10 April 2018


Although I've been back in Missouri for a couple of weeks now, the last tour I was on was to Oaxaca, Mexico.  I know some of you might not know how to pronounce Oaxaca... it sounds like "wuh HAW kuh".  Ok, moving on...

Anyway, I'd say the tour was rather successful (I might be a bit biased though).  This tour is a lot of fun because we get to stay in the same hotel for all of our nights.  No packing and repacking, just various daytrips.  Our triplist nearly hit the 200 mark (which is above average) and I think we ended with 25 Mexican endemics too which is a great haul.

Here are a few pictures, roughly in taxonomic order....

Our best luck with owls actually came during the day.  This NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL swooped in and landed right in front of us:
These are Glaucidium gnoma gnoma, the nominate subspecies, often referred to as "Mountain" Northern Pygmy-Owls.  This subspecies ranges from Arizona south through most of Mexico.

This swift photo is kinda painful, if I'm being honest:
Why?  Well, we had some crazy high swifts flying over at one point above Teotitlan but they were too high to make out much.  I snapped some photos and moved on, admitting that they're too high to do much with.  Now, in hindsight, and after reviewing the photos (and with the help of some folks who know swifts much better than I do), we think this bird belongs to the Cypseloides genus.  Maybe this is the little-known White-fronted Swift (Cypseloides storeri), a species that some aren't even convinced IS a species.  Perhaps they're instead a migratory subspecies of White-chinned Swift (Cypseloides cryptus) from farther south?  So yeah, this could have been one of those mythical White-fronted Swifts except that the not-uncommon Chestnut-collared Swift could also be around and that just complicates identification further.  -tosses hands up-

This tour managed to stir up nine species of hummingbirds, three of which are endemic to Mexico.  In fact, the most common hummingbird overall was the DUSKY HUMMINGBIRD.  Here's one on the hotel grounds:
Kinda bland, huh?  This is in the Cynanthus genus which it shares only with Broad-billed Hummingbird.  Here's a screen capture from eBird showing the entire range of Dusky Hummingbird:
The Oaxaca Valley, which is where the city is, sits at about 5000' in elevation.  Although it's dry and looks a bit "deserty", it's nearly the elevation of Denver.  However, one of the day-trips took us down in elevation to about 3600' and that lower elevation gave way to a different variety of birds including one of our stars, the RUSSET-CROWNED MOTMOT: 
This motmot would be endemic to western Mexico except that it's found a little bit in Guatemala as well.

Although this photo is one of the worst from the trip, I was unusually excited to see this blob near the ruins of Monte Alban:
It's a PILEATED FLYCATCHER, a species that's mostly confined to western Mexico (it used to be thought to be endemic).  It also happened to be a world lifer for me (not that that matters much).  It's in the Xenotriccus genus which it shares only with Belted Flycatcher (found farther south in Mexico and Guatemala).

The timing of this tour meant we were around a lot of singing birds.  One of the species we saw frequently was the VERMILION FLYCATCHER.  Here's a male doing his dramatic on-the-wing display where he puffs out his breast and flaps in slow-motion:
Pyrocephalus is the genus.  Pyro = fire... you get the idea....

Switching to some vireos... Mexico really is the land of the vireo.  We tallied nine different species of vireos and three of them are only found in Mexico.  First, we have the somewhat drab DWARF VIREO:
This little devil can be extremely hard to see.  So when this one popped up, out into the open, we tried to enjoy it best we could!  And yes, it does kinda look like a Ruby-crowned Kinglet!  Vireo nelsoni, it was named after the first president of the American Ornithologists' Union, Edward William Nelson (1855-1934), who spent more than a decade in Mexico.  Here are all the pins in eBird for this endemic vireo:
We had success with wrens as well, tallying eight species on this tour.  I especially enjoyed our time around the various Campylorhynchus species including Rufous-naped, Boucard's, and Gray-barred wrens; the latter two being endemic to Mexico.  Here's a GRAY-BARRED WREN probing some mosses:
Unlike most of the wrens in this genus, this arboreal species prefers treetops in moist forests at high elevations instead of dry, scrubby habitat.

On the morning that we drove down in elevation, to the southeast towards the coast and the city of Tehuantepec, we dropped into the range of the WHITE-LORED GNATCATCHER:
I know, you're probably wondering where the white lore is!  Well, the name isn't accurate for the breeding males... they're nicely capped in black.  However, the nonbreeding plumage has a bit of a white eyebrow.

Melanotis caerulescens, or BLUE MOCKINGBIRD, is a big, usually secretive mimic endemic to Mexico.  As you can see below, it's dark blue overall with a black ear patch (melanotis = black ear):
Although these mockingbirds can be notoriously tricky to see, we had decent luck, perhaps due to more of them being in song at that season.  There's only one other species in the Melanotis genus and that's the Blue-and-white Mockingbird that's found from southeastern Mexico to El Salvador (I still crave that one).

One of the crowd favorites from this tour was the GRAY SILKY-FLYCATCHER, seen here:
Silky-flycatchers aren't closely related to the New World (or Old World) flycatchers at all, actually.  They're in their own family, there are only four species in the world, and all are found between the southwestern US and Panama.  If you're familiar with birds from the US, you may have heard of one of them... the Phainopepla.  Named "silky-flycatcher" for their plumage, these species specialize in eating fruit as well as some flycatching.  Interestingly, three of the four silky-flycatchers have crests.

Our tour enjoyed a variety of warblers, 17 species to be exact.  Included was a mix of migrants that were heading north, and resident warblers that will breed in Mexico.  One of those breeders is the CRESCENT-CHESTED WARBLER:
Can you see the blurry crescent-shaped mark on the chest?  This species, which has a pitiful song (if I'm being honest), favors pine-oak forests in montane regions from Mexico south to Nicaragua.

Here's that pitiful song:

Another of the main targets on this trip is the Mexican endemic RED WARBLER:
This attractive warbler had never been seen outside of Mexico... until yesterday when one was found in Arizona.

Another of the endemics we spent time around was the very attractive BRIDLED SPARROW:
This stunner is in the Peucaea genus alongside a few species you'd recognize from the US such as Cassin's, Botteri's, and Rufous-winged sparrows.  Here's another screen-capture from eBird, this time showing all the pins for the range-restricted Bridled Sparrow:
I'll continue with the endemic theme for this guy, the WHITE-THROATED TOWHEE:
Even among all the Mexican endemics, this species is especially range-restricted; it's nearly restricted just to the state of Oaxaca!  Here are the pins:
Lucky for us, these were abundant and we enjoyed lots of looks on lots of days.  They were fairly common on the hotel grounds even.

Here's another species I was especially happy to find, it's a RED-HEADED TANAGER:
Although it doesn't really look like much, this is a Piranga tanager which I find interesting.  That is the genus of Scarlet, Summer, Western, Flame-colored, Hepatic tanagers, etc.... a genus a lot of us are very familiar with.  So, did you know that there was an endemic Piranga in the mountains of western Mexico?  Maybe you did.  Either way, I've always been a fan of these and it was just last fall that I also saw my first Rose-throated Tanager, another in that genus.

Finishing up the bird photos for this post, I'll end with one last Mexican endemic.  It's the drop-dead gorgeous ORANGE-BREASTED BUNTING:
This is in the genus Passerina alongside Indigo, Lazuli, Painted, Varied buntings, etc.  Even within such a colorful genus, this particular species is a stunner.  I feel like it could have been named Cyan-backed Bunting or Green-fronted Bunting but Orange-breasted will have to do.

Although our Field Guides tour does focus on birding, we also visit a number of interesting human-history sites and our driver, Jorge Hererra, is also an accomplished and certified guide!  We visited the ruins at Mitla, Yagul, and Monte Alban.  Some of the stone work at Mitla was pretty wild:

... but it's hard to beat the 2500 year old Monte Alban in terms of grandeur.  Here's one of the views we enjoyed:
These buildings have endured for 2500 years.  Let that sink in.  That's 500 BC.  Oceans away from the Middle East, and many centuries before Christ walked on this earth... Monte Alban was already a thriving economic and socio-political center for the Zapotec people.  They had their own beliefs, their own religions.  Interesting to ponder.