Sunday, August 26, 2018

Ancient Moles and Rare Sparrows

A Foodie Trip to Mexico City with a few Sparrows Thrown In

Friday, August 10 - Sunday, August 12 - Mexico City

This was most definitely not a birding trip, just making this clear.  We went to Mexico City to eat and to celebrate my birthday.  Besides my bird list, the other passion that drives my travel (and certainly drains my bank account) is my fondness for the World's Fifty Best Restaurants.  Two of these restaurants, QUINTONIL and the legendary PUJOL are located in Mexico City and I'd made reservations at both for a blow-out foodies weekend.

Sea Urchin 'Pozole' at Quintonil
Even though I did end up getting a new bird for my Mexico list while I was in the City (Mexican Duck was split on eBird that weekend and we saw some in a city park), we spent the weekend eating, drinking, and working our way through a small sample of Mexico City's amazing museums.  The city is huge, but surprisingly navigable and generally feels safe and friendly.  The food of course was simply out of this world.

Corn (with a sauce made from Ants) and a 1,000-day-old Mole
at Pujol

Monday, August 13

With a free morning but needing to be in Guatemala City in the afternoon, I'd reached out to local birders to see if I could squeeze in a few Mexican birds before I had to leave.  Rafa Calderon, a local biologist and passionate birder had taken up the challenge so at 5:30am I left the very fancy Four Seasons Hotel (dressed a little scruffier than the doormen would have liked) and headed off for a precious few hours with the birds of the Mexico City area.

After an hour or so driving to get out of the City, we climbed up into the surrounding volcanic highlands and found our way to our first birding spot.  Park Las Maravillas was a picnic area, a bunch of tussock grass and some trail-heads that led up into some mixed Pine-Oak forest on the volcanoes above the city.  When we arrived it was also dark, cloudy and damp but, negotiating our way in through the gate, we pulled over near the tussock grass and waited for it to get light enough to bird.

Striped Sparrow
Our target here was a rare and restricted range bird that I had long wanted to see, the SIERRA MADRE SPARROW.  The sparrow lives in the tussock grass, a habitat all too easily converted to agriculture, and sings from the top of the grass stalks but is shy and drops down quickly upon approach.  As it got lighter we got out of the van and started our search, avoiding the tussocks in part because it's a fragile habitat and in part because of the high density of rattlesnakes (!).  STRIPED SPARROWS (a lifer) and Canyon Towhees were abundant and obvious around the picnic area but we had to walk a little way before we heard our target and searched the exposed grass tops for a while before seeing a bird that looked like a small reddish Song Sparrow but with a very distinctive song.  Success!  We ended up getting some good view although they always managed to drop down before I got close enough for a photo.  Still, the memory of the bird and the place is solidly imprinted on my mind ... sparrow, volcanoes, drifting clouds, giant sprawl of Mexico City laid out below us ... it was memorable.

With the two life sparrows in the bag we headed off up the trail, soon adding a third lifer when we bumped into some STRICKLAND'S WOODPECKERS (a bird I used to have on my list before the Strickland's/Arizona Woodpecker split some years back).  The rest of the birds on the trail had a very Western US kind of feel, many would be familiar to US birders from Arizona - Western Bluebird, Olive Warbler, Steller's Jay, Mexican Chickadee, Yellow-eyed Junco, etc.  but there were also some great Mexican specialties like Long-tailed Wood-Partridge and Red Warbler.  All-in-all a very pleasant way to spend the morning.

Strickland's Woodpecker
With a few hours left before I had to head to the airport, a quick scan of my bird-needs-list revealed only one realistic life bird possibility, the BLACK-BACKED ORIOLE.  My guides didn't think that would be a hard bird to see but it ended up leading us on a merry chase before we finally got one several hours later.  First we stopped at the very birdy Bosque del Tlalpan, a large urban park with decent forest patches,  before finally tracking down our target at the very well laid out Jardín Botánico.

Mexico City does seem to have some great places to bird, especially some decent little urban migrant traps, and also a growing birding community.  In the end we had 64 species and I had 4 lifers.  Not a bad outcome for a spare morning in a large urban area.  Will definitely come back for the food, but there are also a few more birds that I'd love to chase next time I'm here.  Mexico is also just a wonderful place to visit and full of the warmest, most genuine people you'll meet anywhere.  The US Media loves to give a very one-sided picture of Mexico, don't believe the hype, go see it for yourself.

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