The planning for this trip began in fall 2003, as our thoughts often strayed south of the border while birding the Washington coast. It seemed like no time between when we were dreaming of taking this trip, and when the tickets were bought and plans settled. Originally we were thinking of doing east México, perhaps a road trip south from Texas. Browsing the bird-finding guide's pages, the San Blas region stuck out as an excellent option and a perfect intro to México's avifauna. Having never been to the country before, I was very content when we decided to concentrate primarily on one Méxican state, Nayarit, and really take time to study and observe the birds, rather than feel rushed traveling from region-to-region. That said, our pace wasn't nearly relaxed. We woke up before the sun each morning and birded the better part of the day. Eight full days as it turned out was a suitable amount of time to spend in the area, as we revisited the essential spots two or more times, generally finding new things and learning more each time.
We used a few essential references, the most important being Howell & Webb's "A Guide to the Birds of México and Northern Central America." Two other necessary books are "A Guide to Bird-finding in México" by Howell and The Lonely Planet guide to México. Previous trip reports found on the Internet were often helpful in deciding where we wanted to spend the most time.
Some birders visiting this area have done well without a car, but we ultimately decided relying on buses and taxis would cramp our style far too much, and we still feel a car is the way to go if you have the option. The roads were never bad, though in our decidedly low-clearance automobile we sometimes bottomed out even on the many topes (speed bumps) that riddle the highways. We always felt comfortable in the motels, which averaged perhaps $10 per person.
In one word, it was magnificent for us Pacific Northwesterners. The skies varied from partly cloudy to totally clear; we never felt precipitation. Daytime temperatures were often in the 80's F., but only one or two days did it get above 90°. At night and in the mountains you could escape to 60's and lower 70's, but we never required jackets.
We had no serious health problems during our trip. Bottled water was readily available in all kinds of places. Locally, biting arthropods were an annoyance. Mainly it was the tiny jejenes, rumored to be the most voracious biters on the continent. After a few days some us looked like we were right off the set of "Survivor." We only encountered them in nearly intolerable numbers at Lower Singayta outside of San Blas, at sunset. Beware also for miniscule ticks.
Day 1 - Thursday, 4 March 2004 Puerto Vallarta airport - Bay of Banderas, Bucerias
Our flight arrived at the Puerto Vallarta Airport around 1530hrs (central time). We had all taken bets in the Seattle/Tacoma airport on what everyone's first life bird would be. The decision was unanimous that mine would be Magnificent Frigatebird. Appropriately, while taxiing around the runway in P.V. moments after landing, Bruce turned around and pointed up saying "frigate!" with a big smile, to the perplexity of all that sat around us. So began our great Méxican adventure. Out of the jet, we got our rental car, a fundamental Nissan Tsuru. Behind the car rental we located Rufous-backed Robins, Social Flycatchers (first lifer for Tracey), and Yellow-winged Caciques (first for Bruce), and a group of Wood Storks flew overhead along with Grey-breasted Martins. A Hispanic man working there entertained us by pointing out a Turkey Vulture, or "Méxican Airplane" in his words.
We drove north for a ways; in the little town of Bucerias we pulled off and found our first Groove-billed Anis, Ruddy Ground-Doves, and Grey Hawks. Got a room at Hotel Marlyn in town (large rooms, but a bit dirty; average) and then walked down to the beach. Seabird pandemonium! Along with many pelicans, Heermann's Gulls, and Royal Terns, hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies were found offshore, some plunging into the water mere yards from the beach; all birds seemed to be having good success catching mid-sized fish. This being my first experience with the Pacific Ocean in México, I assumed this scene to be commonplace. However, during the rest of the trip we never saw such large numbers of boobies. We speculated that the water might have been cooler before our arrival when a low-pressure system went through, attracting a massive food source to this bay. On the horizon we could see several Humpback Whales. We had fish filet, Bucerias style at a beachfront restaurant while watching a colorful sunset. Excellent fish, shrimp, and octopus wrapped in a crisp crust, making a delicious pouch with a light, sweet sauce.
Day total: 33 species.
Day 2- Friday, 5 March 2004 Punta Mita - Hwy 200 en route to San Blas - 'T' jct ponds
We woke up well before sunrise and headed to Punta Mita, getting bottled water on the way. We pulled off at the first spot along the annoyingly busy road. Despite the frequent traffic disturbance, there was a great deal of bird activity. Our first Orange-fronted Parakeets were quite easy to see, though that was not the case for the Sinaloa Wrens singing from deep in the undergrowth. We walked up a couple short cobblestone roads to the west to get away from the car noise. This produced a large number of buntings (Varied, Painted, Indigo), Blue Grosbeaks, an Ovenbird, Streak-backed Orioles, some flashy San Blas Jays, and the first of many White-tipped Doves giving their foghorn-like hoots. Broad-billed Hummers were more common here than other places on the trip. We heard a few Greenish Elaenias, observing one of them. We birded these mixed species flocks for a long while, then got in the car and drove to the point. Brown Boobies mixed with the Blue-footeds offshore and provided good comparisons of their respective flight styles. A large school of tuna was jumping out of the water, attracting the boobies, pelicans and gulls as well as a couple Common Loons. A gated road across the street piqued our curiosity. As we parked the car to check it out, Tracey spots a Squirrel Cuckoo, a most impressive bird. As we walked down the dirt road we noticed a small flock of bickering Stripe-headed Sparrows. At the end, I imitated a Ferruginous Pygmy and had a swarm of birds come and mob us. Included was the first Cinnamon Hummingbird, San Blas Jays, Orange-fronted Parakeets, Sinaloa Wren (actually seen), and several migrant vireos. The striking lime green Malachite, the coolest butterfly I've ever seen, was fairly common here and other places. As we walked back up the road a female Orange-breasted Bunting, one of our main target birds, gave us excellent looks near the start. Over the next few minutes we got brief but stunning (!) views at a full male and better views at a young male. We were all very glad we took a stroll down that neat little road.
We turned around and headed back to the highway. We traveled for some time, then pulled off at several promising forested side roads. At one, we found a couple of displaying Golden-crowned Emeralds and another Greenish Elaenia. In an opening in the forest was a festive display of tropical butterflies, perhaps someday we will be able to identify more of these marvelous creatures? Continuing north, at one point I saw a Lineated Woodpecker fly over the road and perch on a hilltop. We stopped and got out the scope, but it did not oblige for long. A couple Short-tailed and one Zone-tailed Hawk did, however. Further, I had a White-tailed Hawk soaring out the back window. We stopped at a small pond full of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and a field with a few hundred ibis. On the far side, the first Common Black-Hawk was spotted. We stopped at a bridge over a peaceful creek and walked about. Another Squirrel Cuckoo obliged for us in the shrubbery, and the first Green Kingfisher of the trip tried to slip past us (unsuccessfully). Sinaloa Crows became abundant as we headed north, strangely scarce in the Puerto Vallarta area. Approaching San Blas, a pair of White-fronted Parrots flew over the road. We stopped at the "junction ponds" and observed an array of waders and waterfowl. A nice mixed flock of shorebirds included many Stilt Sands, and a Peregrine flew overhead. An alarmed Green Heron made us think it was a Mangrove Cuckoo for a time, until we started hearing this call from every patch of mangroves. These herons are much more vocal (not to mention abundant) in the winter than we have observed on their breeding grounds. We then traveled into town, checked into Hotel Bucanero (another Peregrine Falcon was soaring over the hotel). It was an interesting night, with only cold water in the rooms, and loud techno music playing throughout the night! Needless to say we were up for checking out other hotels for the rest of our stay. The Mc. Donalds Restaurant, where we ate that night, was average.
Day total: 110 species.
Day 3 - Saturday, 6 March 2004 San Blas vicinity: sewage pond, Peso Island, fort
We woke up at dawn and walked through town following our noses to the sewer ponds (located a couple miles south of Zócalo). The cobblestone road to the ponds was very productive. One shrub had Grasshopper and Lincoln's Sparrows, Cinnamon-rumped [White-collared] Seedeaters, and Greyish Saltators. A nearby flock of warblers included many Nashville, Wilson's, and Orange-crowned, and up to four Virginia's Warblers which were a treat to observe. Slowly working our way along, someone called out "motmot!" and there in front of us were a pair of casual looking Russet-crowned Motmots on a telephone wire. They lingered a few minutes, fairly oblivious to our presence, before moving off into an adjacent thicket. A bit further down, some Happy Wrens gave their guttural calls, never seeming particularly happy in the least. We approached the sewer ponds, walking through the gate. A large flock of mixed waterfowl had nothing overly exciting, but on a small islet in the pond were our first Northern Jacanas, and we had splendid views of them. We spent a good amount of time sitting on a slope and birding the dense cover bordering the ponds. This produced a good number of new species. A Grey Flycatcher (perhaps slightly out of range?) methodically dipped its tail in characteristic fashion, as Tropical Parulas cavorted with the Black-throated Grey Warblers and American Redstarts. Overhead, a Great Black-Hawk soared along with several Commons. Near another corner of the pond, I whistled in a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. As we were pointing the bird out to each other, a gawky Muscovy Duck landed in full sight on a nearby branch. Elegant Quail were surprisingly easy to come by, their calls reminding us a bit of Mountain Quail. We left the ponds as the temperature steadily rose. Before walking too far however, we were halted by a roving flock of Black-throated Magpie-Jays, even more striking than they look in the guides. The first Crested Caracara seemed to be following them. Back out near the start of the road Tracey said, "I see an owl" in a little shrub next to us. Another Ferruginous materialized, this one very actively hunting.
We walked back to town and got limonada and a quick breakfast, then got the car and drove down to the boat launch for Peso Island in the early afternoon. We crossed on a small boat (I must say, the best 10 pesos I've ever spent!) and arranged to meet back there when we were done. Walking through the low shrubby areas there was little activity. We struck out on Purplish-backed Jays but did find the largest flock of Yellow-breasted Chats I've ever seen. On the other shore of the island, we walked along the beach to the south and towards a loafing flock of seabirds. On the way, we picked up a few Snowy Plovers and a Common Tern. Here we saw the most frigatebirds of the trip, well over 600 in the sky at once. Some were even perching on some offshore trawlers' lines. The flock of seabirds included Laughing, California, and Herring Gulls, a Black Skimmer, three tern species, and Neotropic Cormorants. No great shakes there. As we blundered our way back to the meeting spot on the south side of the island, we found an out-of-range Roadside Hawk, which perched up and allowed great studies as it called away. As we walk away, a kiskadee begins mobbing it. An hour later we were back at the car, and we made a stop at Hotel Garza Canela to arrange our boat trip for Sunday. The English-speaking staff there is great, very helpful even if we didn't stay at the hotel. We did, however stay at the Hotel Casa Maria, which turned out to be a nice place. It was a bit like living with a family - the owners lived in one of the rooms in the motel. If you stay there do be sure to park the car well, as they will "grade" your performance each time and let you know (politely) if you must re-park. At any rate, we chose to stay here the rest of the trip. That night we had a great seafood dinner at Tony's La Isla Restaurant.
Day total: 122 species.
Day 4 - Sunday, 7 March 2004 Lower Singayta - La Tovara boat trip
Again waking up before dawn, we drove to the little town of Singayta about 15 minutes from San Blas. We parked the car and walked down the road a ways. We quickly found that if you have an aversion to biting insects, this is not the place for you (at least in the mornings and evenings). As the sun rose, Elegant Trogons were becoming active along the slope. Soon we located our first Ivory-billed Woodcreeper of the trip, in the same tree as our first Rose-throated Becard and Masked Tityras. Further downroad, a very big flock of migrants was observed. Dozens of Nashville, Lucy's, Yellow, Black-throated Grey, and Wilson's overwhelmed us, and we managed to find one Virginia's. Soon two Bare-throated Tiger-Herons flew over the road and landed in a clearing to our delight. We observed this pair as the male displayed for a long while. A caracara repeatedly flew over us transporting nesting material to some undisclosed location. Blue-rumped [Méxican] Parrotlets were very noisy, and after a little work we had good views of these little gems. Ahead of us we could hear loud, sporadic thumping from a unseen woodpecker. Our patience paid off, though, and soon we were watching a territorial squabble between male Pale-billed Woodpeckers. A dense bush on the roadside produced the first of several flycatching Citreoline Trogons here. We also happened upon four male Black-vented Orioles and a female Yellow Grosbeak. We made it to the intersection, where many Tropical Parulas foraged at point-blank range. Bruce and I walked beyond the intersection a short distance, while Ryan and Tracey stayed back watching amazingly beautiful Crimson-banded Longwings and Julias (butterflies). In some mature forest we found a number more Citreolines. As we began walking back, we both had views of two Crane Hawks flying down a ridge along with the ubiquitous Grey Hawks. The walk back to the car was largely uneventful, and quite hot.
Back in town, we took a short siesta then went down and met Chencho, a local bird/nature guide at the boat launch for an evening trip through the mangroves near La Tovara spring. I sat back and relaxed as we crossed the Rio San Cristobal and cruised along the shore, seeing Masked Tityras and Common Black-Hawks perched. Insects were never a problem in this area. On a muddy sandbar were several shorebirds, including a Spotted Sand feasting on crab. Then we entered a small tributary. Suddenly, Chencho swerved the boat to the right and "crashed" into a bank. We soon found out why: above us was a day roost of the odd Boat-billed Herons looking quite disgusted at us. Further along, we pished in beautiful Mangrove [Yellow] Warblers and scads of Northern Waterthrushes. The Mangroves were impressively distinctive. Their calls, songs, and obviously their markings (not to mention habitat) were very different in my opinion, making us wonder why these birds aren't another species. Besides that, they moved faster, making even more difficult targets for the video camera. The mangroves broke up and we traveled through some grassland areas on the river. A few American Crocodiles were spotted - none of them under 10 feet in length! Chencho found a roosting Lesser Nighthawk which allowed us to approach as close as three feet in the boat. As the sun hastened below the horizon, we visited a rather large roost of ibis and other waders (all I have to say is, "wear a hat"). A Colima Pygmy-Owl began tooting, but remained unseen; several others were heard during the night as well as Ferruginous. It was quite dark when we pulled into a crocodile farm for Chencho to show us some roosting Rufous-bellied Chachalacas. Then we headed out through the mangroves again, our guide wielding a "million candlepower" spotlight, though we got the impression he could have steered us through the tunnels blindfolded. A Least Bittern perched on some reeds. Pauraques began catching insects in front of us, and more were calling all over. We had a very brief encounter with a Greater Fishing Bat, before the highlight of the night (and, arguably, trip). Perched in the branch-tops there were Northern Potoos, surprising us with their size. These bizarre birds gave off some serious eye-shine. When we got one in the light up close, it was truly a great sight. We saw a few more of these guys on our way back to the boat launch. We gave Chencho 600 pesos for the outing, plus a generous tip. Afterwards, I don't think any of us could remember a more relaxing birding experience than this evening on the river. Superb.
Day total: 143 species.
Day 5 - Monday, 8 March 2004 Cerro de San Juan - El Mirador del Aguila - Shrimp Ponds Road
Ready for a bit of a change, we headed out in the dark and drove the highway towards Tepic. Pauraques were frequently flushed from the road every time we drove at night. We traveled to Cerro de San Juan via the cuota (toll) road. We arrived a while after dawn at the first pulloff. Trucks loaded with plantation workers continuously drove past us on the dusty hill, but we managed some excellent birding. The first of many Blue Mockingbirds murmured from a tall shrub which also hosted a White-throated Robin. Walking up a ways, in the shrubbery was a female Hooded Warbler (uncommon vagrant to this area). Green Jays could be seen and especially heard on the far side of the canyon, as could a Yellow Grosbeak. In the bottom of the canyon was a singing Rufous-capped Warbler, and after a little bit of work Tracey found our Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrows frolicking near the ground. Many hummingbirds zipped back and forth, Berylline being most common. Black-chinned and Ruby-throated were also seen, and a few Calliopes. Then a really tiny one caught my eye, a male Bumblebee Hummingbird. Ryan was also able to get views, but it didn't stick around long enough for everyone. Another bird was seen just by me. We drove our way to the next curve and got out. Then we came upon a "little" flock of migrants which blew over us like a rogue wave, most remaining unidentified. But we did get good views of Plumbeous Vireos and Black-throated Green Warblers. At another spot we had the first (of many) White-eared Hummingbirds, and also good views of Rufous-capped Warbler and Acorn Woodpecker. We got out next at some dense forest near the powerlines. I was halted by the deeply moving song of a Brown-backed Solitaire echoing through the valley. These birds were very common in the area, but I don't think one ever let out its magical, wind chime-like notes without one of us (usually me) gasping aloud. Ryan had a Grey Silky-Flycatcher fly downslope, but the rest of us missed it. Behind us, I found a neat Tufted Flycatcher giving us almost side-by-side comparisons with a Greater Pewee (which was abundant). We passed a small field of sugar cane and parked in a shady area on the next curve. The first White-striped Woodcreeper was seen only by myself, and we also had views of brilliant Flame-colored Tanagers at the base of a slope. It was beginning to heat up, so we moved on up the road, past the ranch and into the more humid forest on the other side of the mountain. At the first stop in this terrain we had both species of 'whitestart' and more solitaires. We walked down one side track and, though it was the quiet time of day, a flock of warblers readily responded to pygmy-owl calls. At an underground spring mixed with the Townsend's were Hermit, Black-throated Green, and Grace's Warblers. It was a treat to observe all four 'virens' warblers at eye level. Then at one turn in the road, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked a very large deciduous tree. Then we broke out into the shade-grown coffee plantation. These proved to be phenomenal for birding. A massive flock of warblers (must have been over a hundred) on the hillside refused to approach closer, but I did spy a Red-faced among them. Closer, in a patch of flowers a bunch of female Méxican Woodnymphs were flying around and this was the only place we saw them. Then a nice Fan-tailed Warbler showed itself low to the ground recalling a chat, briefly enough that one of us missed it. Unfortunately the sun was getting high and the birding was clearly slower than it could have been. We turned around and worked our way back, stopping at the ranch this time. A Cassin's Kingbird and a Say's Phoebe flycatched in this open area. Back at the base of the road, Green Jays were still active and a Ladder-backed Woodpecker was seen. It had been an extremely nice morning.
Next on our agenda was El Mirador del Aguila ("Eagle Overlook"), very famous for being a reliable macaw site. We waited several minutes sitting on the railing, and began hearing the distant raucous screeches of macaws around the corner to the left, but they weren't visible yet. A bit of sallying movement distracted us, an Empidonax flycatcher. After some discussion and fine scope views, we found it was a White-throated Flycatcher. Back to our target birds. We could still hear them loud and clear, so we moved over to a better vantage and began scanning. We occupied ourselves with curious magpie-jays for a while, when suddenly, there they were: a pair of Military Macaws gliding out over a butte in perfect unison. As they landed, we saw more in the trees and spent the next twenty minutes scoping these beauties. Once we had our fill, we went back towards San Blas. We swung by the start of Shrimp Ponds Road, but didn't go far enough to where the better habitat is.
Day total: 142 species.
Day 6 - Tuesday, 9 March 2004 Laguna de los Pajaros boat trip - Matanchen Bay - Upper/Lower Singayta
Today (Bruce's birthday!) we had scheduled a second boat trip with Chencho, this time to Laguna de los Pajaros. We went the opposite direction of our evening trip, traveling down the river. On the edge of the inpenetrable mangrove "walls" we again enjoyed good views of birds, this time including jacanas and a Common Moorhen. Ospreys were the most common raptor. Once we had cruised down a channel for a short time, Bruce and I spotted a grey-morph Hook-billed Kite perched on a snag. Unfortunately, when we backed up the boat, the bird had vanished and the others didn't see it well enough to be sure. We viewed a small lagoon which had a nice assortment of waterfowl. Our only perched White-fronted Parrot watched us from the top of a tree. Soon we began seeing Snail Kites. Altogether we saw ten individuals of this recent colonist of San Blas, including both juveniles and adults. As we entered the main lagoon thousands of noisy Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks could be seen up ahead. We had good views of several Limpkins, which were foraging quietly in a grassy field. Among the amazing whistling duck display were a couple dozen Fulvous. We slipped into one mangrove area trying for the vireo, but heard only Happy Wrens (or Pajarito Feliz as Chencho said). We saw mainly the same things on the way back.
Back at the boat launch we got in the car and drove to Singayta in the early afternoon. En route we stopped at Matanchen Bay where there was a Reddish Egret but little else. At Upper Singayta, we chose a promiseful gated road and walked up in elevation through fairly arid forest. It was the hottest part of the day, but in the shade it was bearable and at least the bugs weren't bad. Surprisingly our only Swainson's Hawk was soaring above. The agave blossums were spectacular; one image that I'll never forget was a close Grey Hawk perched in one, surrounded by the yellow flowers and a beautiful view of the lower forests in the back (where was my camera?!). A Northern Beardless Tyrannulet showed itself, reminding us that we'd been hearing its lackluster call all along. Then as I was doing more pygmy-owl tooting, Bruce spotted a Black-capped Vireo low to the ground. I had fleeting glimpses of this immaculate male, but things quickly realized I was not an owl and fell back into the bushes. However, we walked a ways further and I investigated some vireo scolding - several more Black-caps! Satisfied, we began walking back downhill. Nearing the car, we heard Ryan call to us to get back up there. They had found a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers, an unexpected highlight here. It was getting later and the conditions were cooler, but clearly more buggy when we arrived at the Lower Singayta Road. We observed mainly the same birds as our previous visit here. I called in a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl which attracted a mob of the usual passerines. At a small wetland just off the track, we had a Hooded Warbler and a bit later another one on the other side of the road. A covey of Elegant Quails was also bathing in a small stream. As we walked back to the cars we heard what sounded to me like a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, but it was too distant to say. We had a good birthday dinner for Bruce at Wala Wala's Restaurant that night.
Day total: 152 species.
Day 7 - Wednesday, 10 March 2004 La Bajada - Shrimp Ponds Road
We got up early this morning and headed to La Bajada, a track which goes through a dense banana plantation 35 minutes or so from San Blas. This was a very exciting site to bird both times that we visited it. We had some trouble finding the spot, but did finally get there. Birds were abundant and the sounds here were very tropical indeed. As we marched uphill, I noticed a Laughing Falcon perched high in a tree for excellent views. Bruce also found an active Colima Pygmy-Owl pair. We spent a lot of time in one spot on the lower part of the road, where there was a tasty flock of birds. A large Méxican Hermit appeared out of nowhere and took my breath away, but vanished just as quickly (nobody else seeing it). Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers were a bit more cooperative, flitting in the undergrowth more like a towhee than a tanager. Large numbers of orioles and warblers moved through the canopy. Overhead, there may have been a Solitary Eagle soaring, as Bruce and Ryan described the bird as huge. But checking the field guide there were a couple of anomalies and they just weren't sure enough given the brief view. Just around the corner from that spot, there was a little cluster of Golden-crowned Emeralds visiting a certain flower. Pale-billed Woodpeckers were observed on the hillside, while Lineated were mainly heard (though Tracey had good views of a pair of them near the base). Both species of trogons were abundant throughout the area, and we learned the subtle differences in their calls. As Ryan, Bruce, and I were walking back towards the car we viewed a good-sized flock of birds on a vegetated slope. With the saltators and Blue Mockingbirds was a pair of Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes and a Fan-tailed Warbler for Bruce. Several flocks of Blue-rumped Parrotlets seemed to constantly be on the move, and Orange-fronted Parakeets were just as conspicuous. A little bit dehydrated, we stopped on our way out for a coke (which was a better option than sitting behind the bus we were following).
In the afternoon after a short siesta Ryan, Bruce and I went off to the Shrimp Ponds Road to see what we could. The ponds along the main "highway" had hundreds of coots but were fairly slow. Beyond that, a Harris's Hawk was perched up on a telephone poll. We turned off on the dirt road along the shrimp ponds and made several stops. At the first spot we pished up two Grey-crowned Yellowthroats. After scoping a few shorebirds we moved up. Near a small ranch-type setup there was a flock of Lark and Savannah Sparrows, and chats were common in the undergrowth. Another yellowthroat sat up in the scope and sang (sounding very bunting-like to me). Ryan found a Palm Warbler (presumably a regular vagrant) with a little flock of Wilson's at an intersection with another road. This area proved to be a very convenient short stop whenever we had some time to "waste."
Day total: 141 species.
Day 8 - Thursday, 11 March 2004 Cerro de San Juan - Shrimp Ponds Road
We woke up in the dark, this time even earlier than before, and headed to the mountains again. Mainly we retraced our steps from Monday, starting at the bottom and stopping wherever we so chose. This time we tried to hurry through the first spots to provide time for the shade coffee plantations. The base of the road was fairly unremarkable this day, aside from a couple cooperative female Bumblebee Hummers. Our longest stop on this side was about 100-200 yards past the sugar cane field on the right. Here we heard some different things. Tracey pointed out that the doves we were hearing were not White-tipped, and after listening several minutes we realized they were Ruddy Quail-Doves. We also heard strange popping hoots, which when we finally tracked them down turned out to be Russet-crowned Motmots. A Mountain Pygmy-Owl (Méxican race of Northern) was heard calling. Another rogue passerine flock was responsive, and we watched flitting Rufous-capped Warblers for some time. Someone spotted a different bird, saying, "I think I have a Painted Bunting" or is it?" It was actually a male Elegant [Blue-hooded] Euphonia, a very smart looking bird. A few White-striped Woodcreepers were easy to see in this area. We walked further up the road and sat down on a small pullout where there was a good view of the canopy and another flock of migrants. With the bunch were a couple Red-faced, a Fan-tailed, and the star, a Colima Warbler. Black-headed Siskins, Blue Mockingbirds, and Brown-backed Solitaires all serenaded us as we watched the warbler. We reluctantly got back in the car and moved on up. At the ranch we stopped and found a little trail through a dry pinewoods leading to an overlook. This was quite a change in habitat. We heard and then saw Arizona Woodpeckers and Grace's Warblers, and a few Grey Silky-Flys were around. The overlook was a good vantage point for raptor viewing. Then we traveled down the other side as in our past visit. We parked just before the coffee and walked down. As soon as we parked, a cloud drifted over the sun and things really went crazy. Some squirrel-like churring led us to our target Grey-crowned Woodpeckers, extremely distinctive birds. A pair of Elegant Euphonias showed off in a treetop for some time. As we walked down, I found a tiny Olivaceous Woodcreeper. A large flock of White-throated Robins (sounding almost like Cedar Waxwings in flight) was gulping coffee berries, and an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper was doing the same. Méxican Woodnymphs were again present here, this time a calling male in addition to the females. Elegant Trogons called persistently from the hillside. On another slope, we got on a flock of beautiful Red-headed Tanagers putting on a show, and in the very same area there were the first Golden Vireos. A Blue Mockingbird mocked us as we did pygmy-owl and wolf whistles (just for fun). Just a little bit of cloud cover here is key to an overwhelming display of birds even in the middle of the day. After a long while of chaos the cloud blew over and birds went back to whatever they were doing before, our cue to head back down the mountain. We stopped quickly near the sugar cane, where Ryan had a female Blue Bunting.
Back in the San Blas area, we pulled into Singayta real quick to buy T-shirts. Across the road we happened upon a flock of basic plumaged Blue-black Grassquits. We then took a detour on the way to the hotel and picked up a number of day birds at the Shrimp Ponds. Ryan and Tracey had a Louisiana Waterthrush. Grey-crowned Yellowthroats were present, but very skulky this time. The Palm Warbler was still pumping its tail in the same area as before. A juvenile Great Black-Hawk gave us excellent views on a short shrub, in addition to several pairs of Harris's Hawks. Our last night in San Blas, we had perfectly seasoned tacos and other traditional Méxican food in a small restaurant at the Zócalo.
Day total: 174 species.
Day 9 - Friday, 12 March 2004 La Bajada - Nuevo Vallarta
We ventured off for a last visit to La Bajada, hoping for anything new and just soaking-in our last full day in the tropics. Again we spent time in the lower banana areas, this time seeing several male Blue Buntings shimmering in the sunlight and another great flock of warblers/orioles. As we climbed, watching butterflies the whole time, we heard two Collared Forest-Falcons calling back and forth across the valley, but they were never seen. A female Lucifer Hummingbird was feeding in some flowers along the track. An Ivory-billed Woodcreeper was very tame, probing under loose pieces of bark and one time flicking one off the trunk and onto my shoulder. Tracey and I had a brief but satisfying encounter with a lost Kentucky Warbler (though judging by other reports, there may be a small population that winters here). Colima Pygmy-Owls were quite abundant up the trail, but their sporadic tooting was overpowered by dozens of raucous chachalacas. We took advantage of our last views at Yellow Grosbeaks and Pale-billed Woodpeckers, and then headed back to the car.
The drive south on Hwy 200 was fairly uneventful, and we opted to not stop at any of the roadside places. Instead we hurried on to the mouth of the Ameca River, a spot for shorebirds (specifically Collared Plover). We had to do the valet parking deal at the Mayan Palace, a huge resort area in Nuevo Vallarta (just north of the Jalisco/Nayarit state line, which is the river). We walked through the lobby with our scopes, receiving nothing but stink eye from the tourists, and finally got out to the beach. In the sandy area just off a small lagoon, there were our plovers. It was mostly Semipalmated, but also a smattering of Wilson's and Snowys. Then we located our Collared Plover, probably the cutest plover I've seen. Success! It vanished suddenly, but later we located it again and had close-up views. A large crocodile slumbered on the shore of the lagoon. We walked over to the river mouth, where we had good numbers of Elegant Terns streaming overhead and out to sea. As we walked back a huge flock of Laughing Gulls took to the wing, and with them Bruce spotted a single Least Tern. In the highly manicured resort, Tropical Kingbirds and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were about the only birds present. We were drawn back to the same restaurant as our first night, where we had more delectable fish. Our motel was definitely unique: all the walls neon green, and a rainbow headboard for each bed.
Day total: 129 species.
Day 10 - Saturday, 13 March 2004 Laguna de Quelele - Bucerias - Puerto Vallarta airport
We were loath to realize this was our last morning in México, so we tried not to think of it for the early morning at least. We followed directions to Laguna de Quelele, an isolated mangrove-bordered lagoon near Puerto Vallarta in an effort to pad the trip list a bit. Red-billed Pigeons were abundant in the trees, and feisty Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls were absolutely everywhere. We walked down on the trail and through the scrub and mangroves until we got to a broken-down viewing platform (damaged in the hurricane, presumably). We took a bit of a risk on this barely standing structure (Ryan nearly falling through on one occasion), and peeked over the mangroves where thousands of whistling-ducks were loafing on the mud. Our only new birds for the trip here were Marbled Godwits and a Short-billed Dowitcher flying over. Back in the parking area, where Stripe-headed Sparrows entertained us, we tallied our list a final time, as we had done each day of the trip.
Starving for a last taste of México outside the city, we made a dash back to Bucerias for a seafood lunch. A pirate ship on the horizon occupied the bay, though the many seabirds of our first night were absent. For the most part satisfied, we hesitantly drove back to Puerto Vallarta. Not hesitantly enough, however, as on the outskirts of the city we were pulled over by the local authorities at a speed trap, the likes of which I had never seen before. A man stood on the side of the road and blew a whistle, simply signaling us and several other cars to get to the side of the road. Another man walked up to our car and spoke with us in broken English. I thought Tracey handled it masterfully, acting as a slightly ignorant tourist in a hurry to the airport, and certainly not knowing a lick of Spanish. The officer, if you could call him that, had a piece of paper in his hand, but wrote down nothing. He said the fine would be 400 pesos, and we must pay at the police station on Monday. Obviously this did not work for us, so we asked if we could just "pay" him then. He immediately tensed up and said there are people watching! Then he handed us his slip of paper and said to fold the money inside and hand it back. We only had a couple hundred pesos to give, but he didn't seem to care. Finally we got back on the highway and drove (slower than before) into the city. We turned in our (suitably trashed) rental car, and took a taxi to the airport. As the plane took off, a final frigatebird seemed to bid us farewell. We will be back!