Would Lightning Strike Again at Miracleflores?

Dave Irons and Steven Mlodinow

On the third and fourth days of our Baja California Sur adventure, Steve Mlodinow and I drove about 45 minutes north of San Jose del Cabo to bird around a couple of small pueblos nestled at the base of the Sierra de la Laguna. In recent years, Steve and others have turned up several mega-rarities in and around the unassuming little town of Miraflores. This run of success led Steve to begin referring to this village as “Miracleflores.” Streak-backed Oriole, Common Black-Hawk, a flock of Mississippi Kites, and Yellow-throated Warbler are among the shocking rarities that have appeared here since 2002.

The crown jewel of all the “megas” at Miraflores is the Yellow-browed Warbler that Steve discovered near the edge of town on 24 March 2007. Yellow-browed Warblers are native to Europe and Asia and, aside from one fall record from Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska (23-24 September 1999), this species was unknown from the Americas. On that magical March morning an unfamiliar warbler appeared briefly then disappeared among a massive swarm of passerines that Steve had pished up. Were it not for his prior experience with this tiny warbler in Europe, his abbreviated initial looks may have left him scratching his head over its identity. However, he immediately recognized the bird to be a Yellow-browed Warbler and set about trying to get diagnostic photos. Several agonizing minutes of frantic pishing failed to re-attract the bird, resulting in one panicked birder. Birding alone, Steve was beginning to imagine the response he might get if he dared to report this bird without photos. The Yellow-browed Warbler finally made a second appearance and was photographed, documenting an unthinkable first for Mexico and just the second record for the New World. It is equally hard to fathom how amidst the swarm of local passerines Kurt Radamaker successfully relocated, photographed, and captured voice recordings of this bird during a chase trip two weeks later.

(The remainder of this post was excerpted from Steve Mlodinow’s lengthy write-up of our trip. Steve draws on his vast experience in the region to provide a more authoritative account than I would be able to offer)

There are many small farms (like the one shown above) on the outskirts of Miraflores, Baja California Sur. The agriculture is very small-scale with little if any use of heavy equipment. These small openings create some “edge” to the otherwise lush woodlands where one is likely to encounter wintering flocks of sparrows, buntings, and other semi-open country species. The Sierra de la Laguna looms in the background. (photo taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

This little puppy materialized at our feet as we started our day at Miraflores on 9 January 2009. Had there been a practical way to bring this adorable little stray home, one of us would have a new pet. (photo taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

My first flirtation with Miraflores came during my initial visit to Baja in March 2002. Earlier that year Jim Pike had found Cape May Warbler there, and Dick Erickson highly recommended further exploration. I fell in love. I find wandering through lush desert (or what passes for lush in the desert) enthralling. Instead of a depauperate landscape, I see a world filled with quixotic lizards, peculiar insects, fantastical plants and relatively easy-to-see birds.

When we parked near the “first stream crossing,” I could feel that sense of wonderment fill me. Stress drained out from my soul and down through the desert sands. We were greeted by trees dripping with Orange-crowned Warblers and the echoing sounds of Gila Woodpeckers. That first flock dispersed when a car rumbled down the dirt road, and it was then that we noticed that we’d been befriended by a wee puppy. It seemed way to small to be separated from its mother, assuming it wasn’t a Chihuahua, which it wasn’t (one doesn’t find many small dogs wandering around the pueblos of Baja). It was definitely working the “adopt me” angle. Cute and frolicsome, we could not resist scratching it behind its sweet slightly drooped ears and patting its narrow flanks. We had made a friend.

As we started to walk away, it tried to trot after us on uncertain legs. It stopped when a schoolboy passing on a bike tossed a bag down at its feet; breakfast, no doubt. And so we started our 6- or 7-hour stroll around Miracleflores. Our route, which if plotted on paper might pass for an Etch-A-Sketch creation, required the crossing of at least 10 more barbed wire fences, but who’s counting, eh?

Dave almost immediately found a Baltimore Oriole, which I heard chattering only. Soon thereafter we found a Lucy’s Warbler traveling with another sizeable flock of Orange-crowneds. Thick-billed Kingbirds, a relatively recent addition to Baja’s avifauna, could be heard squeaking loudly from treetops; they were first recorded here in the 1970s and first bred locally a couple years ago. It quickly became apparent that some of the regular inhabitants were unusually numerous. Orange-crowned Warblers, always common in winter, were as thick as blackbirds at a feedlot. Xantus’s Hummingbird, the stunning orange, green, and black endemic hummingbird, was also very common. I’m accustomed to finding a dozen or so per day with relative ease at Miraflores, but the 60 or so we saw on this day (sometimes 10 in view at once), far surpassed any of my previous experiences. We were often distracted by these hummingbirds, which repeatedly taunted us by landing nearby in direct sunlight. Binoculars would fall to our chests and the cameras would come out. Xantus’s Hummingbirds seem to have an innate ability to sense the precise moment you are about the push the shutter button for that once in a lifetime image and then…they fly off. Both of us ended up with several shots of empty branches where a male hummingbird had been perched only nanoseconds earlier. Eventually, our persistence was rewarded and both of us captured dozens of close-up shots of male Xantus’s.

This gorgeous male Xantus’ Hummingbird, the best known of Baja California Sur’s three endemics, was one of dozens we saw around Miraflores on 9 January 2009. They are quite curious and will respond to pishing as readily as chickadees do in the U.S. (photo taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

Though birds as a whole were plentiful, this ramble through Miracleflores produced no miracles. Beyond the Lucy’s Warbler and Baltimore Oriole, we found two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, a Summer Tanager, and a Dusky Flycatcher. Interestingly, this “common Western bird” is rare in the Cape District, and this Dusky was the first I’d seen down there. Not bad birding, to be sure, but short of miraculous. Even the activity of common birds slowed down near mid-day, so I started in on insects, stalking dragonflies, and getting so close that my lens actually touched their wings, earning me the title “Dragonfly-whisperer” from Dave. Exhausted, hungry, and parched, we returned to the car after 2 p.m. Our faithful little friend was there waiting for us. We tossed him a couple pieces of breakfast bar. No lectures please; some calories are better than no calories when you are a starving pup--and yes, we realize that breakfast bars are not the ideal lunch for humans either.

We moved on to Caduaño. Caduaño is a neighboring pueblo not far from Miraflores; it is much smaller than Miraflores, and its vegetation is not nearly as lush. However, it has flowing water in the form of small irrigation channels. This, plus some trees and brush, attract birds in the parched landscape. As we arrived, I was flagging mentally and physically. We had spent hours and hours walking in the hot sun, traversing prickly fences, and crashing through dense brush--often enjoyable (I never claimed normalcy), but tiring. We’d gone a bit too long without food and water. We had pished and sifted through hundreds and hundreds of birds--again, fun but exhausting. Later that evening we allowed ourselves to wonder, “how many individual bird identifications do you think we made today?” We were too tired to attempt the math.

At least 80 Cassin’s Kingbirds--including the 14 in this image--were observed going to roost in the small pueblo of Caduaño, Baja California Sur on 10 January 2009 (photo taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

As we entered Caduaño, I noted that the small tank which formerly hosted Belding’s Yellowthroats was destroyed, the trees around it gone, and the entire area heavily fenced off – not that we’d want to enter, since no habitat was left. This was the best single spot at Caduaño, and I mourned its loss, and the gradual degradation of the habitat at those places I love. We parked at the town square. It is a small and understated affair, across the street from a lovely unimposing church. The circuit around Caduaño encircles an area of short dense vegetation with the occasional taller acacia or guamuchilar. There are a few small pastures, a couple half-hearted agricultural fields, and trickles of water here and there. Also, you are almost always within earshot or sight of a household. This means people and barking dogs. Still, it is a pleasant perambulation. The biggest surprises (prior to returning to the car) were 3 more Lucy’s Warblers and 3 Hermit Thrushes. Hermit Thrush is a bird I only see on occasion away from the mountains, and three together was a definite surprise. As we approached the car, we were both drooping. A day that had started with high hopes was starting to feel just plain long and the birding, which had been for the most part enjoyable, was beginning to feel a bit like work. About that time we began noticing small groups of kingbirds passing overhead, rekindling our birding focus. Our energies were fully rejuvenated with the realization that dozens of kingbirds all seemed to be moving toward a stand of trees right above our parked car. The air was filled with the calls of Cassin’s Kingbirds. Occasionally a mass of kingbirds would flush in response to some apparent threat (invisible to us, anyway). The sight of 50 or more kingbirds taking flight simultaneously was truly impressive. We were able to detect one Western Kingbird among the 80+ Cassin’s and a couple of the local Thick-billeds also joined the party.

And then there was the oriole. Dave called out, “Check out this orange oriole in the tree with the Cassin’s!” After I sorted out which tree “the tree” was, I looked at the bird in question and thought that it actually was red. “It’s red, not orange,” I shouted back. I think Dave wanted to yell “B.S.” but said something more restrained. I came closer, and from a better light angle saw a distinctly orange bird atop the tree. A Baltimore Oriole, perched very much in the open, accompanying a treeful of Cassin’s Kingbirds. Weird, but photographable! We slogged back to San Jose del Cabo, hit the burrito stand near the Mega (and yes, the burrito pollo mole and the machaca were excellent) for dinner, and crashed, reaching the Land of Nod quickly despite the baying of the local hounds.

The following day we again started at Miraflores. Would it prove worthy of its nickname on day two? This day was spent birding from “wash crossing #2,” upstream from the main part of town, and where we’d spent the previous day. The habitat here is heavily grazed thornscrub with a higher proportion of live-oak than the area around wash #1. This stretch typically offers more in the way of Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black-throated Gray Warblers, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, and scrub-jays. It is also more likely to host the occasional downslope montane wanderer, such as Acorn Woodpecker, Band-tailed Pigeon, or Cape Pygmy-Owl. Initially, we encountered almost no birds, though activity slowly increased, and by the end of five or so hours of wandering about, we had seen another 200 Orange-crowned Warblers, 50 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, 12 San Lucan Cassin’s Vireos (the local race is extremely bright, in many ways resembling a Blue-headed Vireo, though in many birds, almost the whole body seems suffused with a mustardy cast), and 30 Pacific-slope Flycatchers (many calling to confirm that they were not Cordilleran). We found one “eastern” rarity, a Tennessee Warbler, and had another Lucy’s Warbler. We’d been befriended by yet another dog, and were carefully scrutinized for signs of either danger or food by several small groups of cattle. As for barbed wire fences, a bit disappointing… only 2 or 3 had stood in our way.

The two San Lucan Cassin’s Vireos pictured above were both photographed at Miraflores on 10 January 2009. Note the contrast between the gray head and yellow-green back in the top image and the bright yellow flanks and the sharp contrast between the white throat and the dark gray head on the lower bird. This combination of characteristics is more suggestive of a Blue-headed Vireo than a typical Cassin’s. (both photos taken by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 with 300mm f4 lens and 1.4 teleconverter)

Enjoying the gentle breezes off the Sea of Cortez from a chaise lounge on our little patio at El Delfin Blanco with a cerveza fria close at hand was the perfect end to a day of birding. (photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF-S 18-55mm IS lens)

By the time the heat of the day set in around 2 p.m., we had spent nearly two full days of hiking up dry arroyos and making our way under, over, and through various obstacles. We were ready for a break. Earlier that morning we had already decided that this would be the day we would knock off early, lounge around our temporary residence, enjoy the sea breezes, and do a bit of sight-seeing on the plaza in San Jose del Cabo…and so it would be.

1

Spuds McKenzie has nothing on that pup!

2

This article ahcieved exactly what I wanted it to achieve.

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