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Plus additional notes for Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima
By Dave Sargeant
19 January – 6 February 2005
The idea for this two-week plus trip to western Mexico arose from a mixture of having to take leave from work during this period combined with west Mexico offering good climate and interesting endemics. The impetus to visit Baja, an area less frequently covered by visiting birders from the old world, came from reading about the opportunities for observing Grey Whales at this time, as well as a personal interest in exploring less frequently visited areas.
During the first week, in Baja California, I travelled with my wife, who then unfortunately had to return due to work pressures. For the remainder, in Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima I travelled with Bob Ballard whom, living in Guadalajara, has an excellent knowledge of birding these states.
For Baja, reservations for car and most accommodation were made in advance through the Internet. For Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima, the only pre-booking was accommodation in San Blas. For all other accommodation we simply turned up, using recommendations either from previous trip reports or the Lonely Planet travel guide.
The trip was reasonably successful in that we saw most of the species we expected, was mainly hassle-free and the weather good. Inevitably we missed some species we had hoped, or even expected, to see.
Having travelled previously in Mexico, prices in Baja took us by surprise. Costs, especially for accommodation and food, were more than double those elsewhere in Mexico, where prices were more in line with our expectations. The large number of tourists and escalating tourist development in Baja appear to contribute to a spiralling cost of living there.
A GPS was frequently used. Throughout this report, where useful, waypoints are referred to; coordinates of these appear in the table at the end.
For further information contact Dave Sargeant: akalat [at] gmail.com
Getting there - Flights and Visa
Muscat to Baja is a long flight, which together with an eleven hour time difference makes a journey not for the faint-hearted. From Muscat to Guadalajara we flew Swiss and American Airlines via Abu Dhabi, Zurich and Dallas with four hour connections in both Zurich and Dallas. With the domestic flights on Aero California, between Guadalajara and La Paz, Baja, not connecting to our international ones, we had to overnight at the airport hotel in Guadalajara both ways. It would have been preferable to not have travelled via the USA where even transit passengers must now clear customs and immigration. However, alternatives such as British Airways via Mexico City were prohibitively expensive.
Visas for Mexico are not required of most European, Australian or US passport holders. A 90-day tourist visa is granted on arrival. Other passport holders are usually issued a 90-day visa which should be applied for from the nearest Mexican embassy or consulate. At the time of writing, all transit passengers through the USA require entry visas. Note however that visa on arrival is available for many European passport holders providing their passport is machine readable. Our transit through Dallas went smoothly enough, but time needed to pass through immigration and should not be underestimated.
During our visit the exchange rate was approximately 11 Pesos to the US$. Somewhat confusingly, the currency symbol used for the Mexican Peso is $. Prices in tourist areas are sometimes denominated in US$. No doubt the occasional tourist ends up paying ten times the price having mistaken Peso $ prices for US$ prices! Money can be changed readily at the Guadalajara airport, but not at the La Paz airport. Money changers are available in larger towns. Credit cards were accepted for major expenses such as hotels, car rental or expensive restaurants. Understandably, US$ are widely accepted in Mexico. Prices quoted throughout this report vary from US$ to Mexican $ based on how we paid at the time.
Health, Safety and Hassles
Without doubt, the most prevalent safety issue in Mexico is the driving standard; be prepared for any and every type of idiotic driving. Despite the unsavoury image that many parts of Mexico have for muggings, theft and hassle, we experienced virtually no problems of any sort. Due to the nature of birding, we frequently had to leave the car unattended but never experienced difficulties. On the insect front, Mexico is well-endowed with a wide range of biting flies and mosquitoes. Without doubt the worst place for mosquitoes and small gnats is San Blas; apply known as the "national swamp". When visiting, come well prepared with long sleeves, trousers, hat and repellent. Within Baja we experienced no insect problems at all. Ticks can be picked up when crashing through undergrowth and forest understorey, and we certainly collected a few small ones around La Cumbre and La Bajada.
Car Rental and Driving
For Baja we pre-booked through the Internet. A search on the web found numerous possibilities, and we booked through auto-rental.net, which searches a number of agencies to find the cheapest deal given your criteria. We ended up with Alamo, which in retrospect might not have been the best idea, as the quality and service were definitely not the best. Pre-booking is probably not required other than in the high tourist season. Certainly at La Paz airport, six or seven rental agencies were open and vying for business, so just turning up and comparing prices will probably secure a reasonable deal. Our six-day rental came to $429 fully inclusive of taxes with unlimited kilometres. However the car was a basic, locally-made VW (the model escapes me, and I don't wish to remember!) with neither central locking, nor electric windows, but did have air conditioning. Maintenance did not seem of a high priority, and over the six days the brakes were grinding more and more, and there were problems with doors not opening and other minor "features". The car had not been cleaned when we collected it, and included a cold pizza on the driver's seat -- in case we were hungry? Alamo also operated the petty and annoying system of not providing the car with a full fuel tank. We rented using an International driving license. There was a small daily fee for each additional driver, which we declined.
Once on the road, driving in Mexico is no better or worse than many other places in the world. Other than other drivers, the most important thing to watch for are the ubiquitous speed bumps, or topes, as they are known in Mexico. These range from minor undulations to impressive monsters, designed to rip the exhaust and crunch the suspension of the less observant traveller. Many are poorly marked, and driving at night is particularly hazardous, notwithstanding wandering livestock, drunkards and motorcyclists without lights. Mexico seems to have a proliferation of dangerous intersections to catch out the unwary, e.g., T-junctions at the brow of blind hills and the like, which, if you are lucky, are announced at the last minute with a sign.
Major highways throughout Mexico are classed as libre (standard highways, usually single lanes) and cuota (toll roads, many of which are new, and usually dual carriageway). As most of the libres are clogged with heavy, diesel-belching trucks, unless you have masochistic tendencies or little money, it is far preferable to use the cuotas. Throughout our ten days in Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit our total toll fees came to $691. Traffic being relatively light, Baja has no need of cuotas (yet).
We flew between Guadalajara and La Paz on Aero California, without problems and with only short delays. From a birder's perspective (assuming you are flying in, not driving from the USA) southern Baja can be accessed by air either at La Paz or Cabo San Lucas, both of which are connected to various cities within Mexico such as Mazatlán, Mexico City and Guadalajara. Being a major tourist destination, international flights also operate from the USA and Canada.
For those with time, ferries operating between La Paz and both Mazatlán and Los Mochis could make for interesting sea-watching en route.
Other Miscellaneous Information
Mexico road maps are no doubt available at major book sellers and, potentially, airports within Mexico. However, we purchased our Baja map in advance from the USA. For Baja we used the International Travel Maps Mexico: Baja California 1:650,000, which was more than adequate. Within Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit, we used a combination of Howell's book and Bob's personal maps and experience. Navigation was generally not a problem despite poor sign-posting in most places; when in doubt simply asking for directions usually put us on the right road.
Internet cafés were available in larger towns. Charges were a very reasonable $15 per hour, although network speed often left a lot to be desired.
The electrical supply in Mexico is the same as in the USA -- 110V, 60Hz. Plugs are generally the flat, two-pin type commonly used in the USA, as well as polarized plugs with unequal flat pins and three-conductor plugs with an additional round pin for earthing.
During our visit the sunrise and sunset times were about 07h05 and 18h00 respectively in Baja, and 06h40 and 17h45 in San Blas. Note there is a one hour time zone change between Baja and both Colima and Jalisco, but that Baja, Nayarit and Sinaloa are on the same time.
We stayed at a variety of tourist hotels, and simple traveller accommodation, pre-booking only in La Paz and San Blas. For the rest, we simply followed recommendations in either Lonely Planet or other birders' trip reports, some of which we would recommend, others not. During our visit we stayed at the following:
Hotel Casa Grande, Guadalajara International Airport. Located in the airport grounds directly opposite the arrival building. We chose this purely for convenience due to our late night arrivals and early departures the following morning. The hotel could be considered more than adequate, although the US$110-120 price is very poor value for money. For reasons unknown, we had great difficulty making advance reservations, constantly being informed the hotel was full. On arrival the hotel appeared completely empty.
Hotel Brennan, Pueblo San Carlos, Baja California Sur. A simple, clean, local hotel with air-conditioning and fan. $500/double. The facilities included a pleasant lounging area, with cold drinks, but no restaurant, although one or two could be found in the street immediately behind. The hotel can arrange whale-watching trips with a reputable boatman. The cost for the whale-watching was US$50/hour for the boat (probably up to six people) to a maximum of US$150 for the whole morning.
Hotel Mediterrane, La Paz, Baja California Sur. We selected this mid-price hotel based on the write-up in the Lonely Planet travel guide. Rooms range between US$55-75/double which is par for the course in La Paz. The location is excellent, the staff friendly, and the rooms clean and quiet. We enjoyed our stay there and can recommend this hotel. The only negative was the late breakfast, not commencing before 08h00, and even then a poor selection. For breakfast a better course of action is to walk a few blocks to one of the many coffee shops or open air restaurants along the sea-front. Lunch and dinner are available in the hotel's restaurant - the Pazta - a snazzy Italian serving good, though expensive food.
Casa de Huéspedes El Palomar, Santiago, Baja California Sur. The Lonely Planet mentions the Palomar as a hotel, though neglects to mention its primary function is as a restaurant – hence no hotel sign, and the necessity to ask for accommodation. A few rooms are located in units in the back garden which my guess are mainly used by visiting businessmen. $400/double. Basic but comfortable, with affordable food. Santiago makes a convenient base for Miraflores and price-wise beats hands-down any hotel in the San José del Cabo area with its tourist developments.
Posada del Rey, San Blas, Nayarit. One of a number of family-run guesthouses in San Blas, about which nothing is particularly memorable. At $300/single the price is OK. Clean and quiet with a small swimming pool. As it has no restaurant a short walk to the town centre is required.
Hotel Bahia, Melaque, Jalisco. This small family-run hotel is one of several that can be found in Melaque, conveniently placed for access to Barranca El Chocho. It was clean and comfortable with basic, shared, kitchen facilities (stove, microwave and water boiler; handy for early morning exits.) Rooms near the front might be noisy early in the evening, but the town quietens-down later. At $200/single the price is very reasonable. Melaque has a few internet facilities and money changers, though neither appeared to stay open later in the evening. This hotel appeared popular, and we secured the last rooms.
Hotel Garage, Colima City, Colima. We tried this newly-opened hotel located along the main road into Colima City shortly after turning off Route 54. The hotel was on the right side going into town just before the bridge over the railway line. We may well have been the first guests and the few staff on duty did not appear well-organised. The hot water was not functioning either. The price was $250/single. It would probably be worth checking again once they get into the swing, as staying here saves having to drive into downtown Colima. Cars can be parked off-road in a locked area.
Hotel Colón, Ciudad Guzmán, Colima. Despite recommendations we failed to be impressed with this noisy, over-priced, poorly-located hotel. The "excellent" restaurant mentioned in Vermeulen's trip report now serves tacos solely. These we ate each night as within walking distance no restaurants are found. Being located directly on Route 54, thundering trucks passing throughout the night make a good night's sleep difficult. To make matters worse, the central courtyard acts as a sound trap with tiled walkways echoing to the clack-clack of heels of passers-by. Baggage with wheels was a real treat here! Ear plugs decidedly recommended. The $450/single room price was poor value. Leaving early and arriving late meant we had no opportunity to find alternative accommodation without losing birding time. However, on the last morning we noticed a billboard advertising the Hotel Zapotlán y Villas, Federico del Toro No. 61 Col. Centro, with rooms for $160.
At least for birders, Mexico could never be described a gastronomic destination. Good food can be found however, providing you have a few recommendations. In our experience food varied from excellent to poor, with mediocre the norm. Particularly good, or bad, restaurants we encountered are mentioned in the accounts below. Prices in Baja were at least double those we encountered in Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit, and the quality generally poorer. Beer, and of course tequila, were widely available; the later being available in a massive variety of brands and prices. As a general guideline with tequila, you get what you pay for, with the cheaper end of the market being decidedly rough. In the convenience food line, small grocery stores sell the usual collection of water, junk food and other staples of birding trips. Many of these remain open later in the evening. Nowhere seems to serve an early breakfast. The earliest any café seemed to open was 08h00 – totally useless from a birding perspective. The average costs for a meal ranged between US$10-20 including beers.
Being a major tourist destination, English was fairly widely spoken in La Paz, Baja, though it would be as well not to depend on it. For example, only one of the car rental agencies at the airport spoke English. Away from Baja, at least the basics of Spanish are essential for ease of travel in Mexico.
Overall the weather was excellent with the exception of one day, on Volcán Nieve, when birding activities were curtailed by rain. For weather, January is optimal in these areas of Mexico, with pleasant daytime temperatures and little rain.
Despite the above, we were surprised on arrival in La Paz to find cool temperatures and the aftermath of three days of fairly heavy rain. However, this soon changed with clearing cloud cover resulting in cool nights and warm to hot days. It was notably hotter around San José del Cabo than La Paz. Weather in Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima was pleasant. On the twin volcanoes of Fuego and Nieve, altitude was the most influencing factor, with snow and rain around the higher slopes. Two useful sites for weather statistics can be found at WorldClimate and Weatherbase.
Howell, N.G., and Webb, S. (1995). A Guide to the Birds of Mexico, and Northern Central America. Oxford University Press. The essential field guide to take. For overseas birders, a North American guide is also required, as many of the commoner northern migrants are not illustrated.
National Geographic Society (1989). Field Guide to Birds of North America. This was taken by myself and is generally adequate for the commoner North American migrants not covered in Howell's book. However, a number of more up-to-date American guides are now available.
Howell, N.G. (1998). A Bird-finding Guide to Mexico, and Northern Central America. Oxford University Press. The other essential reference. Don't leave home without it. Almost all the maps and access information are still accurate.
Birding Volcán Fuego, Colima, Mexico. Winging It. (August 1996). Volume 8, Number 8.
Collar, N.J (editor) (2000). Threatened Birds of the World. Lynx Ediciones and BirdLife International.
Clements, J.F. (2000). Birds of the World: A checklist. Ibis Publishing Co.
Lonely Planet Guide (9th ed 2004). Mexico. Useful both for pre-trip planning and for street maps and restaurant/hotel recommendations once in Mexico.
The more visited areas of western Mexico, from San Blas to Colima, are fairly-well covered by trip reports. A few we found particularly useful are listed below. Baja, on the other hand has decidedly sparse information by comparison.
Mlodinow, Steve. (2003). Baja California's Cape District. 24 January – 1 February 2003. This short, excellent, report covers the southern Cape sites, including the San Antonio de la Sierra road, was the best report available for southern Baja. Although it contains no maps, the driving directions are good.
Mlodinow, Steve. (2005). Baja California Sur - Cape District - 21–29 January 2005. Posted after our trip, this contains some interesting comments on "Solitary Vireo" identification in Baja.
van der Woude, John. (1999). West Mexico 21 November to 3 December 1999. Good report for San Blas and Colima, especially the Colima volcanoes.
Vermeulen, Jan. (2001). The Birds of Western Mexico. Good report covering the period 19 March to 2 April 2001.
Hornbuckle, Jon. (1999). Mexico. Report of Jon's clean-up Mexico trip, which also covers Baja. (On WorldTwitch.)
A plethora of commercial sound recordings are available for Mexico. We relied primarily on the following:
Coffey, Ben B. Jr. and Lula. (1990). Songs of Mexican Birds. ARA Records. Two cassettes.
Hardy, J. W., Coffey, Ben B. Jr. and Reynard, George B. (1999). Voices of the New World Owls. ARA Records. Cassette.
Hardy, J. W., and Wolf, Larry L. (1977). Voices of Mexican Sparrows (songs and calls). ARA Records. Cassette.
Keller, G. A. (2001). Bird Songs of Southeastern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. CD
In addition to the authors of the trips reports we used, I would especially like to thank Bob Ballard who answered my request for a travelling companion and was able to accompany me at short notice. This trip would not have been half the fun alone, and I thank Bob for his friendship and hospitality. Thanks also to David Ferry who clarified some of the confusion around the access routes on Volcán Nieve.
Mexico appears to be a particularly difficult country in which to "clean-up"; this trip being no exception. Despite extensive prior planning and communication, we were unsuccessful in finding an alternative, good locality for Cape Pygmy-Owl to that given in Howell (1998) – a site we had insufficient time to visit. To our surprise we also failed to find Baird's Junco along the San Antonio de la Sierra road despite reasonable effort. A pelagic trip out of San Blas was very disappointing, with a single Pomarine Skua the only pelagic species recorded. At Microondas La Cumbre, we failed to see either of the speciality owls, and on the Colima volcanoes we missed, mainly due to lack of time, a string of specialities such as Singing Quail, Lucifer Hummingbird and Aztec Thrush.
The comments below are intended to add to information provided by the references listed above, either to update or add to that provided, and should be read in conjunction with them.
La Paz to Ciudad Constitución Road (Route 1), Baja California Sur
Once clear of urban areas west of La Paz the main highway, Route 1, passes through extensive desert, much of which looks worthy of exploration. Essentially one can stop anywhere and explore. Note however that most land is fenced and finding access away from traffic noise is not that easy. One good gravel road, along which we found several key birds, takes off right (north) from the highway 26.3 km (300 metres after the 26 km marker) from La Paz when travelling west toward Ciudad Constitución, a few kilometres after the army checkpoint. The occasional, large, noisy truck still churned up clouds of dust, but was tolerable. One particular area, down this road, was the short track to the left a couple of kilometres from the highway, at waypoint 001, where we observed Grey Vireo, Grey Thrasher and California Gnatcatcher, as well a host of commoner species.
San Carlos, Baja California Sur
Although not specifically a birding site, the small fishing village of San Carlos is a key centre for whale-watching trips in western Mexico. Driving time from La Paz is an easy three hours, but with birding in desert scrub en route the trip took us most of the day. Whale-watching trips are easy to organise by asking any locals -- although it's prudent to follow a recommendation to avoid potential cowboy operators. We arranged our trip through the Hotel Brennan and were impressed with the attitude and awareness of the whales exhibited by the boatman, who also spoke English. The rate was US$50/hour for the boat, up to a maximum US$150 for the morning, or "as long as we wanted" according to the boatman. We stayed out almost five hours for our US$150.
Estero de San José, Baja California Sur
The estero is covered in Howell's bird-finding guide or, even better, in Steve Mlodinow's 2003 web report. Unfortunately, due to rampant tourist development, directions in both are hopelessly out of date. Seemingly the only constant is the Hotel Presidente, a major tourist hotel directly adjacent to the estero. Most development along the access roads is now complete; for which read "no remaining native vegetation" so the map provided here should remain accurate for some time. The best starting reference point is where the airport access road meets Route 1, about 14 km north of San José del Cabo. Zero the trip meter there and proceed southward toward San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas for 13.1 km to a traffic circle (roundabout in old word terminology) with a large, gaudy yellow sculpture. Turn left and go 500 metres to a small traffic circle and turn left again. You will now be driving parallel with the coast, although housing developments restrict the view of the sea. Continue 1.1 km to the next traffic circle and continue straight, 300 metres after which the road ends at a small traffic circle with the Hotel Presidente on the right. Park there and walk around the left side of Da Antonio's restaurant, where you will pick up the newly-constructed footpath that runs along the edge of the stream feeding the estero. Much "improvement" of the surroundings was happening during our visit, so how much of an area of reeds and marshland remain in future would be conjecture. We observed a couple of Belding's Yellowthroat in reed clumps behind the restaurant during the heat of the day. Another small area of reeds which held Belding's Yellowthroat was adjacent to the sewage treatment plant where the road fords the stream. Another access point to the estero is the sandy track 700 metres east of the sewage plant. We were able to drive about half way down that track in a saloon vehicle, along which, closer to the estero, a few clumps of reeds remain. The point where this track meets the estero gives a reasonable view across the water and makes a vantage point to scan for gulls, terns and ducks. It would be difficult to predict how much longer the estero will remain a good locality for Belding's Yellowthroat. Intense pressure from tourism, in the form of water activities, local fishing, microlite flying, and horseback riding all contribute to the slow degradation of this site. The footpath along the western edge of the stream that feeds the estero is being paved and scrub being cleared. Next, no doubt, the sides of the stream will be concreted, lights erected and reeds cleared in order to "improve" the atmosphere.
Miraflores, Baja California Sur
This site is mentioned in Howell. The directions in Mlodinow's report (2003) are good, although he fails to mention to a fork in the road just after the statue, at which you should keep left to find the wash. In three hours there, we birded both sides of the wash, finding a good mixture of common species and good numbers of wintering warblers. Miraflores is mentioned as a possible site for Cape Pygmy-Owl, but its occurrence there must be very seasonal – presumably colder winters only, when they descend from the highlands.
Santiago, Baja California Sur
Santiago makes a convenient, and cheaper, overnight stop to the expensive tourist developments of San José del Cabo. The only accommodation appears to be the rustic bar-restaurant El Palomar, which is signed as you drive into town. Although not advertised as a hotel, a few rooms are available for those asking. The village itself completely surrounds the last vestiges of a marsh with habitat suitable for Belding's Yellowthroat, several of which were recorded by Steve Mlodinow. During our visit however, all access had been fenced off, and houses now completely surround the marsh. It would be possible to ask to for access no doubt, though during our visit a parade was in progress, so we continued to San José with the intention to return if we had not found Belding's Yellowthroat there.
San Antonio de la Sierra Road, Baja California Sur
This road, not mentioned in Howell, came to my attention from Steve Mlodinow's 2003 report as potentially an easier site at which to locate Cape Pygmy-Owl, San Lucas Robin and Baird's Junco – three of the more difficult Baja specialities. The state of this dirt road is likely to vary considerably, and may even be impassable after rains. Handily, we found the road easily passable to our saloon car. If necessary a 4x4 can easily be rented in La Paz. In the centre of San Antonio, 58 km south of La Paz, zero the trip meter at the point where the road to the microwave tower goes off west (signposted), and continue on the highway southward in the direction of San José del Cabo. The San Antonio de la Sierra road heads off right at the left hand bend after 9.1 km, just before the main road crosses a major bridge. Re-zero the trip meter here. After just 400 metres the track crosses a wash, at waypoint 002. We found several Xantus' Hummingbirds in this area, together with Cassin's Vireo and MacGillvray's Warbler. Following the road into the mountains is easy; at places it forks, only to join up again a little farther. Most of these forks are abandoned sections destroyed in previous rains. The road winds up through open scrub and forest, with oak and pine-oak woodland starting around 13-14 km. Several washes, both large and small are crossed and can be explored on foot. We explored three major washes (C, D and F on the map). San Lucas Robin was common in washes E and F, and Xantus' Hummingbird was seen in the former. Baird's Junco has been seen by Steve Mlodinow in both these washes, though their occurrence at this lower altitude appears to be erratic and unreliable. Cape Pygmy-Owl has recently been found, on more than one occasion, along wash F. Although the area is designated as a biosphere reserve, cows, goats and sheep are numerous with the understorey consequently suffering. Evidently in Mexico "biosphere reserve" translates as "free ranching". The area is well worth a couple of days. Other species of note that we recorded were Acorn Woodpecker (the dark eyed race), Golden Eagle, Band-tailed Pigeon and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
Singayta, San Blas, Narayit
This site, well-covered in Howell's guide and several trip reports, should be one of the main areas visited. It was easy to locate from the access instructions given in Howell. Locals have recently made some attempt at protecting the area, or more likely seen the opportunity to make a few pesos, and are now charging $20 to walk the track. A few "protect the forest" signs have been erected, although little heed appears being taken of them. I fully support this initiate for local communities to benefit from visiting birders and hope some protection of the habitat will result. Note also the presence of some marked petroglyphs along the track. We spent one morning there and saw several of the key species, including Mexican Parrotlet and Sinaloa Wren. Numerous Sinaloa Crows were seen around the village when we left. However, we failed to see or hear Rufous-bellied Chachalaca that others report. Mosquitoes and biting gnats were very prevalent, so be sure to wear long sleeves, trousers and bring insect repellent.
La Bajada, San Blas, Narayit
One recent trip report mentioned being unable to find this site. Following the directions in Howell we also would have failed to find it. Evidently some construction or small changes in road layout have occurred. However, by asking it is relatively straightforward to locate and by loosely simply "following the paved road" it should be no problem to locate. We drove into the plantations and far as our saloon vehicle would allow (waypoint 019) and then walked. The habitat looks very promising, and much better than Singayta. We heard Collared Forest-Falcon but failed to see it. On our first, afternoon visit the forest was almost lifeless, but a subsequent visit in the morning was very good. One positive aspect is that the sun doesn't rise over the mountain ridge till about 09h00. We followed the trail for only a couple of kilometres, but it continued farther, although was becoming more overgrown. This was one of only two sites that we recorded Rosy Thrush-Tanager.
El Mirador de Aguila, San Blas, Narayit
Testing Howell's claim that Military Macaws can be seen any time of day we visited this site in the middle of the day and were not disappointed. Unsurprisingly we saw little else. This area, right on Route 54 libre, is not a particularly pleasant one; standing by piles of rubbish with roaring, diesel-belching trucks every few seconds is not my idea of fun, so once the macaws have been seen a strong desire to leave takes hold.
Barranca el Choncho, Jalisco
The directions in Howell are accurate. We could not locate Mexican Hermit, and two visits were required to find Flammulated Flycatcher. We obtained good views of Rosy Thrush-Tanager, as the understorey is fairly open. San Blas Jay was common.
Playa de Oro Road, Colima
Again, this site is well-covered with directions still accurate in Howell's guide. The habitat looks very good, though dense, and the road is pleasantly quiet with very little traffic. We failed to find Flammulated Flycatcher. The highlight of our visit was Lucy's Warbler in the mesquite immediately adjacent to the beach.
Microondas La Cumbre, Narayit
The directions in Howell's guide are excellent. A couple of trip reports mention the barrier on the gate being down. Consequently, some have experienced difficulty gaining access. This must have changed, as the barrier is now permanently up, and indeed looks not to have been operated for some time. On the down side, and something not mentioned in previous reports, this site is now very popular with sunrise and sunset visitors, pilgrims, joggers and walkers, even outside of weekends. Strangely almost everyone parks at the bottom and walks up, despite apparently no restriction on access. With so many visitors it's not easy to have peace and quiet when searching for owls. Despite hearing several individuals of both Colima Pygmy-Owl and Balsas Screech-Owl, we failed to see either - one of our main disappointments of the trip. We even had one Balsas Screech-Owl at 17h00 in the afternoon calling from no less than 10 metres away, but failed to locate it! It did not help that during both of visits we experienced fairly windy conditions, not very conducive to locating owls.
Volcán Fuego and Volcán Nieve, Jalisco
The track and access up Volcán Fuego is well-covered in Howell. However, not much is mentioned of its twin volcano, Volcán Nieve. Access, now possible on three tracks up these volcanoes, is well-covered in van der Woude's report. Time should be spent on each track.
- The traditional track up Fuego is now only drivable by saloon car (with care) to about 15 km. With a 4x4 it might be possible to drive as far as 17 km, beyond which the road is no longer maintained and passable only on foot. Camping higher up on the road as mentioned by Howell would be a good option as traffic is almost non-existent and should provide good opportunities for owls and accessing the forest early in the day.
- The easiest access is now the graded road up Volcán Nieve starting about 9 km, or 20 minutes, from Ciudad Guzmán. This road is readily drivable, and excellent forest remains on most of slopes. Forest on this road starts at about 7,000 feet, which is slightly higher than the road up Fuego.
- The third road turns off from Floripondio, also known as San Gabriel (see Howell's guide page 141, end of site 7.6 account) to some microwave towers. Although maintained, this road is difficult with a saloon car due to the numerous and hefty drainage gullies on which grinding the bottom of the vehicle seems the only way to cross them. This road is also very steep, and we almost overheated our vehicle. However, the forest is excellent. Potentially it would be possible to hitch up and walk down. Just after the first major clearing at the top we had Long-tailed Wood-Partridge. We also saw Pine Siskin and Hairy Woodpecker. The area looks good for Aztec Thrush.
Given, the inevitability of balancing time constraints against visiting a representative number of sites, we were happy with the itinerary we followed and how the trip worked with only minor difficulties or hassles. More time would have been beneficial in Baja in order to access better sites for Cape Pygmy-Owl and Baird's Junco, as well as several more days on the Colima volcanoes for many of the specialities that the area holds.
Wed 19 Jan: Flight from Muscat to Zurich via Abu Dhabi. Flight from Zurich to Guadalajara via Dallas, arriving late evening. Overnight at Guadalajara Airport Hotel.
Thurs 20: Jan Domestic flight from Guadalajara to La Paz, Baja California. Day driving through desert en route to San Carlos. Overnight at Hotel Brennan.
Fri 21 Jan: Morning whale-watching trip in Magdalena Bay. Afternoon driving to La Paz with stops en route in desert and La Paz bay. Overnight at Hotel Mediterrane.
Sat 22 Jan: Morning around San Antonio and first part of San Antonio de la Sierra road. Afternoon at Estero de San José. Drive to Santiago. Overnight at Palomar Bar-Restaurant.
Sun 23 Jan: Early morning at Miraflores, then San Bartolo. Afternoon San Antonio de la Sierra road. Return to La Paz. Overnight at Hotel Mediterrane.
Mon 24 Jan: San Antonio de la Sierra road. Overnight at Hotel Mediterrane.
Tues 25 Jan: Day in La Paz, mainly along beach front and bay. Afternoon along coast road to north as far as Playa Pichilingue. Evening flight to Guadalajara. Overnight at Guadalajara Airport Hotel.
Wed 26 Jan: Drive to Cerro de San Juan. Late afternoon drive to San Blas. Overnight at Posada del Rey.
Thurs 27 Jan: Morning at Singayta. Mirador de Aguila. Afternoon at La Bajada. Overnight at Posada del Rey.
Fri 28 Jan: Morning pelagic trip from San Blas. Afternoon on Peso Island.
Sat 29 Jan: Cerro de San Juan. Late afternoon at San Blas fort.
Sun 30 Jan: Morning at La Bajada. Afternoon drive to Melaque. Overnight at Hotel Bahia.
Mon 31 Jan: Morning at Barranca el Choncho. Afternoon on playa de oro Road. Overnight at Hotel Bahia.
Tues 01 Feb: Morning at Barranca el Choncho. Drive to La Cumbre. Evening owling. Overnight at Hotel Garage.
Wed 02 Feb: Pre-dawn owling on La Cumbre. Drive to Volcán de Fuego. Afternoon on Volcán Fuego. Drive to Ciudad Guzmán. Overnight at Hotel Colón.
Thurs 03 Feb: Volcán de Nieve. Overnight at Hotel Colón.
Fri 04 Feb: Early morning Floripondio. Afternoon Volcán de Fuego. Overnight at Hotel Colón.
Sat 05 Feb: Morning at Floripondio. Drive to Guadalajara. Overnight at Bob's house.
Sun 06 Feb: Flight from Guadalajara to Zurich via Dallas. Overnight in plane.
Mon 07 Feb: Flight from Zurich to Muscat via Abu Dhabi.
Wed 19th January
Our 00h40 Swiss flight departed, predictably, on time arriving in Zurich at 06h00. The connecting flight on American Airlines to Dallas was uneventful, though long -- almost 12 hours. Inevitably we were forced to deal with queues, immigration and customs at Dallas, the only positive aspect of which was to help pass the four-hour connection time. We arrived, as scheduled, in Guadalajara at 23h00; all in all a pretty exhausting journey. Despite serving one of the largest Mexican cities, Guadalajara International Airport is fairly small with a distinctly "provincial" feel, resulting in speedy (at least for us) immigration and customs formalities, shortly after which we checked into the Hotel Casa Grande directly outside the arrivals hall. Not the grandest of airport hotels that we'd experienced, but more than adequate for a few hours sleep till our domestic flight the following morning.
Thurs 20th January
We had an early start for the 07h00 Aero California flight to La Paz. The one hour time change between La Paz and Guadalajara was handy, making our arrival still early morning. We were surprised to see the results of a recent downpour and heavy clouds looming. Despite pre-booking the rental car with Alamo, it took a while to sort out paper-work. Heading north on Route 1 from La Paz toward Ciudad Constitución and San Carlos we stopped at a few likely looking spots to search for Grey Thrasher and California Gnatcatcher. Our initial efforts were unsuccessful but a Grey Vireo and numerous Grey Flycatchers were interesting. A side road 26.3 km from La Paz proved to be a good locality with all the desert specialities found readily, including Grey Thrasher responding well to tape. With the main specialities "in the bag" by mid-morning, for the rest of the day we drove slowly northward, stopping wherever interesting habitat away from the road could be explored. With clearing cloud the sun was surprisingly hot, even for those of us accustomed to the Middle East! A roadside restaurant provided a welcome lunch break together with our firsthand experience of the mangled local dialect whilst trying to order. On arrival in San Carlos around 16h00, we checked into the previously arranged Hotel Brennan. By a stroke of luck a German couple also checked in, enabling us to arrange and share the cost of whale-watching the following day. The late afternoon was spent scanning through the numerous gulls and waders along the beach, in hope of picking out any wayward Yellow-footed Gulls.
Fri 21st January
We left at 07h00 with the boatman kindly arriving at the hotel to lead us by car to the mangrove area where many fishing boats leave. Our first stop was a small, flat, rocky islet immediately offshore that was packed with roosting pelicans, cormorants, waders, gulls, and terns. Within the pack was nothing of immediate interest, but a group of nearby Black-necked Grebes was the only one of the trip. Our next stop was a look at several California Sea Lions, lounging on offshore buoys, enabling some close-up snaps. The following three hours were spent searching for, and then trailing a few California Grey Whales. Our boatman knew how to quietly pursue them without disturbance, and we enjoyed a couple of hours of gently keeping pace with these gentle giants – seeing a total of 7-8 individuals. The calm conditions made for a pleasant morning out. We returned around 12h00, checked out and headed to the El Patio restaurant-hotel for lunch. With a garden restaurant and adjacent rooms, this could be a pleasant place to stay and at $550 only slightly more expensive then the Brennan. We left San Carlos at 13h00 for the two to three hour drive to La Paz. On approach of the bay at La Paz, we paused to check the gulls on the estuary and immediately found several Yellow-footed Gulls allowing close approach. Toward dusk we arrived at our pre-booked Hotel Mediterrane (waypoint 018), ate at their Pazta Restaurant – a fairly expensive Italian job, of good quality – and crashed out for a good night's sleep.
Sat 22nd January
Despite the sign on the hotel café door, it was a mistake to assume we could get breakfast at 07h00, so we took a short walk along the harbour front assuming opening would be imminent. By 07h30 we gave up and headed south from town. Shortly after San Antonio we tried to find, without success, the track mentioned in Jon Hornbuckle's report where he'd seen Xantus' Hummingbird. As most habitat in this area is similar, it probably mattered little where we stopped, so we simply took the first decent track from the main road, which turned out to be the San Antonio de la Sierra road. The first wash, 400 metres on looked promising, and we soon found several Xantus' Hummingbird, as well as a host of other interesting species including MacGillvray's Warbler and Cassin's Vireo. After couple of hours there, we moved on to San Bartolo, where surprisingly, given apparently good directions, we failed to locate the track mentioned in Steve Mlodinow's report. However, so as not to waste time, we pressed on to Estero de San José, where development had again wreaked havoc with Steve's directions, as a consequence of which we had to follow our noses to find both the estero and sewage treatment plant (no pun intended). I have redrawn, with GPS coordinates, directions that should aid future visitors considerably. This area was appreciable hotter than La Paz, and during the middle of the day we failed, predictably, to locate any Belding's Yellowthroats in the reeds around the sewage plant. However, an hour or so later we were successful in pishing a Belding's Yellowthroat out from reeds behind Da Antonio's restaurant adjacent to the Hotel Presidente. Having scored on the speciality of the area, we explored a little, locating the sandy track 700 metres beyond the sewage plant, where some additional reeds held no Belding's Yellowthroats (though looked like as if they should) but found a reasonable vantage point from which to scan the estero. After, with the cooling late afternoon, we returned to the hotel and walked the newly constructed footpath along the stream between the estero and sewage treatment plant, investigating the remaining scrub. Species seen included Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Hen Harrier, Cooper's Hawk, Peregrine, and White-collared Seedeater, as well as another Belding's Yellowthroat in reeds next to the sewage plant. At dusk we drove back to Santiago, stopping en route in ad hoc localities to try for Elf Owl; which proved a dismal failure. In Santiago village we asked at the Palomar restaurant to discover a few rooms in the back, so spent the night.
Sun 23rd January
Our first stop was Miraflores where we walked the wash behind the village. Thick-billed Kingbird was relatively common. In a couple of hours we recorded large numbers of commoner warblers, Sora, Lazuli Bunting and Western Flycatcher. We continued to San Bartolo, where again we failed to locate the track to the microwave tower mentioned by Mlodinow. From the look of things this track now starts in the centre of the village. Certainly the main river bed below the village appears loaded with potential, being the most verdant area for miles around. We had little time to explore and the heat meant few active birds. Belding's Yellowthroat has been recorded here and certainly a few reed clumps were present. We used the afternoon to check the state of the San Antonio de la Sierra road, and discovered it to be readily drivable with our saloon car for at least 23 kilometres. A few areas held San Lucas Robins that responded readily to a recording of American Robin. The remainder of the afternoon was spent trudging up and down sandy washes searching in vain for Baird's Junco. The higher altitude produced some different species, including Band-tailed Pigeon as well as a Golden Eagle drifting over. Before dark we returned to La Paz.
Mon 24th January
An earlier start today so that we could arrive at the San Antonio de la Sierra road, an hour and a half from La Paz, in good time. The whole day was spent walking various washes in another abortive attempt for Baird's Junco and Cape Pygmy-Owl. Several additional species were recorded, including Ruby-crowned Kinglet and California Quail. We explored as far as wash F around 23 km – the road seemed passable even farther. For those with more time it would no doubt be possible to walk to higher elevations in the surrounding hills to find the junco and pygmy-owl. Camping would be very easy. In the late afternoon we returned to La Paz.
Tues 25th January
A morning lay-in and casual start to the day with coffee combined with the heaviest cheese cake we'd ever eaten, taken along the beach front. We spent a couple of hours wandering along the beach looking at gulls, terns and waders adding a few species to the trip list including Caspian Tern, Ring-billed Gull, and Marbled Godwit. In the afternoon we drove slowly north as far as Playa Pichilingue, 18 km north from La Paz, through some interesting desert scenery. We took the 20h30 flight to Guadalajara, and again spent the night at the Hotel Casa Grande at the airport.
Wed 26th January
Another early start for my wife to check-in for the Dallas flight. As agreed I met up with Bob Ballard with whom I was to share the remainder of the trip. Having bought some tequila (the shop at the airport has an enormous variety) as a souvenir and waved goodbye, we set off, with Bob driving, through the outskirts of Guadalajara in fairly heavy traffic toward Cerro de San Juan. It took almost two hours to clear Guadalajara, so it was three and half hours later when we arrived at Cerro de San Juan. Following the directions in Howell, we slowly worked our way up the mountain. The first stop 500 metres from the main road was quite productive with some good flock activity. Higher up we encountered Red-headed Tanager and Stripe-headed Woodcreeper. We struggled to identify the smaller hummingbirds with Costa's, Calliope, Rufous and Bumblebee all potentially possible. Eventually we obtained excellent views of Bumblebee Hummingbird. In the late afternoon we drove to San Blas (one hour) and checked into the Posada del Rey. Dinner was taken at Wala Wala restaurant, a recommendation extracted from the Lonely Planet, that served simple, but great food, the cost of which came to only $100 including beers. Highly recommended and a nice change from the prices we had been paying in Baja!
Thurs 27th January
An 06h30 start with a drive out to Singayta. We parked just beyond the village and continued on foot, being passed by several pleasant locals, who evidently are very accustomed to birders along this track. The birding was interesting but the habitat very hacked-over. We didn't see Rufous-bellied Chachalaca and would be surprised to, given the removal of habitat. We did however find Mexican Parrotlet, Sinaloa Wren and Black-vented Oriole. Although we were prepared, the biting gnats were quite annoying. Around 11h00 we headed back to town, being caught for the $20 entrance fee as we left the village. At the dock in San Blas we easily managed to arrange a boat for a pelagic the following morning (US$25/hour). Only question was, would the boatman be out of bed at that time? Certainly to date we had not experienced any rush to start the day early. Lunch was taken at McDonald's (not the McDonald's), a local hamburger place. Our verdict? Give it a miss. We'd heard good reports of this place, but it turned out decidedly mediocre with nothing special to recommend. As, according to Howell's guide, it is possible to see the Military Macaws from Mirador El Aguila at any time of day, we decided to put it to the test. This was to become an eventful and memorable journey. All went well until we arrived at the intersection of the libre and cuota highways. As we turned onto the libre I noticed a deranged, and probably drunk, local standing, half naked, on the intersection, jumping up and down and screaming obscenities at passing vehicles. Maybe this is a regular event, but what was not regular was the half kilo rock that was suddenly launched, seemingly randomly, in a high arc into the sky and out over the road. I watched in horror, as Bob now turning into the junction, was turning straight into the trajectory of the rock. Moments later and crash! By some miracle it hit the left side window support between the windscreen and the quarter-light, instantly shattering the quarter-light. Another six inches and it would have come straight through the windscreen onto Bob. Incredibly the window held, and although some glass came out, by driving slowly we were able to continue to the mirador. Although a little shaken we decided to look for the macaws before turning our attentions to the shattered window. Standing in the heat with piles of rubbish is not the best way to pass the afternoon, but we waited only about 20 minutes before a few Military Macaws flew up the valley. The next priority was to try to temporarily patch the window, so we drove back to San Blas, with occasional fragments of glass falling out. Being an American vehicle, the only place to purchase a replacement window would be Guadalajara, so we bought some duct tape from a building supplier in San Blas and covered the window. Amazingly this lasted to the end of the trip. With a few hours of the afternoon still remaining, we drove to La Bajada, having to ask for directions en route. We parked at waypoint 019, which was as far as we could pass with the two wheel drive. Although quiet, the forest looked very promising with tall trees on forested valley sides. At 18h00 at dusk on returning to the car we heard a nearby owl call. Not knowing the species we played a few tapes and had pair of Mottled Owl come in and provide excellent views. Dinner was again taken at Wala Wala, after which I found an internet café on the corner of the zócalo. Not the greatest of speeds, but cheap.
Fri 28th January
As the dock is a stone's throw from the Posada del Rey, we walked, arriving at 06h45. Sure enough our boatman was ready. He however had not had the foresight to fill up with fuel, so he had to detour up-river to the station. This proved a real bonus however; as we pulled out into the river we could see a silhouetted Rufous-bellied Chachalaca perched up in the trees, across on Peso Island. Even more fortuitously, as we crossed to obtain a better look, a flock of Purplish-backed Jays perched up briefly. We headed out of the river mouth and across to a rock stack full of terns and boobies including many Blue-footed and a couple of Brown. Full of expectation we set out to sea with relatively calm conditions and good visibility. We hadn't been expecting a great amount. However we did expect to see at least one of the specialities we thought should occur – namely Black Petrel, Townsend's Shearwater or Least Petrel. To our great disappointment in three hours we saw only a single Pomarine Skua. At one point the boatman (who did appear to know the basics of seabirds) tried to point out a small dark bird, presumably a petrel, that we agonisingly failed to latch onto. Around 14h00 we took a boat across the river to Peso Island ($10 return/pp). Despite the heat, we spent the time trying to cover most of the accessible parts, including walking through the scrub and fields to the north and doubling back along the edge of the river. A pool near the entrance track had three bathing thrushes which, from their washed out appearance, can only have been Grayson's Thrush. In the late afternoon we walked up to the lighthouse, encountering a group of Purplish-backed Jays at very close range in response to playback. These gave us an unexpected identification headache. For those seeing these jays for the first time, it has to be said that identification is far from straightforward given the illustrations and plates in Howell. The leg colour on these birds is completely intermediate to the field guide plate, and the "purplish" mantle colouration is not evident at all. Call was the most useful. However, once you have seen San Blas Jay the difference in leg colour is immediately obvious (being grey in San Blas Jay). The tail is noticeably shorter on San Blas Jay as well. Both species are known to occur on Peso Island, though Purplish-backed is more common. On descending to the main trial a couple of parties of Elegant Quail were calling and eventually gave good views. At sunset we stood on the dock and waved for the boatman to collect us. For a change we took dinner at the Isla Restaurant (fish only), which served excellent food, was good value, and is highly recommended. Actually San Blas was the best place we ate on our trip.
Sat 29th January
We left the posada at 06h00 to drive to Cerro de San Juan. The gods were not with us today, and once on the cuota the car started behaving oddly, intermittently losing power. It soon became evident that despite the fuel gauge registering more than a quarter full, we were low on fuel, and indeed several kilometres short of the cuota exit at Tepic we ran out. By some quirk of fate we coasted to a halt right by Jesus, a local looking for a lift. By a further stroke of luck, and with Jesus' help, we were able to purchase some fuel at a small ranch just opposite where we had come to a stand-still. Needless to say we gave the helpful Jesus a lift right into the heart of Tepic as well as a generous tip. With the car tanked up we headed up Cerro de San Juan. Our first stop was the fields at 2.3 km mentioned in Howell where we saw Spotted Wren as well as having great views of Buff-bellied Flycatcher. Today we wanted to concentrate on the more humid slope of the mountain with an aim of finding Mexican Woodnymph. At our first stop, at a randomly-selected, suitably-looking spot we were immediately rewarded with a male Mexican Woodnymph (the first bird we saw getting out of the car!) Maybe the gods were with us today after all. Farther down, the open areas were not that productive, so we climbed back-up and worked higher elevations and were rewarded with Grey-collared Becard. On our return very little activity was evident, although we again stopped just short of the main highway, where we encountered Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow in the undergrowth - a fitting end to the day. We finished the day watching the sunset at the San Blas fort ($7 entry/pp), walking around its cleared-out scrub, and being attacked by mosquitoes. I would be surprised if Collared Forest-Falcon is regular in this area now. Our last overnight at the Posada del Rey.
Sun 30th January
Dawn found us at La Bajada, hoping an early morning would prove more fruitful for bird activity than the evening session two days previously. In about four hours we walked slowly as far as the first sharp right hand bend in the track (maybe 1.5 km each way). One fruiting tree, loaded with birds, was watched for at least an hour, revealing Cedar Waxwing, Citreoline Trogon, Black-capped Vireo, and numerous thrushes – unfortunately nothing stunningly rare, but an excellent collection none the less. On our return we encountered the skulking Rosy Thrush-Tanager in dense undergrowth as well as Bright-rumped Attila. The majority of the afternoon was spent on the five and one-half hour drive to Melaque. We figured Melaque, being smaller and less touristic than Barra de Navidad, as well as being closer to Barranca el Choncho, would probably be slightly cheaper, and more importantly quieter. From the Lonely Planet we selected Hotel Bahia. Surprisingly it was almost full, but we managed to secure the last two rooms. We took dinner at La Marina restaurant on the advice of the hotel manager and were not disappointed.
Mon 31st January
We found Barranca el Choncho without difficulty, and birded the first kilometre or so. Several locals on horseback and a couple of pick-up trucks passed us. They sussed we were looking for birds, so birders must be a regular occurrence on the track. San Blas Jays were found with little difficulty, but neither Flammulated Flycatcher nor Mexican Hermit could be located. Once we had observed the Jays we realised that identification between San Blas and Purplish-backed Jays is straightforward; leg colour, size, tail length and call being the important features. With the warming day and dwindling activity we took a quick lunch at a beach-front café in Melaque, from where we watched patrolling Brown Booby and Elegant Tern. Despite the heat of the early afternoon, we headed out to the playa de oro road, and once over the first ridge, a couple of kilometres from the highway, walked and birded scrub along most of the road during the afternoon. In contrast to Barranca el Choncho, the vegetation is thick, which makes viewing difficult, and we were frustrated in our attempts to search for Flammulated Flycatcher. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl responded well to imitations. Undoubtedly the best find was a couple of Lucy's Warbler in the mesquite scrub immediately adjacent to the beach. This evening's dinner and beers were taken at the Terraza Restaurant as recommended by the Lonely Planet – excellent. Overnight again at Hotel Bahia.
Tues 1st February
On our morning return trip to Barranca de Choncho we located at least three Flammulated Flycatcher, but little else new. Further effort was expended looking for Mexican Hermit to no avail; evidently they had moved out of the barranca in search of better feeding areas. Certainly at this time of year, few flowering plants were in evidence. We again took breakfast on the beach, after which we set off to Microondas La Cumbre. On arrival we decided first to check the road to Piscila as recommended in Howell. This road was the worst we'd seen for roadside rubbish – a fly-tippers paradise. Despite this we recorded a few interesting species such as Orange-breasted Bunting, Scaled Quail and a number of the snazzy Black-chested Sparrow. However, we failed to find Virginia's Warbler. Around 15h00 we started to bird the lower slopes of the microondas road, but soon discovered some problems with our malfunctioning MD player which forced my to return to the car for spares – during which time Bob had a Lesser Roadrunner at close range in the middle of the road! Shortly after we had a very close Balsas Screech-Owl responding to a tape of Colima Pygmy-Owl, but frustratingly failed to locate it. We remained at the top till dusk, where oddly no bats emerged from the Virgin statue as promised. Both Balsas Screech-Owl and Colima Pygmy-Owl were heard on the way down, but none close enough to spotlight. Once back at the hotel we couldn't find any open restaurant, and had to drive several kilometres towards Colima City where eventually we found a Wal-Mart with restaurant.
Wed 2nd February
Having failed to secure either of the two owl specialities it was an early 06h15 start on the microondas road. Sadly it was still as windy as the previous evening. Again we heard both owl species, but neither close. After dawn we birded the short trail slightly below the summit looking for Virginia's Warbler and Violet-crowned Hummingbird. Failing to find either, we left La Cumbre with the distinct feeling of failure. From La Cumbre we took the short one hour drive to the lower slopes of Volcán Fuego. Once turning off the Atenquique road, the hedgerows and corn fields were absolutely packed with birds, and we had difficulties to pull ourselves away from the attractions to concentrate on the higher forested slopes. As the access road is poorly maintained, the driving was slow. However, this barely mattered as heads were craned out the window listening for feeding flocks. We stopped and explored several likely-looking spots during the afternoon. The side road to the microondas at km 12.7 was quiet. We made longer stops at km 8, km 12.7 and km 15 with a walk to about km 17.5. Birds seemed lacking at higher elevations. On our return a Lesser Roadrunner shot across the track about 3 km from the highway. Following others' recommendations we checked into the Hotel Colón, one of the very few hotels apparent in Guzmán as you drive through this bustling city. Our evening meal turned out to be tacos, the only thing on the menu at the hotel restaurant.
Thurs 3rd February
Following a quick coffee and doughnut at a service station on the edge of town, we tackled the graded track up Volcán Nieve. We briefly surveyed the open fields along the first couple of kilometres, but concentrated effort in forest 4.5 km from the highway. This was very productive, with Dwarf Vireo and Amethyst-throated Hummingbird. The rest of the day was spent on a slow drive, stopping regularly as we ascended the mountain. Toward the top, around km 15-17, we encountered numerous hummingbirds and large warbler flocks. Later in the afternoon we experienced an ash-shower, which found its way into everything including clothes and optics, as well as turning the car an unpleasant shade of grey. Once at the top (where it started snowing) the main track descends again into a small valley with recently-constructed accommodation, and then climbs again to another set of microondas, from which there should be a great view of Fuego. Unfortunately access was closed to the microondas. We asked about the accommodation, which was introduced to us as "group" accommodation for visiting school parties and could be booked if you had a group of 20 or more people. It would certainly make a great locality at which to stay. At dusk we randomly tried the forest at km 5.5 and within seconds had both Mexican Whippoorwill and Whiskered Screech-Owl. This was fortunate as shortly after it started to rain, forcing our return to Guzmán. By the time we arrived in Guzmán, the rain had leached all the ash from the air and the whole town was likewise covered in a thin grey film. Tacos for dinner again at our favourite restaurant!
Fri 4th February
Our third day, so we tried the third access road up Volcán Nieve starting from Floripondio. Large areas of flowering plants along the first few hundred metres of the road were alive with hummingbirds, although a serious scan failed to locate Lucifer Hummingbird. The conditions had not improved since yesterday evening's rain, so by 09h00 we abandoned the area and drove toward Fuego where we hoped the lower altitude would present dryer weather. As the rain had eased slightly we investigated some open forest and adjacent fields halfway back to Guzmán, adding Canyon Wren to the trip list. At Fuego we spent several hours working the first few kilometres of open fields and hedgerows, mainly in an abortive attempt to locate Virginia's Warbler. Another Lesser Roadrunner was seen in the same area as two days previously. Once back in Guzmán we again savoured the delights of a taco dinner.
Sat 5th February
With the weather clearing considerably overnight, we headed back to the Floripondio road. This steep road is hard on a standard saloon car, and after 45 minutes, about 4.5 km from the highway, with the car showing signs of overheating, we decided to continue on foot. This possibly was a mistake, as from here on the road seemed in pretty good shape! We birded the forest edge and the open paddocks around 6 km which was good for Yellow-eyed Junco, American Robin and Pine Siskin. The forest appeared more humid than that we had been in the last few days and a pleasant surprise was a Long-tailed Wood-Partridge ambling across the road. On our return to the car we heard Singing Quail down-slope. The few hours here was completely inadequate to do this road justice – a couple of days would not be too much! However, we needed to return to Guadalajara. The main road from Guzmán toward Guadalajara formerly passed the Laguna Zapotlán, where one of my world nemesis species regularly occurs -- Clark's Grebe. Now however, rising water levels over the past couple of years have completely flooded the surrounding areas such that the main highway is diverted away from the lake. Annoyingly this has also removed the only few points from which to scan the lake. Dipped again! We tried to gain some height advantage on surrounding land, but could only manage poor, distant views of the lake. A boat would be required to properly investigate the lake. Our return journey took us past Laguna Sayula where, dodging the heavy rain showers, we saw impressive numbers of Snow Geese, a variety of waders, and two American Pipits. After arrival at Bob's house in Lake Chapala we were able to enjoy Violet-crowned Hummingbirds on the feeders – a species we had inexplicable failed to see in the previous nine days. The last supper in Mexico was an excellent steak at Bruno's restaurant in the village of Ajijic along the lake shore, and a memorable end to the trip.
Sun 6th February
An early start and the long return flight to Muscat, arriving back the evening of 7th February.
All the following waypoints are available from the author as either a Garmin mps file for upload into a compatible GPS, simple ASCII or MS-Excel file formats.