca (near the end of it’s range here), White-fronted Parrot, Spot-breasted Wren and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager.
We also found a great trail that heads out to a couple of lagoons, but the trail was flooded deeper than our rubber boots allowed, and we didn’t have a kayak handy, so we opted out on that one. This trail, as well as a dirt road that provides good birding can be found by heading as far west out of Huatulco as you can towards a pair of small coves with restaurants and beaches, and making the right turn (onto a paved road) that heads back inland from this coastal road. This road currently goes to nowhere other than the trail and dirt road, and had the best birding we found in the area.
After Hualtulco we headed for Playa Colorada (15.95335, -95.57933) a small fishing enclave 64 km southwest of Salina Cruz. We had stumbled upon Playa Colorada as we first drove west along the coast to Puerto Angel and had such a lovely time there that we decided to go back. The dirt road that heads towards the beach passes through intact thorn scrub that offers great birding. We heard 4 Pacific Screech Owls along the road and saw Citreoline Trogon, Russet-crowned Motmot, White-fronted Parrot, many White-throated Flycatchers, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Cinnamon-tailed Sparrow, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red-breasted Chat, and Spot-breasted Oriole among others (see eBird for complete list).
When we arrived at Playa Colorada we talked to the local fisherman and asked them if we could camp and they said it would be no problem at all. Indeed the place was so peaceful and tranquil both nights that we stayed there. The fishermen that we ran into along the road were all very pleasant and were very interested in talking to us about the birds. If you do camp here, say hi to the locals and ask permission which ought to be freely given.
The morning we woke up to head back towards Tehuantepec in search of our next target – the Rose-bellied (Rosita’s) Bunting – the rain came pouring down. We drove through sheets of rain for over 3 hours, but luckily the rain stopped as we neared La Venta, Oaxaca. We spent the afternoon searching for Rose-bellied Bunting in likely areas according to records in eBird. We searched and searched through the blazing heat among the wind towers, and down various side roads, but the habitat was too flat and we weren’t having luck finding hilly areas with intact forest. We slowly realized that the coordinates in eBird must be wrong because none of them were terribly near foothill thorn forest. We continued to drive around the area trying to find access to the foothills, but could not find anything. A bit dejected and very hot and grimy, we headed into La Venta to get a cold drink and decide what to do next. As we started driving into town, we drove past a truck full of people with binoculars. Hey wait that is not a sight you see every day in Mexico. We stopped and the truck full of birders pulled up next to us. They rolled down their window and said “Hey, we were hoping to run into you. Have you seen the Rosita’s Bunting yet.” “No, we haven’t.” “Okay, follow us, we’re heading out there now!” Josh and I looked at each other in bewilderment, who could these people be? They seem to know who we are, but who are they? After a brief moment, we realized it had to be Jorge Montejo and Amy McAndrews, prominent birders, conservationists, and guides in Mexico. As it turns out they had been following our blog and were waiting for us to turn up in La Venta. How fortunate for us! We were hoping to meet up with them as well at some point during our journey. We followed them to Jabba’s Canyon, the place we had spent all afternoon looking for. It turns out we had been quite close but hadn’t followed the right combination of dirt roads around and through a sand and gravel extraction area and then up and behind a corn field. When we arrived at Jabba’s Canyon we also learned that Hector Gomez de Silva was working with them – doubly fortuitous as there are few people who know Mexico birding better. We hiked up the overgrown path we found several female Rosita’s Buntings but no males. Amy and Jorge and their field crew joked a lot about whether the females counted, as everyone was still hoping to see a male. We also managed to find Green-fronted Hummingbird and two Mourning Warblers. As dark approached we followed them back to town and spent the evening talking about birds and sharing information over dinner. We had a great time and learned a ton from Amy, Jorge, and Hector! We cannot thank them enough for the wealth of terrific information and the hospitality they shared with us.
The next day Josh and I went back to Jabba’s Canyon (16.60265, -94.84320) and found at least 9 Rosita’s Buntings including some brilliant males, what lookers!
We also saw several migrants including Canada Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Towsend’s Warbler, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird. The best way to reach Jabba’s Canyon is probably to use Google Maps and plug in the coordinates then just do a bit of poking around for the right road at the very end, but here are some rough directions: Head west from the La Venta Junction and immediately after the first overpass make a right to head out roughly towards the west edge of the wind farm. Follow the dirt road along an irrigation channel and take your first right going over a bridge and then turning back to the left to follow the channel again. Shortly thereafter there is a fork, keep right on the main track. Follow the road all the way around until it dumps you into what at first appears to be a dead end where sand and gravel are being extracted from a wash. You can make a very hard right here, back towards the wind farm, and the road will wind around the edge of the sand and gravel area. As you get towards the far side of the sand and gravel area there is a not too obvious, gentle left turn that will head up hill and turn further left, with scrub on your left and a cornfield on your right. There should be a small white building ahead where you can park. You can walk past the house along the edge of the cornfield or you can bushwhack down a variably overgrown track opposite the house, along the edge of another corn field, then veering back right and up into Jabba’s Canyon. Rosita’s Buntings were relatively easy to find in both locations, particularly in the morning.
La Venta is situated in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico’s narrowest point, and is an area that is known for extremely high winds. When we were in La Venta the winds were not blowing and we were told that we were as the winds can be very intense and unpleasant, essentially making birding impossible. Due to such intense wind, energy developers have targeted the area heavily for wind farms. There are hundreds of wind turbines all throughout the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
Unfortunately, North American migrant land birds must funnel through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec while heading to their wintering grounds. The combination of a migration corridor and wind turbines can spell trouble for migratory birds who frequently strike the towers, especially when they are migrating at night. In the United States the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that 440,000 birds are killed annually by wind farms (American Bird Conservancy). Although the exact number of birds killed each year due to wind turbines at La Venta is not known the World Bank estimates that more than 20 individuals may be killed per megawatt hour that the turbines operate per year (World Bank 2011). A current estimate (Wikipedia) puts the total wind power generation in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec at over 2000 Megawatts. Exactly how much impact these wind farms are having on migratory and resident species is not known, but thankfully Jorge Montejo and Amy McAndrews are conducting biological surveys of birds and bats around the wind farms to determine the impact the wind farms are having on these species. Jorge and Amy are hopeful that their work will turn some heads to help minimize the impact of existing and future turbines on birds and bats. Our discussion about impacts of wind turbines on birds is nowhere near complete and numerous opinions exist regarding the true impact. Unfortunately due to the amount of money being spent and the vested political interests behind wind energy, determining just how much impact wind farms have on birds is difficult.
Next up, we headed towards Puerto Arista in search of the Giant Wren, White-bellied Chachalaca, and the Pacific Parkeet. Puerto Arista apparently is a booming beach town in the winter, but the place was deserted when we were there. It was late afternoon by the time we got to Puerto Arista so we decided to bird around the road that leads to Cabeza del Toro and the road opposite that heads west through small towns, agriculture and some lagoons. The heat and the mosquitoes that afternoon were stifling, but we plodded along hoping for a Giant Wren. Unfortunately, no Giant Wrens, so we headed back to Jose’s Camping to spend the night. In the morning we were eating breakfast and we both heard what sounded like Giant Wren in the palm right next to our truck. We jumped up… and there they were… two Giant Wrens right in the campground. Not a bad way to start the day and what a cool bird!
After breakfast we headed back down the road to Cabeza del Toro and beyond towards Boca del Cielo. Just as we neared the edge of Cabeza del Toro we heard Parakeets flying overhead and saw them land in a distant tree. We ran back to the car and drove towards the tree where we thought they landed and grabbed the scope. Yahoo, a whole tree full of Pacific Parakeets! We were able to see all of the distinguishing field marks readily including smaller patches of orange on the throat, brilliant green throughout, and they lacked an orange forehead or throat like the Orange-fronted or Orange-chinned Parakeets that both occur in the area, as well as being larger and longer tailed. We birded along the road stopping every time we heard or saw activity. We saw hundreds of Cattle Egrets, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Neotropic Cormorants, and Wood Storks along the way as well as Roseate Spoonbill, Bare-throated Tiger-heron, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, and Spot-breasted Oriole. The highlight for sure had to be the White-bellied Chacalaca that Josh spotted while driving along the road. We thought for sure we would miss this bird because the area is completely cut over and grazed. We were also fortunate enough to run into another group of Giant Wrens. They were calling and carrying on right next to the road. Their sounds are pure laughter and quite intricate. Unfortunately just as I pulled out the recording equipment a dog started barking and all of the Giant Wrens flew away. We ended up driving all the way to Boca del Cielo and to Madresal, an ecotourism development in Boca del Cielo. Although cutover and a bit depressing, we found the local specialties and had great birds the entire way (see our list on eBird). Of note, Madresal (http://www.elmadresal.com/) looks like it should offer some nice mangrove birding and could be a very relaxing place to stay. We asked the staff there about a few birds of interest- they were not sure about Mangrove Vireo, they said Gray-necked Wood-Rail is common but they have not seen Rufous-necked Wood-Rail.