Category: Trip Reports (Page 2 of 24)

Birding Baja California: Todos Santos

Gilded Flicker on ground

Gilded Flicker at La Poza de Todos Santos

Birding Baja California: Todos Santos

My family just spent a week near the southern tip of Baja California for a winter vacation. Instead of the resort hotels and drunken crowds in Cabo San Lucas, we headed over an hour away to a village called Todos Santos. It is (for now) free of any big resorts, and notable for its ex-pat community and art galleries. But an increasing number of references to “the next Tulum” suggest it’ll be quite different if we ever go back. We stayed on a mango and lychee farm called Rancho Danza del Sol. There was surfing, fishing, breaching Humpback Whales, beautiful (and beautifully empty) beaches, palm oases, and delicious fish tacos (eat at Pacifica Fish Market). And, of course, there was birding. In fact, the birding was surprisingly good. While I didn’t rack up that many lifers (just 4), there were a lot more birds around than I expected.

After staying in the middle of notably un-birdy vineyards in Italy, I was wary of staying amongst more agriculture. But the farm wasn’t all that big. And the birding around our home base was wonderful. During my first walk around the property and neighborhood, I saw two of Baja’s endemic bird species: Xantus’s Hummingbird and Gray Thrasher. The Xantus’s Hummingbird is restricted to the southern half of Baja California. (It’s famous in the U.S. for one bird that showed up in Ventura, California, built a nest, and laid eggs. Another flew to British Columbia, and made an appearance in the movie The Big Year.) It wasn’t common, but I saw several of these pink-beaked, electric-green-throated, cinnamon-tailed, and white-eye-striped birds. Gray Thrasher’s are found throughout the length of Baja California. Despite their general skulkiness and preference for the ground, more than one popped on top of a cactus or bush to provide good views. 

In neighborhood walks throughout the week, I also saw lots of desert specialties. Gilded Flickers and Gila Woodpeckers were noisy residents on the little farm. White-winged Doves and Cactus Wren moved around all day long. A Scott’s Oriole sang every morning, and a Zone-tailed Hawk circled above every afternoon. Verdin and California Quail made noises from inside bushes. At one productive stretch of brush, I had point-blank views of Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Pyrrholuxia. The Pyrrholuxia, aka the Desert Cardinal, is a birder’s bird. It’s got a crazy name, a restricted habitat, and subtly striking plumage. It’s like an artist took an all-gray bird and delicately added some red highlights with a few elegant brush strokes. 

Lark and Brewer’s Sparrows were more frequent than White-crowned Sparrows. Costa’sHummingbirds outnumbered the Xantus’s. Hooded Orioles were more plentiful than Scott’s Orioles. And the House Finches here are the reddest House Finches I’ve seen in my life. 

Besides the Rancho itself, the two most productive neighborhood spots were vacant lots with a variety of desert scrub and cacti. The first one was located at the following GPS coordinates: 23.456776, -110.243445. The other was here: 23.451673, -110.242957. As with most desert birding, it’s much better in the morning.

The eBird hotspot near Todos Santos with the highest species list is that for La Poza de Todos Santos. It’s a marshy area around a pool of fresh water separated from the ocean by a strip of beach. The primary attraction here is another Baja endemic, the Belding’s Yellowthroat. It looks much like a Common Yellowthroat, who are present in the same habitat and more numerous. The key difference: the Belding’s black mask is surrounded by yellow, unlike the white above the mask in Common. The Belding’s Yellowthroat is listed as vulnerable, with a global population somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 individuals. They’re permanent residents in reeds around freshwater, which is decidedly rare habitat in Baja. It’s skulky and hard to see. I can confirm that. It took me 3 visits to finally get eyes on one to be certain I wasn’t hearing and seeing a Common Yellowthroat. I don’t think I ever got a picture of one, though.

I haven’t told the best birding story of the trip yet. That involved a close encounter with an Elf Owl, the world’s smallest raptor. Even without that, Todos Santos was a pleasant surprise and wonderful destination.



Birding Piedmont Italy

The view of the Langhe from our Italian villa

Birding Wine Country of Piedmont Italy

People around me are turning 50. And some of them really know how to throw a good party. A friend of mine decided to throw her 50th celebration in northwest Italy, and thought it should last for 5 days, and decided that a bunch of her friends should be there with her. Invitees would stay at a villa in the rolling hills (and UNESCO World Heritage site) of the Langhe. This is the premier wine region in Italy, also known for its hazelnut chocolate (think Ferrero) and white truffles. We’d spend the week on tour with Roads and Kingdoms, an unmatched foodie touring company that knows all the local secrets. [Take a look at the different tours they offer around the world.] The topper to all of this? Children were not invited. 

That’s how we found ourselves an hour or so outside Torino, Italy the first week of November. The entire group was looking forward to wine tastings at vineyards, and wine drinking at the villa, and more wine with long lunches, and even more wine at even longer dinners. I, on the other hand, hoped to see birds. Because we’d just visited Spain in April, this wasn’t going to be a lifer-palooza of a trip. But there were a couple of dozen of wintering/resident birds that I hoped to see while we were there.

Our first stop was Milan, where we spent an evening strolling around the poly-pointed Duomo. Before we hopped on a train to Torino, I went for a walk in Parco Sempione, a big city park. Lifer #1 of the trip, Hooded Crows, were plentiful. A surprising (and non-countable) Turquoise-fronted Parrot flew in and perched atop a tree. The rest of what I saw was a collection of European city mainstays, like Common Wood Pigeon, Great Tit, European Robin, and Common Chaffinch. I got close looks at a Common Kingfisher, which looks more suited to a jungle than a city. A Eurasian Kestrel called out as it flew over. And some Jackdaws did their thing in a brick castle tower. Total bird numbers were small at this otherwise promising park.

A short walk around Torino looking for lunch produced lifer #2 of the trip, and life bird #1,000. It was Italian Sparrow, a common urban dweller that looks a lot like House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow, but only lives in Italy. Our home base for the next few days was Scarpa Villas, about an hour south of Torino. The setting was beautiful (see the photo at the top). But the birding was disappointing. Monoculture doesn’t make for great bird numbers or diversity. I managed to find some patches of native trees and small sections of what remains of forest in the area around our villa. I added Wood Lark, Song Thrush, and Goldcrest to my life list while wandering the trails through the vineyards. During one walk from our villas to the delightful hilltop town of Roddi, a flock of 40 Common Cranes flew over.  That was probably the best sighting of the whole trip.

A flock of Common Cranes

Overall, it was frustrating birding amidst fabulous scenery. Without a car of our own, I was tied to the tour group. And the tour group wasn’t headed for birding spots. As a result, I missed out on seeing a bunch of my target birds

The Alpine Birds I Maybe Almost Saw But Definitely Didn’t

On our last full day in Italy, we drove from the hills of the Langhe north through the metropolis of Torino to the beginnings of the Italian Alps. Our destinations was (consistent with the central theme of the trip) the terraced vineyards of the village of Carema. Rather than stick with the group for more wine drinking, I peeled off to wander this beautiful little town. I delighted in the slate roofs, stone stairways, surprising fountains, and stunning vistas. My hope was that I’d see some different birds in this different habitat – maybe a Brambling, or Eurasian Siskin. We weren’t far enough into the mountains to have a chance at Eurasian Griffon or (dream of dreams) a Bearded Vulture/Lammergeier/Bonecrusher. 

Carema vineyards and the Italian Alps

As with most of the birding during the trip, it was underwhelming. A lone Common Crane circled above at one point. A pair of Golden Eagles soaring along a ridge was the highlight. But not a single lifer.

Don’t get me wrong. The trip was amazing. Great times, great food, great friends. And I got regular looks at, and became familiar with, birds I may never see again. Black Redstarts are not all that different from Black Phoebe, for example, favoring roof perches and tail flicking. I even became able to ID a few species by sound alone before we left. What fortune to have such generous and adventure-loving friends.



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