By Steve Mlodinow
My wife, Casey Beachell, and I visited Baja's Cape Region from 22 to 30 March. We resided at the El Presidente Inter-Continental Hotel at San Jose del Cabo (SJDC) because I had a conference there the last 4 days of our stay. More on hotel and rental car choices later.
We found the residents of Baja California Sur to be very friendly. Overall, English is widely spoken, even in smaller towns - maybe just a couple words, but enough to get by, especially if you speak just a wee bit of Spanish. At restaurants, etc., even an attempt to speak a few pitiful words of Spanish was greeted by welcoming smiles. In SJDC and Cabo San Lucas, the water is generally drinkable, making the margaritas quite consumable. There were also many ATMs in SJDC which dispense pesos (and in at least one case, dollars). Centro SJDC is charming with a number of shops and restaurants. Though we didn't stay there, Todos Santos looked like a fun place to stay.
For navigation, we primarily used the AAA map, though for navigating around SJDC, the Dollar Rental Car map was quite useful. No bugs, plenty of sun, gentle breezes, temperatur perfecto. Couldn't really ask for more. Well, except some good birding.
And good birding was had. The first day (23 Mar) yielded few rarities, but excellent numbers. We started at sunrise at the Estero San Jose. This is a somewhat degraded area of reeds and palms along a stream that empties (or almost so) into the Sea of Cortez in SJDC. To reach this spot from the aeropuerto, head south on Hwy 1 for 10-15 km. You will pass several signs for SJDC centro. Ignore these. The landmark you're looking for is a roundabout with a large yellow monument in its center. Go 3/4 of the way around, and go east. Follow this road until it ends at El Presidente, and park near the hotel's entrance. Walk past the entrance to a restaurant (Da Antonio) and into the estero. If you head upstream, you're into palms and reeds. Head towards the water, and there are some small mudflats and sandbars.
This location has the highest concentration of Hooded Orioles I've ever seen. Indeed, I've never seen such a density of any species of oriole anywhere. On our first morning, we had 80+ at the Estero. Sweet whistles, irritated chatters, and flashes of yellow-orange everywhere. Gila Woodpeckers and Cactus Wrens are also omnipresent here. Gilded Flickers, Scott's Orioles, Cardinals, Verdins, and other such mesquite birds were easily found as well. Belding's Yellowthroats were numerous and we had a few Gray Thrashers in the Estero, but no Xantus's Humms.
On the mudflats, there were a few Least and Western Sandpipers, Whimbrel, both pelicans, plus several gulls (YF, California, Laughing, Heermann's). Also near sunset, the estuary's mouth collected a large flock of swallows, including several Bank. Though we had no rarities on day 1, we eventually had Palm Warbler and Tropical Kingbird here, and nearby in the El Presidente parking lot, 3 Ruddy Ground-Doves. Also in the Estero our first AM, we had a female Yellow Warbler that certainly looked like a Mangrove Warbler - somewhat out of habitat here. While looking offshore one afternoon, I had a Humpback Whale.
Our second stop on day one was Miraflores. Miraflores is ~20 to 30 minutes north of the airport just west of Hwy 1. We found the best birding to be in a wash at the edge (southeast?) of town. Take the paved road into town from Hwy 1. When the road ends in a "T", turn left. In a couple blocks, this road veers right and goes past a small statue (of the Virgin Mary, I believe). After the statue, the road curves left and goes down a small incline into some tasty habitat and then drops again into the wash.
This wash (and the road leading up to it) had good numbers of migrant/wintering passerines, Gray Thrashers, Xantus's Hummingbirds, BG Gnatcatchers, Hooded Orioles, Cactus Wrens, Ash-throated Flys, etc. We found a Thick-billed Kingbird and 2 Black-and-White Warblers here plus an out-of-place male Mangrove Warbler. Adding to this wash's charm was a large number of dragonflies and butterflies plus good herp diversity: Spiny Iguana, Zebra-tailed Lizard (these look quite different from those in southern California), Baja California Whiptail, and Pacific Watersnake. On the way out of town, 1 km from hwy 1, there is an area of larger mesquite. On another day, we had a TB Kingbird there. This spot also had a singing Cassin's Vireo and is probably worth some time investigating.
We then lunched on the Tropic of Cancer, where there is a simple roadside restaurant. No habla englais, but the tacos de pescado where excellent (served with creamy chopped avocado and an intensely tangy lime); the service was friendly and quick, and the meal was cheap.
We finished our day at Santiago. The zoo on the edge of town was a sad and noisy place, though others have had decent birding there. We found some nice vegetation in the neighborhoods and pulled out a few migrants. There were lots of Xantus's Hummingbirds, and the reedbeds (to your right as you enter town) had some Belding's Yellowthroats.
The following day, we headed of to Todos Santos, ~ 90 minutes from SJDC and ~60 minutes from Cabo San Lucas. Take Hwy 1 to CSL and then follow the signs to Todos Santos/Hwy 18. The first spot we visited was just south of town - Playa San Pedrito. The road for this beach leaves Hwy 18 a few km s. of Todos Santos just opposite a small botanic garden (fairly obvious). The road is dirt, but fairly good and passes through some nice desert with lots of sparrows. At the end of the road is a reedy marsh and palm grove. We found little here, but others have had success. We then headed into town itself. It was Sunday, so birding town was difficult with people and cars in abundance. Also, we really didn't know where to start, so we hit the more interesting habitat later in the day. If we were to return, I'd check the following:
1) Ag areas. Follow Hwy 1 into town. Hwy 1 will turn right. Follow. Turn left at Hidalgo. When it ends, go right and the shortly left. This road with drop you down into a wettish agricultural area. We birded along this road some. From this bottom area, before the road heads up a hill, you will see an inauspicious appearing dirt road heading off to the left (SSW). We took this later in the day. No birds of particular interest (did get Belding's Yellowthroat and Xantus's Hummingbird), but the habitat looks good. This road will also take you to La Poza - a restaurant on the beach. We didn't eat here, but there is a fine lagoon behind La Poza with many ducks, a pair of Least Grebes, a YF Gull (uncommon on Pacific side), and both pelicans. The highlight of the day, and in some ways the trip, was the Magnificent Frigatebird bathing spectacle. Above the lagoon, riding the updrafts from a nearby cliff, hung suspended 50-100 frigatebirds. Every few minutes, 3-6 would break off and drift down towards the lagoon. As they neared water level, they'd gain horizontal speed and then bounce themselves, chest-first, off the water, repeatedly - a dangerous procedure for a frigatebird, for if it stalled out and landed, it would never lift off again. After getting sufficiently wet, the freshly bathed frigate would rise up a bit and shake itself like an airborne puppy dog. I'd never seen frigatebirds perform like this previously, but interestingly, we later saw a few bathing at the La Paz Sewage Treatment Ponds.
2) The small park where Hwy 1 turns right in town had a good number of birds.
3) Hwy 1 north of Todos Santos has some ag habitat worthy of at least brief exploration.
4) Heading south from Todos Santos, past the turn off to Playa San Pedrito, we passed a small town the name of which we are uncertain of. We spent some time here, and even though we had no luck, the habitat looked promising.
Well, day 1 and 2 were fun, but from a rarity standpoint, a bit flat. And we'd hoped for a little more. Day 3 helped a bunch. We started at the Estero San Jose and the birded the SJDC public golf course. From the Estero, go back to the roundabout with the yellow monument. Head back towards the airport and then take the first right. Shortly, you will see a restaurant (the g.c. restaurant, actually) on your right. Park in the lot and bird the parking lot and behind the restaurant. From here, you can access the g.c. The trees had many migrant/wintering species, including a Tennessee Warbler (and nearby, a Ruddy Ground-Dove). After the g.c., we went back to Miraflores. After Miraflores, we went to Boca de la Sierra. To get to Boca de la Sierra, go right at the "T" instead of left (which takes you to the wash, as describe above). Towards the edge of Miraflores, this road will fork. Take the left fork. This will lead through the desert scrub up to the small village of Boca de la Sierra. We had a number of migrants here, the most noteworthy of which was a singing Blue-headed Vireo. We celebrated with fish tacos on the Tropic of Cancer and then visited Caduano. To reach Caduano, take Hwy 1 south from the Miraflores cutoff. In a few km, you will see a paved road heading to the west (fairly well-signed). Take this road a short distance into town. Though we had nothing notable here, the small town square looked pretty tasty and took only a couple minutes to bird.
Day 4: We decided to work our way up to La Paz, land birding at Buena Vista, Los Barriles, and San Bartolo on the way up. Buena Vista and Los Barriles were fairly birdless and didn't have that much habitat. San Bartolo, however, was potential-ridden. Lotsa good habitat and a fair number of birds. Plenty of Xantus's Hummingbirds, our only Spotted Towhee, BH Grosbeaks, Varied Bunting, Western Tanagers, etc.
Then we went to La Paz. Ensenada La Paz (ELP) is a small estuary that extends south from the rather large Bahia La Paz. Take Hwy 1 through town and towards the airport. About 0.7 km from the turn to the airport, you'll see the Baja California Swap Meet on your right. Just past that is a dirt road heading right. Take this. Shortly, it branches into many tracks. Take any path, being careful not to get onto wet soil. Getting stuck here would suck. Basically, we drove towards the shore as far as comfort would permit and walked the remaining distance. The mudflats were teeming with shorebirds, including 3000+ Western Sands, 300 Least Sandpipers, many Marbled Godwits, Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, Semi Plovers. Wilson's Plovers were busily setting up territories and "singing". A fair number of larger waders were also around, including a number of White Ibis. The small mangrove clumps had, appropriately, Mangrove Warblers.
After birding the Ensenada, we went to the La Paz Sewage Treatment Ponds. Between the La Paz airport and La Paz Centro, you go around a roundabout with a Whale Tail monument in the center. Go around this roundabout and you will see, on the eastside I believe, a sign for the STP (it's in Spanish, but pretty obvious). Turn right onto this dirt road. After a bit, another dirt road will head off to your right (signed for the STP). Turn here. The aeration ponds and buildings are fenced off, but the secondary treatment ponds are not. A worker came out to query us, but a simple 'observaciones de pajaro' was met with a smile and a wave. These ponds are fabulous. They have flats and deeper water. Surrounding them is thick Tamarisk, and on one border is a cattle pasture with wet grassy areas. We had hundreds of ducks and shorebirds, bathing frigatebirds, nice sized sparrow flocks, 500 BH Cowbirds, 50 Cattle Egrets, small clumps of warblers - great stuff, worthy of more time than we had. Rarities included Canada Goose and BB Whistling-Duck.
During my conference, we had some time to poke around SJDC. The grounds of the El Presidente were pretty birdless, excepting an endless supply of Hooded Orioles. Our friends were staying at the Best Western, also with little habitat, but its blooming agaves had a male Orchard Oriole. A good area in town is, yes, the local STP. The SJDC STP just has aeration ponds, so there isn't any fabulous waterbirding. But, its got some nice trees that yielded a male Cape May Warbler, an imm male American Redstart, and a BC Hummingbird. We also had Black-tailed Brush Lizard and White-tailed Antelope Squirrel here (the latter living in a pile of abandoned tires!). To get here go from the El Presidente towards Hwy 1. Shortly after leaving the hotel, there is a small roundabout. Take the right turn here (labelled 'historico' or 'centro'). Go 1.0 km. You'll see the relatively lush vegetation on your right. Park on the road, and take the small side road back to the STP. This is also upstream from the Estero, and so there is some wash habitat here.
Regarding hotels: The El Presidente was very expensive - the group rate was about 225$/night, and for others it was $300+. It was "all inclusive", but they made eating at the hotel's restaurants so unpleasant (getting reservations was a hideous chore, and the service was friendly but extremely slow, even by Latin American standards), that we ate in town (which was a pleasure). Furthermore, room service (your only option for an early breakfast) was unreliable and the housekeeping standards were not up to those of Motel 6. Indeed on one occasion, we gave up, and I went into a housekeeping station and replenished our towels myself. Two days after we left, a teenager was electrocuted and died in one of their swimming pools (according to the paper, caused by a faulty light). Not that most birders would stay at such a pricey spot, but just a word to the wise. Our friends stayed at the Best Western, which was $100/night and had an in-room frig and a much better experience.
Regarding Rental Cars: We had a very good experience with Dollar Rentals. Our VW Jetta had good tires, AC and other amenities that worked, a car alarm, etc. Our friends rented from Hertz and had a number of problems, including a van driver that tried to suck them into a time share (when you walk from the gate to the curb - where the rental car vans fetch you - you have to beat your way through Visigothian hoarde of timeshare pimps. Our friends accomplished this, but were hauled back into the fray by their official Hertz driver). Their VW bug had multiple "issues" and cost as much as our Jetta.
Highlights (Rare and some uncommon species, plus high tallies)
Least Grebe - 2 Todos Santos
American White Pelican - 1 Todos Santos, 9 Estero San Jose, 9 La Paz
Cattle Egret - 50 La Paz STP
BB Whistling-Duck - 2 La Paz STP
Canada Goose (larger race) - 1 La Paz STP
Harris' Hawk - 2 KM 53, n of SJDC
Black-necked Stilt - 150 La Paz STP
Western Sandpiper - 3200 ELP
Least Sandpiper - 300 ELP
Long-billed Dowitcher - 240 La Paz STP
YF Gull - 1 Todos Santos
Western Gull - 1 La Paz STP
Ruddy Ground-Dove - (pair) El Presidente, SJDC, (male) near SJDC GC, (2 males) El Presidente, SJDC
BC Hummingbird - male SJDC STP
Tropical Kingbird - 1 Estero San Jose
TB Kingbird - 1 Miraflores, 1 Near Miraflores
Bell's Vireo - 1 Estero San Jose
Blue-headed Vireo (singing male) Boca de la Sierra
Violet-green Swallow (max: 12) Todos Santos
RW Swallow (max: 25) Todos SantosBank Swallow - 5 Estero San Jose
Cliff Swallow -1 Estero San JoseBarn Swallow (max: 250) Estero San Jose
Tennessee Warbler (ad female?) SJDC GC
Mangrove Warbler (ad male) Miraflores
Cape May Warbler (ad male) SJDC STP
Myrtle Warbler - 2 Miraflores, 2 Estero San Jose, 3 SJDC STP
Palm Warbler Estero San Jose
Black-and-White Warbler (female) Miraflores, (male) Miraflores
American Redstart (imm male) SJDC STP
YB Chat - 1 Estero San Jose, 1 San Bartolo
Spotted Towhee - 1 San Bartolo
YH Blackbird - 1 La Paz STP
Brown-headed Cowbird (500) La Paz STP
Orchard Oriole (ad male) SJDC