Venture to Puerto Vallarta

February 19 – 26, 2023

With Susan Campbell and Steve Shultz

Narrative by Susan Campbell, photos by Susan Campbell, Steve Shultz and Carolyn McAllaster

Often mid-February is a time when those of us at latitudes higher than about thirty wish for warm breezes, sunshine, and maybe a sandy beach visit.  After months of winter cold, who would not want a break?  Well, for residents of the Mid-Atlantic, this past February felt more like April, with gorgeous weather.  So, the need to get away from Old Man Winter was not so much a calling, but the siren song of colorful tropical birds still rang clear, and on Sunday, February 19, adVenturers gathered at the luxurious RIU Vallarta just north of beautiful Puerto Vallarta in southwest Mexico for a week’s exploration of this new-to-Ventures itinerary. 

Near the resort a small pond, well signed with crocodile warnings, provided our first bit of local birding.  Hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks competed with an adorable family of Northern Jacanas for photos, an Anhinga sunned, the first of many wintering Lincoln’s Sparrows and McGillivray’s Warblers made cameo appearances, Short-tailed and Zone-tailed Hawks zoomed overhead, and folks learned or reacquainted themselves with the noisy calls of Social Flycatcher and Great Kiskadee, sounds that would follow us for the next week (and maybe even creep into dreams!)

A brief evening tour along the south bank of the nearby Ameco River provided first looks at endemic or near endemic species including San Blas Jay, Yellow-winged Cacique, and Golden-cheeked Woodpecker.  

If it’s Monday, it must be whale watch day, and indeed the group was on board a comfortable catamaran and birding the scrubby shoreline even before sleepy pelicans were rousted from their roosts.

Over the next three and a half hours we travelled just under thirty-two miles, encountered breaching Humpback Whales, marveled at whales rolling on their backs and tail-flipping, spotted pods of dolphins, notched Blue-footed and Brown Boobies, and got to listen to the ethereal song of the whales via transducers dipped into the calm waters of Banderas Bay.

After a leisurely lunch at the resort, we returned to the Ameco River, this time exploring the waterway’s northern shore.  Highlights included our first hummingbirds (Black-chinned and Ruby-throated, with many more to come), Groove-billed Ani, Cinnamon-bellied Saltator, and more than a dozen sunning crocodiles!

A short walk along the beach and adjacent estuary bumped our shorebird tally and provided highlights including Roseate Spoonbill, perched Common Black Hawk, and the sight of hundreds and hundreds of Sanderlings and peeps feeding along the beach.

After evening entertainment at the resort, including live music, after dinner cocktails, and a live floorshow, we repaired to our ocean-facing rooms in preparation for another full day of birding.

Tuesday dawned bright, warm, and clear, which were the three main weather words for the week.  Making our final foray through the lowlands along the winding river, we tallied highlights including more than a thousand Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in flight, the West Mexican type of Squirrel Cuckoo and Streak-backed Oriole, Thick-billed Kingbird, Sinaloa Wren, wintering Yellow-breasted Chat, Nashville Warbler, and Painted Bunting.

The so-far-trusty van then made the trip from coastal lowlands to nearby foothills where we explored the environs of Rancho Grande los Pinos.  Here, under enormous shade trees, we enjoyed a number of species including Ruddy Ground Dove, Gray Hawk, Citreoline Trogon, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Blue-black Grassquit and more. 

Sadly, the usually reliable restaurant was not open, requiring a short trip back to the resort for sustenance and a dip in the pool.  “Pool birds” included Zone-tailed Hawk, Whimbrel, Heerman’s Gull and the seemingly ever-present Magnificent Frigatebirds.

On Wednesday we left the coast for the mountains, trading our all-inclusive resort for a cute boutique hotel in an old silver mining town at around 5,000 in elevation.  On the drive up from the beach we ticked Orange-fronted Parakeet and Masked Tityra, both species we would get to know better over the week.

Arriving in San Sebastian del Oeste, we made an afternoon reconnoiter of the wooded stream valley we planned to visit in the morning, finding White-eared and Berylline Hummingbirds, Green Jay, Blue Mockingbird (in the open!), Brown-backed Solitaire, and Gray Silky-Flycatcher.

After moving in at our antique-strewn hacienda, Hotel Caudillos, where we were essentially the only guests, short forays from the hotel provided looks at White-tipped Dove, Bumblebee Hummingbird, McGillivray’s and Rufous-capped Warbler, and of course Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a species we would see every single day of the trip!

As darkness fell, the group found themselves on a beautifully landscaped terrace at Restarante Villa Nogal a gourmet restaurant overlooking an idyllic mountain valley with crescent moon, Venus, and Jupiter shining just above, sparkling fires providing warmth, and plates of really, really tasty food.

Thursday morning was one of our “early mornings”, but at this location sunrise does not happen until a very civilized 7:30.  This allowed us to be on the wooded mountain trail as birds started foraging, and highlights were many and included Bumblebee, White-eared, and Berylline Hummingbirds, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Rose-throated Becard, Greenish Elaenia, Greater Pewee, Hammond’s and Cordilleran Flycatchers, Blue Mockingbird, White-throated Thrush, Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow, endemic Rusty Sparrow, Crescent-chested, Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, and Red-faced Warblers, Painted and Slate-throated Redstarts, Hepatic, Flame-colored, and (endemic) Red-headed Tanagers, and Varied Bunting.

The morning’s walk also allowed us to make several canine friends, one of which accompanied us for the duration of our 2.16-mile excursion.  Guard Chihuahuas at residences flanking the canyon’s outlet were more adorable than scary.

After made-to-order brunch, we retraced our steps back to the coast, passing through old Puerto Vallarta to a scenic cove south of town at Mismaloya.  On the hill just behind our all-inclusive Barcelo resort were the ruins of the stage set used to film Night of the Iguana, the film that figuratively put Puerto Vallarta “on the map”.  Birding highlights at the Barcelo resort included a Bat Falcon and Lineated Woodpecker that came each evening to roost, as well as a cloud of Gray-breasted Martins that spent each night atop the hotel’s south tower.

Friday morning may have been the highlight of the trip for several of our participants.  We travelled about an hour south to a lovely spot outside the small town of Tuito.  Bonnie, owner of Rancho Primavera, an expansive area of protected habitat, welcomed us and excitedly waved to toward feeders hosting dozens of saltators, multiple Yellow Grosbeak, snazzy Stripe-headed Sparrows, shy Black-throated Magpie-Jays and even a spunky Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl checking out all the activity.  Nearby hummingbird feeders provided arm’s length looks at Cinnamon, Berylline, Broad-billed, and Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, as well as Plain-capped Starthroat.

From the Military Macaws calling from trees nearby, to a circling Lilac-crowned Parrot, to Least Grebes, to kingfishers, to endemic Golden Vireos, this spot deserves at least a full day on future itineraries.

Saturday dawned bright and warm, but also represented our last full day of birding before folks returned home.  Some may suggest we saved the best for last with a wonderful morning spent at Vallarta Botanical Gardens. 

Highlights, in addition to a wonderful lunch overlooking the river valley, were West Mexican Chachalaca, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Elegant Trogon, more Military Macaws and Lilac-crowned Parrots, Boat-billed Flycatcher, flocks of wintering vireos and warblers, Green and San Blas Jays, Black-vented Oriole, and fun looks at a bouncing Louisiana Waterthrush.

All too soon thoughts turned to packing, boarding passes and connecting flights, but I think all would agree that a week in balmy southwest Mexico was the perfect choice for a late winter birding getaway!

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