During March 2002, my wife and I spent a fun-filled week birding Baja California's Cape Region. It was so much fun that I decided to return this fall with my excellent friend, Bill Tweit. When we decided to go, the main question was "when?" After some pondering we chose late October, just a wee bit after southern California's peak vagrancy window. Our decision really was a good one. So good, that many of the world's leaders decided to join us. Indeed, a big ole level 5 hurricane almost did so as well.
Dumfounded? So were we. APEC was in town, and there wasn't a hotel room available anywhere in Cabo San Lucas or San Jose del Cabo, even when we booked our trip in July. So, we stayed in La Paz. A fine choice, as you will see later on. As for the hurricane, I guess it wasn't big enough story to make local or national news in the U.S. We had no idea this monster was pointed dead at Cabo the day before our trip. There was nothing on the news at all. What's one more or less Asian president? Would Tom Brokaw (or George Bush) really care if South Korea's president was washed into the sea? Would they even be able to name him? Anyway, at the last moment, the hurricane veered south and ploughed into Nayarit. The debris was apparently so thick that fishing in the Pacific Ocean off Nayarit won't be possible for 2 months or more. What we got in the Cape Region was some clouds (the rain went through the day before we got there) and some fine strong easterlies. We wondered later if these winds had contributed to our success.
So, Bill and I arrived at Los Cabos airport on Thursday afternoon, October 24th, merely two days before President Bush. We drove up to La Paz and arrived at our hotel, Los Arcos, just in time to watch Blue-footed Boobies
in the setting sun's light with a tumbler of scotch in our paws. The next morning started with a swirl of birds at the La Paz (Chametla) Sewage Treatment Ponds (LPSTP). The ponds were well stocked with shorebirds and waterfowl, while swallows swarmed overhead and warblers dashed to and fro in the Tamarisk.
The cattle pastures along the ponds' south border were partly flooded and held many ducks and shorebirds plus a fine flock of blackbirds. Contingents of Cattle Egrets
and White-faced Ibis
shuttled back and forth from field to ponds. We spent 4+ hours here and could have lingered longer. Rarities included 3 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks,
a White-fronted Goose
, an odd Canada Goose
, a male Ruddy-ground Dove
, a Black-and-White Warbler
, 3 Pectoral Sandpipers
, an American Bittern,
and a Belding's Yellowthroat
. The Canada Goose seemed to be a cross between a Cackling and a Lessser/Taverner's. The calls were mostly of the larger races, but some higher calls were given. The overall bird's size and that of the bill were on the small size, but the head/bill shape wasn't quite delicate enough for a pure Cackler. The color had some of the rich purply brown seen in Cackling and Dusky Canadas, but not in Lesser/Taverner's or Richardson's.
We then headed south on Mexico 1 to the village of San Antonio (the only Spurs here were on the caballeros). A taqueria on the roadside at the town's north edge provided a fine lunch of fish tacos, and then the town provided some fine birding. The best spot was a fairly lush wash. Go to the far (southeast) end of town on highway 1 and look for the wash heading southwest. We walked about 100 yards upwash until the vegetation grew sparse. The primo bird here was a brightly marked Blue-headed Vireo
. At one point, it came within 10-12 feet of our excited binoculars. On the more mundane side, but still notable, was a Bell's Vireo
there. In town iteself, we found a fruiting fig tree with a cluster of Hooded Orioles
and Western Tanagers
plus one sapsucker. The bird clearly had Red-naped in it, but some features suggested an infusion of Yellow-bellied genes. We then dashed quickly to San Bartolo, where we found wind and few birds. The highlight here was clearly the turquoise, gold, and black San Lucan Rock Lizard.
We then zipped back to La Paz to finish the day at Ensenada La Paz in the town of Chametla. We not only accessed this at the point mentioned in my March notes, but also accessed several other dirt roads a short distance further north, taking these east to the mudflat's edge. Shorebirds abounded here, with 5000 Western Sandpipers
, 665 Semipalmated Plovers
, and 100+ Least Sandpipers
. There was also a smattering of herons, 10 American White Pelicans
, and a stack of fishing Forster's Terns
. In the salicornia, two Savannah Sparrows
foraged. These were Large-billeds, likely of the race atratus. For a fine discussion of northwestern Mexico's Savannah Sparrows, see the article by A.J. van Rossem (1947) in Condor 49:97-107. For some interesting data pointing towards specific status for Large-billed Sparrow, see Zink et al. (1991) in Condor 93:1016-1019.
Day 2 began 2.5 hours away at San Jose del Cabo's famous estero, Estero San Jose. The habitat had been chewed upon somewhat by backhoes since my March visit, a sad state of affairs. We did find some birds, especially as we worked our way inland. The main passerine highlight was a calling Tropical Kingbird
. The water birding here yielded a flock of 12 White-fronted Geese and an American White Pelican among a fine selection of dabbling ducks, Redhead
, and Ruddy Ducks
. Offshore, Bill managed to pick up some storm-petrel
feeding activity, which included at least 10 Leasts
and 3 Blacks
. Along the estero's edge, there was another Large-billed Savannah Sparrow.
We then went about a km north and accessed the estero by the San Jose del Cabo Sewage Treatment Pond. During March, this spot provided a Cape May Warbler, American Redstart, and Black-chinned Hummingbird. October was also fabulous, with a green-plumaged Painted Bunting
, a Palm Warbler
, a Northern Waterthrush
, and a Solitary Sandpiper. Belding's Yellowthroats
were particularly numerous here, and we found 15+ in a fairly small area. As Airforce 1 circled overhead, with our fearless leader aboard, we decided it was time to abandon the APEC crowd and head north. Our next stop was Miraflores. We lunched at a small restaurant with a friendly dog. Again, the main course was fish tacos with creamy avocado slices and tangy salsa. Enlivened by the shady and cool respite, we headed off into the lush orchards and wash at the edge of town. This was a favorite spot of Casey and mine from March, and October's visit did not disappoint. We found 5 Thick-billed Kingbirds
, a male Hooded Warbler
(almost as tasty as that salsa), 2 Black-and-White Warblers, and a calling Willow Flycatcher
The day ended with us dining a block or two east of Los Arcos along the La Paz waterfront. The name of the restaurant had "mariscos" in it, meaning seafood. The service was quite friendly and the food scrumptious. The camarones (shrimp) ceviche was delectable, especially with a few drops of habanero sauce. Another delight there was the Mariscos Relleno, an enormous chile, prepared relleno style, except stuffed with sweet shrimp, succulent scallops, and the most tender octopus imaginable. Mmmmmm. But I digress....
Morning 3. Back to LPSTP. Some of the water birds had cleared out, but 1000s of swallow foraged hither and yon, including a Purple Martin
. Ten Lesser Yellowlegs
provided an interesting shorebird note. We found a second Black-and-White Warbler, a second Ruddy Ground-Dove (female this time), and a second Belding's Yellowthroat, and our only Black-chinned Hummingbird
. Passerine numbers were up, the most impressive of which was ~200 Orange-crowned Warblers
(about 95% lutescens and 5% oreastra). We also found the only Roadrunner
and Varied Bunting
of the trip. A careful survey of the ponds yielded five adult Least Grebes
attending to one young each, plus four unencumbered adults. Then we decided to have a go at the mountains. Some 15 years ago, I had gone up into the hills with John O'Brien and Steve Kornfeld. I vaguely remembered the name San Antonio de la Sierra and a wash with cottonwoods, oaks, cactus, and palms. We had found San Lucas Robin, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Acorn Woodpecker there. The road to San Antonio de la Sierra cut off from Highway 1 about 7 km southeast of San Antonio, so we gave it a whirl. We made it to km 24, where we found the wash of my memories. No San Lucan Robins, alas, but plenty of Acorn Woodpeckers
and a few Band-tailed Pigeons
. The road was not traversable (at least by our scruffy rental car) another km or so afterwards, but at that point we did have a Zone-tailed Hawk.
On the way out, near km 16 (as measured from highway 1), there is a wash bordered by a fine swath of oaks. We didn't bird here, but there is certainly potential. Next visit for sure. Then back to the hotel were I dined on a fine Carne Asada and watched California's Angels take out Barry Bonds and the Giants. Life is good.
Next morning, we headed southwest, to Todos Santos and nearby areas. The first stop was Playa San Pedrito. In March, we had been somewhat disappointed at this spot, and we were again in October. Lots of Hooded
and Scott's Orioles, Gila Woodpeckers
, and Gilded Flickers,
but little else. A bit discouraged, we headed into Todos Santos, where our first stop was the city park. This spot was quite birdy, and among the many warblers and hummingbirds
) was a Tennessee Warbler
. Spirits brightened, we crossed the street and slipped into a bamboo and weed field behind some houses. This secreted spot was abounding with warblers including a Mourning Warbler
! We then wended our way through town to the strip of ag and palms that heads towards the ocean and La Poza restaurant. We stopped along the dirt road wherever the habitat looked of interest and slipped off into the fields and trees where we could. This stretch was also birdy and yielded 4 Black-and-White Warblers, 3 Ruddy Ground-Doves, an Orchard Oriole, and a Yellow-breasted Chat
. We finally arrived at the pond by the ocean, which had more water than March, and thus few shorebirds. There were still Least Grebes here, and a brief seawatch led to another Black Storm-Petrel
. The great joy of this location was dragonflies. There must have been at least 8-10 species here in incredible numbers. I don't see how a flying insect would survive their onslaught. Indeed, dragonflies seemed numerous at many locations on the trip, a fine diversion in between bird flocks. To finish off the day, we went south on Mexico 19 to km marker 80, where Erickson et al had a Yellow-throated Warbler the preceding fall. No success with that, but we did have a Vesper Sparrow
and a couple California Gnatcatchers
. We were somewhat surprised to see how much paler the gnatcatchers were than their conspecifics in southern California. Along Highway 1, on the east side of the Cape Region, much of the landscape is fairly lush. Along Highway 19, this is not the case. The countryside is much drier. From the air, Todos Santos sticks out as an emerald in the hay. This spot may be the most true vagrant trap in Baja's Cape Region.
Our last morning had arrived. We decided to head back to Miraflores. Definitely not a mistake. Working slightly different spots, we found 2 additional Thick-billed Kingbirds (make that 7 total at Miraflores), another Hooded Warbler, a Zone-tailed Hawk, 2 Summer Tanagers,
and an Indigo Bunting
. To finish off our trip, we spent an hour or so at Caduano, which also proved quite birdy. The best part of town is found by walking from the small city park past the building marked "Semidelegacion" and following the road east as it curves right. Here we added Cassin's
and Warbling Vireos
to our trip list and found yet another Thick-billed Kingbird and Black-and-White Warbler. On this last day, the Western Flycatchers
were particularly vocal. We had several on previous days, mostly at Miraflores, but also in the mountains. None had given us the suwheet type call. On this final day, however, we had several calling at Miraflores and Caduano, all sounding like typical Pacific-Slopes. Though apparently some Cordillerans can give this call, the chances of all of these birds being Cordillerans giving only Pac Slope calls seems remote.
It was a great trip. The people were friendly, the weather perfection. The food was tasty and inexpensive (sometimes embarrassingly so). A few words of Spanish opened many doors and smiles.
For directions to many of the spots mentioned above, see my notes from March 2002
A fine resource for status and distribution of birds in Baja is Birds of the Baja California Peninsula: Status, distribution, and taxonomy edited by R.A. Erickson and S.N.G. Howell and published by the A.B.A. in its Monographs in Field Ornithology series.
Reptiles and Amphibians
A bunch of squashed toads on the roads at Miraflores and Caduano were likely Couch's Spadefoots. We heard treefrogs at several locations, that must have been Pacific Treefrogs as these are the only species in the Cape. Spiny-tailed Iguanas were at San Antonio and near Sierra de la Sierra. The juvs are a spectacular emerald and black, and look like some exotic escapee. We had Zebra-tailed Lizards at several sandy open areas. Note that these look somewhat different from those in s. CA and s. AZ. The lizard highlight for me was the spectacular San Lucan Rock Lizards at San Bartolo. On the duller side, but also an endemic, was a Baja California Spiny Lizard at San Bartolo. Black-tailed Brush Lizards (many lacking black tails) were at Miraflores and Estero San Jose. We had a Side-blotched Lizard or two. All the stripy whiptails in the Cape District are Orange-throated Whiptails. We had these at a number of locations. On my last trip, I mistakenly ID'd some whiptails as Baja California Whiptails. This was based on the back striping pattern. Apparently, where conspecific, OT Whips have fewer stripes than BC Whips. However, in the Cape District, OT Whips can have backs patterned like BC Whips. Gimme empids, please. We also had a few fine Western Whiptails at Miraflores. Finally, we had a glorious Red Diamondback Rattlesnake on the road to San Antonio de la Sierra.
The best resource for Herps in Baja is Amphibians and Reptiles of Baja California by R.H. McPeak, published by Sea Challengers in Monterey, CA.