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.