Friday 19 November 2021

Oaxaca Valley Part 2: Dwarf Jay Search In The Highlands

November 15, 2021

My alarm was set for 3:00 AM. Far too inhumane of an hour, but mitigated slightly by the fact that I had been going to bed and waking up much earlier than I would have back home. I managed nearly six hours of sleep before I was rudely shaken from my dreams. 

The reason for such an early wake-up was, of course, owls. I had hatched a plan the night before to drive up into the pine forests east of Oaxaca well before dawn, spend an hour or so owling (with Fulvous and Flammulated Owls being my main targets), then explore the pine forests on foot for the morning in search of a rare highland species called the Dwarf Jay. I hoped that the weather would cooperate for me. Laura wisely decided to sit this one out. 

Red Warbler - Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

The drive up in the dark went smoothly and I reached my destination, a dirt road called Camino La Cumbre, around 4:50 AM. I braved the cold temperatures and icy breeze - the elevation was around 3000 m after all. I trawled for owls along the length of the road but completely struck out. Not a single owl responded. This was not going as planned!

Eventually, I reached a group of cabins called La Cumbre Ixtepeji and parked my vehicle in the parking lot. The sky was beginning to lighten and I was running out of time to find my desired owls. Again, I was not successful, but at least I heard a Mexican Whip-poor-will as dawn broke. Soon, the Brown-backed Solitaires signalled the transition of the night birds to the morning birds, and so I reluctantly put away my headlamp and refocused my attention on other species. 

Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

The Dwarf Jay was my main target here. It is, as you may have guessed, one of the smaller jays out there, and it also happens to be quite attractive as well. Dwarf Jays are only found in a small band of mountains in southern Mexico, mainly to the immediate northeast of the Oaxaca Valley with a few other small subpopulations further north. It often hangs out in little foraging groups along with Gray-barred Wrens and Steller's Jays. I remained attentive, listening for these other species' vocalizations as I walked up the path. 

 Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

The air was quite chilly but the steep terrain and high altitude meant that I breathed heavily as I hiked, helping to warm me up. Bird song was very much evident. Mountain Trogons and Brown-backed Solitaires vocalized from everywhere, while a pair of Strong-billed Woodcreepers showed well. A highlight was hearing the rollicking duet of Long-billed Wood-Patridges for the first time. They were across a valley; I didn't even think about trying to track them down for a visual. 

Russet Nightingale-Thrush - Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

The trail I was on passed by numerous flowering plants, adding a jolt of colour to the walk. 

Salvia membranacea - Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

Bidens triplinervia - Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

Eventually, the path crossed a dirt road that presumably led to Corral de Piedra. At this intersection I heard some Steller's Jays which I quickly tracked down. Anticipation built as I noticed some Gray-barred Wrens as well. And, about ten minutes later, there it was. A Dwarf Jay!

Dwarf Jay - Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

Over the next half hour I stuck with the mixed flock, counting around eight different Dwarf Jays mixed in. True to their nature, they spent most of their time high up in the pines, sneaking around the mossy branches and generally making photography rather difficult. However, with time I managed a few acceptable record shots, while the views through the binoculars were quite satisfactory. 

Dwarf Jay - Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

The rest of the morning was just a bonus after the success with the Dwarf Jays. I found a few nice mixed flocks which included several species that I don't get to see in my region of Canada such as Hermit Warbler, Townsend's Warbler and Red Warbler. Others were a little more familiar: White-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Hairy Woodpecker. 

Hermit Warbler - Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

Gray Silky-Flycatchers were the dominant voices in the forest. A whole flock of them perched on the top of one of the pines.

Gray Silky-Flycatchers - Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

Two other new species for me appeared. First, a pair of bedraggled Collared Towhees rooting around in some low shrubbery beside the trail. And second, a vocal Northern Pygmy-Owl that came tantalizingly close to my playback but just wouldn't show itself. 

Collared Towhee - Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

The forest was beautifully still and quiet, with just the sounds of the birds accompanying me. It was good for the soul. I retraced my steps back to where I had parked, stopping a few times to check out various mixed flocks. 

Mexican Chickadee - Corral de Piedra, Oaxaca, Mexico

By the time that I had left, truckloads of people were arriving. They were predominately cyclists, eager to ride the many trails that begin alongside Camino La Cumbre (it was a holiday, after all). It seemed like I had got out of there just in time. I may have struck out on the owls but the early wakeup was very much worth it!

No comments: