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Birding | Go Winter Birding in Western Mexico



winter birding in western mexico

In this article, Stuart shares with us the thrill of winter birding in Western Mexico.


Go Winter Birding in Western Mexico

By Stuart Wasserman

The wake-up call was set for 5 a.m. Breakfast would be at 5:45, followed by a pre-dawn ride up the forested jungle hillside toward Durango to the Palmita Bird Reserve. There I'd see the cherished charla pinta, tufted jay and other birds during a birding expedition that began in Mazatlan, Mexico, with Solipaso, an American-owned Mexico-based birding company that is family run.

It was a group of six of us — five other bird enthusiasts mostly from the Western U.S. and Bubba, a college professor from Tennessee who loaned me a pair of powerful binoculars. I was a beginner and had joined mostly for the walks in nature. While others scanned the trees for birds I stood on one leg and practiced yoga.

But that changed on the third day during a morning walk on a level hillside road shrouded in dissipating fog. That morning a flock of multicolored military macaws flew directly overhead and then circled around again, swooping above and around us several times.

The day before we had pursued the prized tufted jay, which is endemic to this region of Mexico. These sizable birds have a white throat and black body with black crowns and a spotting of white around the yellow eyes. They have white underwings and a white tail.

Our guide, David MacKay, let out a sigh of relief after the third time we saw a flock of them move from one tall tree to another.

“Usually I'm sweating it, not sure we will actually see them,” MacKay said. “Today we saw them and a colorful Quetzal to boot.”

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MacKay was a manager at a San Francisco Bay Area-based adventure bicycling company before he and his wife, Jennifer, opened Solipaso in Alamos, Mexico, which is a day's drive from Mazatlan. He meets his clients at Mazatlan's airport and takes them to dinner at Angelina's in the Olas Altas neighborhood near downtown and puts them up in the Freeman Hotel, which faces the beach in Olas Altas.

The next morning he sets up his scope, hoping to see some birds such as the blue-footed booby on a big rock offshore. When I was there fog had set in and there was nothing to be seen, but once we left Mazatlan for the hillside journeys we never saw fog again. We ventured onto lonely mountain roads in a comfortable van, switching seats every day so everyone got a seat in the front.

During the trip Bubba and another participant, Gerry, a retired national park worker from New Mexico, both saw lifer birds — birds they have never seen before in person. I was happy to see the yellow grosbeak, a pretty bird with a big beak and black and white spots on its wings. It was in a tree munching on flowers when Gerry and his wife, Vickie, a retired national park naturalist, pointed it out to me.

The potential danger in Mexico scares some U.S. birders away, but not these adventuresome souls.

“David told us what to expect,” Lana said. “He has lived in Mexico for more than 20 years. He knows the area, the roads and the safe places. And I will not live in fear.”

Another thrill came the final evening. We were coming down a cobblestone road after a couple of hours of walking in lush mountainsides when we saw a table set up in the forest. Big trees shaded our position. A few steps away we had an exquisite view of the Bay of Matanchen and San Blas, a small town on the Pacific side of Mexico, about three and a half hours south of Mazatlan.

MacKay, who speaks Spanish fluently, had hired a local woman from the hillside community to provide a typical Mexican lunch.

“Scrumptious,” more than one of us said — as many tamales as we wanted and sweet Jamaica juice.

Some people find birding to be boring, but I disagree. Not when you see your first vermillion flycatcher as its red breast catches the morning sunlight. The flycatcher has what looks like a Zorro mask across its eyes.

Vickie was the one who told me of the bird's behavior as it bounds from a perch, pumping out its breast to attract the female of the species. In the bird world the males are the most colorful of the species.

Food all along the way was good. It was simple but tasty in Copala, a small tourist town in the foothills east of Mazatlan. We stayed at a hotel called Daniel's that was once flourishing but now seems to be kept alive by birders. At the comfortable Hotel Garza in San Blas, the fresh seafood and other gourmet dishes were prepared by a Cordon Bleu-trained chef.

I was lucky to be in the company of these fellow birders. I was a newbie, but I felt welcomed by these energetic people who love the outdoors.

Lana said her friends joke that she is not on vacation when she goes on a birding trip.

“Who gets up at 4:30 a.m. on vacation?” they ask.

“We do,” Lana said with a smile.

And I did.

Visit or call 888-383-0062 for upcoming trips throughout Mexico from Mazatlan to the Yucatan.


Stuart Wasserman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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