Durango Highway San Blas Trip Report

January 17-26, 2014

If I could only lead trips to one place in Mexico every year, it would be this one!  Nowhere in Mexico can you drive so little and see so many different birds so easily.  From the 7000 foot elevations of the Sierra Madre Occidental along the Durango Highway where Red Warblers and Green-striped Brushfinches reach their northern limits, it is only a beautiful three hour drive to the estuaries and tropical forests of legendary San Blas, Nayarit.  It is not uncommon to see over 300 species of birds on this tour and the pace and accommodations are particularly easy on the birders. This year’s trip once again proved to be a great one with lots of spectacular bird moments and good times!

I really like starting the trip in the old town section of Mazatlan, even if it is a little loud there is a lot going on. But, I like setting up breakfast the first morning out on the malecon, where we can scope the rocks while we chow down our granola and drink coffee! Indeed, it was the only looks that we got at Blue-footed and Brown Boobies on the tour and there is something about a morning sea breeze that really starts a trip out right!

We made the most of really one good stop in the tropical deciduous forest just on the north side of Mazatlan. I doubt we walked more 80 yards in any direction and picked up 30 plus species. With much work,  we had crippling views of Purplish-backed Jays, Yellow-winged Caciques, Orange-fronted Parakeets, Happy Wrens, Crane Hawk, Black-throated Magpie Jays and Rufous-bellied Chachalacas, to name a few.

We ate lunch at the wonderful little roadside restaurant at the arch as you enter La Noria, where we had ‘belly button soup’ with copious amounts of sweet and salty lemonade, before heading on to Copala and the Durango Highway.

Due to my long time ‘ace-in-the-hole’ restaurant closing in Copala, it left me almost zero choices for food for the group.  So, I brought along a big lasagna that I had made, a big salad from my garden, homemade bread and a few bottles of wine for the first night.  Actually, I like doing that so much that I may do that for all the nights on my trip. The new restaurant in town is okay but I think dinner at my place was better!

On the Durango Highway, we were treated to probably my best looks ever at Tufted Jays. This highly restricted range species often times offers little more than a fleeting glance as they float effortlessly through the forest. This time, however, we got the REAL looks!  At least 45 minutes of quality time with a family of at least 14 of these incredibly beautiful birds that really could have cared less about us.  In fact, it is hard for me to write that we actually walked away from these birds after having our fill!

Later we would arrive at the Tufted Jay preserve (where we saw no Jays on two occasions, by the way), we were nearly overwhelmed by an enormous flock of Red-headed Tanagers, a bird that can be easily missed in the highlands. Unfortunately for them, we were pulled away from them by the shocking and lonesome call of an Eared Quetzal coming from the clearing next to the cabins! Indeed, with just a bit of encouragement and a bit of bush whacking, we found a male and female bird.  The Quetzal holds a bit of mythical power in the birding world…many people travel for years in Mexico hoping to see one and are often left high and dry.  We actually had drop dead looks at Quetzals on two different occasions on this tour, and that never happens!

We also spent some karma payback time trying to coax out a Green-striped Brush-finch from a seep area near the Barranca del Liebre. I guess you could say that some members of our group did eventually feel the bird’s presence, if not getting a great look. The good news was that while we waited and got frustrated, we were treated to fantastic looks at a family of Golden-browed Warblers, Slate-throated Redstarts and a cooperative Russet-nightingale Thrush.  On the drive back down to Copala in the afternoon, we decided to take the new highway. As we zoomed along at what could only have been imagined speeds for the Sierra even a year ago, I noticed a small falcon perched on a roadside telephone pole.  As I suspected, it turned out to be a nice little Bat Falcon that gave us a fine show and long protracted looks!

Although we only heard the Mottled Owl out our windows each night in Copala, we knew for sure that he was there!  We did, however, get better looks at Military Macaws and a lot more with our one outing to the Panuco Road where we also got our only looks at Golden-crowned Emerald, Blue Bunting and Red-breasted Chat!

Then, it was off to San Blas, where we were treated to the hospitality of the Vazquez family and the Hotel Garza Canela…as always, a great place to return to after a long day of birding in the hot sun. We saw a lot of great birds in the greater San Blas area over the course of four days. The crazy Snow Goose at the junction pond, lots of potoos on the evening boat trip, 16 species of hummingbirds, lots of water birds and of course ate some delicious food and saw some great country.

In the end, we tallied 285 species of birds (Snail Kite was left off the list)…a great number, to be sure.  Thank you all for a great trip and lots of laughs!