The almost 700 species of birds found in the state of Oaxaca are an excellent reflection of the varied biogeography of this unique destination. With Pacific and Gulf slopes, rugged mountains of pine, oak, and broadleaf forest, tropical deciduous forest, coastal lagoons, and beautiful beaches, Oaxaca has it all in terms of habitat diversity. Our tour begins in the dryish interior valley in the colonial city of Oaxaca de Juarez where we stay at the lovely Hotel Azucenas. From this comfortable home base we have time to explore the color and cuisine of the city while making day trips to nearby locations for birds and natural history.
Our first stop is the arid scrub around the Zapotec town of Teotitlan del Valle. The columnar cacti, tree morning glories, guaje, seepwillow, bunchgrasses, Erythrina, and Acacias create a habitat oddly similar to our backyard in southeast Arizona. Even the avifauna shares similarities. Just like in our Arizona home, curve-billed thrashers are there, but they're joined not by crissal but instead ocellated thrasher. Cactus wren is replaced by Boucard's wren, canyon towhee by white-throated towhee, and Gila woodpecker by its cousin grey-breasted woodpecker. Western and Cassin's kingbirds and eastern meadowlark are around as are lesser goldfinches. The birding in the scrub around town, at a small reservoir on the outskirts, and along the road that climbs into the pines and oaks of the Sierra Norte can be excellent, and we've enjoyed several 80+ species mornings. Least grebes, rufous-capped and other warblers, many flycatchers (Including phoebes, kingbirds, and Empids), white-tailed hawk, many wintering sparrows (grasshopper, lark, clay-colored, vesper, Lincoln's, and chipping), dusky and beautiful hummingbirds, and black-vented and other orioles are fairly conspicuous while some of the regional specialties are less so. With time and careful searching, however, we've had some luck in finding ocellated thrasher, bridled and Oaxaca sparrows, Boucard's wren, West Mexican chachalaca, dwarf vireo, blue mockingbird, and golden vireo.
After a wonderful lunch in town, we enjoy a delightful lecture and demonstration with one of the town's master weaving families, Francisco and Maria de Lourdes Martinez. They give us a look into traditional Zapotec culture and share their knowledge and talent as we learn about the techniques and natural materials used to produce the world-class weavings of Teotitlan del Valle. Lourdes also makes us a delicious atole, one of several pre-hispanic beverages that we enjoy in Oaxaca.
On our return to the big city, we make a
brief stop in Santa Maria del Tule, the home of what is claimed to be the world's largest
tree, El Tule. Prior to serious
human settlement and alteration of the area, this part of the valley (and
probably many other parts) was a wetland with cattails and bulrush, perhaps flocks of wintering waterfowl, and riparian trees, including the Montezuma
cypress (Taxodium mucronatum). Though we've seen some pretty impressive examples of this
tree further north in
Looming above the Oaxaca Valley is the dramatic Sierra Norte where we spend an unforgettable day in pines, firs, alders, madrones, and oaks. An interesting suite of resident and migratory birds (as well as an excellent restaurant with the best chiles rellenos and local mushroom dishes I've had) are found in this lush area. Species we've found include several Mexican endemics (dwarf jay, grey-barred wren, hooded yellowthroat, white-striped woodcreeper, russet nightingale thrush, collared towhee, rufous-capped brushfinch, bumblebee hummingbird, long-tailed wood-partridge, Aztec thrush, and red warbler), as well as red crossbill, spot-crowned and strong-billed woodcreepers, black-headed siskin, mountain trogon, brown-backed solitaire, chestnut-sided shrike-vireo, and many others. In the foothills of the Sierra Juarez, there are a few good spots to look for Oaxaca sparrow, which can be a bit elusive during the winter months. Fortunately, my local co-leader, Benito Hernandez, who began work as a cultural guide but is now quite the birder, has found a few reliable spots and we've enjoyed some great views of this endemic species as well as several other endemics including pileated flycatcher and slaty vireo.
You can't visit Oaxaca without a trip to Monte Alban, a hilltop ruin site with fascinating Zapotec history. Before taking a guided tour of the ruins, we visit a quiet road north of town at a site called Biguera. Here in the foothills, we've had good luck in finding Berylline, dusky, and ruby-throated hummingbirds nectaring at the tree morning glories, dwarf and slaty vireos working low in dense bushes, and rufous-capped warbler and blue mockingbird skulking in the dense thickets. Kingbirds, black-vented and other orioles, blue grosbeak, and both Oaxaca and bridled sparrows can be found in the area while white-tailed, short-tailed, and zone-tailed hawks are sometimes soaring above. One of the prizes of the area is the pileated flycatcher which can be difficult, but not impossible, to find in the winter. Again, Benito has been invaluable in helping us find the pileated flycatcher at a time of year when they are quiet and rarely seen.
What has come to be a, if not THE, trip highlight for the group, is a tour of the spectacular and vast Mercado Abastos where the smells, tastes, colors, and daily rhythms of the Oaxacan people are experienced first hand. In addition to the best tamales in the world, we sample chapulines (grasshoppers), moles, cacao beans, tejate (an earthy pre-hispanic drink), chico sapote, sapote negro, annona, and other regional treats. After the tour we head north to the town of San Lorenzo Cacaotepec for a memorable lunch and lecture on Oaxacan plants, culture, and cuisine with well-known chef and author Susana Trilling, or her equally accomplished assistant, Yolanda Giron, at the Seasons of My Heart cooking school. Susana's and Yolanda's knowledge and passion for regional culture, cuisine, and farming practices comes through in their fascinating stories which always help us understand, and taste, the relationships between people and the lands in which they live. This day is the perennial favorite of most trip participants.
We always leave some time for exploring Oaxaca City. The zocalo, the shops selling crafts, mescal, and chocolate, the markets, and the restaurants are full of energy and color. At some of our favorite restaurants, we savor moles, tlayudas, squash-blossom soup, memelas, flan, and tacos de jamaica. A Mexican specialty, huitlacoche, is a corn fungus that isn't cultivated intentionally but rather appears randomly, as the disease that it is, within corn milpas. One never knows where it will turn up, but when it does, it's great luck for the farmer as this "rotten corn" is a restaurant delicacy. Fungus never ceases to amaze.
After five memorable days in Oaxaca de Juarez, we travel across the dry southern valley, studded with guamuchil trees, cacti, and agaves, and climb into the lush forests of the Sierra Miahuatlan where we stay at the cozy Puesta del Sol. Before reaching the mountains we make a side trip to the Zapotec ruins of Yagul where a large patch of native valley cactus scrub is home to many birds, including several local specialties - bridled sparrow, ocelalated thrasher, beautiful hummingbird, Nutting's flycathcer. We also make a stop at the home of Zeny and Reyna Fuentes, two very talented alebrije artists. Using Bursera (also known as Copal) wood, Zeny carves uniquely imaginative pieces which are then painted by Reyna who is a poet with a brush, or, more often, an agave tip which produces the impossibly fine lines of her work. Their art is yet another Oaxacan reflection of an ancient tradition (woodcarving for tools, toys, masks, etc.), combined with knowledge of native plants (they are involved in a Bursera reforestation program), a finely honed talent, and plain old hard work.
In the southern Sierra, our hotel is nestled on a hillside overlooking huge tracts of forest all the way down to the Pacific. The hotel grounds, with their pines, alders, mountain mahogany, and oaks, are birdy in the morning, and though the activity varies with each visit, we almost always see a good number of species that we find nowhere else on the trip, including some of the more uncommon birds such as hooded yellowthroat, cinnamon-bellied flowerpiercer, blue mockingbird, Aztec thrush, and russet-crowned nightingale-thrush. Band-tailed pigeon, yellow-eyed junco, and white-eared and magnificent hummingbirds are fairly common, and there are a few rarities like evening grosbeak and hook-billed kite that occasionally show up. A regionally endemic tree, Arbol de Las Manitas (Cheiranthodendron pentadactylon) grows on the hotel's grounds, and, in addition to having a spectacular flower, it's a bird magnet. It's unique flower structure provides abundant nectar for many species.......except hummingbirds. While a few hummers may make brief visits, it's songbirds and woodpeckers that swarm the trees each morning. From the long list of species we've seen in this tree over the years, some of the highlights have been Aztec thrush, American and white-throated robins, grey-silky flycatcher, flame-colored, hepatic, and western tanagers, many species of warblers (Tennessee, orange-crowned, Townsend's, Nashville), yellow-bellied sapsucker, blue mockingbird, rose-breasted grosbeak, Steller's jay, and four orioles (Bullock's, Baltimore, black-vented, and Scott's).
In the nearby forest, we've seen mountain trogon, spot-crowned woodcreeper, hepatic and flame-colored tanagers, slate-throated redstart, chestnut-sided shrike-vireo, pine flycatcher, garnet-throated hummingbird, and several wintering migrants.
From the Miahuatlan crest, we descend to sea level as we pass through mixed conifer, broadleaf evergreen, and finally tropical deciduous forest on the coast. Along the 70-mile descent, we make various stops. Our first is a special spot where several bumblebee hummingbirds always seem to be conspicuously perched and singing. We walk through pine-oak forest and shade-grown coffee plantations where, in the past, we've seen red-headed tanager, long-billed starthroat, slaty and golden vireos, green jay, emerald toucanet, white and chestnut-collared swifts, blue mockingbird, double-toothed kite, greenish elaenia, barred woodcreeper, Audubon's oriole, common chlorospingus, gray-breasted wood wren, golden-browed, red and red-faced warblers, the endemic blue-capped and cinnamon-sided hummingbirds, eye-ringed flatbill, flame-colored tanager, long-billed starthroat, tufted and pine flycatchers, greater pewee, and many other species. Several locations can be very good for colorful butterflies as well.
Eventually we reach the coast and the incomparable Rancho Cerro Largo, a place that is as much an artful creation and lifestyle as a lodging site. Perched on a forested bluff above the expansive Pacific Ocean, the lodge area is very good for birds of the tropical deciduous forest. This productive spot has yielded numerous orioles (spot-breasted, altamira, streak-backed, and orchard), happy and banded wrens, west Mexican chachalaca, olive sparrow, russet-crowned motmot, white-throated magpie jay, rufous-backed robin, Colima and ferruginous pygmy-owls, citreoline trogon, three bunting species (painted, blue, and orange-breasted), squirrel cuckoo, lesser ground-cuckoo, golden-cheeked woodpecker, orange-fronted parakeet, least flycatcher, Bell's vireo, Nutting's and brown-crested flycathers, yellow-headed parrot, yellow-winged cacique, and the unforgettable red-breasted chat. Mexican red-bellied squirrels, ringtail, and spiny-tailed iguanas are also on the grounds. We eat quite well at Cerro Largo as our host, Mario Corella, has created a delicious menu of fresh, healthy and creative dishes. The tranquility of the place, the restful hammocks, and the pristine beach, with warm water and virtually no people or palapas, are icing on the rich cake at this unforgettable spot.
From Cerro Largo, we make a day trip back up into the mountains to visit several shade grown coffee plantations where the broadleaf forest hosts lineated and pale-billed woodpeckers, ivory-billed woodcreeper, Mexican hermit, cinnamon hummingbird, masked tityra, happy wren, red-crowned ant-tanager, fan-tailed warbler, double-toothed kite, barred woodcreeper, emerald toucanet, white-collared and chestnut-collared swifts, golden vireo, and outstanding butterflies including the white morpho. One plantation is Finca el Pacifico where the fourth generation of the Gomez family provides warm hospitality and an excellent tour of their certified organic, shade-grown coffee operation.
Finally we head west to Puerto Escondido where we make an afternoon visit to the mouth of the Rio Colotepec and a morning boat tour of Laguna Manialtepec. At the dynamic river mouth, which changes every few years after heavy summer rains, waders, shorebirds, terns, gulls, waterfowl, pelicans, and passerines can be abundant. With luck we sometimes find up to 6 species of plover (killdeer, black-bellied, collared, snowy, Wilson's, and semipalmated), several terns (royal, Caspian, Sandwich, elegant, common, black, Forster's, and gull-billed), our only red-winged blackbirds of the trip, painted bunting, white-collared seedeater, blue-black grassquit, scissor-tailed flycatcher and surprises such as grasshopper sparrow, least bittern, and parasitic jaeger.
Manialtepec is a rich, mangrove-lined estuary where mangrove swallows and vireos, shorebirds such as collared plover, various waders, terns, and northern jacana make their homes. Among the more common birds are osprey, common black hawk, ringed, belted, and green kingfishers, red-billed pigeon, white-fronted parrot, neotropic cormorant, black-bellied whistling duck, and boat-billed heron. Rocky outcrops on the shore are common basking spots for spiny-tailed iguanas (Ctenosaura pectinata) while green iguanas bask in the trees. We've had good luck in the past and have found hook-billed kite, crane hawk, mangrove cuckoo, and, once, a southern river otter along the lagoon as well. Rarities for the region that we've seen at Manialtepec include red-breasted merganser, common loon, aplomado falcon, gray-necked wood-rail, and wood duck. Our boat trip with local guide Pepe Martinez makes for an excellent ending to a memorable trip.
food on Latin American trips is always good, there is noting that comes close to
fresh, whole, local,
spectacularly delicious food.
While this is part
of a back-to-basics, health-oriented movement
in the U.S., this is how Oaxacans have been eating for thousands of years. During
our trip, and especially during our time in the valley of Oaxaca, we’ll enjoy several
specialties, many of them made with primarily prehispanic ingredients, such as
atole, atole espuma, nicuatole, memelas, chiles, and tejate.
savor native fruits such as chico
sapote, sapote negro, guanabana,
and guayaba. If,
like most of us, you’re used to what I think of as “industrial corn”
you’ll be amazed at how different simple tortillas and not-so-simple tamales
taste when made from the many types of more natural corn that have been grown in
the area for thousands of years.
Oaxaca, with it's perfect combination of natural and cultural wonders, is hands down my favorite place in Mexico and my overall favorite travel destination. I look forward to sharing its variety of birds, scenery, tastes, colors, and people with many of you in the future!
Pacific Ocean from Rancho Cerro Largo, faded
eighty-eight (Diaethria astala), and red warbler, by John & Melanie Dicus.