Sunday, 21 February 2016

MEXICO 2016: Southern Chiapas (17-21 February)

This blog recounts a very enjoyable trip I was invited on to Southern Mexico with Jon Hornbuckle, Brian Foster and Rod Martins. Jon had contacted Eric Antonio Martinez of Mexico-Birding Tours ( with his southern Mexico targets and due to a cancelled booking Eric was able to guide us around at relatively short notice in his Jeep Compass. Something he did very expertly if I may say so and with great humour. This post is intended to be the first of four and covers our first five days in Mexico.

16 February.  Megan dropped me at Shoreham Station and my train was on time (many were not). I arrived at Victoria at 17:00 and the tube to Heathrow was very crowded. I was at Terminal 4 by 18:00, an hour and a half before I needed to check in for our AeroMexico flight. At the appointed time I dropped off my bags and after an hour of waiting for the others headed through security to the departure gate. Rod eventually arrived having been stuck in the coach from Norwich for 2 hours on the M25. Somewhat stressful. Jon and Brian appeared soon after having experienced similar delays on their drive down from Sheffield. Steve Webb and Keith Betton were also on the flight, joining a Birdquest Northwestern Mexico trip. The 10.5 hour flight was excellent, helped by us having three seats each so we could lie down and sleep. The food was good too.  
AeroMexico Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Heathrow, with three seats each on an overnight flight we could comfortably dream ...
17 February. Coming in over Mexico City at 03:30 local time (6 hours behind GMT) the lights showed how vast the city was.  As Rod later said, awesome is a much overused word but it was appropriate here. We collected our bags and took them to a transit belt fairly confident that we would see them again. Our flight, an AeroMexico Connect Embraer 190, left at 07:15, soon after dawn, and we arrived in Tuxtla Gutierrez just before 09:00, exited the airport quickly and our guide for the next three weeks, Eric Antonio Martinez, appeared before we started to worry where he was. An accident on the road from the city had caused delays, although nothing like those a few days earlier when the Pope had visited. We loaded our bags into the back of his Jeep Compass, they just about fitted and it was a comfortable squeeze inside, and drove through town. The roads were still very busy with a heavy police presence including a line of officers with riot shields but we were soon clear of the city and driving to the top viewpoint of El Sumidero, an impressive canyon surrounded by dry forest. We arrived at 10:45 and it was already becoming hot with little bird activity although we saw the target hummingbird (Slender Sheartail) and some nice wintering warblers. We walked down the road for half a mile or so without seeing very much (a nice Yellow-throated Vireo was best) and tried another viewpoint and a side track with similar results. We left Sumidero and Eric drove us to San Cristobal de Las Casas, a touristy town at an elevation of 2100m making it a very pleasant temperature. We checked into Hotel Villa Real II, visited an ATM/Cambio and I made use of the hotel's communal PC to email home. After dark we headed into the surrounding hills meeting a local guide and another birding group and in poor weather (low cloud and drizzle) heard briefly a distant Bearded Screech Owl.
waiting for take off, Mexico City airport
over Mexico City
over Southern Mexico
El Sumidero

a confiding Olive Sparrow at El Sumidero

Squirrel Cuckoo, the dark vented west Mexican race - not that you would know it from this image
Slender Sheartail
Eric and Brian on a colourful pedestrian street in San Cristobal de Las Casas
VW Beetles were still very popular in Mexico, appraently they are very easy to fix  
our hotel
nice inside too
18 February. We left the hotel at 06:00 with a local guide in the back, stopped at a local Oxxo for breakfast snacks and coffee (for those who wanted it) and drove to Las Lagunas. It was an area of pine and oak forest shrouded in low cloud and rather cold and unappealing. The same could not be said of our main target here, Pink-headed Warbler. Our local guide heard one but it moved through so quickly we were not able to get onto it. We then had a brief view of another and finally a much better view of a third. an impressive bird but sadly it did not linger for photos. We also saw Black & White, Townsend's, Hermit and Crescent-chested Warblers and Brian a Red-faced. We returned to San Cristobal, dropped off our local guide who had to go to work and continued on to Huitepec a dryer, not so high forest area. here we had good views of Singing Quail and some more warblers (Wilson's, Magnolia, Golden-browed and Louisiana Waterthrush). We then visited a San Jose National Park/zoo seeing Olive Warbler and Mountain Trogon before it closed at the ridiculously early 15:30. We returned to our hotel for two hours (more emailing) before heading out at 18:00 to look for owls. We met the same guide, the other group had moved on, and tried a different area for owls. Again the weather was fine in town but deteriorated rapidly as we headed into the mountains. This time we went down a steep path in the forest and found some shelter. Here, after some time, a Bearded Screech Owl responded and Eric picked it out using his head-torch. He saw its throat moving as it called - amazing eyesight!  It gave good views although I had left my camera in the car. Back in the car we soon warmed up - a brilliant end to an excellent day.
Cerro Huitepec trail
old tree and distant old geezers (and Eric)
Rufous-collared Thrush at Cerro Huitepec - supposedly common, it was the only one I saw
Grey Catbird
Singing Quail. It didn't think we could see it if it stayed still but it hadn't reckoned with Eric's eyesight
19 February. We left our hotel in San Cristobal de Las Casas at 05:15, had a brief Oxxo stop for coffee and arrived at the entrance gate to Sumidero Canyon as it was getting light at 06:45. A Russet-crowned Motmot nearby was a nice start and an hour and a half walking up the road produced a good selection of birds including pairs of Varied and Indigo Buntings and female Painted Bunting (the first and last new for me). Eric returned to collect the car and we then continued to the turning to the second lookout where we birded a section of the road seeing Berylline Hummingbird, Red-breasted Chat and Belted Flycatcher. By 10:45 it was hotting up and activity had dropped off so we started back, stopping for an hour for brunch on the outskirts of Tuxtle Gutierrez. We left at 13:00 and drove for 90 minutes, partly on a rather empty toll road, to Arriaga where we checked into Hotel Casa Blanca. We left the hotel at 15:00 and headed back into the foothills along the old Tuxtla road. the dry scrub was excellent and in quick succession I saw two more new buntings - Rosita's and Orange-breasted and both out of this world. We birded to dusk then returned to Arriaga.

Russet-crowned Motmot
Magnolia Warbler
Streak-backed Oriole
Varied Bunting, not something I was expecting to see
Tuxtla Gutierrez, some of the nearer buildings being rather flimsy shacks
Red-breasted Chat, only a female but it showed well
White-tailed Deer
Black and White Warbler, always very nice to see
Rusty-tipped Page
Gartered Trogon
Black-throated Green Warbler
Sumidero Canyon and the Tuxtla Valley
foothills above Arriago
Sclater's Wren
Banded Wren

birds behind branches often cause autofocus problems
male Orange-breasted Bunting - very smart
female Rosita's Bunting
autofocus problems with the male
getting better ...
a stunning bird when it finally revealed itself
an early 'Bird of the Trip' contender
20 February. We left the hotel at 05:00, made an obligatory coffee stop and drove to the Puerto Arista area in under an hour, the last part on a dirt road past what appeared to be some mangroves. We were standing under a tree by the track, me thinking we had left it a bit late as dawn was breaking. Eric's timing was impeccable however as we had an almost immediate response from a Pacific Screech Owl which gave superb views. We moved onto another area seeing Giant Wren and Velasquez woodpecker on the way. We tried driving then walking sections of a nearby dirt road looking and listening for chachalacas but were rather distracted by a superb roadside pool by a bridge where a Bare-throated Tiger Heron and a flock of Painted Buntings were the main attraction. Eric heard a White-bellied Chachalaca calling from further down the road and we located four. We returned to Arista at 09:45 although I would have happily stayed watching the pool all morning. The hotel served a buffet style brunch, although choice was rather limited, and we headed back to Tuxtla Gutierrez on the old road stopping again a couple of times in the dry forest of the foothills. We saw Green-fronted Hummingbird and more Rosita's and Orange-breasted Buntings. We checked into Hotel San Carlos in TGZ, dumped our bags and returned to Sumidero at 16:30 for a third and final time. We tried a dry track off the main road and in quick succession in a brilliant 2 or 3 minutes I saw Green Jay, Blue & White Mockingbird, Fan-tailed Warbler and Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush. A brilliant day!
Pacific Screech Owl
Velasquez Woodpecker, this one appeared to have had a deformed bill
Giant Wren. It was big, and noisy
Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
very obliging

Red-billed Pigeon
Greater Kiskadee and migrant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. We saw over 50 of the latter during our morning around Puerto Arista
Brown (or Striped) Basilik
Alligator by the pool
Painted Buntings coming in to drink
 very nice
Bare-throated Tiger Heron

White-bellied Chachalaca
Northern Crested Caracara
Laughing Falcon
Orange-fronted Parakeet
a Magnificent Frigatebird drifted over, confirming that we were close to the coast
Inca Doves
Banded Wren
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Western Tanager

Black-throated Green Warbler
another male Rosita's Bunting
also known as Rose-bellied
a real stunner
Orange-breasted Bunting was quite a looker too
Green-fronted Hummingbird

a very out of focus Fan-tailed Warbler, it had its eye on me
Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush

21 February. We left our hotel at 05:30, had a quick coffee stop and drove NW for 40 minutes to El Ocote, a forest area of limestone hills. We drove down a dirt road through the forest and birded along it for most of the day. Nava's Wren and Long-tailed Sabrewing were our main targets wit the former proving somewhat difficult to obtain decent views of. I had a couple of brief views from the track before we decided it was best to enter the forest. The karst topography made it difficult to venture far and fortunately locating ourselves a short distance from the track was enough. The sabrewing was more straightforward once we located a tree it was visiting to feed in, even managing some photos on one of its visits.  We left El Ocote at 17:20 and returned to Tuxtla Gutierrez where we later ate in our nearby taco restaurant again. 
Green Shrike-Vireo,  very well camouflaged but another good spot by Eric
Rufous-capped Warbler
Collared Trogon

a surprisingly well hidden Keel-billed Toucan 
what I thought was a small cave provided quite a surprise. Nava's Wrens often creep around in such places making them hard to see although we eventually had brilliant, if a little brief, views
another Black-throated Green Warbler, I never did manage a decent image of one
Wilson's Warbler
Banded Peacock
Broad-tipped Clearwing, rather special amongst many impressive butterflies
Tiger Heliconia
forested hills at El Ocote
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Long-tailed Sabrewing

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