The WingsWest 2022 Jalisco tour began with a week at Rancho Primavera outside the town of El Tuito. The ranch is located around 2500' on the southern slope of a coastal mountain range and is a great introduction to the birdlife of the region with its mix of subtropical forest, ponds, pastures, and rivers. West Mexican endemics such as Golden Vireo, Blue Bunting, and Rosy Thrush Tanager share the area with a wintering cast from North America. The latter group includes species both east and west with Black-throated Gray Warblers foraging beside Black-and-white, Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes patrolling the same stream, and Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds challenging us to separate the two members of the Archilocus genus. Our plan was to make 5-7 hour day trips to different habitats off ranch and early evening birding on the ranch.
The first venture was to the relatively close Provincia Road which rises to about 4,000' in pine/oak forest. There we encountered familiar faces from the American southwest such as Painted Redstart, Arizona Woodpecker, and Greater Pewee as well as Mexican species such as Black-headed Siskin, Flame-colored Tanager, and Gray-crowned Woodpecker. The "east meets west" theme continued with a warbler flock that included Townsend's and Black-throated Green, and Grace's and Yellow-throated. Nearby the mammal highlight of the trip occurred when most of the group (except myself) glimpsed an ocelot zipping across the road. At our turn around spot we found a pair of Rusty Sparrows, the only encounter of the trip with that bird.
We decided to explore the ranch more thoroughly on day 2. Notable sightings included a Fan-tailed Warbler working the streamside shadows, two reluctant Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrows that lit up our optics in the understory gloom, numerous fly over Lilac-crowned Parrots, vocal but hard to see Red-crowned Ant Tanagers, and a far west Chestnut-sided Warbler. At sunset, we continued a daily ritual of enjoying herons, egrets and ibis settling into their pond side roosts while a Thicket Tinamou eerily wailed in the distance.
Our next off ranch adventure took us to the wild north coast of the Cabo Corrientes, a rare bastion for hawk eagles in West Mexico. After an early morning sighting of Mexican Woodnymph at a know haunt, the day took a distinct turn toward raptors. A Crane Hawk cruised briefly over the canopy followed by a cooperative Zone-tailed. We were then graced with the appearance of a pair of Black and white Hawk Eagles soaring overhead. From an overlook above the coastal village of Yelapa, we had a longer look at just the female. I felt awestruck viewing this magnificent bird with the distant chaos of Puerto Vallarta in the same field of view. A Bat Falcon flew by several times and then we locked on to a confusing raptor further off the ridge. I mistakenly leaned to Gray Hawk but a participant's photos later revealed it to be a Broad-winged. The question of whether this was a local wintering individual or an early migrant was, like the bird itself, left up in the air.
After ascending for our first two off ranch forays, it was time to descend. Day 4 started early to reach the Bioto Road, 7KM west of El Tuito. The predawn chorus was lively including multiple Russet-crowned Motmots, mournful White-tipped Doves, rollicking Bright-rumped Attilas, and raucous White-throated Magpie Jays. Hummingbirds were active with first light-Berylline, Broad-billed, Violet-crowned and, for one lucky group member, a look at Mexican Hermit (the northernmost member of its clan). As one ventures further into the tropics, encounters with the flycatcher group increase. Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Thick-billed Kingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher and various empids seem ubiquitous at this latitude. Some less common types, such as Brown-crested and Boat-billed appeared on the Bioto Road as well. But some members of the clan are inconspicuous or even furtive. The endemic Flammulated is such a bird. Foraging quietly within interior thorn forest, this bird seldom announces its location. On this morning, however, a live Colima Pygmy Owl had responded to our playback and landed 5' above. Suddenly the Flammulated perched even closer. After losing interest in the owl, the flycatcher disappeared without a sound.
Just before sunset we arrived at a pond west of Rancho Primavera to look for a reported Northern Potoo. Some Vaux's Swifts were hitting the water, a Lesser Nighthawk did its best bat imitation and a Bare-throated Tiger Heron grunted from the reeds. We waited until the afterglow faded and then saw a dark shape land on a nearby dead branch. My spotlight illuminated a surprisingly large potoo, all eyes and head. The viewing lasted two minutes and became an instant trip highlight.
For a real change of pace we made a predawn drive 40 minutes south to an agricultural area near Gargantillo. Hundreds of Dickcissels use the area as well as even larger flocks of grackles and cowbirds. Fence lines and hedgerows were our birding venues for Painted Bunting, Blue-black Grassquit, Cinnamon-rumped and Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, Lincoln's Sparrow. and Willow Flycatcher. Later in the morning we visited two fish farms, neither of which seemed to be in operation. Of the plentiful long-legged waders to be seen, my favorites were the flocks of Wood Storks ornamenting nearby deep green trees and maintaining an apparent prehistoric indifference to their lesser cousins. Two juvenile Snail Kites put in brief appearances as did a pair of Purple Gallinules looking rather massive among the dainty Northern Jacanas patrolling the lily pads. We were keen to sift a few Fulvous Whistling Ducks from the hundreds of Black-bellied. Although successful in that endeavor, we did not locate a hoped for Limpkin.
After our last day at Rancho Primavera, we headed to the Mayto area on the coast. In thorn forest habitat on a local ranch, both Red-breasted Chat and White-bellied Wren appeared in rapid succession, followed by a long viewing of a male Golden-crowned Emerald. Although we heard Lesser Ground Cuckoo close by several times, only one person in the group had an open sight line through the thick understory for an unobstructed view of this shy species.
Several major rivers drain the coastal mountains on this stretch of the coast. In places, their exit to the sea is blocked by barrier beaches thus forming brackish lagoons. We visited two such sites during our time in the lowlands, one south of the village of Ipala and the other at Aquilles Serdan. The former hosts all the large waders including Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill as well as a few crocodiles! The latter provides some mudflats where the gathering of shorebirds included Stilt Sandpiper, Collared Plover, and a tightly packed bunch of sleeping Sanderlings. The ever present Magnificent Frigatebirds hung (literally) overhead waiting for opportunities to harass the assembled Caspian and Royal Terns below.
From our base north of Aquiles Serdan, we explored several spur tracks off the main coast road. We had several encounters with the dazzling Orange-breasted Bunting, often in the company of its equally show-stopping northern cousins, Painted and Varied. After much searching we found another lowland species, Olive Sparrow. Even this far north on the west coast of Mexico, the dearth of sparrows tells us we are getting ever closer to the tropics. Our last prize on this day turned out to be a surprise. A decent sized bird was rustling in a vine tangle and I suspected a ground cuckoo. Instead, its quite early arriving cousin, the Mangrove Cuckoo, paused obligingly in an opening for an extended photo session!
On a different road near Corrales, we enjoyed watching the two large woodpeckers, Pale-billed and Lineated, foraging almost side by side. Military Macaws, known to breed locally, ranged overhead giving us views of their stunning plumage, at once both subtle and gaudy. While looking up, we potted a large raptor that made enough passes to confirm it as a Great Black Hawk, a welcome addition to our raptor filled trip.
To reach our base for the last third of our tour, San Sebastian del Oeste, we commenced the long drive back to and through Puerto Vallarta. 90 minutes east of the city we arrived at the town of San Sebastian del Oeste which, with its narrow cobblestone streets and centuries old edifices, could easily pass as a movie set. For the next three days we explored the lush side canyons as well as mountain forests that lead up to 8,000' Cerro La Bufa.
Our progress to the mountain on our first morning was slow but for a good reason-an abundance of birds. Gray Silkies and Green Jays were conspicuous just above town. A side track harbored Amethyst-throated Mountain Gem, Crescent-chested Warbler, and the reclusive Green-striped Brushfinch. An open, brushy area was home to Spotted Wrens while a Chestnut-sided Shrike Vireo persistently called from the hillside. Diligent efforts to lure this amazing endemic into view failed but we still had two more days in the mountains. Further upslope, we waited at a known flower patch for a Bumblebee Hummingbird to appear. This arresting little gem provided us with numerous great views and photo ops. Slightly higher, in essentially cloud forest habitat, we called in Olivaceous Woodcreeper, which completed the trilogy of that family as its cousins, Ivory-billed and White-striped, had previously checked in. Upon returning to town, we strolled the shady lanes near Las Galeritas, away from the bustle of the plaza, and found Blue Mockingbird, Orange-billed Nightengale Thrush, and White-throated Thrush. As dusk settled in we were charmed by the magical vespers of Brown-backed Solitaire.
The next day, determined to do justice to the upper portion of the mountain, we retraced our way through the lower slopes pretending there were no birds to be seen and, instead, waited for greater rewards higher up. We soon encountered the other large hummers, Rivoli's and Blue-throated Mountain Gem, as well as noisy but hard to view Transvolcanic Jays. Rufous-capped Brushfinch chattered from dense shrubbery, and a lone male Elegant Euphonia sang its jumble of notes from the top of a large oak. Mountain Trogons appeared at several stops. After lunch, during which a motionless Russet Nightengale Thrush eyed us suspiciously, we ventured down yet another side track. (Birding seems to be one endeavor where it pays to get sidetracked). Red-headed Tanager, the northernmost member of the diminutive Tangara group, gave us fleeting looks while the local Long-tailed Wood Partridges cranked up the decibels from the understory with their close to yelling vocalizations. Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer, another species at the northern end of the line for their clan, was elusive at first but then showed well. Yet all these sightings were soon to be surpassed. Out of head high thickets, a Golden-browed Warbler, responding to playback, made our optics unnecessary. The neon like vibrancy of this birds plumage is something to behold.
As we had found most of our hoped for species in the first two days, we decided to explore a "new" side canyon for our last day. A dirt road close to town dead ended in a surprisingly lush riparian habitat below pine/oak slopes. We first heard, and then saw, a pair of Audubon's Orioles. While savoring them, we heard the mournful whistle of the Chestnut-sided Shrike Vireo again. Scrambling up a steep trail, we had a superb view of the valley. The bird had moved closer but remained out of sight. But sometimes patience is rewarded. The bird turned out to be closer than we thought. An unusual and striking color combo of chestnut, green, yellow and white decorating a big-headed, broad-chested body is quite a sight. Kind of a Chestnut-sided Warbler on steroids. We then went back streamside where we found an animated group of Golden- crowned Warblers. Like their Golden-browed cousins, they prefer the densest of vegetation but, nonetheless, scolded us in plain sight from the edge of their domain several times. As we departed the canyon, a stellar morning was topped off by a mixed species flock that featured a pair of Gray-collared Becards, our first quality looks at that hard to find species.
Last days of tours are often bittersweet. We departed early from San Sebastian so we could give ourselves one final surge of birding before negotiating the mayhem of the Puerto Vallarta airport. We chose a venue nearby-Boca de Tomates. Not the mouth of a tomato but, rather, the mouth of the Rio Ameca that separates the states of Jalisco and Nayarit. The tide was favorable so we had full on foot access to the mangrove edges, mudflats and sand bars. In rapid succession we enjoyed numerous Whimbrel, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plover, Anhinga and hundreds of Laughing Gulls and Elegant terns. The massive congregation of birds gathered on the sand bar hid some surprises including Bonaparte's Gull, Common Terns, and a far north Sandwich Tern. As we enjoyed our last "on the beach" lunch of the trip, some distant breaching whale flukes out in the Bahia de Banderas, seemed to be bidding us farewell. Muchas gracias Jalisco y esperamos regresar pronto!