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Birding the Cape District

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By Steve Mlodinow

Baja California _ Cape Region _ 24 to 29 October 2002

During March 2002, my wife and I spent a fun-filled week birding Baja California's Cape Region. It was so much fun that I decided to return this fall with my excellent friend, Bill Tweit. When we decided to go, the main question was "when?" After some pondering we chose late October, just a wee bit after southern California's peak vagrancy window. Our decision really was a good one. So good, that many of the world's leaders decided to join us. Indeed, a big ole level 5 hurricane almost did so as well.

Dumfounded? So were we. APEC was in town, and there wasn't a hotel room available anywhere in Cabo San Lucas or San Jose del Cabo, even when we booked our trip in July. So, we stayed in La Paz. A fine choice, as you will see later on. As for the hurricane, I guess it wasn't big enough story to make local or national news in the U.S. We had no idea this monster was pointed dead at Cabo the day before our trip. There was nothing on the news at all. What's one more or less Asian president? Would Tom Brokaw (or George Bush) really care if South Korea's president was washed into the sea? Would they even be able to name him? Anyway, at the last moment, the hurricane veered south and ploughed into Nayarit. The debris was apparently so thick that fishing in the Pacific Ocean off Nayarit won't be possible for 2 months or more. What we got in the Cape Region was some clouds (the rain went through the day before we got there) and some fine strong easterlies. We wondered later if these winds had contributed to our success.

So, Bill and I arrived at Los Cabos airport on Thursday afternoon, October 24th, merely two days before President Bush. We drove up to La Paz and arrived at our hotel, Los Arcos, just in time to watch Blue-footed Boobies in the setting sun's light with a tumbler of scotch in our paws. The next morning started with a swirl of birds at the La Paz (Chametla) Sewage Treatment Ponds (LPSTP). The ponds were well stocked with shorebirds and waterfowl, while swallows swarmed overhead and warblers dashed to and fro in the Tamarisk. The cattle pastures along the ponds' south border were partly flooded and held many ducks and shorebirds plus a fine flock of blackbirds. Contingents of Cattle Egrets and White-faced Ibis shuttled back and forth from field to ponds. We spent 4+ hours here and could have lingered longer. Rarities included 3 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, a White-fronted Goose, an odd Canada Goose, a male Ruddy-ground Dove, a Black-and-White Warbler, 3 Pectoral Sandpipers, an American Bittern, and a Belding's Yellowthroat. The Canada Goose seemed to be a cross between a Cackling and a Lessser/Taverner's. The calls were mostly of the larger races, but some higher calls were given. The overall bird's size and that of the bill were on the small size, but the head/bill shape wasn't quite delicate enough for a pure Cackler. The color had some of the rich purply brown seen in Cackling and Dusky Canadas, but not in Lesser/Taverner's or Richardson's.

We then headed south on Mexico 1 to the village of San Antonio (the only Spurs here were on the caballeros). A taqueria on the roadside at the town's north edge provided a fine lunch of fish tacos, and then the town provided some fine birding. The best spot was a fairly lush wash. Go to the far (southeast) end of town on highway 1 and look for the wash heading southwest. We walked about 100 yards upwash until the vegetation grew sparse. The primo bird here was a brightly marked Blue-headed Vireo found by Mr. Tweit. At one point, it came within 10-12 feet of our excited binoculars. On the more mundane side, but still notable, was a Bell's Vireo there. In town iteself, we found a fruiting fig tree with a cluster of Hooded Orioles and Western Tanagers plus one sapsucker. The bird clearly had Red-naped in it, but some features suggested an infusion of Yellow-bellied genes. We then dashed quickly to San Bartolo, where we found wind and few birds. The highlight here was clearly the turquoise, gold, and black San Lucan Rock Lizard.

We then zipped back to La Paz to finish the day at Ensenada La Paz in the town of Chametla. We not only accessed this at the point mentioned in my March notes, but also accessed several other dirt roads a short distance further north, taking these east to the mudflat's edge. Shorebirds abounded here, with 5000 Western Sandpipers, 665 Semipalmated Plovers, and 100+ Least Sands. There was also a smattering of herons, 10 Am White Pelicans, and a stack of fishing Forster's Terns. In the salicornia, two Savannah Sparrows foraged. These were Large-billeds, likely of the race atratus. For a fine discussion of northwestern Mexico's Savannah Sparrows, see the article by A.J. van Rossem (1947) in Condor 49:97-107. For some interesting data pointing towards specific status for Large-billed Sparrow, see Zink et al. (1991) in Condor 93:1016-1019.

Day 2 began 2.5 hours away at San Jose del Cabo's famous estero, Estero San Jose. The habitat had been chewed upon somewhat by backhoes since my March visit, a sad state of affairs. We did find some birds, especially as we worked our way inland. The main passerine highlight was a calling Tropical Kingbird. The water birding here yielded a flock of 12 White-fronted Geese and an Am White Pelican among a fine selection of dabbling ducks, Redhead, and Ruddy Ducks. Offshore, Bill managed to pick up some storm-petrel feeding activity, which included at least 10 Leasts and 3 Blacks. Along the estero's edge, there was another Large-billed Savannah Sparrow. We then went about a km north and accessed the estero by the San Jose del Cabo Sewage Treatment Pond. During March, this spot provided a Cape May Warbler, American Redstart, and Black-chinned Hummingbird. October was also fabulous, with a green-plumaged Painted Bunting, a Palm Warbler, a Northern Waterthrush, and a Solitary Sandpiper. Belding's Yellowthroats were particularly numerous here, and we found 15+ in a fairly small area. As Airforce 1 circled overhead, with our fearless leader aboard, we decided it was time to abandon the APEC crowd and head north. Our next stop was Miraflores. We lunched at a small restaurant with a friendly dog. Again, the main course was fish tacos with creamy avocado slices and tangy salsa. Enlivened by the shady and cool respite, we headed off into the lush orchards and wash at the edge of town. This was a favorite spot of Casey and mine from March, and October's visit did not disappoint. We found 5 Thick-billed Kingbirds, a male Hooded Warbler (almost as tasty as that salsa), 2 Black-and-White Warblers, and a calling Willow Flycatcher. The day ended with us dining a block or two east of Los Arcos along the La Paz waterfront. The name of the restaurant had "mariscos" in it, meaning seafood. The service was quite friendly and the food scrumptious. The camarones (shrimp) ceviche was delectable, especially with a few drops of habanero sauce. Another delight there was the Mariscos Relleno, an enormous chile, prepared relleno style, except stuffed with sweet shrimp, succulent scallops, and the most tender octopus imaginable. Mmmmmm. But I digress....

Morning 3. Back to LPSTP. Some of the water birds had cleared out, but 1000s of swallow foraged hither and yon, including a Purple Martin. Ten Lesser Yellowlegs provided an interesting shorebird note. We found a second Black-and-White Warbler, a second Ruddy Ground-Dove (female this time), and a second Belding's Yellowthroat, and our only Black-chinned Hum. Passerine numbers were up, the most impressive of which was ~200 Orange-crowned Warblers (about 95% lutescens and 5% oreastra). We also found the only roadrunner and Varied Bunting of the trip. A careful survey of the ponds yielded five adult Least Grebes attending to one young each, plus four unencumbered adults. Then we decided to have a go at the mountains. Some 15 years ago, I had gone up into the hills with John O'Brien and Steve Kornfeld. I vaguely remembered the name San Antonio de la Sierra and a wash with cottonwoods, oaks, cactus, and palms. We had found San Lucas Robin, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Acorn Woodpecker there. The road to San Antonio de la Sierra cut off from Highway 1 about 7 km southeast of San Antonio, so we gave it a whirl. We made it to km 24, where we found the wash of my memories. No San Lucan Robins, alas, but plenty of Acorn Woodpeckers and a few Band-tailed Pigeons. The road was not traversable (at least by our scruffy rental car) another km or so afterwards, but at that point we did have a Zone-tailed Hawk. On the way out, near km 16 (as measured from highway 1), there is a wash bordered by a fine swath of oaks. We didn't bird here, but there is certainly potential. Next visit for sure. Then back to the hotel were I dined on a fine Carne Asada and watched California's Angels take out Barry Bonds and the Giants. Life is good.

Next morning, we headed southwest, to Todos Santos and nearby areas. The first stop was Playa San Pedrito. In March, we had been somewhat disappointed at this spot, and we were again in October. Lots of Hooded and Scott's Orioles, Gila Woodpeckers, and Gilded Flickers, but little else. A bit discouraged, we headed into Todos Santos, where our first stop was the city park. This spot was quite birdy, and among the many warblers and hummingbirds (Xantus's and Costa's) was a Tennessee Warbler. Spirits brightened, we crossed the street and slipped into a bamboo and weed field behind some houses. This secreted spot was abounding with warblers including a Mourning Warbler!! We then wended our way through town to the strip of ag and palms that heads towards the ocean and La Poza restaurant. We stopped along the dirt road wherever the habitat looked of interest and slipped off into the fields and trees where we could. This stretch was also birdy and yielded 4 Black-and-White Warblers, 3 Ruddy Ground-Doves, an Orchard Oriole, and a Yellow-breasted Chat. We finally arrived at the pond by the ocean, which had more water than March, and thus few shorebirds. There were still Least Grebes here, and a brief seawatch led to another Black Storm-Petrel. The great joy of this location was dragonflies. There must have been at least 8-10 species here in incredible numbers. I don't see how a flying insect would survive their onslaught. Indeed, dragonflies seemed numerous at many locations on the trip, a fine diversion in between bird flocks. To finish off the day, we went south on Mexico 19 to km marker 80, where Erickson et al had a Yellow-throated Warbler the preceding fall. No success with that, but we did have a Vesper Sparrow and a couple California Gnatcatchers. We were somewhat surprised to see how much paler the gnatcatchers were than their conspecifics in southern California. Along Highway 1, on the east side of the Cape Region, much of the landscape is fairly lush. Along Highway 19, this is not the case. The countryside is much drier. From the air, Todos Santos sticks out as an emerald in the hay. This spot may be the most true vagrant trap in Baja's Cape Region.

Our last morning had arrived. We decided to head back to Miraflores. Definitely not a mistake. Working slightly different spots, we found 2 additional TB Kingbirds (make that 7 total at Miraflores), another Hooded Warbler, a Zone-tailed Hawk, 2 Summer Tanagers, and an Indigo Bunting. To finish off our trip, we spent an hour or so at Caduano, which also proved quite birdy. The best part of town is found by walking from the small city park past the building marked "Semidelegacion" and following the road east as it curves right. Here we added Cassin's and Warbling Vireos to our trip list and found yet another TB Kingbird and Black-and-White Warbler. On this last day, the Western Flycatchers were particularly vocal. We had several on previous days, mostly at Miraflores, but also in the mountains. None had given us the suwheet type call. On this final day, however, we had several calling at Miraflores and Caduano, all sounding like typical Pacific-Slopes. Though apparently some Cordillerans can give this call, the chances of all of these birds being Cordillerans giving only Pac Slope calls seems remote.

It was a great trip. The people were friendly, the weather perfection. The food was tasty and inexpensive (sometimes embarrassingly so). A few words of Spanish opened many doors and smiles.

For directions to many of the spots mentioned above, see my notes from March 2002.

HIGHLIGHTS (Rare and uncommon species, plus some high tallies)

Least Grebe (14, incl 5 chicks) LPSTP 27 Oct

Least Grebe (8 ads) Todos Santos 28 Oct

Least Storm-Petrel (10) Off San J del Cabo 26 Oct

Black Storm-Petrel (2) Off San J del Cabo 26 Oct

Black Storm-Petrel (1) Todos Santos 28 Oct

Am White Pelican (10) Chametla Flats 25 Oct

Am White Pelican (1) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Am Bittern (1) LPSTP 25 Oct

Cattle Egret (150) LPSTP 25 Oct

WF Ibis (150) LPSTP 25 Oct

BB Whistling-Duck (3) LPSTP 25 Oct

WF Goose (1) LPSTP 25-27 Oct

WF Goose (12) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Canada Goose (1) LPSTP 25-27 Oct

Cinnamon Teal (250) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

BW Teal (100) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Zone-tailed Hawk (1) Nr San Antonio de la Sierra 27 Oct

Zone-tailed Hawk (1) Miraflores 29 Oct

RT Hawk, rufous morph (1) Km 51, hwy 1 29 Oct

Peregrine Falcon (1) Near Miraflores 24 Oct

Peregrine Falcon (1) LPSTP 27 Oct

Peregrine Falcon (1) Nr San Antonio de la Sierra 27 Oct

Peregrine Falcon (2) Todos Santos 28 Oct

Merlin (1) LPSTP 25-27 Oct

Snowy Plover (20) Chametla Flats 25 Oct

Semipalmated Plover (665) Chametla Flats 25 Oct

Lesser Yellowlegs (10) LPSTP 27 Oct

Solitary Sandpiper (1) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Western Sandpiper (5000) Chametla Flats 25 Oct

Pectoral Sandpiper (3) LPSTP 25 Oct

Western Gull (1) Chametla Flats 25 Oct

Band-tailed Pigeon (10) Nr San Antonio de la Sierra 27 Oct

Ruddy G-Dove (male) LPSTP 25 Oct

Ruddy G-Dove (female) LPSTP 27 Oct

Ruddy G-Dove (3) Todos Santos 28 Oct

Vaux's Swift (1) Hwy 19, km 70 28 Oct

Black-chinned Humm (1) LPSTP 27 Oct

Acorn Woodpecker (30) Nr San Antonio de la Sierra 27 Oct

RN (X YB?) Sapsucker (1) San Antonio 25 Oct

Willow Flycatcher (1) Miraflores 26 Oct

Tropical Kingbird (1) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Thick-billed Kingbird (7) Miraflores 26-29 Oct

Thick-billed Kingbird (1) Caduano 29 Oct

Bell's Vireo (1) San Antonio 25 Oct

Bell's Vireo (1) Miraflores 29 Oct

Warbling Vireo (1) Caduano 29 Oct

Blue-headed Vireo (1) San Antonio 25 Oct

Cassin's Vireo (2) Caduano 29 Oct

Purple Martin (1) LPSTP 27 Oct

VG Swallow (800+) LPSTP 27 Oct

Starling (1000) LPSTP 25 Oct

Tennessee Warbler (1) Todos Santos 28 Oct

Palm Warbler (1) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Myrtle Warbler (1) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Black-and-White Warbler (1) LPSTP 25 Oct

Black-and-White Warbler (2nd bird) LPSTP 27 Oct

Black-and-White Warbler (2) Miraflores 26 Oct

Black-and-White Warbler (4) Todos Santos 28 Oct

Black-and-White Warbler (1) Caduano 29 Oct

Northern Waterthrush (1) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Mourning Warbler (1) Todos Santos 28 Oct

Belding's Yellowthroat (1) LPSTP 25 Oct

Belding's Yellowthroat (2nd bird) LPSTP 27 Oct

Belding's Yellowthroat (25) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Belding's Yellowthroat (5) Todos Santos 28 Oct

Belding's Yellowthroat (1) Miraflores 29 Oct

Hooded Warbler (1) Miraflores 26 Oct

Hooded Warbler (2nd bird) Miraflores 29 Oct

YB Chat (1) Todos Santos 28 Oct

Summer Tanager (pair) Miraflores 29 Oct

Vesper Sparrow (1) Km 80, hwy 19 28 Oct

Large-billed Savannah Sparrow (2) Chametla Flats 25 Oct

Large-billed Sav Sparrow (1) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Painted Bunting (fe or imm) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Varied Bunting (fe or imm) LPSTP 27 Oct

Indigo Bunting (male) Miraflores 29 Oct

RW BB (200) LPSTP 25 Oct

RWBB (10) Estero San Jose 26 Oct

Orchard Oriole (1) Todos Santos 28 Oct

SPECIES LIST (179 total)

Least Grebe RT Hawk Com G Dove

Pied-billed Grebe Cr Caracara Ruddy G Dove

Eared Grebe Am Kestrel Roadrunner

Am White Pelican Merlin GH Owl

Brown Pelican Peregrine Lesser Nighthawk

Black Storm-Petrel Cal Quail Vaux's Swift

Least Storm-Petrel Com Moorhen Xantus's Hum

Blue-footed Booby Sora Costa's Hum

Brandt's Cormorant Am Coot BC Hum

Double-crested Cormorant BB Plover Belted Kingfisher

Magnificent Frigatebird Snowy Plover Acorn Woodp

American Bittern Semi Plover Gila Woodp

GB Heron Wilson's Plover LB Woodp

Great Egret Killdeer RN/YB Sapsucker

Snowy Egret BN Stilt Gilded Flicker

Tricolored Heron Am Avocet Willow Fly

Reddish Egret Gr Yellowlegs Gray Fly

Cattle Egret Le Yellowlegs Western Fly

Green Heron Solitary Sandpiper Black Phoebe

BCNH Willet Vermilion Fly

YCNH Spotted Sandpiper AT Fly

White Ibis Whimbrel Tropical Kingbird

WF Ibis Marbled Godwit Cassin's Kingbird

Turkey Vulture Western Sandpiper TB Kingbird

BB Whistling Duck Least Sandpiper Loggerhead Shrike

Canada Goose Pectoral Sand Bell's Vireo

GWF Goose Dunlin Cassin's Vireo

Gadwall SB Dowitcher BH Vireo

Am Wigeon LB Dowitcher Warbling Vireo

BW Teal Wilson's Snipe W Scrub-Jay

Cinnamon Teal Laughing Gull Com Raven

N Shoveler Cal Gull Purple Martin

N Pintail YF Gull Tree Swallow

GW Teal Western Gull VG Swallow

Redhead Caspian Tern RW Swallow

RN Duck Royal Tern Bank Swallow

Ruddy Duck Elegant Tern Cliff Swallow

Osprey Forster's Tern Barn Swallow

N Harrier Rock Dove Verdin

SS Hawk Band-t Pigeon Cactus Wren

Cooper's Hawk WW Dove House Wren

ZT Hawk Mourning Dove Marsh Wren

BG Gnatcatcher Varied Bunting

Cal Gnatcatcher Painted Bunting

N Mockingbird RWBB

Gray Thrasher YHBB

Eur Starling Brewer's BB

Am Pipit BH Cowbird

Phainopepla Orchard Oriole

Tennessee Warbler Hooded Oriole

OC Warbler Scott's Oriole

Yellow Warbler House Finch

Audubon's Warbler Lesser Goldfinch

Myrtle Warbler House Sparrow

BT Gray Warbler

Palm Warbler

BAWhite Warbler

N Waterthrush

Mourning War

MacGillivray's War

Com Yellowthroat

Beld Yellowthroat

Hooded Warbler

Wilson's Warbler

YB Chat

Summer Tanager

Western Tanager

Spotted Towhee

GT Towhee

Cal Towhee

Chipping Sparrow

CC Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Large-billed Sav Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow

"Gambell's" WC Sp

"Oriantha" WC Sparrow

N Cardinal


BH Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

Indigo Bunting

A fine resource for status and distribution of birds in Baja is Birds of the Baja California Peninsula: Status, distribution, and taxonomy edited by R.A. Erickson and S.N.G. Howell and published by the A.B.A. in its Monographs in Field Ornithology series.

Reptiles and Amphibians

a bunch of squashed toads on the roads at Miraflores and Caduano were likely Couch's Spadefoots. We heard treefrogs at several locations, that must have been Pacific Treefrogs as these are the only species in the Cape. Spiny-tailed Iguanas were at San Antonio and near Sierra de la Sierra. The juvs are a spectacular emerald and black, and look like some exotic escapee. We had Zebra-tailed Lizards at several sandy open areas. Note that these look somewhat different from those in s. CA and s. AZ. The lizard highlight for me was the spectacular San Lucan Rock Lizards at San Bartolo. On the duller side, but also an endemic, was a Baja California Spiny Lizard at San Bartolo. Black-tailed Brush Lizards (many lacking black tails) were at Miraflores and Estero San Jose. We had a Side-blotched Lizard or two. All the stripy whiptails in the Cape District are Orange-throated Whiptails. We had these at a number of locations. On my last trip, I mistakenly ID'd some whiptails as Baja California Whiptails. This was based on the back striping pattern. Apparently, where conspecific, OT Whips have fewer stripes than BC Whips. However, in the Cape District, OT Whips can have backs patterned like BC Whips. Gimme empids, please. We also had a few fine Western Whiptails at Miraflores. Finally, we had a glorious Red Diamondback Rattlesnake on the road to San Antonio de la Sierra.

The best resource for Herps in Baja is Amphibians and Reptiles of Baja California by R.H. McPeak, published by Sea Challengers in Monterey, CA.

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