30 March 2009

Size Does Matter…(Oaxaca, Mexico): 20 March 2009

Just a few days after our “Nava’s Experience” we were back in some more limestone karst forest, looking for another “well-endowed” wren, the cock-tailed Sumichrast’s Wren. Balancing on a jagged limestone outcrop within the humid lowland forest while a wren crept through dark crevices beneath us was for me one of the trip highlights. Take away the long bill and the wren becomes just another LBJ (little brown job), but the bill changes everything. It also exists in this weird rocky limestone forest that also adds to the allure. Great bird. Also in the area was a pair of very noisy Rufous Pihas, that made all kinds of weird sounds in the treetops above us. As far as the town of Tuxtepec goes though it was not a thriller. Huge vats of beer spewing polluting fumes on the edge of town are not a welcoming environment. Being a big fan of Mexican beer I guess I am guilty of encouraging this practice though, as it doesn’t half feel good to sink a dark Bohemia down your neck after a day in the humid, sweaty jungle!

Two Days in the Tuxtlas…(Veracruz, Mexico): 18-19 March 2009

We spent a couple of days birding The Sierra de Los Tuxtlas of northern Veracruz, birding both an excellent looking patch of good montane forest (1100m) outside the town of Tuxtla San Andreas, and another couple of lowland patches too (200-300m). Our first afternoon was quiet as expected for a sunny afternoon in the cloudforest, although still produced a headline sighting. Late in the afternoon I got a little sick of hearing Slaty-breasted Tinamous mocking me all around and so went after a close calling bird. As I walked in the bird remained steadfastly in one spot and after playing a little tape it proved that Tinamous can be taped in after all, as a male bird ran rings around me several times, pausing in the open on multiple occasions. Superb. The main bird we had come here for was a highly-localized quail-dove, named after this mountain range. We spent a good few hours chasing down calls, that were always that little bit far off with birds showing no interest in our recording whatsoever. However, late in the morning on our second day we ventured in after one, making a ton of unavoidable noise crunching through the dry leaf litter, only for the bird to continue calling away-we finally had our shot. It teased us for a while and we inadvertently flushed it once, but finally we were able to get some great looks at a striking Tuxtla Quail-Dove as it called from some low trees. Mission accomplished. In the sweaty lowland forest patches visited (once again they were mere patches), we had some more impressive Keel-billed Toucans and a pair of Black-headed Trogons among others.

26 March 2009

Navigating for Nava’s…(Chiapas, Mexico): 17 March 2009

On this day we headed north into a very special habitat in northern Chiapas – forests that are located on limestone karsts or outcrops, where a very special wren can be found. We birded the edge of the El Ocote reserve checking outcrops within the montane forest for this well-endowed wren to no avail. Michael has a GPS reference for a recent sighting and so we headed across cleared pasture land into a forest patch well off the road, and finally heard our quarry. We settled ourselves in an alcove on the side of a large limestone outcrop within this small forest fragment and waited, and after a long painful silence this distinctive bird, the Nava’s Wren came hopping along the top edge of the rock, before settling into a near tree and singing for us. Having fought our way through pastures and tracked down the territory by way of our waypoint reference we then bumped into another calling bird alongside the road, when all we had to do to get it this time was get out of the car and watch among the limestone boulders by the road. A hell of a lot less hassle this way! One pay off for working our way through the cow pastures that had replaced a large proportion of highland forest in the area was finding a Slate-colored Solitaire (see photo) singing its heart out on the forest edge. Another notable addition in another area of limestone karst was a White-bellied Wren, one of 16 species seen on the trip so far…

Under the Belt…(Chiapas, Mexico): 16 March 2009

Our morning was spent again close to the town of San Cristobal, in highland pine-oak forest, primarily to search again for Pink-headed Warbler and some other titbits we were missing from the highlands. Unfortunately our morning was cut short when a couple of local farmers seemed to suggest strongly that we were not permitted in the area, and rather argue with them (with a car load of stuff for them to retaliate on) we decided to get out of there just in case. However, we still saw some good stuff. We arrived at the ungodly hour of 05.30am to try for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl as we were flushed with confidence following the screech show the night before. Our new found confidence in owling was soon dented when we turned up with not a whisper from the saw-whet. We did however find a female Garnet-throated Hummingbird feeding on a flowering bromeliad, and a triplet of Pink-headed Warblers (see photo) so it was not all bad at all.

From there we continued west to the dramatic El Sumidero canyon, a top tourist attraction for its geological wonder that just also happens to be a Chiapas birding hotspot. The canyon was impressive and huge (even for someone who has viewed the Grand Canyon in Arizona only last year). The birding was also good with a Fan-tailed Warbler or two, and an Eye-ringed Flatbill sharing the same bamboo-draped grove. Best of all though was one of Sumidero’s star residents, the incomparable Belted Flycatcher that looked far from skulking when we saw it on the upper slopes (defying its reputation) – see photo. Lower down the road up the canyon we stopped to admire several Grey-crowned Yellowthroats, that due to its chunky beak is sometimes known as Ground Chat which is a far more interesting name. A “beefy” Rusty Sparrow was also found within the same stretch of dry scrubby grassland. This excellent day was rounded off nicely with a spicy Aztec Soup and a round of chilled Sol cervezas for all, in a cafetaria just off the main zocolo (town square) in Tuxtla Gutierrez.

23 March 2009

Bearded Owls in the Chiapas Highlands…(Chiapas, Mexico): 15 March 2009

After our time in the jungle we ascended up to the pine-oak woods in the Chiapas highlands (2300m) around the town of San Cristobal de las Casas. We had very little time left for the day, with just an hours light to check out some pines for Pink-headed Warblers, which we did not find. Although, we did get another Blue-throated Motmot, and several Rufous-collared Robins. However, what we were really there for were some ‘creatures of the night’, and one of these performed to perfection (after the expected period of chasing it around for a while first of course). The photo above should show just how well the Bearded Screech-owl “showboated” for us (see photo).

Moonwalking Manakins and Rainforest Royalty…(Chiapas, Mexico): 15 March 2009

After a restless night when a troop of Black Howler Monkeys decided to call right above our cabin at around 5am (after a neighbours cellphone rang next door at around 4am!), we awoke for a morning of birding in the sticky lowlands of eastern Chiapas. With our attempts to enter the ‘sacred’ biosphere on the other side of the Rio Lacantรบn coming to nothing, we had to content ourselves by birding the patchy forest around the Ejidal reserve. As it turned out this was not all bad, a Mexican Antthrush singing at us from an exposed branch near the trailhead picking our spirits up somewhat. Other finds in the humid lowland jungle there included a fantastic male Red-headed Manakin – see photo - (the infamous “moonwalker”, that display dances in the fashion of 80s Michael Jackson), and old “hammerhead” himself, a regal Royal Flycatcher (see photo). Aside from these we were deafened by more Howlers, and also ran into an agitated troop of Spider Monkeys. Other birds in the jungle included a well-named Northern Bentbill, a pair of Dusky Antbirds, Tawny-winged and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, Stub-tailed Spadebill and Rufous Mourner.

Fork-tailed Sits on the Fence…(Chiapas, Mexico): 14 March 2009

Still for me one of the most impressive flycatchers in the world...(seen on the way to Las Guacamayos parrot reserve in southeastern Chiapas).

21 March 2009

Cloudforest Quetzals Cling on…(Chiapas, Mexico): 14 March 2009

Cloudforest Quetzals and Mountain Guans…(Chiapas, Mexico): 14 March 2009
Our gloomy outlook for the mornings birding around Lagos de Montebello (a collection of ultramarine coloured lakes near the Guatemalan border), took a drastic turn for the better when just after checking out a Unicolored Jay at the top of a pine a shout went up from Michael, Doug, and Matt – RESPLENDANT QUETZAL. The shout may have been a little overexcited as this emerald-tailed wonder hot-footed to the other side of the road before I had got my glasses on it. Heart racing I went in hot pursuit of what must be considered one of the World’s top birds. Racing through the thick underbrush (that drew blood in the process), I could hear the bird calling ahead of me, and I hardly had time (or the inclination) to observe a couple of Azure-hooded Jays as I was single-minded in my pursuit of Guatemala’s national bird. Every time I got close to the calling bird a perusal of the pines drew a blank so I fought my way into the brush further, only to see a flash of emerald and crimson disappear off into the woods ahead of me. I decided to wait in one place and give it a blast of the tape. All went quiet for a while and I feared the world’s top quetzal had given me the slip, only for my eye to catch a bright green streamer-tailed bird landing above me. The Resplendent Quetzal (see photo) was in the bag. Having genuinely thought they may have been extirpated in the area only the day before we were then serenaded by three calling birds in the area. The morning in this remnant patch of cloudforest did not end there and just a short time later we were entranced with a Highland Guan (see photo) doing display flights from the canopy right overhead. To top all this off we also got great looks at two separate Black-capped Nightingale-thrushes, and best of all added our third jay of the morning to the list – when a few Black-throated Jays came in to check us out. A triple Jay morning!

Another venture into Border Country…(Chiapas, Mexico): 13 March 2009

After a fairly fruitless session birding on the outskirts of a windy Union Juarez, where we picked up a couple of new wrens for the trip – Rufous-and-white, and Spot-breasted Wrens, in addition to getting some cracking views of a Blue-tailed Hummingbird – we continued our birding journey in Chiapas (incidentally Mexico must be one of the most diverse countries on Earth for wrens, holding over thirty species, including the biggest of them all, Giant).

We skirted the border northwards from Union Juarez, as we drove a further 200km or so northeast to the tiny town of Tziscao, (strangely passing two separate towns named New Mexico, and another place called Union Juarez en-route). Although we had moved considerable distance we were still perched on the edge of Mexico, glancing into Guatemala not too far off. However, the place was a world away from the (first) Union Juarez that we had stayed in the day before, as this place had undergone a depressing ‘face lift’, with almost no patches of cloud forest remaining, and with it our chances of catching up with the world’s most famous quetzal, the Resplendent Quetzal had seemingly vanished. This pristine quetzal was known from these parts as recently as two years previously, although our initial thoughts were that they must surely now have gone (?) This was in spite of the statements of the local park guard, (who must have been asleep when the chainsaws moved in), who continued to claim its continuing existence in the area. All we saw in a late afternoon stint of birding in a tiny remnant patch of poor cloud forest was a lone female Mountain Trogon. Just a few signs were evident of the magnificent cloudforest that must once have been here (see photos).

20 March 2009

‘Sinking the Pink’ on the Border…(Chiapas, Mexico/Guatemala): 12 March 2009

We spent the day birding a steep mountain trail ascending Volcan Tacana up to the Guatemalan town of Tregales. We began our morning in Mexico, although as we climbed the trail we found the distinct line of white obelisks that delineate the border of Chiapas, (eastern Mexico), with the western border of Guatemala. From then on up we crisscrossed from the Mexican side to the Guatemalan side, sometimes seeing the same birds in two countries as they too crisscrossed the frontier in the cloud forest up there (around 2100m in the Guatemalan town of Tregales). This was principally a pilgrimage for a very special warbler, the so-called ‘vision-in-pink’, Pink-headed Warbler. We walked out of Mexico into Guatemala and we still had not got a sniff of this pink-hooded wonder. Just across the border we found our first Black-capped Siskins. This pale-billed siskin is said to be rare and difficult, although we must have hit peak time for them, because we ran into them time and again hanging about in the alder trees between the first border area and the Guatemalan town of Tregales. Just as I was ‘glassing’ my first Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush, just below the town (2100m), the shout went up for the ‘pink one’. Nick Athanas and Michael Retter had it in their sights, and I hit the trail after them and this pink-flushed wood-warbler. Three of these fantastic birds graced us for a while, and later in the day we found another pair flitting from one side of the border to the other, letting us get great looks at them both in Mexico and Guatemala. Other top finds included two separate Rufous Sabrewings in the town of Union Juarez, once on the return journey from the volcano, and then absurdly within the parking lot of our town hotel (Hotel Aljoad). Also a Yellow-throated Brush-finch along the trail, a pair of Ruddy Foliage-gleaners proving they can be obliging when the mood takes them, a few Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers scattered along the track, a striking Blue-and-white Mockingbird hiding out on the scrubby border of Guatemala and Mexico, and a White-faced Quail-Dove perched up nicely not far below the Mexican border. At the end of the day we descended back into Mexico, and the fascinating frontier town of Union Juarez once more.

Mountain-Gems and Motmots in the Mountains…(Chiapas, Mexico): 11 March 2009

Our day started in the Pacific slope lowlands just outside Mapastapec, in the so-called ‘Microwave Valley’, where we picked up two key endemic birds – the Rufous-breasted Spinetail, and a pair of White-bellied Chachalacas, that were being surprisingly quiet. Other finds there included a party of noisy Giant Wrens, in addition to the miraculously Giant Wren-like form of the Rufous-naped Wren.

The afternoon was just great, working a steep mountain trail very close to the Guatemalan border near the town of Union Juarez. We had a cracking afternoon on the flanks of Volcan Tacana, with a female Emerald-chinned Hummingbird working a bloom, several Green-throated Mountain-Gems (see photo), and our first Blue-tailed Hummer too. Best performance thought was by a pair of Blue-throated Motmots, a lifebird even for an experienced neotropical birder and dedicated ‘Mexican’ birder present.

16 March 2009

Giant Wrens & Dancing Manakins in Chiapas…(Chiapas, Mexico): 10 March 2009

We spent a day birding south of the Isthmus, just a short drive out of Mapastepec. A short way down a road with scattered trees, farm houses and agricultural land we found a pair of the biggest wrens on Earth, the lone endemic to Chiapas state, Giant Wren (see bottom photo). The same area also held our first Spot-breasted Orioles. Later in the morning we also found a few Prevost’s Ground-Sparrows, Yellow-winged Tanagers and a nice male Rose-throated Becard. However, one of the best displays of the day was left until late on when we found a lek area for a couple of impressively ‘endowed’ male Long-tailed Manakins (see top photo), when two males ‘danced’ for us.

Crossing the Isthmus…(Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico): 9 March 2009

Today we crossed the Mexican ‘waistline’ of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a significant geographic barrier that has encouraged speciation, and created a distinct division in avifaunas in Mexico. We spent our first few hours chasing sparrows and ground-cuckoos in some dry scrub on the northern side of the Isthmus (in Oaxaca state), getting both our main targets – the extremely localized Sumichrast’s Sparrow (see bottom photo), and the extremely sneaky Lesser Ground-cuckoo. It may not be quite a neotropical neomorphus ground-cuckoo, but it still played us for a while before succumbing to the ‘charms’ of our tape. Two great birds.

Later in the day we walked up a wet drainage on the Isthmus itself in the foothills around Arriaga, and pretty quickly Michael worked his magic with a couple of smart-dressed Rosita’s Buntings (see top photo), including a pink-and-rose male, resplendent in breeding dress. Also there was the endemic Green-fronted Hummingbird. We closed the day close to Mapastapec in Chiapas watching Yellow-naped Amazons flying overhead to roost en-masse.

The Dead Sea…(Oaxaca, Mexico): 8 March 2009

We spent the early morning and late afternoon in the coastal thorn forest, just outside Puerto Angel. In the middle of the day we went on a pelagic experience looking for seabirds out in the Pacific. Unfortunately, this experience was far from what we had planned as glassy waters offshore and dead calm seas brought us little reward for a pelagic trip armed with a bottle of cod liver oil. A few ‘wedgies’ (Wedge-tailed Shearwaters), around five Galapagos (Audubon’s) Shearwaters, and two or three Red-billed Tropicbirds by the offshore stack were almost all of what was seen in five frustrating hours at sea. Perhaps the best site though was seeing a Brown Booby perched on a surfaced turtle, only to be dislodged when its ‘island in the pacific’ submerged suddenly!

Thankfully, though the land-based birding was better. A productive hour in the thorn ‘scrub’, pre-pelagic disaster came up trumps when Nick pulled a Red-breasted Chat out of the bag, the undoubted showstopper of the day. Other highlights included a pair of West Mexican Chachalacas, Orange-fronted Parakeets, Nutting’s Flycatchers, White-lored Gnatcatchers, Altamira and Streak-backed Orioles, and a bold Russet-crowned Motmot on the roadside in Playa Zipolite.

10 March 2009

Punk-haired Jays in Playa Zipolite…(Oaxaca, Mexico): 7 March 2009

After our disappointing morning in the mountains, the afternoon in the thorn scrub backing onto the coast near Playa Zipolite, just outside Puerto Angel, was much better. A late afternoon visit armed with a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl tape worked well, as many different species came into to mob the ‘fictional’ owl. Among the mobbing parties were several gorgeous male Orange-breasted Buntings, along with a few navy-colored male Blue Buntings. Hummingbirds were quickly agitated with the owl tape, and both Cinnamon and Broad-billed (of the Doubleday’s form) Hummers came into to vent their anger. Also in the area were three or more Citreoline Trogons, and a triplet of new wrens (for me anyway) – Happy, Rufous-naped and Banded Wrens all in the same scrubby stand of thorn ‘forest’. Also in this busy birding area was a Golden-cheeked Woodpecker trying his luck on a concrete telegraph pole, and a few Yellow-winged Caciques. However, best of all was a pair of White-throated Magpie-jays, complete with punk hairdos, a really impressive, and striking bird. Eventually a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl itself decided to check out our owl tape too.

Brows of Gold on the Pacific Slope…(Oaxaca, Mexico): 7 March 2009

A very quiet morning for birds, in the highlands of the Pacific Slope in southern Oaxaca. What we’d hoped for and what we got was very different, as winter birding in Oaxaca proved a tough cookie to crack. We picked up some new birds though with a male Gray-collared Becard, a number of striking Golden-browed Warblers (see photo), a lone Russet Nightingale-thrush, a male Mountain Trogon, Black-headed Siskin, White-throated Thrush, and a ‘bloodied’ Red-faced Warbler near El Porvenir, (on highway 175 heading south from San Jose del Pacifico). We also picked up a key hummer in the area, with a Blue-capped Hummingbird or two alongside the highway, a restricted range species only found in Oaxaca. We finally started getting some other hummers in addition to White-eared Hummingbirds today (that was all we had seen until then), with a few Blue-throated Hummingbirds, a bird that I had seen in the desert canyons of Arizona last year, and a Berryline Hummingbird (a vagrant to the US, which I had frustratingly missed in Ramsey Canyon, Arizona, last year).

A quick stop off near La Soledad was predictably quiet at midday, although we managed to squeeze an endemic out of it, Golden Vireo, in addition to Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, a couple of Wagler’s (Emerald) Toucanets, a few further Blue-capped Hummingbirds, Tufted Flycatcher, and a pair of Greenish Elaenias. We then continued on down to the coast, to the tiny coastal town of Puerto Angel (perched right on the edge of the Pacific), passing over a multitude of ‘topes’ or speed bumps along the way. There is no chance of speeding in this state, as there are literally thousands of well-concealed humps to keep you from getting a good speed going, and can also do some damage to your car along the way!