02 March 2017

Oaxaca is that? Red-tailed?

This seems to be the norm now; realizing I haven't posted any updates about my last trip until I'm very nearly gone on my next one!  In the same fashion, here's a quick rundown of a Field Guides trip to Oaxaca, Mexico that I recently led alongside Dan Lane.

For starters... Oaxaca is a state of Mexico (like Missouri is a state of the US).  The capital city of Oaxaca is also called Oaxaca but is sometimes called Oaxaca City to eliminate confusion (this is similar to how New York adds the word "city" to become New York City... even though New York is a state.  Ha, with me so far?

This is where Oaxaca is situated within Mexico:
Secondly, the pronunciation of the word "Oaxaca" stumps some people.  Let me help.  It sounds like "wuh-HA-kuh".

Allllrighty then, we're off and running....

Our first stop on Day 1 was rather scenic, if you ask me.  The bright morning light at my back made for very long shadows of all of us.  And yes, that's a hot-air balloon on the rise:
You can see that this is rather dry country.  Although the city of Oaxaca is at an elevation higher than Denver, the landscape is very dry and desert-like.

One of the many fun aspects of this week-long tour were the species we saw that are limited to Mexico (endemic, as they're called); we saw nearly two dozen of these specialties.  Some are seriously hard to find, some are flat out abundant.  For example, this WHITE-THROATED TOWHEE was probably the easiest of the endemics to see; they were around our hotel and at many of our stops:
The COLLARED TOWHEE, however, was a bit more difficult.  Although we had decent looks, my photos were pretty grim.  Here you can see the bold head pattern as one popped up out of the ravine:
One of our first stops on Day 1 yielded another endemic, the very attractive BRIDLED SPARROW.  Although the photo doesn't do it justice, you can see it's not your average brown streaky thing:
Even worse of a photo, this is a OAXACA SPARROW:
Yes, sure, it doesn't look too exciting.  However, this is one of the most range-restricted species we saw on the entire trip.  Not only is endemic to Mexico, it's very nearly endemic just to the state of Oaxaca!

Yet another Mexican endemic that we saw almost right away was one that I was especially eager to see, the GRAY-BREASTED WOODPECKER.  Although this species shares a genus with many of ours from the US, it looks quite different!
As one would expect being in the tropics, we ended up seeing a variety of flycatchers.  Included was the cinnamon-colored TUFTED FLYCATCHER, a cute and crested species:
Avert your eyes.  We saw several empids as well; DUSKY FLYCATCHERS were the most numerous:
Here's something brighter.  The VERMILION FLYCATCHER was one of the most widespread species on our tour.  If red is your favorite color, this should do it for you:
The vireos on tour were especially rewarding.  The Oaxaca area hosts several endemic specialties in this family including some visually-stunning ones.  This CHESTNUT-SIDED SHRIKE-VIREO was one of my favorites:
This GOLDEN VIREO is only found in Mexico (and it's a nice splash of color, too!):
Our trip snagged a few more endemic vireos too including the tricky DWARF VIREO and, another favorite of mine, the SLATY VIREO:
Most of the raptors we saw were familiar to us ABA birders.  The most common were CRESTED CARACARAS that dotted the countryside but RED-TAILED HAWKS and WHITE-TAILED KITES were pretty widespread as well.  Here's the latter:
Not to be confused with the previous species, we saw a few WHITE-TAILED HAWKS hunting in the open country as well.  Here's one hovering, watching below for prey:
More of a surprise was this GRAY HAWK, a rare wintering species that was a first-ever for our Oaxaca tours:
Warblers.  Many people love them for their bright colors and whatnot.  We ended up with quite the collection of about 20 species, some wintering in Oaxaca and some that are resident there.  The RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLERS were a common sight:
Higher up in the mountains, we ran across PAINTED REDSTARTS from time to time.  This black, red, and white, warbler was always a welcome sight:
But most people were waiting for THE warbler, the RED WARBLER:
What a nice looking bird, eh?!   If you've seen one in the wild, that means you've been to the mountains of Mexico.  It's found nowhere else.

Although maybe not as flashy as those warblers, the selection of wrens on this trip was still interesting (we ended up with 8 different kinds).  Included was this Mexican endemic BOUCARD'S WREN:
These large guys are quite similar to our Cactus Wrens from the the desert regions of the SW United States.  However, the Boucard's is limited to a small region of southern Mexico.

Another wren that's in the same genus as Cactus and Boucard's is the GRAY-BARRED WREN.  Interestingly, this species is highly arboreal and is almost always up in the tops of trees.  Additionally, this species isn't found in the dry, scrubby lowland areas; it's found high up the mountains in pine forests:
We had two subspecies of HOUSE WRENS on our trip:  the migrant "Northern" ones (that breed commonly in the U.S.) and the "Brown-throated" subspecies that prefer mountainous areas of SE Arizona and Mexico.  Here's the latter:
We were lucky to spend time around three different species of woodcreepers on this trip.  Although the Mexican endemic WHITE-STRIPED WOODCREEPER was seen briefly, I didn't manage a photo of it.  However, the SPOT-CROWNED WOODCREEPER performed pretty well.  This species ranges from Mexico south to Panama:
One of the grand-daddies of the woodcreepers, the very-large STRONG-BILLED WOODCREEPER was also spotted briefly:
Interestingly, the birds on Cerro San Felipe north of Oaxaca sound drastically different from the Strong-billeds found other places.  Perhaps it deserves a split?

One of the highlights for me personally was a small, dark blue bird that came in high overhead.  In fact, my only photo of it is extremely bad:
But what is it?  It's a jay, actually.  A DWARF JAY.  A what now?  This species of jay is in fact the smallest member of the entire Corvid family.  But why is it special?  The Dwarf Jay is endemic to mountains of southeast Mexico, from southern Veracruz to northern Oaxaca.  In other words, a TINY area.  In fact, the mountain that we saw it on, Cerro San Felipe, is the best place in the world to hope to see this poorly-understood species.

Although most of the gnatcatchers we were around were the common BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS, our group saw some WHITE-LORED GNATCATCHERS on one of our days.  Turns out this was a new one for me too:
Our group ended up seeing nine different varieties of hummingbirds despite the very dry year and dearth of flowering banks that we hoped for.  This GREEN-FRONTED HUMMINGBIRD was a nice find from the lower elevations towards the Pacific Coast (not present in the Oaxaca Valley):
This adult PLAIN-CAPPED STARTHROAT was feeding a youngster at the ruins of Mitla on our walk through:
We saw other hummers like BERYLLINE, MAGNIFICENT, BLUE-THROATED, the hard-to-find BEAUTIFUL, and this WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD:
One of the evenings we had a picnic dinner at about 10,000 feet on Cerro San Felipe.  Although way chillier than you'd imagine the tropics being, we had a blast as we looked for nightbirds on our way down the mountain.  For starters, we saw the mysterious FULVOUS OWLS:
Why mysterious?  Because birders weren't even sure what species this was until recently.  Were they Mexican Barred Owls?  Or Fulvous Owls from farther south?  Turns out, they're the latter.

We also had nice looks at a WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL and even this FLAMMULATED OWL:
I was especially happy about this sighting; these can be tricky little devils to see when you actually want to.  In fact, I think this was only my 2nd ever visual of this species despite them ranging through much of the western U.S.

We had more than owls on our owling trip though; we found several MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILLS at one of our stops.  You're basically looking for a clump of gray and brown leaves with eyeshine:
While we're on the topic of nightbirds, we saw another owl on our trip (but this one hunts during the day).  The "Mountain" subspecies of NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL was seen exceptionally well on our last day:
Since I'm sure you're wondering, they DO have roadrunners in this part of Mexico.  It took us a day or two of looking for the tricky-to-see LESSER ROADRUNNER but we eventually struck gold and found a couple.  Here's one that's buried back in some brush:
We had a nice variety of orioles on tour, actually.  We ended up seeing 7 different species which is something that's not likely to happen on any United States tour.  One of the species we saw was this AUDUBON'S ORIOLE:
This subspecies, Icterus graduacauda dickeyae (the "Dickey's" subspecies), is found only in Mexico.

Earlier this year I was in Costa Rica where the ROSE-THROATED BECARDS don't actually have rose-colored throats.  In Mexico, however.....
We have BUSHTITS here in the U.S... but they sure don't look like the ones in Oaxaca!  Get a load of this thing.  Miniature shrike, anyone?
I don't think I expressed it all that much in my body language BUT I was actually really pumped to finally see a BLACK-HEADED SISKIN!  This species ranges from Mexico south to Nicaragua.  I didn't crush it but managed just a few documentation shots from a distance:
Also there in the higher elevations, we chanced into a small flock of RED CROSSBILLS:
At times, they were perched next to this species, the GRAY SILKY-FLYCATCHER:
It was tough... which do you focus the scope on?!  Honestly, I probably paid more attention to the silkies.  :-)

Ooh, our trip was NOT without a motmot sighting!  The RUSSET-CROWNED MOTMOT was a specialty that we snagged on our only venture down in elevation towards the coast:
Most of us are familiar with motmots being in lush habitats of the tropics.  But THIS is the habitat of the Russet-crowned!
Pretty dry and "deserty", right?

A family of birds that specialize in the dry and desert regions are the thrashers.  We saw a few species including CURVE-BILLED THRASHER and, the crowning jewel, the OCELLATED THRASHER:
This thrasher, although it doesn't look like much in the above photo, is a MAJOR skulker and can be almost impossible to see.  Not only did we eventually get looks of this range-restricted Mexican endemic, it was singing in view for half an hour!  A spectacular show.

Besides the birding, Oaxaca is known for amazing food and some world renowned archaeological sites.  Our schedule allowed us to visit several of these sites including Mitla, Yagul, and of course Monte Alban.  Now, I'm not much of a historian but seeing such old structures and hearing about the ancient cultures dating back thousands of years... it was fascinating!

Here's a building at Mitla:
Inside, the walls had way more detail than I was expecting:
This rock art, some of it original and dating back thousands of years, was too cool:

Nothing topped the incredible view from the top of Monte Alban though.  I'll leave with that panorama:
After it was all said and done, our successful trip netted more than 180 species and all within close proximity to Oaxaca City.  Heck, we even stayed in the same hotel every night on tour.  I am slated to help with this tour again in 2018 and I'm already looking forward to it!

But for now, my eyes are ahead to my next destination... tomorrow I make my way towards Colombia.  See you on the other side....