Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My birding trips during the San Blas Bird Festival

Next week, I'll be guiding birding trips to supplement the trips of the San Blas bird festival. These trips are designed to sample all of the world-class birding San Blas offers, allowing a birder who goes on each to see over 250 species of birds and about two dozen Mexican endemics, rivaling the best of the professional tours of San Blas, at a fraction of the cost.

Tues., 25 Jan.            Singayta      6:30 a.m. until noon     $500 pesos ($50 US)

Mexican Parrotlets in Singayta
This is the most famous, and oldest, birding site in San Blas, and with good reason. Birding along a road that runs between lowland jungle and mangrove swamps will give you an exceptionally birdy morning, full of San Blas specialties.

Wed., 26 Jan.        Chacalilla and Playa del Rey    6:30 a.m. until noon $500 pesos 

Vermilion Flycatcher at Chacalilla
Get ready for the kind of morning only San Blas can offer. First, we’ll visit the Chacalilla, where scrub forests and fields combine with drying pools filled with water birds. Then we’ll cross the estuary to Playa del Rey (Peso Island) where thorn-forest birds meet shorebirds, and perhaps a Blue-footed Booby. We’ll never be farther than 10 minutes from town, and finish with well over 100 species for the morning.

Wed., 26 Jan.             La Tovara            3:00 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.    $500 pesos

Northern Potoo at La Tovara
Another of the iconic San Blas experiences, this trip combines great birds with the most exotic boat ride you’ll find anywhere. We’ll return after dark to see night birds such as the Northern Potoo; this is the best place in the world to see this odd bird.

Thurs., 27 Jan.     Mecatan and the “Big Fig” 6:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. $500 pesos 

Gray Silky-Flycatcher at "the big fig"
We’ll have some great birds today, perhaps including Elegant Quail, Purplish-backed Jay, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and Red-breasted Chat as we bird the mixed habitats just inland from San Blas. We’ll also visit the legendary “big fig,” an enormous tree that can be full of birds such as the Gray Silky-Flycatcher.

Fri., 28 Jan.           Cerro de San Juan 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. $650 pesos ($65 US) 

Mexican Woodnymph on Cerro de San Juan
 In the pine-oak forests of Cerro de San Juan, birds entirely different  from those near San Blas can be found. We’ll search for mixed flocks, hoping to see White-striped Woodcreeper, Crescent-chested Warbler, Rufous-capped Warbler, both Painted and Slate-throated Redstarts, Red-headed Tanager and many more. On our way home we’ll stop at Mirador del Aguila, where we can see spectaciular flights of Military Macaws.

Sat., 29 Jan.               Tecuitata     6:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.    $600 pesos ($60 US)

Scrub Euphonia at Tecuitata
The shade-coffee plantation of Tecuitata is the hot new place for birding in San Blas. I’ve recorded over 170 species of birds there, including parrots, trogons, Colima Pygmy-Owl, San Blas Jay and many more. We’ll finish with a meal in the field prepared by the people of the village, for the incredible birding experience that’s the buzz of birders everywhere.

Sun., 30 Jan.          Rio San Cristobal /Zooquilpa  6:00 a.m. until noon $600 pesos 

Roseate Spoonbills and a Wood Stork over Rio San Cristobal
We finish our week of the best of San Blas birdiing with another of the signature birding trips of these area – a pleasant, and very birdy boat ride up the San Cristobal River to the shallow lagoon at Zooquilpa. The morning high tide should give us access into the lagoon, thousands of whistling-ducks and a nesting colony of Roseate Spoonbills.

Questions and registration by phone at:  (323) 285-1243 in Mexico or 
(801) 518-5618 in the U.S.

or by e-mail at:     mark@westwings.com

All transportation, land and water, is included. I will pick you up at your hotel or residence, within San Blas, or at a convenient point for those staying outside of San Blas. Each trip is limited to 7 people. Field breakfast, snacks, and water are provided. The Cerro de San Juan and Tecuitata trips include lunch as well. We will also have a spotting scope, audio equipment, a selection of field guides, and emergency supplies with us. You should bring appropriate clothing, insect repellent, sun protection, binoculars, a water bottle, and any personal items you need.

Advance register for all trips and receive a $400 Peso ($40 US) discount – act now, space is limited!

Monday, January 17, 2011

San Blas International Festival of Migratory Birds

Ballet Foklórico de Mexcaltitan performing at the San Blas bird festival.
This Sunday, January 23, is the start of the seventh annual San Blas International Festival of Migratory Birds. The festival combines some excellent cultural events in the plaza in San Blas with field trips and community activities. It lasts until January 30, meaning that there's a full week of nightly entertainment in the plaza - perhaps the most fun-filled week of the year in San Blas, especially as it's immediately followed by the biggest fiesta days here, culminating with the day of San Blas on February 3rd. If you want to have some excitement for your visit to San Blas, this is the time to come.

The best information can be found on their Facebook page:


The festival website is:


This site has not been updated recently, so for a schedule of the field trips, etc., you should check their Facebook page.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Gone Cuckoo

Lesser Ground-Cuckoo ©Mark Stackhouse
Last week, I had a delightful time guiding a Franciscan priest from California and his friend from Colima for a few days here. He was more interested in photographing birds than just seeing them, so our pace was a bit slower than normal, something that may not result in a longer bird list, but often allows you to see more.

After a pleasant, but photographically frustrating, morning in Tecuitata, where most of the 81 species we found played coy with the camera, we went to Singayta the next day, and had better luck finding birds willing to “ham it up.” One of the most memorable moments of that morning, and indeed, of the entire week for me, came when we were about half a kilometer down the road from the village. My companion had gone off the road into a pasture to try for a photograph of a Groove-billed Ani, a species he had not had success with in the past. Not wanting to risk ruining his chances, I stayed on the road.

First view, on the roadside ©Mark Stackhouse
Groove-billed Ani is the most common, and by far most easily seen, of five cuckoos we have in the San Blas area. The next most regularly seen cuckoo is the elegant Squirrel Cuckoo, that is common and widespread in wooded areas, but often gives up only fleeting views as it moves inside the trees. With some effort and luck, Mangrove Cuckoos are regularly, but not always, found on boat trips. The fourth cuckoo, Lesser Roadrunner, is rarely seen here, and almost always in the patch of open agricultural land about halfway along the road to La Noria on Cerro de San Juan.

Emerging from the thicket ©Mark Stackhouse
Our fifth cuckoo is the enigmatic Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. Found from Mexico to Costa Rica, this cuckoo is widespread, and seemingly even common, in San Blas. But perhaps most birders visiting here will go home without having seen one, although many will have it as a “heard only” bird on their list. The first time I saw this bird was along the road to Monteverde in Costa Rica, where 30 minutes of hard work finally produced a brief glimpse as the bird flew from one clump of bushes into another. Perhaps that’s why I cursed the vagaries of birding when my good friend, Julio Gallardo from Veracruz, saw his first one too easily, sitting in the open on top of a pile of brush, while we were birding on the coast of Oaxaca. But I've learned that even this epic “skulker” will occasionally give up a good view – a few years ago we saw seven in one morning in Tecuitata.

Out in the open ©Mark Stackhouse
While watching my client pursue the flock of anis in that Singayta field, the corner of my eye caught a slight movement among some dead leaves along the side of the road. It was a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, in full view. I snapped a few quick photos before it went into some brush, and then flew across the road into a dense thicket. I noticed that the anis had given my friend the slip (again), so I called to him to hurry back to the road to see if we might have better luck with the other cuckoo.

Sunbathing ©Mark Stackhouse
I played the call on my iPod, and after a couple of reps the cuckoo called back. After a couple more, the cuckoo emerged from the edge of the brush. With my amigo rapidly clicking pictures, I switched off the iPod and started taking photos myself. Then the cuckoo put on a real show. First it hopped into the open in a small tree in front of the thicket. Then it moved to an open branch and spent some minutes sunbathing. After that, as if to remind us that it’s a ground-cuckoo, it dropped to a patch of open space right in front of us and began foraging in the leaf litter – all in the perfect light of the morning sun. Never had I seen a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo so well, and so close. You can see my photos that resulted from this encounter.

For me, it was perhaps the highlight, out of many contenders, during a morning of birding and photography that also produced a bird list of 116 species by noon.

Being a  ground-cuckoo ©Mark Stackhouse

Have you seen Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, in San Blas, or elsewhere? Share your experience in the comments.

Friday, January 14, 2011

San Blas Christmas Bird Count 2010/11

Russet-crowned Motmot © Mark Stackhouse
The San Blas Christmas Bird Count (CBC) for the 111th CBC season was held on Sunday, January 2, 2011. The first San Blas CBC was held in 1974, making this count one of the oldest in Mexico. Although the count was conducted most years for the first fifteen years, since the 1990's it has only been done intermittently. This year marks the 20th time overall that the San Blas count has been conducted. I hope that this year will mark the start of a new period of annual counts in San Blas.

Seven intrepid birders in four different parties went out on count day, enjoying near-perfect weather, and spending 25 party-hours in the field. Overall, it was the fewest birders and least amount of party-hours of any of the San Blas counts, so the coverage of the count circle was incomplete at best. We desperately need more birders to do justice to this count - historically one of the world's richest CBC's. Hopefully, more birders will join us for next year.

In spite of having so few birders, a total of 271 species were recorded, the third highest species total for the San Blas CBC (292 species in 1983-4 was the highest count). On count day, 224 species were found. Another 47 species were found during count week (3 days before and 3 days after count day). The fact that much of the circle was not covered, or only sparsely covered, led to low numbers being recorded for many species compared to past years. However, high counts were recorded or tied for 9 species, and another 8 species were recorded for the first time on the count.
Gray-collared Becard © Mark Stackhous

While there's no easy explanation for the high counts for some species, such as Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, Swainson's Hawk, or Northern Rough-winged Swallow, for other species it seems to be a result of recent changes in both the environment  and the locations for birding around San Blas. High counts for two species, Snail Kite and Limpkin, appear to be part of an ongoing trend of increasing numbers for both of these species that started after they became established here about eight years ago, following the invasion of apple snails in the mangroves. Two other high counts, Colima Pygmy-Owl and Golden Vireo, along with a tie for the previous high count for Gray-crowned Woodpecker, probably result from the recent development of Tecuitata as a birding site, and it's inclusion in the count this year for the first time. Tecuitata is an excellent place for seeing all three of those species, and was the location of two of the count-first birds, Crested Guan and Black Hawk-Eagle. The final high count, for Gray Silky-Flycatcher, occurred at an enormous strangler fig tree near Mecatan on the southeast edge of the count circle that was in fruit, and was also the site of another count first species, Cedar Waxwing.
Yellow Grosbeak  © Mark Stackhouse
Gray Silky-Flycatcher © Mark Stackhouse

The other new species for the count include Bat Falcon, a species that is being seen with increasing regularity here in recent years (and was a staked-out individual in Singayta), and Virginia's Warbler and Brewer's Blackbird, both rare to uncommon winter visitors. Two more "new" count species involve changes in taxonomy and "corrected" identifications. Golden-crowned Emerald was indicated as a new species for the count, although a sister species that occurs on the east coast of Mexico, Canivet's Emerald is listed for 15 of the previous counts. Golden-crowned is the correct form for here. In addition, King Rail was recorded for the first time, while Clapper Rail has been recorded previously. The true  identity and taxonomic status of King and Clapper Rails ("Cling Rails") on the west coast of Mexico is unclear - recently some observers, including myself, have been identifying them as King Rails. Some are now saying that the west coast forms of Clapper Rail, which are virtually identical to King Rail, are, in fact, all King Rails (S.N.G. Howell, pers. comm.). In this count they have been recorded as King Rails for this reason, and because the birds observed occurred in fresh-water wetlands, as opposed to salt water, which has been the conventional means of separating the two in this part of Mexico.

Elegant Quail © Mark Stackhouse
Some of the other good birds (rare or not easy to see here) found were Least Bittern, Broad-winged Hawk, Snowy Plover, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Lilac-crowned Parrot, Costa's Hummingbird, Gray-collared Becard, Tree Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Dickcissel, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Most of the San Blas regulars were found, thought there were some "big misses," including American Wigeon, Lesser Scaup, Redhead, Brown Booby, Elegant Tern, Nutting's Flycatcher, Flame-colored Tanager, and Red-breasted Chat. One rather rare bird here, Red Knot, was seen just before count week started, but couldn't be re-found.

Places visited during the count include: San Blas Pond, San Blas sewage lagoons, Mirador de las Garzas, Rio San Cristobal, Singayta, El Palillo, Mecatan, Tecuitata, Miramar, Aticama, and La Bajada. Additional places visited during count week include Playa del Rey (Peso island), Playa del Borego, Chacalilla shrimp ponds, and Las Islitas. The center of the count circle is located about 6.25 miles east and slightly south of the main plaza in San Blas, at 21° 32.00' N and 105° 11.00 W.

Please join us for next year - tentative date December 30, 2011.

Wood Stork, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Roseate Spoonbill  © Mark Stackhouse 

San Blas Jay © Mark Stackhouse
Elegant Trogon © Mark Stackhouse
Orange-fronted Parakeet © Mark Stackhouse


Citreoline Trogon ©Mark Stackhouse
Bienvenidos to the wonderful world of birding in San Blas - truly one of the world's great locations for watching birds. In this blog, I'll share reports of the birding here, rare bird sightings, descriptions of places to bird here, information that may be useful to the visiting birder, photographs, and notes on life in this quiet seaside village and the surrounding countryside. I'll also post news of birding events and happenings, and of upcoming tours and trips I'll be leading. I welcome your comments, questions, and reports of your trip here - just send me an e-mail and I can post it here. Anything that remotely relates to birding in and around San Blas (or even this part of Mexico) is fair game. I hope you enjoy it, and enjoy the beautiful birds of San Blas.