This year’s trip featured extremes in elevation, temperature and wind (usually not a factor on this subtropical route). Because of the necessity of avoiding travel in Mexico during Semana Santa (Holy Week), we pushed the date 10 days later than I have ever run it. Thus some wintering species had already departed but we were able to record some first timers that were returning north. Of 17 possible Mexican endemics, we were able to locate 15. Our species total of 266 was an all time high.
DAY 1: We broke up our day’s drive from Nogales, AZ to Alamos, Sonora with an afternoon stop at Estero Soldado in San Carlos. It is always great to get to that salt air after a long desert drive. We hit a productive mid tide with various shorebirds and waders feasting on the abundant fiddler crabs. A group of Roseate Spoonbills with adults sporting fresh breeding plumage was the highlight. We also had a close look at a Large-billed version of Savannah Sparrow running along the edge of the mangroves. We finished our drive to Alamos and our night’s stay at David and Jennifer MacKay’s great cabanas at El Pedregal. Calling Western Screech and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls lulled us to sleep.
DAY 2: We were off early to Rancho El Guayabo, about an hour east of Alamos, a part of a larger Nature&Culture International area called Reserva Monte Mojino. Here, near the headwaters of the Rio Cuchujaqui, we were in foothill tropical deciduous forest. Some typical TDF birds, including Happy and Sinaloa Wrens, Red-billed Pigeon, and Black-throated Magpie Jay (the icon of that habitat) all showed well but we were denied a look at a scolding (and skulking) Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush. A Common Gallinule (Moorhen) seemed out of place so far from the coast. The first of many Common Blackhawks for the trip gave us encouragement that this deciduous riparian species is doing well.
DAY 3: Our morning was spent at Rancho San Jose at the south end of the Sierra de Alamos (with a great view of a group of Elegant Quail enroute). We were a bit higher than the previous day and were able to have great looks at Linneated Woodpecker, Purplish-backed Jay, and Rufous-capped Warbler. On our way back to ranch HQ we were surprised by a Crane Hawk that flew up from a cattle tank and perched in a mesquite. I guess when it’s 98 degrees, birds will show up for water in odd places. Later in the afternoon, while at the El Pedregal feeders, we were able to get good looks at Streak-backed Oriole, Varied Bunting, Rufous-backed Robin, and Blue Mockingbird.
DAY 4: On our way to the Navopatia Field Station on Estero Agiabampo, we detoured to the bay at Yavaros, a shrimp port south of Navojoa. This is a vast feeding area for a myriad of coastal birds. Dozens of Wilson’s Plover, hundreds of Dunlin (most in some degree of breeding plumage), and thousands of Western Sandpipers were spread over the flats. Our search for the declining Red Knot, however, went (wait for it) for naught. Late afternoon found us driving through pitahaya cactus forest, a habitat being decimated for agribusiness, on our way to the field station. The sights, sounds, and smells of the estuary during a memorable sunset were grand indeed. After dinner, one client and myself ventured into the cactus stands and were rewarded with great views of an Elf Owl sticking its head out of a spine-surrounded hole.
DAY 5: Prior to our morning estuary boat trip, we heard the loud clamoring of Clapper Rails coming from the mangroves and one birder managed some clear views. With frigatebirds overhead, we headed to a nearby mangrove island to search for the recently returned Mangrove Vireo that the station director had been hearing across the inlet. We swung and missed on that one but enjoyed the tranquility of a mangrove inlet on a windy morning. Tino, our boatman, made the call to press on to a sand spit south of the estuary mouth that was home to a bunch of Blue-footed Boobies. Downy nestlings, at widely varying stages of growth, dotted the sandbar. Some obviously deceased chicks awaited disposal by the nearby Yellow-footed Gull patrols. On our way back to the station, after zipping by a late Common Loon, we made one last foray into the mangroves. Here a male Mangrove Vireo was singing away and gave us great close up views (along with an equally eye-popping male Mangrove Yellow Warbler). Following lunch and our goodbyes to the kind folks at the research station, we headed southeast across the Sinaloa border to El Fuerte. We stopped at one of three massive reservoirs in the area (Presa Dominguez) to view a Black-crowned Night Heron colony and rafts of wintering Lesser Scaup. Night found us at Hotel Rio Vista overlooking the Rio Fuerte and listening to many Common Pauraques on the rooftops below.
DAY 6: Leaving the lowlands on the CHEPE (Chihuahua al Pacifico) train, we gained altitude through spectacular scenery on our way to the high country. Following our transfer from the Bahuichivo station, we arrived at Hotel Paraiso del Oso near Cerocahui. Entering a nearby pine/oak canyon we encountered birds typical of the area including Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and Hutton’s Vireo. White-throated Robin and Brown-backed Solitaire were present as well, recently returned from lower altitudes. After dinner at the lodge we ventured out to hear the local Whiskered Screech Owls.
DAY 7: We departed early for our destination at the bottom of the deepest of the 5 major canyons in the Copper Canyon region, Barranca de Urique. First we traversed Mesa del Arturo-at over 7,500’- the highest spot on the tour. While finding many of our sought after species in that habitat zone including Crescent-chested and Olive Warblers, White-eared Hummingbird, and Hepatic Tanager, we were able to only get a distant vocalization from the Mountain Trogon. As we began our mile deep descent to the town of Urique, we called in a lovely Scott’s Oriole, the 4th oriole species of the trip. Once down to the bottom of the canyon, we dropped our gear at the Entre Amigos Hostal and headed north in a side canyon to Mescalera Chica. Late afternoon turned out to be a great birding time as we reeled off a nice mix of species including Yellow Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Five-striped Sparrow, and Colima Pygmy Owl (a first for this itinerary). As the activity was starting to wane, one of the clients spotted a pair of Golden Vireos. Though I have seen this bird south of Urique, this was the first encounter north of town. The area represents the only spot in the state of Chihuahua where this bird occurs.
DAY 8: This morning we headed south to the village of Guapalaina and our hike into Arroyo Hacienda-a spectacular steep walled box canyon. Great looks at Berylline Hummingbird, Squirrel Cuckoo, and Elegant Trogon graced our walk in. Once in the box canyon itself, we found a territorial Blue-throated Hummingbird and a feisty Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush. As we departed the canyon, a pair of Military Macaws circled several times, giving us great views, as they apparently searched for a suitable nesting site on the cliff face. After lunch in Urique, complete with a fly by Common Blackhawk, we began our ascent-much easier on the nerves than our descent! Late afternoon back by Paraiso del Oso, we found Slate-throated Redstart, White-striped Woodcreeper, Mountain (Northern) Pygmy Owl, and, after dark, several calling Mexican Whip-poor-wills.
DAY 9: Before descending by train back to El Fuerte, we had the whole morning to bird the Rio Cuiteco just north of Bahuichivo. Within a stone’s throw of town we encountered a mixed species flock that revealed both male and female Gray-collared Becard-a species that has a much jazzier looking female. As we savored the moment, I heard the squeak of an Eared Quetzal and quickly fired tape in response. A female came in immediately for great close-up looks. Another first for this itinerary. Further up the canyon, another flock revealed Red-faced, Townsend’s, and Hermit Warblers and a Hooded Grosbeak, the Sierra Madre cousin of our Evening Grosbeak. At a bridge crossing, we tried for Gray-crowned Woodpecker (where we had the first Chihuahua record in 2011) and a pair zipped right out. I was thrilled that this species at the extreme edge of its range seemed to have put down roots here. Nearby, we enjoyed a co-operative pair of Rufous-capped Brushfinches. Our afternoon train ride down to El Fuerte was as enchanting as ever.
Day: 10 Our last day of full birding started out great with a group of Mexican Parrotlets in the trees above Hotel Rio Vista where we were staying. As our hosts hooked up the boat to go out for our Rio Fuerte float, we had great looks at Orchard Oriole (5th oriole of the trip) and a singing Grayish Saltator at the north extreme of its’ breeding range. On the way to the river we had great looks at a singing Rufous-winged Sparrow (at the south end of its’ limited range) as well as a surprise encounter with a Solitary Sandpiper on a local pond. Once on the river, we glassed White-fronted Parrots perched on cactus stalks (nice contrast). Along the river itself, Great Kiskadee, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Social Fly catcher, and Vermilion Flycatcher all presented on prominent perches. On the north side of the river, we searched the local haunt of Russet-crowned Motmot but with no luck. Habitat degradation in the area may have been the culprit. We were rewarded with great views of Rufous-bellied Chachalacas however. Back on the river, we finished our float with great looks at Northern Jacana and Bare-throated Tiger Heron. Next, we had to hit the road north to San Carlos. Some late afternoon birding in the desert produced great looks at Bendire’s Thrasher-our 266th, and last, species of the trip. We rested up that night for our push back to Santa Fe the next day.