Area Natural Protegida Sierra Picachos, Nuevo Leon: November 3, 2018

On Saturday morning, we visited a series of reservoirs to the northeast of Monterrey, looking for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. We stopped along the way in several places to search for sparrows. Fortunately, I was with some of the region's best birders, who had no trouble distinguishing the call of a Lincoln's from a Vesper Sparrow. The first reservoir we visited was located in a protected area at the base of an impressive mountain ridge. At the second reservoir, near the town of Agualeguas, we spotted a swoop of eight Sandhill Cranes overhead. Judging from my companions' reactions, we didn't see any unusual ducks at any of the reservoirs, it still being relatively early for wintering waterfowl to arrive in northeastern Mexico. The excursion was still a treat, and I got a much better sense how Nuevo Leon is an important migratory pathway for North American birds.

Notable birds seen: Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Muscovy Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Coot, Blue-Winged Teal, Canvasback, Ruddy Duck, Mexican Duck, Northern Pintail, Spotted Sandpiper, Green Heron, Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Blue-Winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Green-Winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Eared Grebe, Sandhill Crane, Black-Necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, Great Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Tricolored Heron, Stilt Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Long-Billed Dowitcher, Greater Yellowlegs, American White Pelican, Snowy Egret, Reddish Egret, Ringed Kingfisher, Belted Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher,  Northern Bobwhite (h), Red-billed Pigeon, Inca Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Greater Roadrunner, White-Winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Great Blue Heron, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, Osprey, Cooper's Hawk, Harris's Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Gray Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Black Phoebe, Eastern Phoebe, Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee (h), Green Jay (h), Brown Jay (h), Barn Swallow, Chihuahuan Raven, House Wren, Bewick's Wren (h), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Long-billed Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, House Finch, Grasshopper Sparrow, Clay-Colored Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, Orange-crowned Warbler (h), Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia.

Chipinque Parque Ecologico: August 4, 2018

Getting an early start at Chipinque this morning paid off. I arrived at the upper parking lot before sunrise and birded the Tubo Enterrado trail for hours without encountering another person. Bird activity was high, and the view of the ridgeline was spectacular. Mexican and Green Jays, Audubon's Oriole, Elegant Trogon were out in large numbers. Several Northern Pygmy-Owls were calling steadily, and I finally tracked one down midmorning. In a steep and shady bend in the trail, I found Black-Headed Nightingale Thrush and Canyon Wren, their melodic songs amplified by the rocky cliffs. My most fortuitous sighting, though, was of a Bat Hawk. I spotted it first in the distance perched on a snag, where it remained fifteen minutes later after I dashed down the trail and arrived at the base of the very same tree. 

Notable birds seen: Thicket Tinamou, Band-Tailed Pigeon, White-Winged Dove, Bat Falcon, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Elegant Trogon, Golden-Olive Woodpecker, Green Jay, Mexican Jay, Dusky-Capped Flycatcher, Brown-Backed Solitaire, Black-Headed Nightingale-Thrush, Black-Crested Titmouse, Brown Creeper, Canyon Wren, Carolina Wren, Rufous-Capped Warbler, Painted Redstart, Rufous-Crowned Sparrow, Hepatic Tanager, Flame-Colored Tanager, Audubon's Oriole.

Parque Nacional Cumbres de Monterrey: July 21, 2018

The Maroon-Fronted Parrot is endemic to northeastern Mexico. It is present from April to October in Cumbres de Monterrey National Park, inhabiting pine forest ranging from 1500-2500 meters above sea level. In his Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico, Steve Howell describes a site two hours to the southwest of Monterrey called the Highrise, a well-known nesting spot of the parrot. I visited the site previously without success. Howell's driving directions to the Highrise are still accurate, and the views of the mountains are stunning on a clear day. Given that Howell researched his book over twenty years ago, it is not surprising that there is now a better and more accessible site in the area for observing the parrot.

Mesa del Oso is a private lodge in the area of Cumbres de Monterrey National Park, located 15 km beyond Laguna de Sanchez. The access road first climbs up to a spectacular mountain pass and then descends to a narrow plateau, where a few cabins are located at 2200 meters above sea level. Along the pass rising above the road, there is an impressive cliff where a colony of two-dozen Maroon-Fronted Parrots is nesting. The site is remote enough to discourage casual visitors but still accessible for determined birders with a high-clearance vehicle. The parrots seem to be habituated to human presence, perhaps because of a handful of domestic animals grazing in the surrounding area, and we observed them easily at close range.

Of course, this pristine and beautiful area has plenty more to offer birders. We stopped along the road at several points to sift through small mixed flocks, finding Olive and Crescent-Chested Warblers, White-Breasted Nuthatch, and Bridled Titmouse. Near the cabins in a stand of pines, we spotted Rivoli's Hummingbird and used playback to call in a male Mountain Trogon, the underside of its tail clearly distinguishing it from the Elegant Trogon. Beyond the cabins, we descended an old logging road on foot, finding Western Tanager, Black-Headed Grosbeak, Rufous-Capped Brushfinch, and Audubon's Oriole. In the scrub outside Laguna de Sanchez, we found Spotted Towhee, Cassin's Kingbird, and Bewick's Wren, among others.

Notable birds seen: Band-Tailed Pigeon, Red-Tailed Hawk, Rivoli's Hummingbird, Maroon-Fronted Parrot, Mountain Trogon, Hairy Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, Greater Pewee, Cassin's Kingbird, Bridled Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Bewick's Wren, Hutton's Vireo, Crescent-Chested Warbler, Painted Redstart, Olive Warbler, Rufous-Capped Brushfinch, Spotted Towhee, Hepatic Tanager, Western Tanager, Black-Headed Grosbeak, Audubon's Oriole.

Parque Ecologico Chipinque: April 7, 2018

I haven't been birding much during the last month, and it's likely that I missed the northern migration.  The weather in northern Mexico is more like summer now than spring, with temperatures climbing into the nineties by noon. Thankfully, resident birds are still active and vocalizing throughout the morning. Today on the lower slopes of Chipinque, I ticked the Crimson-Collared Grosbeak, a lovely northeastern Mexico endemic. It took some effort, and a bit of playback, but I managed to photograph both male and female birds.

Notable birds seen: Turkey Vulture, Short-Tailed Hawk, Green Jay, Clay-Colored Thrush, Black-Crested Titmouse, Crimson-Collared Grosbeak, Hepatic Tanager, Wilson's Warbler, Rufous-Capped Warbler, Orange-Crowned Warbler.

Oaxaca: February 17-19, 2018

I have lived in northern Mexico for six months without traveling much at all. Compared to my previous experiences living overseas, this has been unusual. While I have enjoyed birding in the Monterrey area, an entire country with over one thousand bird species beckons. Despite the delay in getting out and exploring, deciding where to take my first trip in Mexico beyond Monterrey was easy. Oaxaca state in southern Mexico offers excellent birding in diverse habitats. The area is rich in culture and history, and the traditional food is delicious. In addition, I was able find a direct flight to Oaxaca city leaving on Friday evening and returning Monday night, a perfect arrangement to take advantage of a three-day holiday weekend.

North American birders have already covered Mexico extensively, and planning a birding trip in is simple and straight forward. Steve Howell's classic Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico is the foundational text from which almost all contemporary trip reports derive. Although the site information in the book dates back to late 1990s, and logistics in Mexico have generally improved since then, little in the book has changed with respect to birding. I found the maps, site descriptions, and bird lists in the Oaxaca chapter to be accurate and easy to follow. A few 2017 trip reports to the area, including Nick Athanas's trip report for Tropical Birding and Mark Van Biers's report for BirdQuest, provided helpful birding updates to Howell as well as outstanding photos of target birds.

I decided on a well-rounded itinerary, not entirely dedicated to birding. I chose a pleasant but inexpensive hotel near the bus station, which would allow me to skirt traffic while entering and leaving Oaxaca city in my rental car. On Saturday, I planned to hit a few birding and archaeological sites in the Oaxaca Valley, including Teotitlan del Valle, Yagul, and Mitla. On Sunday, I would hike in the cool pine-oak highlands northeast of the city. Finally, on Monday, I would spend the morning at Monte Alban, a massive archaeological site set in the scrub-covered hills just outside the city. Whereas one of my more typical birding trips might involve being in the field for twelve to fourteen hours, this itinerary included plenty of downtime for regular tourist activities.

On the way to the airport, I mused about where to eat dinner that night in Oaxaca. I had just read Francine Prose's recent essay on the city's charms and considered which mezcaleria to stop at for a drink before hitting the 20th of November Market for dinner. My plans were dashed when I checked in for my flight and was informed that there would be a four-hour delay. In despair, I flirted with the idea of canceling the trip altogether, as the round-trip ticket had only cost $70. Instead, I stuck it out at the airport and belatedly arrived in Oaxaca around midnight. While I was checking out my rental car, a minor earthquake forced us to evacuate the airport, further delaying my first encounter with Oaxaca's culinary delights. Anticlimactically, I resorted to scarfing down some tacos al pastor at a modest restaurant near my hotel before going to bed.

Teotitlan del Valle and Yagul

I was on the road at dawn heading towards Teotitlan del Valle, a small town 45 minutes from Oaxaca city. The sky was cloudless, and the temperature already starting to spike with the first rays of the sun. Howell's directions are still accurate, although there was some road construction in the town that forced a few detours. I followed my nose up a dirt road towards the mountains until the roadside scrub looked relatively undisturbed. Bird activity was already in full swing. I quickly ticked Oaxaca and Bridled Sparrows, White-Throated Towhee, and Boucard's Wren. Further up the road, I found Grey Silky, Cassin's Kingbird, and Indigo Bunting. For several hours, I trolled up and down the switchbacks in the road searching for Dwarf Vireo and Ocellated Thrasher, two other site specialities, without having any luck. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, bird activity apparently ceased, and I decided to head back to town.

Following Howell's directions, I stopped near the reservoir where the road is lined with coral trees, their blazing red flowers the only splash of color in the otherwise arid and leafless environment. Black-Vented Orioles, Summer Tanager, and Black-Headed Grosbeak were abundant. Several hummingbird species, including Dusky Hummingbird, squabbled in the treetops, their territories shifting back and forth with each lunge and parry. The hillsides rang sporadically with the cries of braying donkeys. Down near the reservoir, Vermillion Flycatcher, Bushtit, and Wilson's Warbler foraged in the waterside shrubs. The dirt road that winds up the hill towards Benito Juarez has almost no traffic. A few farmers and goat herders staggered by on foot followed by strung out looking dogs. They met my greetings without surprise, clearly accustomed to encountering birders on the road.

Before heading to lunch in town, I stopped at one of the traditional weaving workshops. Teotitlan del Valle is celebrated for its textiles but can feel like a bit of a tourist trap. There are dozens of rug vendors, some producing low-quality imitations and weak derivatives, and it can take time to find the finer, long-standing workshops. The New York Times had recently featured the work of Porfirio Gutierrez and his family in an article about natural dyes. Porfirio kindly gave me a tour of his workshop and showed me the rugs in his gallery. Several masterworks caught my eye with their bold color scheme and atypical designs, but I didn't have the cash to make a purchase on the spot. On his recommendation, I had lunch later in town at el Comedor del Jaguar, where they had prepared a large spread of three traditional dishes for a group of tourists. I opted for the chicken enchiladas in red mole.

After touring the town of Mitla, where the Spanish had built a church on top of ancient Zapotec ruins, I stopped at Yagul on the way back to Oaxaca city. Described in Howell's Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico, Yagul is a sprawling archaeological site surrounded by spectacular ridges covered in arid scrub. According to Howell, the entrance road can be productive, as well as the network of trails. I had arrived in the late afternoon and only had time for a short tour of the area around the parking lot. Rock Wren, Northern Mockingbird, and White-Throated Towhee were present among the well-preserved ruins. On a steep hill overlooking the site, I startled a Crested Caracara perched on a rocky outcrop. I also spotted a pair of Lesser Roadrunners rustling through the leaf litter in the thick brush. Yagul isn't nearly as busy as Monte Alban and offers similar habitat. If had had another morning on this trip, I would have liked to have spent it here.

Cerro San Felipe

The next morning I headed up into the mountains northeast of Oaxaca city. Howell notes that while the Oaxaca valley is usually hot and sunny, the conditions at Cerro San Felipe can often be miserable. Fortunately, it was a crisp clear morning, perfect weather for birding in montane pine-oak forest. Howell's directions are still accurate, and I followed them to a quiet dirt road that branches off the northwest side of Route 175. Within minutes of arriving, I was sifting through a fast-moving mixed flock that contained Mountain Trogon, Grey-Barred Wren, and Chestnut-Sided Shrike-Vireo but no Dwarf Jay. To find the endemic Dwarf Jay, at least in the winter months, Howell recommends tracking Steller's Jays, with which they often associate. I tried this technique throughout the day without success, ultimately dipping on this site speciality.

The area also proved to be a bonanza of warblers. Among these, Red Warbler was the obvious highlight, but other goodies included Olive, Red-Faced, Crescent-Chested, Hermit, and Golden-Browned Warblers. Indeed, I kept finding new warbler species throughout the day and had several opportunities to photograph the gorgeous Red Warbler. After taking a break for lunch at a roadside comedor, where I had a yellow mole this time, I returned to the same area to keep birding. The weather held up nicely all day, and I was content hiking up and down various side roads even if the bird activity wasn't constant. The forest is similar to the humid cloud forests of the Ecuadorean Andes, and I was content to finally be exploring a different habitat than the scrub-oak hills outside Monterrey. Other standout birds for the day included Collared Towhee and Brown-Backed Solitaire.

Notable birds seen at Cerro San Felipe: White-Eared Hummingbird, Mountain Trogon, Hairy Woodpecker, Spot-Crowned Woodcreeper, Steller's Jay, Bushtit, Grey-Barred Wren, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Brown-Backed Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Cassin's Vireo, Hutton's Vireo, Chestnut-Sided Shrike-Vireo, Crescent-Chested Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, Hermit Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Red-Faced Warbler, Red Warbler, Slate-Throated Whitestart, Golden-Browed Warbler, Olive Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, Collared Towhee, Mexican Junco.

Monte Alban

On my final morning in Oaxaca, I arrived at Monte Alban well before the archaeological site opens to the public. These impressive ruins sprawl out over several scrub-covered hills overlooking the city. Howell's site information is a bit out of date, but there are plenty of obvious tracks and trails to explore. First, I parked at the bottom of the access road and birded a dirt track around the lower slopes. The dense brush here is supposedly reliable for Pileated Flycatcher in the spring. After walking up the access road, I then walked a trail leading down a ridge from the parking lot. I spotted an Ocellated Thrasher singing high in a bush and a pair of Blue Mockingbirds skulking nearby. I followed the trail back down to the access road but didn't cross paths with Dwarf or Slaty Vireo, two other site specialties. After birding around the parking lot for another hour, I decided to call it a morning and had breakfast at the museum cafe. Feeling somewhat rejuvenated after huevos rancheros and a strong coffee, I strolled among the ruins for a few hours.

Notable birds seen in arid scrub at Teotitlan del Valle, Yagul, and Monte Alban: Great Blue Heron, Cattle Egret, Crested Caracara, Turkey Vulture, Red-Tailed Hawk, American Coot, White-Tipped Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Dusky Hummingbird, Ladder-Backed Woodpecker, Greater Pewee, Black Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Dusky-Capped Flycatcher, Cassin's Kingbird, Western Scrub Jay, Bushtit, Boucard's Wren, Rock Wren, Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher, Blue Mockingbird, Northern Mockingbird, Ocellated Thrasher, Grey Silky, Cassin's Vireo, Orange-Crowned Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Rufous-Capped Warbler, Western Tanager, Summer Tanager, Black-Headed Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, White-Throated Towhee, Oaxaca Sparrow, Bridled Sparrow, Black-Vented Oriole, House Finch.

Parque Ecologico Chipinque: February 5, 2017

Admittedly, I haven't been birding as much as I should; however, the winter has been unusually cold in northern Mexico this year. The city of Monterrey has even been dusted with snow a few times, hardly the type of birding conditions I expected when I moved to Mexico last summer. Whenever I do make it up into the pine-oak forests of Parque Ecologico Chipinque though, I always encounter a few birds of interest, regardless of the time of day. Plus, the clamshell ridgeline above the park is a marvel to hike under. Here a Black-Crested Titmouse pauses briefly while foraging on a chilly late afternoon. 

Notable birds seen: Elegant Trogon, Blue-Crowned Motmot, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Black-Crested Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Black-Throated Green Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Painted Redstart, Rufous-Capped Warbler,

Parque Ecologico Chipinque: December 24, 2017

Chipinque proved deserted on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. At the start of Brecha del Chile, I photographed a large mixed-species flock for nearly ten minutes without interruption. This area is often thick with mountain bikers and hikers. Among the many wood warblers species in the flock present was Nashville Warbler. I also picked off a Hermit Warbler in a small canopy flock, my second new tick of the day. Towards dusk, I put my camera to the test photographing Hermit Thrush and Long-Billed Thrasher in the gloomy understory. Despite the poor air quality, the city of Monterrey looked enchanting as I descended the trail in darkness.

Notable birds seen: Mexican Jay, Green Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Black-Crested Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Blue-Headed Vireo, Long-Billed Thrasher, Hermit Thrush, Tennessee Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Hermit Warbler, Black-Throated Green Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Painted Redstart, Rufous-Capped Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, Audubon's Oriole.