Monday, August 28, 2017

Oaxaca, a birding paradise in Mexico

Natalia and I like to plan birding trips ourselves, sometimes hiring a local guide to help us target specialties. But planning a wedding is a consuming endeavor. Add on top of that organizing a two-week post-wedding tour of Colombia for a party of 11 people ages 10 months to 71 years and our planning energies were pretty well sapped. It was our first time to Mexico, so we wouldn’t really know where to begin in such a big bird-filled country, anyway. Plus if things went badly we would have to answer to a couple of birder-scientist companions who were along for the ride. So, despite previous mediocre experiences, we convinced ourselves to outsource the planning and hired a guide to lead us and another couple on 5-day birding around Oaxaca, Mexico’s birdiest state.

Varied Bunting in Oaxaca. Mexico is famous for its colorful buntings.

Mexico in general, and Oaxaca specifically, exceeded our wildest expectations. The landscapes and birds were surprisingly well-preserved. Mexicans learned long-ago that forested watersheds are critical for preventing flash floods and ensuring a reliable high quality source of water, which sustains life in the arid mountain valleys. As a result mountaintops have been free of logging for at least the past 50 years.

Beautiful forested mountains on the road up to Arroyo Guacamaya

These environmental policies have been a boon to the endemic birds of Oaxacas cloud forest and montane bird species.

A sun-dappled endemic West Mexican Chachalaca we found near Teotitlan
This endemic Collared Towhee we saw in Arroyo Guacamaya looks to me a lot like an Atlapetes Brush-Finch

Yes! That's the one! The towhee reminded me of this Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch we saw just a bit down slope. Of course the taxonomists have decided that this thing is a tanager now, and not even in the same Emberizid family with towhees despite the resemblance.

This endemic White-throated Towhee is a bit more in line with other birds of the arid southwest called 'Towhee.' Spotted Towhees were also around, but I didn't make much of an effort to photograph them.

Birding along elevational gradients in Mexico is a whole different experience than what I’m used to in the super humid regions of the northern Andes. The Mexican forest starts off as a scrubby, thorny dry thicket and steadily grows wetter as you climb and the peaks begin to gather more and more rain. Eventually, the forest switches to pine, much more reminiscent of highlands of the North American West than anything tropical.

Lookout tower at Arroyo Guacamaya in the pine forest. Beautiful spot to have a delicious snack or lunch of hot chocolate and memelitas after a morning of birding

The deserts in between Mexico City and Oaxaca, where they were preserved, shocked me with their beauty. It was the start of the ‘wet’ season, so all the plants had recently flushed out leaves, so the normally brown landscape was cast in a cheery spring green. The cactus forest at the Botanical Gardens of Helia Bravo Hollis blew me away. The vegetation was so diverse in form, yet all of it so thick and structural, that it reminded me of a coral reef.

Cactus forest from the 'canopy tower' at the Jardín Botánico Comunitario Helia Bravo Hollis

the endemic Boucard's Wren, one of 10 Campylorhynchus wrens found in Mexico

Gray-breasted Woodpecker making excellent use of the columnar cacti

Curve-billed Thrasher enjoying some cactus tuna
After gawking at the cactus forest and its highly adapted resident bird life we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the nearby Restarante Itandehui in Zapotitlan, which specializes in local cactus-based cuisine. Many dishes are made from cactus buds (tetechas) and we were brave enough to try the appetizer of fried cactus caterpillars (cuchama).

Another gem of a natural site was the Military Macaw nesting spot in Cañon el Sabino. Even though it isn’t a terribly species rich spot (and we didn't tick any endemic species here that were not seen on other parts of the trip), the thorn forest has an otherworldly beauty about it. And getting to look down upon these passing multicolored macaws from a cliff-side vantage-point was a special experience.

Military Macaws at Cañon el Sabino

The stream at the base of the canyon was thick with Russet-crowned Motmots

We were glad our guide, Manuel, had convinced us to visit the macaws and the cactus garden. If Natalia and I had planned the trip ourselves we probably wouldn’t have put the macaw site on the itinerary, having already seen the species in South America, but in the end we were really glad we went.

Unfortunately, some of the other itinerary and time-management choices Manuel made for us were baffling. We spent the third morning birding at an artificial dam and nearby degraded pastures outside Oaxaca looking at such trashy birds as Killdeer and Least Grebe. It wasn't until near noon that we began to head toward the Pacific zone desert hills, which were tough to bird in the early afternoon blazing heat. We did manage to get the most important target, the Orange-breasted Bunting...

The beautiful endemic Orange-breasted Bunting put in a great appearance on the side of Carretera 190. Manuel made sure to get us this bird since it was featured on the cover page of the trip checklist!

...but we were forfeited entirely the opportunity to see a few other endemics we were supposed to have a chance to see, such as Citreoline Trogon, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker and Gray-crowned Woodpecker (all listed in bold on the checklist Manuel printed for us).

After some cross-examination of the important birds remaining on our lists, we demanded that Manuel take us up to the high mountains on our final full day. This paid off big-time as we were able to see Dwarf Jay, Natalia’s most desired target, and several other high elevation specialties. 

We tried hard for Dwarf Jay up in the high pine forests of Arroyo Guacamaya and then just when we were about to give up a flock of 20 enveloped the canopy above noisily foraging in the moss-laden branches like nuthatches. 

This is a terrible photo of the endemic Red Warbler, one of my top targets for the trip. These were common up high in Arroyo Guacamaya.

Brown-backed Solitaire in Arroyo Guacamaya. This is a bird that, like many solitaires, sounds a lot cooler than it looks.

Manuel came highly recommended by a Mexican birder friend, so we were surprised to discover upon our first pre-dawn meeting that he was not Mexican, but a French ex-pat. Manuel’s accent was a bit thick and he is quite soft-spoken, which led to some miscommunication. But Manuel is not only a sharp, experienced birder, but also an accomplished ornithologist. He understands the distributions of Mexican birds better than Steve Howell (author of the most popular Mexican field guide and bird-finding guide), picks up on all the vocalizations and knows Mexican natural history inside out. He has seen much of Mexico’s bird life in the hand and his commentaries in the field (when they were intelligible to our party of Hispano/Anglos) were top-notch.

Birding with Manuel does give one that exciting sense of exploration and discovery that birding sometimes brings. And we came across some notable birds.

We found and photographed this Mangrove Cuckoo South of Tehuacan in a scrubby dry forest. This bird was not only hundreds of kilometers from a coastline, but well outside the range published in Howell and Webb. I guess these things sometimes do occur in mangroves, but this is terribly named bird.
Our final life bird of the trip was this Botteri's Sparrow, which is remarkable for how unremarkable of a bird it is. Just look at that drabness! I'm pretty confident that without Manuel we would have overlooked this thing, especially given its proximity to House Sparrow territory (note chain link fence in background).

Finally, I present to you Manuel's bird of the trip, this poorly-known rowleyi race of Green-fronted Hummingbird we encountered along carretera 190. It resembles a 'Cinnamon-sided' Green-fronted Hummingbird, what with the cinnamon sides showing, but that taxa (which is a potential split) is believed to only occur on the far side of the Mexican isthmus. Another possibility is that this is an intergrade between nominate Green-fronted and 'Cinnamon-sided.'
Oaxaca is full of incredible birds, and has the feeling of a place ripe for onrithological discovery. With five days we were barely scratching the surface. I hope one day we can return, not just for the birds, but also the food which we found to be universally fantastic.

After a long drive back to Mexico City we had to set off to Merida for a conference. And of course more Mexican birding in the Yucatan peninsula! More to come...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A birdy wedding

Dear readers,

Apologies for the radio silence, but it has been a busy couple months.

June was mostly consumed by a wedding (featuring myself as the groom and Natalia as the bride) and associated family travel in Colombia. And then much of July was spent in Mexico, my first trip south of that ever increasingly controversial border.

More on Mexican pajaros will come later. For now, at the risk of coming off as vain, I want to take some blog space to cover a rare example of a birder wedding. Not only was this a wedding between two birders, but also everything was bird themed.

origami bird backdrop to the wedding

Bird cake.

Cake toppers; Jabiru and Maguari Stork

Birds in the bride’s hair.

Bird on the groom’s lapel.

looks like a N. Cardinal!

Being an outdoor wedding, birds were invited, though naturally only synanthropic species were able to attend, such as Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Saffron Finch, Tropical Kingbird, Ruddy Ground-Dove, etc.

Each table had a bird mascot, and thus all guests were required to do some bird identification to match their name cards with the table sign-posts.

the coveted Blue Jay table

Identify the bird or you don't get to eat dinner

But let's get to some live action birds before everybody gets confused about what kind of blog this is.

Post-wedding we took my visiting immediate family (parents, two brothers, their wives, 3 nieces and two nephews (ages 10 months through 11 years) on a two-week tour of Colombia. We split our time between the coffee-growing region and the Caribbean coast. Both these regions are known for their birdwatching potential (indeed there isn’t really a place in Colombia without tons of bird diversity), but given the range of interests and abilities among our party of 13, bird sightings were mostly incidental to more family-friendly activities.

Nevertheless, when in the tropics even with minimal effort, some astonishing bird things just always seem to happen. Before we even left Cali, we made sure to hit up Finca Alejandria, where birding is made completely effortless thanks to the 30 hummingbird feeders and trays of bananas.

Long-tailed Sylph, Finca Alejandria at km 18

Golden Tanager looking for some bananas

Banana feeders are great because they attract a wide range of frugivores. Here's a Red-headed Barbet chowing down.
We made two trips to Alejandria. Once for a pre-wedding photo-shoot and then again a couple days later with the fam. Both times the highly-desired Multicolored Tanager (Endangered and endemic to Colombia) put in an appearance.

Multicolored Tanager

Multicolored Tanager

After the end of the official festivities, we travelled by bus to coffee-growing region north of Cali. From a vacation farmstead near Armenia we made forays to various local attractions including: Parque el Café (kind of a coffee-themed version of a Busch Gardens amusement park); Panaca (a farm-animal themed park, which unlike Parque del Café, has stuck a bit more to its core theme and not built tons of roller coasters and other conventional crowd-pleasers); Salento and the scenic Cocora Valley; and birdiest of all, the Quindio Botanic Garden.

Southern Lapwing in a pasture in the Cocora Valley
Natalia has a way of attracting news cameras and as soon as we arrived at the botanic garden, the film crew that just so happened to be shooting a piece on bird watching, immediately wanted to interview the both of us with our binoculars and cameras in hand. Within the hour we were on national news talking about the value of the site for conservation and its attractiveness for birdwatchers.

Shall we review?

The place has a bunch of hummingbird and tanager feeders (check and check).

Messy looking adolescent male Flame-rumped Tanager transitioning into adult plumage, Jardin Botanico de Quindio

It’s also got a canopy tower, a rare commodity in Colombia.

The birdwatching feature that impressed me most was the forest bird blind. Instead of the usual small open windows to peer through, the entire wildlife-facing front was a giant panel of polarized glass. This allowed birdlife (and mammal life, there was an agouti present) to approach well within excellent bare-eye viewing range without being startled. It also could accommodate large groups without people obstructing each other’s views.  I had never seen a blind like this before. With feeding stations bringing in a steady parade of birds and with the darkness of the fully enclosed shelter and the largeness of the polarized viewing pane, it felt like sitting in some kind of live-action wildlife movie theatre.

As evidence of the effectiveness of the polarized glass at the Jardin Botanico de Quindio blind, I present this Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, a normally skittish bird that sat out in the open a few meters from a less than silent group of 25 or so casual observers. This photo taken through the glass turned out pretty well too.

The one disadvantage of this site is that it is a relatively small fragment of forest, isolated from protected areas in a sea of degraded agricultural and pastureland. It lacks the hyper diversity and specialty species would make it a worthwhile stop for high-level birders. For the Neotropical novice, however, it is not to be missed.

The last leg of the family tour was spent along the Caribbean Coast, most notably, at Tayrona National Park, home of the Lance-tailed Manakin and Cotton-top Tamarin, among other creatures.

The critically endangered Cotton top Tamarin. endemic to northern Colombia. These guys are not difficult to see in Tayrona NP.

Tayrona brought back some fond memories from my first trip to Colombia back in 2010.

Crested Caracara with prey on the beach at Tayrona National Park

After the obligatory stop through Cartagena we newly-weds skedaddled off to Mexico City. What kinds of fascinating birds would Mexico bring for us? Stay tuned to find out.