Jude Lamare and Jim Pachl, Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk
Sinaloa/Nayarit, March 3-13
This was our first report-back on our trip to the Pacific Coast area of Mexico between Mazatlan and San Blas. Our mission was to see the just-discovered wintering territory of Swainson’s Hawks that nest in the Sacramento area. We were pleased to see Swainson’s Hawks both on the way to Santiago Ixcuitla, in both the states of Sinaloa and Nayarit, and west of Santiago Ixcuitla in Nayarit on agricultural lands, on March 4, 5 and March 10.
In the fall of 1997, scientists on the Swainson’s Hawk Technical Advisory Committee tracked Swainson’s Hawks from the Sacramento area to the Pacific Coast of Mexico with satellite transmitters. The tracking resulted in new information about the wintering grounds for this population of hawks. Previously it had been assumed that the Sacramento area population of SWH wintered with the Great Basin population in Argentina. Jim Estep and Mike Bradbury flew to Tepic in January, 1998 to do field work to follow-up on the satellite transmitted information. Their report shaped our travel plan in March.
We flew into Mazatlan and stopped to see if we could make contacts at the University of Sinaloa. We were delighted to meet Pablo Pina Valdez and Benito Mejia Sarmiento at the University of Sinaloa (UAS) School of Marine Sciences on March 4. They have been focusing on aquatic birds, and have been doing an Audubon count each December in both the city of Mazatlan and an estuary north of the city. They expressed interest in learning more about Swainson’s Hawk, and staying in contact with us and other US groups interested in birds in this area of Mexico. I believe that these are the UAS scientists that Partners in Flight has been working with in Mazatlan.
From Mazatlan it took us 5-1/2 hours to get to Santiago Ixcuitla, our primary point of interest. Santiago Ixcuitla was identified by Estep and Bradbury as the primary foraging area for wintering SWH. We stopped for lunch and for observation a couple of times.
Sinaloa is quite a bit dryer and appears less agricultural than Nayarit. This is the dry season (summer is hot and rainy; winter is mild and dry). By moving between this area and the Sacramento area, SWH are able to avoid rainy weather almost entirely, since Sacramento is generally dry between May and October.
Pina suggested that we go out the road to Sestipac, west of Santiago Ixcuitla, and we had very good success there, on the way to Mexcaltitan. Ten plus SWH were circling high above plowing and discing workers (both tractor and horse drawn). One was sitting in a nearby tree, and buzzed us as it took off. It appeared to us that most of the birds were of the very white/black markings type (light morph with high contrast). Most Sacramento birds tend to be darker, so it appears the wintering area is shared with other populations of SWH.
The trip to Mexcaltitan is itself very interesting. It is believed to be the origin of the Aztec culture that moved to Mexico City (Tenochtitlan) and built a city on top of a swamp. The image of the eagle with the snake originated here, although the image found here here looks more like a heron eating duck! It is an island within a wetland of lagoons and mangrove swamp. Since this is the dry season, wetlands are less extensive now.
The city of Santiago Ixcuitla itself is very clean and businesslike, includes 19,000 inhabitants, and is situated along a beautiful tree-lined river. We stayed at the clean and comfortable Hotel Casino (for about $17 per night double, and meals at about $3-4.) The name of the city means Santiago City of Dogs; the hairless Escuintle dog originated here and has a history as a sacred dog for the Aztecs.
We saw the following crops in the area: tobacco, mango orchards, citrus, tomatoes, cacao, bananas, corn (alone and mixed with other crops), pasture with Brahmin and Cebu cattle, safflower. Mike Bradbury said they are growing a lot of beans. We also saw fallow lands. We saw tobacco at various stages, with hand harvesting and field drying. We observed hand spraying, empty pest control chemical containers, and twice saw crop dusters, and a few advertisements for pest control chemicals.
We visited the Huichol Center, and Mariano Valadez was not aware of anyone locally who is observing or interested in birds. But he promised to post information if we would send it to him (photo, history etc. on SWH, and contact information about how to participate in observation). We also learned that the mayor is Professor Casimiro Delgado, and he has one more year on his term.
Here is our bird list from this area:
turkey vulture very prevalent; also black vulture
kestrels doing very well
grey hawk numerous and a few red tails
black hawk, lesser and large
kingbirds --western, tropical, thickbilled (we wondered whether our kingbirds also come here in the winter))
purple-backed jays (we never saw the San Blas jay!)
black shouldered kite
gulls, and more.
We didn’t pay much attention to small wading birds or sparrows.
We wandered the backroads to the coast at San Blas, known as great birding territory, and a very buggy place. This is a seedy seaside resort, and there is a beautiful river estuary. It is 2-1/2 hours from Puerto Vallarta and about 40 miles from Tepic. Shrimp farms are a prominent industry here, and tourism. We met two guides and acquired birding information from a local guidebook (Guidebook is available at the hotel Garza Canela). We especially enjoyed the guide Armando Santiago. He gave us an excellent tour of the La Bajada area and is also available for pelagic. The La Tovara trip was perfect; we went first thing in the morning and avoided the crowds. The birding was excellent. It is best in December and January; hummingbird species are more prominent in October and November.
Here is our birdlist:
lilac crowned parrot
Mexican (blue-rumped) parrotlets
elegant trogon (also the citroline is here)
russet crowned mot mot
cormorants and anhingas
red billed pigeon
broad billed, ber ylline, cinnamon and common wood nymph hummingbirds
warblers: black and white, black throated gray, wilson’s, nashville, common yellow throat, American redstart,
woodpeckers: lineated, pale-billed, golden cheeked
We did not pay much attention to sparrows either. The birding was very enjoyable. We also saw river otters, crocodile, coatimundi, iguana, butterflies, etc. The very beautiful Garza Canela Hotel in San Blas (at $58 per night) is the center for birdwatching trade, and the manager speaks English and is very knowledgeable about birding places and guides.
We also visited the Teacapan area on the way back to Mazatlan. It is a wetland area on the coast about an hour south of Mazatlan and 22 miles off the main highway. The birding was disappointing, but we did see Gila woodpeckers, hooded orioles, white colored seedeaters, as well as wading birds. This area has a business relationship with San Blas based on shrimp farming.
Costs were low. Airfare $315 per person, lodging ranged from $15 to $58, meals from $3 to $8. Car cost about $400 for 9 days.
Anyone interested in the California population of Swainson’s Hawk is invited to correspond with Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through the web site at www.swainsonshawk.org.