DAY 1: Our 8th Copper Canyon trip began in San Carlos, where we hoped to find some overwintering species still lingering. Desert and grassland forays produced Cassin's, Brewer's, and Clay-colored Sparrows, Lark Bunting, and Gray Vireo. An attempt for Ridgeway's Rail in the mangroves around Estero Soldado not only triggered several return calls but prompted an individual to trot across an open space directly in front of us. Checking a nearby rocky headland, one of the clients managed to spot a Black Turnstone-a bird we had not seen on this route for many years. Another desert stop on our way south led us to several Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and a Gilded Flicker. On our way to Alamos, we stopped at Bahia Guasimas. Besides numerous shorebirds and a flock of Black Skimmers, we encountered a bold group of Large-billed Savannah Sparrows at a local eatery. They were outcompeting the local House Sparrows for leftovers. Go figure.
DAYS 2-4: Our stay in the Alamos area started with a morning hike up Aduana Arroyo close to town. The first fig tree we encountered was loaded with fruit and birds. Rufous-backed and White-throated Thrushes, Yellow Grosbeak, and Squirrel Cuckoo got us off to a great start. Further up the drainage we heard Russet-crowned Motmot. It stayed concealed for a while until appearing at eye-level directly across the arroyo from us. What an impressive combo of colors. Heading for a spring higher up we found Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, Elegant Trogon, Five-striped Sparrow and Scrub Euphonia along the way. At the spring, one of the clients noticed a bird working furtively in the underbrush that turned out to be the previously reported Fan-tailed Warbler. Very early for that breeder but fascinating to watch it work the leaf litter. Our morning was capped off with great looks at a group of 18-20 Lilac-crowned Parrots that kept circling and landing near us. Largest flock of that species I have ever run into.
Later in the day we headed east to the Reserva Monte Mojino, a conservation and research effort of Nature and Culture International. Arriving at Rancho Palo Injerto close to sunset, we watched a pair of Military Macaws search the high cliffs for a perfect roosting spot. After sunset, we were treated to views of both Elf and Western Screech Owls, plus several vocalizations from a hidden Buff-collared Nightjar. Next day as we departed camp we heard the loud song of a Bright-rumped Attila which some of us managed views of. At the trailhead for the Rio Sitorijaqui, we heard but could not locate, one of the local Laughing Falcons. Later in our hike, we were followed by the local sheriff's posse of Black-throated Magpie Jays. We two-leggeds certainly stirred up a lively conversation among the jays. Then one of our target species, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, came in nicely to tape. On our return walk, after seeing a Rose-throated Becard, we were treated to great views of the local macaws as they flew in the valley below.
Before we departed Alamos the next day we were fortunate to get close to a local band of Purplish- backed Jays, a flock of White-fronted Parrots, and even a pair of Mexican Parrotlets-a species that often blends perfectly into the foliage around it.
DAYS 5-8: We boarded the Chihuahua al Pacifico train early for our ride up through Barranca Septentrion to the high country. Afternoon birding in pine/oak turned up some regulars such as Painted Redstart, Mexican Chickadee, and Olive Warbler and some trip one-timers such as Pygmy Nuthatch and Townsend's Solitaire. Next day we traveled over Mesa de Arturo, adding specialties such as Crescent-chested Warbler, Mountain Trogon (stunning bird), and Spotted Wren. We then descended a vertical mile into the Barranca de Urique, the deepest of the five canyons in the region. Late afternoon birding along the Naranjo Road brought brief but clear views of Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush and, after a lengthy search, close views of a persistently calling Colima Pygmy Owl.
Our next day journey was on foot into Arroyo Hacienda just west of the town of Guapalaina. Birding was a bit slow until we reached a fruiting fig that enticed us to sit down and watch the show. And what a show. Over the next hour the parade of birds using the tree included Flame-colored Tanager, Brown-backed Solitaire, Gray Silky, Elegant Trogon, White-throated Thrush, Rufous-capped Warbler, Streak-backed Oriole, Yellow Grosbeak, Varied Bunting, and our most sought after bird in this location-Golden Vireo. Later, within the towering walls of the slot canyon, we added close looks at Blue-throated Hummingbird.
The final day in the highlands was spent mostly on foot, walking the Rio Cuiteco near Bahuichivo. This lovely, shaded canyon is one of my favorite birding spots in the state of Chihuahua. We began by having an escort of several pairs of Rufous-capped Brushfinches. Slate-throated Redstarts were everywhere and we had several encounters with White-striped Woodcreepers and Tufted Flycatchers. After much tape playing, I was able to coax in a male Gray-collared Becard who hung around to put on an impressive crest-flairing, tail fanning show. Later we persisted in finding the Russet Nightingale Thrush at its usual spot. We were then graced with a close and boisterous Gray-crowned Woodpecker here at what I believe is its northwest most location. Although we searched in vain for Hooded Grosbeak, a species seen here thrice before, we managed to call in a new species for the location-Rusty Sparrow. The confiding individual came up on a rock 6 feet away and even sang for us. Further up the creek we were surprised by a spirited pair of American Dippers.
DAY 9: Having returned to the lowlands by train the evening before, we had a few spots to bird around El Fuerte before heading to the coast. A reserve just outside town gave us great looks at Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Northern Jacana, and even a bold Virginia Rail. As we drove west through ag fields, we stopped and found White-collared Seedeater and several male Orchard Orioles in full breeding plumage. Continuing on to the coast we came into the town of Yavaros at almost high tide. Good fortune for us as this extremely shallow bay can place bird viewing at an untenable distance. Right away, amid the hundreds of Marbled Godwits, we found a dozen Red Knots-a shorebird species in steep decline. The array of Willets, Whimbrel, Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and the godwits was impressive. At our lunch spot from the restaurant back deck, we noted 7 species of gulls including about 35 Bonaparte's all still in winter plumage. Before heading north ourselves, we found dozens of Wilson's Phalarope in saline impoundments on their northbound journey from alkali lakes high in the Andes. I am humbled by the annual journeys of some species of shorebirds.
DAY 10: Last day in Mexico and our plan was to venture out from San Carlos into the Sea of Cortez. This was the second time for a "pelagic" trip and, I suspect, not the last. As we cleared Bahia San Francisco from the San Carlos marina, we encountered large flocks on the now rain spattered surface that turned out to be migrating Red-necked Phalarope. We then began to see Black Storm Petrels, but always just a single bird. It's lazy, somewhat bat like flight is distinctive. Several shearwaters appeared, mostly Black-vented but one larger Pink-footed banked in as well. The rain was steady now but we were undeterred. Soon we found our most sought after pelagic (and a life bird for yours truly)-Craveri's Murrelet. Three individuals allowed us to come quite close before one dove and the other two flew. Odd to see an alcid this far south. After several distant viewings of Least Storm Petrel (seemingly the size of a martin), we turned for shore. A small cluster of birds ahead caught our eye so we sped in that direction. At first it seemed to be simply a gathering of Heermann's Gulls, but as we closed, a larger all dark bird took flight. When I saw white in the primaries, I knew we had a jaeger. Fortunately, one of the local birders had joined us and took photos of everything we saw. After forwarding the pics to Steven Mlodinow, I received confirmation of my original thought that the bird was a dark morph, first year Pomarine and, coincidentally, my 600th Mexican bird. What a great birding note to end our Mexico trip on-and our first trip that we exceeded 300 species.
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!