Alan Grenon and I recently made a trip to Guerrero, Mexico. Our goal was to bird the Sierra de Atoyac/ Sierra Madre del Sur, Balsas drainage and coastal thorn forest and locate endemic species and identifiable forms (identified below with accepted species names in parentheses). Alan G. had been to Mexico on several occasions so his species target list was short, whereas this was my first trip to the country and was excited by seeing species I first encountered in the pages of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Mexican Birds many years ago.
We arrived in Acapulco around noon and after clearing customs and picking up the rental car, we made our way toward Atoyac and places further on. We drove pretty much straight through with only incidental birding on the way.
After filing the car in Atoyac at the Pemex, we found our way through town and were on our way to Paraiso. Just outside of Atoyac, a nice group of Orange-fronted Parakeets and White-throated Magpie-Jays were a good start to our journey. Arriving at Paraiso by 4pm, we bought a few groceries and located a very basic hotel near the zucalo, where we booked a room for the night for about 100 pesos. With food and lodging acquired, we headed into the forests above Paraiso on the road toward Nueva Delhi. Just above Paraiso, we were crestfallen when we discovered that road crews were grading the road. Our fears were soon allayed when we drove a bit further and the construction was confined to the first few kilometers of the road. We discovered fruiting trees early on that were attracting numerous thrushes, warblers, and flycatchers. White-throated Thrush and Black-throated Green Warbler were the best of the bunch. We began hearing and seeing Brown-backed Solitaires and saw one probable Yellow-bellied Flycatcher near an abandoned gravel quarry. One quail-dove flew by but was not identified.
A short way further along the road near km 8 we found an Inga in full bloom. The first hummer seen at this tree was a female White-tailed Hummingbird- the first of the big 3 endemic species! Almost immediately after, we saw a male Short-crested Coquette. We couldn’t believe out luck! The coquette was quickly chased away and while we waited for it’s return, we found our third new hummingbird of the trip a female Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird (one of my most wanted world birds). The male coquette returned soon after and stayed a good long time without being detected by other hummers- we had excellent looks at all his splendor as he fed in good light. There were also a couple more White-tailed Hummingbirds including spectacular male plumaged birds, as well as a few Berylline Hummingbirds. Elated, we drove back toward Paraiso in the dusk and saw well a few Mexican Whip-poor-wills along the road.
First dinner than bed- Alan G. had to negotiate a vegetarian dinner at one of the few restaurants near the triangular shaped zocalo. Huevos, frijoles y tortillas were had by Alan G.; I had some spicy pork with rice. Quite good. Then our nearby “hotel” awaited us- very spare- no running water (just a large bucket of water for flushing or washing) and a very basic bed complete with blood stained pillow cases. Being Saturday night, the locals were rowdy until at least 3 am the following morning. Definitely the worse lodging had by either Alan or myself.
We woke early and headed up the road well before dawn. Mottled Owl and a possible Aztec Thrush were heard, but once dawn arrived, the woods were alive with birds. At about km 10, we quickly had a pair of relatively cooperative Ruddy Foliage-gleaners, Greenish Elaenia, Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, and then a large feeding flock, including the smart White-winged Tanager, the amazingly loud Black-headed Saltator, Wagler’s (Emerald) Toucanet, and others. Lilac-crowned Parrot were exploring a large snag nearby. As we drove further up the road, we encountered Gray Silky-flycatcher and Cedar Waxwings (we encountered waxwings daily in large flocks in all habitats), Bumblebee Hummingbird (one female), Green Jay, and Slate-throated Redstart.
At around km 16 we found another flowering Inga attended by numerous nearctic warblers, most prevalent were Nashville. I discovered one Colima Warbler feeding among the bunch and although we tried to relocate it, Alan G. didn’t find this species but added Virginia’s. Other birds here –a Mexican Hermit put in an appearance, as did Dickey’s (Audubon’s) Oriole, a female Red-headed Tanager, a pair of White-winged Tanagers, Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Mexican (Masked) Tityra, and Golden Vireo (heard only). Another large Inga above this one had at least 2 coquettes (1 female and what appeared to be an immature male) and a male Sparkling-tailed Hummer seen by Alan G. We drove to about km 19 before the road and time of day discouraged us from going higher (we thought most of the remaining species we wanted to see could be had easier from the Filo de Caballos side of the Sierra).
At lunch around km 12, we had an ant swarm. At least half a dozen Fan-tailed Warblers, both Sinaloa and Happy Wren, Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush, four species of woodcreepers (starting with Ivory-billed, then a Streak-headed, followed by both the endemic Guerrero (Strong-billed) and Mexican (Northern) Barred (complete with it’s pale bill), and 2 Pacific (Bright-rumped) Attila. Above us we saw Common Black-hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, Zone-tailed Hawk, and just a little lower around 10 km 3 King Vultures! About 3 km above San Vicente we saw our first Yellow-winged Caciques.
We stayed at the Hotel Catedral in Atoyac (240 pesos) and dinner at Restaurante Mexicana about 5 blocks to the south on the main road out of town. Although the hotel was more comfortable (a most welcome shower!) the town was just as rowdy until well after midnight.
Leaving Atoyac early, we hoped to find a good place to bird the thorn forests in the early morning hours. We located a decent place at the microwave tower at El Papayo.(Km 51) on Hwy 200. A female plumaged Orange-breasted Bunting was one of the first species to be seen, followed by Northern Beardless Tyrannulet and the distinctively small and barred Western (Rufous-naped) Wren. West Mexican Chachalaca, Citreoline Trogon and several Myiarchus flycatchers, Cinnamon and Ruby-throated Hummingbird were also noted. A splash of color was added when Yellow-winged Cacique, Scarlet-headed (Streak-backed) Oriole, Long-crested Cardinal (amazingly different), male Orange-breasted Bunting, and several Pacific (Blue) Buntings put in their appearances. A walk toward the ocean produced Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Doubleday’s Hummingbird, tons of Orchard Orioles, Western Olive Sparrow, Thick-billed Kingbird, Mexican Squirrel Cuckoo, Great Kiskadee, and Gray Hawk. Troops of Grove-billed Anis were everywhere. A Peregrine circled over the car as we were leaving the site.
We found some small marshes just east of Circa Coyuca among the many egrets the best birds were Tricolored Heron, Northern Jacana. After charming our way through the military checkpoint at the junction of Hwy 200 and Old Hwy 95, we made our way toward Chilpancingo via the cuota. We bypassed the bustling capitol of Guerrero and drove onwards to Zumpango (where we planned on spending the night).
About 4km north of Zumpango on old hwy 95, we pulled off the road for lunch near some riparian vegetation. Almost immediately we had Mexican House Finch (quite distinctive- red confined to forehead and to smaller region of throat; streaks nice and crisp) and the regional endemic Black-chested Sparrow. Also present were several woodpeckers, but just as I realized they were Grey-breasted Woodpecker, we suddenly heard shouting and looking back toward our car, we saw two policemen with guns drawn. After telling them we were only looking at birds, the one who approached us apologized profusely calling us “mis amigos.” While my heart slowed to it’s normal beat rate, I refound the woodpecker and enjoyed a prolonged look at one of my most wanted North American woodpeckers.
We easily found the road to Filo de Caballo and started our way to higher elevations. Our first stop near km 16 was very quiet, although on our way down we had Happy Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, Black-chested Sparrow, and Russet-crowned Motmot. At km 20 oaks and larger trees began appearing and here among the trees with terminal white flowers many hummingbirds were present with Dusky and Green-fronted Hummingbirds being most common, although at least one Rufous and a few Black-chinned Hummingbirds were detected as well. A large group of Black-vented Orioles also fed among the flowers, and other birds of note were Black-chested Sparrow, Cassin’s Kingbird, Sumichrast’s (Scrub) Jay, and Northern House Wren. The higher we drove, the oaks became larger and above Miraval, pines appeared. Around km 37, we stopped among the pines and oaks and found a nice grouping of birds including a very dark Hairy Woodpecker, several Acorn Woodpeckers, both Spot-crowned and White-striped Woodcreepers, Buff-bellied Flycatcher, and Yellow-eyed Junco. On our way back down the road we had a few smart looking Stripe-headed Sparrows just outside of Xochipala
We spent the night at Hotel Cactus on south side of Zumpango complete with ceiling fan and hot water (280 pesos). Dinner was had at Restaurante Teresita just across the street. The owner of the restaurant came to know our tastes very well since we ate at her establishment a further 2 nights later in the week. Her homemade tortillas and frijoles were just what the doctor ordered after a long day in the field.
We woke early to try for owls along the lower portion of the road to Filo de Caballo. Around km 1 we had a distant and brief response from Balsas Screech-Owl. We drove quickly through to km 46 in Pine forest where a large feeding flock caught our eye- the best were our first Crescent-chested Warbler, Grace’s Warbler, and Mexican Red Crossbill. We didn’t stay long since we wanted to be in the humid pine-oak forests higher up before it became too late. We found the old logging camp at km 60.7 (although there seems to be new construction here since what appears to be a new foundation for a building has been started). We had a great start with Collared Towhee. The incessant chipping of hummingbirds turned out to be Green Violetears with a smattering of White-eared, mountain-gems, and others. Several large trees with abundant red flowers were attended by many species including Rufous-capped Brushfinch, and large numbers of American Robins and Cedar Waxwing. Along several tracts into the forest we found a nesting Russet Nightingale-Thrush, a fantastic Mountain Trogon, displaying Bumblebee Hummingbirds, both Violet-throated or Margaret’s (Amethyst-throated) and Garnet-throated Mountain-gems, bright Southern Red Warbler, and the very different Blue-crested (Steller’s) Jay.
After lunch, we took another track (around km 60) and encountered a small feeding group consisting of Guerrero (Common) Bush-tanagers, Golden-browed Warbler and Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiecer. We then heard several nearby Guerrero (Unicolored) Jays and while we waited to see if they would come closer I heard White-throated Jay very close. It took some work, but we eventually saw a pair of these beautiful jays. Later back at the clearing at km 60.7, we found another pair of these birds skulking in very un-jay like manner right by the road. (Jays turned out to be a bit frustrating- we heard White-throated Jays the following day, but never saw them again and although we tried to find Unicolored Jays again we would have to be satisfied with just hearing them on this one afternoon.) We wanted a relaxing earlier evening, so we headed out of the higher elevations around 2:30 and made a few stops along our way back to Zumpango- km 53 had a Rusty-crowned Ground-sparrow, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, and a troop of Steller’s Jays. Other good birds were a Tufted Flycatcher at km 48, and West Mexican Chachalaca at km 15.
After finding a few groceries in Zumpango, we spent a second night at Hotel Cactus and had another great meal at Restaurante Teresita.
A 3:30am departure with no stops greeted us this morning. By 6am we were in the cloud forest during a chilly dawn. We did see Gray Fox a few times on the road up, but little else. We heard Mexican Whip-poor-will, Mottled Owl, White-face Quail-Dove, and Collared Forest-Falcon in the pre-dawn chorus. Both nightingale-thrushes and White-throated Robins were seen on the roadsides. But at the clearing at km 60.7, the forest was filled with birds. Again robins and waxwings were everywhere and this morning we had excellent looks at Black Robin (Thrush) singing from exposed perches. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks gave us a start several times, as Aztec Thrush had been reported from here in the past. And Collared Towhee was again evident. On our early morning stroll we had wonderful looks at both mountain-gems, Mountain Trogon, Flame-colored Tanager, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer. Among the nearctic migrants present were Townsend’s and Hermit Warblers, Cordilleran and Hammond’s Flycatchers (both heard), Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Calliope, Rufous, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. We heard White-throated Jay as well.
Later in the morning, we found Blue Mockingbird, Wagler’s Toucanet, and watched a host of birds coming to bath in a stream near the clearing, including a whole flock of waxwings using one small puddle. It was very cool to see hummingbirds bathing in waterfalls and small pools by dipping their bellies into the cool water.
As late afternoon and evening approached, clouds moved in and the bird activity fell considerably. By nightfall, we had calling Mottled Owl and Mexican Whip-poor-wills. A trip report by Russ Namitz from November 2006 stated that he was able to call in a pair of Stygian Owls. Alan G. gave a couple of hoots (just so we could say we tried) and who would believe it, but an owl answered. And not only did it answer but it came in and perched in the open near the top of a tree right at the clearing edge. Quite the surreal experience. We spent the night in the car at the clearing. Although the air was quite cold (we had to put the heater on for a short time in the middle of the night to warm up- neither of us had planned this so we didn’t have the warmest of sleeping arrangements), the skies were bright with stars (once the clouds cleared) and we were serenaded by the Stygian most of the night.
The cold air prevented us from lying in too late this morning. Before we drove off to look for thrushes and whatever else might be around, we tried the Stygian Owl again. The bird flew in silently this time and perched even lower- we had nice views of it perched and as it flew off. We also had a flyover of Mottled Owl.
Along the road were again many nightingale-thrushes. We had our best looks at Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush this morning both along road and later bathing in a stream. The edges of the clearing again were very birdy; this morning Long-tailed Wood-partridge joined the dawn chorus. Many of the same species we had been seeing the last few days were encountered this morning, so we decided to try further along the road hoping for feeding flocks. We drove the road to about km 70 before deciding to bird the road back toward Xochipala. We found one new trip bird along this higher stretch- Mexican Chickadee.
Below Filo de Caballo we found a Brown-throated (House) Wren near km 48 near a shrine for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Probably the best bird was a Pileated Flycatcher at km 47- this bird was interestingly in uncharacteristic habitat but we had an extended encountered. The bird was silent, but it’s spiky crest was evident, as were the short primary projection and long tail. The bird was far more distinctive than we were prepared for. At km 35, we had a nice feeding flock containing Black-eared Bushtit, Bridled Titmouse, Olive Warbler, Elegant Euphonia, Buff-bellied Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, and Alan G. had a Chestnut-sided Shrike-vireo (we had been hearing these here and there over the past few days, but this was to be the only sighting of the trip). A few more stops along the way gave us Black-chested and Stripe-headed Sparrows (Km 20) and Northern Mockingbird, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, and White-winged Dove (Km 4-5). Xochipala and Zumpango had flocks of Bronzed Cowbirds and Great-tailed Grackles going to roost. A hot shower and dinner (frijoles, arroz y tortillas) were very welcome this night in Zumpango.
This was our final day along the road to Filo de Caballo with the intention of birding the oak scrub around km 24 and locating feeding flocks in the pine-oak above km 30. First order of business was to try and see Balsas Screech-owl. We heard Great Horned Owls around km 1, and had the screech-owl respond well between km 2-3, although it decided it wasn’t worth it to check out who was calling by the road.
We then drove all the way to km 25 for dawn birding. We found a nice feeding flock in an oak and palm lined arroyo- Greater Pewee, White-striped Woodcreeper, Summer Tanager, Plumbeous Vireo, and Boucard’s Wren were seen well. Back at the road, we had a male Varied Bunting, Hooded Oriole, and a couple Virginia’s Warblers. Higher up in the pine-oak forest, we found other gems- Eastern Bluebird, Olive Warbler, Elegant Euphonia, Black-headed Siskin, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Hepatic Tanager. A stop back down at km 20 had Black-vented Orioles and hummingbirds including our only Beautiful Hummingbird (female) of the trip, as well as Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Black-chested Sparrow.
We said good-bye to this wonderful area and made our way back toward Acapulco. After finding a decent hotel for our last two nights, we explored the road to Barra Vieja. Many waterbirds were seen at the bridge at Barra Vieja and further along the road near the Rio Papagayo, we had one Mottle Owl perched right over the road and heard a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl.
We spent the night with air conditioning (which felt so decadent) at Hotel Ashly ( 500 pesos) on the road to the airport in Acapulco. Sopas were had right next door to the hotel and were delicious.
Early morning found us along the road near Cabrera, about 25km east of Acapulco on GRO200. Thicket Tinamou and Colima Pygmy-owls were vocal in the pre-dawn and the latter showed well in the early light. A walk along a track in nice thorn forest produced many West Mexican Chachalaca, Citreoline Trogon, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Nutting’s Flycatcher, Pacific (Bright-rumped) Attila, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Banded Wren, Western (Grayish) Saltator, Orange-breasted Bunting, Ruddy Ground-dove, Stripe-headed Sparrow, White-fronted Parrot, and Yellow-winged Cacique. Numerous quiet Bell’s Vireo threw us a curve since neither of us could recall ever just seeing this species. Near an active gravel pit, we walked another track with Citreoline Trogon, Willow Flycatcher, Rose-throated Becard, Long-crested Cardinal (the crest on these birds was amazing- long and pointed forward- the males were a brighter red than northern birds and females seem to lack much red in their wings). A Ferruginous Pygmy-owl I managed to call in attracted loads of birds as well. A fantastic male Doubleday’s Hummingbird was a nice treat.
We spent the rest of the day looking for and birding small patches of marsh we could find east of the airport to Barra Vieja. Lowland disturbed habitats held loads of trip birds, like Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, White-tailed Kite, Gray-breasted Martin, Dickcissel, Cinnamon-rumped (White-collared) and Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, Painted Bunting, and lots of Orchard Orioles. During the heat of the day, we hired a boat and guide to bird the mangroves and channels near Barra Vieja. Our main objective was Boat-billed Heron which we saw several of and very well. The mangroves were birdy with nearctic migrants, whereas the edges and marshes had many waterbirds. Back at the bridge, we saw Mangrove Swallow and three kingfishers – Amazon was a nice addition to our trip (we saw Green the previous evening and during the boat ride). Hiring the guide and boat was an excellent way to spend the afternoon- 300 pesos well spent- we hope others will take similar trips so the local people understand the value of the wetlands and mangroves near their homes. A marsh just east of Acapulco at dusk continued to give us trip birds, all the way to dark. Although we missed some hoped for rails, we had numerous ducks, jacanas, ibis, storks, and shorebirds. Crested Caracara and Lesser Nighthawk were our final new birds for the trip.
We spent the night at the Hotel Ashly and just up the road form the hotel, had a hearty meal of fine Mexican cuisine served with lots of attitude (let’s just say the waitress didn’t get a good tip).
We returned to the states on the 25th, leaving Acapulco early in the morning. We nearly missed our connection in Denver due to customs and TSA “delays”, but thankfully the computer problems United had experienced all day and bad weather in Chicago had delayed our flight to Seattle. We made the flight (just barely) and were home just an hour or so later than expected.
My total trip list was 319 species detected, and 103 new species and forms. Alan G. had hoped for 12-14 new species, and nearly reached that with 11 new seen. We were a little surprised with how quiet many of the resident species were and especially disappointed to discover that most habitats remained very quiet with low activity after 10am or so all the way to dark. Since we couldn’t be all places at dawn, we had to carefully consider our best options for each morning, and looking for places to just hang out during the heat of the day. Hummingbirds, however, were active all day long, so no matter where you were, you could likely sit and watch individuals feeding or defending feeding stations. In fact this was one of the most hummingbird rich regions I’ve ever visited (where feeders hadn’t created an artificial local abundance). We had 21 species of hummingbird and missed several that were probably present- Golden-crowned Emerald, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewing, Blue-throated Hummingbird, both Plain-capped and Long-billed Starthroats, Green-breasted Mango and Lucifer Hummingbird – so nearly 30 species are possible using this itinerary!