Oaxaca: Legendary Birds and Temples

With nearly 700 species, Oaxaca has the biggest bird list of any Mexican state, and almost 100 of these are regional endemics. With impressive ruins, a bustling capital city rich in commerce and architecture, a vibrant native culture, and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Oaxaca offers a lot more than just great birding.

The week-long isthmus extension also makes a great stand-alone tour for those looking for a shorter trip or for birders who have already visited Oaxaca.



Day 1: Oaxaca. You arrive this afternoon in Oaxaca City, and will be transferred to our hotel for the first of four nights. If you arrive early enough, you may want to have a quick walk around the city, or just relax at the hotel in preparation for tomorrow’s birding. Keep an eye out for Rufous-backed Robin and Dusky Hummingbird – the robin is often seen in city parks.

Beautiful Red Warblers inhabit the pine oak forests of the mountains
Beautiful Red Warblers inhabit the pine oak forests of the mountains (Nick Athanas)

Day 2: Teotitlán del Valle and Yagul. Birding the arid scrub above the village of Teotitlán del Valle will yield our first dry interior endemics: Ocellated Thrasher and Bridled and Oaxaca Sparrows are our main targets, but we’ll also keep an eye and ear out for Dwarf Vireo, Boucard’s Wren, and the odd-looking “Sumichrast’s” Scrub-Jay. Higher up the valley, where the forest transitions to pink-oak woodland, we’ll check for a different suite of species that could include Collared Towhee, Crescent-chested Warbler, and Elegant Trogon, among many others. In the afternoon, we’ll visit Yagul, one of the best sites for Gray-breasted Woodpecker and Beautiful Hummingbird.

We visit at the best time of year to track down specialties like Slaty Vireo
We visit at the best time of year to track down specialties like Slaty Vireo (Andrew Spencer)

Days 3-4: Cerro San Felipe and the Oaxaca Valley. We’ll spend our mornings exploring humid pine-oak forest near Cerro San Felipe, the best place in the world to see the endemic Dwarf Jay, which occurs among noisy flocks of Steller’s Jays and Gray-barred Wrens. We also hope to see numerous other resident birds like Red Warbler, Slate-throated Whitestart, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, Mountain Trogon, Red Warbler, Pine Flycatcher, Golden-browed Warbler, Black Thrush, Russet Nightingale-Thrush, and Strong-billed Woodcreeper. Since afternoons here can often be slow, we may spend the afternoon birding the Oaxaca Valley, looking for species we may have missed on day 2. On one morning, we will leave very early to try for Fulvous Owl, which has been seen at this site on a regular basis in recent years.

Gray Silky-Flycatcher is related to North America's Phainopepla
Gray Silky-Flycatcher is related to North America's Phainopepla (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 5: North to Tuxtepec. Today we cross the continental divide into the humid Gulf-slope forests. A dry interior valley along the way will give us more chances for Oaxaca Sparrow and Slaty Vireo. Eventually, we’ll hit the stunted scrub on the continental divide, where Hooded Yellowthroat lurks. As we descend into the lush cloudforest, we’ll hope for birds like Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, Bumblebee Hummingbird, and Azure-crowned and Unicolored Jays. We’ll spend three nights in Tuxtepec.

Days 6–7: Around Tuxtepec. We’ll bird the lowland rainforest and humid foothills surrounding Tuxtepec. While the forest is mostly degraded, it is still exceptionally diverse and full of birds. The area is perhaps especially notable for the limestone karst hills; since it is difficult to farm, the forest is in better shape, and it is here we hope to find the endemic Sumichrast’s Wren along with Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, Collared Aracari, Keel-billed Toucan, Yellow-winged Tanager, White-bellied and Canivet’s Emeralds, and many warblers, with many migrants joining the resident species like Rufous-capped and Golden-crowned Warblers. The foothills above Tuxtepec are better for many colorful birds including Violet Sabrewing, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, and Black-cowled Oriole. Other sites we’ll visit offer chances at Slaty-tailed Trogon, Black-crested Coquette, Green Honeycreeper, Crimson-collared and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Pheasant Cuckoo, Mexican Antthrush, White Hawk, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and others.

Crunchy Pacific slope thornforest is home to the striking Orange-breasted Bunting
Crunchy Pacific slope thornforest is home to the striking Orange-breasted Bunting (Michael Retter)

Day 8: Back to Oaxaca. We’ll plan this morning based on what birds we’re still looking for. We could spend more time near Tuxtepec, or leave early and have more time in the higher elevations. In the afternoon we arrive back in Oaxaca City for a single night.

Day 9: Monte Albán to San José del Pacífico. Today, we stand in awe among some of the most exquisite native ruins to be found in all of the Americas, the Zapotec capital of Monte Albán. Rock and Canyon Wrens that have taken up residence in the ruins will keep us company as we search for White-throated Towhee, Blue Mockingbird, Varied Bunting, Dusky Hummingbird, and two unbelievable vireos: Slaty and Golden. Around midday, we’ll head south into the Sierra de Miahuatlán and spend the night in some nice mountain cabins. We’ll probably have time for some birding in the grounds, where we might find Gray Silky-flycatcher, Brown Creeper, Red Warbler and with a lot of luck, White-throated Jay. At night we’ll look for Mexican Whippoorwill.

The stunning Blue-capped Hummingbird is found in the Sierra de Miahuatlán
The stunning Blue-capped Hummingbird is found in the Sierra de Miahuatlán (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 10: Sierra de Miahuatlán to Huatulco.  Many endemic birds occur in the mountains here, and we’ll devote a morning to seeking them out. Wagler’s Toucanet is the most conspicuous, but we’ll also search for Red-headed Tanager, Blue-capped Hummingbird, Mexican Hermit, Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, Blue-capped Hummingbird, Gray-collared Becard, among others. In the afternoon we’ll head to the coastal resort town of Huatulco, where we spend two nights. We should arrive in time to enjoy our first birding in the dry thornscrub nearby before feasting at one of the great restaurants, where the seafood is often the tastiest options on the menu.

Day 11: Huatulco and the Pacific Ocean. At dawn we’ll head into the thornforest around Huatuclo. Here we find an entirely new avifauna: Doubleday’s Hummingbird, Citreoline Trogon, Red-breasted Chat, Happy Wren, Colima Pygmy-Owl, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, and Orange-breasted Bunting are all found here, and those are just the endemics! Mid-morning, we’ll embark on a pelagic adventure. Our main target is the endemic Townsend’s Shearwater. Additionally, we hope to see Black-vented, Christmas, and Pink-footed among the more expected Wedge-tailed and Galápagos Shearwaters. Black, Least, and Wedge-tailed Storm-Petrels all occur in the deep waters just offshore, where we even have a chance at finding a petrel. Closer to shore, we should see Red-billed Tropicbird and Brown Boobies. We’ll return by mid-afternoon, and may look for some last targets in the thornscrub or else just relax and enjoy the beach.

The gorgeous Red-breasted Chat is found in dry thornscrub
The gorgeous Red-breasted Chat is found in dry thornscrub (Andrew Spencer)

Day 12: Departure or begin extension. If you are not joining the extension, the tour ends this morning with a transfer to the Huatuclo airport.

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OPTIONAL EXTENSIONS

Isthmus Extension (8 days)

Please note – we are planning some small changes to the extension; please contact us for the current itinerary

This extension focuses on the endemic birds of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is surprisingly diverse in habitats. We’ll search for Rose-bellied (Rosita’s) Bunting in the arid foothills, Sumichrast’s Sparrow on the dry plains, Giant Wren in the lush Soconusco Plains, and Nava’s Wren in the mythical karst-strewn Gulf-slope rainforest. Other possibilities include Black Hawk-Eagle, Long-tailed Manakin, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, Orange-chinned Parakeet, and Lovely Cotinga.  Finally, a couple of days in the highland forest around San Cristobal will hopefully give us some of the most desired species in Mexico, including the truly gaudy Pink-headed Warbler!

Rosita's Bunting; reason alone to join the extension!
Rosita's Bunting; reason alone to join the extension! (Andrew Spencer)

Day 1: Traversing the Isthmus. We need an early start today as we head east through beautiful thornscrub to the Isthmus of Tehantepec, a significant geographic barrier that has encouraged speciation and created a distinct division between avifauna in Mexico. Thankfully, the birds here seem to be used to perpetually windy conditions. Our main targets include Sumichrast’s Sparrow and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. A stop at an expansive estuary will give us a chance to test our skills at shorebird identification, and also provide a goodly dose of list padding.  We’ll then aim for the large town of Arriaga, where we’ll spend the night.  The late afternoon will be spend around the small coastal town of Puerto Arista, where we’ll have our first chance at the hulking Giant Wren, local White-bellied Chachalaca, and (with luck) some mangrove specialties.

Day 2: Arriaga to Mapastepec. Another morning, another stunning Mexican endemic!  Our goal of the day will be the unbelievably beautiful Rosita’s Bunting, found in the arid Pacific-slope foothills just above Arriaga. Green-fronted Hummingbird, Russet-crowned Motmot, White-throated Magpie-Jay, and Yellow-winged Cacique also live here. Proceeding southeast, the dry, windswept Isthmus gives way to the lush, humid, and verdant Soconusco Plain. Historically, this area was both lowland rainforest and part of Guatemala. Though hard to find, patches of tropical forest remain. By dusk, we hope to be watching dozens of parrots stream overhead to roost en masse. We’ll also probably see the first of many Turquoise-browed Motmots. We’ll spend one night in Mapastepec.

Green-fronted Hummingbird occurs at several arid sites on the tour
Green-fronted Hummingbird occurs at several arid sites on the tour (Andrew Spencer)

Day 3: Mapastepec to Tuxtla Gutierrez. We start this morning hoping for a performance by male Long-tailed Manakins at a known lekking area. White-bellied Chachalacas and Prevost’s Ground-Sparrows occur in streamside scrub, and the aptly-named Giant Wren, Chiapas’s only endemic, lives in nearby farmed areas. Tody Motmot is also possible. We’ll drive to Tuxtla Gutiérrez this afternoon, where we spend one night (we will return for three more nights later in the extension).

Day 4: El Sumidero to San Cristóbal. We have all morning to bird the impressive El Sumidero Canyon. Birds here include Belted Flycatcher, Slender Sheartail, Singing Quail, Flammulated Flycatcher, Red-breasted Chat, Pheasant Cuckoo, Bar-winged Oriole, “Golden” Yellow Grosbeak, and Blue-and-white Mockingbird. If we’re lucky enough to be there when the bamboo is seeding, we have a decent shot at Blue Seedeater and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove.  After lunch we’ll ascend into the highlands around San Cristóbal, where the cool pine forests stand in stark contrast to the hotter lowlands all around.  We’ll have some time for later afternoon birding, and an evening owling excursion could produce the local Bearded Screech-Owl, and (with a very large serving of luck), Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.  We have one night in San Cristóbal.

Day 5: San Cristóbal. A chance at Pink-headed Warbler we’ll really get our blood rushing this morning! Other possibilities include Rufous-collared Robin, Black-capped Swallow, Yellow-backed Oriole, Rufous-browed Wren, Garnet-throated Hummer, Amethyst-throated Hummer, White-naped Brushfinch, Golden-browed Warbler, Black-throated Jay, and Strong-billed Woodcreeper. In the afternoon, we’ll return to Tuxtla Gutierrez for three more nights.

The stunning Pink-headed Warbler is one of our main targets on the extension
The stunning Pink-headed Warbler is one of our main targets on the extension (Nick Athanas)

Day 6: Tapalapa. The humid cloud forests just north of Tuxtla are home to one of the most desired birds on the planet – Resplendent Quetzal.  We’ll spend a good deal of effort searching out this amazing species.  A number of other goodies are on tap, with Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Highland Guan, and Spotted Nightingale-Thrush featuring especially highly.

Day 7: El Ocote. This Gulf-slope foothills location is home to a tantalizing combination of birds: Nightingale Wren, Montezuma Oropendola, Slate-colored Solitaire, Lovely Cotinga, Barred Antshrike, Green Shrike-Vireo, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, and the isthmus-endemic Nava’s Wren are all possible, along with many other more common species.

Day 8: Departure.The extension ends this morning with a transfer to the airport in Tuxtla Guterriez.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Most days will involve a couple of hours of driving, and birding through a good portion of the day. There may be a few chances for a mid-day break, but these will be the exception rather than the norm. On one day we will leave the hotel very early to look for owls on Cerro San Felipe; most other days have us leaving near sunrise and returning in the mid to late afternoon. As hotels rarely offer early breakfasts we will take many of the breakfasts in the field, but most other meals will be at one of the many restaurants serving the excellent food on offer in Oaxaca.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy, with almost all of our walking along roads or flat, easy trails. There are a couple of short, more slippery trails around Tuxtepec, and some short steep trails in the higher mountains, but these will all be of limited duration and typically done to pursue a calling bird. We will also be taking a 6 hour pelagic on a fairly small boat, and the seas are normally quiet but occasionally get more rough.

CLIMATE: Generally pleasant. The higher elevations can be cool (down to around 40°F/5°C early in the morning, and the coastal lowlands can get up to around 95°F/35°C on a hot day, but much of the tour will experience a pleasant climate with temperatures ranging from around 59°-77°F (15°-25°C). Some rain is possible (which is why this is the best time of year to visit, since the birds begin to breed).

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent. All of the hotels have typical amenities, including Wi-Fi, though the Wi-Fi sometimes only works in the common areas.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but there are some good photography opportunities for casual photographers. These tend to be best in the drier forest in the Oaxaca Valley and near the coast. In the taller and more humid forests elsewhere, the photography can be difficult.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; it must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of the US, Canada, EU, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, do not currently require a tourist visa. For other nationalities, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure. Travel requirements are subject to change; it is a good idea to double check six weeks before the trip.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips for drivers, local guides/boatmen, and restaurants; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 11, and to the night of day 7 off the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 8, and to breakfast of day 8 of the extension if also taking the extension; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages with meals; safe drinking water only between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 11, and to the evening of day 7 of the extension if also taking the extension; ground transport for the group in a suitable vehicle from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 11, and to the afternoon of day 7 of the extension if also taking the extension; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other tour participants if they arrive at the same time); entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; half-day pelagic boat trip on day 11; local guide on day 5 of the extension; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips to baggage carriers if you require their services; flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.