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...


  1. I would be so pissed to pay a guide to see Killdeer. Glad he mostly worked out though. I too was struck by the towhee/brush-finch similarity on my last Mexico trip. FYI, unless you have strong feelings about the split, Military Macaw does not occur in South America. Great Green does make it down that far.

    Nice post, thanks. I don't even remember seeing Green-fronted Hummingbird in a field guide before. I definitely need to bird here someday!

    1. Yeah that Killdeer was a bit silly, especially since it was the only time he ever got his scope out. I had to tone the ranting down a bit for this post. Though I suppose to a European birder who relocated to Mexico, Killdeer might seem like an exciting thing. Kind of like if you or I moved to Mozambique we might be thrilled to show some visiting birder from England a Northern Lapwing. Probably wouldn't go over too well!

      Your comment about macaw splits has me confused. If Military were split wouldn't the name 'Military' stick with the S. American nominate subspecies and the later-named Mexican form would get called something else, like 'Mexican Macaw?' Or are you talking about the carve-out for Great Green, which hybridizes with Military? If the latter I should assure that Military ranges all the way down into Argentina (see

      Definitely find a reason to get to Oaxaca! I can't wait for the chance to see more of Mexico.

    2. Regarding the macaws, this is a mistake on my part. Not #7 in South America. I was unaware that Military Macaw has two totally disjunct population centers on either side of Central America, with Great Green occupying the space between. Bizarre.

      Also, I am glad to hear that you found Oaxaca to be in good shape regarding habitat. In many Mexican states there are only tiny fragments of forest left.

  2. Hi, as you talk excellent about Manuel ornitholohical experience, could you remember his Second name or some information to find him! Thank you so much!