Thursday, March 31, 2016

Durango Highway, Mexico 2/20-23/16

When I visited Gambell and Nome in Alaska back in 2006, our guide in Nome was Dave MacKay.  I really liked his guiding style and skills, so we continued to stay in touch.  Dave lives in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico with his wife Jen.  I visited them in 2008, and again in 2009 when we joined him on what turned out to be 2 consecutive "big days" in Sonora.  My friend Marty was part of those 2 days, and his nephew, David Wilson--a documentary film maker--and his crew recorded the trip.  From the film footage, David made a 13 minute short called the Big Birding Day which was shown at several film festivals, and also ran on PBS.

I had wanted to do a birding trip guided by Dave in Mexico, so this past February I organized a group of some of my favorite birding friends (Bert Filemyr, Neil Hayward, Laura Keene, Doreene Linzell and Dan Sanders, and Marty Riback) to spend 10 days birding part of the Durango Highway, and the area around San Blas. Today's post covers the Durango part of the trip. All the photos were taken by Bert Filemyr unless otherwise indicated.

We all flew into Mazatlan on Friday the 19th so that we would be ready to start at sunrise on the 20th.  After scoping the ocean in front of our waterfront hotel, we ate a light breakfast, and then jumped into our van to start working our way up into the mountains by way of the Durango Highway.  Our first couple of stops were still at lower elevation where we saw 30-40 rufous-bellied chachalacas.

We also had our first sightings of citreoline trogons, and purple-backed jays.  Other birds included white-collared seedeater, grayish saltator, sinaloa crow, curve-billed thrasher, and blue-gray gnatcatcher.

We had chosen the end of February for the trip because the weather was normally dry and the air temp even at sea level would be comfortable.  As it turned out we got it half right in that we saw no rain, but temps in general ran about 10 degrees warmer than normal, so by the afternoons even in the mountains it was fairly toasty, and at sea level it meant we took a siesta.

On our first day at lower elevation it was very warm.  When we stopped in La Noria for a rustic lunch, I made the mistake of passing on the molcajete which may have been the most unique dish of the entire trip.  It is a hot broth poured into a heated volcanic rock bowl. Raw shrimp and some cheese are then added which cook in the steaming liquid.

As we made our way up to Copala where we would spend the next 3 nights, we stopped to check out various spots where Dave had had good success in the past.  In most cases we found the target birds, like the white-tailed hawk, and the ivory-billed woodcreeper, but not always.

Our hotel for the night was Daniel's which did quite well until they completed a new toll road that bypasses the town of Copala.  Also, the cruise ships would send day buses up to Copala, but with the increased news coverage of the drug cartel wars in Mexico, tourists were not so keen on making day trips away from the port cities.  As you can see, the room rates were extremely reasonable (when we were there a dollar was worth 18 pesos).

After walking up thru the village and having a simple dinner at Alejandro's, we returned to Daniel's to try to hear a mottled owl.  Our efforts proved fruitless, so we turned in for the night.  About 4:30 AM I heard the mottled owl calling outside my window, but when I got up an hour later to look for it, it had left.  We did have a non-stop calling ferruginous pygmy owl, but it remained well hidden in the thick foliage of the tree it was in.

We were on the road before sunrise to make the drive up to the tufted jay preserve which is at about 8,000 ft elevation.  We stopped soon after the sun was up near a lumber mill to check out some mixed habitat with particular focus on finding a bumblebee hummer, but none were there.  Instead we had a rufous hummer.

We did see many other birds like brown-backed solitaire, golden vireo, greater pewee, tufted flycatcher, white-throated thrush, and rufous-capped warbler.

We next stopped a short way into the preserve to check on a stygian owl roost, but the pair that had been seen there just a few days before were not around. We did see several warbler species including our first crescent-chested, hermit, Townsend's, black and white, and grace's warblers of the trip; ruby-crowned kinglet;  common raven; and Scott's oriole; and hepatic, flame-colored and red-headed tanagers.

As we approached the preserve entrance we found both green-striped and rufous-capped brush-finches.  Inside the preserve we did located both black-throated magpie jays and tufted jays.  The preserve was created because this is the only place the tufted jay exists.

While enjoying the tufted jays we heard and then found a mountain trogon. We also found our first white-striped woodcreeper.

Dave heard a less roadrunner calling which we were able to track down. In the same area we got brief looks at a russet nightingale-thrush.

Just before having lunch we also had unusually good views of the generally very skulky blue mockingbird, and nearby was a white-eared hummer on its nest. There were several gray silky-flycatchers at the preserve as well.

Instead of returning on the very windy old road, we came down the mountain on the much faster toll road where we found out first bat falcon for the trip.

Back in Copala we pretty much had a repeat of the night before with a simple meal at Alejandro's and once again could not turn up the mottled owl at dusk which might have been because of the party just down the hill from Daniel's which as it turned out went on all night.

The next morning we once again had the ferruginous pygmy owl calling repeatedly, and this time we were able to find its perch.  After another quick breakfast we once again went back up to the tufted jay preserve in hopes of finding the stygian owl, but to no avail.  We saw many of the same passerines from the day before at the owl location adding white-breasted and pygmy nuthatches.

We drove up to the preserve entrance again, and finally saw our first red warbler, later we had a zone-tailed hawk sighting.

We went part way back down the preserve gravel road to a turn off that took us down into a drainage where we had lunch.  At our lunch spot we had Scott's and Bullock's orioles.  We then walked down the drainage where we found a second golden-browed warbler for the trip, as well as several slate-throated redstarts and another red warbler.  This drainage had generally been a good spot for gray-collared becard, but not for us.

We stopped at Petaca on the way home to try for rusty sparrow and rusty-crowned ground-sparrow, but found neither one.  After returning to Copala, we walked one of the roads before dinner and finally got good looks at yellow grosbeaks.  One more dinner at Alejandro's was followed by another evening without a mottled owl showing up.

On Tuesday morning it was time for us to finish up our Durango Highway visit, so we spent the morning after our early breakfast at Panuco road.  One of the highlights was locating a colima pygmy owl which we had been hearing for a couple of days already.

We also found a Nutting's flycatcher that even opened its mouth which allowed us to confirm that it was orange. Other birds of note during the morning included military macaws; pale-billed woodpeckers; orange-fronted parakeets; black-throated magpie jays; thick-billed kingbirds; elegant trogons, and a heard only vermiculated owl.

Our drive to San Blas was about 4 hours, so by mid day it was time to move on.  As we returned to sea level, the bird life changed so we picked up enroute our first Harris's hawk.  Where the highway ran next to the Pacific ocean we began to see more waterfowl such as various egrets, herons. and waders.  Just as we approached San Blas we stopped at a wetland that had lots of water birds and of course crocodiles.

We were more than happy to reach Hotel Garza Canela which would be our home for the next 6 nights while we did our birding around San Blas.  And we were even happier to begin to enjoy the fine food that was offered daily on the hotel menu.

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