Huatulco: A Paradise of Bird Habitats

By Nick Pitman

Birds. They have a superpower. Unlike us mere ground-bound bipeds, if it takes their fancy they can just open up their wings and soar above the treetops and beyond. What a view it must be from up there! (Sometimes I feel them laughing down at our inadequacies.) We tend not to pay them too much attention, but they are all around us.

Here in Huatulco, we are woken up by the screech of the white-throated magpie-jay and the piercing jungle call of the West Mexican chachalaca, and we watch the sun go down to the loud accompaniment of the orange-fronted parakeet (see “Noisy Birds on the Oaxaca Coast” elsewhere in this issue). Birds truly provide the soundtrack to our outdoor lives.

My own appreciation of birds has been a quite recent development, but what’s not to like? You get to go out early and enjoy the cool mornings, open up your ears and learn the language of the forest. You connect with nature and are reminded that we humans are just a small part of something so much larger, you relax and exist in the present moment. The more you observe birds, the more you see how different they all are; you get caught up in their colorful outfits, rituals, habits and drama, a soap opera waiting to be discovered. A recent scientific study linked exposure to nature, and in particular birds, with increased well-being and life satisfaction; hikers experienced greater joy proportional to the amount of birdsong. The greater the diversity around you, and here we have a lot, the happier you are. So it turns out that great big smile on your face has nothing to do with the sea and sand after all. It’s the birds!

There are more than 10,000 different species of birds in the world. Around 1,100 of those are found in Mexico, which ranks 11th in the world for bird species. More than 700 of those species can be found here in Oaxaca, more than any other Mexican state and more than the whole of Canada.

The Habitats in Huatulco

Huatulco itself, situated geographically as it is, provides rather a unique and multifaceted habitat. Steep mountains directly inland create a “rain shadow,” blocking the rain from reaching Huatulco and resulting in a specially adapted deciduous forest, dry for half the year. This is extremely rare in the tropics. And just like the plants and trees that have evolved to these conditions, so too have the animals that live here.

Along the coast here we have the Huatulco National Park, the finest preserved tropical dry rainforest in Mexico, where you can find spectacular endemic bird species such as the orange-breasted bunting, red-breasted chat, golden-cheeked woodpecker and the citreoline trogon (see “The Trogons of Mexico – Then and Now” elsewhere in this issue). And of course, my personal favorite, the russet-crowned motmot, a bird that actually prunes its own tail to look more sexy!

Then there’s the riparian habitat along the Rio Copalita, home to many varieties of heron, four types of kingfisher and of the exotic roseate spoonbill. Just 10 kilometers inland, around Santa María Huatulco, new species appear, such as the masked tityra and the black-headed saltator. Another 45 minutes up into the hills, it changes again and you start to see species such as the red-headed tanager and our only member of the toucan family, the northern emerald toucanet.

Where Which Birds Are When

So now that you’re getting more excited about birds, where are good places to go near Huatulco to find them? Well, in downtown La Crucecita there’s Parque Ecologico Rufino Tamayo, which boasts hilly trails offering plenty of early morning viewing – listen up for the distinct call of the ferruginous pygmy owl. Right there in Santa Cruz, kitty-corner from the Itoo restaurant on Mitla, is a square of green that is surprisingly rich with some of our more common birdlife, such as the yellow-winged cacique and hanging nests of streak-backed oriole.

The access trail to Playa Pescadores near Tangolunda has water and is a great place to look for the elusive green heron, combined with a stroll around the old campground next to the golf course where you might spot the lineated woodpecker. One of my favorites is to walk along the beach at La Bocana to the river. The estuary there is packed full of birds, look for tricolored herons, reddish egrets and the tiny green kingfisher. Of course, I have a few secret spots but I think I’ll keep those to myself.

Good resources for learning more about the birds of the Oaxacan coast include the website inaturalist, bahias de Huatulco checklist (www.inaturalist.org/check_lists/230415-Bahias-de-Huatulco-Check-List), which lists all wildlife not just birds.

You can download the Merlin app, created by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology (merlin.allaboutbirds.org/) to your phone, and from there you can add the Mexico: Oaxaca and Chiapas bird pack. This useful tool has all the calls and songs for each bird it shows, so you can start to become Dr. Doolittle and start a conversation with your neighborhood long-crested northern cardinal. It works offline, too; in theory, you can put it on your computer, but it’s really designed for your phone. Locally, when you are down at the Huatulco Organic Market on Saturdays in Santa Cruz, you’ll see Jon Church selling his excellent local bird posters.

If you really feel like getting serious, then why not take a bird tour – we have three very knowledgeable guides in Huatulco. Pablo Narvaez (958 108 5087, http://www.facebook.com/pablo.narvaez.144) does private/group tours locally; he can show where those motmots are hiding. Bird Guide Cornelio (see “A Bird Watching Guide for Huatulco” elsewhere in this issue for more information) maintains an eco-ranch, a small private reserve, above Copalita where you could see the northern potoo. Huatulco Birding Cesar (958 107 3736, http://www.facebook.com/lasninfas06/) has a small reserve in La Jabalina near Rancho Tangolunda, a great habitat for the blue bunting. Contact them directly for more info.

Happy hunting and I’ll see you on the trail!

To see photos of all these birds and more, please follow me on Instagram, @nickjourneyman.