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Birds of the Sierra Madre


In August, I traveled into Mexico for a Sierra Madre Alliance Board of Directors meeting held in a Tarahumara Eco-tourism lodge located in Copper Canyon near the town of San Juanito, deep in the Sierra Madre. While this was primarily a business trip, I took my binoculars, as I knew there would be early morning opportunities for birding. I was determined to see birds that I had not seen before.

We flew from Tucson to Los Mochis in a small private plane, then drove to a charming Eco-tourism lodge in El Fuerte. The lodge was on a hill overlooking the beautiful Rio Fuerte. Arriving at the lodge about 5:00pm, our bird guide was ready and waiting to take us on a hike along the river to ee avian exotics. At this location, I saw various herons, ducks, cormorants, and other water birds. Seven species of hummingbirds were observed, including a new one for me - the Cinnamon Hummingbird. In addition to many other species I have observed before, I was happy to see several new species, including:

  • a pair of Bare-throated Tiger Herons
  • Groove-billed Ani
  • Squirrel Cuckoo (a truly remarkable and beautiful bird)
  • Russet-crowned Motmot; Great Kiskadee's
  • Tropical Kingbirds (very common and abundant there)
  • Rose-throated Becard; Sinaloa Crow
  • Rosy-thrush Tanager (unusual among tanagers as it forages on the ground for insects and grubs amongst the forest litter)
  • Streak-backed Orioles.

On the way to the train station the next morning, I saw a covey of Elegant Quail, beautiful birds with cinnamon colored topknots. We boarded the Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre) train for the daylong ride deep into the Sierra Madre wilderness. Most of the passengers were European and Japanese tourists, with some Americans and Mexican nationals as well. The first class train was luxurious, spacious, and offered separate dining and bar cars. However, the views along the entire ride are what made the experience remarkable. This is perhaps the most scenic and awe-inspiring train ride in North America. We passed dozens and dozens of large waterfalls, went through dozens of mountain tunnels, and across several high altitude suspension bridges. August is the height of the monsoon season, so every arroyo and stream was flowing with fast moving water. The Urique River flows throughout the entire length of the deep canyon and the train runs right along the rim of the canyon, affording spectacular views every minute of the ride.

We disembarked at the village of San Rafael where a Tarahumara welcoming group met us and took us to their hostel at Oteviachi. This is perhaps the single most spectacular spot I have ever seen in the Sierra Madre. Located on the rim of the canyon, this site affords incredible views of the river nearly two thousand feet below. Along the riverbanks are many hot springs. Caves and cliff dwellings dot the landscape, some within easy hiking distance. Within a mile of the lodge, there is a 1400-foot waterfall with several large swimming holes both before the falls and below it. It was here that I saw a pair of squawking, colorful Military Macaws (large colorful parrots). Along the trail to the waterfall, I also saw Greater Pewee's, several wren species, and the Rufous-crowned Warbler.

The following day, at a scenic view where the train makes a 15 minute stop at Divisidaro (the Continental Divide), I had the good fortune to observe the very rare Solitary Eagle. We finally arrived at San Juanito for three days of meetings. We were put up in another Tarahumara Eco-tourism lodge located about five miles outside the town. There, in the early morning hours before the meetings began, Andy Miller (the SMA staff ornithologist) and I walked the grounds and the neighboring landscape in search of Mexican endemics not usually seen in the US. We saw several interesting birds including:

  • Cordillerian Flycatcher
  • Mexican Chickadee
  • Eared Trogon
  • Rufus-crowned Sparrow
  • Stripe-headed Sparrow
  • Brown-throated Wren
  • American Dipper
  • Brown Creeper

and other familiar, yet beautiful and interesting birds such as:

  • nuthatches
  • towhees
  • Mountain Bluebirds
  • Western Tanagers
  • goldfinchs
  • swallows
  • redstarts
  • martins
  • woodpeckers
  • jays
  • grosbeaks
  • robins
  • warblers
  • juncos.

We began our return trip home by boarding the train at Creel (the tourist capital of the Sierra Madre), enjoying the 10 hour ride back to Los Mochis, and after a good night's sleep in the city's finest hotel, flying back in a small Cessna. The plane flew along the Gulf coast for a long way and we had the opportunity to fly at low altitude so we could observe flocks of pelicans, see porpoises and pods of whales fishing for krill. Landing at Tucson International, we were greeted by 106-degree heat. The Sierra Madre was cool during the day and fireplaces in our rooms and heavy woolen Tarahumara blankets kept us warm at night. I look forward to returning to the vast expanses of mountains, canyons, rivers and streams that we affectionately call the Sierra Tarahumara. If you are interested in going down to discover this area for yourself and would like to see photos of the areas I have described, or ask questions, please feel free to ask me.

Long-time subscribers of this newsletter may recall past articles that dealt with the Sierra Madre Mountains of NW MEXICO. We work with a non-profit group, The Sierra Madre Alliance, that is devoted to improving the lives of the indigenous Tarahumara and Tepehuan communities that have historically and traditionally occupied this remote and rugged range of mountains, deep canyons, and mesas. We work on gaining federal protection and conservation of essential areas of unique biological diversity and for all the living plants, animals, and people who live within those areas. In the past, we have asked our subscribers to donate their old binoculars and spotting scopes for field use by our staff of biologists and community volunteers. Many of you donated your old optics and most of them are still in use today. Again, we thank you for your generous contributions. We are still training more indigenous community volunteers to conduct surveys, so the need for optics is still great. If you would like to donate optics, you can bring them into the store at any time. If you would like more information on any of our programs please contact me, or if you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to The Sierra Madre Alliance, Inc. - send a check (in any amount) to the Grant Road store and we will be sure to get it where it needs to go. All contributors will receive a thank you letter acknowledging your tax-deductible donation.

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