Eric Preston and I spent four and a half days birding in the west Mexican states of Colima and Jalisco from January 31st to February 5th 2002. A highlight of the trip was the opportunity to bird the higher elevations on Volcán de Fuego north of Colima. The entire region holds a rich avifauna and we could easily have spent 1-2 weeks here to really do it justice. Nevertheless, just over four days was enough time for a very enjoyable and productive trip, allowing us to see many of the region's specialties and amass a trip list of 220 species.
We used Steve Howell's excellent book "A Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico" to plan our trip and all locations mentioned here are covered in full detail in chapter 7 of this bird-finding guide. We used the indispensable "A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America" by Howell and Webb as our identification reference.
We flew directly to Guadalajara from San Francisco with Mexicana Airlines. On arrival, we rented the bottom-of-the-line Chevrolet from Avis. A very basic 2-door compact, it got us everywhere we needed to go.
The climate throughout was generally pleasant, ranging from hot and humid at the coast around Manzanillo to quite chilly on the interior slopes of Volcán de Nieve.
Biting arthropods were generally not a problem, except for the Playa de Oro area, where mosquitoes were numerous but still tolerable. We took no special health precautions other than being careful with drinking water. Local people everywhere were cordial and friendly, and always very patient with our non-existent Spanish.
One factor to bear in mind is that Volcán de Fuego is an active volcano - indeed, the most active volcano in Mexico. The day we returned to the US, on February 5th, several hundred villagers living close to the base of the volcano were evacuated because of increased volcanic activity (see news article at http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/nm/20020205/wl_nm/mexico_volcano_dc_1 ). It is likely that the higher slopes we visited would be inaccessible under such conditions. It might therefore be wise to check on local conditions around the volcano before visiting.
Itinerary and birds:
January 31st: Guadalajara to Volcán de Fuego
We arrived in Guadalajara around mid afternoon and picked up our rental car. After narrowly avoiding collision with a wayward bus on the busy Guadalajara periferico, we hit the fast 54D toll road and headed south toward Colima. We attempted to bird the lagoons along 54D in the vicinity of Sayula, as suggested by Howell, but this was not productive as the lagoons were almost completely dry. Darkness fell as we approached Ciudad Guzmán, producing Lesser Nighthawks over the highway. Driving on to Atenquique, we located the start of the Volcán de Fuego road without much difficulty by following the excellent directions in Howell's bird-finding guide.
We proceeded up the Volcán de Fuego dirt road in search of nocturnal birds and a place to camp, scoring almost immediately on the former with a Great Horned Owl perched on telegraph wires beside the road. As we climbed into the oak woodland, Eric spotted a small caprimulgid sitting on the shoulder. Watching through the windshield with binoculars, we agreed it was a Buff-collared Nightjar.
We were able to leave the car and approach to within a few meters before it flushed off into the night. At Km. 12.7, opposite the right-hand turn to the microondas, we located the campsite suggested by Howell and pitched our tent for the night.
February 1st: Volcán de Fuego
We awoke well before dawn to the sound of a Mottled Owl giving its deep, Otus-like "bouncing ball" call somewhere nearby. The show then progressed to a pair of Mottled Owls dueting loudly right over the tent. They continued calling further up the hillside until well after first light, but remained sufficiently well hidden to prevent us seeing them. A quick sortie around the campsite produced many of the expected birds - Berylline and White-eared Hummingbirds, Slate-throated Redstarts, Hepatic and Summer Tanagers, Tufted Flycatchers, Gray-breasted (a.k.a."Mexican") Jay etc. Short-tailed Hawks soared overhead and Brown-backed Solitaires sang all around. Before proceeding uphill, we decided to quickly check the side road to the microondas. This produced a diverse mixed-species flock that contained several of our target species - Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, a stunning Rufous-capped Warbler and a sought-after Dwarf Vireo. Noisy chattering nearby turned out to belong to a group of Gray-barred Wrens.
Returning to the main road, we continued upwards, stopping wherever we found activity. These stops produced such birds as Arizona Woodpecker, White-striped Woodcreeper, Olive, Red-faced and Crescent-chested Warblers and Blue Mockingbird. At one point we slammed on the brakes for a Lesser Roadrunner that shot across the road, posing briefly in full view before disappearing. Hummingbird diversity increased as we ascended - a loud, repetitive chipping beat turned out to belong to a glittering Green Violet-ear, a species that rapidly became abundant at the higher elevations. We soon became aware of other large hummers in the vicinity and patience around a particularly busy flower bank eventually produced Magnificent and Blue-throated Hummingbirds, but prize for best-looking went to a dazzling male Amethyst-throated!
The composition of the mixed species flocks also changed as we ascended. It was hard not to notice the appearance of Red Warblers, often joined by more familiar species like Mexican Chickadee and Golden-crowned Kinglet. Eric found a single Black-headed Siskin feeding high in a tree. Sparrows also began to appear - a handsome Collared Towhee popped up at the roadside and, not 50 yards further up, a Rufous-capped Brush-Finch did the same. While waiting for the sparrows to reappear, another small, yellow bird hopped into view - an electrifying Golden-browed Warbler!
While difficult at times, the road was negotiable as far as the national park boundary at Km 27.5. Here we turned around and headed back down to bird the area below our campsite at Km 12.7. The oak woods produced a close look at a female Smoky-brown Woodpecker and some Spotted Wrens and, in fading light, the cultivated areas lower down held Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo and Varied Buntings and Streak-backed Orioles.
It was dark by the time we hit the main road. We drove on to Colima and spent the night in a motel on the north side of town.
February 2nd: Colima to Manzanillo
Leaving before dawn, we birded the Ciudad Colima to La Maria road, as suggested by Howell. Roadside stops in the agricultural areas beyond Comalá produced Buff-breasted Flycatchers, basic-plumaged Blue-black Grassquits and Cinnamon-rumped Seedeaters, Stripe-headed Sparrows, a Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow and a couple of Rufous-capped Warblers.
At Km 15.5, we explored the cobbled track that leads through forest on the hillside. Here we found many Berylline Hummingbirds and Tufted Flycatchers, and got brief looks at a pair of Lilac-crowned Parrots overhead. Elegant Trogons called from deep in the forest.
At Km 19.6 we followed the dirt road into the now apparently deserted village of Barranca de Agua. Stepping from the car, the raucous calls of West Mexican Chachalacas rang around the narrow valley. We eventually got good looks at one of these birds as it called from low in a tree. Above the chachalaca chorus, we picked out an unfamiliar whistle that led us to a handsome Boat-billed Flycatcher perched conspicuously in the top of a tree. Another Boat-billed called back nearby. Proceeding towards the village, a pair of Golden Vireos appeared along the road, but we could not find a Slaty Vireo. In the village, a male Flame-colored Tanager put in a brief appearance and Eric located a female Golden-crowned Emerald in an overgrown yard. An adult Great Black-Hawk circled overhead.
For the afternoon, we headed south towards Microondas La Cumbre for some thorn forest birding. At Km 5 or so, we pulled off to check the creek at El Salado for Ringed Kingfisher. Walking out on the bridge, we spotted a hulking Ringed almost immediately that flew off downstream. Waiting for it to reappear, we located another kingfisher sitting quietly beneath the leaves close to the creek, some distance away. This one was not a Ringed however, as it appeared to be green on the upperparts. Confusingly, it didn't appear to be the familiar Green Kingfisher either, being much too big - closer in size to Belted Kingfisher. As we watched, another similarly sized kingfisher with green upperparts appeared much closer to the bridge, making several forays down to the water before returning to a perch above the creek. This bird was definitely green, but also about the size of a Belted, with a fearsome long bill. Careful attention to the upperwings revealed the absence of white spots, and the clean white underparts were marked only with a single, incomplete green breast band. We were looking at a female Amazon Kingfisher. Closer scrutiny of the more distant bird confirmed it shared the size and absence of white spotting of the female, but possessed a splash of rufous on the breast - a male Amazon.
Further down the road, we took the turn to Piscila and birded the road down to the village. Here we found Broad-billed Hummingbird, Virginia's and Lucy's Warblers and our first electric Orange-breasted Buntings.
At the start of the Microondas La Cumbre road, we asked permission to enter and proceeded up the hillside on the cobbled track. We soon found our first White-throated Magpie-Jays in this area and a gaudy Red-breasted Chat. Following the road to the summit, we found a pair of Rufous-naped Wrens skulking in the brush around the microondas. We waited until dark and then headed back down the hill in the hope of locating a Balsas Screech-Owl. Unfortunately this was not successful, with none seen or heard. However, as a consolation prize, we did hear another Mottled Owl calling close to the summit.
Leaving La Cumbre after dark, we drove on to Manzanillo, Locating the Playa de Oro Road west of town, we drove down through the thorn forest and camped on the beach for the night. The dirt road was difficult to negotiate in places, but we did happen upon a spectacular swarm of army ants following the road as we approached the beach. We kept the tent tightly zipped that night!
February 3rd: Manzanillo to Autlán
The hot and super-humid conditions on the coast were an interesting contrast to conditions further inland. At dawn, the scrub and palm forest behind the beach was alive with birds - Bell's Vireos, Happy Wren, Lineated Woodpeckers, Black-capped Gnatcatchers, San Blas Jays, several dazzling Tropical Parulas and more Orange-breasted Buntings. The ocean itself was relatively quiet - a few Brown Pelicans and a Brown Booby sailing by. Heading deeper into the thorn forest, it wasn't long before we located another of our target birds - a Flammulated Flycatcher that approached in response to pishing and obliged us with excellent views of its pale spectacles! We also found our first White-bellied Wren in this general area.
Heading back towards Route 200, we encountered more thorn forest birds, including Nutting's Flycatchers, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Citreoline Trogons, White-throated Magpie-Jays and another obliging Red-breasted Chat.
Next stop was the Manzanillo Airport Marshes, a little further to the west along the coast. Activity here was subdued in the midday heat, but we still managed to pick up a few trip birds - this constituted about the only sizeable area of wetland habitat on our itinerary. Highlights included a handsome adult Great Black Hawk perched in a tree near the road, a distant pair of Limpkins in a flooded field, and a Ringed Kingfisher on some roadside wires. Digging through the roadside brush, we turned up a nice alternate-plumaged male Cinnamon-rumped [White-collared] Seedeater, a Ruddy-breasted Seedeater and a Grayish Saltator.
Heading back inland, we stopped at Barranca el Choncho for the afternoon. Here, the trickle of water through the small canyon was attracting a variety of birds, most obvious being the numerous Turkey Vultures. We finally got good looks at both Sinaloa and Happy Wrens, and a reclusive waterthrush along the creek bed turned out to be a Louisiana. Reaching the thorn forest at the top of the small canyon, we retraced our steps back to the car. On the way down, the seep now seemed to be attracting a few new additions, most memorable being a fine Fan-tailed Warbler, walking on the ground. Several Lineated Woodpeckers were active in the area and Eric also managed to obtain satisfactory views of a much-desired Pale-billed Woodpecker.
Driving on to Autlán to spend the night, we passed roadside marshes around Km 57 that held a large flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and a few Roseate Spoonbills. We spent the night in Autlán, which was well situated for the following morning's birding at Puerto Los Mazos.
February 4th: Autlán area
Puerto Los Mazos to the south of Autlán provides another opportunity to bird some higher altitude forest. Public access to this site has been variable (see Howell's "A Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico" for details), but we found the gate at the beginning of the road to be open and had no problems getting in.
The first few hundred yards of the cobbled road was busy with hummingbirds, including Calliope and Violet-crowned, but by far the best was a stunning male Sparkling-tailed Woodstar/Hummingbird, that perched obligingly for excellent views. Once into the forest, mixed species flocks began cropping up, containing many of the expected species - Painted and Slate-throated Redstarts, Red-faced Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, Golden Vireo etc. Working through these flocks again proved productive, turning up Ivory-billed and White-striped Woodcreepers and a Red-headed Tanager. Higher up, White-throated Thrushes became common and Eric located a pair of Flame-colored Tanagers high in the canopy. The composition of the mixed species flocks changed as we ascended through the tropical semi-evergreen forest - a male Amethyst-throated Hummingbird put in an appearance, along with a couple of male Mexican Woodnymphs. Close to the summit, following up on rustling sounds in the leaf litter produced a Green-striped Brushfinch and, while looking for activity close to the ground, we located another heart-stopper - a Golden-crowned Warbler! Our fourth species of Basileuterus warbler for the trip! Close to the microondas at the summit, a Gray Silky-flycatcher perched on an exposed snag, calling.
After a very productive morning, we headed to the Microondas San Francisco road on the north side of Autlán, to search the thorn forest for Black-chested Sparrow. This area was hot and dusty, but perseverance produced a good selection of the expected species - Virginia's Warbler, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Nutting's Flycatcher - and, after some searching, three handsome Black-chested Sparrows.
Leaving Autlán behind, we headed back east towards Ciudad Guzmán and Guadalajara. Just west of Ciudad Guzmán, we located the R.M.O. Viboras road off to the right. With daylight almost completely gone, we drove a short way up this dirt road and found a place to camp for the night.
February 5th: R.M.O. Viboras
Before returning to Guadalajara for our afternoon flight back to San Francisco, we awoke early and spent the morning birding the R.M.O. Viboras road. This was yet another productive area, allowing us further opportunities to study some of the species we'd encountered previously on Volcán de Fuego, such as Green Violetear (numerous and noisy!), White-striped Woodcreeper, Crescent-chested and Red Warblers, Rufous-capped Brushfinch and Black-headed Siskin. But we also picked up more exciting species we hadn't seen elsewhere. Stopping at a flower bank beside the road, we located a fine Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer. Over the course of the morning we saw a further three individuals of this enigmatic species. Other new species for the trip included Yellow-eyed Juncos, a Russet Nightingale-Thrush and a briefly observed female Gray-collared Becard that was loosely associated with a mixed-species flock. After driving most of the way to the top, we reluctantly turned around and began our decent to the main road. We were still in the forest close to the top when a Long-tailed Wood-Partridge gave its loud, ringing call from a ravine close to the road. A fitting end to a great "long weekend" of birding!