Oaxaca: Birding the Heart of Mexico

With nearly 800 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, vibrant native culture, and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Oaxaca is hard to beat for a Mexican birding trip. A large number of North American breeding species winter in this area, and we can expect to see numerous migrant warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other species as well. The optional extension takes in some of the best birding areas of the neighboring state of Chiapas, and targets some truly stunning species such as Rose-bellied Bunting and Pink-headed Warbler.

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. The tour begins this evening in Oaxaca City. If you arrive early enough, it’s worth taking a walk around the city, for sightseeing or birding. Nearby plazas can be surprisingly birdy with Rufous-backed Robin, Dusky Hummingbird, and wintering North American migrants.

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 oak scrub above the village of Teotitlán del Valle should yield our first endemics. Bridled and Oaxaca Sparrows are our main targets, but we’ll also keep an eye and ear out for Dwarf Vireo, Boucard’s Wren, Ocellated Thrasher, West Mexican Chachalaca, Blue Mockingbird, White-throated Towhee, and the odd-looking “Sumichrast’s” Scrub-Jay, along with many other more widespread species like Elegant Trogon, Acorn Woodpecker, Cassin’s and Thick-billed Kingbirds, Bridled Timouse, Gray Silky-Flycatcher, Rufous-capped Warbler, Painted Redstart, and Black-vented Oriole. Teotitlán is world-renowned for its weavings, and we’ll have a chance to have a look at them during a long and leisurely lunch in the heat of the day. In the afternoon, we’ll visit Yagul, an archaeological site surrounded by cactus, and 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)

Day 3: La Cumbre and the Oaxaca Valley. We’ll spend the morning exploring humid pine-oak forest near la Cumbre (also known as 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 plan to leave early in order to have a chance to see Fulvous Owl before dawn, which has been very reliable here in recent years. Numerous other birds are possible here like Collared Towhee, Northern (Mountain) Pygmy-Owl, Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, White-eared and Magnificent Hummingbirds, Red, Golden-browed, and Olive Warblers, Mountain Trogon, Russet Nightingale-Thrush, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, and Rufous-capped Brush-Finch. Since afternoons here can often be slow, we may spend time in the Oaxaca Valley, looking for species we may have missed on day 2.

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

Day 4: North to Tuxtepec. We’ll keep our plans flexible this morning, targeting anything we may still need from La Cumbre or other nearby areas. We’ll spend the rest of the day driving north over the mountains, breaking up the journey with numerous birding stops. We’ll have our first chances at Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow and Hooded Yellowthroat before crossing the continental divide and descending into humid forest, eventually reaching the lowland city of Tuxtepec, where we spend three nights.

Days 5–6: Around Tuxtepec. We have two days to bird the lowlands and lower mountain slopes south of Tuxtepec. While the forest is quite fragmented, it is still exceptionally diverse and full of birds. Our primary target is the endemic Sumichrast’s Wren, restricted to limestone outcrops in hilly areas, but we’ll see many other species as well during our search. Some of the possibilities include Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Green-breasted Mango, White-bellied and Canivet’s Emeralds, Black-headed and Gartered Trogon, Collared Aracari, Keel-billed Toucan, Golden-fronted and Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Red-lored Parrot, Olive-throated Parakeet, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, Black-crowned and Masked Tityras, Band-backed and Spot-breasted Wrens, Yellow-winged Tanager, Black-headed Saltator, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias, and Black-cowled Oriole.

Higher up in the mountains, the habitat transitions to cloudforest with a different set of birds. A great set of hummingbirds is possible, and depending on our luck finding flowering trees we may find Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Bumblebee Hummingbird, Canivet’s Emerald, Black-crested Coquette, Violet Sabrewing, and others. Various roadside stops will get us a nice selection of other birds which may include Azure-hooded and Unicolored Jays, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer, Collared Trogon, Emerald Toucanet, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Spotted Woodcreeper, Ruddy and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners, Eye-ringed Flatbill, White-naped Brushfinch, and Common Chloropsingus.

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 7: Return 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 drive several hours back to Oaxaca City, where we spend a single night.

Day 8: Monte Albán to San José del Pacífico. Today we’ll visit some of the most exquisite ruins to be found in all of the Americas, the Zapotec capital of Monte Albán. Before the gates open, we’ll bird the entrance road for two unbelievable vireos: Slaty and Golden, as well as White-throated Towhee, Blue Mockingbird, and other species. Once inside the ruins, Rock and Canyon Wrens will keep us company as we search for any other species we may still be looking for in the area (often Ocellated Thrasher and Pileated Flycatcher). Late morning, we’ll drive a few hours south into the Sierra de Miahuatlán and spend the night in some nice mountain cabins. Later in the afternoon, we’ll search from some difficult species such as Hooded Yellowthroat and White-throated Jay, though will see a number of the more common montane species in the process. At night we’ll look for Mexican Whippoorwill, which sings incessantly near the cabins but can be hard to track down.

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 9: Sierra de Miahuatlán.  Several endemic birds inhabit in the mountains here, and we’ll devote a morning to seeking them out. If needed, we’ll try again for Hooded Yellowthroat and White-throated Jay before heading downslope to look for Blue-capped Hummingbird, Gray-collared Becard, Gray-crowned Woodpecker, Emerald (Wagler’s) Toucanet, Red-headed Tanager, and Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, along with other mode widespread species. The lower elevations offer a chance to see Mexican Hermit and Golden-crowned Emerald, though they require a decent amount of luck. In the afternoon we’ll head to the coastal resort town of Huatulco, where we spend two nights. We may arrive in time to enjoy our first birding in the dry thorn forest nearby before feasting at one of the great restaurants, where the seafood is often superb.

Day 10: Huatulco area. We’ll spend the cooler early morning and late afternoon hours looking for the endemics and other specialties of the dry thorn forest. Some of the most beautiful and spectacular birds of the trip are found here, and gems like Red-breasted Chat, Orange-breasted Bunting, Citreoline Trogon, Russet-crowned Motmot, White-throated Magpie-Jay, and Broad-billed (Doubleday’s) Hummingbird headline a long list of targets. Others include Happy Wren, Rufous-naped Wren, Colima Pygmy-Owl, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Flammulated Flycatcher, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Spot-breasted Oriole, Rufous-backed Thrush, Blue Bunting, Yellow-winged Cacique, Streak-backed Oriole, West Mexican Chachalaca, Pacific Screech-Owl, White-fronted Parrot, and “Long-crested” Northern Cardinal. It gets extremely hot in the middle of the day, so a long siesta is in order, though anyone who wishes can take a walk down to the beach and take a dip in the ocean.

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

Day 11: 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 (7 days)

This extension targets several endemic birds found only in and around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; we’ll search for Cinnamon-tailed (Sumichrast’s) Sparrow in windswept scrub, Rose-bellied (Rosita’s) Bunting in the arid foothills, Giant Wren in the lush Soconusco Plains, and Nava’s Wren in the karst-strewn Gulf-slope rainforest. A couple of days in the highland forest around San Cristobal will also give us a good chance at a number of species not found west of the Isthhmus, such as Blue-throated Motmot, Black-throated Jay, and 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.If we still have any dry forest targets, we may look for them before driving east for about 2.5 hours to the Isthmus of Tehantepec, a significant geographic barrier that has encouraged speciation and created a distinct division between avifauna in Mexico. We’ll make various stops in the windswept scrub to search for Cinnamon-tailed Sparrow, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, and Double-striped Thick-knee among the more common species before continuing on a few more hours, passing seemingly endless wind farms, to the town of Arriaga, where we’ll spend one night. The late afternoon will be spent in the foothills nearby for one of the most striking of all Mexican birds, the unique Rose-bellied (or Rosita’s) Bunting, though we also have chances to see a few other species such as Green-fronted Hummingbird, Banded Wren, and Striped Cuckoo.

Day 2: Puerto Arista to San Cristobal. We’ll begin the morning targeting Giant Wren and White-bellied Chachalaca in wooded ranches north of the beach town of Puerto Arista. Depending on water levels, the area can be pretty good for waterbirds such as White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill Anhinga, various herons and egrets, and migrant shorebirds. We can also check nearby mangroves for Mangrove Cuckoo. In the afternoon we will drive about 4 hours to the highland town of San Cristobal, where we spend two nights.

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: San Cristóbal area. The mountains around San Cristóbal have a number of superb birds. Pink-headed Warbler is high on our “want” list and we have a very good chance of finding one. Other possibilities include Blue-throated Motmot, Rufous-collared Robin, Black-capped Swallow, Emerald Toucanet, Highland Guan, Mountain and Black Thrushes, Elegant Euphonia, Yellow-backed Oriole, Rufous-browed Wren, Garnet-throated Hummingbird, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, White-naped Brushfinch, Golden-browed Warbler, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Black-throated and Uniform Jays, Ocellated Quail, Black-headed Siskin, and Strong-billed Woodcreeper. We also plan to leave early for some owling here – Unspotted Sawwhet Owl would be a coup, but requires some luck! Other possibilities include Bearded Screech-Owl and Guatemalan Pygmy-Owl. Depending on availability, we may have an excellent local guide for this area.

Day 4: San Cristobal to Tuxtla Guttiériez. We’ll spend another morning looking for anything else we still need around San Cristóbal, then head to Tuxtla Guttiérez in the afternoon, where we spend the final three nights of the extension.

Day 5: Sumidero Canyon. This scenic gorge is very close to Tuxtla and protected as a national park. A mixture of dry scrub, semihumid forest, and bamboo is easily accessible along the road through the park as well as at various lookouts along the way. Our main targets here include Belted Flycatcher, Singing Quail, Flammulated Flycatcher, Red-breasted Chat, Pheasant Cuckoo, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Banded Wren, and Buff-bellied Hummingbird. With luck we may even locate a Bar-winged Oriole or Slender Sheartail, though the abundance of both seems to be erratic.

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: El Ocote. The large Selva El Ocote Biosphere reserve protects a large swath of Gulf slope foothill rainforest. We’ll bird an easy dirt road that skirts the edge of the reserve, targeting two endemic in particular, Long-tailed Sabrewing and the limestone-loving Nava’s Wren. This area is also home to a high diversity of other species, and we’ll have plenty to look for on our last morning of birding; some possibilities include Black-faced Grosbeak, White-bellied Emerald, Olive-throated Parakeet, Stripe-throated Hermit, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Green Parakeet, White-bellied Wren, Long-billed Gnatwren, Tropical Parula, Gray-headed Tanager, White-winged Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Olive-backed Euphonia, Montezuma Oropendola, Slate-colored Solitaire, and Green Shrike-Vireo. The plan for the afternoon is flexible – we could spend more time at El Ocote, return to Sumidero, or even just take it easy if we have done well with our targets.

Day 7: Departure.The extension ends this morning with a transfer to the airport in Tuxtla Guttiériez.

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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 of the main tour, and one day on the extension, we will leave the hotel very early to look for owls; most other days have us leaving between 5am and 6am, and reaching the hotel in the mid to late afternoon. As hotels rarely offer early breakfasts, we will take most of the breakfasts in the field.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy to moderate, with almost all of our walking along flat or slightly inclined roads or easy trails. There will likely be a couple of short, more difficult trails, but these will normally be of limited duration, and typically done to pursue a calling bird that can’t be seen otherwise. On most days you can expect to walk around 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) at a relatively slow pace.

CLIMATE: The highest elevations can be 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, especially in the Tuxtepec area.

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. Bird feeding has not caught on yet in Mexico. Only one or two places have feeders, and they are not good for photography.

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, and restaurants; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 10, and to the night of day 6 of 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 11, and to breakfast of day 7 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 10, and to the evening of day 6 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 10, and to the afternoon of day 6 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/depart at the same time); entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; 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.