|This is a short
report of a private birding trip by Nollie and me to
West Mexico (West of Mexico City), to give some
impressions and especially some information
supplementary to Howell's Birdfinding guide to Mexico
(1999). We used this essential book for most sites
but we also found other sites. Moreover we also paid
a visit to the absolutely stunning Monarch butterfly
roost a few hours W of Mexico City, and to the
immense Aztec archeological site Teotihuacan N of
Mexico City. We drove a rental car and stayed in
hotels. We used our 20x scope a lot, even in the
forests. We made a few sound recordings (on minidisc),
but did not apply playback in the field.
For general tourist info (also about the Monarch reserve) we used the Lonely Planet guide for Mexico. Wherever possible we drove toll roads (cuota, supercarretera, ruta corta). Cash machines were everywhere (often also for Cirrus), even in a small city like San Blas (rate was now nine pesos in a dollar). We had no problems with health or safety (but see warning for San Blas below), and found it an easy going trip, except for a few potholes in the road and for finding the way through the biggest cities (Mexico City and Guadalajara). The scenery was often marvellous, especially from the nearly empty toll road to the West. We had sunny weather all the time, with pleasant day temperatures, but cold nights in the interior mountainous region.
For the birding we focused on four regions: 1. San Blas in the state Nayarit at the Pacific Ocean, for the moist tropical and subtropical zones, 2. The coast of the state Colima for the dry tropical zone, 3. The volcanoes of the state Colima for the different, mostly moist mountain zones, 4. Several sites on the central, often rather dry, mountainous plateau, with large lakes.
On the way from Mexico City to the West, our first destination was the Monarch butterfly roost near Angangueo, N of Zitacuaro, W of Mexico City. This is easy to arrange: you just drive into Angangueo, stop at the hotel (we choose Don Bruno, about 350 pesos), and while checking in, one or two of the many 4WD-drivers from the village will ask if he should drive you up the next day to the reserve (for 250 pesos in our case). At the end of the track, the driver has to go back 200 meters or so to a parking place, while you are paying the modest entrance fee and a guide is assigned to you. After a walk of about ¾ hour you enter the tall fir forest lot where several trees (about 40) were absolutely filled with butterflies. We literally saw millions of them, waiting for the sun, and gradually starting to fly out then. The branches of the firs sagged under the load of the butterflies, can you imagine that? See photo of fir tree with butterflies, and photo of branch. They are not eaten by birds because they are poisonous (one or two bird species know which parts can be eaten). The forest soil is overgrown with lush green plants, to be eaten in spring by the caterpillars before it is their turn to travel back to North America. Our guide was very patient while we birded during the walk up and down, he even tried to find birds for us, and we gave him a generous tip. The best birds here were Red Warbler, Grey-barred Wren, White-eared Hummingbird and a group of Yellow-eyed Junco at an open spot not far before we reached the butterflies.
San Blas is a well-known starting point for N-American birders who want to go Neotropical. We did the lower Singayta track (photo of start) for the lowland forest remains, the La Bajada track for shaded coffee plantations in the low hills (photo), and the Cerro San Juan for oak (photo) and pine-oak forest around 1000 m a.s.l. These three areas give the full range of forest and semi-forest birds here, and our best birds were (more or less from low to high elevation) Sinaloa Crow, Yellow-winged Cacique, Streak-backed Oriole, Fan-tailed Warbler, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Happy Wren, Sinaloa Wren, Citreoline Trogon, Mexican Parrotlet, Zone-tailed Hawk (a long-awaited lifer for us), McGillivray's Warbler, Rose-throated Becard, Collared Forest-Falcon, Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, Elegant Trogon, Thick-billed Kingbird, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Black-throated Magpie-Jay, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Warbling Vireo, Tufted Flycatcher, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Mexican Hermit, Flame-colored Tanager, Rufous-crowned Warbler, Mexican Woodnymph, Berylline Hummingbird, Blue-throated Hummingbird, White-striped Woodcreeper, Arizona (Strickland's) Woodpecker, Golden Vireo, Red-faced Warbler, Painted Whitestart, Dicky's (Audubon's) Oriole, Black-headed Siskin. We were surprised by the large numbers of North American warblers in the forests here and later on the trip. You start having visions about how you could calculate whole populations of warbler species by counting and multiplying numbers here.
The Collared Forest-falcons made a lot of noise. You can listen here to this here. A truely amazing sound!
Another well-known birding site in the San Blas area is the panorama point along the old 15 about 5 km before the NW junction with the cuota 15D, about 30 km NW of Tepic. This is a stake-out for Military Macaw, and we got them (6 or so) after only seven minutes waiting, circling in the depth below us, the sun on their backs, the shaded forest on the background in this totally wooded canyon. A glorious sight, with much more blue on their wings than we had expected.
Sunset at the fort, with a wide view over the coastal plain with its extensive mangroves, gave about 100 Lesser Nighthawks.
A real must at San Blas is the river boat excursion through these mangroves (photo) and marshes with e.g. Chencho from the dock near the bridge for 300 pesos for a boat from 3.30 till 7.30 p.m. Chencho, who knows the birds best and knows how to find them, can be contacted through the hotel (see below), or ask at the dock. We saw all we wished: Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and Northern Potoo. Of the potoo we had as much as 6 or 7 in total, roosting (photo) as well as hunting. We also had Mangrove Warbler, Boat-billed Heron (with young), and lots of Green Kingfisher. A late afternoon visit to the so-called Shrimp Ponds Road just outside town (near the bridge) produced many waders and other wetland birds, but the parking was difficult. Another often mentioned site is the shrubs inside San Blas near the Suites San Blas and the sewage pond, but this was too dirty and smelly now. We just did not like this site, it made an unpleasant and slightly unsafe impression to us, and later we heard from a German birder who walked here alone on this site in late February 2000 that he was held up by a group of four men, trying to rob him (but he chased them off). This site is just too close to the city, and was quite a contrast to the friendly atmosphere of e.g. the lower Singayta track, where local farmers walked along all the time.
At San Blas we stayed in the hotel Garza Canela (formerly called Las Brisas), for four nights. This has been a base for many birders so the staff is used to them, and the restaurant is good and pleasant. We payed 460 pesos per night for a large room. The hotel has a large shady patio with pool. In San Blas city there are some more (and more modest) hotels and restaurants. It is a friendly small coastal town. Note that the bakery is just 20 m off the SW corner of the central plaza, and that this opens at midday only, until about 8 p.m., so buy your breakfast/lunch stuff the night before.
Along the coastal road from San Blas via Puerto Vallarta to Colima state we passed a reserve not mentioned in Howell, about 60 km N of the city of Barra de Navidad. This is called Chamela, or anyway Estacion de Biologica Chamela, a research area for a university. We just stayed here an (afternoon) hour but got the impression that it merits a much longer visit. We saw a massive hairy spider (photo) with legs 1 cm thick and 10 cm long, in total bigger than my hand, and also two coati's (one dead). For a visit you can phone the station 's warden at 335 10200 or 10202, but this we learned only some time after we had driven into the reserve, along the road to the research station, well signed at the main road. There we heard chachalaca's and got our most northern Roadside Hawk ever. We stayed in Barra, an old and pretty tourist place with many hotels, but probably none of them very quiet. We choose one with rooms at the seaside, so no street noise, but thundering breakers!
We hit the Playa de Oro road the next morning, in a wild xerophytic forest at the coast. This old empty road (photo) is scarcely passable by normal car at some points, but hopefully these spots may be repaired, as they had done with others apparently, but the road leads to a rather deserted place. The best (new) birds for us here were West-Mexican Chachalaca, Lilac-crowned Parrot (a clear cackling Amazona, this one being the only one here), Golden-crowned Emerald, Broad-billed Hummingbird, White-bellied Wren, Blue Bunting, Orange-breasted Bunting (at the only large clearing, not far from the sea), and a pygmy-owl with few spots on the back so probably Colima although this should not occur so near to the coast. At sea (photo) , we scoped Brown Boobies, and two couples of Red-billed Tropicbirds in front of the dark cliff of the rock island in the distance. The nearby wetland site at the Manzanillo airport was not very productive, and here we missed our last chance for seeing the San Blas Jay. But we added Ruddy Duck to Howell's site list, although this was not at all a consolation for missing the jay on our trip.
The twin volcanoes of Colima state (Volcan de Colima and Volcan Nevado) are often mentioned as birding destinations, especially the first one. However, before we left home we got an e-mail from a birdchatter who said that from Ciudad Guzman (the best base for both volcanoes) the Nevado is easier to do than the Colima. Howell describes the Colima in detail but does nearly not mention the Nevado, and calls the road up the Nevado rather bad. But this appeared to be a good gravel road now, possibly better than the one up the Colima. It is nearer to the city and easier to find as well. From Ciudad Guzman central plaza (zocalo) take the 54 well signed for Colima and La Grulla, then after 6.5 km to the right to La Grulla (well signed again), and then after 8.8 km the gravel road starts at your left hand, shortly after a small sign for the National Park. Birding here was good after 1 km already. The road goes on for 17 km to a refuge with a splendid view around and situated not far below the tree line. For more details about the roads to both volcanoes, see the e-mails that I got in response to this paragraph, at the bottom of this report.
We did this road for two days, and from low to high there is a succession from arable fields with many hedges and trees to pine, oak, pine-oak, pine-fir and finally fir forest. See photo of open spot in pine-fir zone, and photo from refuge towards volcano cone. From about half way, the forest is a bit more moist than below. The best bird for us here (and maybe for the whole trip) was Long-tailed Woodpartridge, two on the forest floor at a hairpin bend at 11.25 km. We found them because we heard them scratching and walking on the dead leaves. A comparable sound did we hear often afterwards at other spots along the upper half of the road, but this always appeared to belong to Green-striped Brush-finch, although this is a good bird as well. Other good new birds were Singing Quail (heard), Green Violet-ear (many at higher elevations), Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pine Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Spotted Wren, Grey-breasted Wood-wren, White-throated Thrush, Blue Mockingbird (at first only by Nollie, causing a worried hour before I got another one), Grey Silky, Dwarf Vireo, Crescent-chested Warbler, Golden-browed Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Collared Towhee, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer (near the Green Violet-ears), Bullock's, Abeille's and Scott's Orioles, Lesser Goldfinch. A tiny female hummer was either Bumblebee or Calliope Hummingbird. An often heard song appeared to be of Brown-backed Solitaire after checking the recordings.
In Ciudad Guzman we stayed three nights in hotel Colon, a while along the Avenida Colon that leaves the zocalo from the NE corner. We were here in the weekend and we much enjoyed the evening life at the zocalo, the more so as this provincial town is not mentioned at all in the Lonely Planet guide (Howell provides a street map with the hotel). The hotel is a sort of motel with big inner courtyard, well done, the restaurant is good and the staff is friendly (some spoke English). The rate is comparatively moderate and probably reflects the non-touristy character of this town, 260 pesos for a large room with your car at your doorstep. We cannot compare the Nevado with the Colima volcano, but we found this combination of motel, zocalo and birding road rather ideal for a stay of several days. On a longer trip we would have stayed more days here and explored more of the basin below the volcanos and have paid a visit to the Colima volcano as well. We did pay a brief late afternoon visit to the Sayula site mentioned by Howell, a lake system (photo) just N of the city, where we witnessed the roosting of thousands and thousands of Yellow-headed Blackbird along the first side road to the right from the bypass road, coming from the N end of the city.
From Ciudad Guzman we choose an experimental way back to Mexico City for some sightseeing and trying to find some birding areas on our own (none are described by Howell for this stretch, except near to Mexico City). First we drove through the basin E of Ciudad Guzman to Tamazula but could not find a suitable side road, which was a pity as we realised too late that this would be our last chance for lowland birds. From Tamazula we ascended the 110 to Mazamitla and we did some birding along the quieter, looping side road to Valle de Juarez, especially along a creek on the left-hand side at 2.8 km before this side road joins the 110 again. In this bushy countryside we observed a.o. Red Crossbill (in the scope), many Violet-green Swallow, a Crested Caracara with unusual white wing panels, Blue Mockingbird again!, Grey-barred Wren, Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow. Listen to the peculiar sounds of this Blue Mockingbird.
Further on, between Sahuayo and La Barca, we found a nice reservoir lake (photo), where the road makes a sharp S-bend before the village called Cumuato. From this bend an empty dike road follows the South shore of the lake for several kms, not only producing wetland birds like Northern Harrier, Canvasback, Redhead, and several egrets, but also some songbirds close by in the bushes along the dike (White-collared Seedeater, Savannah Sparrow, Canyon Towhee). But this was mainly a driving day. We stayed the night in Morelia, an impressive colonial town, capital of the mountainous state Michoacan. Here again is a large zocalo, with large mansions and churches. We were happy with the inner room at the hotel Catedral (reasonable rate) with a garage next door, and the zocalo around the corner.
Only 30 km N of Morelia is the enormous lake Lago de Cuitzeo. The road from Morelia (the 43) crosses it via a dam, and first we took the side road left (West) just before the dam. This road is indicated as going to the Balneario Paraiso Escondido. After 1.2 km along this road we took a dirt road (the first I guess; 500 m or so before the one to the Balneareo itself) to the right and we came to a picnic spot between some dry open acacia-type bush with some small ponds and with a nice grassy shore vegetation of the apparantly shallow part of the lake here. The species we found here this morning hour were (I'll mention them all this time): Common Snipe, (Eastern) Meadowlark, Killdeer, Canyon Towhee, Least Sandpiper, Cactus Wren singing on top of a low tree, Yellow-rumped Warbler, two groups of Blue Grosbeak (some drinking on the edge of a pool), Lark Sparrow, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Grey Plover, Northern Pintail, Lesser Goldfinch, Vermillion Flycatcher, several egrets, Loggerhead Shrike. Also a nice Swallowtail butterfly (photo). Then on the other side of the Cuitzeo lake we crossed the village of the same name and in the shallow lake immediately after that we added Wilson's Phalarope (about 10) and Clark's/Western Grebe.
Much further on to the North is another large lake, called Yuriria. This has an enormous cover of floating vegetation in the West corner (photo) , and we found a good point to get near to the shore by driving along the main road (the 43 still) around this Western corner of the lake, and then taking the first road to the right (the only asfalted side road). This is really only after you have made a long drive alongside the lake basin and have seen the lake several times already. The short side road ends in a hamlet where you can park on a triangular place, and take the trail going from the right-hand corner towards the lake, just 70 meters or so until the water line. Along the trail we had our only Canyon Wren, in the stonewalls bordering the gardens. On the lake we spotted Canvasback (200 or so), American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, and on the floating vegetation Green Heron, White-faced Ibis, etc. Just 1 or 2 km further on along the main road is another side road towards the lake, this one made of sharp lava stones, to be driven only very slowly! After 100 m is a nice spot (photo) with a few trees to pull your car aside for a picnic and have a good view over the whole lake, with some birds around you in the open vegetation of cactus and acacia-like trees. Here we finally had a convincing Orange-crowned Warbler, what a tricky bird.
That last night before Mexico City we stayed in the very peculiar city of Guanajuato, an old silvermine city with two street systems, one below and the other above the ground. We had a reasonable and quiet room in the funny Motel de las Embajadores (400 pesos). It is a small and lively student and tourist town with good shops and with a row of terrace restaurants in the Jardin de la Union. The next morning, on our way to Mexico City to pay an afternoon visit to the famous Aztec site Teotihuacan (photos 1, 2, 3) , we had a breakfast stop of about an hour 150 m up a dirt road that leaves the 45 to the right a while before (North of) Irapuato, at the second or third spot with fresa (strawberry) stalls, at a large blue Corona billboard. Here in this dry and open, slightly bushy vegetation we spotted, just from where we stood with the car, about five Curve-billed Thrashers, three Canyon Towhees, fifteen Lark Sparrows, and our final two trip ticks, a group of Chihuahua Raven and two Pyrrhuloxias.
Our trip total was 235 bird species. 48 of these were lifers for us, including 31 (West) Mexican endemics. Some of the best represented bird taxa (in terms of numbers of species) were the warblers (27), wrens (11), hummers (10), raptors (16). West Mexico is well worth a birding trip, also if you have been to several other neotropical destinations. It is in a large gap between Central America/SE Mexico and the Southern USA, and has many remarkable endemics. The combination with the Monarch butterfly roosts (from early November to early April) and Teotihuacan makes it a big deal!
locations: AN = Angangueo fir forest of Monarch butterfly reserve (about 3000 m a.s.l.) XI = along the road in interior West Mexico SB = San Blas (Nayarit state), around town SI = lower Singayta track in San Blas area BA = La Bajada track S of San Blas area CJ = Cerro de San Juan between San Blas and Tepic XP = along the road in Pacific West Mexico PO = Playa de Oro road, Colima state VN = Volcan Nevado road, Jalisco state AN XI SB SI BA CJ XP PO VN Western Grebe or Clark's Grebe XI Red-billed Tropicbird PO Brown Booby PO Neotropic (Olivaceous) Cormorant everywhere Am. White Pelican XI SI PO Brown Pelican SB XP PO Magnificent Frigatebird SB XP Reddish Egret SB Tricolored Heron XI Snowy Egret many places Great Blue Heron everywhere Great White Egret many places Cattle Egret everywhere Striated (Green) Heron XI SB Yellow-crowned Night-heron SB Black-crowned Night-heron XI Boat-billed Heron SB Bare-throated Tiger-heron SB Wood Stork SI PO White-faced Ibis XI SI Roseate Spoonbill SB Canvasback XI Redhead XI Mexican Duck XI American Wigeon XI Green-winged Teal SB Northern Pintail XI Blue-winged Teal XI SB Cinnamon Teal SB Ring-necked Duck XI Ruddy Duck XP American Black Vulture everywhere Turkey Vulture everywhere White-tailed (Bl.Sh.) Kite XI Northern Harrier XI Sharp-shinned Hawk VN Cooper's Hawk VN Common Black-hawk XP Grey Hawk SI BA PO Roadside Hawk XP Broad-winged Hawk CJ VN Short-tailed Hawk PO White-tailed Hawk PO Zone-tailed Hawk SI CJ Red-tailed Hawk XI BA CJ PO VN Osprey XI Crested Caracara XI SI Collared Forest-falcon SI PO American Kestrel everywhere Wagler's (Rufous-bellied) Chachalac SI West Mexican Chachalaca PO Long-tailed Wood-partridge VN Elegant Quail SB Singing Quail VN Rufous-necked Wood-rail SB Common Moorhen XI American Coot everywhere Northern Jacana XI XP Black-necked Stilt XI SB American Avocet XI SB Grey (Bl.-bellied) Plover XI Killdeer XI SB Fantail Snipe (Common Snipe) XI Hudsonian Curlew (Whimbrel) SB Greater Yellowlegs XI SB Lesser Yellowlegs SB Spotted Sandpiper SB Willet SB XP Long-billed Dowitcher SB Least Sandpiper XI SB Wilson's Phalarope XI Heermann's Gull XP Laughing Gull XI SB Caspian Tern SB Elegant Tern XP Red-billed Pigeon SI White-winged Dove SB SI Inca Dove XI SB VN Common Ground-dove PO Ruddy Ground-dove XI SI Military Macaw XP Orange-fronted Parakeet SI BA Mexican (Blue-rumped) Parrotlet SI BA Lilac-crowned Parrot PO Squirrel Cuckoo SI CJ Groove-billed Ani SI PO Colima Pygmy-Owl PO? Northern Potoo SB Lesser Nighthawk SB SI Buff-collared Nightjar SB Vaux's Swift SB Mexican Hermit BA Green Violet-ear VN Golden-crowned Emerald PO Broad-billed Hummingbird PO Mexican Woodnymph CJ White-eared Hummingbird AN CJ VN Berylline Hummingbird CJ Cinnamon Hummingbird SI BA PO Blue-throated Hummingbird CJ Calliope (or Bumblebee) Hummingbird VN Citreoline Trogon SI BA PO Elegant Trogon SI Belted Kingfisher XI SB Green Kingfisher SB Acorn Woodpecker CJ VN Golden-cheeked Woodpecker BA PO Golden-fronted Woodpecker XI SI Yellow-bellied Sapsucker VN Ladder-backed Woodpecker AN XI VN Strickland's Woodpecker CJ Hairy Woodpecker VN Lineated Woodpecker SI Pale-billed Woodpecker SI BA Olivaceous Woodcreeper CJ White-striped Woodcreeper CJ Greenish Elaenia BA VN Tufted Flycatcher BA CJ VN Smoke-coloured (Greater) Pewee BA Cordilleran (Western) Flycatcher SI PO Pine Flycatcher VN Buff-breasted Flycatcher VN Vermillion Flycatcher XI VN Dusky-capped Flycatcher SI BA CJ PO VN Brown-crested Flycatcher XI Tropical Kingbird SI Cassin's Kingbird XI VN Thick-billed Kingbird SB SI BA CJ PO Social Flycatcher SB CJ Great Kiskadee XI SI Rose-throated Becard SI BA CJ PO Masked Tityra SI BA CJ PO Violet-green Swallow XI Grey-breasted Martin PO Northern Rough-winged Swallow SI CJ PO Grey Silky-flycatcher VN Cactus Wren XI Spotted Wren VN Grey-barred Wren AN XI VN Canyon Wren XI Marsh Wren XI Happy Wren SI Sinalao (Bar-vented) Wren SI CJ PO House Wren XI Brown-throated (House) Wren VN White-bellied Wren PO Grey-breasted Wood-wren VN Loggerhead Shrike XI VN Blue Mockingbird XI VN Curve-billed Thrasher XI Brown-backed Solitaire VN Hermit Thrush AN White-throated Thrush VN Ruby-crowned Kinglet AN CJ VN Golden-crowned Kinglet AN Blue-grey Gnatcatcher everywhere (Black-eared) Bushtit XI VN Mexican Chickadee AN White-breasted Nuthatch VN Brown Creeper VN Black-throated Magpie-jay SI BA XP Common Raven XI XP VN Chihuahuan Raven XI Sinaloa Crow SI House Sparrow XP Dwarf Vireo VN Golden Vireo CJ Western Warbling-vireo SI BA CJ PO VN Black-headed Siskin CJ VN Lesser Goldfinch XI VN House Finch XI VN Red Crossbill XI Orange-crowned Warbler XI Nashville Warbler XI BA PO VN Tropical Parula BA Crescent-chested Warbler VN Yellow Warbler SI Mangrove Warbler SB Yellow-rumped Warbler XI CJ Black-throated Grey Warbler SI BA CJ VN Townsend's Warbler AN VN Hermit Warbler AN CJ VN Blackburnian Warbler AN Grace's Warbler CJ Black-and-white Warbler SI CJ VN American Redstart SB SI Northern Waterthrush SB Kentucky Warbler BA Macgillivray's Warbler SI CJ Common Yellowthroat XI Wilson's Warbler BA CJ PO VN Red-faced Warbler CJ VN Red Warbler AN VN Painted Redstart CJ Slate-throated Redstart CJ VN Fan-tailed Warbler SI Rufous-capped Warbler CJ Golden-browed Warbler VN Olive Warbler VN Flame-coloured Tanager BA CJ VN Hepatic Tanager CJ VN Western Tanager XI Lincoln's Sparrow CJ Yellow-eyed Junco AN Savannah Sparrow XI Chipping Sparrow XI VN Lark Sparrow XI VN Stripe-headed Sparrow XI SI PO VN Brown (Canyon) Towhee XI VN Collared Towhee VN Rusty-crowned Ground-sparrow XI Green-striped Brush-finch VN White-collared Seedeater XI Cinnamon Flower-piercer VN Black-headed Grosbeak VN Rose-breasted Grosbeak CJ Pyrrhuloxia XI Greyish Saltator SI Blue Bunting PO Blue Grosbeak XI Varied Bunting SI? Orange-breasted Bunting PO Yellow-winged Cacique SI BA PO Streak-backed Oriole XI SI CJ PO Scott's Oriole VN Northern (Bullock's) Oriole VN Abeille's Oriole VN Dicky's Oriole CJ Yellow-headed Blackbird XI Eastern Meadowlark XI Great-tailed Grackle XI SB Brewer's Blackbird XI Brown-headed Cowbird XI
Here are the remarks
by David Ferry about those volcano roads in Colima: