Home from Baja California Sur

Some of you may have noticed our journal has been a bit quiet in recent days. I want to thank David Fix who, in my absence, offered a nice change of pace with his excellent essay on “Hemispherical Birding.”

From 7-14 January Steve Mlodinow and I spent eight days enjoying the sunshine, tacos pescados, relaxing beaches, and the beautiful desert scenery of Baja California Sur (B.C.S.), Mexico. We saw a few birds too.

This view looks into the courtyard of El Delfin Blanco. The “casitas” are clean, comfortable, unheated, and reasonably priced. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF-S 18-55mm IS lens)

The lighted fountain in the plaza at San Jose del Cabo honors important contributors to the history and culture of the region. You can see their mounted busts on the far side of the fountain. Each bust has a plaque listing the accomplishments of the honoree. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF-S 18-55mm IS lens)

The focal point of the plaza at San Jose del Cabo is the Mision de San Jose del Cabo Anuiti. This lovely church is equally beautiful inside. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF-S 18-55mm IS lens)

The southern Baja peninsula is a great escape from the mid-winter frozen fog that often blankets Oregon’s southern Willamette Valley. A steady string of clear days and 80-85F temperatures was exceedingly tolerable (read: I loved it). This was my first trip south of the border and I would gleefully go again tomorrow. Steve has made 14 trips to B.C.S. in recent years, and his knowledge of the area, and of the status and distribution of the region’s birdlife is incredible. His expertise and experience saved me from the typical trials, errors, and logistical headaches that come when one explores new lands.

Prior to the trip, several family members and friends had expressed concerns for my safety in the wake of recent events along the U.S./Baja California border. While it was a bit unnerving to hear reports of kidnappings, murders, and drug wars, I expected that the southern tip of the peninsula might be a bit more tranquil than the northern end. That was undeniably the case. At no time were we faced with a situation that felt unsafe. We often parked our car along the sides of lightly traveled rural roads, in some cases with valuables in the trunk, and had no attempted break-ins. We crossed paths with dozens of local residents and found them to be cheerful, friendly, and universally welcoming any time we asked permission to wander about on private property. They seemed unthreatened by our presence, were patient with our butchered versions of Spanish, and showed genuine interest in what we were looking at and photographing.

We spent our first four (of eight) nights at El Delfin Blanco in San Jose del Cabo at the southern terminus of the peninsula. Overlooking the Sea of Cortez, the cluster of thatch-roofed “casitas” evoke an image of what accommodations must have been like before this region became a major tourist destination. A concrete wall and wrought iron fence surround the property, creating a quaint little courtyard perfect for an afternoon siesta. A fully equipped outdoor kitchen, where one can cook meals, sits in one corner of the courtyard.

After dropping our bags etc. at our casita, we loaded up on food and drink at “The Mega,” which may have been the biggest grocery store I’ve ever seen. Since tap water is not suitable for drinking, brushing ones’ teeth, or even washing hands before eating, The Mega offers row upon row of bottled beverages, most important of which is purified water. In addition to several 3.75-liter jugs of water (don’t get caught without it), we bought cold cuts, cheese, tortillas, snack bars, drinkable yogurts, and some fresh fruit that were used for breakfasts and some lunches. Evening meals were varied. Twice we enjoyed inexpensive ($5-6) visits to taquerias in The Mega shopping center and on two other nights we dined at nice restaurants along the plaza in downtown San Jose del Cabo.

On our third day, we abandoned birding about 2PM and spent most of the remaining afternoon and evening wandering about the plaza shopping for gifts, taking pictures, and just playing turista. Typical of many Mexican towns, the plaza in San Jose del Cabo is flanked on one side by a Catholic mission (church). The interior of the mission was still festooned with decorations from the holiday season, which only enhanced its overall beauty. The center of the plaza features a large fountain, which is lighted at night and cycles through a variety of spray patterns. Don’t stand downwind with your camera if it’s breezy!

Over the first day and a half we did most of our birding right in San Jose del Cabo. The Estero San Jose offers close-up views of a host of waterfowl, herons, egrets, marshbirds, and a few shorebirds. Steve and I were able to get great close-ups of several species, most notably the shorebirds (Least and Western Sandpipers, Snowy and Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings and Dunlin) that flocked along the outer beach. The region is home to three endemic species, Xantus’s Hummingbird, Gray Thrasher, and Belding’s Yellowthroat, all of which can be readily found in and around San Jose del Cabo.

This is a view of Estero San Jose looking back towards town from the open beach. At the base of the sand spit on the left side of this image is “El Presidente” resort. A trail leads from the resort upstream through the stand of palm trees near the right edge of the picture. The open water and coves along the backside of the estero offer great opportunities to see hundreds of dabbling and diving ducks as well as lots of coots, moorhens, herons and egrets. The mountains in the background are the Sierra de la Laguna, which rise to nearly 7000’ elev. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF-S 18-55mm IS lens)

This cooperative Gray Thrasher was encountered hopping about on the brick patio between the Estero San Jose and El Presidente resort on 8 January 2009. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

The marshy trail that winds along the west edge of the estero right behind El Presidente resort is particularly good for seeing Belding’s Yellowthroat, which can be tough to get a glimpse of in bigger marshy tracts. Gila Woodpeckers, Common Ground-Doves, Black Phoebes, Cactus Wrens and Hooded Orioles are nearly omnipresent along this trail. Keep an eye open for the occasional Tropical Kingbird found here. Typical western warbler species (Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s and McGillivray’s) winter here in abundance and can be found nearly any time you start “pishing” a vegetated patch. Soaring Ospreys and Turkey Vultures are almost always in view, and Peregrine Falcons make somewhat regular strafing runs through the duck flocks on the estero. Among marshbirds, the most frequently encountered species include Snowy Egret, White-faced Ibis, Common Moorhens, American Coot, and Soras (mostly heard calling). Lesser numbers of Great Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons, and Great Egrets are about. If you linger until dusk at the estero, you will likely see the hundreds of Lesser Nighthawks that come in to feed over the open water near sunset. Up to 600 nighthawks have been counted here during the winter months.

One of three local endemic species, this male Belding’s Yellowthroat was photographed along the trail behind El Presidente resort in San Jose del Cabo on 8 January 2009. Male Belding’s are readily separable from Common Yellowthroats by the extensive yellow and lack of white above the black mask. They are also a bit larger and the yellow feathering has a slight orangish cast to it. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

Further upstream along the Rio San Jose, the riparian margins are loaded with wintering flocks of the expected warblers listed above. Endemic Xantus’s Hummingbirds are common and you will likely see numerous Costa’s Hummingbirds here as well. The Xantus’s are exceptionally curious and seem to show up and perch nearby if you are pishing up a warbler flock. The first one I saw was hovering about a foot from the end of Steve’s camera lens. Close scrutiny of passerine flocks will likely yield Bell’s or Plumbeous Vireos, and perhaps one of several species of vagrant warblers one normally associates with the woodlands of the eastern U.S. During our first full day of birding we turned up single Blackpoll (exceptionally rare in B.C.S.), Tennessee, and Chestnut-sided warblers, along with multiple Black-and-Whites, the most expected “vagrant” in B.C.S. We found both Common and Belding’s Yellowthroats. With a bit of practice, these two species can be told from one another by call. The call note of Belding’s is lower-pitched and heavier than that of Common. Along with the ubiquitous Hooded Orioles, Scott’s Orioles are fairly common. The scrubby open areas that border this riparian strip are full of Verdins, Blue Grosbeaks, flocks of Lark and Clay-colored Sparrows, a few Varied and Lazuli Buntings, Pyrrhuloxias, Northern Cardinals, and the brilliantly colored local House Finches. The local male House Finches are mostly red above and below and look more like Purple Finches than more northerly House Finches. There are also a few White-colored Seedeaters about. This local population is presumed to have originated from cage bird releases, but it is apparently self-sustaining now.

In the next installment, we’ll travel inland and slightly upslope into the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna north of the San Jose del Cabo. The streamside woodlands and small agricultural lands around the pastoral communities of Miraflores and Caduano offer some of the peninsula’s best passerine birding.


Nice report Dave! Waiting for the next installment. Isn’t there an endemic owl in the area too?


There is the “Cape” Pygmy-Owl, which is currently treated as a subspecies of N. Pygmy-Owl. We did not encounter this taxon on our trip, but as I understand it, their call is noticeably different than those of N. Pygmy-Owls in the western U.S., sort of an upslurred two-note version. Many of the species and subspecies in Cape District have been geographically isolated from more northerly populations by the expansive Vizcaino Desert, which gets virtually no annual rainfall. Non-migratory arboreal birds tend not to cross this expanse (Steve Mlodinow describes some the desert as being like “pavement”), which serves to reduce the genetic exchanges between populations to the north and south of the desert. There are several local subspecies that are quite different than our familiar birds, most notably the San Lucas Robin and Acorn Woodpecker. I am working on a photo essay blog piece comparing some of these variations.


You’re the grateest! JMHO


Harry, everytime I look at these phtoos I feel butterflies in my stomach over the excitement you captured during this time in our lives. We felt so comfortable with you and appreciated your creativity in every shot. I cannot wait to preserve all the maternity phtoos and newborn phtoos into one big album. We will definitely be working with you again and again.

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