Our tour to the great Mexican state of Jalisco took us through a wide array of habitats. Starting just north of Puerto Vallarta (we were actually just into Nayarit) we visited Laguna Quelele, a relatively hard to access, mangrove-lined lagoon. The drive in to our boat rendezvous went through some decent quality forest and shrubland, all surrounded by high rise civilization. We knew quickly we were in the subtropics as a pair of Citreoline Trogons flashed into a tree above us. Other reminders of our new southern latitude location were Red-billed Pigeons, Blue-black Grassquits, and a fly by group of Mexican Parrotlets.
The lagoon itself hosted the usual array of long-legged waders and a variety of shorebirds. However, we were keen to at least glimpse that evolutionary marvel, the Boat-billed Heron. After a branch-filled first look, we were rewarded with an "in the open" viewing, not a normal state of affairs for this species. Interesting when the local language describes a feature of the species different from the English naming. This bird is Garza Canela in Spanish; aka Cinnamon Heron (referring to the underbelly color).
Day 2 found us heading out of Puerto Vallarta in a southwest direction. At sunrise in Boca de Tomatlan, we could see clouds of large swifts swirling (or swifting?) about in the cool morning air high above the cliffs. We trusted the local experts who had declared these to be White-collared. (This was to be confirmed later in the trip with some up close encounters). Our route led us higher into the Sierra El Tuito. A side road to Sierra Paraiso gave us our first encounter with pine/oak birds which included a surprising Red-crowned Ant Tanager and a family of gregarious Spotted Wrens. Later we descended into the village of El Tuito and our destination of Rancho Primavera.
Rancho Primavera is, what I consider, a holy grail birding destination in West Mexico. Managed for years by Pat Morrow, the family matriarch, and her daughter Bonnie, the ranch (and the world in general) lost Pat this past December. After numerous trips to this great place, I felt this trip that Pat, in her fiesty and supremely kind way, would suddenly hobble around a corner in the main house as she had always done. That fantasy was, of course, left empty.
Birding is surprisingly diverse here, in part because of the ponds on the property. At dusk we watched all three kingfishers (Belted, Green, Ringed) range across the pond. Several Wood Storks swooped heavily in to roost. Lilac-crowned Parrots flickered over the far horizon looking for a perfect spot to spend the night. A Blue Mockingbird, and a distant Thicket Tinamou, serenaded us into darkness. The Mottled Owls took over the serenade after that. After dinner, I wandered back to the pond to look for bats. My too bright headlamp instantly reflected a familiar eye shine from across the pond. A Northern Potoo had set up shop on a fence post for a night of bug inhaling.
The day at Rancho Primavera was not particularly "birdy" but we kept plugging away and many species revealed themselves.
Two Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrows, Russet-crowned Motmot, Gray-crowned Woodpecker, Golden Vireo, both Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes foraging on the same stretch of the creek. A mixed flock in mid afternoon gave us Blue Bunting and a first year female Chestnut-sided Warbler-the third February I have seen that species on the ranch. The local Rosy Thrush Tanagers called back to our recording but chose to remain hidden.
The next part of our trip was the Cabo Corrientes, a less developed stretch of the West Jalisco coast. While exploring a wilder stretch of that coast north of Mayto, we encountered Laughing Falcon three times-and all great views. On the Chacala side road we looked down on foraging White-collared Swifts and looked up at a Great Black Hawk. An estuary south of Villa del Mar was our main shorebird venue of the trip with Collared and Snowy Plover, Stilt Sandpiper, many Sanderlings among the throng using the area. The shrubs lining the estuary were the night roosting spots for the likes of Painted and Orange-breasted Buntings. Rather large crocodile tracks along the muddy shore were a sobering reminder of the perils our feathered friends face.
Heading south along the dirt coast road, we finally had decent looks at both male and female Rosy Thrush Tanagers. For an ultimate skulker of a bird, it simply glows in the darkness once you get your bins on the bird. Red-breasted Chat encounters were more brief and less satisfying. White-bellied Wrens, with a little patience, were more easily seen.
After several hours of driving, which included a roadside stop for a little gathering of about 500 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, we were approaching the Colima border. Things were getting downright tropical. Our next day of birding had us in the Selva Melaque, a rugged, lush coastal spur that plunges steeply to the sea. Most of the land is owned by two local ejidos and, so far, has escaped major clearcutting. Besides the breath taking scenery gazing out over the Pacific, we were treated to a number of great sightings. Our first Pale-billed Woodpeckers and a pair of very animated Bright-rumped Attilas entertained us for minutes. Another eastern North American breeder that can drift to this part of West Mexico in winter, Yellow-throated Warbler, showed for several of the clients. Olive Sparrows, surprisingly absent further north, responded nicely to tape. Our last main foothill endemic, Flammulated Flycatcher, grudgingly revealed itself at two spots along the Emiliano Zapata ejido dirt road. Although similar in appearance to the myiarchus genus, this species is way more furtive than any of its cousins.
Laguna Pequena in Barra de Navidad and nearby Laguna del Tule were our last main coastal birding venues. Laguna del Tule, a brackish, lily pad-covered body of water cut off from the nearby ocean, hosts dozens of Purple Gallinules and Northern Jacanas. Both of these long-toed marsh birds deftly navigate the tops of the floating vegetation. A side slough of high reeds is home to Ruddy Crake, unfortunately a heard only encounter. Snail Kites patrol the area, tied exclusively to this habitat. An unexpected bonus happened at the north end of the laguna the next morning when one client explored an area of standing water and had the good fortune to surprise a Rufous-necked Wood Rail.
With light fading at Laguna Pequena, the sight of almost 100 Wood Storks striding through the estero at mid tide with their bills submerged and partially open, was a vision I won't soon forget. Ridgeway's Rails sounded off in the mangroves at dusk, a farewell chorus from the coast.
Off to the highlands on Valentine's Day. Stopping at Barranch el Choncho (local word for guan), we explored the Lazaro Cardenas ejido land. More clearing is happening at the upper end of the road but the steep lower end habitat remains pristine. Hummingbirds were much in evidence and we finally had decent looks at both male and female Golden-crowned Emerald. This bird could have been named Swallow-tailed Ephemeral but I was not consulted. While scanning the sky, one client spotted a much smaller soaring bird which turned out to be a Bat Falcon-first one I have seen in West Mexico. After lunch we stopped at a roadside wetland known as Laguna Rosario. Another not easily accessed spot, but with perseverance we were able to get close enough to the masses of whistling ducks to pick out a few Fulvous. A Swainson's Hawk soaring overhead proved to be the lone record for the trip.
Our next three days in the Autlan de Navarro area with stellar local guide Siux Gomez, showered us with a number of pine/oak species. The first day, on the microondas road named Puerto Los Mazos, included meetings with Flame-colored Tanager, White-striped Woodcreeper, Crested Guan, Colima Pygmy Owl, and a close up roadside view of Singing Quail. At the summit, our intention to find Mexican Woodnymph was realized. A male kept buzzing in and out of our spot along the road. Siux kept efforting to refind the bird and, commendably, did so well enough for everyone to get a view.
Day 2 in the area was spent at the Las Joyas Estacion Cientifica in the Manatlan biosphere reserve. An active research station at over 6,000', Las Joyas is set in some of the most pristine habitat remaining in west Mexico. Our birding highlights were many including Mountain Trogon, Red-headed Tanager, Elegant Euphonia, Audubon's Oriole, Bumblebee Hummingbird, Green-striped Brushfinch, and Collared Towhee. A Red Warbler appeared all too briefly for most in the group to view. As we descended back to Autlan in the late afternoon, we finally got our bins on an iconic species we had been hearing but not seeing-Chestnut-sided Shrike Vireo. Certainly a bird worth persisting to see, it strikes me like a Chestnut-sided Warbler on steroids! A bit lower down the mountain, we were gifted great looks at another species we had only heard-Long-tailed Wood Partridge. With its unreal gawdy plumage (we referred to it as "Red-legged Wood Partridge), it is no wonder this bird chooses to stay hidden most of the time.
Before departing the Autlan area, we had one more habitat to explore-the dry thorn forest along the road to Microondas San Francisco. Barely a kilometer up the road, we were finding numbers of Black-chested Sparrows, here at the extreme western edge of its range. After a lengthy search in some local fields, most were able to view the Banded Quail that occur here. While in the same area, an unfamiliar song lilted toward our ears. Finding the maker of the song was easy, identifying it, not so much. Everyone (including yours truly and our local guide) was stumped. Then, by further viewing and process of elimination, I realized it was a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, new for most on the trip. Fun, and humbling, to get baffled once in a while. After adding some species that don't reach the coast, such as Golden-fronted Woodpecker, we descended back to the main highway. As we were in two vehicles, some sightings were not shared. Most noteworthy for the lead car was a viewing of a Lesser Roadrunner, dancing in the middle of the road no less!
Final tour stop, San Sebastian del Oeste, a preserved Spanish colonial town at 5,000' in the mountains east of Puerto Vallarta. Our main purpose was a full day up to La Bufa, a granite massif about 8,000' above sea level. Morning was surprisingly quiet but we then started getting some mixed species flocks. Transvolcanic Jay, Northern Pygmy Owl, Yellow-eyed Junco, and Band-tailed Pigeon were all firsts for the trip as were Crescent-chested, Hermit, and Red-faced Warblers. Another bird heard only at Las Joyas was still on our radar. We kept checking the various banks of flowers and finally got great views of Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer-the most northerly occurring member of that tropical group.
Departure morning is always a bit rushed and bittersweet. But our setting at Las Galeritas gave us a lovely sprinkling of birds, some new to the trip. Orange-billed Nightengale Thrush sang repeatedly but escaped viewing save for one of the group's sharp-eyed members. Another pair of Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrows grudgingly peered out of their dark domain. Rufous-bellied Chachalacas, here at the extreme south end of their range, clambered in the tree tops in the parking lot. Just before heading to the airport, Robin and Jake were graced with a viewing (not a glimpse) of Sparking-tailed Hummingbird feeding on flowers adjacent to one of the cabins. A very local and elusive species of west Mexico and a very fine cherry on top of the tour, at least for those two birders. And also another enticing reason for me to return to a very special part of Mexico.