A word on birding you say?
Very well, but just let me tie up the fire situation with good news, because the night of May26 we received the first rain of the season here in Cd. Guzmán and adjacent areas – the volcanoes. The fire season is hereby over, and nature can now relax and recuperate (let’s just for a minute not dwell on the possible devastating effects of the running water over these newly exposed soils).
It has rained now the last three afternoons, and some nights, why we might even start to expect a good season with a healthy amount of rain to fill up the water depots throughout. But not more than that of course. The delicate balance...
Yesterday I decided to do a morning trip up to the forest above Cd. Guzmán. Despite of the avocado farms notoriously expanding around the city, and also up there, there is still some nice forest to be enjoyed. Pine-oak. It’s within walking distance from the town center, actually, even though you would probably prefer to drive, to avoid the steep ascend, a few hundred meters within a kilometer or so.
Once you get up on the plateau there are different roads you can choose from, and finding the right ones, you can connect with the larger area of La Sierra del Tigre, which stretches all the way to lake Chapala and the charming mountain village of Mazamitla. A large and magnificent mountain area, still to be explored thoroughly by me and most other bird lovers.
I normally just enjoy the first 4-5 kilometers along a very nice and mostly level road, that winds around the near slopes overlooking the town below. It’s a breathtaking view, also with the volcanic massif in the background, and toward the northwest the attractive lake Zapotlán. When you continue along this road, you end up on the backside of the first hills, and the city noise quiets down, and with only light traffic, a farmer now or then, or, especially on weekends, a few people on mountain bikes, the birding conditions are ideal.
I decided to walk up there this time because it is a fact that the very large amount of free flying dust, the consequence of the many avocado fields, is accumulating along the road, and my non 4-wheel drive has a difficult time dealing with these conditions when we reach the end of the dry season. The same conditions can be found on the volcanoes now. I went up there the other day with clients, but we had to return before we reached the good mature forest because the road was too bad in a steep curve.
But walking is good, and even better for the ones who want to find as many birds as possible. I almost always do. And this day especially. Because, to spice up the motivation I had decided, that I wanted to beat the recent list I had seen on ebird made by SHE-WHO-STILL-LIVES-IN-MY-HEART. She and some others had seen 39 species on La Provincia road south of Puerto Vallarta in 5 hours, and the habitat being more or less the same, it would be interesting to see if I could surpass that number. For that to happen walking as much as possible was essential.
39 species doesn’t sound of much, but you have to understand that all the migrants are gone now, and many of the local birds are breeding, thus silent, why it might not be an easy task to get so many. I was motivated in an honest way then, not sure whether I would be able to achieve my goal or not.
But I also wanted to try to re-find the Slaty Vireos that I had found up there last year. This area is at the limit of its known range, and it would be interesting to be able to confirm its continued presence in the breeding season. Because I had not been able to find them outside the breeding season, speculating if they act as migrants in the area, or just become very anonymous and silent when not breeding. I know the latter doesn't sound very likely taking the general nature of vireos into consideration: If not aggressive, they always seem to be active and attending when something is going on.
So off I went. But it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision, why I was not up there before almost 10 am. Not the best start for a high-count attempt, but I was good with this, because it was a very pleasant morning after rain yesterday afternoon and evening. The air was clean and the temperature comfortable, and even better: The dust had settled. Glued to the ground by the exact amount of water needed for it to stay there. A real delight. However! After only two rain sessions the road, in a few places, had already filled with large and deep puddles making it difficult to advance on foot without rubber boots. In a week or two, I’m sure it will be more than difficult to walk around up there: The soil turns to treacherously slippery mud making it difficult to walk even when the surface is level. I remember that from last year...
I started my counting for the list when walking past the last houses high on the slope, and by doing so I could add a Rock Pigeon as one of the first species, plus House Sparrow.
Doesn’t count, I hear you say. But does so, say I! The dirt road starts down there, and even if not, if you stood on the top, on the forested slope, these two species would still be detectable either by flying sight or sound. It’s amazing how far sound carries up along a hill side! Global Gaaaaas!!! You can’t avoid it.
Next, both Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush and Rusty Sparrow took over, mostly by singing from within the shrub. Also the Greenish Elaenia was very active this day, calling its two-note call, that seems to be the most common one in this part of Mexico. It reminds me of something between Cordilleran Flycatcher and Rose-throated Becard. Both of which were also present this day.
A fairly good start within the first 15 minutes, but as I from there continued to advance along the road, I had to accept that my species number only grew slowly, and after an hour and a half I was still around the mid 20’ies. And this was after having passed the point where I had seen the Slaty Vireo last year. It had probably only been a lucky strike, after all.
I started to get the feeling that 39 was a very ambitious goal, and I sent a thought of recognition across the Western Sierra Madres knowing it would never be received, but I guess the good intention is always worth something.
And perhaps it really did help, because as I walked on without much hope, suddenly a Lesser Roadrunner started to call from the dense vegetation up the slope. It was too far away to get a good recording, so I decided to provoke it a little, to see if it would come down closer. But by that the calling stopped, and nothing happened for a good time. I was looking intensely for any movement in the vegetation in direction of where the sound had come from, being absolutely sure that this would be the way the bird would show up, if any. You can therefore understand my surprise, when it suddenly came flying out of the shrub and gracelessly soared down past me with the legs dangling and the tail strutting in all directions!
I had the camera in my hands, and had I just been prepared for this scenario I might have been able to react faster and catch the bird overhead against the blue sky. But I wasn’t, why I only managed to fire at the bird when it was almost out of sight again. Never saw a Flying Roadrunner, and will not bet on, when it will happen again!
Animated by this amazing experience, I then got the smart idea to try to provoke some more birds out of the late morning silence.
Birding the Neo-tropics and being a bird guide in Mexico, I often get the question if I know the Pygmy-Owl… meaning if I know to use it to attract other birds. And yes, I do know it. And I do use it occasionally, but to be honest, I’ve never really found it too convincing. It works now and then, but often not much happens, and you get a feeling that it is easy to overdo it. The same with pishing. With some species it works very well, but with many not so much.
But a few weeks ago I learned of another way to provoke the small feather balls, and this came to my attention when SHE-YOU-KNOW-WHO and her friend Bill and I went on a trip to The Tufted Jay reserve to look for ...Tufted Jays.
Not that it is really surprising when you think about it, but I just never thought about it as being more effective than the other methods, but when Bill suggested that we should play the scolding alarm call of a Yellow-throated Vireo he had in some application, I got convinced that it certainly was! The birds came in instantly and in surprisingly large numbers and different species. We tried it several times in different places to have the effect confirmed. And it worked every time.
I had not been able to find a similar powerful recording, but on xeno-canto I found a scolding call from a Plumbeous Vireo that I hoped would work. And after having left the roadrunner in peace I found a good spot and turned up the loudspeaker. And what do you know: Soon after a Plumbeous Vireo came out of nowhere, as well as two hummers that I think were Broad-billed. That the vireo showed up, you might say, was expected, but when a Rusty Sparrow also had to find out what was going on, I declared it a success, and eager to try in a new spot. And this was even better: Black-headed Siskin, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Pygmy Nuthatch, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-capped Warbler, Greenish Elaenia and probably more I can’t remember. It really worked.
A problem morally? I don’t think so. If you do it continuously in the same spot, day after day, then yes. But to stir up the action on a time-limited occasion, I can’t see why it should have a lasting negative effect on the birds. It might even minimize the time you spend in each area because you get to see the present species in a much more compressed time frame. And when you have registered the species, you move on. Opposite to normal when you walk slowly through the area to not create disturbance. Thinking that you are not disturbing the birds just because you move slowly, and wear proper outdoor clothes to not provoke the birds, is naive if you ask me. Even more so if you are a group. The birds and all other animals have you spotted long before you ever get a chance to know of their existence, and they react, where no reaction would be needed if you were not there.
Scruples behind, I was very content with my achievement. And when I did it for the third time in a new place, I could have walked on water, because suddenly two beautiful Slaty Vireos popped out of the vegetation in front of me! Loved it for the sheer success of the scolding technique, but also because it is simply one of the smartest looking birds to be found in Mexico. Yes, Orange-breasted Bunting and Red Warbler are pretty birds, but this one is so cool! A favorite. Slaty Vireos [photos 3044 and 3045].
I did it one more time, in a new place, before it was time to return. And when another Slaty Vireo responded and came out, clearly a new bird, I knew that this was an important observation. It positively meant that the species had to be common in at least the summer months up in these hills, making me wonder what else one might find if one starts to look for it. Intriguing...
The success with the sound had obviously affected the number of species , and when I after two and a half hours started to walk back the same way, ca. 4 kilometers, I had reached species number 50. The Bushtit got the honor.
It was now past midday and watching the sky it was clear that clouds were slowly building up. It was going to rain later, and I therefore made it a brisk walk back, but still paying attention to sounds and movements, and also did an extra scolding effort or two to boost the list. And with some success, because 7 more species added to the total. Yellow-green Vireo, another favorite and summer visitor, was purely spontaneous, but the best and most unexpected, a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers, did come in to check what the scolding was about. Never saw it up here before.
SHE is not in favor of playback provocations of birds, why it is likely that she and her group did not use it, why it is also not fair to compare the two efforts, why I’ll just conclude that I had a very nice day with some very interesting observations made and lessons learned.
That the scolding alarm call seems to be so much more effective to receive a response from the birds, is probably because it is a direct warning signal. A hooting pygmy-owl is that, and nothing else. If you’re not in the mood to feel threatened by the presence of a such, you don’t react. But when someone is calling Alarm you don’t know what it is about, a human, an animal, a raptor, a … You better check it out to make sure you are not in danger. That’s how I think it works. And it does. Can’t wait to try it again!