Oaxaca, Mexico JOURNAL

April 16 - 22, 2004

Narrative by Martin Selzer and photos by Lynn Jackson

Thanks go out to our able Field Guide Leaders: Chris Benesh and Mitch Lysinger and to all of our other trip participants: Bets Buchanan, Chuck Kolesar, Dee Lyon, Carol Meyer, Wayne Schweinfest and Audrey Watkins.

See Bird List

16- April 2004 - Friday

Today we travel to Oaxaca! I picked Lynn up at 03:30 to get us to the airport in time for our 06:30 flight as recommended by Delta. No problem with traffic or parking at AMPCO. Going through security my carry on was hand searched because I had stupidly moved some stuff from my checked bag to my carry on and forgot my penknife had been safely squirreled away until I moved it. I had a choice of going back and checking it through or losing the knife and getting a new one when I got home. I went with the shopping option. We took off and landed in Atlanta about 20 minutes early and had similar good fortune with our flights to Mexico City and Oaxaca. We collected our luggage and shared a cab to the hotel with another trip participant who we had met in Atlanta. We arrived at out hotel, Mision de Los Angeles around 16:00.

We unpacked as this was going to be our home for the next 6 nights and took a walk on the grounds for about 90 minutes. Besides seeing that this is a very nice hotel with lots of rooms, a pool and two tennis courts, there were good birds around. During our brief walk, we had White-throated Towhee, Rufous-backed Robin, Clay-colored Robin, Vermillion Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Berylline Hummingbird, Inca Dove; Wilson’s, Audubon’s, Nashville and Yellow Warblers, Orchard Oriole and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

We met at 19:00 for dinner in the hotel’s dining room to meet our fellow trip participants. Our plan for tomorrow was breakfast at 06:00, head to and above Teotitlan del Valle for birds and then back into town for lunch and our spinning and weaving demonstration.

17- April 2004 - Saturday

The group was either early or right on time for breakfast and that is always a good thing on a trip. Breakfast was a plate of fresh fruit, fresh baked breads and eggs. Not a bad way to start a day. We were on our way to Teotitlan del Valle at 06:45. We made a stop along the road well below town for Botteri’s Sparrow, Boucard’s Wren and a few other things that were about. Our primary targets were above town in the Oak-Pine forest and that included Golden Vireo, Dwarf Vireo, and Ocellated Thrasher. Just as we were entering town a Crested Caracara flew down the middle of the road towards our two vans. Even though we were only 8 participants, we had two leaders and two 12-passenger vans. Lots of room for everyone!

We left town and stayed on the road to Benito Juarez. Just after we crossed the reservoir dam we worked a Rufous-crowned Sparrow in the vegetation in a nearby arroyo. Around/in the reservoir we had numerous Cattle Egrets, one Snowy Egret, a few Great Blue Herons, Spotted Sandpipers, lots of Least Grebes and Barn, Violet-green and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. We were in the second van and lagged behind a bit and picked up a Dusky Flycatcher and MacGillvray’s Warbler. Just outside of town as the road started to climb, we stopped to watch several good-sized flocks of Lesser Goldfinch cross the road. Because of our dawdling back a second time we had two Bridled Sparrows pop into view right by the road. We radioed to Chris’s van and they came back to work the sparrows with us.

Our first stop had been a few hundred meters further up the road but there were birds here so we stopped. In addition to the sparrows, this stretch of road had a few fruiting trees still in bloom and that meant lots of bird activity. Around us we found Black-headed Grosbeaks, Black-vented Orioles (many of these were decidedly more orange than depicted in Howell and Webb. Almost like the two color races of Hooded Oriole), Western Scrub Jays, Dusky, Berryline and Magnificent (female) hummingbirds, lots of Gray-Silky Flycatchers, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet and two Lesser Roadrunners. With some effort and patience, Chris was able to call the roadrunners into view and one of them finally flew up to an open perch to call and defend its territory. Wow, what a start and we still had lots more to see.

Our next major stop was for Golden Vireo as one was singing just of the road in a gully. As I hoped out of the van I was pretty sure I spied the vireo but before I was able to get anyone on the bird to actually see it, we had made enough noise to flush it from its perch. A few people had just got on it to see it fly away. When we finally called the bird back into view my initial identification was confirmed. Before we could really start to work on the vireo, I found a small group of Elegant Euphonia across the wash. Fortunately, they were much more accommodating and the gang did manage to see them. That is one spiffy bird! While scanning the euphonies, I stumbled across a Pileated Flycatcher. Chris was able to get on the bird but it was barely in sight and he really couldn’t do much with it. Again a later good study of a Pileated Flycatcher confirmed this identification too. I guess all that studying was paying off.

We went back to hunting down the Golden Vireo and by now a Dwarf Vireo had also started to call so between them Chris and Mitch went vireo trawling. Eventually we all had at least glimpses of both birds, some of us much better than others. The Golden was much more cooperative than the Dwarf but that could be because the Dwarf Vireo is a very kinglet-like bird and not as eye catching as the Golden Vireo. The real stunning of the endemic vireos, the Slaty Vireo, was to come tomorrow. While this was all taking place a juvenile Common Black Hawk soared overhead (large pale wing panels, a very banded tail and secondary wing pattern). We also had distant but very acceptable looks at Ocellated Thrasher and Nutting’s Flycatcher on the hillside.

We kept moving up the hillside and were able to pull in a few Painted Redstarts at the next stop as we were beginning to have various types of pine trees intermixing with the oaks. We pulled up to another gully (at about 2100 meters) and had some wonderful stuff there. A pair of Tufted Flycatchers, several Rufous-Capped Warblers, Blue Mockingbird scolding from the underbrush (it eventually came into view), and a male Western Tanager. The was a lot of activity in the vegetation including a somewhat uncooperative Slate-throated Redstart, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Chestnut-capped Brush-finch, Rufous-capped Brush-finch and White-throated Robin. These species were seen by various members of the group in varying degrees of success.

I think at lunch Chris commented that we had hit the mother load of double hyphenated birds. We also had a much more cooperative female Mountain Trogon and finally after looking and looking for the entire 30-45 minutes we were at this stop a Brown-backed Solitaire perched out where we could see it sign its wonderful song. I never saw the Rufous-capped Brush-finch and only had repeated fly-bys of the nightingale-thrush. While we were working the solitaire, a Crescent-chested Warbler came in to view.

Anyway, it was about 13:15 and we had lunch reservations in town at Restaurant Tlamanalli de Abigail Mendoza Ruiz to be followed by our spinning and weaving demonstration. Lunch was fantastic with Hibiscus Tea, a squash soup, a chicken entrée, desert, coffee and Mescal on the table for sipping. All of the dishes were of Zapotec origin and all tasted great.

We then went to see our weaving demonstration. Teotitlan del Valle is renowned for its hand-spun, hand-dyed, hand-woven rugs and tapestries. This was one of the cultural highlights of the tour that made this more than just another wonderful birding adventure. About 17:00 we headed back to the hotel where we had dinner before calling it a day. Tomorrow would again start at 06:00 and we would be heading up into the hills of Cerro San Felipe in a different part of the valley.

18- April 2004 - Sunday

Breakfast was once again at 06:00 and we again hit the road at 06:45. Today we were going up into the mountains in the area known to birders as Cerro San Felipe. We stopped at a few arroyos in hopes of Oaxaca Sparrow but dipped out on just about anything at the first two stops. These weren’t exactly the most scenic arroyos in Mexico as evidence of humanity was widespread. At the third stop, we scrambled up a hillside trail and after considerable effort pulled in a Slaty Vireo that everyone managed to see. Anyway, the picture in Howell and Webb does not come anywhere near doing this bird justice. They describe it as unmistakable and striking and to paraphrase from Seinfeld, “it was real and it was spectacular!!” It instantly won everyone’s vote for outstanding bird of the trip and was never really subsequently challenged for the title. In fact, every time we saw it again the next two days further cemented it as our favorite and that included Chris and Mitch. Well Chris might have had a more favorite bird but that story will shortly follow. While many of our group struggled to finally see this stunner, the rest of us just enjoyed and enjoyed this little guy as he circled around in response to the tape.

While all of this was going on, Gray Silky-flycatchers were flying around us in twos and threes. As we were finally heading down the trail back to the vans, Chris thought he had heard a Hooded Yellowthroat. This too played even harder to get but we eventually nailed it too. This was a lifer for Chris and while not as aesthetically appealing as the Slaty Vireo, he seemed rather pleased with having finally seen it. We continued up the main road to get to our logging road into Cerro San Felipe but alas, the road was blocked. This wasn’t totally unexpected, as we knew we had to pay an entrance fee but the fact that no one was around to collect the fee and unlock the gate was somewhat unexpected. We quickly went to Plan B, which was to follow the road in the opposite direction. For a back up plan it worked out very well.

We drove in a short ways until we reached a point we could safely pull the vans off the road and leave them out of the way of traffic. Almost immediately we had a Common Raven sail overhead. Soon thereafter, we had a pair of Brown-throated House Wrens and another Crescent-chested Warbler. We next had a small flock of Gray-barred Wrens. Amongst this flock of wrens were a few more Crescent-chested Warblers and a rather uncooperative Chestnut-sided Shrike-vireo. Mitch took the snub of the shrike-vireo rather personally and did not relent in his pursuit of it until we ultimately were successful later in the trip.

While working shrike-vireo, we did have our first Golden-browed and Townsend’s Warblers, a Russet Nightingale-thrush and a flyover light phase Short-tailed Hawk. The Golden-browed Warbler is a beautiful bird and on any other trip would have been my favorite but even it couldn’t stand a candle next to the Slaty Vireo. We continued along the road coming across more Crescent-chested Warblers, Slate-throated Redstarts and a glimpse at a Chestnut-capped Brush –finch. We kept walking along the road and stumbled across the first of many Red Warblers we would see on both our trips to this area. Shortly after noon, Chris and Mitch walked back to the vans, came and picked us up and we headed back to the “right” side of the road as the gate had been opened.

We had lunch at the pull off near the 2 km point in the road. While the guys made up the curried tuna salad with golden raisins and cashews, Lynn, Dee, Wayne and I walked up the road for a bit birding. We did find an Olive-sided Flycatcher but not much else. After lunch we birded along this road from 13:30-17:30. Our first stop after lunch proved very successful as we found a Black Robin and a pair of Collared Towhees. We had the robin almost immediately and again the slower members of the group needed more time to get on this bird. Admittedly it did not sit very still but it was viewable. The pair of towhees was more accommodating but people still struggled a bit. Anyway, we continued along the road in hopes of Dwarf Jay. We made one or two unproductive stops before coming to the Dwarf Jay spot which is a little trickle of water coming down one side of the valley with a side logging road coming in from the other.

This road was rather active with Olive, Crescent-chested and Red Warblers, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper (briefly), Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Mexican Chickadee, White-eared Hummingbird, Hutton’s Vireo and many of the other usual suspects. Still we had no luck with the jays although the guides had heard them a long way off, up on the hillside. Around 17:00 we loaded up the vans and started for the barn. A very short way up the road I saw a small, thrush-like bird and we stopped to check it out. We never caught up with it but Mitch did notice a Dwarf Jay feeding quietly just besides the road. We all enjoyed this very difficult bird to find while we were about to call a few Stellar’s Jay in along with a second Dwarf Jay. Besides being rare, this is the only place in the Dwarf Jay’s range that they are reasonably accessible. These are very good looking jays with a deep blue body, back and wings, black mask and pale, bluish-white throat. The Stellar’s jay here are a rather interesting race having little or no crest along with lots of white above the eye. All in all it was a remarkable day. We started with a CMF of a bird in the Slaty Vireo and ending with an almost equally striking Dwarf Jay.

It was decided to again have dinner in town so at 19:15 we all met at the lobby and jumped into taxicabs to take us to the Zocalo. The restaurant, “Asador Vascor” was on the southwest corner of the square. The restaurant served more examples of some wonderful moles and other local delicacies.

19- April 2004 - Monday

Today was birding and our tour of Monte Alban. Breakfast was at the usual time and we departed close to 07:00. We birded the road below Monte Alban and had much better looks at Boucard’s Wren and Pileated Flycatcher. We also had a Blue Grosbeak and the ubiquitous White-throated Towhee and Rufous-capped Warbler.

We entered the grounds of Monte Alban about 08:30 and birded the east-facing hillside until our tour started at 10:30. Among the ruins, we had lots of Rock Wrens and two calling Canyon Wrens. On the hillside we again had Golden Vireo and Slaty Vireo. We still all marveled at the Slaty Vireo. We also had a few more Ocellated Thrashers, Dusky Hummingbirds, Blue Mockingbirds, Nutting’s Flycatchers and Western Wood-Pewee. While looking at a Black-vented Oriole a Black-and-White Warbler popped up. Soaring in the valley were single, White-tailed and Broad-winged Hawks. Hardly crippling looks at either but what a great place. Chris had mentioned Monte Alban was very obvious from the air as you take off and land in Oaxaca and he is correct as we saw it when we flew home. Of course being on the correct side of the plane helps!

As best anyone can figure out, construction of Monte Alban began about 500-600 BC. The first step was to remove about 100 meters of the mountaintop to level it out. This took some 300 years. From then until about 800 AD Monte Alban was occupied before being deserted for unknown reasons. The main courtyard is 270 meters in length and an acoustical phenomenon. Sounds carry easily from one end to the other without echoing. Our tour took us around the ball court, some of the minor temples, the observatory and the hospital. We had a wonderful guide who explained much of the cultural influences of Monte Alban and the Zapotec people. It was a wonderful two-hour tour on top of our birding visit. Hopefully my pictures will make up for the lack of description here. There was simply too much to take in and try to repeat correctly.

We went back to Mision de los Angeles for lunch and took a siesta reading by the pool from 14:00-16:30. We then walked into town to do a little shopping (I bought a carpet at one of the craft galleries Chris recommended) and sightsee. Besides shopping, we went into the Cathedral of Santa Domingo and the farmer’s market as well as walking around the Zocalo. We then just sat and watched people in the Zocalo. Between the tourists, street vendors and performers there was lots to watch. We meet the group at 19:00 at “El Narango” for dinner. While this appeared to a more gringo eating place compared to the previous restaurant which had many locals eating in it as well as tourists, the food was still very good. Every chef’s mole is a little different and that is what makes moles so wonderful.

20- April 2004 - Tuesday

It was breakfast at 06:00 and then we were off to look for Oaxaca Sparrow then to go back up into the Pine/Oak forest with a picnic lunch and dinner. The plan was to do some owling up on Cerro San Felipe even though in previous trips owling had not been all that successful. We stopped above the first two sparrowless arroyos and just below the Hooded Yellowthroat spot. Along the roadside we had a Plumbeous Vireo and Hermit Thrush. Chris went up the trail ahead of us and about 07:30 we all headed up. I trailed behind the group in classic Lynn-fashion and while the others tromped up the trail they flushed a sparrow back to me. I was able to get on it and watched it work the leaf litter. I called the group back to me, as I was really sure I had an Oaxaca Sparrow. Slowly the bird revealed all the field marks to me and to Wayne who was able to get beside me but for everyone slightly up the trail they just could not get the right angle. People could see the movement but only Wayne and I could see the dark, bold streaking on the back, strong facial pattern, white eye-crescents and rusty cap. Because of where the bird was, there was only the narrowest of viewing windows. The group continued to work the bird for everyone else for the next 75 minutes until everyone finally got on a pair along the lower trail.

Since I had great looks at the sparrow initially, I stayed out of the mess although we all had Rose-throated Becard, Slaty Vireo, a female Indigo Bunting and Nutting’s Flycatchers in the arroyo. I also had a pair of Painted Redstarts. Flying over the ridge was 6 or 7 Chestnut-collared Swifts and on the hillside were Long-tailed Wood-partridges calling but neither made it to my list as I needed more to consider them having been seen.

We continued up the road to Cerro San Felipe and pulled off just below our logging road. At this stop we had three red Crossbills, Collared Towhees, Townsend’s Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. We pulled back onto our main road up here and again stopped at the 2 km pull off for our mid-morning snack. Here we drummed up Tufted Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Hammond’s Flycatcher, American Robin and my second lifer for the day, Rufous-capped Brush-finch. Eventually a pair came into view. We continued up the road until we reached the campground where we had our lunch with a couple of the free-range cows that kept us company during the day. While the guys fixed up lunch, Lynn, Dee and I went up the road birding and could only find two Mexican Chickadees.

Lunch ended about 13:30 and we continued up the road, stopping occasionally to bird and to otherwise dodge logging trucks. Unfortunately, we did a better job dodging the logging trucks than we did finding birds. A walk along a side road turned into a nice walk along a side road and not much else. We boldly predicted that things would pick up at 16:00 and it must have been 16:00 somewhere when things actually did pick up about 60 minutes later.

Mitch started off trawling for a Chestnut-sided Shrike-vireo calling on the hillside below. As I said earlier this had become personal. The shrike-vireo won this battle too but Mitch was not deterred and vowed to eventually get the upper hand. While this was going on, I went it search of a Mountain Trogon calling nearby. The trogon was more interesting to me as the shrike-vireo had not proved to be very responsive and I had managed to get several good looks the previous day and I wanted to see a male Mountain Trogon. Eventually, two male trogons came into view and between them we had full frontal and backside views. We returned to the campground for our picnic dinner and tried to stir up a Mountain Pygmy-owl with fantastic success.

Dinner was a picnic of salmon salad with water chestnuts, capers and olives with chocolate cake for desert. I asked if it was expecting too much for them to have some cold milk to go along with my cake and I was told to go get some fresh from the cows that had been keeping us company today. In the twilight we checked out Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. About this time Mitch commented that it was about time to get in position for Whip-poor-will when one flew in front of us. We were able to finally find it calling in a pine tree below the campground. It was a male bird because of the extensive amount of white we could see in the tail. This is the Mexican Whip-poor-will (also found in southeast Arizona) and will likely be split sometime. It lives in the mountain pine forests, is non-migratory and has a burry call compared to the Whip-poor-will found in the Eastern and Southeastern US.

We tried for both Flammulated and Whiskered Screech-owl without much luck and had to jump into the bushes on two occasions as logging trucks were coming off the road in the dark. We loaded up into the vans and that was when Chris pointed out that Field Guides had been weighing the merits of this particular owling endeavor. We caught up to the second logging truck and rather than crawl behind it, sucking in lots of dust, we pulled over to wait. While we were waiting, we did some more stargazing including the Orion Nebulae. All of a sudden a Whiskered Screech-owl started to call. Chris was able to bring it in after a few trips back and forth across the road until it settled in nearby. By now the road was clear and at 21:15 we headed back to the hotel arriving about an hour later.

21- April 2004 - Wednesday

Today was our clean-up day as well as our chance to visit the ruins in Yagul and Mitla. Breakfast was again at 06:00 and we were on the road by 06:45. Who says routine isn’t necessary in one’s life? The road to Yagul leads through some agricultural fields. In these fields and the hedgerows around them we found Common Ground-dove, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, White-collared Seedeater, Groove-billed Ani and more of the birds we had been seeing. Just below the “gate” to Yagul, we had a pair of Gray-breasted Woodpeckers.

Once we were in Yagul and could scan the hillside better, we would see quite a few more of these local specialties. We walk and birded this area from 08:00-11:00. Besides the woodpecker, we did find a few female Beautiful Hummingbirds, our other target species for the morning. Although a male hummingbird would have been better, the females were rather distinct to anything we’d seen on the trip. With their green back, pale-buffy flanks and a white terminal band on a dark tail. We also added Ladder-backed Woodpecker to the trip list.

Yagul and Mitla are thought to have been separate city-states and each had a distinct architecture further suggesting that. The ball court at Yagul is the largest known in the Zapotec world and the second largest in all of Mesoamerica. Mitla represents yet a third age of culture and has much more intricate stonework and designs in its walls. Of these three sets of ruins we visited, Monte Alban had the simplest stonework even though it is far and away the most impressive of the three cities.

Mitla was vastly altered by the Spanish who destroyed much of the city to re-use the stones in the construction of the church they built in town. We spent about one hour in Mitla from 11:30-12:30 before heading to “El Patio” for lunch. This restaurant is located at KM28 on Route 190. This was another opportunity to enjoy the local cuisine and mescal.

We then returned to the road above Teotitlan del Valle for some final birding and boy did we clean up! Our first stop was above the highest point we had reached on our trip here on the first birding day of the tour. Chris and Mitch had almost immediate response to their tapes of White-striped Woodcreeper and Chestnut-sided Shrike-vireo. In fact they almost came in too fast as we had allowed lots of time just in case. We also had Rose-throated and Gray-collared Becards at the stop. The woodcreeper and shrike-vireo were the real targets up here as some people had missed the shrike-vireo previously and we all still needed the woodcreeper.

The Gray-collared Becard was a real bonus as it is more likely on the coastal extension. No one seemed to mind this surprise. With our main targets found, we headed back down the road and made a stop at the Rio Verde pulloff. Here we were able to call in Chestnut-capped Brush-finch and I was finally able to get a good look at an Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush. Our last stop was where we had the female Mountain Trogon previously. As we started to walk done the road a bit, two West Mexican Chachalacas were flushed from right besides the road and we got to watch them sail down the gully and out of sight. We also had a beautiful male Elegant Trogon here.

It was after 17:00 when we loaded up and started for the hotel but we did stop in Santa Maria de Tule to see the world’s largest Montezuma Cedar tree. At least the local tourist board claims it is the world’s largest and after having seen it, I can attest that it is one BIG tree! These measurements are old enough to be on a bronze plaque by the tree so it is probably even bigger but the height is 42+ meters, the diameter is 14.2+ meters and the circumference/girth is 58+ meters. We had trouble figuring out exactly what the last measurement was as the Spanish did not translate easily. Dinner was back at the hotel one last time.

22- April 2004 - Thursday

Today was our day to travel home while the rest of the group continued on with the extension. The hotel fixed breakfast especially for us as the rest of the group was up and out by 06:00 and we did not have to leave for the airport until 06:45. Mitch met us for breakfast as he was not going on the extension either and he had graciously offered to take us to the airport even though his flight was not for a few hours after ours departed. We were grateful for the ride, not that another taxi ride in Oaxaca would have been a problem.

Anyway, we arrived at the airport without any problem and with time to spare so the three of us have a cup of coffee in the restaurant before we had to go through security for our flight. Mitch was then going off to study Portuguese and birds for his upcoming trip to Brazil. Our flights out of Oaxaca and Mexico City were fine. Customs in Atlanta was not too bad. Our flight out of Atlanta was delayed a bit because the plane was filled to capacity and the airlines doesn’t enforce the one bad/person carry on rule very tightly. By the time we boarded, all the overheads were filled with rollerboards and at least a half dozen had to be checked. This of course tied up the aisles and was a nuisance to those of us boarding last and just wanted to get home! Anyway, we arrived safe and sound and so did our luggage.

Final count for MQS: 34 lifers, 139 species and a very, very nice first taste of birding in Mexico.
Final count for LCJ: 21 lifers and 149 species.

Return to Main Page