Pacific Ocean from La BufadoraBaja Birds and Wine Trip Report

October 17-24, 2013

The original idea was hatched over a couple bottles of wine with some friends that had traveled a lot in Northern Baja.  I, personally, had not spent any time there since the early 90s.  The idea was to do a birding trip to the Valle de Guadalupe, only an hour south of the US border…a trip that would combine the fun of fall migration birding with the growing wine culture and amazing restaurants in northern Baja.  Jennifer did the preliminary research last February in the midst of an extreme cold snap that certainly affected the number of birds and made it difficult to really check out some of the areas.  The two of us went back again in September to tie up some loose ends, and the thus the first Solipaso Birds and Wine tour was born!

One of the joys of this trip is being able to go to a foreign country by flying inexpensively and conveniently into a US city!  San Diego is only a 2 hour drive from the Valle de Guadalupe, making for an easy day of travel right into the heart of the wine country!  Fortunately, it is not necessary to spend hours in line waiting to cross the border as we utilize the Tecate crossing instead of the Tijuana crossing to avoid the often hours long waits. Tecate is easy, the drive is scenic and it puts us right in the heart of the wine country in less than an hour and a half!

Barrels at LA CettoOur first stop after gliding through the border was LA Cetto, not only the largest winery in the valley, but the largest in all of Mexico.  Although, I have never been enamored with L.A. Cetto wines, I thought it would be a good balance to taste wines from various types of production, from big mega wineries like LA Cetto to the little boutique wineries that are popping up like mushrooms throughout the valley.  LA Cetto does make some good, if not great, wine, plus they offer up a nice tour of the facilities and a generous tasting of their wines which was a great way to kick things off.  We had a funny and interesting tour guide that took us around before taking us into the private tasting room! We scooted out of LA Cetto and headed to Ensenada for lunch at what has become maybe my favorite restaurant in Ensenada, Muelle 3!  The place is very unassuming but situated on a fine piece of real estate right on the water on the north end of the harbor.  In fact, the smaller fishing pangas pull in right next to the place to unload their catch, giving the restaurant first pick of the best stuff!  Being the first meal of the tour I put on the dog and ordered several items for the table and we just shared several amazing seafood dishes!

After lunch, we continued south towards a small remnant lagoon called La Lagunita near the south side of Ensenada.  Sadly, it is quite possibly the last remaining wetland between San Diego and Ensenada due to the rampant beach development!  Thankfully, there is a strong local environmental movement to protect it. Although it is quite small, it has concentrating characteristics due to its novelty and the number of birds was quite impressive.  We found 9 species of ducks, including a big numbers of Ring-necked Ducks and were treated to a falcon show by a  Merlin and a Peregrine.

We spent the night at the lovely and quiet Estero Beach Hotel that was relaxing and the bay side view was beautiful…the birding was pretty good too!Moonrise over San Quintin

Day 2 – Ensenada to San Quintin is kind of a long drive, but we managed to break it up nicely with major stops at the La Bufadora, Santo Tomas Winery and then at one of the small side bays of the huge San Quintin bay.  La Bufadora is a good place to scan for Black Oystercatchers, which we eventually did find, but not as easily as the last time I was there. We also saw both Turnstones and Surfbirds!  We got to Santo Tomas, which is the oldest winery in Baja (for that matter, in North America) just in time for lunch and I did manage to keep a secret this time.  Jen had arranged for a fancy catered lunch from a great local chef from the little village close to the winery who did an amazing job with the food, and made it complete with wine pairings for each course!  We pulled away from Santo Tomas reluctantly but with several bottles of good wine for backup as we headed south to San Quintin and away from the wine country for the next couple of nights.  Before dinner, we did a nice sunset / full moonrise bird outing to a small bay on the north end of the big San Quintin bay.  It was full of birds including Red Knots and dozens of Long-billed Curlews. It was a beautiful evening looking out of the beach grass as the full moon came up in the peach colored sky.  We spent the night at the Hotel Jardines de Baja, which is simple and clean and the restaurant was excellent!  Fantastic food and a really nice list of Baja wines to go with the food!  Judy and I had the pasta with shrimp which was very good.

The Hursh boys at Sa QuintinDay 3 – We had a quick breakfast in my room before making a short drive to the ‘Old English Cemetery’ right on San Quintin bay and only a few minutes south of the hotel.  Highlights included a huge flock of migrating Savannah Sparrows communing with about as many Common Yellowthroats!  In the bay itself, there were big numbers of Brants, Western Grebes and various ducks.  Later we found several more Clapper Rails to add to the several that we had seen the day before at Estero Beach, and much to my surprise two American Bitterns lurking in the tall sea grass!

We ended up having a picnic lunch on the edge of the bay with a big group of peeps that included Least, Western and Dunlin, there were also a few dowitchers there.  It was quite decadent having a nice bottle of wine in the sun with a light breeze blowing and some good food!

This afternoon we had a bit of drive back north towards San Pedro Martir National Park.  Along the way, we stopped a number of times looking for the one endemic bird Clarks Nutcrackerof the Baja, the beautiful and under named Gray Thrasher.  It was not too difficult to find!  At the very first stop we had three or four of them and then a couple more at subsequent locations.  We also had California Thrashers, California Gnatcatchers and our only Black-chinned Hummingbird of the trip.

Although the hey-days of Rancho Meling may be behind it, it is still a really neat place to spend a couple of nights.  It also happens to be the only place to stay within reasonable striking distance of the national park and has a lot of good birding habitat within walking distance of the lodge.  We arrived just as the sunset and had a nice dinner with a couple of bottles of wine before calling it a day.

Day 4 – This morning we headed up the mountain towards the summit and the national park.  Our first stops were in dense chaparral, where found Lawrance’s Goldfinch, Bewick’s Wren, Spotted Towhee and Fox Sparrow!  Eventually we got into the oaks with some small riparian areas where we found Clark’s Nutcracker, Scott’s Oriole and Pacific-slope Flycatcher.  We ended up having an impromptu tour of the observatory which was really cool and completely unexpected.  After birding our way back down the hill a bit we stopped for a picnic lunch and a visit by an enormous flock of Pinyon Jays, maybe 200 or more! We spent another peaceful night at Rancho Meling after a big day in a beautiful and seldom visited part of Baja.

Day 5 – We spent the morning walking the river right at Rancho Meling and the place was crawling with California Quail, hundreds of them, along with many other birds.  As the birding slowed down, we said goodbye to Rancho Meling about and started the drive back north.  No one seemed to mind when I had the bright idea to stop for “lunch” at Santo Tomas and to just get some cheese and bread with a bottle of wine, rather than stop for some big lunch in Ensenada.  We all wanted to save some room for the 7 course dinner we were anticipating in a few hours!  Lunch was great, a couple of big cheese platters with bread and two nice bottles of a light Columbard.

We may have spent a bit too much time enjoying the gardens at the winery which made for a rather rushed check-in at our great hotel in the Valle de Guadalupe, but we made it managed to get checked into the hotel quickly and were still basically on time to for our private catered dinner at Malva

Dave with CalmariI admit that I make it a bit of a priority to eat good food whenever possible and I love those memorable meals when they happen.  I think that, without a doubt, I can say that the meal we had at Malva ranks up there with the very best in my life.  The food alone was outstanding, but add to that the fantastic view and location with the roaring fire and the fantastic service it makes for one of those nights that I will not soon forget.  In all 7 courses came out that night and at least as many wines, and even a couple of local micro brews that were excellent. The menu was:

Sope de pulpo (Grilled Octopus on a thick corn tortilla)

Cabicucho con compota de tomate cherry, romero y pure de limon

Ensalada del huerto

Sopa de tomate ahumado

Borrego del rancho en su jugo

Helado de palomitas

What a great night!

Day 6 – Today was our full day in the valley looking for birds and tasting wine.  The birding in the Valle de Guadalupe is not necessarily great, but there are a few interesting spots and we did go out in the morning for a quick run to the oak forest on the north side of the valley.  We managed to find a Bewick’s Wren, Spotted Towhee, Anna’s Hummingbird, as well as great looks at a Red-Shouldered Hawk which was a Mexico bird for me.  After beating the bushes, we headed back to the hotel for a nice late breakfast and a break before going out for some serious wine tasting!  Our first spot was at Pijoan and a visit with the owner and wine maker, Pau.  Pau is a very funny guy from Mexico City and Spain, who is now well installed in the wine industry of Mexico.  He did a great job of showing us his wines and the process he goes through to make them.  And they are excellent!  I think we tried 6 different ones and most of us left with a couple of bottles for later.

Dinner tonight was at fairly new mid-valley location called Finca Altozano.  The alfresco restaurant is situated on a small hill in the middle of the valley with a Lunch in the Guadalupe valleycommanding view of the vineyards and the hills to the north.  The food is excellent, but unfortunately they were out of a few items and nearly the end of the season…but still very good and great wine…they let me pick directly from the cellar!

Day 7 – I pulled the plug on a second day of wine tasting in the valley all day…believe it or not, it is possible to have too much wine! Although our reasons for leaving the valley for the day were more related to birding than too much wine!  There are a couple of neat seasonal lakes southeast of the valley on the road to San Felipe that I had checked out in September and so we decided to head there for the afternoon.  After breakfast we hit the road for a two hour drive through Ensenada and out the road towards San Felipe and a little town called Reforma de la Leyes.  Here, the seasonal pond was chock full of birds!  The first big surprise was a small flock of Greater White-fronted Geese and then a bigger surprise was the small flock of Aleutian Cackling Geese!  We birded the lagoon hard for a couple hours and saw lots of waterfowl and herded 6 species of sparrows back to the van!  Unfortunately, the cheese cave was closed in Ojos Negros but we did find a couple of trip birds in the parking lot…Yellow-headed Blackbird, Black-necked Stilt and Prairie Falcon.  Tonight’s dinner was at the Corazon de Tierra, the restaurant at our hotel, which is considered one of the top ten restaurants in Latin Americ. I would say this is a much deserved reputation!  Once again we were wined and dined a 7 course affair that was excellent!

Cackling geeseDay 8 – We did a little birding in a large dry arroyo close to the hotel prior to breakfast and then packed up kind of late for a relaxed departure after breakfast for San Diego, where we arrived about 2 p.m.

It was a super trip with a lot of great laughs and super fun, if not too birding intensive.  In the end we had 163 species of birds, including some very hard birds to see in Mexico.  For me the highlights were seeing so many Gray Thrashers, getting the tour of the observatory, trying 70 plus types of Baja wines, eating amazing food, hanging out with some of my best clients and seeing 14 new birds for my Mexico list!