Tropical Birding in January (Part 1)
I stepped outside the terminal of Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, Missouri to a steel-grey sky spitting snow. I groaned, pulled the all-too-thin jacket tighter about my shoulders, and stiffened at the shock of the cold. As I walked to the parking lot the wind drove flakes horizontally across my field of view and stung my hands and face. Staring intently through a curtain of white, I could just discern the outline of a Red-tailed Hawk struggling in the storm at the far end of the tarmac. I instinctively raised my hand to point its position, but there was no one to show the hawk to, nor share the experience with, and I suddenly longed for the warmth of Mexico and fellow bird watchers. I had to stop and smile at the thought because it had not always been so.
I had just returned from my very first itinerated bird watching tour to Oaxaca, Mexico. Never before had I subscribed to such a guided trip, preferring to bird watch on my own, companion only to the wind and wildlife I sought. For most of my life I would not have considered paying an organization to chauffeur me around the countryside, even a foreign countryside, to locate habitat and identify birds to see….that was work I expected myself to do. But after forty-some-odd years of searching the vastness of places and time, I came to realize how isolated I really was. My conversations in the field were limited to “Pishing” or mimicked call notes, and the books I carried with me didn’t respond to queries or arguments. The 10 X 50 WB Swarovski binocular I held in my hands gave in-depth views, but couldn’t assist when I failed to find a native sparrow hidden among prairie grasses. And, no one was around when I chanced to be bitten by a snake, or fall from a tree, bury my car in a snowdrift or become lost. I had to rely on my own strength and ingenuity to overcome those kinds of inconveniences. I slowly began to think it might be more pleasurable to bird watch among other bird watchers. So after many hesitant years, I sighed, submitted to resolution, and signed up to be a member of a birding tour. As with all change, one must first be receptive to an idea before it can be considered, accepted, and finally, acted upon. I guess I was just too hardheaded to come around sooner.
The Tropical Birding tour was guided by Michael Retter, Editor and Technical Reviewer for the American Birding Association. Seven other bird watchers, ranging in experience from beginner to expert, joined me on the fast-paced, nine day tour. I knew none of the other members before the trip, but would know them all well by the time it ended. Sharing long days and long rides in a cramped tour van has a way of encouraging close relationships. The tour was a first for Tropical Birding and the Illinois Ornithological Society as well; never before had the two organizations joined ranks to offer a professional birding vacation to their members. All hotel accommodations, transportation and meals were handled and paid in advance by Tropical Birding, which lessened the individual planning involved, but didn’t diminish the excitement and stress of overzealous bird watching, as I was about to learn.
Our schedule was strict: I’d get up at 4:30 AM every morning, shower, and meet the others for a short breakfast by 6 AM. We left for the field directly afterwards, generally as the sun came up, and spent the rest of the day searching for birds. We would only stop long enough to travel to the next site or have lunch, which was usually eaten while seated on the ground near the tour van. Species actually sighted from the moving vehicle were considered “Bonus Birds.” It took my very sharp eyesight and Michael’s excellent hearing to record Roadside, Harris’ and Grey Hawks, flocks of Groove-billed Anis, Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Mangrove Swallows, Red-crowned Ant Tanagers and Mexican Chickadees from the window as we sped past. Not even a rest stop at a local gas station went without scrutiny, as Blue-grey Tanagers and Yellow-winged Tanagers were spotted perching in a tree near the parking lot as we waited in line to use the bathroom!
We did not return to the hotel following our pilgrimages until well after sundown. Once there, we would review daily checklists, return to our respective rooms to shower and/or change clothes, then re-group for a long, late dinner. Discussions at the dinner table consisted of birds actually seen and those we wished to, travel plans, and other topics of nature. A professor of botany from the University of Illinois was among our group and identified the flora of the many habitats we hiked through. It was not enough for Michael to call out a Blue-hooded Euphonia perched in some tree, or a Bumblebee Hummingbird feeding from a flower….the botanist would actually give us the Latin name of the tree or flower in association with the bird! Another birder started the popular, late night tradition of “My Favorite Bird of the Day”, which required each one of us to specify a single bird, out of the hundreds seen each day, and explain why it was the most special. Each bird watcher, of course, had a favorite for the day, but it was not always the same bird for each person or for the same reasons. It was great fun to hear the individual justifications for a favorite. One tour group member suffered from a poor set of binoculars, and even poorer hearing, and for the entirety of the trip was trumped on species by Michael and me. On the very last day of the trip this particular birder stated his favorite was a Rufous-crowned Sparrow…simply because it was one he had seen that I had not! Our days typically lasted sixteen hours or more, but the personal anecdotes, scientific study and camaraderie quickly made the tour enjoyable for me.
The week-long tour was actually split into two separate vacation sites: the first being at the Casa Arnel Hotel, located not far from the Oaxaca Airport; and the second being at the Hotel Villa Esmeralda near Tuxtepec, which was across the Continental Divide on the Eastern side of the state. While at Casa Arnel, we birded local farm fields, parks, forested hills above town, Zapotec ruins and the courtyard of the hotel. Bird watching at the hotel was some of the most relaxing of the entire trip, as we could sit in the shade, sipping Corona beer, and enjoy such species as Clay-colored and Rufous-backed Robins, Dusky Hummingbirds, and Bullock’s Orioles right from the terrace. Out in the field Michael routinely used recorded tapes to call in birds he hoped for us to see. He had pre-designated sites, with inventoried species that he would take us to. He knew which birds had previously been sighted there and would systematically go down a playlist of songs to lure them within view, one species at a time. Once, quite by accident, Michael played a series of recordings that had a pygmy-owl hooting in the background and called in more birds at that one time than any other! Lesser Greenlets, Wilson’s Warblers, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds, Greyish Saltators, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Long-tailed Hermit Hummingbird darted angrily all around us, scolding the invisible villain within their midst.
Daily field trips around Western Oaxaca yielded Tufted and Vermilion Flycatchers, Ladder-backed and Grey-breasted Woodpeckers, Ocellated Thrasher, Red-billed Pigeons, Plain Chachalacas, flocks of Grey Silky Flycatchers, Yellow-throated and Scrub Euphonias. High in the pine-oak mountains overlooking town, the haunting and fluid notes of Brown-backed Solitaires followed in our footsteps. In the early morning light, with apparitions of mist rising off the valleys, their songs gave the forest an almost other-worldly feel. As we hiked the dusty trails in single-file, my tour mates would regularly trade positions to give other members at the back a better chance of seeing birds up front. It was a very polite way of wildlife watching and I was surprised by the etiquette. After the fog broke and the sunlight strengthened, we all caught glimpses of Red Warblers, Grey-barred Wrens, Red-faced and Crescent-chested Warblers, Dwarf Jays, Slate-throated Whitestarts, Red-headed Tanagers and a very curious-looking specimen of Hairy Woodpecker. It looked so differently than the Hairy Woodpeckers of North America that I called Michael over to see it, thinking I had discovered a new species…but it was only a woodpecker I had seen many times before, sporting different colors. Unbeknownst to me, Hairy Woodpeckers of Mexico have dirty-brown breast feathers and less white in the wings.
One bird that we did not see was the famed Oaxaca Sparrow, endemic to the valley that shares its name, after calling upon it nearly every day. Perhaps the Oaxaca Sparrow was on vacation, just as we were, and tired of engaging foreign visitors in the dry, waist-high grasses of its home? We all shared in the disappointment and, as frustrating as it was to not see the bird, it only gives me a better reason to go back to Mexico and look harder.
A slow day spent at the Monte Alban archaeological site to view popular Zapotec Indian ruins was a welcome change to our hectic schedule. The ruins are immense, and their imposing outline can easily be seen from the road outside Casa Arnel, following the mountain ridge of the horizon. They are spectacular, not only in their architecture, history and breath-taking views, but also in the bird species sighted there. Boucard’s Wrens, Ash-throated Flycatchers, White-throated Towhees, Rufous-capped Warblers, Black-vented Orioles, White-bellied Emerald and Berylline Hummingbirds, and a Blue Mockingbird flitted among the ruins and caught our eye. Those are the kind of tourist attractions I like to frequent…ones where you can sight-see, shop for souvenirs, and look for new birds all at the same time.
Article written by Stacia A. Novy
Accompanying photograph of Grey-silky Flycatchers credited to Michael Retter