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Birding Cabo

posted by Tim Avery at
on Thursday, February 28, 2013 

I'm not a resort guy.  I'm not.  I prefer camping and roughing it to hotels and motels.  I enjoy solitude and open spaces, not cities and people.  And I would take 5 days of birding over 5 days on the beach.  But sometimes I make exceptions, like when I sprung a weekend trip to Cabo San Lucas for my lovely wifes 26th birthday.  I had only been to Mexico once, and that was a 15 minute border crossing from Douglas, Arizona to Agua Prieta, Mexico when I was 15--just to say I'd been to Mexico.  Sam had never been to Mexico, and with such a bleak, cold, and downright snowy winter, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to get away for some fun in the sun in the middle of February.  Cabo wasn't the first choice, but it was relatively affordable on short notice, and only a 2 hour and 40 minute direct flight from Salt Lake City--kind of hard to beat. And there were 3 endemic species of bird there that at some point in my life I would want to see, so I could get some good birding in regardless.

We traded this snow for white sand beaches...

We left on the Friday of Presidents Day weekend, arriving in San Jose del Cabo by 2:30pm.  Customs and immigration was quick and we were on the curb for our ride by 3.  Our driver took 45 minutes to arrive which was frustrating, but its hard to be bothered when you are wearing shorts and flip flops.  We were staying at resort row in San Jose del Cabo just west of the San Jose Estuary so the drive didn't take as long as going to Los Cabos.  Along the way the best birds were a ZONE-TAILED HAWK and the only PHAINOPEPLA of the trip.  After arriving at Royal Solaris, we checked in, went to our room, and headed to the beach.  I was excited to hear the raucous gulls as we approached, then brought back to reality by the fact they were CALIFORNIA GULLS.  They were the most numerous gull seen during the weekend, and the vast majority were 1st winter birds.  I have always wondered where the majority of 1st winter California Gulls from Utah go during the winter, and wondered if "this it the place"...

The beach was great and the Pacific Ocean/Sea of Cortez was warm enough to play in.  The first BROWN PELICANS of the trip coursed by, while several MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS soared overhead.  It looked like it was going to be a good weekend.

Saturday morning we headed to the beach to catch the sunrise.  On the way out a CACTUS WREN could be heard singing from the rooftop.  For the rest of the weekend this bird sang from sun up til sundown with little to no rest.  Out on the beach the CALIFORNIA GULL flock was present, and the sunrise was spectacular.

1st winter California Gull

We spent the majority of the day relaxing in the shade of a cabana on the beach.  An OSPREY passed up and down the coast a couple of times, while MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS occasionally appeared sailing overhead and out of sight.  In the heat of the afternoon we headed east down the beach towards the estuary. It was about a mile but went rather quickly.  I took a quick peek at the water and could see AMERICAN COOTS, LESSER SCAUP, and RUDDY DUCKS.  I headed to a patch of reeds and started pishing and was instantly rewarded with the only prolonged visual I had of a male BELDING'S YELLOWTHROAT all weekend.

Endemic Belding's Yellowthroat

The bird came out in the open for about a minute before disappearing back into the thick.  My first lifer and endemic of the trip! There were few birds near the beach side in the middle of the day.  Back at the beach we sat to watch the waves coming in.  As I was watching the occasional Sting Ray jump and flutter before hitting the water again, I caught an awkward flapping a little ways out.  I brought my camera up and exclaimed that it was a BOOBY! I have to watch that talk on the beach...  I snapped a few shots and saw it hit the water in a dive--it was my lifer BLUE-FOOTED BOOBY.  Two lifers in 15 minutes in a place where there were only 4 possible life birds to be had!

Terrible record shot of a juvenile Blue-footed Booby

Walking back down the beach it was ironic when we looked up the shore and noticed a couple of women removing their tops--not sure what they were going for, but they didn't seem to care that others were nearby. At that point Sam reminded me why I shouldn't excitedly yell out that I saw a Booby!

The following day, the 17th, was Sam's birthday so I hadn't planned on doing much birding.  We spent the majority of the day at the beach just relaxing, but by mid-afternoon I had the itch to get out and walk.  I took off to the estuary while my beautiful wife enjoyed the sun some more.  I made my way down the beach and first checked the estuary on the beach side.  Same birds as the day before, plus a few COMMON GALLINULES.  As I pished to try and coax out the yellowthroats again, I caught a flash of black and white fly by.  The birds landed in the cattails, and I soon found myself looking at a pair of chestnut-colored WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATERS.

A cinnamon/chestnut White-collared Seedeater

I also followed around the few butterflies I saw here--my even nerdier side came out when I spotted some kind of Hairstreak, and then an endemic, Dorantes Long-tailed Skipper.

An endemic Dorantes Long-tailed Skipper

I wanted to go into the estuary but, I wasn't quite sure where to go--there appeared to be a path along the estuary on the west side, but I didn't know if it was safe or not, and I only saw locals coming and going to the beach from it.  After 15 minutes of debating I said to hell with it and headed towards it.  As I approached the Holiday Inn Resort there I flushed a handful of COMMON GROUND-DOVES.  After letting them land I repositioned for some photos in great lighting.

Stunning view of a Common Ground-Dove

Heading inland I soon found myself on a public street--the street in front of all the resorts.  There I found the trail wrapped back along the estuary, where I ended up in birders paradise.  It was amazing.

A sign at the estuary talking about the birds.

Gallinules and coots by the dozen.  Frigatebirds, egrets, herons, and grebes.  Teal, Redheads, Scaup, and Ruddy Ducks.  Orioles, Wrens, Warblers, and Woodpeckers.  Osprey, Kingbirds, Kingfishers, and Cormorants.  The birds were everywhere, and they wanted to be photographed!

Common Gallinules were abundant in the Estuary

As I headed along the trail it became apparent this was a safe area.  Lots of tourists were walking down the path.  The birds just moved aside when the walkers past, and in no time were back to where they were feeding.  Several people stopped to ask what I was doing, and I showed one couple form Canada their first ever HOODED ORIOLE.

Couldn't have asked for better light to photograph this Hooded Oriole

I spent a couple hours here, just in awe of how cooperative the birds were.  I lost track of time photographing everything and anything.  A pair of DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS took up a good 30 minutes in awesome evening light.

Awesome pose by a Double-crested Cormorant

Finally I headed back to the hotel via the street so the walk was easier.  I knew where I would be coming both of the following days when I had some free time.

Monday the 18th we had booked a Whale Watching trip out of Cabo.  The driver picked us up after breakfast and we headed west to the marina.  I both enjoyed and regretted the trip we took.  It was awesome in the respect that we saw almost a dozen whales.  But it was terrible in the fact that more than 20 of us were stuffed on a Zodiac, making it impossible to get comfortable, or setup for the shot you want.  But in the end the # of whales really was awesome and they put on a show.  On the way out a GREEN HERON flew across the marina.  MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS were a constant sight the entire boat ride.

Magnificent Frigatebird above the boat

Along the beach leading out to The Arch at Lands End in Cabo, I finally saw some different gulls. RING-BILLED, HERRING, and WESTERN GULL could all be seen from the boat.

The Arch at Lands End

Both Double-crested Cormorants and there sea faring cousins BRANDT'S CORMORANT were seen up close.

Brandt's Cormorant on the rocks

And the BROWN PELICANS were abundant here, on every dock, rock, boat, and post.

I never get tired of Brown Pelicans

Just about the time the boat headed out to the open water, I spotted a BROWN BOOBY flying by.  The ride was so fast and bumpy, I only got crappy blurred flight shots--although better than the Blue-footed Booby shots from earlier.

Fly-by Brown Booby from the Zodiac

Once we found the whales, it was 2 hours of great views--I had hoped for a full breach, but only got a few head breaches.  It wasn't till we were almost ready to head back that I actually got a good breach shot of a HUMPBACK WHALE.

Most of the pictures I took were tail shots, which are pretty cool in their own right.

And every once in a while when the whales spouted, the mist appeared as a rainbow.

We headed back in and had lunch in Cabo before catching a ride back to San Jose.  We immediately went to the beach where I hung out until 3:30 before deciding to head back down to the estuary.  Sam stayed to enjoy the sun again.  This time I hoofed it down the street to save time.  Between the Grand Mayan and the Holiday Inn there is a lot used to corral horses.  There is one big brush pile right near the road that I thought looked good for a thrasher, so I whipped out my phone and played Gray Thrasher.  I hadn't even gotten through 3 notes when out of the middle of the pile, an endemic GRAY THRASHER bolted to an open fence post.

My lifer and an endemic Gray Thrasher

My 3rd lifer of the trip, and the 2nd of 3 endemics.  After taking photos for a couple minutes I started to walk, and only got 15 feet before the ground started exploding in front of me.  Ground-Doves were everywhere.  After flushing a few more I finally spotted a couple RUDDY GROUND-DOVES off on a wall by themselves.

Flock of Ruddy Ground-Doves

I finally made it back to the estuary where the birds were every bit as raucous as they were the day before.  I made a quick stop to admire the BLUE-WINGED TEAL sporting their alternate colors.  It was nice to see so many up close.

Blue-winged Teal in full formal attire

I headed inland along the trail, eventually I came across a gorgeous TRICOLORED HERON that I just watched from 5 to 10 feet away for a good 15 minutes.  I had seen this species in the U.S. and Costa Rica, but never so close.

Tricolored Heron in the shallows

The HOODED ORIOLE were as cooperative as the previous day.  I came across a small flock of WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS that would soon be headed back north.  The same with the MACGILLIVRAY's, ORANGE-CROWNED, and YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER.  I stopped to sit and admire the calm water in the canal along the west edge of the estuary, and watched a scaup get closer and closer.  Pretty soon it was right in front of me, and was about the closest I've ever been to a GREATER SCAUP.

Greater Scaup are rare here according to eBird and Sibley

I didn't think too much of it, but I guess this is a rarity here, so that was nice.  I shot some video before heading further inland and coming to an opening into a marsh.  Here the birds were thick.  The trees on the far edge of the water were filled with CASSIN'S and TROPICAL KINGBIRDS, and HOODED ORIOLES.  As I watched another TRICOLORED HERON came right in and landed in front of me.  I obliged it and took a bunch of photos of the very close bird.

Close-up head shot of a Tricolored Heron

I finally headed back still missing the last endemic of Baja--the Xantus's Hummingbird.  I figured I needed to go to where the flowers were, so figured I would walk the streets of San Jose the next morning and see what I turn up.

On Tuesday the 19th we were heading back to Salt Lake.  I got up to go watch the last sunrise.  It was a pink one and the best of the days we were there.

The final sunrise over the Gulf of California

Afterwards I headed off toward the estuary, figuring I would just walk the streets with lots of flowers to see what I could find.  I took the last major street paralleling the estuary and followed it inland.  The wind was blowing, but I was determined.  All the birds I had become used to seeing an hearing were present.  After a while I finally I spotted a flyover hummingbird that was back lit.  Was it a Costa's or Xantus's?  Damn!  I had my camera in its bag since I was walking down a city street.  AS I approached a bus stop with about 20 people waiting, I looked to the vacant lot behind the bus stop.  There, not 10 feet from the road, at eye level, on wire, was a gorgeous XANTUS'S HUMMINGBIRD.

I stopped midstep and just stared at the bird.  What do I do?  Should I grab my camera and try to get a picture, or just enjoy the moment.  I was nervous grabbing my DSLR out near so many people.  I opted to leave it in the bag, and after watching the bird for about 15 more seconds, it flew off and out of sight.  I thought it was a good sign though and I would surely see more!

I was surely wrong.  I spent another hour wandering the streets along the estuary, and did see two more hummingbirds--both were COSTA'S HUMMINGBIRDS, a bird I saw a week later in southern Utah!

Consolation Costa's Hummingbird

I walked the path along the estuary back towards the beach one last time.  I made it back to the hotel, had breakfast, and enjoyed a few hours in the sun, before we packed up, checked out, and were back at the airport fr our return home.  And less than 3 hours after we took off we were back in Salt Lake collecting our bags.

Point of the Mountain in Salt Lake County

It was a great short little trip and opened my eyes to the possibilities of birding in Cabo--plus I added 4 life birds including all 3 endemics from Baja.  I felt like I could drive while there, so it would be possible to rent a car, and do a little more in depth birding on a future trip--after all I still need photos of a Xantus's Hummingbird.  If you need a weekend getaway during the winter, Cabo is a relatively inexpensive place to go to, and there are plenty of birds for any type of birder to enjoy!

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An Early Taste of Spring

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 

President's Day weekend I had some free time.  My girlfriend was leaving town, I had a four day weekend and was not on call for snow removal for the whole weekend.  I was still craving warm temperature and sunshine that I had hoped my trip to Arizona would deliver, but had only experienced rain and cool temperatures.  I was over all the cold temperatures and snow up here in Salt Lake City and sick of shoveling snow as well.  I decided to head down to the St. George area to get me the sun and warmth that I wanted.  I kept my fingers crossed and as I was getting ready to drive down the forecast called for abundant sunshine and temperatures in the 60s for the weekend.  Excellent!

Joining me on this trip would be my brother Jeff, driving up from Prescott, Arizona.  St. George is a convenient halfway point between Prescott and St. George plus I really think he wanted his Christmas present he hadn't gotten yet, six beers from Epic Brewery that I had handpicked myself.  I think he was getting worried I was going to drink them, but either way I was glad for him to come up for the weekend.  He would also be bringing two friends with him, Micah who was a birder and Caleb who wasn't necessarily a birder but knew a ton about the geology of the area since he has taken college field trips there.  He shared great insight to the unique geology of Washington County.

We decided to try to meet and camp out in the Beaver Dam Slope area, so I made my way down and he made his way up.  Unfortunately on google maps there are two different Lytle Ranch Roads in Washington County and he headed to the wrong one.  This led to some confusion especially coupled with the fact it was around 1:30 am but I wasn't even sure about that since my phone kept switching between Mountain Time and Pacific Time- stupid Nevada!  Anyways I just slept in my car that night along the side of the right Lytle Ranch Rd.

I awoke at sunrise to the beautiful scenery of the Beaver Dam Slope all around me.  My brother called and told me they were on the way to the real Lytle Ranch Rd.  I took the time to wander around the slope which was full of bird activity.  It really set the tone for how the whole weekend was going to go.  There were calling Loggerhead Shrikes and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, singing Greater Roadrunners, Cactus Wrens and House Finches.  All around me the desert was alive with bird activity.

This is what I woke up to Saturday morning

This Loggerhead Shrike was the first bird I heard and saw in the morning

 I found my first ever roadrunner in Utah by first hearing it

I enjoyed hearing the spastic call of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers

I saw more Cactus Wrens that morning on the Beaver Dam Slope than I had ever seen

We headed to one of my favorite birding places, Lytle Ranch, looking forward to sharing this special place with my brother and friends and they certainly were impressed.  Getting out of the car, the first bird we had was a singing Verdin, but it wasn't the only species we had singing.  Song Sparrows and Bewick's Wrens were also singing, giving us a good opportunity to compare their songs.  A large flock of Zonotrichia sparrows and their friends let us work on our sparrow identification. The most common species was White-crowned but mixed in were at least two different Harris's and a White-throated Sparrow along with Savannahs, Songs and Lincoln's as well.  Feeding in some weeds and grass made us work to see the sparrows but helped to work with identifications with less than ideal looks. A flock of juncos also let us work on subspecies identifications with Oregon, Pink-sided and Slate-colored represented.  

 This Verdin was the first bird we heard singing at Lytle Ranch

 It was nice to compare and contrast the songs of Bewick's Wrens with Song Sparrows

The first Harris's Sparrow we had

The second Harri's Sparrow we saw

Up in a tree is not where I usually picture Savannah Sparrows

 Lincoln's Sparrows let us work on their IDs with Savannah and Song Sparrows

 A thirsty Western Bluebird

A 'Myrtle' Yellow-rumped Warbler takes a bath

 These Western Bluebirds were a treat to watch

The pond north of the buildings provided close views of birds drinking and bathing in a shallow end.  We had a 'Myrtle' Yellow-rumped Warbler bathing, along with a flock of Western Bluebirds drinking- one of the coolest sights I have ever witnessed.  Nearby a male Anna's Hummingbird put on a show for us, both singing and giving display flights.  I wish him luck with the ladies, I was impressed.  More Black-tailed Gnatcatchers were singing and to the west, we spotted a pair of Red-tailed Hawks working on a nest along the cliff face.  As huge surprise for us was a juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker feeding back near where we parked the car.  I have seen this bird numerous times back east, but having one here in Utah was a special experience.

A Phainopepla stands guard over his territory

 This Black-tailed Gnatcatcher actually gave good views

 This Anna's Hummingbird put on a good show with song and dance (well, display flight)

 Stretching to get ready for a display flight

Video of the Anna's Hummingbird singing

 A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was a great surprise

We also found this cool beetle at the ranch

Our next major stop was in Santa Clara, along the river to the west of Gates Lane.  Stephanie Greenwood had found a Vermilion Flycatcher here about a month ago and it is one of my Utah birds I wanted to see this year.  Upon getting there we had a stunning dark/ rufous morph Red-tailed Hawk fly directly over us giving us great views.  As we walked along the river, we had both expected phoebe species, Say's and Black, and even an Abert's Towhee in a tree.  I'm not used to such good views with this species.  After a few more minutes, I spotted a flycatcher along the stream that's shape didn't look right for a phoebe, however it wasn't bright red like the Vermilion Flycatcher Stephanie had, this one was pinkish.  We soon realized that this was a 1st winter male Vermilion molting into adult plumage, the first bird to check off my list for the year!  This means that there are two Vermilion Flycatchers in that area, possibly evidence that they bred in that area last year.  An added bonus was a Cooper's Hawk flew into a brush pile, trying to capture some sparrows that were hanging out in it.

 This Red-tailed Hawk impressed our group

 This is probably the first Abert's Towhee I haven't seen on the ground

 This molting 1st winter male Vermillion Flycatcher showed pinks and reds

 This Cooper's Hawk came away empty-taloned from this brush pile

A Black Phoebe hangs out in along the Santa Clara River

We headed to the Washington Fields area to try for a Lark Bunting and White-tailed Kite, but while we missed both those species we found that spring was in the air there too.  We had a singing Northern Mockingbird that gave the songs of other birds and some singing Western Meadowlarks and more Red-tailed Hawks paired up.

This mockingbird sang many of the songs of spring

We continued to Stratton Pond where many ducks were putting on their best shows to woo the females.  The Greater Scaup there gave the best views I have ever had of them, acting like they were domestic ducks and hanging out near the shore.  At nearby Sky Mountain Golf Course, a large flock of wigeon gave of a cacophony of calls well trying to pair up.  Watching over all of their antics was a vastly bigger Mute Swan, which is one of the birds people most associate with love.  A pair of Killdeer also added to the love in the air.

 This male Greater Scaup was dressed to impress

 The object of the male Greater Scaup's attention

 This Mute Swan lorded over the American Wigeon's proceedings

 American Wigeon were paired up, even with this very white-faced one

This Killdeer was standing guard for his mate

We ended the day at Quail Creek Reservoir soaking in both the birds and the scenery.  An American White Pelican against a red sandstone backdrop was a crowd pleaser as were the many species of duck present.  We had 10 species including all 3 species of merganser- Common, Red-breasted and Hooded.  There were a few groups of Western Grebes milling about and along the shore there was a single Spotted Sandpiper.  With the low sun shining on the cliffs that we facing us, we enjoyed the view for a few more minutes before calling it a day.

Quail Creek Reservoir at the end of the day (note the spot of a pelican on the far shore)

After dinner we headed back to the Beaver Dam Slope to actually camp as a group this time.  During the ride we had a drive-by sighting of a Great Horned Owl.  It was perched eye level 5 feet off the road on a sign.  One of my best views ever of a Great Horned Owl, albeit one of my shortest ones.  That night we were serenaded by two more Great Horned Owls, showing that romance happens 24 hours a day in nature.  We found a nice spot on the slope to camp on and soon made a little fire.  We hung out for about an hour and then headed to bed.  It was nice enough at night that I didn't even need a tent; my sleeping bag and thousands of stars would suffice.

Our campfire Saturday night on the Beaver Dam Slope

The next morning we awoke to another great sunrise and more birdsong.  The birds seemed interested in a nearby cattle tank and upon closer inspection we saw that the bar going over the tank was covering in bird poop.  We found a bigger surprise in the cattle tank itself: four goldfish swimming around.  I'm not sure why they were there, maybe to keep it clean?

Sunday morning surprise: Goldfish in a cattle tank

We headed back to Lytle Ranch, where we had almost the same birds as the day before. New this day though were some Gambel's Quail and a Great Blue Heron hanging out in the Beaver Dam Wash.  It was also fun getting to see a Townsend's Solitaire feeding on some mistletoe along with paired up Phainopepla.  Solitaires sure are versatile.

This fat dog greeted us both mornings and loved belly rubs

Solitaires in the desert? At Lytle Ranch, sure!

We hit up Springs Park Pond next and found the resident Snow Goose, as well as the goofy flock of American Coots that comes out begging for handouts. In the pond, the ducks were mostly paired off showing once again that southern Utah is a few weeks ahead of us. Hurry up Spring!

 Lazy American Coots look for an easy meal

 The Snow Goose was back again at Spring Ponds Estate

 This Green-winged Teal showed off his namesake feature

 This Ruddy Duck was starting to show a hint of his breeding plumage

This handsome American Wigeon was also calling when we got to the pond

Our next stop was Sand Hollow Reservoir, a new Washington County location for me and one I regretted not visiting before.  It is a striking spot with red sand all around it, framed by a backdrop of mountains.  It was fun looking at the sand and trying to figure out all the creature that had been there before, some natural sleuthing.  We had a nice adult Bald Eagle circling the reservoir and two Tundra Swans standing out against the blue of the reservoir and the red of the sand.  There were many Eared Grebes here and even a Horned Grebe whose white face and neck stuck out.  There was a ton of ducks here as well of 11 different species.  There was even another dark morph Red-tailed Hawk on our drive in.  What a cool park!

 One of two Tundra Swans at Sand Hollow Reservoir

Sand Hollow Reservoir with sand in the foreground and mountains behind

Our final spot for the weekend was Tonaquint Park.  While still in the parking lot, we saw two different pairs of American Kestrels and a pair of flickers.  On the way to the pond, I refound the Black-chinned Hummingbird nest near the visitor center.  I initially missed it because I wasn't searching for something small enough and once again was amazing by how small it was.  Ring-necked Ducks put on a show in the pond, swimming close enough to allow for good views of their ringed neck.  Our final bird of the day was an Abert's Towhee, this time acting more towhee-like by hanging out in scrub on the ground.  

 A Ring-necked Duck actually showing its ringed neck

 The smallest nest I have ever seen, a Black-chinned Hummingbird's

An Abert's Towhee in more typical surroundings

I said my goodbyes to my brother and his friends and started back to Salt Lake City.  The weekend was a great success and only made me want to go back to St. George as soon as possible.  But for now I will just keep my fingers crossed that spring will reach up here soon and we will start having the same amount of singing and bird activity as I had down there.  And if not, I can always drive four hours to the south and jump start spring.

Sunset at 80 mph

Bonus note: The next day I found myself back in winter and at the opposite end of the state.  I decided to embrace winter again and head to Cache County in search of a Snowy Owl that had been refound up there over the weekend.  I got lucky and managed to view the magnificent bird, thinking that maybe I don't want winter to be quite over yet.

This Snowy Owl got me thinking that maybe I wasn't quite ready for Spring after all

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