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Copper Canyon/Alamos/El Fuerte March 2011

Our 2011 Copper Canyon tour treated our group to a compelling mix of old favorites and new surprises. With the great cabanas owned by Jennifer and David MacKay as our base in the Alamos Sonora area, we started our trip with some great tropical deciduous forest species such as White-fronted Parrot, Blue Mockingbird, Crane Hawk and a close-up view of Bare-throated Tiger Heron. We then drove to the south end of the Sierra de Alamos for our stay at Rancho San Jose. There, we had our first looks at Rufous-capped Warbler and Rufous-bellied Chachalaca as well as our only looks at Lilac-crowned Parrot, Yellow Grosbeak, Short-tailed Hawk, and Linneated Woodpecker. From Rancho San Jose, we drove south to El Fuerte, situated along the Rio Fuerte at the mouth of the Copper Canyon complex. Besides finding species at the northern edge of their range such as Grayish Saltator and White-collared Seedeater, we were treated to close up views of Black-throated Magpie Jays and a stream of orioles including Black-vented, Bullock's, Hooded, Streak-backed and Orchard coming in to feed on the cornmeal that our hosts at Hotel Rio Vista had strategically placed on top of a cactus in the hotel courtyard. Next morning we were off on the train into the canyon. The ride to higher elevations has to rank as one of the top scenic train journeys. Arriving in pine/oak forest at over 5,000', we were transferred to Hotel Paraiso del Oso, a quiet retreat tucked into a side canyon near Cerocahui. That afternoon, we ventured into a nearby oak/evergreen canyon, El Cajon. At the entrance, we were surprised by a Gray Silky Flycatcher (usually a fall bird in the area) and then continued up the canyon where we encountered Russet Nightingale Thrush and Slate-throated Redstart. A bit higher we were able to call in the scarce Gray-collared Becard-an oak denizen that is a treat to find anywhere in W. Mexico. Morning brought temperatures in the mid 30's as we headed over Mesa del Arturo to begin our descent into Barranca de Urique, the deepest of the canyons in the Copper Canyon region. As we had to go up to go down, we traversed the highest elevations of the trip and had great looks at Mountain Trogon as well as Crescent-chested Warbler. During our descent, we found Spotted Wren and Scott's Oriole, our sixth oriole of the trip. Hitting the canyon bottom (after dropping a vertical mile) we birded around our host Keith Ramsay"s homestead and found several new species for the trip including Brown-backed Solitaire, White-throated Robin, and Flame-colored Tanager. A skulking Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush was an exciting find but never came clearly into view. Next day we headed a bit south to Arroyo Hacienda, a dramatic, high-walled side canyon. To my surprise, I heard the familiar squeak of Eared Quetzal, a bird I was used to seeing only in high pine/oak canyons. Apparently, this lowland location suited these two individuals as a wintering ground. We had great looks as both birds "flutter feeded" trying to snatch small fruits from the extreme ends of branches. Then a flyover (!) Squirrel Cuckoo put on quite a show for us. Finally, we relocated Golden Vireo, a species I had seen here twice before. I suspect this may be an extreme northeast breeding location for the species. A close-up view of Five-striped Sparrow was a nice end to the morning. After lunch, we began our ascent to the high country (leaving behind 100 degree heat). The welcome coolness of over 7,000' also brought us a nice mixed species flock that included White-throated Hummingbird, Tufted Flycatcher, and Arizona Woodpecker. Before leaving the highlands the following day to return by train to El Fuerte, we explored a humid evergreen creek near Cuiteco. Several pairs of Common Black Hawks have set up territories along this drainage. Our first Rufous-capped Brushfinches of the trip were quickly overshadowed by superb looks at a vocal Gray-crowned Woodpecker, a species I have never seen in this area and, perhaps, the first record for the state of Chihuahua. A passing American Dipper zipping along the creek was an added treat and one that reminded me of home in the southern Rockies. The next morning we headed early to the Rio Fuerte for our float trip. Several White-fronted Parrots were squawking fron on top of cacti across the river-vibrant green against a rather dull thorn forest hillside. We then had close looks at Northern Jacanas working the lily pads-a view made possible by our patient boatman, Felipe. Midway back to El Fuerte, we left the boat to head to "Motmot Alley"-a deep ravine where Russet-crowned Motmot lives year round. Felipe quickly found a bird and we had many good looks over the next half hour including the tail twitching behavior that gives this bird its' local name "pajaro reloj" or clock bird. On our way back to the boat we had further good looks at White-collared Seedeater. Late afternoon birding was a bit dull but on our way back to the hotel after dinner, we heard a Pauraque calling from our side of the river. From the terrace at our hotel, I decided to play tape and soon the bird, a very large nightjar, was flying around us. Quite a treat to get to see such a mysterious night bird up close. For our last day birding in Mexico, we headed to Presa Dominguez, a reservoir on our way to the coast. Besides two flocks of northbound Bonaparte's Gulls, we viewed a Black-crowned Night Heron rookery and numerous wintering waterfowl. A Phainopepla was a nice sight (and at the south end of it's range) and one member of the group got a good look at Rose-throated Becard. As we left, we finally got good looks at a group of Elegant Quail after they crossed the road. Then it was on to the coast for a visit to the estuary at Huatabampito and the fertile bay at Yavaros. The bird diversity in these spots is high. Among our highlights were Roseate Spoonbills in full breeding plumage, hundreds of wintering Brant, several Ruddy Turnstone crowded onto the one rocky patch in the bay and a migrating group of Red Knots, some already sporting the orange breasts they will take to the breeding grounds in the high Arctic. A breeding plumaged Common Loon just offshore was a reminder of how different migrant birds lives can be according to the season. Reluctantly, we left the coast for the long drive north but not without a host of fine birding memories. Copper Canyon/Sonora March 2011 Trip List

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