Durango Highway and Tufted Jay Preserve, 7-12 April 2008

After 15-18 hours or so of the hair-raising fun that constitutes driving in Mexico (no really, we actually have a lot of fun driving in Mexico), Jake Mohlmann and I were ready to see some really great birds! Fortunately, several days on the Durango Highway and the Tufted Jay Preserve did not disappoint. We were scheduled to meet up with Stanley Doctor for a 4-5 day quest for that perfect Tufted Jay picture, so we decided to scout a day or two beforehand. Our goal: figure out a way to get the often elusive Tufted Jay to pose for a photo shoot...

Our slow cruise up the non-stop curves of the Durango Highway from Villa Union (just outside of Mazatlan) to El Palmito was both birdy and scenic - and filled with Doble Remolques (double tractor trailers) around every bend! But as a passenger, you have time to enjoy the view.

We made it to the Preserve just after dark, and promptly set up camp. Before we could get to sleep, though, Jake's headlamp caught some eyeshine nearby. Our first Preserve sighting! This shot took some careful creeping and some team effort (Jake armed with the camera, I with the spotlight):

Mexican Whip-poor-will!

After a pleasant night of car-camping, we awoke to a smorgasbord of Sierra Madrean specialties: a veritable symphony of Brown-backed Solitaires; Painted and Slate-throated Redstarts mixed with migrant Townsend's and Hermit Warblers, dripping from the pines; Blue-hooded Euphonias pausing briefly in the oaks above our heads - all before we could even get the coffee going. But the really big surprise came just as we were cleaning up from breakfast - a single Tufted Jay!

The Tufted Jay (Cyanocorax dickeyi), or "Chara Pinta" en EspaƱol, is highly endemic to a very small region in western Mexico where the states of Sinaloa, Nayarit, and Durango meet. Part of this strict endemism is no doubt due to their cooperative breeding behavior. Further research is needed, but Tufted Jays apparently form small flocks in which only a single female nests and lays eggs, while the rest of the individuals in that flock simply help. This probably ensures a high rate of survival for the young, but naturally not many young are born as a result.

Perhaps it is for this reason they are sometimes so difficult to see well - the picture above is not very clear, but depicts a classic experience: Tufted Jay not quite out in the open. They are forever peering out from behind the branches. This bird disappeared down the steep hill below us, reappearing moments later with a very large katydid, disappearing once more to some unseen nest where begging young likely awaited. We began to think that our quest might be more difficult than first envisioned...

Either way, the views and the birds were spectacular! Below are a few images from our trip with Stan.

The so-called Devil's Backbone, the ridge to the east of Barranca Rancho Liebre (more properly known as Barranca San Diego?) Gazing upon this kind of terrain, you have to appreciate the hard work done by early ornithologists in this region - before there was anything remotely like the Durango Highway to get them there. This may be one reason the Tufted Jay remained unknown to science until 1935.

The view of the Barranca from the same overlook, looking north.

A pretty little Slate-throated Redstart (aka Slate-throated Whitestart, Myioborus miniatus). These birds are common throughout the area, but getting a good picture of them can be bedeveling at times!

An Ivory-billed Woodcreeper (Xiphorhynchus flavigaster), one of my personal favorites. Their song is strikingly similar to the familiar Canyon Wren I hear all the time in Arizona, but has a very different quality to it.

I wasn't personally around to see this one, but Jake captured this fascinating Odonate so that we could ID it later. It's about the length of your hand! With the help of Rich Hoyer, we subsequently identified this damselfly as Mesistogaster ornata.

A flight shot, which cannot capture how ethereal it appeared, floating through the forest.

Finally, with much patience....

(Jake, borrowing Stan's camera to show us how he operates)

We had success at last!

Above is the image Jake captured, after waiting for quite a long time in the same spot - the same method, in fact, by which he obtained most of his other pictures. By sitting still, the Jays don't often come to you; but when they do, the outcome is phenomenal. Stan's pictures came out far better than ours, of course, so we'll probably post those at a later date.

After getting some "killer" photos of a truly spectacular bird like the Tufted Jay, one would think we could call it quits. On the way back down the Durango Highway, though, how could we resist stopping for some birding at Panuco Road? This road yielded many fantastic birds, only a few of which we managed to photograph. One such prize was this Colima Pygmy-Owl, distant but easily found by following the Blue Mockingbird and other passerines that were mobbing him!

The final treat was a bird that seems to be quite difficult to photograph at this location. Jake pulled off a quick shot as they were flying overhead:

Military Macaws! Small groups of these raucous birds, which can be surprisingly hard to pin down, flew by us at semi-regular intervals while we were enjoying Golden-crowned Emeralds, Orange-fronted Parakeets, Mexican Parrotlet, Happy Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, Streak-backed Oriole, Scrub Euphonias, and many others.

Last but not least, we had to throw in a humorous non-birding photo:

Why hitch a ride when you can just hitch yourself to the ride? We couldn't resist snapping a quick candid of some mountain-town ingenuity!

Always fun times and good birding in Mexico!
John Yerger

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