By Suzanne Staples
While spending time in Oaxaca city in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, we decided to explore the mountainous areas surrounding the city. Oaxaca rests in a valley between three mountain ranges. The Majestic Sierra Madre del Sur rises to the south, climbing to about nine thousand feet. At the top, a dense pine-oak forest is interspersed with tree ferns, brilliant orchids and meters-long climbing vines. Tiny red salvia flowers and orange paintbrush generously dot the road that is carved from the steep mountain. Many of the simple homes along the road at the higher elevations have plant nurseries. Colorful pots of flowers line up in neat rows against the steep hill. Pink and red begonias flourish here, as do rich blue Nile lillies and white calla lillies. The people carry baskets of these blooms into Oaxaca city to sell in the many markets.
The small hamlet of San Jose del Pacifico perches along the highway near the summit of the mountain range. The land drops off precipitously just one house beyond the road, which continues on to the Pacific Ocean. Just outside town is a small charming resort called Puesta del Sol. Carved out of the steep hillside, it comprises eighteen inviting wood cabanas (cabins), some with fireplaces for the very chilly evenings. Every cabana comes with a generous porch and comfy chairs from which to take in the panoramic view. Land drops off steeply, providing a view of literally miles of forested hills. Black vultures and hawks cruise below eye level. The grounds of the resort are generously planted with flowers and trees that invite all manner of birds.
|Puesta del Sol: http://www.sanjosedelpacifico.com/|
There is a restaurant on the grounds which serves delicious traditional Mexican fare as well as beer and mescal. On the days we stayed, the waitress's quiet and charming little girl peeked shyly around tables to look at the gringos. A deck provides another breathtaking view of the valleys below. Cafe de olla, Oaxacan coffee lightly flavored with cinnamon and sugar, tasted great while watching the white-eared hummingbirds feed on the tall, purple coffee flowers outside the window.
We had returned to this area with the excuse of finding the southern race of Stellar's Jay. This far south in Mexico, the subspecies is bluer and has different facial markings than the jay which occurs farther north and in North America. Jays are usually right upfront, not shy and quite vocal: not a skulky bird! But we hadn't seen nor heard this jay last year, even though our wonderful guide and friend, Roque Antonio, did his very best to find it for us. We were hoping for a glimpse this time, but we knew we'd see enough incredible birds to make us happy, either way.
When we arrived at Puesta del Sol and began our steep climb down to our cabin, we were greeted by the crystal chime song of the brown-backed solitaire. There is nothing quite like this song. It's a lovely descending call in what sounds like two-part harmony. Echoing off the valley sides in the early evening quiet, it sounded simply ethereal. We were even lucky enough to see the bird who was singing. He was perched below us, looking out over the steep valley as he sang. What a welcome. White-eared hummingbird males aggressively guarded their patches of purple tobacco.
From our perch on the porch we could see a small flock of grey silky-flycatchers moving around in the scrub trees below us. Their long tails and rich yellow-grey bodies shone in the sun.
Audubon's warblers crowded the mountain oak next to our cabin and moved constantly from there to a nearby mountain ash. Black-vented and Bullock's orioles climbed slowly in a maple-like tree that sported amazing red flowers that appeared to have a clawed bird's foot sticking out of each flower. The orioles were savoring the nectar held in those flowers. Higher in the same tree was a rose-breasted grosbeak, his breast showing a pink-red line down his white front as if he had spilled raspberry juice. So although no jay appeared for us this first day, we were happy.
Night fell and the temperature dropped dramatically. After a delicious dinner during which we watched a spectacular sunset through clouds pushed in from the ocean, we headed carefully back down the path to our cabana. On the way we met the senor who lights the fires in each cabin. In a wheelbarrow, he carried a load of very dense oak pieces and kindling for the fire. His secret to starting the fire was to place a bed of sawdust chips first, then kindling, then oak. Then more sawdust for good measure. Then a healthy squirt of diesel from a detergent bottle. We had a crackling fire in no time. He instructed us to add the oak sparingly in order to make the fire last till morning. What a cozy feeling to be tucked away in a mountain cabin with a good fire and heavy blankets. We did have to add logs to the fire during the night but we must have timed it wrong, as our fire only lasted till about four a.m. It was cold cold cold when we got up! But as soon as the sun came over the ridge and fell on our front porch, we were warm again. From long johns to T shirt in fifteen minutes. That's how it is in the Sierra Madre Sur in winter.
Before heading up for breakfast I stuck my head out the door as I heard a familiar and welcome call - a jay. Slightly different from our northern Stellar's jay call, but completely recognizable. And he was right next to us in the mountain oak. Of course, being a jay, he was way up in the top, cruising for breakfast. I think jays look like monkeys in trees, easily loping from one branch to another, climbing effortlessly and quickly. Standing with my neck bent back to the max, trying to stay away from the drop-off in front of our cabin, I caught a few good glimpses. I saw his dark crest bobbing as he moved, and his dark blue belly. I watched as he finally flew, doing his flap flap cruise, flap flap cruise flight.
We spent the morning wandering the grounds and walking the short distance into town for a cup of locally grown coffee and a yummy torta (sandwich) for lunch. The afternoon passed quickly as we followed the activity of the birds below our cabin and watched the sun move across the winter sky. Dusk returned, and the birds flew down into the valley to more protected and warm areas below. We did the same, moving in to enjoy a glass of very smooth mescal as we watched the fog push in from the ocean. The moon rose to sail in and out of the mist as our fire was lit once again to guard against the cold of the coming mountain night.
Roque Antonio Santiago of Oaxaca Birding Tours offers personal, guided bird watching tours throughout the state of Oaxaca.
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