I took a trip for a week in January with seven friends from northeastern Illinois (one old friend and six new friends) to attend the Mazatlan Birding Festival in Mazatlan, Mexico. Mazatlan is on the west coast of Mexico, in Sinaloa State. The festival was from January 16 to 19. We went down two days early to travel around a bit on our own. Here are some excerpts from my diary for that week. My diary includes quite a bit of bird listing. For this blog, I will mostly edit these out and put the emphasis on the places I went.Wednesday, January 14
I got up at 3 AM to get ready for a 4:45 taxi. It had been arranged by my new friends Marge and Jamie. The three of us were the first one to the airport, but the others soon arrived. Our US Air flight was delayed by 45 minutes for de-icing, so our connection in the Phoenix airport, which was already fairly tight, became ridiculous. We had to walk all the way across the Phoenix airport in about 10 minutes.
We arrived at the Mazatlan airport about 1:00 PM. We took the shuttle to the Budget car rental place to pick up our van. Our leader Dave had to spend considerable time finishing the paperwork on the van, and the rest of us looked for birds in the vicinity of the parking lot.
We did some road-side birding near the airport and then hit the road to the Sierra Madre Occidental. We had reservations at a hotel in the little town of Copala, along the Mazatlan-Durango highway. Along the way, we stopped in the town of Concordia, where we had lunch in a little open air restaurant which was basically a dirt lot with a roof over it.
From Concordia we drove east through scrubby thorn forest. All the trees in this forest were covered with thorns. Some even had trunks covered completely covered with thorns. This being the dry season, the trees were rather bare and dry. Many of the trees were actually large branching cacti. Prickly pear cacti were a major part of the undergrowth. We kept seeing Black-throated Magpie-Jays along the way. These are some of the most spectacular birds we saw. They are blue, white, and black birds about the size of Magpies, with very long tail feathers which flow like streamers behind them as they fly.
When we got to Copala our directions sent us down a narrow cobblestone road with barely room for two vehicle to squeeze by. Our home for the night was a hotel and restaurant called Daniel’s. This is a set of white painted brick buildings. It was built decades ago by an American who had moved down to take care of his Mexican mother. The hotel we stayed in was almost a sideline, for the main business there is serving lunch to busloads of people who come up from cruise ships. We were the only people spending the night, so we had our choice of hotel rooms or cabins. All looked very comfortable and reasonably priced. The room I stayed in was 250 pesos a night. The rooms showed signs of do-it-yourself construction (like nearly every other building I saw in Mexico) but for me that only added to the charm.
After settling in, Greg, Dave, Rick, and I went birding around the town. The town looks rather third-worldish, with chickens and donkeys in people’s yards, and most of the houses I saw looked like do-it-yourself projects by people without hardware stores. But the people were very friendly and seemed about as happy as people anywhere.
Dinner was in Daniel’s restaurant, which is basically a huge veranda. It was very tasty, especially the banana coconut cream pie.
Staying at Daniel’s in Copala feels kind of like camping. The accommodations are simple, the nights are very dark and starry, and the village itself seems a bit like a campground after dark. There is a surplus of noise during the night: truck engine-breaking on the nearby highway, donkeys braying, and roosters crowing. But I had no trouble getting to sleep. I passed out about nine o’clock.Thursday, January 15
The roosters started crowing at four AM and I got up at five. We met for breakfast at six, and were on the road as soon as it was light. Our destination was the Tufted Jay Reserve about fifty kilometers up the Mazatlan-Durango. Along the road there were little shops and houses, mostly with that thrown-together look.
From the highway into the preserve we took a bumpy dirt road which at some places looked more like a dry stream bed than a road. We parked the van in the shade in a large open area where a camp seemed to be under construction. We got out and started looking for birds.
We were in a mixed oak-pine forest. The scenery was spectacular. The weather was nice. I was comfortable in a light sweater.
We birded throughout the morning and afternoon. About one in the afternoon we returned to our van, since our lunches were there. We ate box lunches provided for us by the hotel while sitting on benches made from logs sawed in half.
Late in the afternoon we walked an uphill trail up to a spectacular overlook. (The walk really showed how unaccustomed I was to the altitude.) From the overlook we saw a rocky mountaintop known as El Espinazo del Diablo (the Devil’s Backbone). I took a number of pictures there and Rick took a group picture. (He had a timer on his camera.)
We never did see the Tufted Jays, but we saw a long list of other beautiful birds.
Sunset was approaching as we left the preserve. There was enough light to do some roadside birding on the way down, and to see more spectacular scenery, but it was dark by the time we got back to the hotel.
We had dinner again on the big veranda, again the food was delicious, and again we had the place pretty much to ourselves. And, once again, I went to bed early and fell asleep immediately.Friday, January 16
At first light this morning we took a short drive up the Mazatlan-Durango Highway and turned onto the dirt road to the village of Panuco. We stopped about a mile off the highway in front of an apparently abandoned farmhouse. This was the only habitation we could see for miles, but there was occasional traffic on the dirt road and I could hear cowbells down below us.
The road was on the side of a mountain, and the views of the mountains beyond were fantastic. The shapes of some of the mountains on the horizon were quite unique. The vegetation was thorny scrub. As we walked along the road, thorny acacias kept clinging to our pant legs.
Dave’s information about this road was not wrong – it was full of interesting birds that morning. Some of the more interesting birds were Military Macaws, large green and blue parrots. There were several of them on the mountainside in two flocks. They were very conspicuous whenever they flew, but when they stopped in a tree they seemed to vanish. Other exciting birds included Yellow-winged Caciques (large and beautiful members of the Oriole family) and a Squirrel Cuckoo. The Squirrel Cuckoo seemed very aptly named because its movements in the trees were very squirrel-like.
We had a little worry with the van, in that one of the tires became very low. In the end it did not cause us any real problem.
We got back to the hotel about eleven, and then split up for a while. Some of the members of our group went to see the down-town of Copala, which I heard was very lovely, while Greg and I did some more birding. Our finds included a flock of Mexican Parrotlets, small stubby-tailed green parrots. They were hard to see in the trees. Like the macaws earlier, they seemed to vanish whenever they stopped flying. But we were patient and eventually got good looks at them.
We checked out of the hotel about one PM, and drove to Concordia and got the tire inflated.
After Concordia, we stopped at another dirt road were Dave’s information said that a rare bird called a Red-breasted Chat could be found. Again, the information proved to be correct, and we found the bird.
As we approached Mazatlan we were all rather anxious about getting lost. Finding our way actually wasn’t that difficult. We just followed the signs.
We checked into our hotel, the Playa Mazatlan. It was right on the beach, hence the name. (‘Playa’ in Spanish means ‘beach’.) We also checked into the festival. That process could have been more efficient, and I think the sponsors will probably work on that in future years.
After I was settled in, I walked out to the beach. They sky seemed to be full of Magnificent Frigatebirds, which I had never seen before. I encountered Greg on the beach and we walked along for a while looking at gulls, terns, and shorebirds.
Later, I sat on the beach for a while, and then joined the rest of the group for dinner in the hotel restaurant. The food was great, although the service was just a little slow.Saturday, January 17
This morning we went out on the first of the festival’s excursions we had signed up for. This was to the Mesa de Cacaxtla , an area which is part protected land and part cattle ranch. Our guides were Peter Alden, one of the most experienced birding guides in Mexico, and the ranch owner and major local civic booster, Ricardo Urquijo. The vegetation was tropical deciduous forest and this was the middle of the dry season, so the landscape was mostly colored in shades of brown.
We parked next to a cattle coral, and saw a lot of the curious big-eared cattle of the ranch. Also, there were some Caiba trees – tall trees with disproportionately wide trunks. (I presume this is for storing water.)
Along with us were people from the local media, who had big cameras and who came in their own van.
We all walked along a dry stream bed for a few miles and saw a lot of wonderful birds. Two of the more spectacular birds were a Lineated Woodpecker (a hawk-sized woodpecker with a bright red crest) and Citreoline Trogon (a large green and yellow bird quite unrelated to any birds we have in the Midwest)
After the walk, we went to a little village called Quelite. Mr Alden said that he knew it when it was a grubby little place, but it has evidently prospered exceedingly. We ate a rather late lunch at a lovely restaurant which seemed to have mostly locals for patrons.Sunday, January 18
This day we had all signed up for two tours. The morning tour was to the Islands of Mazatlan. Our guides were Robert Straub and Jesus Martinez. There was also a fellow named Cory along who took lots of pictures.
Our rides to the harbor were pick-up trucks with benches and canopies. We rode through the old section of Mazatlan to the harbor where a garishly colored tour boat was waiting for us.
Once we were on the boat, our first destination was a pair of small islands, or small rocks, where Brown Pelicans, cormorants, Brown Boobies, and Blue-footed Boobies roosted in large numbers. The rocks were white from a coating of guano from many years of large birds roosting.
We saw lots of Brown and Blue-footed Boobies that day, and by the end of the day, I was pretty good at telling them apart.
We landed on Deer Island, which is directly across from the Playa Mazatlan. To land on the island we had to get into a smaller boat, and then wade onto the beach. Fortunately, towels had been arranged for us to wipe the sand off our feet before putting our shoes back on.
After that, we took a trail that went rather steeply up hill. Our target bird on Deer Island was the Five-striped Sparrow. We never did see it, but we saw enough other things that I wouldn’t complain. When we got to the top of the island the views of the ocean were fabulous.
Above the island dozens, maybe hundreds, of Magnificent Frigatebirds circled. Suddenly, they all turned in the same direction and headed off in formation, like B-17s on a World War II bombing mission. They had seen a fishing boat! We later saw the boat, being swarmed by birds and covered with birds.
Back on the boat again, we passed a crowd of sea lions, as well as the same booby island on the way back to shore.
Back at the dock, we saw a Zone-tailed Hawk circling over a hillside the harbor with a flock of Turkey Vultures. A Zone-tailed Hawk often seems to disguise itself as a Turkey Vulture. They fly with their wings in the same position as the vulture’s, and often fly in flocks of vultures.
We rode the pick-ups back through the old town and along the shore front. I decided as we were riding that whoever was in charge of the public art in Mazatlan was apparently very partial to statues of topless women. The picture here, borrowed from someone else’s website, is only one of several examples of what you can see there.
We had lunch around the corner from the hotel at an American-style smoothie and frozen yogurt place. We were served with what is apparently the usual level of Mexican efficiency. At least they did not attempt to charge us for the parts of our orders which they never brought.
Our tour in the afternoon was to the Estero del Yugo, a managed estuary system with two lagoons, one saltwater and one freshwater. The saltwater part had some nice birds, including a Yellow-crowned Night Heron and some Orange-fronted Parrots, but it was the freshwater part that was really active, with ducks, grebes, coots, and herons of many kinds. The prettiest birds were a pair of Green Kingfishers – sparrow-sized cousins to the much larger Belted Kingfishers which we have all over the Midwest.
At a wildlife blind on the lagoon there was a long debate about whether a hawk in the distance was a Crane Hawk, a Snail Kite, or a Common Blackhawk. If you zoom in real close to the little black dot in the middle of this picture, you can see the bird they were talking about. (It is almost certainly a Crane Hawk.)Monday, January 19
Most of us had planned to take the same tour today, but Dave, Rick, and Greg decided instead to go back to Crested Jay Preserve to try again to see the Crested Jays. Jamie had signed up to go kayaking in the morning, so only Janice, Marj, and I went on the tour according to the original plan.
Our guide was a local fellow who went by the nickname Flako. His knowledge of the local birds was immense, but he only spoke a little English. Fortunately, we had on the tour an attractive lady from Mexico City named Alison, who was fully bilingual and very kindly translated for us. The sixth person on our tour was Bill, a photographer we had met on Saturday’s tour.
We rode to an area named Playa Ceuta in a van which gave us a very bumpy ride. We pulled off the highway and went on dirt roads through weedy-looking grazing land. This was cattle country, as evidenced by a coral which we passed where a man was milking cows and playing a radio very loudly.
A bit past the coral we parked and then began to hike along the dirt road. We were soon along side an estuary. On some of the mud flats were large numbers of shorebirds of various kinds. In the air were many Gull-billed Terns – the first of that species I had ever seen.
To the other side of the road was some scrubby thorn forest. In that, we saw a pair of White-tailed Kites nesting. It turned out the be the first record of that species nesting in that location.
We were suppose to visit a beach-side facility for sea turtle hatching. We got there, the place was clearly set up to receive visitors, but nobody was there. I enjoyed watching birds on the beach while Flako got on his cell phone and tried to sort things out. We ended up going to another facility where there was at least someone to show us around.
At the final location, we saw the place on the beach where the newly hatched baby turtles are released. A batch of them had been released just the night before and their tracks could be seen all over the beach. Here is something I didn’t know before: instead of making a mad rush for the water, which I always supposed they would do, baby sea turtles wander around the beach for a while. They have to learn the beach so they can find it when they are grown.
In the afternoon I walked the beach outside the hotel, looking for birds. Many other people were enjoying the beach, but not enough to make it feel crowded. At one point I passed two nice looking teenage Mexican girls wearing string bikini tops and very short shorts doing yoga poses for the entertainment of some teenage boys. One tries to be nice and not stare in such a situation. Besides, I was there to look for birds. The picture below is one I found.
In the evening, we all met for the final dinner of the festival.Tuesday, January 20
My flight home was at 2:05 PM. I enjoyed the beach one last time until about 11. Then I checked out of the hotel, took a taxi to the airport, and went through all the usual airport lines.
My last life list bird of the trip, of the 67 I got, was a Grey-breasted Martin perched on a signal light next to the runway. I saw it from the airplane.
My trip home was uneventful. I arrived home about 1:30 AM on Wednesday.Link 1Link 2Link 3