Mexico City Birding, Day 1: Lerma marshes, D.F., & Morelos

So having a kid limits your time to blog… who woulda thought?!?! Anyways finally catching up on some way overdue posts.

With the prospect of my son’s arrival and greatly limited birding time staring at me straight ahead, I started to think about one last weekend to load up on lifers.  After briefly considering the costs and effort to run after the Lesser Prairie-Chickens in Texas/Oklahoma, Birding Buddy Steve, Mr. G, and I stumbled upon cheap airfare to Mexico City.  Spouse’s permission and passport in hand, we booked the tickets, found a guide, and counted down the days.

We landed in Mexico City late on February 1st.  Once we figured out how to hail a ride, we took a cab to our hotel (which was surrounded by hundreds of riot police due to nearby demonstrations), and got to bed early.  I’m glad we got our rest because this was my first foray into international birding and the first day did not disappoint.  We started the morning pre-dawn at a gas station in San Nicolás Tlazala.  Across from the gas station was a small tamale stand serving the local specialty, guajolota; basically, a tamale in a bread roll.  They were amazingly delicious and comforting when we got out of the car at the marsh and the cool fog would cut right through us.  We had two main targets here: the endangered Black-polled Yellowthroat and Aztec Rail.  The Aztec Rail is essentially a southern King Rail.  However, the incredible density of Sora and Virginia Rails lead to several tense moments of watching reeds rustling for the skulking marsh bird and ears straining to separate the remarkably similar grunts among those three birds.  Conceding defeat on the rail, we moved on to the money spot for the yellowthroat.  Despite sharing the same reputation as skulkers, these birds were far friendlier and the lifer celebration began.

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Mr. G was thrilled at the number of Yellow-head Blackbirds, and with good reason, we estimated about 5,000 of them!!

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Amazing and frustrating at the same time.  So many rails, none of the Aztec variety.

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The Black-polled Yellowthroat’s hood gives it plenty of attitude.

Our next two stops were public parks with the main target being the other central highlands endemic yellowthroat, the Hooded Yellowthroat.  Similar to its marsh cousin, this bird had no problem popping out and saying hello.  In fact, this bird was found only a few yards from the parking lot at Botanical Garden at the Biology Institute for the National Autonomous University of Mexico.  Wandering through the garden yielded a couple more lifers, but we were not to linger, other area specialties awaited.

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Hooded Yellowthroat, another parking lot lifer

The fun thing about being a traveling birder is that common birds elsewhere are your lifers.  This means that at some point on your trip, you’ll end up freaking out about lifers galore in the most humblest of locations.  For this trip, it was on a town road, flanked by houses and small business, just beyond the highway exit.  Fifteen minute stop on a roadside, 5 ticks on the list.  A new bird every three minutes.

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Before I saw this Curve-billed Thrasher, the only one I had seen was in Lincoln Park, Chicago. #VagrantWeirdness

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Road-side lifer: Golden-cheeked Woodpecker

Our last stop of the day was Xochicalco and we had one mega-target, the Balsas Screech-Owl.  Endemic to the Balsas River Basin area, the small range of this owl is the reason it’s considered “Near Threatened” by the IUCN.  However, we arrived with a few more hours of daylight birding to knock out and crushing views of Rufous-capped Warbler and Black-chested Sparrow were more than sufficient to pass the time.  As dusk started to fall, we munched on tacos and Mexican Coke outside our cabins, watching Lesser Nighthawks hunt over the mountain ridge.

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Rufous-capped Warbler

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I could not get enough of the Black-chested Sparrow’s malar stripe (the white stripe that extends down from its lower mandible)

Finally, it was dark enough for us to head back towards the main entrance to the Zona Arqueológica.  For some reason, I’ve failed to mention our guides, Rafa and Miguel but, they were great.  Two young guys, but they knew the spots and were excellent emissaries when we navigated the roadside taco stand scene.  Nowhere did this local knowledge come into play more immediately than with the Balsas Screech-Owl.  Within a few minutes of arriving, armed with flashlights, Rafa took us to the magic owl spot.  We had a slight delay before searching as there were a few late-night cars driving by.  Once everything calmed down, a short play of the screech-owl call brought two birds to within 30 feet of us!!  Full disclosure, the first time the owls came in, my excitability caused me to loudly shout, “There it is!!” This could have very well been followed by, “There it went!!”  Luckily, the owls returned and for the next couple of minutes we were in lifer owl heaven.  Returning back to our cabins, we set our optics on the table and shared a couple of beers celebrating a wonderful first day to our trip.

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Not a bad place to wait for nightfall

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Balsas Screech-Owl


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