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.

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