Oaxaca, Mexico Part II – The Pacific

After 8 days in the mountains and in the City of Oaxaca, we did a major change of scenery and habitats and headed to Puerto Escondido – a port town and resort on Mexico’s Pacific coast in the state of Oaxaca. It’s known for its many beaches and buzzing nightlife. The town’s central principal beach is lined with palm trees and thatch-roofed bars. Our hotel was near busy Zicatela Beach renowned for its Mexican Pipeline surf break. The change of scenery was matched by the change in weather – hot and humid (too hot and humid) – high SPF sun tan lotion was a must. Our hotel was on the beach and the view from our third floor room was terrific.

No time to bird when we arrived – a brief rest and respite from the sun and humidity and then it was time for dinner. The group split up and went separate ways as there were a number of options. A bit tired of tortillas (in every form) and mole, I opted for a hamburguesa and was very pleased. Cold Mexican beer helped. We all looked forward to the next morning – a short drive northwest along the coast to the Manialtepec Lagoon where we would board a small boat with guide and boatman Lalo and finally get close to the birds. It would be a spectacular morning.

Friday November 19 – We arrived early in bright sunshine but not yet too hot or humid. The lagoon is about 4 miles long lined primarily with mangroves. There were birds everywhere. I was particularly looking forward to this part of the trip for Cindy. When we first met, our first birding venture was to the Semiahmoo Spit in Blaine Washington very near the Canadian border. I have found that water birds are the best way to introduce newcomers to birding. The birds are relatively large, relatively close, often still or slow moving and often very charismatic. They also surprise new birders to see so many different species that are not just ducks or gulls but unique types of each and also some others that may seem like ducks but are really grebes, or loons or alcids – birds they had no idea existed. Cindy really enjoyed Semiahmoo with her first “wow” being a Black Oystercatcher and the second a male Harlequin Duck. Maybe she wasn’t hooked but she was interested for more. There were no ducks or grebes or loons or alcids at the lagoon but there were many others – all a treat. I was not expecting any lifers, although there were some longshots, but I was hoping for many photo opportunities and I was not disappointed.

The first birds we saw were two Greater Frigatebirds soaring overhead even before we launched and then almost as soon as we pushed off we we had an adult Anhinga – perched close by with its wings spread – drying out in the sun. Known as a “snake bird” due to its long and very thin neck, it was a particularly good first bird from the boat because the second bird was a juvenile or female Anhinga and the third was a closely related Neotropic Cormorant. Together they provided a great study in similarities and differences between species – an exercise in bird identification.

Adult Male Anhinga
Anhinga – Female or Immature
Neotropic Cormorant

Lalo was expert at spotting birds and maneuvering the boat quietly to the best position for great views and for photos. This was expertly demonstrated at a next sighting as he spied a Bare Throated Tiger Heron basking back in the mangroves. Unlike most of the species to be seen on this journey, the Tiger Heron is not found in the U.S. so there was great joy in finding one so quickly in the morning and so cooperative.

Bare Throated Tiger Heron

I am not going to try to report the observations in sequential order – irrelevant as good bird after good bird and good view after good view and good photo op after good photo op appeared at every inlet and bend in the lagoon. I have grouped the species by related groups with some commentary and picking out some special encounters. Enjoy!!

One early highlight was when Lalo moved the boat right into a flittering and perching flock of lovely Mangrove Swallows – another species not found in the U.S. Many were at eye level and some were too close for my camera’s focus. Later we would see more distant Gray Breasted Martins another swallow species not found in the U.S. although a single bird was seen and photographed in New York (of all places) by many excellent birders this past April.

Gray Breasted Martins

In addition to several Belted Kingfishers, common throughout the U.S., we had numerous good looks at two Kingfisher species that are prized ABA specialties in Texas and Arizona. The larger of the two is the Ringed Kingfisher and the smaller the Green Kingfisher. We saw several of each perched and fishing in the lagoon.

Without question the stars of the show were the large waders – herons, ibises, egrets and spoonbills. Altogether we had fourteen species – with many individuals of each – often foraging together. The only species (in addition to the aforementioned Bare Throated Tiger Heron) that is not found in the U.S. was a Boat Billed Heron. This experience was reminiscent of very good birding days in Florida or Texas but for a single day at a single place, this was probably the best.

Little Blue Heron
Boat Billed Heron
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron

We only saw a single species of gull but had 4 species of terns – all together on one sandbar that also gave us looks at 8 species of shorebirds. The only gull was a Laughing Gull (misidentified originally as a Franklin’s Gull) and the terns included Sandwich, Common, Elegant and Royal. (Some on the tour recorded Caspian Tern but I believe they were more likely Royal.) One photo was a lucky shot that shows all four tern species together with their different bills being great fieldmarks to help differentiate and identify them.

Laughing Gull
Tern Bills – Royal, Sandwich, Elegant and Common
Least Sandpiper
Black Necked Stilt
Spotted Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Whimbrel

The remaining shorebirds seen included a much hoped for and surprise lifer – a Collared Plover. It had not even been listed on the trip materials – perhaps an oversight. It was the only plover that occurs regularly in the western hemisphere that I had not seen before. We first thought we had seen it from the boat but that turned out to be a basic plumaged Semipalmated Plover – a great disappointment when I checked my photos and had to change the ID. However, after getting out and then returning to the boat, I found a real one scurrying on the sand ahead of us.

Just after our stop at the sandbar we found a Common Black Hawk perched in the open. There had been a disappointing view of a flyby Common Black Hawk earlier in the trip with no photo. This time the photo was easy – a species I had seen many years ago in Arizona before I even had a camera. I still hope to get a photo in the ABA area someday.

Common Black Hawk

Throughout our ride we continuously saw more cormorants, many vultures (many Black and a few Turkey), several Ospreys, a Northern Harrier and Brown Pelicans. We also had both perched and flyby Orange Fronted Parrots and White Fronted Parakeets – both seen by me elsewhere in the tropics.

White Fronted Parrot
Orange Fronted Parakeet

In 2020 my only birding trip during the Covid doldrums was in November to Arizona. I was heavily masked; I knew the plane would be only half full and I could not resist the chance to add 3 species and a life photo to my ABA life lists. The hoped for photo was of a Northern Jacana – a bird I had seen in Texas in 1978 when they regularly occurred there. No camera and no photo in those days and then the species essentially disappeared from the U.S. with only a few records in the next 40 years. An adult Jacana was being seen regularly from the Ina Road bridge over the Santa Cruz River near Tucson. Also it was an incursion year for Ruddy Ground Doves in Arizona – a species I had never seen in the ABA and in fact had missed twice in Arizona before. There was also an outside chance to see a White Eared Hummingbird – another lifer. One had been seen regularly for the few weeks before I decided to go but had not been seen for a few days just prior to my departure – maybe? BUT the biggest appeal and the determining reason to go was a chance to see an Eared Quetzal. One or two had been reported regularly in the Chiricahuas for a few months – disappearing and then being relocated. There had been no other reliable reports of this species in the previous 12+ years – so I went with high hopes. I was successful in seeing all of the species and getting photos of all but the White Eared Hummingbird. I include this story because on the boat tip in the Manialtepec we had fabulous looks at at least 6 Northern Jacanas and a good look at a Ruddy Ground Dove. No Eared Quetzal and no White Eared Hummingbird – but I had gotten several decent photos of the latter earlier in the tour.

Ruddy Ground Dove

There would be two more great birds (for me) after we turned to head back. The first was a decent if distant look at two Cinnamon Rumped Seedeaters. I had less than satisfactory views of this species, a lifer, in Teotitlan without a photo. This was not a great photo but ID quality. This species was formerly called a White Collared Seedeater but that “species” was recently split into Morelet’s Seedeater (which is found at Salineno on the Rio Grande in Texas where I have seen it) and the renamed Cinnamon Rumped Seedeater (Photos of both are below.) The second species was a surprise West Mexican Chachalaca. The bigger surprise was that we had not seen this lifer elsewhere as it is pretty common and a large bird.

West Mexican Chachalaca – Poor Photo – but a Lifer

It had been a great trip – by far the best of the tour. All told I had 60 species with photos of 44 (and photos of 10 others ignored). New world lifers were White Fronted Parrot, West Mexican Chachalaca and Collared Plover and I also got my first photos of the Cinnamon Rumped Seedeater, Orange Fronted Parakeet and Common Blackhawk. More importantly it was great fun and Cindy loved it.

I am adding a non-birding photo that is a favorite from the trip – of a weathered and dignified gentleman that joined us as we waited at the reserve for our lunch. His image reminded me of how much we are outsiders visiting a land that has seen more than its share of outsiders. Perhaps tourists are better than conquistadores, but one wonders if all would have been much better if the Europeans and their progeny in the U.S. had never arrived.

After the great morning we had lunch and did a little inconsequential birding except adding our first good look at a Scissor Tailed Flycatcher and then returned to our hotels. I have not made any negative comments in this part of the report on this trip and after such a great morning, it carries less impact, but I am just not used to this approach to birding when I expect it to be all out all day. Granted the heat and humidity was perhaps limiting, but I am sure there were other places to go…not to be. Dinner that night was on our own. Following a recommendation from another member of the group I had a club sandwich – it was excellent.

Scissor Tailed Flycatcher

Saturday November 20 The next morning was another fun outing not fully focused on birds. First we had a chance for a little birding on the way to our targeted beach area. Two lifers were a Turquoise Crowned Hummingbird and a Yellow Winged Cacique. A truly awful photo of the first and the second was not much better.

Turquoise Crowned Hummingbird
Yellow Winged Cacique

The main visit of the day was to the Playa Escobilla Reserve where Olive Ridley Sea Turtles come in the hundreds of thousands to lay their eggs. We had made special arrangements to visit the area. Unfortunately it was not a day when the turtles were actually on the beach but we did get to watch and participate as hundreds of hatchlings that had been protected were released back to the sea. There were hundreds of turtles out in the ocean – perhaps to come in that night. The first two photos (not mine) show what might have been with the turtles on the beach, and the remainder are of the hatchlings being returned. I have read many accounts of seeing thousands of turtles on the beach coming to lay their eggs so it was a big disappointment not to actually see the adults.

Turtles Returning to Lay Eggs
Ridley Olive Sea Turtle
Hatchlings in Container
Hundreds of Turtles Ready to Go
Dash to the Sea
Laughing Gull Grabs a Turtle

Probably related to the turtles/hatchlings presence, the place was a major gathering place for vultures – hundreds of Black Vultures and a much smaller number of Turkey Vultures. Up the beach there were also dozens of Wood Storks.

Black Vulture
Wood Stork

We would have lunch at the reserve office but while we waited we had a chance to relax and have some juice from freshly cut coconuts and then we found a couple more birds including better looks with photos at White Throated Magpie Jays than we had had before and more importantly to me a chance to see and “photograph” some Groove Billed Ani’s. I had seen them in Texas many years ago, and more recently in Peru and Belize but without photos. They were buried in thick brush and I had to wait until everyone had their long distance scope views before trying to get close – so not very good photos but still better than nothing. We also heard a lifer Happy Wren. No visual and no photo but heard very clearly and distinctly.

White Throated Magpie Jay
Groove Billed Ani

This was to be the last birding of the visit as it was necessary to attend to a very important matter on the agenda – a trip to a clinic in Puerto Escondido where we all had Covid-19 tests which were required to be able to board flights to return to the U.S. It was a very efficient operation and fortunately we and everyone else had negative results. The group had a last dinner together and the next morning most of the group left for a 5+ hour trip back to Oaxaca where they would fly out the next day for their returns to the U.S.. Cindy and I remained in Puerto Escondido that night and our flight would be from there to Mexico City the next morning and then from there to Seattle.

Sunday November 21 On our extra day we swam in the Pacific – down near the surfers but not with them. The water was warm and very pleasant. That night we had excellent fish tacos and walked around the part of the Zicatela area with restaurants and clubs densely populated by mostly unmasked young people – many from Canada, the U.S. and Europe but also many from Mexico City and Guadalajara. We kept our distance and kept our masks on tight.

Monday November 22 The flights back home were easy and pleasant. The disappointments aside – mostly on the birding front – it had been a good trip. Not great – but no mishaps, no lost baggage, no illness and worthwhile on many fronts. I had picked up a number of chiggers in the field somehow and they remained an unpleasant reminder for about a week. Someday I will remember to tuck my pants into my socks. About that birding. All told I had seen or heard167 species for the week. That included 33 new species for my World Life List. Those numbers may sound significant, but they were both very disappointing to me. Especially after checking other reports from Oaxaca in the same general time period, there could and maybe should have been 2 or even three times as many new species and another 80 or more species overall as well – IF the focus of the group and tour had been more about birds. Granted to achieve that it would have meant giving up at least some of the cultural activities. So probably that was somewhat inevitable given the nature of the tour – the reason we chose it in the first place. But even discounting that, in addition to the quantitative disappointments it was really the qualitative disappointment for the birds we actually did hear or see that was more troubling. Far too many of them were heard only or seen poorly and at a distance. The big exception of course was the wonderful visit to the Manialtepec Lagoon described above.

I had only been to Mexico once before – to Mazatlán more than 40 years ago – no birds. I really did not think of Mexico as a place for birds as my dreams led more to South America and I have been fortunate to have ha some great trips there and look forward to more. Now, however I have had a taste of the richness of birdlife in Mexico and can seen other visits for birds and more in the future. There are many other places higher on my “want list” but as a result of credits for recently canceled trips, there is money in my Alaska Airlines account that has to be spent soon. We had squeezed in this trip to Oaxaca before the Omicron Covid variant had seriously raised its very ugly head. We have had two trips canceled and there will be no travel for awhile, but there is money in my Alaska Airlines account from those cancellations which must be spent in 2022. Alaska does fly to Mexico – just maybe…

POSTSCRIPT

In rereading this and the previous post I noted that I had omitted photos of some other interesting non-avian nature from the trip – plants, insects and reptiles in specific. I am not really into them and do not try to learn correct identifications but they are enjoyable and I include a group of photos – without identification or stories – from the many places that we visited.

Adios…

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