My wife and I recently returned from a six-day visit to the Mexico City area (November 26-Dec 1, 2013). We had a number of goals with this trip: to get to “know” the city for any future visits; to see many of principal historical and cultural sites (and there are many); to enjoy what we consider the best cuisine on the planet in the country of its origin; and finally, to go BIRDING!
This report will focus on the birding, with some other practical details and highlights. But first, a few general observations:
We found Mexico City very inviting, with helpful, friendly residents, and we never felt the least bit insecure or unsafe. This is not a part of the country that suffers from drug-related violence at all. That being said, there are of course, as with any city, dangerous locales. But with a minimal amount of research beforehand, we knew to avoid those areas. Most of the city is very safe and there were police everywhere. Common-sense precautions will get you a long way. I felt safer here than I have felt in Chicago and D.C., at times.
My wife and I speak Spanish, so it is difficult for me to say how tough it might be to get around without it. My guess is that it should not be an issue if you only speak English here, certainly at the larger hotels, tourist sites, the airport, etc., you will have no problem. But in outlying areas, or with taxi drivers, you will find few people understand English. However you can probably get by with just a handful of Spanish terms.
If you have birded in the southwest of the US and are looking for a place in Mexico where you can get a lot of new, exotic species, then Mexico City is not the place to go. That is not to say that the birding is poor; it is not. However, if you visit here in the winter you will see many familiar faces in the trees! The most common birds down here were HOUSE FINCHES and YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS.
That being said, I still highly recommend this area to anyone who wants to visit a location that is not really far away at all, in terms of miles, is full of rich history and culture, and offers plenty of both natural and man-made beauty. Also, Mexico City puts you very close to the very restricted range of the endemic, endangered SIERRA MADRE SPARROW, which we were able (with the help of our guides) to see.
DAY1. Arrived in El Centro, visited El Zócalo, Templo Mayor, and other nearby historic sites. Highly recommended!
This is a good place to mention what I call The First Law Of Birding Travel, which states: “When traveling any significant distance to go birding, The Birders shall immediately see at least two of the following three species, before seeing anything else: ROCK PIGEON, HOUSE SPARROWS, or Starlings... or the local equivalents.” Yes, we saw many of the first two. No Starlings at all, though.
DAYS 2 and 3. More time spent in the central area, also walked several miles from El Zócalo to Chapultepec, which is to Mexico City what Central Park is to New York. This is a beautiful, well-kept, huge park in the middle of a vast city, and hence is attractive to birds that find few other options nearby. This is also home to many museums. We saw maybe 15% of this huge park, despite spending hours here. We only visited the northern part of the park (Section 1), and later learned that it is the southern parts that offers better birding.
Birds in Chapultepec included: AMERICAN ROBIN, RUFOUS-BACKED ROBIN, INCA DOVE, GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE, HOUSE FINCH, BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER, CURVE-BILLED THRASHER, BEWICK'SWREN, HARRIS'S HAWK, BERYLLINE HUMMINGBIRD, AUDUBON'S (Yellow-rumped) WARBLER, HERMIT WARBLER, BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER, BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER, NASHVILLE WARBLER, WILSON'S WARBLER, LAZULI BUNTING, SONG SPARROW, YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER, BUSHTIT, AMERICAN COOT, MALLARD, AMERICAN AVOCET, CANYON TOWHEE, RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, and many silent and unidentifiable EMPIDS.
DAYS 3-4. We took a bus later on Day 3 up to Teotihuacan, where there are several large pyramids and other ruins. Our plan was to see the ruins and bird during the late afternoon of Day 3 and early morning of Day 4, thus being out during prime birding time and also avoiding the crowds of tourists that descend on this area every day starting in the mid-morning. We stayed a quaint, very nice little hotel, Villas Arqueológicas, just south of the site and within walking distance.
These pyramids are absolutely worth seeing, as you can climb to their summits; it is a very fascinating place. The birding here is not so great, though. Highlights are: many VERMILLION FLYCATCHER, and CACTUS WREN, in addition to a number of species seen in the city.
Later on Day 4 we returned to Mexico City, but to a different area, well south of center of town. Specifically, we stayed at the Radisson Paraiso, which is just south of UNAM, the huge university. This area, Tlalpan, is a nice, middle-class part of the city, with easy walking access to a mall, should you wish to visit one, as well as several nearby parks. In fact, if your primary goal in Mexico City is to go birding, I suggest you stay here.
We took a ten-minute walk to the park at Cuicuiclo, which contains the remains of a very old pyramid that is circular, as opposed to square, in structure of the base. There are many trails here to bird. We saw, in addition to many aforementioned species, BROAD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD. We did not bird here very long however as it was late and the guards were shutting the park down.
DAY 5. Also within safe, short walking distance from the Radisson is the wonderful Bosque de Pedregal, or Bosque de Tlalpan. This park is very hilly, full of eucalyptus trees (yes, lots of non-native flora here, just like everywhere else, it seems) as well as pines. It is also very popular with joggers and others. We were here on a Saturday, so it was busy – however there are many dirt trails and we were able to find plenty of solitude and plenty of birds. The nice part is that you can spend the entire day here (as we did, from dawn to dusk) and find plenty of food. Really, really good food, sold from “street vendors” in the park. The best chicken enchiladas in salsa verde that I have ever had, and I've had a lot!
Highlights, in addition to other species seen elsewhere, were: many TOWNSEND'S WARBLER, GRAY SILKY-FLYCATCHER, SUMMER TANAGER, GREATER PEWEE, SLATE-THROATED REDSTART, BUFF-BREASTED FLYCATCHER (the only empid I've seen that actually looks obviously different from all the others), HERMIT THRUSH, WARBLING VIREO, MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER, CANYON WREN (heard, not seen), RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLER, BULLOCK'S ORIOLE, and SPOTTED TOWHEE.
DAY 6. This was our most serious birding day, as we hired two local guides, Rafa Calderon and Ruben Ortega, and they took us to a number of locations; several of these would have been difficult to get to without their help. These guides were absolutely wonderful and I highly recommend them to everyone. More information can be found at mexico-birding.com.
Rafa and Ruben picked us up at our hotel when it was still dark, and first took us up into the high (and cold!) Sierra Madre mountains just south of the city, on the way to Cuernavaca. The area that we birded is called La Cima, and there were a nice variety of habitats there. Highlights included: STRIPED SPARROW, SIERRA MADRE SPARROW, YELLOW-EYED JUNCO, RED WARBLER (favorite bird of the trip), WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD, GRAY-BARRED WREN, CRESCENT-CHESTED WARBLER, WESTERN BLUEBIRD, GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET and STELLAR'S JAY. There were also a number of birds that were heard, and which the guides had glimpses of, but which we didn't get good looks at (such is the nature of birding, always) including: MEXICAN CHICKADEE, GOLDEN-BROWED WARBLER, and ELEGANT EUPHONIA.
After lunch we came back down into the city, and visited the UNAM campus, which has to be the most ecologically diverse and wonderful campus I've ever seen. It is huge. We spent a few hours in the Botanic Gardens located there, and this had to have been our favorite site of the entire trip. It is gorgeous. Much of the flora has taxonomic labels, so my botany-crazy wife was in a happy tizzy with it all. The bird species diversity and density, during mid-day, no less, was higher here than anywhere else on the trip. When we return to Mexico City, and we will, this is the first place we are going to revisit and we will spend at least a whole day here.
Highlights from UNAM: Just about everything already mentioned (except for the high elevation birds of La Cima), plus OLIVE WARBLER, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, and BLACK-BACKED ORIOLE. Heard and identified by our guides, but uncooperative, were HOODED YELLOWTHROAT, CASSIN'S VIREO and CINNAMON-BELLIED FLOWER-PIERCER.
Our final destination with the guides, for the late afternoon, was the ecological park at Xochimilco, which is the only place in the city which has the remnants of Lake Texcoco, which used to surround the Aztec capital. Hence, we found many species here that simply will not be found elsewhere in the city. Most of these are familiar birds in the US; however this is still a great place to go birding. The mosquitoes are huge and greedy, beware.
Highlights: GREAT BLUE HERON (eating a rather large snake), GREAT EGRET, SNOWY EGRET, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON (more on him later), CINNAMON and GREEN-WINGED TEAL, AMERICAN WIGEON, NORTHERN SHOVELER, RUDDY DUCK, TROPICAL KINGBIRD, CASSIN'S KINGBIRD, MONK PARAKEET, WHITE-FACED IBIS, LADDER-BACKED WOODPECKER, and OSPREY.
As for the Night Heron, seeing him reminded one of our guides of an amusing story. Apparently some time back, a reporting unit from one of the local TV stations happened to be there at Xochimilco, and the cameraman saw an adult BCNH and filmed him sitting there. Someone at the station, not a biologist, obviously, saw this, and as a result the nightly news ran a story about an incredible and rare bird sighting! Yes, can you believe it, visiting Mexico City was a … (wait for it) … penguin!
So, to wrap up, it was a great “half-birding” trip. It is a wonderful place to visit, relatively cheap, easy to navigate, and really not very far away at all, for most of us in the US. Highly recommended. Email me if you want more details about anything related to our experience.
Audubon's (Yellow-rumped) Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Canyon Wren (Heard, Not Seen)
Sierra Madre Sparrow
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron