Birding (Lite?) in Arizona

Verdin – ubiquitous in urban habitats including downtown Scottsdale

Arizona is an incredible destination for birders. It seems as if, wherever one goes, birds are abundant. Urban parks can be incredibly rewarding and it’s possible to visit radically different habitats within an hour’s drive of each other. Is birding lite even possible in such a bird-rich region? I’ve titled this post as such because I was visiting an old non-birder friend and his family for one week. We hiked a few parks in the Scottsdale (Phoenix) area and saw a lot of birds and even made an overnight road trip up north to Sedona but it wasn’t intensive birding.

Curve-billed Thrasher – by far, the most cooperative and abundant of the thrashers

However, I did get to spend a wonderful, dedicated day of birding with local birding guide, Gordon Karre. I met Gordon five years ago when he took me to the famous Buckeye thrasher spot very early one frosty morning. Although it was December, and not the prime time for finding thrashers, we did very well. Gordon (the thrasher whisperer) helped me find and photograph the three target species; Bendire’s, Crissal and LeConte’s. I wrote about that day at the time:

Crissal Thrasher from my 2018 visit

If you’re in the Phoenix area, and want to see birds in good company, Gordon Karre is your man. My trip came a little bit early for migration (the Elf Owls had yet to arrive) but we still enjoyed some great birding. I didn’t see any new life birds over the week but fellow eBirders may be amused by a statistic. I started the week at #6,555 for Arizona lifetime. At week’s end, I’d moved up 1,329 spots on the list although I’d only added 16 new species for the state! My overall, Arizona lifetime total is only 168 species! It takes a lot of birding in Arizona to even dream about reaching the Top 100.

I’ll conclude the text portion of this post and now offer a few photos from my week of Arizona Birding Lite. Thanks for following!

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Juniper Titmouse – a thrill to find and photograph this tiny bird
Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay – common at higher elevations
Male Anna’s Hummingbird in all it’s glory
Calliope Hummingbird – a local rarity
Black-throated Sparrow
Male Vermilion Flycatcher – always a treat!
Gila Woodpecker
Burrowing Owl at a protected habitat at Scottsdale Community College
Burrowing Owls at SCC
Female Great-tailed Grackle on nest
Male Great-tailed Grackle
One of fourteen Black Vultures at a known urban roost
Gambel’s Quail – very common, even in residential neighbourhoods

My Unintentional Big Year

All birders and many non-birders know what a Big Year is, largely due to the popularity of the 2011 film of that name. Usually, a birder sets out on a Big Year first by deciding on a territory. The film birders chose the American Birding Association’s continental territory, which includes “the 49 continental United States, Canada, the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, and adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever is less. Hawaii, Bermuda, and Greenland are not included.”

Every year for the last ten or so, I’ve kept track of the number of bird species that I’ve seen over the course of a calendar year in the province of Ontario. I’m a non-driver so an annual total of 250 species or thereabouts always satisfies me. In 2021, I recorded 268 species and I thought that it would be my personal best for quite a while. I had not planned to pursue a Big Year in 2022.

Boreal Owl – #17

Early on in 2022, I was able to view some interesting birds that were rare or at least uncommon to Ontario. It all started on January 1, of course, when friends and I observed a Boreal Owl at a conservation area fairly close to home. Coincidentally, I had found and identified this owl (the first Boreal Owl recorded in the Hamilton Study Area in 24 years) on December 29, 2021, a few days prior to the New Year. If you’d like, read my article about the owl in the Wood Duck Magazine at Other notable birds I saw in January included a Harris’s Sparrow in Flamborough and a Black-throated Gray Warbler in Pickering.

Harris’s Sparrow -#50

From February through April, I ticked lots of decent birds, including a Townsend’s Solitaire near Port Severn (which proved to be the first of two TOSOs for me in 2022). A Western Grebe in Port Credit was a fine bird and both Lark Sparrow and Eurasian Tree Sparrow capped a great day at Long Point. None of these were Ontario-firsts but all were very nice year birds. Then May came along and a Marsh Sandpiper, a mega-rarity, turned up at the Thedford Sewage Lagoons on the 2nd. It was #174 for the year but I still wasn’t thinking Big. Four days later, however, things got interesting with a lifer Henslow’s Sparrow on the Marsh Trail at Rondeau Provincial Park.

Henslow’s Sparrow – #184

Other than the Henslow’s Sparrow, my annual spring visit to the north shore of Lake Erie migrant hotspots, primarily Rondeau and Point Pelee National Park, was fairly quiet. A White-faced Ibis in Erieau and a Eurasian Collared-Dove in Shrewsbury were definitely highlights but it was a female Hepatic Tanager close to home in Oakville that really rocked the Ontario birding world. I was at #231 in mid-May. Maybe, I could beat my personal best of 268?

Hepatic Tanager – #231

June was a key month as I traveled with friends to Rainy River for a three-day outing led by the Ontario Field Ornithologists. Black-billed Magpie and American Three-toed Woodpecker were new birds for my all-time provincial list. Sharp-tailed Grouse and Connecticut Warbler were long-anticipated lifers! There were lots of other great birds in June but, on the 16th, I tied my personal best with a male Kirtland’s Warbler at Packard in a pine-oak restoration tract. Later that day, I set a new standard with a Louisiana Waterthrush at the Creemore Nature Preserve. That fine day occasioned a few celebratory cold ones at the nearby Creemore brewery. Before the end of June, I’d observed my Ontario-first Black-necked Stilts at the Strathroy Sewage Lagoons, #271, and I started to think a bit Bigger. Unfortunately, the summer doldrums and a month in New Brunswick would surely slow down my pace. I tallied only six year birds in July but a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Burlington on the 4th and a Little Blue Heron in Flamborough on the 22d were important ones. The returns continued to diminish in August but a Neotropic Cormorant in Kingston on the 8th was #285 for the calendar year. These were uncharted waters for me as I headed off to Grand Manan Island. Could I actually reach 300 species?

Neotropic Cormorant – #285 (left)

My best bird of September was a Ruff, #297, in Pickering on the 27th of September. I could almost taste 300. The magic moment occurred on October 1, during a lake-watch at Van Wagner’s Beach. A Black-legged Kittiwake was my 300th species of the year! The rarities hadn’t stopped showing up, by any means. On the 13th of October, I saw an Ontario-first Tropical Kingbird in Windsor. On November 7, I photographed a Purple Gallinule in Oshawa.

Tropical Kingbird – #303
Purple Gallinule – #307

Razorbill and Purple Sandpiper were very nice acquisitions in December but, on the 10th, Ashbridge’s Bay in Toronto hosted a lifer for me and many others, a Dovekie!!! I wasn’t done yet. A Great Cormorant was seen on December 20th in Hamilton Harbour, another Ontario-first for me and #318.

Dovekie – #316

It’s now time to thank all of the wonderful friends I birded with this year. I mentioned that I don’t drive and a Big Year without a vehicle is difficult to achieve. Either way, I won’t name all of my birding friends here and I think they’ll understand but I will mention one of them. Dave Archbell is the main reason I was able to record a personal best and a Big Year in 2022. Dave was in pursuit of his best year, as well, and I’ll be forever grateful for his generosity and companionship. It actually got a little crazy. Last week, between Christmas and the New Year, Dave and I embarked on a memorable twitch to northern Ontario of about 2,600 kilometres over four days. We missed our target of Northern Hawk Owl despite two days of searching on remote roads in appropriate habitat. However, the epic trip added Spruce Grouse (fourteen of them plucking sand from a frozen mining road!), Northern Goshawk and Spotted Towhee to my year list. I finished up with 321 species and Dave with 325.

Spruce Grouse – #320

I can’t rattle on about my Big Year without congratulating six other Ontario birders. At the outset of 2022, three young men set out to beat the all-time Ontario record for species observed in a year. They crushed it. Kiah Jasper finished first overall with 359 species! This record will be very difficult to surpass. His friends William Konze and Ezra Campanelli tied for second at 357. Undoubtedly, it was a very good year for rarities in our province but nothing can detract from the skill, effort and sacrifice exemplified by these excellent young birders.

Two of the other birders I’ll praise are Susan Nagy and Diane Weiler, the Beak Seekers! They also actively pursued a Big Year and tallied 335 and 333 species respectively. Not only that, but we found a lot of new birds together and new friendships have been formed.

Number six is Brett Forsyth of Guelph. I’ve only met Brett once but he ticked 274 species this year; on his bicycle!!! I like to joke that I’m the top eBirder without a driver’s licence but Brett is by far the Greenest birder that I’m aware of. The dark side of chasing birds is the huge carbon footprint involved with all of the driving. Brett has set a fine example of truly Green birding and my hat is off to him.

I’m not planning another Big Year for Ontario, unintentional or otherwise. This year, 2023, I have two birding goals. One is to add, hopefully, new birds to my all-time Ontario list, currently at 365 species. The other is to re-balance my personal birding pie chart more in favour of bird advocacy and contributing to surveys and point counts. I’m also interested in the relatively new concept of mindful birding. Birding has always been mindful for me and a brilliant way to deal with anxiety and the general pressures of everyday life. Recently, a mindful birding movement has gained traction.

It’s 2023! My first bird of the year was a singing American Robin, a sign of our unusually mild winter and likely of climate dysfunction. Good luck with your personal birding goals this year and let’s all do our best to support and promote a healthy bird population and it’s key role in biodiversity.

Rainy River, Ontario

I waited for so long to visit the Rainy River region that it had attained an almost mythical status. Every year, in June, the Ontario Field Ornithologists run a birding tour of the area. This year, a few thing$ came together and I was able to sign up at the last minute. The tour was led by Dave Milsom, supported as always by his wife Liz, and Colleen Reilly. It took place on June 3 and 4 but we arrived a day early and added another day of birding at the conclusion.

I flew to Winnipeg, Manitoba and shared a car with friends Dave Archbell and Doug Ward. The drive was about five hours in duration without birding, eating or shopping stops. We stayed at the Walla Walla Inn and our host, Kim, was very attentive to our needs.

Kim and me

I won’t go into every detail of our itinerary with this post. Rather, I’ll concentrate on photos of birds, at least the ones I was able to obtain with my Canon Powershot 60. Photography is not my priority but I’m always pleased to manage a decent visual record of a special bird. Also, I’ve added a few images reflecting the group activities and some local colour.

Overall, I saw and heard two new life birds. One was Connecticut Warbler, a longtime nemesis! I wasn’t able to get a photo. My other lifer was Sharp-tailed Grouse. I’d searched for this species unsuccessfully on Manitoulin Island a few times in the past. This time, they were lekking at a few locations early in the morning and I saw dozens of them. However, they were always at a distance from the roadside except for this one individual.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

These global lifers were, of course, new birds for my Ontario life list. The two other new Ontario additions were Black-billed Magpie and American Three-toed Woodpecker. The woodpecker was likely the ‘best’ bird of the tour. Now, I don’t have to visit Cochrane in the far north in the middle of winter to snowshoe through a burn in pursuit of this species.

Black-billed Magpie impersonating an American Robin
Black-billed Magpie
American Three-toed Woodpecker

Rainy River also offered a great selection of birds that are uncommon or rare in southern Ontario. I didn’t photograph a Yellow Rail (did anyone achieve this miracle?) but clearly heard two of them. Perhaps, the least common on my home turf are Eared Grebe, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Sedge Wren and Le Conte’s Sparrow.

Eared Grebe
Western Meadowlark
Brewer’s Blackbird – female
Brewer’s Blackbird – male
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Sedge Wren
Le Conte’s Sparrow
Le Conte’s Sparrow

The Eared Grebes were at the Rainy River Sewage Lagoons. Other highlights of the lagoons were Wilson’s Phalarope (as many as 5 including a possible nesting pair) and a single Red-necked Phalarope (alas, no photo).

Wilson’s Phalarope
Wilson’s Phalarope
Wilson’s Phalarope
Birding the Rainy River Sewage Lagoons

Who doesn’t love a pelican? American White Pelicans were present throughout our tour. Mostly, they were stately flyovers but on Sunday we found a group relaxing at Nestor Falls.

American White Pelicans
American White Pelicans
American White Pelicans

I’ll wrap up this brief account with a few more birds and a few scenic images. This sculpture of a beaver welcomes visitors to the Rainy River train station. The tracks run parallel to the main road and the trains run 24 hours. It’s all level crossings so they blast their warnings at all times of the day and night. It’s just part of the atmosphere at ‘Trainy River’.

Welcome to Rainy River, Ontario
Broad-winged Hawk
Eastern Kingbird
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Savannah Sparrow

Although not rare, by any means, we enjoyed these Cedar Waxwings in the blossoms. And yes, fellow birders, we did look for a Bohemian amidst them.

Cedar Waxwings

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I now present you with the OFO Rainy River Class of ’22.

Birding the Sierra Gorda Biosphere, Mexico – Final Two Days!


We were up very early in the morning for our drive to Sótana de las Huahuas. Our goal was to arrive in the dark and begin our long, steep, flashlit climb to this deep sinkhole, which is 60 metres in diameter and 478 metres deep. The plan would allow us to be present at first light for the spectacle of tens of thousands of White-collared Swifts as they gradually rise from their roosts, in swirling masses, and lift off to forage for the day. Green parakeets (huahuas) are also present in numbers.

The ascent is only about one kilometre in length but it’s very steep and the steps are hewn from rough and slippery stone, a challenge in the dark. This may be the reason that Sótano de las Huahuas is much less touristy than Sótano de las Golondrinas (swallows), which is nearby. We made it to the top, huffing and puffing. Peering over the edge is not advised for the acrophobic. It’s quite a sight!

Approaching the edge
Looking down!
Photo: Aleda O’Connor
I left my parachute in the van, anyway.
Sótano de Las Huahuas
Sótano de Las Huahuas

It wasn’t long before the birding action began. I was disappointed to find that my camera couldn’t focus on the swallow spectacle as well as the far edge of the sinkhole but I’ll offer one photo of just a few of the White-collared Swifts.

White-collared Swifts

As we took in the show, I noticed another bird far down below us. I got on it with my binoculars and realized that it was a Peregrine Falcon looking for breakfast! Soon, the Green Parakeets turned up and many perched and preened quite close to our group.

Green Parakeets

The next sighting was a real treat and something that we hadn’t expected. Up to twenty Military Macaws flew over in pairs and small groups. I’d missed this beautiful species on a past trip to west Mexico and savoured great looks (crappy photos, again) of this lifer. The Military Macaw is endangered and the current wild population is estimated at only 3,000 to 10,000 individuals. They continue to decline in numbers due to habitat loss and illegal collection for the pet trade.

Military Macaws

We’d had the lookout completely to ourselves and eventually made our descent. The birding was quite good on the way down. Our highlights included views of Gartered and Collared Trogons, Lineated Woodpecker and Collared Forest-Falcons. A Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl called as did an insistent Northern Emerald-Toucanet. There were other nice sightings, as well, and a few allowed me a photo. This Blue-crowned Motmot is endemic to the region. The image of it from behind is blurry but I want you to see it’s unique, racket-shaped tail.

Blue-crowned Motmot
Blue-crowned Motmot

I saw a few Masked Tityras, a great looking creature, on this tour but they were always pretty much overhead.

Masked Tityra

At a lower elevation, we found ourselves in a shade-grown coffee plantation that was full of birds. Overall, our morning list tallied 51 species.

Clay-colored Thrush
Olivaceous Woodcreeper
Black-throated Green Warbler taking a dip
Group and canine companion
Alternate name for Sótano de Las Huahuas. Hoya means pot, more or less.

Alas, the time came to return to the vehicles and bid farewell to our wonderful guide, Alejandra, and her friend, Jésus. We’d gone as far northeast as our schedule would allow and we began to double back on our route. We made a roadside lunch stop and arrived later on at the very charming Hotel Casa Maria Antonieta. An hour or so of daylight remained and I poked around the grounds.

Hotel Casa Maria Antonieta
Succulent wall
Creek by the hotel
Black-crowned NIght-Heron
Rodrigo on the roof

The hotel owner was not present for our stay but we were very well cared for by the sisters, Candy and Merīda. A hearty dinner was followed by a few adult beverages on the terrace.

The next morning was to be our last of the tour. We would drive to San Miguel de Allende, a city I know quite well as I’ve led ‘en plein air’ watercolour workshops there for almost twenty years. First, however, Candy offered to lead us on an early hike up the nearby river. It was cool and shady and high cliffs obscured the rising sun.

Morning hike

Candy navigated us past some nasty village dogs but most of them were shy and friendly. At one point, she stopped to pick a handful of hierba santa leaves, which she would use in food preparation.

Nesting dog

Following the hike, our last lunch together was taken at a nearby restaurant. We then settled into the drive and looked forward to a few days of unwinding, and pre-flight covid tests, in San Miguel de Allende.

Our last lunch together

I can’t recommend the magical Sierra Gorda Biosphere enough and, if you go, definitely consider the services of Rodrigo Lopez and Travelian Tours. Everything went without a hitch, our guides were excellent and Rodrigo will always go the extra mile for his guests. A special mention goes to Alejandro Gutierriez, who was great company and an expert driver. Look him up if you’re in San Miguel de Allende! His entertaining walking tours are both fun and educational.

Our group recorded 219 species overall. I didn’t see or hear them all but that’s par for these experiences and I added 27 species to my life list. We ate and slept with local businesses and supported sustainable birding projects. Every dollar we spent stayed in Mexico (except for our flights). We all got along extremely well. Thanks for following! I hoped you enjoyed the tour.

Birding the Sierra Gorda, Mexico – Part Nine

One of the slightly eccentric but creative and pragmatic features of the Hotel Tapasoli is the nests (nidos) that are available as a lower budget alternative to the cabañas. Rodrigo was spotted this morning perched on the edge of his nido.

Rodrigo at his nest
Cozy interior of a nido

We’d already had many birdy breakfasts on our tour but this morning’s breakfast was to be memorable. The trees around the terrace were packed with avifauna.

Summer Tanager
Yellow-winged Tanager
Cassin’s Vireo
Altamira Oriole
Altamira Oriole

Breakfast was getting cold as I repeatedly left the table to scan from the railing. At last, I tried to settle down but guess what? A flock of thirty or so very noisy birds screeched across the treetops below us. They made another pass or two and we realized that they were Green Parakeets. Then, a wonderful thing happened. The whole flock flew over the terrace and landed in the trees above us. They were initially jumpy but eventually settled in for their own breakfast.

Green Parakeets
Green Parakeet
Green Parakeets

We tore ourselves away from this gorgeous and entertaining display because it was our last morning at Hotel Tapasoli and we had to hit the road. Our destination was Huichihuayán, an area of fields, scrub and forest bordered by green mountains. Alejandra and Jesus awaited us.


As we tried to cross a bridge, birds would appear to detain us. A brilliant Green Kingfisher looked very striking in the scope but wasn’t too cooperative for a photo as it relaxed on a shadowy limb.

Green Kingfisher

Our group spent a lot of time on a trail edged by grass, shrubs and small trees. Early on, a few Melodious Blackbirds looked us over from lofty perches. A Couch’s Kingbird showed very well and obligingly vocalized. A few highlights that were too fast for me to photograph included Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and Canivet’s Emeralds. A Laughing Falcon called in the distance. A Rufous-browed Peppershrike played peekaboo and my photo of a headless bird won’t win any awards.

Melodious Blackbird
Couch’s Kingbird
Most of a Rufous-browed Peppershrike

The trail led us into a forested area along a loop of the river. Birds were a little less plentiful in the denser woods but we still saw some lovely ones like this Squirrel Cuckoo.

Squirrel Cuckoo

As we birded, we passed locals who were walking to or from their mountaintop village, which was not visible from below but it was a long way up. Alejandra told us that about three hundred souls lived up there and they had declined a government offer to build a road to reach them. It takes an hour to make the ascent. My heart rate was up just thinking about it. The village is on the other side of the cleft in the mountains, shown in the following photo.


Our afternoon was very pleasant with lots of shade and level paths. A delicious, late lunch was taken at a freshwater fish restaurant next to a river. A suspension footbridge crossed the water and the restaurant was already decorating for Christmas although some diners may have balked at the choice of decoration next to their lunch or dinner table.

Wood oven
No translation required
Happy, well-fed birders

Our next stop was the Hotel San Jose Aquismón in the town of that name. It was dark soon after we checked in and, as I relaxed on the terrace, two Barn Owls sauntered past, one at a time. We drove into town in search of dinner and had a difficult time finding a restaurant. This wasn’t what we were use to, at all! These experiences usually resolve themselves, however, and we soon spotted a small eatery with a narrow terrace overlooking the main square. My chicken with mole sauce was very tasty but I confess to ordering a second piece of chicken.

Pollo con mole
Main square with pastry vendor under the lamp
Dinner on the terrace
Photo: Aleda O’Connor

I purchased some fresh pastries from a vendor in the square after dinner. We then returned to the hotel and prepared for a very early start. We’d be headed to Sótano De Las Huahuas in the morning for a long, steep climb to the top of a deep limestone sinkhole; home to tens of thousands of White-collared Swifts and other species. More about that amazing experience soon!

Birding the Sierra Gorda Biosphere, Mexico – Part Eight

Xilitla from the hotel

Do you remember my soaking wet hiking shoes from the ill-advised river crossing two days ago? They never did dry. However, when you have a wonderful, thoughtful guide like Rodrigo Lopez, problems get solved. Before bed the previous evening, Rodrigo knocked on the door and presented me with a bag of rice. I started off Day Nine with dry shoes thanks to this gesture!

Drying hikers

Hotel Tapasoli was very comfortable and an early breakfast was arranged for us. A new local guide joined us in the morning. Her name is Alejandra Reyna Contreras and I’d been following her checklists on eBird for the past few months so it was a pleasure to meet her. She brought along a friend, Jésus Antonio Moo Yam, another guide visiting from the city of Campeche in the Yucatan Peninsula. Both were warm and enthusiastic and able to communicate clearly in English. Also, they were excellent birders!

We kicked off the day with a walk on and near the hotel grounds. It didn’t take long to find some lovely birds. This Red-legged Honeycreeper posed in the morning sunshine.

Red-legged Honeycreeper

A Black-headed Saltator wasn’t quite as cooperative as you’ll see in the photo below. Heart rates suddenly rose as we enjoyed splendid looks at a lifer Yellow-throated Euphonia. This bird gave us the euphonia hat-trick! We’d already seen Elegants and Scrubs and all were life birds for me. As always, attractive butterflies drew our eyes.

Most of a Black-headed Saltator
Yellow-throated Euphonia
Golden Banded-Skipper

Then, the magic moment arrived! A Montezuma Oropendola was feeding in a leisurely manner in a shady tree. The light wasn’t optimal but I savoured the experience as I watched this large and spectacular creature. This was the bird that most intrigued me when I’d first read about this region. They’re not uncommon but this was my first, long-awaited sighting.

Montezuma Oropendola

Up in Neblinas the previous day, I’d come across a pair of Band-backed Wrens. They’d been noted as rare for that area by eBird and they were almost impossible to photograph. Today, one showed off in the open for a minute or so. A Spot-breasted Wren also gave us a bit of a performance. Wrens are usually skulkers so I was very pleased to obtain these photos.

Band-backed Wren
Spot-breasted Wren

Down a steep hill and back up again. On the way back, a distant Gray Hawk was observed. An artist was also noticed, perched up high on the hotel property. Aleda had taken a few hours off to sketch.

Gray Hawk
Artist at work
Pen and ink sketch by Aleda O’Connor

Many more species were seen on our walk, including Red-lored Parrots. After a productive start to the day, Alejendra had a new spot for us and a short drive up the road from the hotel took us to an area of pasture shadowed by tall trees. It was very birdy with a good variety of species. Believe it or not, we tallied 57 Social Flycatchers! They’re well named. At one point, I clicked away at movement in a distant tree. That evening, I realized that I’d photographed a Brown-capped Vireo.

We moved off the road to allow cattle to pass. These hills are full of small cattle operations.

Brown-capped Vireo
Cattle Drive
Cattle Pen

Lunch was taken back at the hotel and we gathered ourselves for a new activity that afternoon. Rodrigo had scheduled a guided tour of Las Pozas, the Edward James Sculpture Garden. It’s fascinating place but I won’t go into detail about it here. Click on the link if you’d like to read about it. Meanwhile, I’ll offer a short photo essay.

Jardín Escultórico Edward James
Jardín Escultórico Edward James
Jardín Escultórico Edward James
Jardín Escultórico Edward James
Jardín Escultórico Edward James
Rodrigo (seated) and Alejendro (standing)

Las Pozas is a Mexican national treasure and it was the only place we encountered large numbers of tourists, mostly Mexican, on our entire trip. We were herded around in our group for a few hours but it was worth it. Even better, we celebrated with an Edward James Amber or two back at the hotel. It was on tap and it was the tastiest beer I’d had in the Sierra Gorda. I couldn’t overdo it, though. Another great day was in the offing!

Edward James Amber

Birding the Sierra Gorda Biosphere, Mexico – Part Seven

Cloud Forest

We left Hotel Villabilbo early in the morning. Our destination was the village of Neblinas, high up in the cloud forest and, after carefully navigating a winding road along sheer drops, we stopped to bird. Two new birders joined us for the day, brothers Jair and Tito Garay. Both work with Juan Manuel and monitor bird and animal species in the area. Cheerful and excited to have a day of birding with us, they were very good company.

(L to R) Jair, Tito, Norman and Rodrigo
Photo: Aleda O’Connor
Our group
Photo: Aleda O’Connor

The canopy formed by trees on the slope below us was still above our eye level. Viewing was pretty good except for the usual problem of leaves blocking the birds. It didn’t take long for birds to appear and there were some wonderful species; White-crowned Parrot, Masked Tityra, Gray-collared Becard, Brown-capped Vireo, Flame-colored Tanager, Red-throated Ant-Tanager and several Yellow-winged Tanagers all offered great looks but were too quick or well-concealed to be recorded on my camera. I did catch up with a few lovely birds, though.

White-winged Tanager
Squirrel Cuckoo
Common Chlorospingus
Common Chlorospingus
Rose-throated Becard – female

As I scanned the vast valley below us, I noticed a little bump on a snag. Bat Falcon! This sighting created quite a stir. It was fairly far away, although only a bit below eye level, and it was tough to get a decent photo. As we savoured this bird, someone noticed a second Bat Falcon on a perch near the first. I moved along the road to gain a better vantage point and enjoyed the first bird as it nonchalantly preened and scratched.

Bat Falcon
Bat Falcon
Birding the road
Photo: Aleda O’Connor

Many more species were observed such as an extremely furtive Fan-tailed Warbler. It took us ages to move even a hundred metres or so along our path. We passed a large work crew, hacking at the roadside vegetation. Alejandro had parked the van well ahead of us. When he walked back to the group, he told me about a Montezuma Oropendola that had been perched right over his head for several minutes, a lifer for him! It would have been a lifer for me, too. Well over a year ago, when I first started reading about this region, it was the Montezuma Oropendola that really captured my imagination. I couldn’t wait to see one. On this day, it wasn’t to be but we did see a colony of their dangling nests.

Nests of Montezuma Oropendolas

Eventually, it was time to jump in the van and continue on to the village of Neblinas. Rodrigo had told us that the entire population were vaccinated and that they were more concerned about us than we them (our group was all fully vaxxed, as well). Neblinas is very remote and seems timeless. It’s slopes are devoted to forest, pasture and coffee plantations, many of which are shade-grown. I stepped out of the van next to a small shop (tienda) and was amused to see a sign advertising chicken for sale. For details, contact the WhatsApp group. Neblinas may be physically isolated but it’s online!

Hay pollo
Flower pots

Lunch turned out to be a memorable occasion. We ate in the home of Don Virginio Gracia Ramos, a grower of organic and shade-grown coffee. The table was laden with steaming gorditas with different meat or cheese fillings. Just the tonic after a morning of exhilarating birding, we proceeded to stuff ourselves.

At lunch

After lunch, Don Virginio gave us a tour of his operation. It was a tale of ingenuity and very hard work. He only sells his coffee locally and did a booming business from our gang.

Café Orgánico
Don Virginio
Photo: Aleda O’Connor

Do you see the small object on a wire over Don Virginio’s head? It’s a hummingbird nest although we couldn’t discern the species.

Hummingbird nest
Inner sanctum
Coffee beans drying ‘en plein air’
Coffee beans
Neblinas, Mexico

The tour was excellent. The scenery was stunning, accentuated by raking sunshine, and we boarded the van for the descent from this remarkable mountaintop community.

Photo: Aleda O’Connor

We’d said our farewells to the Garay brothers and birded some more before dropping off Juan Manuel. I have no photographic evidence of them but, at one point, I pished a scrubby spot and up popped two Yellow-faced Grassquits and a Yellow-breasted Chat. Soon, it was time to move on and our next destination was the very unique Hotel Tapasoli, near the town of Xilitla (Hee-leet-lah). We’d just come from three nights at Villabilbo but Hotel Tapasoli looked like a real hobbit town and Bilbo Baggins wouldn’t have been out of place if he’d strolled by. We settled into our hobbit holes and looked forward to dinner and our next day of birding. It was going to be a pretty good one!

Hotel Tapasoli, Xilitla, Mexico
Just checking in to see if we were happy with our cabaña

Birding the Sierra Gorda Biosphere, Mexico – Part Six

View from the terrace, Hotel Villabilbo, Mexico

Breakfast with a view! We were joined by Juan Manuel Salazar Torres. Juan Manuel has an extensive resume of environmental research and administration. From 2016 to date, he’s been Deputy Director of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve and promotes the knowledge of its’ biodiversity through various publications. He would be providing invaluable access for our upcoming visit to the village of Neblinas in the cloud forest. Today, however, he accompanied us as we birded the far side of the Presa Jalpan.

On our way over, we had to pass through the town of Jalpan de Serra. As we approached the outskirts, we spotted several very similar flycatchers perched in bushes and trees on the roadside. It was a very exciting birding moment as Social Flycatchers, Great Kiskadees and Boat-billed Flycatchers were all present, enjoying some group sun-bathing. A Roadside Hawk (that’s the actual name of the bird) kept watch from a distance.

Social Flycatcher (above) and Great Kiskadee (below)
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Roadside Hawk

Little did we know that, ten minutes later, we would find quite a few more of these handsome flycatchers on a rural road. That road would happily occupy us for several hours of birding. Occasional clusters of mature trees dotted the grassy, brushy pasture on either side of us. Local dogs kept an eye on us as we scanned for bird activity.
In addition to the flycatchers previously mentioned, we observed Vermilion and Ash-throated Flycatchers as well as a Tropical Kingbird. Many more species were evident, including a pair of diminutive Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets busily engaged in a probable courtship display.

Western Tanager – female
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

We took our time and strolled up and down the dusty road. I noticed a bright yellow spot in a tree and it turned out be a lifer for me; an Audubon’s Oriole! Unfortunately, it kept it’s distance. A bit later on, an Altamira Oriole put on a bit of a show. I was watching some grazing Inca Doves when I noticed that they had a companion; a Common Ground Dove. We only saw a few of them on our entire tour so they weren’t particularly common for us! A rather nondescript little bird caught our eye as it nibbled at seeds, a female Painted Bunting. We weren’t lucky enough to spot it’s gorgeously gaudy mate but the female had a subtle loveliness of her own.

Audubon’s Oriole
Altamira Oriole
Common Ground Dove
Painted Bunting – female
Juan Manuel

I hadn’t forgotten about butterflies. They weren’t in abundance but I noticed a few.

Guatemalan Cracker
White Peacock

Eventually, we were back in the van for a short jaunt to the Presa. A Spotted Sandpiper, lacking it’s summery spots, teetered over its’ reflection.

Spotted Sandpiper

We birded along the shore of a quiet bay for a while and then moved on to a stream. The only way to cross the stream and keep dry was to walk across a wide pipe. Juan Manuel sauntered across and waited on the other side. The pipe didn’t appeal to the rest of us, laden with thousands of dollars worth of optics and camera gear. One slip into the fast moving water would have been a disaster and the pools were quite deep below the pipe.

I left my boots on and waded across a shallow area. I anticipated the hot Mexican sun and a thorough drying out later on at the hotel (I was wrong). The rest of the group removed their footwear (fortunately there was no broken glass underfoot) and forded the stream. Juan Manuel had promised a shorebird spot on the other side but we never did find it. A stroll along the stream, overhung with trees, brought us to a small flock of (tickable!) Muscovy Ducks but not much else.

Fording the stream
Muscovy Duck

Another late lunch was very welcome and we ate just outside of town. The later afternoon offered us a few options. Peter, Aleda and I decided to enjoy a dose of tourism and Rodrigo led us to the main square, graced by the beautiful facade of Mision Santiago Apostol. The Mision is considered by many to be the finest example of the five Franciscan mission churches in the Sierra Gorda. The town also hosts a small but excellent museum and we spent some time enjoying the exhibits.

Mision Santiago Apostol
Two-headed eagle symbolizing the founding cultures of Mexico
Facade detail
Rather modest angels

That was our day and it was another very fine one. We dined at the Hotel Villabilbo and they fed us in style every evening. All of us were eager to visit the cloud forest the next day and it would not be a disappointment. Stay tuned!

Birding the Sierra Gorda Biosphere, Mexico – Part Five

We’d dropped off Álvaro (we would miss him) for his ride home and checked in to Hotel Villabilbo on the evening of Day Five. The hotel is an attractive conglomeration of rooms and cabañas scattered across a hillside overlooking the Presa Jalpan. The presa is a reservoir/lake created decades ago by damming a river. From above it looks a bit like a tadpole with a very long, wiggly tail. It was still light as we settled in and a steady stream of Cattle Egrets, with a few Snowy Egrets and a Tri-colored Heron, whipped past enroute to their nocturnal roosts.

View from our deck
Cattle Egrets
Jalpan de Serra and the Presa in the morning

After an early breakfast on the morning of Day Six, we drove upstream about twenty minutes and arrived at a quiet area along the narrow tail of the tadpole. It offered a mix of mature trees and dense, scrubby brush by a modest dam. The water flowed rapidly in places and collected in calm pools, as well. Cattle had pounded the side of the creek into mud in places. We observed a lot of nice birds and my favourite was another lifer; a male Scrub Euphonia.

Scrub Euphonia – male

For some reason, few of the birds wanted to cooperate with my photographic desires. Still, I managed with a singing Cordilleran Flycatcher and a female Wedge-tailed Sabrewing.

Cordilleran Flycatcher
Cordilleran Flycatcher
Wedge-tailed Sabrewing

The outing, however, was to be celebrated for butterflies and a few dragonflies. I’ve added names based on initial responses from iNaturalist and may have to update some eventually. First, though, a Rose-bellied Lizard!

Rose-bellied Lizard

And now for the butterflies (brace yourself, Ed)!

Common Banner
Glaucous Cracker
Four-spotted Sailor
Silver Emperor
Banded Peacock
Tropical Leafwing
Red-bordered Pixie
Mexican Bluewing
Guatemalan Cracker
Pavon Emperor
Pavon Emperor
Julia Heliconian
Smicropus laeta
Elf Butterfly
Texan Crescent
Yellow Angled-Sulphur
Yellow Angled-Sulphur
Sickle-winged Skipper
Orange-spotted Skipper
Cassius Blue (above)
Rusty-tipped Page
Large Orange Sulphur
Zebra Longwing

Phew! There were even more species present and many of them were stunners. Unfortunately, some of them never seemed to take a break and rest for a minute or two. Here are a few more representatives of the insect world.

Carmine Skimmer
Carmine Skimmer
Filigree Skimmer
This Greater Anglewing grew attached to Rodrigo’s scope
Rodrigo and Peter

We made a few brief stops on our way back to the hotel after birding (butterflying?) well into the afternoon. Aleda had been sketching on the hotel grounds during the morning but joined us for lunch in Jalpan de Serra. Back at the hotel, we relaxed for the little remaining daylight and looked forward to a delicious dinner on the terrace. Birding the rural lands on the far side of the Presa was on the agenda for the next day.

Birding the Sierra Gorda Biosphere, Mexico – Part Four

It was time to leave the Cabañas Terrazul and, as the van was being loaded, we birded from the front yard. Canopy birds were fairly well seen as we were surrounded by slopes on three sides. A Collared Forest-Falcon called repeatedly from somewhere down in the valley and the Brown-backed Solitaires chimed in, as usual. Greater Pewees, Rose-throated Becards, Hepatic Tanagers and Tropical Parulas were just a few of the many species present. My favourite bird of the early morning had been a lifer the day before; a female Elegant Euphonia. This individual, however, was much more inclined to pose for me.

Elegant Euphonia – female
Elegant Euphonia – female

This was to be our last day with local guide, Álvaro Rojas. Álvaro had been a knowledgeable, enthusiastic and generous guide and we would miss him. Don’t say goodbye to him just yet, however, as he accompanied us to our next birding site, Chuveje Waterfall.

Rodrigo (L) and Álvaro (R)

We stopped for a look around by the stream that would eventually lead to the waterfall. As we searched for birds, trouble approached in the form of seven or eight pigs. They betrayed little interest in us as they crossed the stream and wove through our group. I couldn’t help but think about their voracious and omnivorous appetites as they foraged through dense brush. Ground and low-nesting birds beware!

Roaming Pigs
Birding by the stream

Four Acorn Woodpeckers entertained us as they carried on around a cavity nest.

Acorn Woodpecker at nest

We started up a gentle slope but left Aleda behind. She came on this trip to sketch as well as bird and seized this opportunity. The mature trees were quite magnificent.

Aleda sketching
Pen and ink sketch by Aleda O’Connor

Not far along the path, a pair of wrens in the brush drew our attention. They were Spotted Wrens and they offered several minutes of superb looks. What a treat!

Spotted Wrens
Spotted Wrens

We continued to climb and bird around a bend in the road. The entry gate to the waterfall was just ahead with it’s associated outbuildings, mostly small shops and restaurants. I finally got a reasonable photo or two of a Hutton’s Vireo.

Hutton’s Vireo
Hutton’s Vireo
Welcome Committee

The long trail, a kilometre and a half or so, to the waterfall started just past the gate. As we strolled, we added new birds to our experience. Two that stood out for me were Painted Redstart and Rufous-capped Warbler.

Painted Redstart
Rufous-capped Warbler

The trail was lovely with agricultural land on our left and the tree-lined, rocky stream down to our right. Little dams had been built with concrete in places to create bathing pools. There were no bathers today and we encountered only a half dozen or so other hikers. We met with more and more huge trees.

Small farm
Almost at the waterfall
Aleda getting with the program
Peter on the trail

It wasn’t particularly birdy in the vicinity of the waterfall but it had been well worth the walk. We allowed ourselves a bit of tourist time.

Chuveje Falls
Chuveje Falls
Yet another group shot by Rodrigo

Other forms of wildlife attracted us as we strolled back along the bank of the stream. We saw several tiny frogs, which iNaturalist has identified as Small-eared Tree Frogs (three different plumages?).

Small-eared Tree Frog
Small-eared Tree Frog
Small-eared Tree Frog

There’s always time for a new butterfly and iNaturalist claims that this beauty is a Crimson Patch. Also new to me was this hive of Long-waisted Honey Wasps.

Crimson Patch
Long-waisted Honey Wasps

A tired but content bunch of birders made it back to the van. Another latish lunch beckoned and a Black-crested Titmouse made an appearance off the terrace, which overlooked a ravine and creek. We followed that with a winding, scenic drive to our new digs, Hotel Villabilbo just outside of Jalpan de Serra. More to come and thanks for following!