San Blas and Northwest Mexico: From the Pacific to the Sierra Madre

In addition to some of the most breathtaking scenery Mexico has to offer, our San Blas and Northwest Mexico tour gives you a chance to see over forty Mexican endemics, eleven of which are found in Northwest Mexico and nowhere else. Dry coastal thorn forest gives way to moist pine-oak woodland as we ascend the Sierra Madre Occidental. It is here that we hope to see one of the crown jewels of Mexican birds, the curiously local as well as outright curious Tufted Jay. A few relaxing days based in legendary San Blas will round out the trip, as we explore the nearby mangroves, lagoons, and lush tropical hillsides.

Day 1: Arrival. After arrival in the coastal resort town of Mazatlán you will be greeted by the frigatebirds and taken to the hotel for the night.

Day 2: La Noria to Capilla de Taxte. This morning we will bird the arid northwestern thorn forest along the coast. Mischievous Black-throated Magpie-Jays will come screaming in to check us out as we search for other west Mexican endemics including Elegant Quail, Lilac-crowned Parrot, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Black-vented Oriole, Sinaloa Wren, and Rufous-bellied Chachalaca. With some luck, we may see a Mexican Beaded Lizard crossing the road. An afternoon stop in Mazatlán could produce Red-billed Tropicbird at an offshore stack. We overnight in Capilla de Taxte.

Days 3-4: The Durango Highway. We’ll bird various sites along this well-known highway over the next two days. It is here that we will likely become acquainted with the most distinctive sound of the Mexican Highlands, the hauntingly beautiful song of the Brown-backed Solitaire. The most famous birding spot along the highway is certainly Barranca Rancho Liebre, a high elevation pine-oak site that is the only readily accessible location in the world to see the comical, floppy-crested Tufted Jay. While we chase down noisy flocks of these beauties, we’ll likely cross paths with White-striped Woodcreeper, Mountain Trogon, Red-headed Tanager, “Gray-eared” Red Warbler, Crescent-chested Warbler, Rufous-crowned Brush-Finch, Golden-browed Warbler, and Tufted Flycatcher. Stygian Owl, Eared Quetzal, and the endangered Thick-billed Parrot all also occur here but are a bit more elusive. Keeping an eye on the sky, we may find White-naped Swift cruising just over the treetops. A nearly two-foot wingspan makes this swift the largest member of its family in the world. Additionally, a visit to this area is productive for more northerly species that range south along the mountains, like Evening Grosbeak, Northern Goshawk, and Williamson’s Sapsucker. We’ll spend some time on the Panuco Road, which offers a suite of lower elevation foothill species that includes Golden Vireo, Lesser Roadrunner, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Colima Pygmy-Owl, Blue Mockingbird, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Five-striped Sparrow, and Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow. It won’t take long before we’re scolded by cheeky Cinnamon Hummingbirds or Plain-capped Starthroats. Golden-crowned Emerald and Russet-crowned Motmot are among the most spectacular species here, but they’ll need to compete with the massive Military Macaw for our attention.

Sometimes whistling at small birds produces a surprise when a real pygmy-owl comes in. This one is a Colima Pygmy-Owl
Sometimes whistling at small birds produces a surprise when a real pygmy-owl comes in. This one is a Colima Pygmy-Owl (Michael Retter)

Day 5: To San Blas. We may do some early-morning cleanup birding along the highway, and then we’ll head south to San Blas.

Days 6-8: San Blas. Famous for decades as Mexico’s winter birding hotspot, this small, cozy coastal fishing village offers great birding within a short drive. There is plenty to do here, and the more casual birders have the option to skip the afternoon outings and relax. Habitats are varied, and so are the birds; we’ll hope to see Mexican Parrotlet, Cinnamon-rumped Seedeater, Blue Bunting, Godman’s (Scrub) Euphonia, Citreoline Trogon, Yellow-winged Cacique, Red-breasted Chat, Fan-tailed Warbler, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and Rufous-backed Robin, among many others. We’ll be sure to take a river cruise up into the mangroves to look for Boat-billed Heron, Crane Hawk, Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, Northern Potoo, Mangrove Vireo, Mangrove Warbler, and Mangrove Cuckoo. Shorebirding around town is often quite productive, our main target being the Collared Plover. Wading birds are present in good numbers as well, and crowd-pleasers such as Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, and Wood Stork are usually joined by Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. One afternoon, we’ll take a short trip over to Peso Island to look for the endemic Purplish-backed Jay; offshore birding from the boat may produce Blue-footed and Brown Boobies. Nighttime outings will target Mottled Owl, Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Buff-collared Nightjar, and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.

Northern Potoos are commonly seen on the boat trip, as well
Northern Potoos are commonly seen on the boat trip, as well (Nick Athanas)

Day 9: La Bajada. Not far from San Blas is La Bajada, a lush green shade-grown coffee plantation. By heading south just a few miles, we’ve entered the ranges of a variety of new species: Crested Guan, Gray-crowned Woodpecker, Slate-throated Whitestart, Ruddy Quail-Dove, and San Blas Jay are all possibilities. The hummingbirds here are a real treat as well. Two range-restricted Mexican endemics, Mexican Hermit and Mexican Woodnymph, both occur here along with the more common Sparkling-tailed Woodstar. La Bajada supports flocks of wintering migrant passerines, and some of the more attractive migrants seen here include Varied Bunting, Black-capped Vireo, Kentucky Warbler, and Flame-colored Tanager. Loud whistles from deep within the bushes signal the presence of Rosy Thrush-Tanager, and we’ll search hard to see one of these colorful, skulking birds.

Day 10: Return to Mazatlán. Before we head back north, we may have time to chase after any species we still need around San Blas.

Day 11: Departure. Today you will be transferred to the airport for flights home.

______________________________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Varied. Chilly at upper elevations and warm at lower elevations.

DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most birding is from the road, but there is one short hike up a trail at Barranca Rancho Liebre.

ACCOMMODATION: Generally very good, but the hotel in Capilla de Taxte is somewhat basic.