Sunday, 3 October 2010

Desierto de Los Leones, Mexico City, MEX

The trip that I have most been looking forward to, I saved until last. At 3000m above sea-level, the mountain forest of Desierto de Los Leones would be a challenge for my smoke-blackened lungs and slender legs. I opted to do this trip at the end of my stay in Mexico to give myself a chance to acclimatise in the relative lowlands of Mexico City.
Even so, I could feel my lungs working harder and my heart pumping faster with only gentle exertion.

There are a bunch of specialities to be found in the high pine and oak forests and two of them leapt out at me as soon as I arrived. I had recognised a “small open area tucked away on the left”  ( http://10000birds.com/desierto-de-los-leones-mexico-city.htm ) and asked the taxi driver to let me out there. A hint of birdsong filtered through the foliage and my first “pish” of the day (well they do say they are the strongest), brought forth a Red Warbler and two Golden-browed Warblers.

The red one landed in full view, just a few feet from me and I made a lunge for my, as yet, un-opened camera bag, but could not get to it in time. A call from nearby was probably the Golden-browed Warbler as the two returned to look at me through the foliage and the calling stopped when I tried to imitate with a high whistled “too-too tooey” to the rhythm of “Oh no, Empids!”
Other birds came in and I was surrounded by tiny, Golden-crowned Kinglets. An empid, which I pretended not to see, was sitting out and an Acorn Woodpecker was silhouetted high on a dead tree top. The Empidonax was still sitting out so I took a look. Usual thing, wing-bars, eye-ring, but I simply don’t have enough experience with the family to diagnose them by eye.

Charlie’s path at the upslope end of the clearing had overgrown. It was passable, but the overhanging foliage was dripping with water and I elected to walk along the road instead. The birds were abundant along the sides of the road with a party every 200m or so.

Bushtits were common and more Red and Golden-browed Warblers showed amongst the Kinglets. Each party brought a new guest. Mexican Cickadees featured strongly as did the Crescent-chested Warbler. Other birds included Wilson’s and Townsend’s Warblers, Slate-throated Redstart and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

The sui generis Olive Warbler was a guest at this party since its own family get togethers must be a bit flat. Each party was slightly different as I progressed along the road.

Being so high, the cloud rolled back and forth throughout the morning. One moment visibility was almost zero, the next, I had a clear view across the valley.

A constant companion whatever the visibility was the song of the Brown-backed Solitaire. It is a descending jangle with a metallic quality. Easily recognized, but the bird is elusive. I must have passed half-a-dozen or so very close to the road, yet invisible from it before I managed to get a good look at one. A brown bird would occasionally flit through the mist and a few moments later the song would start. An assumption might reasonably be jumped to, but I am glad to have seen one properly and even managed half a picture.
A harsh, dry call made me look up to see a large stripy wren. It was barred on flank and tail; black on grey. I had to refer to the field guide to identify a Grey-barred Wren. It flew off quickly, followed by a second.

At a roadside picnic spot called Casa Manera, I eventually got the opportunity that I had been hoping for since the beginning of the morning. “Pishing" brought some warblers down and one of two Red Warblers hopped into full view just a few meters away. The one above was caught using the flash and I had to Photo Shop the flash in his eye. Below, is as nature intended.

It didn’t stop long and I pished forlornly for a while hoping it would come back, but it was gone. As I sat, I noticed a couple of Brown Creepers working a tree trunk across from me and was pleased to get a picture of them too.

A stream passes under the road on a tight right-hander bend and I felt the need to check for American Dipper. The field guide distribution map showed crosshatch shading right up to my current position, which indicated I was on the edge of a resident breeding area. I decided that a rest here would be as good as anywhere and stopped for a while at the adjacent picnic spot.

A Tufted Flycatcher hawked from a low bush upstream of the road, but there was no sign of a dipper.
I had almost reached the convent when I saw the Green-striped Brushfinch. It kept low and skulky in the under-storey and never emerged for a good look.

I am unsure how far I walked from where the taxi driver dropped me to the convent, but it took nearly 4 hours. Not because of oxygen deprivation, but because there were so many birds. Walking the road had been a mixed pleasure. There had been enough clear space to get a look at the birds, but lack of silencers and clutches made the frequent traffic very noisy.
The walk along the road had been mostly flattish so I had not had any difficulty with the thin atmosphere. I had fooled myself into thinking how well I was coping and treated myself to a large lunch at one of the cafes by the convent. Then I found out that there is no substitute for fitness and a bucketful of red corpuscles. The lunch had taken up valuable lung-expansion room, just at a time when I was about to embark on a hike on the slopes above the convent.

One of the specials of Desierto de Los Leones is the Russet Nightingale-Thrush. I began the climb, beyond the hermitages, towards an area of tangles where I had seen the bird on a previous visit. Perhaps I would have coped better on a light lunch; it was hard work and I had to stop a couple of times. To my dismay, the intended thicket was higher than I remember and the forest was eerily silent as I walked through it. I didn’t hear or see a single bird above the convent. Perhaps that was because my brain was shutting down the higher brain functions such as seeing and hearing. It was about now that I was cursing Steve NG Howell and Sophie Webb for the 20 pages of bibliography that added extra weight to their field guide.

On a perfect day, I would have been able to include the nightingale-thrush and a Rufous-capped Brushfinch in the list below, but seeing all the other great birds that did make it on to the list, and seeing them well, made it a fantastic day just the same.

Bird species; 23

Acorn Woodpecker 4, Tufted Flycatcher 1, Grey-barred Wren 2, Brown-backed Solitaire 2, American Robin 6, Golden-crowned Kinglet 90, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 3, Bushtit 50, Mexican Chickadee 18, Brown Creeper 5, Stellar’s Jay 4, House Finch 1, Olive Warbler 4, Crescent-chested Warbler 6, Townsend’s Warbler 2, Wilson’s Warbler 1, Red Warbler 9, Slate-throated Redstart 3, Golden-browed Warbler 8, Green-striped Brush-finch 1, Spotted Towhee 1, Yellow-eyed Junco 20, Black-headed Grosbeak 1.