by Simon Allen (spma at charterhouse.org.uk or spm_allen at hotmail.com)
After a number of visits to South America over the past few years, I decided that it was time to fill in some gaps in my Neotropical list and headed to southern Mexico for three weeks in March and April of 2004. I undertook the planning of the trip, and had initially set out to spend a couple of weeks with my old friends Bud and Margaret Widdowson whom I had not seen for some years. After much deliberation over the area(s) of the country on which to concentrate, given that Bud had visited the San Blas area before, we opted for a two week trip based purely in Oaxaca and Chiapas. As it turned out, I was joined by Mike Catsis for two weeks, Stephen Lowe for the first five days of this period, and Bud and Margaret being able to join for the final eight days or so in the end. In addition, I decided to tack on a week on my own in the Yucatan before meeting up with the others. One of my primary goals for the trip, in addition to enjoying some of the groups which reach their highest diversity of species in Mexico such as orioles, wrens, buntings and others, and seeing a range of North American migrants in breeding plumage, was to see the 135 lifers that would take me to the 4000 mark on my world list. I ended up with a tally of over 390 species for the three weeks including a good proportion of the restricted-range specialities on offer, and reached my target with a few days to spare. As well as many memorable birding moments, the trip was enhanced by great company, interesting and varied food, decent accommodation, straightforward logistics and good weather.
Transport and Logistics
My international flights were booked through Journey Latin America on KLM, and cost almost exactly £400 return from London to Mexico City via Amsterdam. I then made three internal flights with Mexicana: Mexico City to Cancun, Merida to Oaxaca (via Villahermosa) and Tuxtla Gutierrez back to Mexico City again. These cost $420 US in total (at the time, £235). In the Yucatan, I primarily used public transport, including lots of efficient bus services between towns, the boat over to Cozumel, and taxis in one or two places. Only on Cozumel did I hire a car for 24 hours, which was worthwhile if a little extravagant at about $60 US all in. In Oaxaca, where I met up with Mike and Stephen and later Bud and Margaret, we hired a car for 14 days, which Bud and Margaret drove back to Oaxaca from Tuxtla on the final day (thus crucially saving us the $215 US drop off fee). We went for an economy four-door VW Pointer which cost us a total of about $600 US including insurance for the two weeks. It was a bit of a squeeze with all the luggage but had a good engine and the only problems we experienced were some problems with the wheel aligning which caused us concern for a while and also with a loose exhaust which rattled for a few hundred kilometres until we got it fixed at a taller in Tuxtla.
Sat 27th March 08:40-11:00 Fly from London to Amsterdam with KLM; 14:05-17:00 Amsterdam to Mexico City; 22:20-23:50 Mexico City to Cancun. Night at Hotel María Isabel, Cancun.
Sun 28th March 09:00 - 10:30 Bus from Cancun to Playa del Carmen; 11:00-11:30 Ferry to Cozumel; 13:30-18:00 Birding on Cozumel in Hotel Presidente grid and in the area north of Bello Caribe around the sewage works. Night at Posada Letty, San Miguel de Cozumel.
Mon 29th March 06:30 - 10:30 birding on Cozumel in centre of the island at km 6.8 and near San Gervasio ruins; 11:00-11:30 Ferry to Playa del Carmen; 12:30-15:30 Bus to Felipe Carillo Puerto; 16:30-20:00 birding along Vigia Chica road. Night at Hotel Faisan y Venado, Felipe Carillo Puerto.
Tues 30th March 07:00 - 13:00 and then 15:00-18:30 birding on Vigia Chica road. Night at Hotel Faisan y Venado, Felipe Carillo Puerto.
Weds 31st March 06:30-11:30 Birding on Vigia Chica road; 16:20-18:30 Bus to Valladolid. Night at Hotel María Guadalupe, Valladolid.
Thurs 1st April 07:00-07:45 Bus to Chichen Itza; 08:15-14:00 Birding around the ruins at Chichen Itza; 15:30-17:30 Bus to Merida. Night at Casa Becil, Merida.
Fri 2nd April 05:00-06:00 Bus to Progreso and colectivo to Chicxulub; 07:00-11:00 Birding around Chicxulub and along coast to the east for a few kilometres; 13:00-15:30 birding around Dzibilchaltun ruins; rest of the afternoon in Merida. Night at Casa Becil, Merida.
Sat 3rd April Lie-in and breakfast; 10:30-14:00 flight with Mexicana to Oaxaca via Villahermosa and Tuxtla Gutierrez; 15:00-18:00 check in at hotel and quick recce to Monte Alban before picking up Stephen and then Mike from Oaxaca airport. Night at Hotel Vallarta, Oaxaca.
Sun 4th April 07:00-10:00 birding in scrubby habitat above Teotitlan del Valle; 11:00-12:30 brief visit to Yagul ruins; 15:00-19:15 birding around the Black Tank on Route 175 north of Oaxaca. Night at Hotel Vallarta, Oaxaca.
Mon 5th April 07:00-09:00 birding around Black Tank; 10:00-15:00 birding at Cerro San Felipe; 15:30-19:30 drive to Valle Nacional. Night at Hostal Valle, Valle Nacional.
Tues 6th April 07:00-09:30 birding in cloud forest around La Esperanza around km 90 above Valle Nacional; 10:30-14:30 birding in pine-oak forest along a logging track down to the left at about km 104. 16:00-19:00 working our way back down to Valle with a stop in lower elevations. Night at Hostal Valle, Valle Nacional.
Weds 7th April 07:00-10:00 Birding around La Esperanza again at km 90; 11:00-15:00 drive to Cerro San Felipe with a lunch stop in Gueletao. 15:00-19:00 Birding at Cerro San Felipe and return to Oaxaca. Night at Night at Hotel Vallarta, Oaxaca.
Thurs 8th April 06:30-09:30 Birding around Monte Alban; 10:00-12:00 Oaxaca airport waiting for Bud and Margaret; 12:00-17:00 drive to El Porvenir at about km 158, birding there for a couple of hours; 17:00-18:30 drive to small town of Cantelaria at about km 203 for an overnight stay in their only hotel and dinner in adjacent restaurant.
Fri 9th April 06:00-11:30 drive back up to La Soledad area then birding along the road and down the small track just above the village at km 184, and then around El Mirador restaurant further down; 12:00-15:00 drive down to coast and brief stops in scrub and thorn forest near Puerto Angel; 16:00-18:30 drive to Tehuantepec. Night at basic hotel just off the zocalo in Tehuantepec.
Sat 10th April 07:00-10:00 birding in scrub at km 244 west of Tehuantepec; 11:00-15:00 drive to Tapanatepec foothills along Route 190 and birding there for an hour; 15:30-19:00 drive to Puerto Arista and birding along road towards Boca del Cielo. Night at hotel at Hostal Lupita, Tonala.
Sun 11th April 07:00-10:30 birding around Cabeza del Toro junction area; 11:00-14:30 drive to Tuxtla Gutierrez with stop in Arriaga foothills; 17:00-19:00 birding at El Sumidero. Night at Hotel San Antonio, Tuxtla Gutierrez.
Mon 12th April 06:00-12:00 El Sumidero and again from 16:00-19:00. Night at Hotel San Antonio, Tuxtla Gutierrez.
Tues 13th April 06:30-10:30 El Sumidero (rain); 11:00-14:00 drive to San Cristobal de las Casas; 15:30-18:30 birding at km 2 on Ocosingo road site near San Cristobal. Night at Casa Margarita, San Cristobal.
Weds 14th April 07:00-11:00 birding at km2 on Ocosingo road; 15:30-18:00 Huitepec reserve. Night at Casa Margarita, San Cristobal.
Thurs 15th April 07:00-08:45 birding near microwave towers on Cerro Huitepec; 09:15-12:00 Huitepec reserve; 14:00-19:00 drive to Tuxtla Gutierrez and visit to Sumidero. Night at Hotel San Antonio, Tuxtla Gutierrez.
Fri 16th April 07:00-10:30 Sumidero; 16:00 flight to Mexico City; 23:00 delayed flight from Mexico City to Amsterdam.
Sat 17th April arrive Amsterdam 15:30; 17:05 flight to London.
There is plenty of literature and information about bird-finding in this area, but we were indebted to Steve Howell's excellent books, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America (1995), beautifully illustrated by Sophie Webb, and his even more invaluable Where to Watch Birds in Mexico (1999), which had excellent directions and detailed, accurate information about where to go to see the specialities, almost without exception. We also used a number of trip reports from the web, including:
Jan Vermeulen (1999), Jon Hornbuckle (1999), Gruff Dodd (2000), Karl Overman (2000), Mark Sutton (2000-1), Samuel Hansson (2002), Ian Merrill (2002) and Nick Block (2002-3).
Our use of tapes was relatively infrequent as many birds are quite readily seen without playback, although Dale Delaney's Bird Songs of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico was of great help when trying to pry out one or two of the more retiring inhabitants of the region, as was the relevant Glaucidium pygmy-owl vocalisation dependant on what elevation we were at or habitat type we were in.
The strength of the pound against the dollar in early 2004 made this a good time to visit Mexico, and things worked out reasonably cheaply. The exchange rate is currently (July 2004) about 11 pesos to the US dollar and about 21 to the UK pound. Mexico is a modern and pleasant country to visit, and it is very straightforward to get around. It is quite a bit more expensive than Peru, for example, but cheap food and accommodation was available throughout and the people were almost without exception welcoming and helpful.
Diary and Sites
Howell's site guide and the above reports give plenty of adequate gen for the vast majority of sites visited. I include here the site number from Howell where appropriate (eg Cozumel - 14.10), but will indicate below any new or more up-to-date information on sites that we discovered during the trip - of which there was not a huge amount.
Saturday 27th March
Having returned from a short trip to Boston the previous morning, my 5am start to Heathrow left me feeling rather weary, and another crossing of the Atlantic (my third in a week) was not filling me with any great enthusiasm. And indeed it proved a very long day. The ten hour flight from Amsterdam was followed by a slightly delayed departure to Cancun, getting me into the party city just after midnight. With taxis to the centre of this kitsch, over-priced hangout of American college kids costing $40 US a pop, I opted instead for the colectivo which eventually delivered me to my small and run-down hotel close to the bus station at 1.30am where a bed was very welcome.
Sunday 28th March
Up by 7, I packed my bags and headed straight for the bus terminal and caught a bus through some fairly torrential and un-seasonal rain to the more down-to-earth resort of Playa del Carmen, the site of the ferry over to Cozumel (site 14.10) my first birding destination of the trip. The weather had cleared by the time the rather swanky boat had docked at San Miguel de Cozumel, the island's capital, and after checking in to the modest Posada Letty, my first task was to track down a hire car. I was planning to use public transport for the majority of my week in the Yucatan but in order to get the trip off to a good start, I allowed myself the 'luxury' of renting a delightfully old-fashioned black VW Beetle from one of the cheaper local agencies (as opposed to Avis or Hertz). By 2pm I had reached my first destination, the well-documented Hotel Presidente grid, some 6kms south of town, and the site of an old abandoned housing development covered in reasonable scrubby forest. Despite the heat of the day, birding was quite rewarding, and Caribbean Elaenia, the smart Cozumel Vireo and the sleek Black Catbird became the first specialities in the notebook, alongside more widespread species such as Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, American Redstart and the endemic Cozumel race of Bananaquit. An attractive male Northern Stripe-headed Tanager appeared in a Cecropia, an imposing White-crowned Pigeon perched conspicuously in a tall tree, and a Yucatan Vireo skulked in a dense thicket before showing nicely. A brief female Cozumel Emerald was then followed by a nice party of Yellow-lored Parrots perched in a tree crown, before I decided to move on to a new area of the island.
I made my way back to San Miguel and then continued north towards the sewage plant, stopping along the road in some lower, scrubby habitat to admire some migrant Indigo Buntings, a male Cozumel Emerald, and the endemic beani race of House Wren, sometimes split as Cozumel Wren. The clearing at the sewage plant held Hooded Oriole, and the marshy area along the first part of the road yielded more migrants in the form of Common Yellowthroat and Northern Waterthrush, as well as excellent close-range views of at least two Ruddy Crakes, including one immature bird. A Mangrove Cuckoo perched cooperatively by the roadside rounded off a successful afternoon and I headed back to town for a meal in the plaza, watching a Barn Owl fly over as I returned to the hotel for an early night.
Monday 29th March
I was quickly discovering, somewhat to my surprise, that it was not getting dark in the evenings until after 7 and barely getting light until 7 in the morning. So I made my way towards the centre of the island at a reasonably civilised hour, and spent the first couple of hours birding along a quiet track that runs north at km 6.8 along the cross-island road as Howell suggests. As soon as it got light, a couple of Caribbean Doves showed well as they fed on the track, and some tapping led me to a diminutive Yucatan Woodpecker, another regional endemic probably more readily found on Cozumel than anywhere else. It was to prove quite common in this area. One of the birds of the morning was a lovely male Rose-throated Tanager that alit in a small tree next to the path. The hurricane that hit Cozumel in 1988 seems to have had an adverse affect on the population of these birds and it was the only one I was to see on the island. After adding a Rose-throated Becard and local races of Rufous-browed Peppershrike and Yellow-faced Grassquit, I continued on to the San Gervasio ruins, reputedly the site of the most recent records of the extremely rare Cozumel Thrasher. This great rarity unsurprisingly eluded me in the short time I spent in the area, and sightings have been few and far between in recent time, although Dave Willis later informed me that he had seen one somewhere on the island about three years previously. What I did find around in scrub and little woodlots around the car park (time was quite short so I opted not to enter the ruins proper) was a fine array of wintering wood warblers, now bedecked in their breeding finery and presumably poised to return to northern climes in the near future. A Palm Warbler hopped on the ground under the shade of a tree in the parking lot itself, and some judicious pishing under the canopy in a few different spots over the next forty-five minutes or so brought in a variety of nice species including Black-throated Green, Black-and-white and Blue-winged Warblers, whilst the understorey held the terrestrial Ovenbird, a flashy Hooded Warbler and best of all, the uncommon Worm-eating and Swainson's Warblers, both difficult birds to catch up with on their breeding grounds of the south-eastern US. A larger warm brown bird disappearing into a thicket caused the pulse to quicken until it turned out to be a female Northern Cardinal, and with the sun heating up I decided to return to San Miguel, hand over the VW Beetle and catch the 11am ferry back to the mainland.
Once there I purchased a ticket to the town of Felipe Carillo Puerto (site 14.3), some two-and-a-half hours to the south, and gateway to the difficult-to-access Sian Ka'an reserve. I arrived there at about 3.30, and having checked into the Hotel Faisan y Venado, flagged down a taxi to take me to the Vigia Chica road. I was dropped off shortly after the beginning of the forest, and spent the rest of the afternoon birding along this quiet route on foot. Much to my surprise, the first bird I saw was a female Grey-throated Chat which showed very nicely in the understorey. I was later to watch two more female-plumaged birds down to minimal focus range at an antswarm, but the stunning male unfortunately failed to materialise. As the temperature began to drop a little, activity increased and there were some interesting species to be had, including Buff-bellied Hummingbird, White-bellied and Canivet's Emeralds, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Greenish Elaenia, Spot-breasted and White-browed (Carolina) Wrens, Mangrove, Yellow-throated and White-eyed Vireos, Olive Sparrow, Black-headed Saltator and Melodious Blackbird, whilst Black-headed Trogon, Blue-crowned and Turquoise-browed Motmots, some Altamira Orioles and a distant group of striking Yucatan Jays added splashes of colour. I stayed in the forest until after dark, and although a few Yucatan Poorwills were heard, and one or two seemed to respond to tape, none of them came close enough to be spotlighted in the dense vegetation. I suspect the best way to see this bird is to drive the road at night, as they seem to perch there frequently according to a number of reports.
Tuesday 30th March
The next morning saw me return by taxi to the Vigia Chica road. This time I was dropped off about 5kms into the forest near the first fork, and close to a pond that is hidden from view but accessible along the smaller right hand track. This area proved quite productive in the first few hours of daylight, with some showy species recorded including Plain Chachalaca, Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeet, White-fronted Parrot, Keel-billed Toucan, Ladder-backed, Pale-billed and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, an unexpected Grey-headed Kite, Cinnamon Hummingbird and the regional endemic Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. As the sun got hotter, as was the pattern during the three days I spent there, activity died down quite markedly after about 9, but there were still some more skulking species to track down which remained activity in the understorey or the subcanopy. Tyrannids of interest included Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Couch's Kingbird, the localised Yucatan Flycatcher (an ID challenge), Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher and later the intriguing Northern Bentbill, whilst other more furtive species included Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Green-backed Sparrow (not all that easy to tell apart from Olive unless you get a good view and until you 'get your eye in'), Yellow-billed Cacique and the diminutive White-bellied Wren. I worked the main track for a while but decided to head back at midday, adding a nice pair of Blue Buntings, Orchard Oriole and a male Scrub Euphonia. An afternoon session added little new of note, although it was nice to catch up with Yellow-backed Oriole, a bird I had missed in Venezuela, and a Yellow-winged Tanager in an orchard at the edge of town was another regional speciality.
Wednesday 31st March
My final morning on the Vigia Chica road saw me dropped quite a way out along the road in a large clear area probably some 10kms from the start of the forest. Having arranged with my taxi driver to pick me up at 11.30 back at the first fork, I scanned the tall trees along the road here, and found a number of them in flower, which was attracting Yellow-tailed, Black-cowled and more Yellow-backed Orioles, whilst nearby in and around the scrubbier hedgerow-type vegetation were Blue Ground-Dove, Barred Antshrike and a Black-crowned Tityra on a dead tree. Activity was especially low today after 9 or so, and certainly one of the highlights of the morning was finding a good antswarm attended by both Tawny-winged and Ruddy Woodcreepers. Long-billed Gnatwren and Ochre-bellied Flycatcher were also added to the trip list, but I expended some increasingly frustrated energy trying to get a visual on one of the several Stub-tailed Spadebills that were calling along a certain stretch of the road, none of which would show themselves at all. A Yellow-throated Euphonia along the road was the last new bird of the morning, and I taxied back to town with a few specialities missing from the list, including the scarce Ocellated Turkey, Singing Quail, the uncommon Grey-collared Becard and, somewhat surprisingly, the Yucatan endemic Orange Oriole, as well as the spadebill. I wonder whether the presence of a number of hunters who I saw biking in and out during the day have had an adverse effect on the populations of these first two species, and both are probably more reliable in the reserve itself which is accessed with difficulty further along this road. The bus northwards did not leave until 4.20 so I had a leisurely lunch and checked my emails before heading towards the town of Valladolid, where I planned to stay the night in preparation for my visit to Chichen Itza (site 14.5) the following morning.
Thursday 1st April
The first bus to Chichen Itza left at 7 and by 8.15 I had paid my entrance fee and entered the ruins complex, dominated by the magnificent Castillo in the centre of a large cleared area. The site was relatively quiet early on so I took advantage of this by exploring some areas of dry forest that skirt the outside of the main area of ruins. Many of the birds were similar to those found at Felipe Carillo Puerto, with confiding Turquoise-browed Motmots putting on a particularly good show. In one area there was another profusion of flowering trees, this time attracting a range of migrants including a pair of smart Yellow-throated Warblers, plus Northern Parula, more Magnolia Warblers, a Tennessee Warbler and even the striking Prothonotary Warbler. Other migrants in the area included a surprise Ruby-throated Hummingbird, several Indigo Buntings in various plumages, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
I ventured a little further afield onto a dusty track that seemed to lead away from the ruins into some quieter but less dense area of forest. Highlights here included my first Orange Orioles, whilst a party of Yucatan Jays passed noisily by, the yellow-billed juveniles looking particularly striking. Back at the ruins, several male Hooded Warblers hopped about at the forest edge, several Northern Rough-winged Swallows of the ridgwayi race hawked around the upper levels of the Castillo, and a single Cave Swallow circled over the 'Cenote', a sink hole off the main plaza. By this time the ruins were packed with tourists but were nevertheless a very impressive sight, particularly when viewed from the Castillo itself. The Ball Court, the Observatory and several of the temples were particularly interesting. After some lunch I walked again around some of the other areas but birds were increasingly scarce, and at 3.30 I boarded a bus to Merida, capital of the Yucatan, where I checked into the very friendly and reasonably priced Casa Becil.
Friday 2nd April
My hotel was quite near the Auto Progreso bus terminal for buses heading north from Merida to the town of Progreso (site 14.6) on the north coast of the peninsula, where remnant patches of scrub are home to three of the most localised endemics of the Yucatan. The first bus left at 5am, and by 6 I was in a colectivo waiting to reach the nearby village of Chicxulub, a few kilometres to the east. Once there, it took me some time to locate the right road out of the town, and it was gone 7.15 by the time I had flagged down another colectivo that was heading east towards Dzilam de Bravo. I got the driver to drop me off at a large concrete archway with a sign saying Josefina, as listed in Hornbuckle, where a sandy track heads down towards the sea with a wall on the left side, towards a housing development. Once I had found this spot, the three endemics fell within ten minutes. I walked to the end of the short track and then into the scrub itself. A female Mexican Sheartail buzzed in and perched on a low bush, followed over the next hour by three or four more, including a full male. Some gravelly chatter led me to a small group of Yucatan Wrens, and a little tramping around in the scrub saw me quickly locate a pair of Black-throated (Yucatan) Bobwhites that showed briefly on the ground and then flushed on a few further occasions. A scan out to sea yielded Magnificent Frigatebird, Reddish Egret, Caspian, Royal, Least and Sandwich Terns and Brown Pelican, whilst a small group of waders on the beach included Willet, Grey (Black-bellied) Plover and Ruddy Turnstone.
I jumped into another colectivo and decided to explore a little further to the east, trying to find the lagoons mentioned in Howell. What Howell doesn't mention (as it was built after the book was published) is the excellent observation tower that has been built along here about 8-10kms (?) from Chicxulub. Entry is free and there are binoculars for hire, and there were colour plates of some of the birds to look out for from the tower. Amongst the new birds for the trip found here were Tricolored Heron, a couple of squadrons of American White Pelican, a hundred or more American Flamingos,Belted Kingfisher, and in the mangroves at the base of the tower, the red-headed race of the Yellow Warbler, sometimes split as Mangrove Warbler. The only bird I was missing was Zenaida Dove, but I decided to forgo that one and bussed back towards Merida, pausing for a 2-3 hour stop at the ruins of Dzibilchaltun. It was hot and few birds were in evidence, although Orange Orioles were more common here than anywhere else, and Yucatan Woodpecker and Yucatan Flycatcher were again in evidence. I crossed the highway and flagged down a bus back to Merida, arriving at about 4.30 for a quiet afternoon and evening.
Saturday 3rd April
Not much birding today, as my flight left for Oaxaca at 10. So, a lie in and some breakfast preceded my departure to the airport, and after brief stops at Villahermosa and Tuxtla Gutierrez, I touched down in Oaxaca. I had booked a four door car through Budget but as it was the representative was in town not at the airport and he only had a two door available despite the booking. Having arranged to switch to a bigger car the next day, I set about finding my way to the Hotel Vallarta in the centre. After several aborted attempts at getting on the right road I was there, and having checked in, decided to recce Monte Alban (site 11.1), some ruins close to the city which we had pencilled in as our destination for the following morning. It was getting quite dark but I did manage to notch up three local specialities: Dusky Hummingbird, the ubiquitous White-throated Towhee and the smart Blue Mockingbird. I then made my way down the hill to the airport for my rendezvous first with Stephen Lowe at 7.30 and then with Mike Catsis at 10 or so.
Sunday 4th April
We had decided on a change of plan the previous evening, and pre-dawn saw us heading out towards the weaving town of Teotitlan del Valle (site 11.2). Note that this turn off is not signposted coming from Oaxaca, and it we missed it a couple of times in the dark before it got light enough to spot the huge cloth banner announcing the turn off which was a little way along the road to the left coming from Oaxaca. Once on this track it is difficult to get lost and we continued through the town up to the reservoir just above the town. It was quite an overcast morning and activity was quite low early on. Blue-winged Teals and Least Grebes floated on the water and a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers appeared in a nearby bush, but in there was to be much more of interest higher up. On these lower slopes thorny scrub, dry woodland and scattered tall cacti provide an interesting range of species including many of the Oaxaca valley specialities, whilst higher still the switchbacks enter taller, oak-dominated woodland with an avifauna reminiscent of the mountains of south-east Arizona. With time at a premium, we shunned Bridled Titmice, Painted Redstarts and Elegant Trogons and set about exploring the lower slopes in search of more restricted species.
Before the morning had brightened up much, we had added a pair of Audubon's Orioles, some Western Scrub Jays, Nutting's Flycatcher, Rufous-capped Warbler and a migrant Chipping Sparrow, although some vocal West Mexican Chachalacas remained out of sight beyond a ridge. We focused our energies over the next hour or so on a nice valley with good views onto cacti and of tops of bushes. This proved an excellent strategy, and we came away with great views of a selection of good birds, including Boucard's Wren, the smart Bridled Sparrow, a pair of stunning Black-vented Orioles, a family party of Grey Silkys, a Bushtit of the black eared race, a pair of the uncommon Thick-billed Kingbird and best of all, two or three Ocellated Thrashers, one of which perched in the open singing for about half an hour! This area yielded a different cast of migrants from the Yucatan, and we had soon added Orange-crowned, Virginia's and Black-throated Grey Warblers plus Dusky and Grey Flycatchers, Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks and several Violet-green Swallows.
Back down at the reservoir, we found some pinkish American Pipits sharing the exposed mud with Spotted and Least Sandpipers, and a bonus find was a Grey-breasted Woodpecker which we had in some secondary growth next to the concrete basketball/football court on the edge of town. We recorded two or three more of these regional endemics at our next destination, the Yagul ruins (site 11.3), further to the east along Route 190. The sun was hot by the time we arrived, although we did find a small number of Beautiful Hummingbirds amongst the cacti flowers, as well as Rock and Canyon Wrens around the ruins and a noisy Northern Raven overhead.
We returned to Oaxaca to exchange the car for the promised four door, and while we were waiting, added Nashville Warbler and the attractive Rufous-backed Thrush in the airport car park. After a late lunch we headed north on Route 175 (site 11.4) towards the end of the Oaxaca valley. Where the road begins to climb into arid foothills, we pulled over into the lay-by containing a large dilapidated water tank, or the Black Tank as it is known. Some exploring of the hillsides above here was disappointing, yielding nothing more than a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and we found birding more productive along the riverine vegetation across the road that could be accessed via a small path down towards the stream. Here we had excellent views of a pair of Oaxaca Sparrows, and after a couple of encounters with the diminutive Dwarf Vireo, I managed to pull one out for Mike and Stephen to admire at close quarters. The taller trees along the stream held Greater Pewee, Western Tanager and Townsend's Warbler plus a number of species we had already encountered, and it was not until 7.15 that we put our bins away and made our way back to the hotel.
Monday 5th April
First light saw us back at the Black Tank area, and we parked at a little open area on the right hand side, about a kilometre beyond where we had been yesterday. Birding along the stream here early on gave us Warbling Vireo, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush and MacGillivray's Warbler, and by following a little path across the stream that led back towards Oaxaca we soon found ourselves in a nice little patch of scrub. I played the tape of Slaty Vireo, one of our few remaining targets, and almost immediately an adult of this stunning little bird with subtle slate grey and green plumage and a white eye, came out to investigate us at close quarters. More Oaxaca Sparrows fed quietly on the track ahead of us, and a male Elegant (Blue-hooded) Euphonia perched in a tree. Our final target for the morning, the uncommon Pileated Flycatcher soon appeared in response to playback in a little vegetated gully and raised its crest in an agitated fashion. Delighted by our success, we continued up to the pass and took the turn off to our next birding site, Cerro San Felipe (site 11.5), also known as La Cumbre. It was 10am before we started birding and activity was low, but we did manage to catch up with a number of good birds over the next few hours, although the real specialities were largely to elude us. Early on we found a small party of Crescent-chested Warblers, a displaying Brown-backed Solitaire, Cordilleran and Pine Flycatchers, some migrant Scott's and Bullock's Orioles and then another small flock with Hermit Warblers and the stunning little Red Warbler, whilst Yellow-eyed Juncos regularly flushed from the road flashing their white outer tail feathers and reminding us of Inca Finches in Peru.
Three kilometres from the main road we turned parked at the entrance to the track where many birders do much of their birding in this area. Walking through the open pine forest here revealed more flocks which contained Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hutton's Vireo, Brown Creeper, Slate-throated Whitestart and the attractive Golden-browed Warbler. With a little effort we got good views of a pair of skulking Rufous-capped Brush-Finches and a more confiding Collared Towhee, and a male Mountain Trogon showed well to one or two of us. Some squeaks and snarls alerted us to the presence of a large party of Grey-barred Wrens moving together with some Steller's Jays, but despite trying to stay with them as long as possible as they disappeared upslope, we could not find any Dwarf Jays amongst them. Returning to the road the early afternoon sun and a light breeze was keeping activity low, although a Plumbeous Vireo in a flock and a shy Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush did find their way onto the lists before we returned to the car.
Back at the entrance, we paid up our now formalised - pesos fee, feeling slightly annoyed that birders were charged over twice what regular visitors had to pay, and then after having some lunch had to decide what to do about our car, that was emitting a strong smell of burning from around the front right wheel. Some locals suggested that it was overheating and that we would have to return to Oaxaca but the engine seemed fine so we decided to continue on towards far-off Valle Nacional, planning to stop somewhere along the way to have it looked at. There was little time for birding for the rest of the day as we descended into a dry valley, identifying the brakes as the cause of our problems on doing so, and making a half hour stop in Gueletao for some mechanics to declare the brake pads fine but sorting out the wheel alignment for a relatively modest fee. Climbing up and over the Sierra de Juarez we made the long descent to the town of Valle Nacional (site 11.7) at km 40 along Route 175. With a limited choice of all pretty basic accommodation, we opted for the reasonably central Hostal Valle and after some dinner and stocking up on supplies we turned in quite early.
Tuesday 6th April
An early start saw us climbing back up the Sierra de Juarez, to our first stop at the small village of La Esperanza, located in the cloud forest zone at about km 80, where we perceived the greatest number of specialities to be. Just after dawn a Bat Falcon hunted around us and a Pheasant Cuckoo called close to the road but would not show itself. Walking along the road here in somewhat disturbed habitat back towards Valle for a couple of kilometres proved a reasonable tactic and soon gave us Emerald Toucanet, Scaly-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, White-naped Brush-Finch, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer, Black-cowled Oriole, a pair of Unicolored Jays and quite good numbers of the tiny and endearing Bumblebee Hummingbird, whose incredibly high pitched display call was to become a feature of the next few days at various altitudes. We birder for a while in an open area with some taller trees at its edge and a little trail down into a forest patch a few hundred metres down the road from La Esperanza on the left side going towards Valle Nacional. In this area were Sulphur-bellied and Olive-sided Flycatchers, Yellow-winged and Flame-coloured Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Elegant Euphonia, the ubiquitous Common Bush-Tanager and a Collared Trogon.
We climbed higher into the pine-oak zone and spent a couple of hours walking a track through the open woods which began as a steep bend down to the left coming up the hill at about km 102-3. In an area cleared for electricity pylons a flowering bank gave us our first White-eared Hummingbirds, whilst two large birds flushed from a tall pine beside the track were almost certainly Crested Guans. Continuing down the track under deep blue skies, we also added Black Robin, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, more Brown-backed Solitaires and a female Olive Warbler in a flock of pine-dwelling warblers, but bird of the morning was undoubtedly the stunning male Garnet-throated Hummingbird that we first gained brief views of as it fed beside the track flashing its prominent rufous wings, and then found perched cooperatively close to us for extended views of its gaudy colour scheme. Our lunch back at the beginning of the track was interrupted by a male Mountain Trogon, and a group of men from the local community, who were soon convinced of our non-hostile intentions and went on their way.
We spent the afternoon working our way back down towards Valle Nacional. The distinctive song of the Slate-coloured Solitaire is another common feature of the cloud forest zone, but gaining good views of the bird perched proved difficult for one or two of us; much more difficult than seeing its close congener, Brown-backed, at higher elevations. The last couple of hours of daylight were spent in the subtropical and upper tropical zones close to Valle. We spent some time trying to get views of both a Mexican Antthrush and Rufous-breasted Spinetail, but the latter in particular was surprisingly elusive and we frustratingly laid eyes on neither species with dusk closing in. We did find some of the commoner species at this lower altitude, including Keel-billed Toucan, Brown Jay and Golden-fronted Woodpecker, but in general we did poorly in this zone due to not having enough time to work it fully eg missing both Oropendolas.
Wednesday 7th April
We returned to La Esperanza at first light in search of a few of the species that we still needed. Success early on came in the form of a small party of Azure-hooded Jays just before the village, and a little further on a flighty pair of Blue-crowned Chlorophonias that not everyone managed to get on to. We again worked the open area with flowers where several Bumblebee Hummingbirds were displaying and an Azure-crowned Hummingbird was admired perched up, but there was no sign of any Emerald-chinned Hummingbirds and that was one we would miss. Spot-breasted Wrens and a Grey-breasted Wood Wren showed in the understorey, we had good views of a skulky Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner in response to playback, and a small group of White-crowned Parrots flew over, but all too soon it was time to head back towards Oaxaca.
A brief stop at the Mirador at the pass gave us nothing more of interest, so we decided to get some kilometres under our belts. We stopped again in Gueletao, this time for some trucha for lunch, and by 3pm or so we had paid our entrance fee again for entrance to Cerro San Felipe and parked up at the entrance to the track off to the left at km 3. We flushed a Northern Flicker and then had extended views of a Russet Nightingale-Thrush hopping cooperatively on the trail in front of us. But there was one bird really that we were here to find, and our efforts were finally rewarded when we encountered another family group of Grey-barred Wrens, this time accompanied by about five sleek Dwarf Jays, who came quite close in response to play back and showed off their pastel blue throats. With the main target under the belts, we spent the last hour or two of daylight in search of two rather more difficult species, Aztec Thrush and Long-tailed Wood-Partridge. We drove further along the track, following Howell's directions towards Corral de Piedras. We found some nice flocks in the area containing a range of species we had largely seen before, although we did add Mexican Chickadee, and after playback gained nice looks at a fierce-looking Mountain Pygmy-Owl, but the only thrushes we were seeing were American Robins. With dusk falling we called it a day and returned to the Hotel Vallarta in Oaxaca for a final dinner with Stephen before his departure the following day.
Thursday 8th April
The first few hours of the morning were spent at Monte Alban. There is a gate across the road a kilometre or so before the ruins which does not open until 8am, so we left the car parked and continued up to the ruins car park on foot. In the couple of hours we had, we found a surprise Golden Vireo in a tree near Tomb 7, and then undertook a brief exploration of the scrubby slopes which was generally disappointing until I spotted a Lesser Roadrunner sunning itself quietly in the top of a bush. Hermit Thrush, Dusky Flycatcher and another Boucard's Wren were also in the area, and we rounded off our visit with a nice pair of Blue Grosbeaks back near the car in a stubble field.
Back in Oaxaca, we eventually found Bud and Margaret outside and once Stephen had left for his flight to Miami, we packed the car up and headed off on the long drive towards the Pacific slope. Aside from a few stops for water and supplies, we drove more or less directly to El Porvenir (mentioned in site 11.9), a logging track at km 159 on Route 175 south from Oaxaca. This is a well-documented site for the rare White-throated Jay, and we spent two or three hours in search of this attractive endemic. Reading old reports, the success rate of birders appears to be about 50-50, and we were to fall frustratingly into the dip category here. Nevertheless, Bud and Margaret were keen to get stuck into some birding after a siesta during the long drive from Oaxaca, and we did pick up a few interesting species in the area. A confiding Tufted Flycatcher, a bird we had surprisingly missed in the highlands, heralded our arrival, and we also found Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, and a small flock of Black-headed Siskins. We made our way further down the hill in the late afternoon, passing through some areas of forest which we identified as places to return to the following day, before starting to look for a place to stay. Several tour companies stay in Puerto Angel and Howell also mentions the town of Pochutla, also down near the coast. However, staying in either of these would make it a long old haul back up the hill the next day, so instead we opted for some budget but adequate accommodation in a small town signposted as Cantelaria, at about km 205. There was an acceptable restaurant next door and another couple in the village itself, about 20kms beyond La Soledad. Already here there were White-throated Magpie-Jays, a common but flashy species of the Pacific slope, but our minds were already more on a cold beer and an early night after a long day.
Friday 9th April
We made our way back up the slope for dawn and parked in the little lay-by described by Howell, a few hundred yards from La Soledad (site 11.9) on the road back towards Oaxaca. For the first hour or so of daylight we worked the highway itself, where Berylline Hummingbird, White-throated Thrush, Happy Wren and our only Grace's Warbler of the trip were added to the list. Once again the haunting whistle of a Pheasant Cuckoo led us into the undergrowth, but this time our quest for this elusive species was successful and we had good views of this much sought-after bird as it sang away from an exposed perch, its huge tail hanging down behind it. Some tape playback then lured out another of our targets in this area, the endemic Grey-crowned Woodpecker, whilst a Long-tailed Hermit of the sometimes split race mexicanus flashed by.
We ignored (sensibly or otherwise) the sign at the start of Howell's trail down into a forested valley warning us against trespassing, and spent the next couple of hours along this very productive little track. In an area of flowering Heliconias near the start of the trail we were soon watching perhaps the most important speciality of this area, the restricted-range Blue-capped Hummingbird, as it first fed at the flowers and then perched in the open nearby. Note that the bird is much darker than depicted by Webb, and that the white in the tail is not visible when the bird is perched. Other good birds along the trail were a couple of Red-headed Tanagers, more Golden Vireos, Golden-crowned Warbler and a surprise Fan-tailed Warbler and migrants such as Swainson's Thrush, a stunning Painted Bunting, Cassin's Vireo and Hepatic Tanager, in addition to some other species we had already come across. On our return to the car some deep grunts led us to a pair of the newly-split and therefore localised endemic Wagler's Toucanet perched high in a pine at the side of the road.
The rest of the morning was spent working our way down towards the coast. We made extended stops in the shade coffee plantations above and around the Mirador restaurant, where the tape of the Colima Pygmy-Owl brought in a flurry of small passerines, but nothing really new and unfortunately neither the owl nor one of our other targets, the cinnamon-sided race of Green-fronted Hummingbird - the latter perhaps due to the disappointing lack of flowering Ingas. In the heat of the day we made a stop in the thorn scrub shortly after the junction with Route 200, adding another endemic in the form of Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, as well as some other species typical of the dry west slope, including White-lored Gnatcatcher, Rufous-naped Wren, Streak-backed Oriole, the long-crested race of Northern Cardinal, and the regional endemic race of Broad-billed Hummingbird, split by some authors as Doubleday's Hummingbird, but no Red-breasted Chat.
A quick visit to the coast at Puerto Angel produced Franklin's Gull, Brown Booby, some fly-over Yellow-winged Caciques and extended scope views of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, but not Red-billed Tropicbird as time was short and we couldn't find the right track to the observation point for the stack at the far end of the beach. Instead we returned to Route 200 and tried to make rapid progress towards our next destination, Tehuantepec, some 200 kms to the east. We arrived in the area an hour or so before dark, and spent a frustrated half hour trying to find some decent scrub habitat without success, adding only some migrating Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and several Lesser Nighthawks as dusk enveloped us. When we arrived in Tehuantepec, it being Good Friday, the town was packed and it was some time before we located a rather pokey hotel off the main plaza with some rooms available. With restaurants also largely closed, we enjoyed a tasty meal of tacos in the plaza, and the horrendous vocals emanating from the microphone of a local 'singer' near our hotel mercifully piped down shortly after 10, allowing us a reasonable night's sleep.
Saturday 10th April
First light this morning saw us parked up at km 244 on Route 190 back towards Oaxaca, and exploring the thorn scrub some eight kilometres out of Tehuantepec (site 11.13). Birds were pretty inconspicuous and inactive early on, so we focused our energies on gaining good views of some vocal West Mexican Chachalacas, although they remained remarkably elusive and we only had some flight views as they disappeared into the thick brush. We had brief glimpses of one of the key species at this site, Cinnamon-tailed (Sumichrast's) Sparrow, and had to wait a couple of hours before enjoying good looks at this well-marked and very localised species. Another of the star birds of the area, the impossibly gaudy Orange-breasted Bunting was rather more cooperative and we had good looks at a number of individuals. Lesser Ground Cuckoos called on and off but remained elusive and invisible, although a Lesser Roadrunner was more obliging. Other species added were a responsive Citreoline Trogon and couple of Banded Wrens.
As the sun heated up it was time to continue on towards Arriaga, but not without the obligatory stop at the Tapanatepec foothills (site 11.15). It was midday and activity was low, but after exploring a couple of little quebradas we found a couple of Stripe-headed Sparrows, and then a little flurry of activity stirred up by our pygmy-owl tape brought into view first a female and then a full male Rosita's Bunting, which became my 4000th species. A little further on we found some noisy, perched Aratingas but they were too difficult to pin down to species (Green/Pacific) so we left them unidentified.
Down again on the coastal plain, we sped towards Arriaga, stopping briefly to admire good numbers of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Black-necked Stilts on a roadside pond. We crossed into Chiapas and headed straight for Puerto Arista (site 12.3) to track down some accommodation. But, being the penultimate day of Semana Santa, the seaside resort had greatly inflated its prices, and indeed the few beds available were up to 1000 pesos (nearly $100 US) a go. So we headed out of town and did some birding, in amongst the traffic, along the road through Cabeza del Toro towards Boca del Cielo, to the east of Puerto Arista. Places to pull off were at something of a premium, and the habitat was largely converted to fields and orchards, but some hedgerows and large flowering trees did yield a reasonable range of species. Foremost amongst these was the uncommon Spot-breasted Oriole which we found alongside many Streak-backed and Altamira Orioles, but other species of interest included Yellow-breasted Chat, Orange-fronted Parakeet, a couple of Western Kingbirds, a Wood Stork that flew over and a pair of responsive Rufous-naped Wrens of the large Chiapas race that posed as its more sought-after cousin the Giant Wren until we got good looks at their barred wings and all white underparts. We eventually back-tracked to the town of Tonala where we found an adequate hotel and headed out for some dinner.
Sunday 11th April
We returned to the area around the Boca del Cielo junction at dawn, and soon afterwards we had caught up with our principal target in the area, the imposing and endemic Giant Wren. Several pairs were found, including one pair nest building in a low acacia in a meadow on the northwest corner of the junction. We bumped into another group of birders led by Dave Pitman, and showed them the wrens before spending some time trying to track down some calling White-bellied Chachalacas, eventually succeeding with two birds showing briefly at the top of a tree in an area back inland over the river towards Tonala. Whilst looking for the chachalacas, a couple of flocks of Pacific Parakeets flashed by, some tame Russet-crowned Motmots showed off in someone's yard and a group of Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters fed in some grass. With the targets under the belt, we spent some time exploring the lagoons and mangrove areas, adding Mangrove Swallow, Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis and Royal Tern, before continuing towards the state capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutierrez.
Another stop in the foothills near Arriaga (site 12.2) yielded more excellent looks at a male Rosita's Bunting, plus our first Yellow-green Vireos and a brief Green-fronted Hummingbird alongside more Canivet's Emeralds. Tuxtla is a large and modern city, and we checked in at the respectable Hotel San Antonio, a couple of blocks away from the main road running through the city. After a siesta, we headed out towards El Sumidero (site 12.1), which proved relatively easy to find using our map of the city, and much closer to Tuxtla than we had anticipated. We arrived at the entrance gate at km 5 at about 5.20 to find that the gate closed at 5, but given that we were coming in the following day, they allowed us in on foot, and we birded the thorn scrub that is found at lower altitudes here. There was not a lot about in terms of bird life but we did find a small party of Plain Chachalacas, an attractive male Varied Bunting, another Russet-crowned Motmot and a Nutting's Flycatcher, whilst Bud was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Lesser Ground Cuckoo in the understorey from a small overlook, but it had disappeared before anyone else could get on it.
Monday 12th April
We entered the park gates about an hour before dawn, which allowed us excellent studies of a Buff-collared Nightjar that was sitting by the side of the road at about km 10. Our first stop was in an open area of grassland at km 14, where we ate some breakfast and then went out in search of some of the scrub birds of the area, walking back along the road in the direction of Tuxtla. A pair of Rusty Sparrows foraged near the ground and we also added Yellow Grosbeak and Plain-capped Starthroat to the list, whilst Bud saw another Green-fronted Hummingbird. A little further down we heard Thicket Tinamou, found more Black-vented Orioles and a probable female Bar-winged Oriole, and found another Berylline Hummingbird, but the star bird of the day, and one of the most memorable encounters of the trip, was the stunning and very confiding male Red-breasted Chat that appeared in response to tape and showed off beautifully.
We followed the good paved road up towards the canyon rim, stopping first at the second mirador (the first being in the thorn scrub zone at km 7) which yielded little in the way of bird activity, and real access to the forest. Not so the third mirador, at km 21or so, called El Roblaro. Here, a little parking lot on the right side is adjacent to some steps down into a little patch of semi-humid forest, accessed along a stone trail which leads through these woods to one of the canyon overlooks. It was in this area that we were to find a number of the special birds of the park. Singing Quail were calling quite close to in the dense brush a little way down the slope but could not be drawn any closer, but a pair of Blue-and-white Mockingbirds and another Fan-tailed Warbler were more obliging. Another candidate for bird of the day came in the form of a responsive pair of the attractive regional endemic Belted Flycatcher, that were found in a patch of bamboo a little way before the descent to the mirador. We then went for a coffee at the mirador at the end of the road, with spectacular views of the canton on two sides, but no Great Swallow-tailed Swifts.
We then worked our way back towards Tuxtla for lunch and a siesta, via some more 'Ridgway's' Rough-winged Swallows and a female Blue Seedeater in a patch of bamboo. The first part of the afternoon birding session was spent first of all in pursuit of another endemic, the often elusive Flammulated Flycatcher. Following Howell's directions, we pulled over at the bend at km 11, and followed a little trail up through an area of thorn forest with quite a lot of bamboo, playing the tape. Very shortly we were enjoying excellent views of this subtly attractive Myiarchus look-alike as it perched up in the open. We then spent some minutes trying to track down a mystery call, which turned out to be a male Blue Bunting. Another stop at the open grassy area at km 14 gave us Grey-crowned Yellowthroat but no Botteri's Sparrow, whilst a small flock a little further up yielded our first Red-throated Ant-Tanager. The final hour or so of daylight found us at the first mirador at km 7, where we undertook another unsuccessful vigil for Great Swallow-tailed Swift before returning to Tuxtla for another excellent dinner at El Fogon Norteño on the main street.
Tuesday 13th April
Another morning had been set aside for Sumidero, and there were still plenty of specialities to catch up with. However, as soon as we pulled in at km 14, via another pre-dawn Buff-collared Nightjar, it became clear that there would be little activity as low cloud and a persistent drizzle that became heavier showers had us running for cover in the car. Up at our favoured spot from yesterday, things were little better, and after a frustrating and largely birdless couple of hours we beat a retreat down the hill to Tuxtla and decided on an early departure to the east towards our final major destination, San Cristobal de las Casas (site 12.8).
The drive to this attractive little city, reminiscent of an Andean town, took a couple of hours, via brief stops which gave us more Black-headed Siskins and Lesser Goldfinch. After checking into the clean and pleasant Casa Margarita, we headed out under clearing but still a little overcast skies towards the pine-oak forest site at km2 along the Ocosingo road. Birding was still slow, and we found virtually none of the area's specialities, with the exception of the common Rufous-collared Thrush. We did add however some new species for the trip list in the form of Blue-headed Vireo, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and Band-backed Wren. Having seen the latter in hot, humid second growth in the Choco lowlands of Ecuador, it was strange to see them at this altitude exploring epiphyte-laden branches and arboreal bromeliads, here in the incongruous company of Yellow-backed Orioles, another species which has quite different habitat preferences in other parts of its range. Large flocks of migrant warblers did the rounds in the pines, but despite considerable searching we could not pick out a Golden-cheeked amongst the myriad, and superficially similar Townsend's, Hermit and Black-throated Green Warblers, and I suspect they may have largely left the area by April, despite the odd report which does mention them for this time of year. A male Mountain Trogon was a nice way to round off the day but we returned to San Cristobal a little twitchy about the absence of one or two of the area's star birds from our lists.
Wednesday 14th April
Shortly after first light we were back at km 2 on the Ocosingo road, and decided to focus our efforts early on in the large clearing at the top of a small slope up to the left just after the entrance. Here, we reckoned, we might catch the first flush of activity as the sun hit the tops of the pines. This proved an excellent tactic, and within fifteen minutes, shouts of 'I've got one' from Bud soon saw us admiring a pair of the much sought-after Pink-headed Warbler, a rare bird these days in Chiapas, and one of our most wanted in this area. Continuing further into the forest we added Magnificent Hummingbird, Pine Siskin, a responsive Rufous-browed Wren and then in a large warbler and vireo flock we located a couple of Red-faced Warblers. We then returned to the car and worked our way a little further along the Ocosingo road, through some cleared areas which held several Eastern Bluebirds, and turned off onto a track towards Chanal as described in Howell. We explored some different, more deciduous habitat along here, as well as some grassy meadows with thistles for Black-capped Siskin, but in general it was a quiet morning and we added nothing new.
After lunch we made a visit to the Cerro Huitepec reserve, only to find that the reserve's opening hours are a ridiculous 9am to 3pm. Whilst hatching a plan of what to do we admired some Black-capped Swallows hawking over a nearby sand bank and then gained access to the reserve through a side gate, having paid two local boys claiming to be sons of the wardens, the modest 15 pesos per person entrance fee. It was a very disappointing afternoon and at times the forest, which was very dry, seemed utterly birdless. Only some migrant warblers (although again no Golden-cheeked) were of any interest at all, and we retreated to San Cristobal earlier than planned for dinner.
Thursday 15th April
Although the reserve at Cerro Huitepec does not open until 9, special arrangements can be arranged with the wardens to go in early to look for owls and other birds, for a considerably heftier fee than entry within normal opening hours (about 100 pesos per person). However, chastened by the lack of birds the previous afternoon, and tired at the end of the trip, the thought of a 3.30am owling session on the off chance of getting one or two extra species at best was quickly discarded, and instead plans were forged to drive up the other slope of Cerro Huitepec towards the microwave towers, which we eventually located. Although the habitat here was a little more open, there were plenty of birds around, including the Guatemalan race of Northern Flicker, Acorn Woodpecker, a large flowering tree which contained two or three surprise male Bar-winged Orioles, plus many Baltimore Orioles, taking my tally of Icterus to 15 for the trip, plus other interesting, but not new species, such as Garnet-throated and Amethyst-throated Hummingbirds, White-naped Brush-Finch and Blue-and-white Mockingbird.
Shortly after 9 we had another go at some of the specialities in the Huitepec reserve. It was late, however, and activity was again rather disappointing. A few Steller's Jays caused momentary excitement but could not be turned into Black-throated Jays, and there was no sign at all of any Blue-throated Motmots which apparently call only at dawn at shortly after and become very elusive thereafter. Still no Golden-cheeked Warblers either, but some reward did arrive in the form of a vagrant male Black-throated Blue-Warbler, a rarity in the Chiapas highlands. We left the Huitepec reserve, and indeed the San Cristobal area in general quite disappointed with the birding overall and resolved to make the hike to El Triunfo next time to pick up some of the specialities we had missed a little more easily. Late morning saw us on our way back to Tuxtla, via a couple of brief stops that yielded one or two common species, and then an afternoon visit to Sumidero again saw us draw a blank. We returned to the hotel and ventured out to a great restaurant called Las Pichanchas, just over the road from El Fogon Norteño for a celebratory final night meal. It turned out to be a great evening, as we enjoyed multiple 'pumpos', the speciality cocktail of the house served in a large gourd, whose arrival from the kitchens was heralded by all the waiters who rallied to the cry of '¡sale el pumpo!' (here comes the pumpo). Great stuff. I then spotted that Luis Hernandez, Mexico's star striker of the 1998 World Cup, was sitting on the next door table, so I engaged him in a bit of banter and did the touristy thing and had a couple of photos taken of me standing next to him for posterity.
Friday 16th April
We had a few hours to kill so we resolved to make a final visit to El Sumidero in search of a few specialities we still had a chance of getting, and in the hope of helping Mike find the five or so species he needed to get to 200 lifers for the two weeks. This time we went straight to the mirador at km 21, and spent some time watching birds come to an antswarm in the small forest patch over the wall from the car park. These included Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Ovenbird, Blue-and-white Mockingbird and one or two others, whilst a walk along the trail towards the mirador also gave us Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Plain Wren, another Blue Seedeater and Northern Bentbill, taking Mike to his target with just an hour or so to spare. However, we were not finished yet. I was returning to the car when I heard the distinctive whistle of a Highland Guan, seemingly not too far away on the other side of the road. When the bird appeared in the top of a tree less than fifty metres away, I called frantically to the others and there was a slight panic until it reappeared and treated us all to its fascinating wing-whirring display flight, before perching again at eye level on our side of the road, showing off its sleek black plumage and red wattle and legs - a great way to round off the trip. We headed once more for the final mirador where we watched the gorge for a while over a late and leisurely breakfast, and a male Bar-winged Oriole came into a small tree just below us. By 11 it was time to return to Tuxtla for Bud and Margaret's long drive back to Oaxaca and, for Mike and I, our flights from Tuxtla to Mexico City and then on to London.