Returning to the west coast of Sonora for some mid-winter r&r has become an annual tradition. The combination of scenic bays, mangrove lined estuaries, desert arroyos and native palm slot canyons is hard to beat from a recreation and birding point of view.
The ocean regulars are always entertaining. Pacific and Common Loons feed close to shore, Blue-footed Boobies do their perfectly vertical, kamikaze dives, Brown Pelicans effortlessly skim the waves even flying into the wind, and prehistoric-looking Magnificent Frigatebirds hang high overhead, watching the terns and gulls every move, waiting for the right time to harass and plunder.
The nearby estuary hums with life forms of all kinds, not the least of which are the winged kind. American Oystercatchers with their blazing red-orange bills wait for the tide to expose their rocky feeding areas. Reddish Egrets run willy-nilly in their quest to stir up small fish. Long-billed Curlews, masters of the Western short grass prairies in the summer, switch to probing down crab holes in their winter haunts. Great Kiskadees loudly forage in the mangroves. Ospreys scan the shallows for their next meal and, when successful, retire to a nearby cactus spire to dine.
The desert birding is surprisingly diverse, especially in winter with various western US songbirds taking advantage of the frost-free conditions. Gray Vireo, Green-tailed Towhee, Cassin's, Grasshopper, and Brewer's Sparrows are among the species that find this southern portion of the Sonoran desert to their liking. Mixed in are permanent residents such as Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Bendire's Thrasher, Gilded Flicker, and Rufous-winged Sparrow. The vocalizations and antics of the local Cactus Wrens are the signature of this habitat.
The volcanic coastal mountain ranges hold astonishing pools of water in their deeply incised canyons. Canyon Wrens reverberate the walls with their iconic songs, White-throated Swifts scour the heights for insects, and Northern Cardinals blaze the surprisingly lush understory. Montane species from the distant Sierra Madre, such as Painted Redstart, escape winter's chill by finding refuge here.
I look forward to returning to these places with clients in two months, knowing I will be treated to new sights and sounds brought by the advance of spring.
Our 7th Copper Canyon trip happened a bit later (due to the Easter date). As a result we missed a few regular species that had already headed north but were treated to some migrants we usually don't get a chance to see. Case in point, our short trip offshore from San Carlos provided some first ever (for this trip) encounters. Following a large flock of Bonaparte's gulls, we started seeing the familiar wing pattern of Sabine's Gull. Three adults were mixed in the flock (a life bird for several clients and the local birder who was our boating host). A bit further out we steered toward a group of terns and gulls feeding actively. Soon we spotted almost a dozen Black-vented Shearwaters with several larger shearwaters mixed in which turned out to be Pink-footed. To cap a superb two hours of pelagic birding, we saw several fly by Least Storm Petrels and a lone Black Storm Petrel. Several close breaches by local rays were a highlight as well.
Continuing on to southern Sonora, we explored the tropical deciduous forest east and south of Alamos including the Reserva Monte Mojino managed by Nature and Culture International. Their effort to preserve tracts of uncut forest along the headwaters of the Rio Cuchujaqui is well worth supporting. Our birding highlights included Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrow, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Crane Hawk, and the best and most prolonged views of Lesser Roadrunner I have ever had. Night birding at El Pedregal Lodge produced Buff-throated Nightjar, Elf Owl, and great looks at Western Screech Owl.
Moving into northern Sinaloa, we reached El Fuerte in late afternoon, with enough light to bird from the balcony of Hotel Rio Vista, aka Hotel Oriole as we quickly saw Black-vented, Streak-backed, Hooded and Orchard. Morning had us westbound on the Copper Canyon train. The 4.5 hour ride takes one through the most spectacular scenery of the western Sierra Madre. Departing the train up in pine/oak habitat, we headed to the Hotel Paraiso del Oso outside Cerocahui. Late afternoon birding revealed some local regulars including White-striped Woodcreeper, Elegant Trogon, and Slate-throated Redstart. At night we had brief vocal contact with Whiskered Screech Owl but the bird would not venture closer.
We awoke to a steady downpour, unheard of in spring in this part of Mexico so we were grounded until early afternoon. When we did venture out, activity was good on Mesa de Arturo with Crescent-chested Warbler and Olive Warbler topping the list. Looking down into a cloud and mist filled Barranca de Urique was a first for me. Next day we retraced our steps over the mesa for our descent into Urique. Close looks at Mountain Trogon highlighted that part of the trip, while the descent itself turned up White-eared Hummingbird, Spotted Wren and several Thick-billed Parrot vocalizations. Unfortunately, we could not locate the birds. Once a mile lower in the town of Urique, we returned to subtropical habitat. We headed north on the Naranjo road and, at an arroyo crossing, were surprised by an adult Tropical Parula-first one I have seen in the state of Chihuahua. Nearby, a Five-striped Sparrow came in very close giving us a head on view that left no doubt as to how it got its name.
Our following morning venture took us south of Urique to Arroyo Hacienda. Immediately I could hear Military Macaws in the distance. We located a group across the valley feeding (often upside down) on fruit. What a show. For the next 20 minutes we enjoyed various numbers of macaws flying out over the valley and back to the original feeding area. 22 individuals in all. Maybe these spectacular birds can survive the omnipresence of humans after all. We started our hike and saw a small group of parrots fly over that turned out to be Lilac-crowned (another Chihuahua first for me). Two members of the group got to view 13 of these magnificent birds perched close up. Further up the canyon, the Brown-backed Solitaires were singing-one of the most memorable songs in the bird world. We then lucked out with close encounters with Golden Vireo-the 5th year in a row the birds have been in this location. Northernmost outpost for this species that I am aware of. Following lunch, we ascended out of the canyon, pausing at the mirador one last time to see the vast and grand view of the western end of the Copper Canyon.
Our last day in the high country was a survey of the Rio Cuiteco north of Bahuichivo. This lush canyon is one of my favorite birding spots in Chihuahua. We quickly found Hooded Grosbeak and the dazzling Flame-colored Tanager but had to effort to lure out Gray-collared Becard. Finally a feisty male zoomed in, followed by his very different looking mate. We were unable to find Gray-crowned Woodpecker (first miss in the last 4 trips) but did have nice views of Rufous-capped Brushfinch and Russet Nightingale Thrush. Warblers were on the move including numbers of Hermit and Townsend's headed to the Pacific Northwest. The afternoon return train ride to El Fuerte was as glorious as ever.
Before breakfast on our last full day of birding, we headed to a nearby park along the Rio Fuerte. White-collared Seedeaters have settled in here as they spread up the west coast of Mexico following land clearing. Grayish Saltator gave us good looks as well. As we returned to the hotel, we had to stop to let about a dozen Elegant Quail cross the road. Our boat float on the Rio Fuerte was delightful. On the far shore, a guamuchil bush was fruiting so we had close up looks at a wide variety of birds including Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, Northern Beardless Tyrranulet and Yellow Warbler. Nearby a newly returned Tropical Kingbird teed up for us. Further downriver, Felipe, our good natured guide, pointed out Red-billed Pigeon and Groove-billed Ani. Common Blackhawks and Ospreys are common here and certainly a treat to view up close. Just before our boat pull-out we managed to stir up a pair of Northern Jacanas and got to watch them dancing across the lily pads.
We then headed to the coast at Huatabampito. After lunch on the ocean (watching the Sanderlings play wave tag), we checked the nearby estuary. Tide was mid way out so we had great scoping from the dunes out on the mudflats. Both Black-bellied Plover and Ruddy Turnstone were in breeding plumage and Dunlin were in mid molt. Another first for the tour showed up as a pair of Least Terns came in and did some courtship moves for us. Gull-billed Tern was here as well. After checking the flats at Yavaros, with literally hundreds of Willet, Marbled Godwit, and Western Sandpiper, we blitzed north to San Carlos, getting to the beach wall behind our condo literally at sunset. Another memorable Mexico trip fittingly capped off!
Being quite blessed to spend time again in Sonora this winter, I somehow (!) managed to squeeze in some birding, much of it scouting related to my April 2015 southern Sonora, Copper Canyon tour.
Estero Soldado in San Carlos was our location for much of the trip. Being by the estuary was a delight as always with the daily movements of the various herons, egrets, gulls, terns, and shorebirds. Some wintering Brant in the estuary was a first for me and daily sightings of the local group of Roseate Spoonbills was a treat. Also new for me at this location (perhaps I wasn't listening closely enough in winters past) were several Gray Vireos wintering in the desert scrub habitat. The nearby Bahia San Francisco was entertaining as always, with the highlight being a feeding frenzy one day with various gulls, boobies, and a massive fleet of 80-100 Pacific Loons.
Later we visited the Navopatia Field Station near the Sinaloa border. The drive in to the station, through ag fields and desert thornscrub, gave us great views of several Peregrines and many Harris' Hawks, and a memorable dusk sighting of a Great Horned Owl teed on a pitahaya cactus. Songbird highlights along the entry road were Bendire's Thrasher and a flock of White-collared Seedeaters, a species continually spreading north as more land is cleared for agriculture. Agiabampo Estuary, where the field station is located, was being dredged in some sort of boondoggle project funded by the Sinaloa government. We were able to find large numbers of shorebirds in a nearby finger of the estuary including several flocks of Stilt Sandpipers that were a Sonora first for me. Although only mid January, the local desert species such as Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Costa's Hummingbird had already kicked in to breeding mode, especially the hummer doing its aerial breeding displays, all the while sounding like a dentist's drill!
Leaving the coast, we headed to the Alamos area and then on to Rancho El Guayabo, part of Nature and Culture International's 7 ranch complex in the foothills of the Sierra Madre east of town. The birding was great and the serenity even better. Birding highlights of two days there included a pair of Crane Hawks seen both mornings (apparently a breeder here), Common Blackhawks along the Rio Cuchujaqui, a wintering Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, a very vocal Linneated Woodpecker, and a distant calling Laughing Falcon. I also was fortunate to witness a coatimundi make a run (unsuccessful) on a group of Rufous-bellied Chachalacas-what a commotion as the group of 25 or so birds erupted out of the brush on the hillside. Other wintering Sierra Madre highland species included many Tufted Flycatchers, Painted Redstarts and their equally stunning cousins the Slate-throated.
After 3 weeks of fun and sun we reluctantly headed north to New Mexico and were promptly greeted with a snow storm. Oh well, maybe 4 weeks next winter in Mexico!