After enduring some of the coldest winter temperatures ever in New Mexico, our group was glad to feel the warmth of Puerto Vallarta. Our birding started just an hour after arrival-in a steep, jungle patch not far from the old part of town. Highlights included Boat-billed Flycatcher, Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrow, and great looks at a vibrant male Blue Bunting. Then we were off to Rancho Primavera, an American owned ranch near El Tuito in the coastal foothills southwest of Puerto Vallarta. During our stay there over the next three days we observed a mix of thorn forest and pine forest birds as the ranch is well situated close to several habitats. Prominent in the birding landscape are US and Canadian migrants that find this part of the West Mexico coast to their liking. Quite fun to see the likes of MacGillivray’s Warbler, American Redstart and Black-capped Vireo all foraging side by side. Mexican species, such as Black-vented Oriole and Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush are sprinkled into the mix as well. A night foray up into pine forest produced multiple calling Eared Poorwills, a poorly known W. Mexico species, and we even glimpsed a foraging bird on our drive down the mountain.
Leaving Rancho Primavera, we headed down the coast. Our first (of many) encounter with the dazzling Orange-breasted Bunting was memorable as was a Gray Hawk dashing into a dense grove and emerging with an Orange-fronted Parakeet in its talons. This stretch of the Jalisco coast is largely deserted as the main highway runs inland so we were treated to some amazing empty beaches. A rocky point along the way produced a wintering Wandering Tattler and the mouth of an estuary revealed both Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers. Our next morning was spent in the Cuixmala Biosphere Preserve. This tract gave us an idea of the potential of lush, deciduous forest when left undisturbed. The area is even home to remnant jaguar and mountain lion populations. Bird highlights included White-throated Magpie Jays, San Blas Jays, and the endemic Flammulated Flycatcher. Ruddy Quail Doves were calling deep in the forest but did not reveal themselves. Several territories of Rosy Thrush Tanagers had vocal but invisible birds. After 15 minutes focused on one particular singing male, all in the group (except myself) glimpsed this breath taking bird.
Leaving the coast, we headed higher into the Sierra Manantlan and arrived at the Las Joyas Research Station. Created in 1987, this outpost in the core zone of a biosphere preserve has hosted scientists from various disciplines and countries. We felt blessed to access such a pristine area. Right outside our bunkhouse the birding was rich- Red-headed Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager, Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush and even a glimpse of a vocal but hard to see Chestnut-sided Shrike Vireo. The difficulty in viewing this bird reminded me of trying to find it’s louder and even more invisible cousin, the Green Shrike Vireo, years ago in Costa Rica. We headed out into the preserve and quickly had a close encounter with a group of Singing Quail. These amazingly loud birds were just a couple meters away from us in the dense understory but we were unable to lure them out on the road. Further into the cloud forest we found Olivaceous Woodcreeper and a co-operative perched Crested Guan. An open area on the edge of a dramatic escarpment hosted Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer, Audubon’s Oriole, and calling (but unseen) Long-tailed Wood Partridge. On our way back to headquarters, we found a male Bumblebee Hummingbird displaying on its territory and, after some patient waiting, all were able to get at least a brief look at this tiny sprite.
Next day we accessed another old growth broadleaf forest at Puerto Los Mazos. I was fortunate to glimpse a perched Collared Forest Falcon before it disappeared downslope. As a group, we were able to get great views of Golden-crowned Warbler (life bird for all) and several views of the highly range restricted Mexican Woodnymph. We then headed out toward Ciudad Guzman, stopping on the Floripondio road at 8,000′. A boisterous group of Gray-barred Wrens, cousins of our Cactus Wren, entertained us for about 10 minutes. Both Green-striped and Rufous-capped Brushfinches found this habitat to their liking as well.
Our ascent of Nevado de Colima (the higher of two volcanos in the area) the following day was certainly a highlight of the trip. On the lower slopes we were surprised to find a vocal pair of Bright-rumped Attilas, a flycatcher that normally occurs at lower elevation. While enjoying the antics of the attilas, a Bat Falcon powered overhead. Further up the volcano, we found more hummers including the persistently squeaking (but hard to see) Green Violetear and superb close-ups of Magnificent Hummingbird males. Other finds included White-striped Woodcreeper, Gray-breasted Wood Wren, Gray Silky Flycatcher and Collared Towhee. We reached the edge of the caldera (this volcano blew its top a long time ago) at over 11,000′ but were unable to see the highest peak (at over 14,000′) as it was hidden behind clouds and haze. Our disappointment didn’t last long as we were able to get great looks at the iconic Red Warbler on our way down the mountain.
On to the tiny state of Colima. My friends Von and Ruth, who have retired in Ciudad Colima, invited us to their house where their backyard birds included Sinaloa Wren, Streak-backed Oriole, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Rose-throated Becard, White-collared Seedeater, Blue-black Grassquit and even a calling Collared Forest Falcon. I could get used to having a yardlist like that! We then headed north to a hidden volcanic lake where we found Elegant Trogon, Gray-crowned Woodpecker and Black-throated Green and Hermit Warblers. The next morning, before descending to the coast, we birded La Cumbre, a thorn forest covered hill southeast of town. A puzzling songbird turned out to be a worn plumaged Dwarf Vireo. Higher up we found several endemic Black-chested Sparrows one of the handsomest sparrows one could ever lay eyes on. A group of Rufous-naped Wrens were a bit shy at first but gradually gave us good looks. While trying to tape in a Lesser Ground Cuckoo, we were instead surprised by a Lesser Roadrunner that performed well before melting into the understory. As we were heading back to the car I caught a glimpse of a different bird low in the scrub and resumed playing Lesser Ground Cuckoo. Sure enough, the bird loudly called back and we spent another 15 minutes trying to get a look at this extremely secretive species. Alas, I was the only one to briefly see the bird scurry across an opening. Although I felt bad for the group, I reveled in seeing the neon blue eye patch of the bird as it skulked by. Once again I was reminded that not everyone gets to see every bird.
Back on the coast, we headed by boat into a dense mangrove forest. Northern Waterthrushes were everywhere and we had great looks at Ringed Kingfisher, Linneated Woodpecker and even a coatimundi. Several Snail Kites kept flying up the channel ahead of us. Once in the open part of the estuary we viewed an array of herons including our first looks at the prehistoric looking Anhinga and the outlandish Boat-billed Heron. Later in the day we turned into the Playa de Oro Road. Although activity levels were low, we found an obliging pair of White-bellied Wrens, many more Orange-breasted Buntings and heard a calling Roadside Hawk. The highlight by far, however, was a male Red-breasted Chat that showed extremely well flying back and forth across the road. Another bird that the painting in the book does not do justice to!
Our last full morning we headed inland a short distance to Barranca el Choncho, a lush canyon in the foothills closest to the coast. We had great views of Golden-crowned Emerald males on several occasions. This slender hummer with the long forked tail is certainly a highlight of birding in West Mexico. Other notable sightings for the morning included Tropical Parula, Happy Wren, Masked Tityra and Pale-billed Woodpecker. After much diligent searching, Andy was rewarded with a look at Red-crowned Ant Tanager, a recluse that the rest of us had only heard.
After a brief look at the coastal birds in the harbor at Barra de Navidad the next morning, we were off to the Manzanillo Airport. Our last species of the trip, a Limpkin, was perched on a roadside hummock of marsh grass just as we got to the airport. At over 300 species for the trip, West Mexico had once again provided us with a memorable birding experience.