The state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico is only 36,200 square miles in area — approximately the size of Indiana. Yet it boasts 791 species of birds (per Clements 6th edition). This is more than any other state in an incredibly biodiverse country, and almost as many as in the entire United States. It hosts a number of range-restricted Mexican and regional endemics, and in winter attracts migrants from both the Eastern and Western U.S. as well. The state sits at the southern limit for many northern birds and at the northern limit for many Central American species and possesses a wide range of habitats and elevations.
I’d visited several times before for general tourism and been extremely impressed with Oaxaca’s natural beauty, its abundance of beautiful Spanish Colonial art and architecture, its wealth of indigenous cultures, and the delicious food. In short, birding Oaxaca seemed like a great idea for a one-week trip, and in December of 2009 Kellie Quinones and I decided to check it out.
DAY ONE: Sunday, December 27
The trip began before dawn with a visit to the Botanical Gardens in Oaxaca City, where our guide, French ornithologist and photographer Manuel Grosselet, oversees a bird-banding program. For several hours we birded the gardens, helped Manuel collect birds from the mist nets, and looked on as his assistant banded and then released them. This was a great way to get warmed up with some good, close looks at a number of mostly fairly common species; Resident Mexican birds such as Rufous-backed and Clay-colored Robins as well as migrants like Orchard Oriole, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Audubon’s (western form of Yellow-rumped) Warbler.
Around mid-morning we drove north along Highway 175 to Ixtlan de Juarez, leaving behind the dry central valley and heading up into the Sierra de Aloapaneca, the first of two mountain ranges we would cross before descending on day three down to the Tuxtepec area and sea level. Ixtlan is only a few hours from Oaxaca City, so we were able to make a few extended birding stops along the way. Memorable sightings were a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk and a Red Warbler in pine-oak forest, Western Scrub Jay and MacGillivray’s Warbler along a small stream, and a stop just outside of Ixtlan, where we picked up Acorn Woodpecker, Red-faced Warbler and the spectacular Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo in quick succession. We were staying the night in cabins run by the local Zapoteca community and exploring the grounds there before dinner we found a female Mountain Trogon. Nice first day indeed!
DAY TWO: Monday, December 28
Continuing on Route 175 from Ixtlan, we reached cloud forest habitat after passing the highest point on the road (approximately 3,000 meters or 9,800 feet), then began our descent into the upper tropical zone. Cloud forests can be a little quiet sometimes in terms of bird activity, but we did have a gorgeous male Red-capped Manakin, Emerald Toucanet, Brown-hooded Parrot, Grey-breasted Wood-Wren and several species of hummingbirds on what seemed like a somewhat slow day. Towards evening we arrived at San Mateo Yetla, just outside Valle Nacional, where we spent the next two nights.
DAY THREE: Tuesday, December 29
Leaving quite early, we continued along Route 175, descending in elevation down the Atlantic Slope to the city of Tuxtepec in the tropical lowlands. We birded the road west of Tuxtepec as far as Miguel Alemán reservoir. The habitat was a patchwork of small farms and fields, sugar cane, and lowland tropical forest. Despite a steady drizzle that persisted for most of the day, this was an extremely birdy day, with 106 species recorded, including Olive Sparrow, Groove-billed Ani, Ruddy Ground-Dove, a juvenile Laughing Falcon, and some friends from home such as Yellow-breasted Chat, Osprey and Cattle Egret.
A big disappointment on this day was missing the extremely range-restricted Sumichrast’s Wren, which can be found only in a small area northwest of Tuxtepec in Oaxaca, Veracruz and Puebla States. This species prefers forested limestone outcrops, which are supposedly poor for cultivation, but when we approached the first area where Manuel wanted to try for the birds, we were disturbed to see that the local farmers had cleared and planted much of the land going up the hillside. We found no sign of the wrens and this habitat destruction did not bode well for their future at this location. After lunch we checked another spot near the Miguel Alemán reservoir but had no luck there either. I’d be curious to know how more recent searchers have fared.
Honorable mention on this day goes to the incredible chicken soup we had for lunch at a nameless little roadside fonda west of Tuxtepec. The Doña (and her noble chickens) went way beyond the call of duty, and Kellie and I still remember this soup with “ohhhhs” and “ahhhhs” of pleasure even now, four years later.
DAY FOUR: Wednesday, December 30
Today we backtracked along Route 175, birding our way back to Oaxaca City. Highlights included fantastic looks at a pair of Blue-crowned Chlorophonias and a Unicolored Jay.
We also had a very far off look at a Black Hawk-Eagle. When coming out from the trail after seeing it, we had a dodgy moment that fortunately did not result in anything. I was ahead of Kellie and Manuel and ran into some “hombres,” who had seen our car parked on the road and decided to look for us on the trail. They looked pleasantly surprised to see me, but not necessarily in a good way as far as I was concerned. Luckily, Kellie and Manuel appeared after a few minutes and Manuel was able to smile and chat our way past them into the relative safety of our vehicle and the road ahead. This was the only moment of the trip where I felt something bad could easily have happened if luck had not been with us.
Heading further up towards Guacamayas, Steller’s Jays made an appearance as did a wintering male Rose-breasted Grosbeak – somewhat of a surprise. Even though it was New Year’s Eve and we had planned to knock off early so that Manuel could spend the evening with his wife, he (and we!) did not quit until we found another Oaxaca state endemic, Dwarf Jay, in the pine-oak forest at our furthest point along the road. This bird has a very small range and is found only in the sierras directly north of Oaxaca City. As this was our last chance to get it on this trip, it was a very satisfying way to end the day and the year.
DAY SIX: Friday, January 1
Today we headed southeast of the city, into the dry central valley near the rug-making town of Teotitlán del Valle. This was a very different habitat then we had experienced up until now: dry scrub dotted with cacti. Everywhere we stopped was extremely birdy and what quality birds they were! Right off the bat we had Loggerhead Shrike, a male Vermilion Flycatcher and crippling looks at a male Townsend’s Warbler eating berries.
We moved on to some cactus-perched birds: the Mexican endemic White-throated Towhee (found only in Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla states), Curve-billed Thrasher and Lark Sparrow.
Then, walking down a dirt path near the dam, Kellie called out a White-crowned Sparrow perched on a dead snag. Manuel smirked and said, “I don’t think so.”
But when we got him on the bird, his face turned white. He started running back to the van to get his camera, shouting over his shoulder, “Sandy, get a picture!” The bird promptly disappeared into a bush. When Manuel returned he explained breathlessly that the southernmost limit for White-crowned Sparrow is several hundred miles to the north around Mexico City and that this would possibly be the first record ever for Oaxaca state.
Luckily, the bird reappeared on the dead snag so both Manuel and I got pictures. The status as a first state record was later confirmed. Very exciting to get a state record on a trip like this!
At the dam, more great birds were found, including Hooded Oriole, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Rufous-crowned Warbler and Thick-billed Kingbird. Quite a morning!
After a delicious lunch in the market town of Tlacolula (I had lamb birreria, a flavorful stew cooked in parchment paper), we continued southeast to the archaeological site of Yagul, where two more Mexican endemics found only in Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero states awaited us: Boucard’s Wren and Grey-breasted Woodpecker. Working our way back to the city in the late afternoon, we made a few more stops and picked up another endemic – Dusky Hummingbird.
DAY SEVEN: Saturday, January 2
We started our final day with a visit to the archaeological site of Monte Alban, perched on a flat hilltop just outside the city. In the faint light of dawn we had a Virginia’s Warbler in bushes along one of the approach roads and then proceeded up to the site itself, where we had a very colorful male Elegant Euphonia, Nutting’s Flycatcher (one of those difficult to tell apart Myiarchus types), and enjoyed the sight of a Rock Wren chowing down on a large grasshopper.
Taking into account what we were still missing, we decided to head outside the city to Cerro San Felipe, where we were richly rewarded with Black-headed Grosbeak, a wintering Louisiana Waterthrush and an Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, a bird I had seen before in Mexico but which Manuel seemed to think was a good find this far south. Our supreme prize, though, was a fine male Slaty Vireo, another Mexican endemic from Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacan states.
This is one of those birds that the field guide illustration does not really do justice to. It is really quite spectacular. Our first look was very brief as the bird was scared away by Manuel’s flash. Needless to say, I was disappointed at not having had a chance to get my own shot. Coming back down the trail, however, we decided to try again, and the bird responded immediately to playback, popping up on a branch a few feet in front of us, just long enough for me to get off a burst of five shots. The last one was the “keeper.”
Our time running short, in late afternoon we headed to El Tequio near the airport, where we added a few birds like Crested Caracara and Vesper Sparrow. Our final bird, back in the city while heading out to dinner, was a Barn Owl that Manuel knew liked to hang out in the alcoves of the façade of Santo Domingo Church.
Post-trip, there was a lot of back and forth as we worked on the final list. But after the dust settled and we got everything straightened out and cleared up some taxonomic issues, I came up with a total of 291 species seen and heard during our seven days of birding in Oaxaca, including 19 Mexican country endemics and an additional 16 regional (Northern Central America and Southern Mexico) endemics. The great birding, plus the beautiful scenery, architecture and delicious food, make birding Oaxaca a very worthwhile trip for any U.S. birder.
I would go back anytime!
Sandra Paci was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1956 and lives in New York City, where she works for a gallery in the Chelsea art district and is an active member of the Brooklyn Bird Club and the Linnaean Society of New York. Since first catching the travel bug in the early 1980s, she has traveled to over twenty countries outside the U.S., mostly in Europe and Latin America. Sandra became an avid birder in 2003 and has taken long-distance birding trips to Alaska, Mexico (three times), Panama (twice), Ecuador (twice), Peru (three times), Bolivia, and Iceland. In 2014, Sandra plans to add first travel and birding visits to Colombia and Morocco.