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West Mexico Trip Report Feb 2010


With three of my birding buddies, I navigated through a garish and surrealistic puerto Vallarta, escaping to the south through a cut in the jungle clad mountain range that frames Banderas Bay. Reaching our desination at Rancho Primavera near the foothill town of El Tuito, we relished the soothing silence broken only by the muted woofing of a local Mottled Owl. Up early the next day, we enjoyed the impressive ponds at the ranch as well as the feeder action. San Blas Jays, Black-throated Magpie Jays, Grey-crowned Woodpecker and Black-vented Orioles dazzled us with close up views. We soon left to explore the nearby Bioto Road and thorn forest closer to the coast. Russet-crowned Motmot, Black-capped Vireo, Painted Bunting, White-bellied Wren and Red-breasted all showed to brighten our morninig. A Flammulated Flycatcher appeared and proved quite engaging. Although superficially a Myiarchus look alike, it lives in its own genus. It's behavior was sluggish for a flycatcher with long periods perched with slow, almost trogon like head movements made while searching for prey. The cast of North American warblers wintering here included a very impressive male Hooded Warbler. Continuing on to the coast, we stumbled into a locally owned and run restaurant called El Cielito. Hard to argue with jaw dropping views of miles of pristine beaches and rocky headlands. The beer just somehow tastes better under such circumstances. The Brown Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds cruising by weren't bad either. Following lunch, we headed to a nearby estuary where we watched a small group of Collared Plovers picking insects from a dried area of the mudflats. A Gull-billed Tern was a nice addition to the other estuary regulars. After the long drive back to Rancho Primavera, our day was capped off with great views of Plain-capped Starthroat at the ranches feeders. Pushing on south the next day, we arrived at Cuixmala Biosphere Preserved in southern Jalisco. Thanks to Brian Miller of Wind River Ranch in Watrous, New Mexico we were granted access to this preserve where Brian had done research in the mid 90's. Resident researchers Rafael and Angie greeted us and showed us a bunkhouse normally reserved for scientists (which we clearly are not). Turned out to be one of the best accomodations for our entire trip. At dusk, in a nearby grove of giant buttressed root trees called majotes, we listened to the calls of Thicket Tinamo the only area on our entire trip where we encountered this very shy species. After dark, an inquisitive pair of Mottled Owls called repeatedly right overhead. In the morning, we birded along the Rio Cuixmala although an uncharacteristic fog had to be waited out. Soon the bird activity got rolling with several mixed species flocks that combined West Mexico residents with wintering North American migrants. Mexican Chachalacas sounded off repeatedly, White-throated Magpie Jays checked us out briefly and several pairs of Golden Vireos allowed close inspection. A male Blue Bunting gave us a great look while the loudly singing Happy Wrens only allowed an occasional glimpse. Wilson's Warblers and Warbling Vireos reminded us of home and triggered a slight bout of jealousy on my part as I briefly envied them for their pristine wintering grounds. We then drove higher in the preserve looking for a Lilac-crowned Parrot nesting tree but only the birds' raucous calls could be heard above the rather dense thorn forest canopy (an abnormal condition produced by this winter's abnormal rains). On our way back to headquarters, we were able to come face to face with a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. As the heat of the day began to build, we reluctantly hit the road for Colima. THE VOLCANOS OF JALISCO AND COLIMA The final leg of our West Mexico scouting trip brought us to the state of Colima. What this state lacks in size it makes up for in biological diversity. Making the one hour drive from the palm-lined estuaries of Cuyutlan, we got our first view of the twin volcanos that dominate the horizon of Colima, the state's capitol. Volcan del Fuego (aptly named volcano of fire) still steams continuously and its summit, at more than 12,000', marks the Jalisco/Colima border. Peering over the shoulder of Volcan del Fuego from the northis the taller (over 14,000') Nevado de Colima. Inactive and perpetually snow capped, this somewhat misnamed peak (it lies wholly in the state of Jalisco) is actually two spires that frame a much higher peak from antiquity that now only exists in our imagination. As we approach Ciudad Colima, we realize there is enough light to make a run up La Cumbre, a foothill peak on the outskirts of the city. Our first priority is to find the W. Mexican endemic Black-chested Sparrow which turns out to be quite common. A large, striking sparrow, it reminds me of our Spotted Towhee as it shuffles through a brush pile. On the far side of the summit, we encounter a boisterous group of Rufous-naped Wrens and a vivid male Orange-breasted Bunting. At sunset, we attempt to lure in a Lesser Ground Cuckoo that has responded to our tape but the bird successfully remains hidden. After sunset, we wait for dark while watching the fire in the sugar cane fields far below. Soon we have a response from a Balsas Screech Owl. When we finally see the bird in our spotlight, I am impressed with its large size (recently moved from the typical screech owl genus Otus to Megascops), delicate vertical flecking on a pale chest and, most of all, by its dark brown eyes. A most exhilirating hour and a half of birding topped off by a great look at a Buff-collared Nightjar as we head back to our hotel. The next day we are off early to Volcan del Fuego. The road on the lower slope is popping with birds such as Elegant Euphonia, Spotted Wren, Rusy Crowned Ground Sparrow (hard bird to see) and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. We can hear Banded Quail in a nearby cornfields but it takes considerable walking to get a decent look. But then, as we drive higher, there is a flock feeding in the middle of the road with Indigo Buntings and Stripe-headed Sparrows. In the pine/oak zone, a male Golden-crowned Emerald poses and leaves us spellbound. Vocal, but less cooperative, are groups of Long-tailed Wood Partridge loudly calling to each other and more faintly calling Aztec Thrushes that we never see. This reaffirms the belief of group member Jim Black, by far the most experienced Mexico birder, that Aztec Thrush (which he still hasn't seen) really does not exist! Still higher, we discover Chestnut-sided Shrike Vireo (quite a show stopper) along with regulars such as Crescent-chested Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart and Bridled Titmouse. At a local beekeeper's station, we get great looks at a wintering adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Near our turn around spot, an Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush shows briefly along with Gray-barred Wren (foraging quite high) and Collared Towhee. A Gray-breasted Wood Wren sings but typically remains hidden. As we retrace our steps, we make a final attempt for Dwarf Vireo. One comes in from the other side of the canyon and everyone gets an identifying view of this confusing vireo. West Mexico Feb 2010 Trip List

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