Our 6th Copper Canyon tour featured great lodges, stellar participants, and some mighty fine birding. Here are the highlights:
Day 1: We headed south from Nogales, AZ on our way to San Carlos. Our desert stop north of Hermosillo was quiet but we did manage good looks at Rufous-winged Sparrow and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Lunch on Estero Soldado in San Carlos was a refreshing break from our desert drive with numerous shorebirds, waders, gulls and terns. One never tires of seeing Roseate Spoonbills in breeding plumage. We pressed on to our night's stay at the lovely El Pedregal in Alamos.
Day 2: Off early to one of Nature and Culture International's ranches, El Guayabo, located east of Alamos along the upper reaches of the Rio Cuchujaqui. Our first looks at Elegant Trogon enroute let us know we had really arrived in the foothill forest of West Mexico. Highlights while at El Guayabo included an inquisitive pair of Squirrel Cuckoos, a territorial pair of Common Blackhawks, and a brief glimpse of a female Gray-collared Becard. On our return to Alamos, a roadrunner zoomed in front of us and obligingly paused in the thorn scrub long enough for us to determine it to be a Lesser. As we enjoyed this bird a Five-striped Sparrow came in for close views as well.
Day 3: Our morning was spent along Alamos Arroyo where we saw regulars such as White-fronted Parrot, Blue Mockingbird, and Red-billed Pigeon. One of my favorite aspects of birding in southern Sonora is seeing where some of our avian friends from the western US pass the cold weather months. Various warblers such as Black-throated Gray, Orange-crowned, and Nashville and vireos such as Plumbeous, Cassin's, and Warbling are all present. As the day heated up we drove to the south end of the Sierra de Alamos to the sprawling Rancho San Jose. This wild area seems to always have some noteworthy birds in store for us and this trip, spanning an afternoon and a morning, was no exception. Arroyos with water are where we head and our first stop, Arroyo Higuera, sheltered Rufous-capped Warbler and a surprisingly secretive group of Purplish-backed Jays. We hiked further to refind the jays and they finally came back in for close-up views. What a bird! At Arroyo Higuerita, we called in a spiffy pair of Linneated Woodpeckers (here at the northern edge of their range), heard a persistent but shy Colima Pygmy Owl, and my first Sonora encounter with Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrow.
Day 4: After our morning at Rancho San Jose, we headed to the coast and the Navopatia Field Station located on Estero Agiabampo. Here the pithaya cactus forest meets the mangrove forest on the edge of the estuary. We added some shorebirds that had been missed at San Carlos, such as Snowy and Wilson's Plovers, as well as Gull-billed and Royal Terns. At night we ventured into the cactus forest and were rewarded with lighted views of an Elf Owl at its nest hole in a pitahaya cactus. Certainly a trip highlight.
Day 5: On our way to the morning boat trip, we finally saw the Clapper Rails that had been clammering since pre-dawn. A short trip across to a nearby mangrove island did not produce the hoped for Mangrove Vireo but we had great looks at Northern Waterthrush and the mangrove subspecies of Yellow Warbler as well as many photo ops of various herons and egrets. We then departed for El Fuerte pausing at a nearby abandoned ranch where we found a beautiful adult male Orchard Oriole and a pair of first year male White-collared Seedeaters. As we neared El Fuerte, we checked the Dominguez reservoir and were surprised to encounter a migratory flock of about 200 Bonaparte's Gulls. At night we had Pauraques making their bizarre vocalizations directly behind our hotel.
Day 6: Time to catch the train and head to the high country. By boarding the Copper Canyon train in El Fuerte rather than Los Mochis, one gets to begin viewing the spectacular west slope of the Sierra Madre much quicker. The middle two hours of our 4.5 hour ride is simply one jaw-dropping vista after another. I like to play the game of keeping a "train list" of species we see from the iron horse. This year I was able to see and clearly id a group of 6 Lilac-crowned Parrots somewhere below the Temoris station (fortunately, on our return trip, one of the clients saw them in the same area as well). After our transfer from the Bahuichivo station to Hotel Paraiso del Oso, we were in the completely different world of pine/oak. A late afternoon foray along the nearby creek revealed many of the regulars of that habitat such as Grace's Warbler, Painted Redstart, Hutton's Vireo, and Buff-breasted Flycatcher. At night, one other client and myself were treated to close views of one of the many calling Whiskered Screech Owls.
Day 7: We are off early to the deepest of the 5 canyons that make up the Copper Canyon region-Barranca de Urique. First we go up to cross Mesa del Arturo. This is the highest altitude portion of the trip and our only chance to see the likes of Mexican Chickadee, Olive and Crescent-chested Warblers, White-eared Hummingbird, and Mountain Trogon (all of which we saw). After drinking in the view from the edge of the canyon, we began our mile deep descent into the canyon. At our regular Scott's Oriole stop (with a male singing away) I had the thought to play Red-headed Tanager. Incredibly, a pair responded right away and we had eye level views of this northern most member of the Tangara genus. We continued down to Urique and made our way north to Arroyo Mescalero. Although our early evening birding started slow, it soon gained momentum . I played Colima Pygmy Owl as we had heard this species at this spot a year ago. One immediately sounded off on a nearby thorn forest hillside and soon worked its way right in front of us. Not needing my tape player I shut it off and let the owl do the work. Soon we had a group of birds scolding the owl that included Flame-colored Tanager and White-throated Robin. While enjoying the show we noticed a raptor in a steep dive from high over the canyon. We lost sight of the bird for a few beats but then it came blasting down the arroyo right over our heads in hot pursuit of a dove. This Northern Goshawk put us in a state of awe. As the sun dipped below the canyon rim high above us, we headed back to Entre Amigos Hostal. Enroute we managed to lure out a skulking Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush at a spot where it has wintered several times.
Day 8: An early departure got us to Arroyo Hacienda just west of Guapalaina well before heat started to build in the canyon. At about 1,700' elevation this location has some of the species we saw around Alamos such as Black-throated Magpie Jay, Squirrel Cuckoo and Streak-backed Oriole. While we were unsuccessful in repeating our past encounters with Military Macaw here, we did find a very territorial Golden Vireo male with his spouse close by. This is the only spot that I know of for this bird in the state of Chihuahua. We have found it in all four trips we have made to this spot. As the heat builds rapidly in the canyon bottom we bid Urique farewell and began the climb back into the cool pine/oak zone. Near the mirador we found White-striped Woodcreeper and Brown Creeper in the same ravine and Rufous-crowned Sparrow nearby. In the late afternoon at El Cajon near the hotel, we entered a cool, shaded canyon and were treated to close-ups of Spotted Wren and Brown-backed Solitaire all the while being escorted by a noisy group of Mexican Jays.
Day 9: One of my favorite spots on this itinerary is the Rio Cuiteco east of Bahuichivo. At one of our first stops we lured a group of Black-headed Siskins in to a N. Pygmy Owl tape. Once again, we soon had the real thing right above us. The mob of songbirds was soon joined by an animated male Gray-collared Becard that put on quite a show with its ruffled crest and tail fanning. When the N. Pygmy Owl flew the bird police were in hot pursuit, including a much larger Blue Mockingbird that was literally nipping at the owl's tail. Quite a sight. Further up the canyon we found Russet Nightingale Thrush, Gray-crowned Woodpecker, Slate-throated Redstart, and Blue-throated Hummingbird. At one of our last stops I was looking at a House Wren under a log when a part of the log seemed to move. It was actually a pair of Montezuma Quail that slowly walked off before melting back into the underbrush. Our afternoon was another thrilling train ride back to El Fuerte in the lowlands.
Day 10: Our last full day in Mexico and we wanted to make the most of it. Heading east of town to the boat put in on the Rio Fuerte (which drains all 5 canyons in the region) we finally had good looks at Rufous-bellied Chachalaca while Felipe set up the boat. A relaxing float gave us a chance to see Common Blackhawks up close, Great Kiskadees and a Grayish Saltator on the shore, and our best looks at Elegant Quail during a short hike on the north side of the river. Further downstream, we found Bare-throated Tiger Heron that serenaded us with a voice lower than mine. We were keen to find Northern Jacana but were running out of patches of water hyacinth to look in. As we turned to continue back to the take out Sue spotted one of these surprisingly small marsh fellows doing its jabberwocky thing on the floating vegetation. It's fluttering flight seems to make it more butterfly than bird. After saying our goodbyes to El Fuerte, we started the drive north. A drainage on the road that connects El Fuerte to Highway 15 produced a male Rose-throated Becard and the lily ponds in Navojoa hosted numerous Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and several more Northern Jacanas. Following lunch it was the highway haul up to San Carlos where we enjoyed watching both Brown and Blue-footed Boobies diving close to shore as well as Elegant Terns in the estuary. Our final stop (the local sewage ponds-how fitting) gave us our first looks at Mangrove Swallow and numerous ducks. Also present-about 50-60 Bonaparte's Gulls. I wondered if they were part of the massive flock we had seen just days before in El Fuerte.
Day 11: An early departure and the long haul back to Santa Fe via the Tucson Airport. Ironic, the morning I left for the tour it was 19 degrees and snowing and, sure enough, same thing on our return. Those 100 degree temps at the bottom of Barranca de Urique seemed like a distant memory