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ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia

Nayarit and Jalisco, Dec 2020 (1 Viewer)

lammergeier05

Daniele Mitchell
A 7.5 day tour of Puerto Vallarta and San Blas

Like many of you, this has been a difficult year with COVID-19 reshaping every facet of our lives, including our passion for bird travel. I was fortunate to be able to visit Western Mexico for a week trip just before Xmas and would like to share my experience.

As a PSA, Mexico has been one of the countries most encouraging of international tourism, not requiring proof of negative COVID PCR testing and merely doing temperature screening. At the time of my visit there were no travel checkpoints or access closures to any sites. Puerto Vallarta is keeping businesses open more broadly than in non tourist regionto protect tourism dollars.

I felt a responsibility to do my best to minimize my potential risk to locals, including only ordering takeout and wearing masks consistently, but clearly nothing is foolproof. With rising case rates and many Mexican states now elevating their semáforo (traffic light) risk level to red, it is advisable to wait for the current wave to recede. (I am fortunate to be able to self isolate at home for two weeks on return, as is law where I live).

Okay on to the fun stuff. This was my fourth trip to Mexico having previously visited Cabo San Lucas, CDMX, Oaxaca and San Cristobal, Chiapas, as well as Yucatan so the goal was very specific to see the endemics and specialities of the region. Of course, along the way I recorded a broad variety of 271 species in 7.5 days of birding, including plenty of familiar North American wintering species joining the residents. While most of this route is well travelled, perhaps some new sites to offer for some of the harder to find species.

Day 1

Calle de Gardenias, Puerto Vallarta
A flowering tree-lined road heading up the mountain from a condo development, this is a great site to kick off your trip right in Puerto Vallarta as it hosts a reliable territory for Golden-crowned Emerald. It is also home to a great species mix of woodpeckers, tanagers, buntings and orioles. Highlights here were San Blas Jay and Yellow Grosbeak, but unfortunately the only hummers seen were Broad-billed and Cinnamon.

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Camino de Bascula
This is a narrow dirt road halfway between Boca de Tomatlan and El Tuito where I had noticed on eBird a smattering of records of Gray-collared Becard. This is a fairly uncommon North Central American regional specialty and one of my hopes for the trip. Amazingly, right after I parked by a cattle guard, I lucked into a male nearly right away at mid morning. Also vocal seen circling overhead were Military Macaws.

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Camino Provincia
The star bird here is a Sparkling-tailed Woodstar that in Jan-Mar 2020 visited a stretch of flowers around 8 km down the road past a small settlement. No luck here with this species, but I recorded my only Plain-capped Starthroat and Gray-crowned Woodpecker of the trip, a flock of Black-headed Siskins and another pair of Gray-collared Becard. Very birdy road even at midday.

Russet-crowned Motmot
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Vallarta Botanical Gardens
This is a great site for photographing both San Blas Jays and Yellow Grosbeak, which attend the feeding station by the restaurant. Also present: West Mexican Chachalaca, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker and Yellow-winged Cacique. A more thorough search of the gardens can yield the elusive Mexican Hermit, but again the Cinnamon Hummingbird was the only species visiting the restaurant feeder during my stay. The pines host nest sites for the macaws.

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La Estancia
In the afternoon, I did the three hour drive to San Sebastián del Oeste, stopping briefly in the evening for Lilac-crowned Parrot in the scrub just east of town. While keeping my ears open for the (sadly declining) parrots, I picked out a female Sparkling-tailed Emerald with its showy white patches extending from the flank to the rump. A second sighting of this species here for the month, although later searches to relocate it for a photo, were unsuccessful.

Hooded Oriole
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pbjosh

missing the neotropics
Switzerland
Lovely part of Mexico and nice report! Mexican Hermit and Sparkling-tailed Hummer/WS are both difficult birds that are hard to pin down to a site, in my experience. In 7 months in Mexico (obviously not all of it in the range of the two species, but covering most of the country except the north very thoroughly) I saw the Hermit only once, and the Sparkling-tailed on two days but fortunately various individuals over those two days.
 

lammergeier05

Daniele Mitchell
Day 2-3: Cerró La Bufa

This site, accessed by a short but steeply winding, unpaved access road ascending from San Sebastián, is home to montane pine-oak forest birds. It has a larger, higher elevation forest than San Noria and as such has a fair number of species, several restricted to Mexico’s central volcanic belt, that do not make it to the latter.

From the zócalo of San Sebastián to the vista from the top of La Bufa this is definitely a picturesque location and the weather definitely cooperated for me. Given the dry weather the road was easily passable by car but this may not be true at other seasons.

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I dedicated two mornings here, but really only needed one to see my three main targets which were Chestnut-sided Shrike-vireo, Transvolcanic Jay, and White-striped Woodcreeper, with Spotted Wren being found equally easily at La Noria (the latter three are endemic). A single Shrike-vireo was found both days, just below the final ascent to the parking lot for the vista hike, while a small group of Wrens were seen only on the second day in the farmland just outside of town. The Jay and Woodcreeper meanwhile were seen frequently at the time of my visit throughout the high pine forest. There is also an outside chance at the (skulking) Long-tailed Wood-Partridge and Aztec Thrush, but both are far more common further east such as at Volcán Nevada de Colima and were not focuses.
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Some of the other specialties best found here on the itinerary (but which I had previously seen) include Amethyst-throated Mountain-gem, Russet Nightingale-thrush (both seen), Mountain Trogon, Green-striped and Rufous-capped Brushfinches, Golden-browed and Red Warblers (missed).

Among the common species found at both sites are the endemic Bumblebee Hummingbird and Red-headed Tanager, White-eared Hummingbird and Crescent-Chested Warbler; Pine Flycatcher and Brown-backed Solitaire.

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Birding was generally done roadside with some short walks on small side trails. Flock activity often dominated by Townsend’s, Orange-crowned Warblers and Hepatic Tanagers was pretty consistent to midday, as is common at higher elevations with cool crisp mornings.

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El Guamuchil
In the afternoons I returned to the La Estancia road stopping regularly looking for flying Lilac-crowned Parrots to no avail (lots of Orange-fronted Parakeets however).

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Thus on the second afternoon I decided to move forward onto Bucerias to visit a small pueblo where parrots and a variety of coastal forest species can be found.

A quick walk down the road at the north end of town into the forest was quiet so I spent the majority of my time by the much more active forest edge watching a pool of water in which a variety of birds came down to bathe. Visitors included Lineated Woodpecker and both Yellow-throated Warbler and this Black-throated Gray.

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Also right in town were my first Black-throated Magpie-Jays of the trip and Rufous-bellied Chachalacas. These are among the common and conspicuous endemics of the region - unmissable and spectacular. By contrast the parrots proved more elusive and would need to wait another day.

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lammergeier05

Daniele Mitchell
Day 4-6 San Blas

San Blas, located 3.5 hours north of Puerto Vallarta, is a fishing/port town and modern-day tourist hub that is an ideal base for birders to explore a rich assemblage of wetlands, plantations, and hillsides of the region ascending from coastal scrub all the way up to pine-oak forest.

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NW Mexico Endemics: Elegant Quail, Mexican Woodnymph, Colima Pygmy Owl, Mexican Parrotlet, Purplish-backed Jay, Sinaloa Crow
Already seen: Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, Black-throated Magpie-Jay, San Blas Jay, Spotted Wren

Other Key Species: Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, White-throated Flycatcher, Red-breasted Chat, Rosy Thrush-Tanager
Missed: Mexican Hermit (E), Flammulated Flycatcher, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo

Chacalilla

Much of the birding is done around the many small villages encircling San Blas. My first stop, just east of the village of Chacalilla, was in a network of orchards which had been reliable in recent years for Purplish-backed Jay. To my great fortune, a small flock was observed nearly as soon as I parked my car. Here at the southern edge of its range, this species is distinguished from the overlapping San Blas Jay by its yellow legs as well as darker indigo mantle. Seen here is a juvenile with a yellow bill.

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Also abundant here was the endemic Mexican Parrotlet (seen perched as well as regularly overhead).

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The area is rich with a mix of resident and wintering flycatchers, vireos, warblers and orioles. In addition, I recorded my only Black-capped Gnatcatcher of the trip (easiest identified in its winter plumage by call). Heading back into town, the lagoon sometimes hosts Spotted Rail. While one was not present at the time of my visit, I was however able to connect with the enigmatic White-throated Flycatcher (a wetland-favoring empid which is relatively uncommon across its range in Mexico and Central America) and quite a number of Sinaloa Crows. Boat-billed Heron, Purple Gallinule, and Northern Jacana were also present here.

Also a key target is Elegant Quail - but I did not see any during my morning around town, although other observers have had more luck. Perhpas more precise directions are required to increase your odds.

Shrimp Farm / Lagoons

Between Chacalilla and San Blas a series of lagoons used for shrimping host a wide variety of ducks, shorebirds, herons, storks and spoonbills. Definitely worth some time in mid-day despite lack of regional specialties found in this habitat. Highlight here was a Great Black Hawk.

Below, the view from Mirador de los Aves
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Playa de Borrego

In the afternoon, I grabbed a takeout seafood lunch on the beachfront and scanned the spit sorting through roosting Royal and Elegant Terns, Heermann's Gulls, and a Reddish Egret. Driving out to Playa Puntilla, a large rock in the ocean held Blue-footed Booby among roosting Brown Pelicans; a long awaited lifer. A series of thinly planted shrubs offered shade and shelter to a variety of passerines, notably Stripe-headed Sparrow.

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Singayta - South Road (Camino Vivera)


I would visit this site twice in search of two thorn forest specialties, Flammulated Flycatcher and Red-breasted Chat. Birding here is straightforward: a short 2/3 km unpaved road leads through good forest up to a plantation while a couple of side tracks offer further opportunities to explore. Even in mid-afternoon, there was plenty of flock activity featuring warblers such as Tropical Parula. On the second morning visit, I would finally track down a female Chat - but dipped the Flycatcher (my biggest miss of the trip).

Singayta - Village

The village of Singayta is famous as a reliable location for Elegant Quail, a northwest Mexico endemic and one of the prize species of this itinerary. While the quail can at times be seen in the gardens on the outskirts of the village, the reliable stakeout is around a farm shed a couple minutes drive out of town. I spent several hours here combing the fields and roads both on my first evening and the subsequent morning and wound up finally running into a covey by the shed.

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Unfortunately, the birds were a little skittish and spent time mostly out of sight in the water duct on the backside of the building, denying me a photo of the stunning male. Also heard here was Collared Forest-Falcon, a generally cryptic raptor here said to be seen easier than elsewhere in its range, but I had no luck getting onto it.

Sierra de San Noria

After finishing my early morning second visit to Singayta, I opted to head up the new cuota (toll) route to Tepic to visit the pine oak forest of San Noria. around an hour's drive to the north. While San Noria may lack some of Cerro La Bufa's bird selection, its inclusion on this itinerary was given its reliability as a stakeout for another range-restricted endemic, Mexican Woodnymph. The road up to the woodnymph site yields excellent birding with flocks of such species as Flame-colored and Red-headed Tanagers at mid-level and Fan-tailed Warblers in the understory. Later by the ranch, I had a welcome second sighting of Spotted Wren.

The Mexican Woodnymph favors shady gullies often found at hairpin bends along the road, mostly on the descent from the ranch. Luckily the gravel road is little used and is lined with plenty of flowering bushes. Unfortunately, although Berylline and Cinnamon Hummingbirds are plentiful, I was only able to spot a single Woodnymph feeding momentarily despite a multihour wait.

La Bajada

A couple of places to search here. In the second afternoon, I hiked up from the village of La Palma into the coffee plantations in search of Mexican Hermit (an enigmatic species primarily seen on its leks, which wouldn't typically assemble until weeks after my visit), Colima Pygmy-Owl and Rosy Thrush-Tanager. The owls were heard regularly but not seen on my first climb. Later towards dusk I drove past La Bajada onto another dirt track. I pulled over when the road left the plantations and entered a denser second growth forest and here connected with a Colima Pygmy Owl. Fortunately, the owls are extremely vocal in daytime (with distinctive vocalizations from their congeners) and not hard to get onto with a modicum of effort. As is typical, the owl was surrounded by a mobbing array of songbirds revealing its presence.

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On the following morning, with the Hermit and Tanager still left to look for, I opted to check out the forest above La Bajada first where this time I quickly heard Tanagers. Unfortunately, the brambles are dark, thick and the Tanagers remained hidden. An hour and a half later a second tanager group wound up calling from a slightly more open setting and I finally got onto a male. A beauty! On the way back, I was rewarded with a second and much better perched view of the woodnymph.

Matanchen

Offering a mix of scrubby forest, fields, and wetlands, this site is host to a wide selection of species, the two of special interest being Spotted Rail and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. Unfortunately, a couple of mid-day visits did not yield either above species. A Fulvous mixed with a large number of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks was the standout sighting here.

Rio Tovara Boat Cruise

On my final evening in San Blas, I had the great fortune to take a small motorboat out on the Rio Tovara.

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Chencho is THE guide to bring you the best birds - and based on previous reports, I knew that you could get in touch with him through the reception of the Hotel Garza Canela where I was staying. In order to have a chance at the Rufous-necked Wood Rails, you need to time your trip based on the tides and of course a night trip is best to see the amazing Northern Potoos perched along the channel, with their characteristic eyes bulging.

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The Wood Rails can be found on the large Rio San Cristobal, scance minutes from the launching point. In the right tide conditions, they venture right out into the open and offer great photo ops.

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Later on, the tour takes you down the mangrove-enclosed channel of the Rio Tovara which eventually opens up as you reach the Tovara National Park.
Green Kingfishers and Boat-billed Herons were the highlights of this stretch.

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It is in this open area after the sun sets that you begin to see Potoos. I was very pleased to find a bonus Barn Owl in addition to Lesser Nighthawk and Common Pauraque - a nightbird haven. All in all a great photographic experience and great to be out on the water in such peaceful natural ambience.

Day roosting Lesser Nighthawk
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Maroon Jay

Airborne
Canada
Great report and photos. Thank you. I have been to Puerto Vallarta twice and to San Blas once. Vallarta is my favourite place in Mexico. San Blas is the best birding in Mexico but the little no-seeums will eat you up. Did you have problems with them? I was wondering if you could give some practical (non-birding) information about your trip. Did you rent a car or go with a guide? If you rented, where is a good place to do so? What hotels did you stay at other than in Puerto Vallarta? What photo equipment did you use? I have been to most of Mexico from north to south and want to get back but will not go during the pandemic. Rio Lagaros in Yucatan is another great spot.
 

lammergeier05

Daniele Mitchell
Sure so logistics wise, I generally bird without guides unless it really is impossible from a security/access to reserves standpoint. To me, the pleasure isn’t just seeing the birds, but to have some role in finding them too - and in most places I can get a pretty good success rate on my own. There are lots of well regarded guides in the region however if you prefer travelling that way.

The security situation in Mexico is very variable but is largely decent in this region, which is visited by a lot of tourists (usual safety precautions apply). Similarly Oaxaca and Yucatan offer great independent birding. In other areas, I would want to have local up to date intel about travel safety before visiting. If you haven’t been, Oaxaca in particular warrants more acclaim not just for its first rate birding (including different endemics than Jalisco/Yucatan) but all around arts/cuisine/.

I rented with Hertz and opted for a SUV to manage the road to Cerro La Bufa and La Bajada. You could alternatively rent an ATV in San Sebastián which would be a cheaper option. Other than those sites, a sedan would be sufficient and much less expensive.

For hotels, in San Sebastián I stayed at Los Arcos which was of a good standard and in Mismalaya at Casa Iguana. The first night I just stayed at the Holiday Inn at the airport to avoid driving at night. Pricing is generally under 80 CAD and as low as 50 for midrange hotels.

I shoot with a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens and I find it has a good balance between portability and quality. I like having a zoom lens for larger birds and animals.

Interestingly, I didn’t really experience the no seeums in numbers - perhaps I was fortunate, but few insect swarms compare to Canadian boreal forest in June.
 

Maroon Jay

Airborne
Canada
Thank you very much. Good info. When I went to San Blas, I just wore a T-shirt. After two days my arms had so many bites it looks like measles and smallpox combined. That was in early March. I guess it depends on the time of year. San Blas is famous for its birds and bugs. There is a nice hotel near San Blas that was abandoned because of the insects. I missed a few species and I really like the area so I plan to get back.
 

Larry Sweetland

Formerly 'Larry Wheatland'
Enjoyable read, thanks for posting. I visited some of those sites a few years ago, staying near San Blas, and would love to return to explore the area more thoroughly.
 

lammergeier05

Daniele Mitchell
Mexico takes a lot of trips to do comprehensively! I still have the following 27 endemics left. My next trip will take me through central Mexico from Jalisco to Veracruz for the species in orange. I will definitely leave the northern ones for a guided trip.

Missed out on Yucatan Gnatcatcher as I didn’t get far enough west as they are scarce in Rio Lagartos. (and didn’t realize it was a future split). Haven’t done the Sierra de Laguna Hike for Baird’s Junco but reckon it would be a nice long weekend plus 2 trip when the pandemic ends.

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Maroon Jay

Airborne
Canada
Did you get the cute little Orange-breasted Bunting? They can be found just north of PV. My total for Mexico is 306 but I still have many areas to cover including the Veracruz area. Can't wait to get back.
 

lammergeier05

Daniele Mitchell
Aren’t they spectacular? Seen them a few times on past trips but didn’t see any this time. They really are quite numerous on the coast from Zipolite, Oaxaca to the Chiapas border. I’m now at 556; in fact it’s my #3 country after the US and Ecuador.
 
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia

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