Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico, December 2014


Dec 14th-15th

A highly civilised departure from home at 4pm, an easy enough drive to Heathrow, and smoothly away from T4 in Aeromexico's new toy, a shiny 787 Dreamliner. Some sleep was had on the twelve hour flight, but not enough (there never is), and we arrived in Mexico City at shortly after 4am local. The transfer was fine, and by 0830 we were on the ground in Oaxaca, and meeting our local guide, Eric. Straight into his massive SUV, and into the field. We went straight to Monte Alban, where we spent most of the day in and around the amazing Zapotec ruins. Of course, today was only a warm-up, really, and we felt pretty bad – but we still managed to see numerous endemics and other excellent birds. The highlights were an all too brief but well-seen Ocellated Thrasher, a super brief Blue Mockingbird (for Simon only....), White-throated Towhee, Boucard's Wren, Dusky and Berylline Hummingbirds, Audobon's, Bullock's and Black-vented Orioles, Townsend's, Macgillivray's, Orange-crowned and “Audobon's” (Yellow-rumped) Warblers, Rufous-capped Warbler, Grey Silky Flycatcher, plus Pileated, Hammond's and Grey Flycatchers, Warbling Vireo and American Kestrel. We had lengthy snack and lunch breaks and time in the museum, too! In the afternoon we visited a canyon on the other edge of town – it was rather quiet, and we had only tantalising vocalisations from Oaxaca Sparrow, but we did add Western Scrub Jay, Slate-throated and Painted Redstarts, Tufted Flycatcher and White-eared Hummingbird. Now shattered, we checked in to our city centre hotel, switched to a “habitacion muy tranquilo” (!) and crashed by 1930!

Dec 16th

Up for a 0540 departure, and away via bus station coffee and croissants to Eric's home village of Teotitlan de Valle. We spent the first three hours or so after daybreak birding the scrub, fields and riverside just outside town, with excellent results. The place was alive with sparrows – mostly Clay-coloured and Lark, but also the endemic Bridled (a stunner), plus Vesper and Lincoln's. Also about were showy Boucard's Wrens, Eastern Meadowlark, Blue Grosbeak, Zone-tailed Hawk, Grey-breasted Woodpecker, and many warblers including Wilson's and Black-throated Gray. A nice little wetland was an unexpected bonus, holding a big flock of Least Sandpipers, plus many Blue-winged and a few Green-winged Teals, Ruddy Duck, Black-necked Stilt and American Pipit. With the sun getting quite hot, we headed uphill, where we spent the rest of the day birding the valley up as far as the village of Benito Juarez at about 3000m. The transition from semi-arid scrub to oaks to pine was fascinating – very reminiscent of the Arizona sky islands, as were many of the birds. The big difference was a strong tropical element to the wildlife, such as huge agaves among the pines, and a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper foraging among lichen covered pine branches! The birds were different at almost every altitude stop, so we amassed a formidable list during the day, with highlights being the amazing Red Warbler (and Red-faced Warbler), Hermit Warbler, Bridled Titmouse, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Crescent-chested Warbler, Bushtit and Mexican Chickadee. We had a very pleasant lunch of breaded oyster mushrooms (plus the obligatory avocado and refried beans) in the comedor run by two very chatty local women, and descended once again, birding along the route. We got back to Oaxaca before nightfall – we're both still somewhat jetlagged and not 100% health-wise, so a good long rest and sleep was very much in order.

Dec 17th

Another 0540 start, and with bags packed it was uphill to the Cumbre de San Felipe, at about 3300m. We were on site in plenty of time, and enjoyed a pretty frigid but beautiful morning in the moss- and lichen-encrusted pine woods. Bird diversity was low, but we scored rather quickly with Mountain Trogon, and then our main target, the outstandingly restricted-range Dwarf Jay, feeding quietly in the trees in a flock with Steller's Jays and Grey-barred Wrens, weirdly! Some Hermit Thrushes, Russet Nightingale Thrush, Brown Creeper and Pine Flycatcher completed a nice little morning session, and we were then off downhill, heading north. A final abortive attempt at Oaxaca Sparrow drew a blank, alas, but we made several more stops as we followed the 175 road north for about 200km, as it went up and over about four ranges of hills. These stops turned up another endemic jay (Unicolored), plus Yellow-winged Tanager and various migrant warblers and vireos. We had our lunch at a comedor high on the escarpment overlooking the Atlantic slope, and then descended into the clouds, dropping from about 1800m to (eventually) 65m. Several stops whetted our appetites for cloud forest birding – American Redstart and Hooded Warbler were new, as were Tropical Gnatcatcher, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Long-billed Starthroat, Golden-fronted Woodpecker and various others. Arrival in Valle Nacional was well-timed, as we had plenty of room for a decent shower before an excellent early supper and bed.

Dec 18th

0530 this time! But we did have a good fruit and oatmeal breakfast (with uber-strong coffee) to get us going. We headed back up the hill some 35km, and started to bird the forests hard. Sadly, temperatures were distinctly low (a cold front rather dented bird activity over the next few days), and for almost the whole morning, it was very slow going indeed, even by tropical forest standards! But (big but!) we did see some right cripplers – Bumblebee Hummingbird was probably the single highlight, but we also added Garnet-throated and Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds, Golden-browed Warbler, Plain Xenops, Azure-hooded and Green Jays, Blue-headed Vireo, Emerald Toucanet, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, Black-throated Green Warbler and an excellent Slate-coloured Solitaire. Breaking for an extended lunch, we fed our faces on garlic grilled Tilapia with all the Mexican trimmings, and even had time for an hour's siesta! Then it was off to a lowland secondary forest patch near town. En route, we saw Little Blue Heron and Amazon Kingfisher, Red-billed Pigeon and Yellow Warbler, and saw Band-backed Wren well. Once in the forest area, Olive-throated Parakeets and Red-lored Parrots flew over, but otherwise it was again quiet, with just Red-crowned Ant-tanager, Chestnut-sided warbler, Brown Jay and Montezuma Oropendola to add – in daylight! We stayed after dark to look for owls – sadly, while we heard several (Barn, Black and White, Vermiculated Screech and Mottled), we only actually saw one – the last, and then only in silhouette! Still, it's always good to be out in the dark, and we also saw several Parauques to finish off a long, patchy, but ultimately pretty good day.

Dec 19th

Up at 0430 this time – it's getting earlier! But we had an excellent breakfast before hitting the road for a 50km drive to a patch of forest near Tuxtepec. Arrival at dawn, as targetted. Various forest species to set things up, as planned (Northern Bentbill, Mealy Parrot, White-bellied Emerald, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper and Red-crowned Ant-tanager) – and then a very serious four hours trying to locate the uber-endemic Sumichrast's Wren. We heard it singing, close, four times, but try as we might (and we really did) we simply couldn't get a glimpse of the little bastard. Ah well. Sometimes you just have to be accepting – this was an amazing patch of forest growing on crazy limestone outcrops, and the bird is still there. We may never see one....but.... extras included Northern Parula, Ovenbird, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, and Spot-breasted and White-breasted Wood Wrens. Late lunch back in Valle Nacional, and then Julia rested her bad knee while Simon went out for a couple more hours with Eric, closer to town. He was obviously keen that we leave no (lime)stone unturned, so we did try some more (sub-prime) Sumichrast's habitat – alas, no joy. But Keel-billed Toucan was cool, as were various wood warblers (including Magnolia and Black-throated Green) and other typical forest birds. So, a funny old day – Eric is a bit mortified that we dipped, but actually, perhaps oddly, we really enjoyed ourselves. It's not always the kill......although we would much rather have seen the little git!

Dec 20th

Up for a civilized 0530 start, and straight up into the hills once more to find some more cloud forest specials. And we did – a succession of prolonged roadside stops turned up stacks of migrant warblers and vireos (including Nashville and Philadelphia respectively), Collared Trogon, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, Black-crested Coquette, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Crimson-collared Tanager, Lesser Greenlet, White-crowned Parrot and a couple of spectacular close-range Keel-billed Toucans. We returned to Valle Nacional for a well-earned lunch, and then set off in showery weather on the long (280km) drive to the isthmus. We saw a few bits and pieces en route – Roadside Hawk (unsurprisingly), Clay-coloured Thrush, Rose-throated Becard, Melodious Blackbird and Gartered Trogon – but is was mostly eyes down for the long haul to Juchitan de Zaragoza, a pretty grim feeling town (but don't they all look like that when you arrive after dark). The hotel is sadly noisy – but it will do – only one night!

Dec 21st

We only had a short distance to travel this morning – and plenty of time for coffee en route as usual. We started off in low scrub among the 1000+ wind turbines of the isthmus – a surreal and weird sight, and strangely contradictory from an ecological point of view! We crawled about dirt roads among the scrub at first light, listening intently over the quite strong wind (no shock there I suppose). Boom! The curse of Sumichrast was expunged with excellent close views of the first of today's 'iper endemicos' – Sumichrast's Sparrow. We soon added another endemic, Stripe-headed Sparrow, and were entertained by lots of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers along the roadside. A further stop turned up Streak-backed and Orchard Orioles, Grasshopper Sparrow and the amazing Orange-breasted Bunting – a stunner, just waiting to be upstaged.... White-throated Magpie-jays put on a fantastic warm-up show, and the final curtain raiser was a pair of Indigo Buntings. The stage was set, and we knew what we were after. Simon's no.1 target was in our sights. BOOM! The absolutely stunning, gorgeous and cripplingly endemic Rosita's Bunting fell! Stuff this Rose-bellied Bunting nonsense, Sumichrast found it, thought the only thing close to as beautiful he had ever seen was his wife, and named it after her. Good enough for us. What an incredible bird. But good turned to better – within minutes, we had heard Julia's no.1 target species, and some judicious taping pulled in a beautiful Lesser Ground-cuckoo – complete with “Egyptian eye make-up”! Another remarkable strike on a magical morning. Could it get better? Yes – a Citreoline Trogon flew in and perched up right in front of us! Still the endemic fest was not over, as we added Beautiful Hummingbird too. What a fabulous session in the isthmus. Now it was hot and getting birdless, and we had a way to go, so we had a filling lunch on the edge of Juchitan, and set off east towards Chiapas. Simon managed a nice long sleep – thus all but dipping some American White Pelicans which flew over. We finally reached Tuxtla, the capital of Chiapas, and given the brilliance of the morning and how tired we were, we decided to dude out for the afternoon session, and gave Eric the night off! We had a decent meal in a veggie restaurant across the street from the hotel, and then strolled to the Plaza Civil where there was a big funfair and street market going on. A bit more raucous, and warmer, than Winchester or Prague!

Dec 22nd

A lie-in! 0600 rendezvous! Miracle! Luckily for us, this morning's site was right on the edge of town....Sumidero Canyon National Park. We birded the access track while waiting for the ticket office to open, scoring with Banded Wren and plenty of migrants, and then did our usual drive/stop/walk routine at various spots along the road. There were two big highlights – poor but adequate views of Blue-and-white Mockingbird, and cripplingly good views of another reportedly very difficult endemic – a cracking little Belted Flycatcher. Also new were Olive Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Buff-bellied Hummingbird and Canivet's Emerald, Plain Chachalaca, Squirrel Cuckoo, Grey Catbird and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. Almost as good as the birds was the canyon itself – the view from the final mirador was truly jaw-dropping, perched as it is on the lip of the kilometre-deep gorge. Eeee....not a patch on Symond's Yat, mind you. After lunch we made the shortish drive uphill (up 1700m in fact) to the upland city of San Cristobal de las Casas, hub of the 1994-97 Zapatista rebellion and revolution. We had time for a short outing in the couple of hours before dusk, and explored a wooded/farmland area above the town. No great shakes – just a few migrant warblers and a Mountain Trogon – until PANIC! Simon saw and called PINK-HEADED WARBLER, our major target for this area.....alas, Julia couldn't get onto it from the back of the van, and a careful search revealed no more sightings. Marital harmony under threat...only partly restored by great view of Rufous-collared Thrush by the road on the way back. Back to the hotel via a pharmacy and supermarket stop, and then a picnic in the room and an early (and chilly) night. Would tomorrow restore harmony?

Dec 23rd

A classic 0540 start, complete with having to wait for the coffee machine to be cleaned at the Oxxo store (as usual), and away we went, this time with Javier Gomez in tow – he's a warden at the local ProNatura reserve. But we were headed for a totally unprotected 100ha patch of land near a local village, which they use for timber and agriculture and is under severe threat. It is one of only three known regular sites in Mexico for Pink-headed Warbler – the other two do have protection, but are just fifty and two (!) hectares respectively. The species is in free-fall decline in Chiapas and the situation is believed to be even worse in neighbouring Guatemala, the only other place on Earth where the bird is found. This is a species which could realistically go extinct within a a decade or two without some serious help. And with Javier's excellent hearing and assistance, we saw not one but two of the little beauties - a real privilege. The habitat is an interesting subclimax pine/oak woodland with Madrone understorey and lots of bromeliads on limestone outcrops – and it's between a road and a farmed area, with an electricity line down the middle of it. ProNatura is in in negotiations to buy the land as a reserve, but not everyone in the local village wants to sell, unsurprisingly. Frightening. We headed on and birded two more areas of woodland and flower fields near the town until lunchtime – Rufous-browed Wren and Brown-backed Solitaire were a nailed-on lifers, plus Grey Catbird, great views of a Blue-and-White Mockingbird, (Northern) Guatemalan Flicker, Greater Wood-pewee, lots of migrant warblers, Brown Creeper, Lincoln's Sparrow, Unicoloured Jay and Mountain Trogon. A slap-up huevos mexicanos lunch was followed by visits to a small botanical garden with an excellent orchid/fern/bromeliad house (and Rufous-collared Sparrow) and to the central handicrafts emporium while Eric collected our bags from the hotel. 65km down the road, awful traffic in Tuxtla, and back to the Hotel Madrid for a chill out evening, featuring Domino's pizza, a chat with a honeymoon couple from Puerto Vallata and a trip to see the marimba band and salsa dancing in the square a couple of blocks west.

Christmas Eve

The coffee machine at the local Oxxo was cleaned and ready to go this morning – result! So we arrived at our main target site north-west of Tuxtla in good time, and birded our way slowly along the track for the entire morning. Very fortunately, and to our immense relief following the Sumichrast's debacle, we shortly heard and then saw – extremely well – a singing male Nava's Wren. It really was a skulker, running in and out of limestone caves and fissures, even visibly feeding underground! But what a mega – ultra-endemic, with just two accessible sites, and a real corker of a charismatic bird too. Also new and endemic was Long-tailed Sabrewing, and we added Collared Aracari, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Barred Antshrike, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Southern House Wren and lots of migrants and forest resident species too – plus a Grey Fox on the road on the way out. With rain starting to fall, we headed off southwards, through swirling clouds. It really rained pretty hard – a cold front coming in from the north apparently. But the weather changed abruptly at the Pacific watershed, and the skies were clear as we descended to the town of Arriaga, which feels like a seaside town but is actually about 15km inland, albeit virtually at sea level. The wind started to howl and didn't really let up all afternoon, but after a siesta we headed out for a spot of birding, adding Green-fronted Hummingbird (another endemic), plus another Rosita's Bunting, 42 (!) Streak-backed Orioles in one tree, Grey-breasted Martin, Orange-fronted and Green/Pacific Parakeets. An early dinner was taken (featuring tequila for Simon in a salute to younger and less sober days...), and we retreated for a nice early night, ready for yet more endemism tomorrow – we trust!

Christmas Day

We drove for about 45 minutes this morning to arrive at a lowland village/farmland/mangrove edge site on the coastal plain. From the off, we added lots of new species, from Magnificent Frigatebird and White Ibis to Western Willet and Tricoloured Heron, along with a wide variety of other big and easy wetland species, like American Avocet, Reddish Egret, Ringed and Belted Kingfishers, Osprey and both Yellowlegs species. More subtle/tricky were Tennessee Warbler, Altamira, Orchard, Northern and Streak-backed Orioles, lots of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Painted Bunting (actually, that one was not subtle) and Yellow-breasted Chat. But the highlights were three endemics and a much wanted mangrove specialist. First to fall was a very smart Russet-crowned Motmot, followed quickly by our main target, in the form of a noisy and showy pair of Giant Wrens, a species strangely endemic to coastal Chiapas, despite not being a habitat specialist at all, apparently. Shortly afterwards, the rather similar but smaller Rufous-naped Wren pitched up, and a screeching halt on a call from Simon revealed a simply gorgeous and unexpected Mangrove Cuckoo, showing nicely in...er...the mangroves. It was now pretty hot, so we headed back to Arriaga for a Christmas brunch (sort of), and shortly afterwards hit the road for the (last) long drive west, back into Oaxaca, and to Huatulco. While we did stop for a few birds along the way, none was new, and sadly the few wetlands along the way were all but dry and held few if any birds. Some recompense came in the form of blasting out the entirety of “Appetite for Destruction” on Eric's car stereo via Julia's phone. We reached Huatulco at pretty much sunset, settled in, and enjoyed (yet another) slap-up meal in the main square – all a bit plastic and “Mexico light”, but we aren't really here for the culture.

Boxing Day

A whole decade on from our arrival in Sri Lanka on tsunami day – it hardly seems possible. Up and away as usual, and down to a short section of easy trail in the National Park, to which Eric has privileged access – good to know the right people.... We scored at once with two endemics (West Mexican Chachalaca and Golden-fronted Woodpecker), and soon added a smart Swainson's Thrush in the undergrowth. It was lovely and cool – but we knew how hot it was going to get, so we had to bird these woods hard! And our efforts paid off very quickly – we swiftly had good but brief views of Happy Wren, and added Red-breasted Chat, Spot-breasted Oriole, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Hook-billed Kite and the endemic west Mexican form of Squirrel Cuckoo, which looks (and reportedly sounds) good for a split. But the icing on the cake was Eric's success at calling in a cracking Colima Pygmy-owl – to within a few feet. Now it was hot, and we left the steaming woods for a very extended lunch/shopping break/siesta – we even had forty (and a bit) winks! And back to the field and a slightly different area after 1600, with two more endemics (Lilac-crowned Parrot and Rufous-backed Thrush), plus lots of warblers, Thick-billed Kingbird and some Spotted Sandpipers and Yellow-crowned Night-herons down on the river. Another good day – they have all been good!

Dec 27th

Even earlier today – 0530 away and up into the hills – long enough for Simon to fall asleep again! We got out at about 1400m, way above the steaming clouds and fog of the lowlands, in cool (cold!) mountain air and lovely semi-deciduous forest. We were on the hunt not for quantity but for quality today – and we got it, as usual. First to bite the dust was Blue-capped Hummingbird, a really tricky Oaxaca-only endemic, and a beauty at that. Within minutes, we'd also found Grey-crowned Woodpecker displaying noisily, and turned up a party of endemic Golden Vireos in with some migrant warblers. Incidentally, these wood warblers have been a real highlight of the trip – while the exact composition has varied with altitude and which slope we've been on, we've had an almost constant accompaniment of active mixed parties of these sylvan sprites – quick rundown in rough order of abundance: Wilson's, Townsend's, Magnolia, Hermit, Black-and-white, Nashville, American and Slate-throated Redstarts, Black-throated Green, Olive, Crescent-chested, Hooded, Northern Parula, Yellow, MacGillivray's, Black-throated Grey, Yellow-rumped, Grey-crowned and Common Yellowthroats, and the absolute zinger Mesoamerican trio – Red-faced (bronze), Red (silver) and Pink-headed (undoubtedly pure Mayan gold). Anyway, back to the action in the hills. Red-legged Honeycreeper was something of a surprise at this height, but just as good were excellent views of not one but two Blue Mockingbirds (a species on which Julia had been sweating for twelve days!), Cordilleran Flycatcher, Grey-breasted Wood-wren, Flame-coloured Tanager and even flyover Crane Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk. We also had probably our best session for butterflies, even identifying a few of the myriad forms: Julia's Heliconia, Banded Peacock, Anna's 88, Blue Morpho (and White Morpho later – a stunner) and more besides. Our last bird on the hill was the last feasible endemic target up here – the very attractive Red-headed Tanager – nice! With the temperature rising fast, we descended, via a little village where we bought a half kilo of coffee direct from the grower/roaster – and Eric assures us it's the good stuff! The final drive back turned up a showy Bat Falcon and even a further endemic: Golden-crowned Hummingbird. Post-siesta, we headed out in really clammy conditions to work a couple of other lowland sites before dark. We found a decent little wetland which held various ducks and herons, Sora Crakes (heard, close but invisible) and Northern Jacana, plus flyover parrots going to roost. But the highlight was undoubtedly a mammalian one – a family of Coatis cautiously crossing the road!

Dec 28th

Last day: pelagic day! We drove round to the neighbouring village of Puerto Angel, arranged our stinking vats of fish heads, oil and other vile chumminess, and boarded a little boat with our pilot Alberto and his daughter Monica just after 0700. Right around the harbour we scored with Royal, Elegant and Caspian Terns, and along the rocky shoreline had lots of Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Boobies (and one Blue-footed) and Brown Pelicans. But these were just curtain-raisers – time to head offshore. We saw several Green Turtles (maybe 10-12?) and a few large stingrays at the surface, but the non-bird highlights (and arguably the highlights of the entire day, if not the holiday) were plenty of Pacific Common and a few Spotted Dolphins, and even better two Humpback Whales surfacing and finally sounding right beside the boat – epic stuff. But it was clear that there were birds in some numbers about 6km offshore, and we went straight for them. For about an hour, we experienced really excellent, intense pelagic conditions, on a very flat and easy sea. The ocean trench is only just offshore here, of course, so the deep water species are nice and close inshore. Oh yes...here we go: Wedge-tailed, Galapagos, Pink-footed, Townsend's and Black-vented Shearwaters (5 spp!), Pomarine Skua, lots of American Black Terns, a Forster's Tern, two Red-billed Tropicbirds, a good few Red-necked Phalaropes – and then there were the storm-petrels. Great views of both Least and Black Storm-petrels, plus tantalising views of two apparently identical “Swinhoe's type” all dark, large petrels – the final verdict was dark-form Leach’s Petrel – possibly a future split? We chased both of them at top speed (25kts?), and barely kept up with only one of them – amazing. And so for our final lunch at our old stalwart restaurant in the town square, a final mole, and then the quick drive to the airport and sad farewells to Eric, who has been fantastic throughout. See you again soon, buddy!

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Rosita's Bunting
Zapotec art, Monte Alban Zapotec art, Monte Alban
Monte Alban Pileated Flycatcher
Curve-billed Thrasher Bridled Sparrow
Cumbre de San Felipe The Atlantic escarpment
Double Bass fern At the Sumichrast's Wren site
Orange-breasted Bunting
Striped Sparrow
White-throated Magpie-jay
White-throated Magpie-jay
Black Vulture
Banded Wren
Turkey Vulture
Roseate Spoonbill
Nava's Wren
Isthmus wind farm
Colima Pygmy-owl At Monte Alban
Sumichrast's Sparrow
Coati Unknown!
Boucard's Wren Epiphyte-laden forest
Black Hawk-eagle
Simon and Eric
Tropical Gnatcatcher
Blue-headed Vireo
Lesser Ground Cuckoo
Bumblebee Hummingbird
Elegant Tern
Laughing Gull
Pomarine Skua
Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale
Magnificent Frigatebird
Brown Booby
Green Turtle Townsend's Shearwater
Us in the forest Us at Sumidero Canyon

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