Monterey Seabirds
Sea of Cortez Trip Report
April 16-27, 2004

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Baja California Sur The Cape Region,
Midriff Islands and Sea of Cortez

by Roger Wolfe

Click on photos to see enlarged images.

Isla Catalina, photo by Roger Wolfe
Isla Catalina & the boat Don Jose

EAST CAPE

April 16

My wife Laura and I arrived at the airport in Los Cabos late in the afternoon and met up with a group of our friends with whom we would be traveling with for the next 10 days. I arranged for a driver and a van to transport us from the airport to the sleepy village of Cabo Pulmo on the eastern cape. I spent a fair amount of time here in the eighties and wanted to return to the place I remembered so fondly. Back then I wasn't birding and now I was interested in catching up on some of the avian life that had gone largely unnoticed back then. This would also give us the opportunity to decompress a couple of days before our boat trip into the Sea of Cortez.

Cabo Pulmo is about an hour and a half north of the airport and some of it is along unimproved roads that are a heck of a lot better than they were in '86. Approaching the village we enjoyed numerous sightings of NORTHERN CARACARAS. Upon arrival we soon were all settled into our comfortable bungalows and casitas which were very reasonably priced and close to the water at Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort. In the evening we dined on tasty shrimp tacos under a palapa on the beach watching BROWN PELICANS fish the shallows.

April 17

At first light the birding begins in earnest. With all the washingtonia palms about, HOODED ORIOLES are ubiquitous and their chatter is heard continuously. Leaving the landscaped area there is a small flock of LARK SPARROWS and the first of many COMMON GROUND DOVES. Just a short way down the road that heads south we hit pay dirt with the first endemic of the trip, a male XANTUS'S HUMMINGBIRD perches obligingly and allows a few digital photos. Shortly afterwards endemic number two is a GREY THRASHER singing from the top of a cardon cactus. A large raptor atop another cactus is a HARRIS'S HAWK.

Xantus's Hummingbird, photo by Roger Wolfe   Turkey Vulture, photo by Roger Wolfe   Grey Thrasher, photo by Roger Wolfe
Xantus's
Hummingbird
  Turkey Vulture
Atop a Cactus
  Grey Thrasher


Cabo Pulmo turns out the birds: NORTHERN CARDINAL, PYRRHULOXIA, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, WHITE WINGED DOVE, GILA and LADDER BACKED WOODPECKERS, ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER, VERDIN, BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER, CALIFORNIA TOWHEE, TURKEY VULTURE, BROWN HEADED COWBIRD, NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD and numerous CACTUS WRENS.

In the afternoon after snorkeling along the fine reef that can be reached easily from the beach, another short bird walk adds SCOTT'S ORIOLE, AMERICAN KESTREL and PHAINOPEPLA to the day's tally. Dinner under the stars at Nancy's is a bit pricey but well worth it. There we have the best margarita on the trip.

April 18

In the night we are awakened by the wind rustling through the palms. A walk north along the beach turns up two SPOTTED SANDPIPERS as well as two endemic YELLOW-FOOTED GULLS. Just before noon the van arrives to take us to La Paz where the boat we will call home for the next 6 days is docked. Our route is Highway 1 along the east cape and mountain towns. We arrive in La Paz and board the 80-foot Don Jose. A stiff wind from the north nags at us through the evening.

THE SEA OF CORTEZ and MIDRIFF ISLANDS

April 19

Our crew of 6 arrives this morning and by 8 am we are underway. The wind from the north has not abated and once we get out of the La Paz harbor the swell picks up. A few onboard suffer the effects of seasickness despite the Relief Bands they've purchased for the trip. We begin seeing seabirds. MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS are abundant and BLUE-FOOTED BOOBIES become prevalent as we approach the islet of Isla Isolotes. As we close in on the islet we also begin seeing numerous BROWN BOOBIES both perched and in flight.

Blue-fotted booby, photo by Roger Wolfe   Brown Booby, photo by Roger Wolfe   Magnificent Frigatebirds, photo by Roger Wolfe
Blue-footed Booby   Brown Booby   Magnificent Frigatebirds

We pile into the pangas (skiffs) and take a spin around. The big draw to Los Isolotes are the CALIFORNIA SEA LIONS that like to haul out here. They allow us up close looks as do the seabirds. In the midst of the small colony is a single BLACK TURNSTONE. Afterwards some of us don our snorkeling gear and kick out along the rocks. The sea lions come in alarmingly close, startling some of us back to the boat. It is a pleasure to see them underwater in their element. The wind hasn't helped with the visibility but we do see some very cool fish. At one point I look up at the birds on the rocks and see several VAUX'S SWIFTS dart overhead.

In search of a protected anchorage we head north into the teeth of the wind to the blown out caldera which comprises Isla San Francisco. We settle for the night in the small crescent shaped bay out of the wind and swell. We hit the shore much to the delight of the seasick. Fortunately for all on board this is the last time anyone gets seasick. Our cook Enrique impresses all on board his first of many wonderful dinners. My wife Laura and I sleep out on the top deck under a sky brimming with stars. The wash of the Milky Way is incredible.

April 20

After breakfast some of us swim to shore, others kayak or ride the pangas in to explore the tiny island of San Francisco. Along the inside curve of the island is sandy beach and a few hundred yard across a salt flat on the other side are rocky beach and seacliffs. The greeting committee is comprised of a single AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER looking a bit out of place on the sandy beach. Here we also find a LEAST SANDPIPER all by his lonesome.

Hiking along the ridge of the island we find many BLACK-THROATED SPARROWS, a COSTA'S HUMMINGBIRD, COMMON RAVENS and more YELLOW-FOOTED GULLS who appear to be nesting and disturbed over the ravens' presence. At the end of the hike we return to the beach to find an ice chest filled with cold beverages. The crew of the Don Jose know how to take care of their guests.

After lunch we depart our anchorage and find that the devil of a north wind is still blowing but not quite as bad. Approaching the Canal de San Jose, a passage between the large Isla San Jose and the mainland, we see many BLACK and LEAST STORM-PETRELS, our first HEERMAN'S GULL and a single RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD. I'm up in the crow's nest above the upper deck feeling like the king of the world when someone calls out whale. We see the telltale fluke of a HUMPBACK WHALE. As I search for the whale to resurface I spot a large bird arc in the wind. I am somewhat surprised to find a LAYSAN ALBATROSS this far north in the Sea of Cortez. Later I ask Captain Jose about these birds and he says he sees one or two a year. They sometimes check out the boat and the crew will toss them a tortilla or two and they will settle on the water to eat them.

In the late afternoon we anchor off Isla San Jose. On the shoreline we spy a GREAT BLUE HERON perched atop a giant cardon cactus and enjoy a walk up an arroyo to some narrows. Along the way we see XANTUS'S HUMMINGBIRD, VERDIN, BLACK-THROATED SPARROWS, ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHERS, a Burro and our first RED-TAILED HAWK of the trip. Walking back down the arroyo into the setting sun I find myself overwhelmed by the beauty of this place and tears roll down my cheeks as we ride the pangas back with the sun setting beyond the boat. I realize what John Steinbeck was getting at when he described the "miraculous air" of this place in The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Dinner is breaded, fried scallops. This has easily been one of the finest days of my life.

April 21

Just before dawn the engine starts up and we are underway. We've got a fair amount of traveling to do today. The sense of remoteness begins to settle in. If you look at a map of Baja California you will see that this area in which we are traveling is inaccessible by land. This is a roadless coastline and the islands are with few exceptions uninhabited. We see only an occasional sailboat or yacht and primitive fish camps along the way.

Our destination this morning is Isla Catalina. This island is known for its gigantism. The Midriff Islands are often referred to as the Mexican Galapagos. Endemic plants that are unique to individual islands sometime comprise as much as two thirds of the plant species and many of them remain unidentified. Enroute we are visited briefly by a few BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS and LONG-BEAKED COMMON DOLPHINS of the Baja neritic form. Arriving at Catalina we take the pangas in and hike among the gigantic cardon and barrel cacti. We spot a DESERT IGUANA and find an unidentified species of rattlesnake on the side of the trail. Birds seen here are a WILLET on the beach, a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE atop a giant cardon, ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER, VERDIN and BLACK-THROATED SPARROWS which are abundant on all the islands it seems.

We spend the rest of the morning snorkeling or kayaking around the island and shortly after lunch we depart. Our destination is the small fishing village of Agua Verde on the mainland. This small community of 200 can be reached via a 25 mile long unimproved road from Highway 1. Approaching the mainland we see more storm-petrels and 2 spouts with a telltale fluke. A mother and calf HUMPBACK WHALE appear quite close to the boat much to the delight of all on board. Here we also find a fair sized pod of LONG-BEAKED COMMON DOLPHIN who come in to ride our bow for excellent up close looks in clear waters. There is a lot of feeding activity going on that is joined by a group of bull CALIFORNIA SEA LIONS. Perhaps most impressive are the numbers of BROWN PELICANS that continue arriving in squadrons until there are several hundred around the boat. We find our only shearwater of the trip in the midst of all this activity, a very full BLACK-VENTED SHEARWATER can scarcely lift itself off the water as we approach. ELEGANT TERNS finally put in an appearance.

We arrive at Agua Verde after dark after enjoying another brilliant sunset.

Desert Iguana, photo by Roger Wolfe   Off Agua Verde, photo by Roger Wolfe   Upper deck of the Don Jose, photo by Roger Wolfe
Desert Iguana   Off Agua Verde   Upper Deck of
the Don Jose

April 22

The sunrise upstages the sunset from the previous evening. A panga ride into shore and we visit the small fishing village of Agua Verde. The village goats and cattle parade by us and we are greeted by the waves of school children. A VERMILLION FLYCATCHER sallies from the thorn scrub. We walk up over a ridge above the village to secluded beach. Here we find an OSPREY on the sand and see its nest atop a rock in the small bay. NORTHERN CARDINALS and ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHERS call from the bush. On the rocks nearby we see both BRANDT'S and DOUBLE CRESTED CORMORANTS. SNOWY and GREAT EGRETS fish the shallows.

Ague Verde will be our northernmost stop, we have traveled about 125 miles from La Paz and now its time to begin our return. We head south keeping close to the mainland to avoid a stiff breeze from the south. Many of those on board have had the pleasure of rafting the Grand Canyon and all proclaim this scenery very similar to the lower reaches of the canyon but with only one wall to view. This remote coastline must surely be one of the most spectacular on the planet.

Down the coast to Puerto Gato we see numerous BLACK and LEAST STORM-PETRELS. We stop here to swim, snorkel and kayak. On the beach we can see and occasionally smell a dead whale at the water's edge. It's too far gone to identify to species. As I kick in to shore I swim over pieces of blubber and whale skeleton. This is a whale graveyard. On the beach is the lower jaw of what must be a Blue Whale and there are also two large spinal columns on the beach. But the smell is overwhelming. I get back into the water and enjoy some good snorkeling around the point to another nearby beach.

The Don Jose heads south. Our goal for the evening is the southern end of Isla San Jose. On the way we spot some blows near the mainland. I'm crossing my fingers in hopes of seeing a new cetacean and I'm not disappointed. The three rostral ridges indicates we've come upon a pair of BRYDE'S WHALES. These baleen whales don't migrate so in order to see them you have to venture into their tropical and subtropical waters. As the day draws toward sunset we come upon a huge group of LONG-BEAKED COMMON DOLPHINS. This group is comprised of more than a thousand animals some of which are accompanied by small youngsters that look to be only days old. From the bow we watch them ride our wave. Arrival at the south end of San Jose is after dark.

April 23

This morning we board the pangas to visit a new ecosystem. Into the mouth of the estuary with some tricky maneuvering at low tide we begin to explore the mangroves of Isla San Jose. I explain to our panga driver in Spanish that I'm looking for a small yellow bird with a reddish brown head and he smiles and says, "Mangrove Warbler." As we make our way into some narrow channel we hear its call. A bit of pishing and there he is, a resplendent, male MANGROVE WARBLER. Presently considered conspecific with Yellow Warbler it certainly looks quite different and to my ear sounds different too.

I can't get over the contrast of the mangroves with a backdrop of thornscrub and tall cardon cactus. In an area of saltflats we see new trip birds: REDDISH EGRET, WHITE IBIS and 3 WHIMBRELS. In the mangroves we find a GREEN HERON lurking among the exposed roots and atop another shrub is a picturesque YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT HERON. On a pebbly beach we find 7 WILSON'S PLOVERS and a single AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER and a flock of hungry TURKEY VULTURES feeding on the carcass of a sea lion. We leave the pangas and find this stretch of shoreline to be an excellent place for shelling.

Mangroves of Isla San Jose, photo by Roger Wolfe   American Oystercatcher, photo by Roger Wolfe   Yellow-crowned Night Heron, photo by Roger Wolfe
Mangroves of
Isla San Jose
  American
Oystercatcher
  Yellow-crowned
Night Heron

Back on board the Don Jose we continue our southbound return. On the approach to the Espiritu Santo island complex we find more whales feeding. This time it is a mixed group of both BRYDE'S and HUMPBACK WHALES. We also are lucky to be visited by a very friendly pod of BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN that ride the bow and turn on their sides to give us eyeball to eyeball looks. At one point I wave at them and this seems to interest them for several of them turn on their side to get a better look. This is truly one of the highlights for many on board, this interaction with the dolphins. Soon after this we also see a giant MANTA RAY leap from the surface and a SABINE' S GULL lands on the water beside the boat.

Bryde's Whale, photo by Roger Wolfe   Bottlenose Dolphins  , photo by Roger Wolfe   Humpback Whale, photo by Roger Wolfe
Bryde's Whale   Bottlenose Dolphins   Humpback Whale

We stop to snorkel at Los Isolotes and then stop for the night at nearby Isla Partida. The sound of splashes all around us are of Mobulus Mantas doing flips in the air. Our cook Enrique really outdoes himself on our last night with a fine meal of camarones (prawns).

April 24

At first light I hear the distinctive song of a CANYON WREN from the rocks nearby. We motor a short distance to the larger Isla Espiritu Santo. This island has many aqua colored inlets with sandy beaches. Some of us kayak and others ride the pangas into shore. In the cove three ROYAL TERNS fish for the plentiful sardines we can see from the surface.

Up canyon we hike past a salt flat alive with small Fiddler Crabs into the desert silence which is broken only by the call of a soaring RED-TAILED HAWK. A ROCK WREN here is new for the trip. This is also the only time on the islands that we see the Antelope Squirrel. This is a lovely, red rock canyon with some large fig trees growing in it. Two Chuckwallas sun themselves at the rim of the canyon above us. With heavy hearts we return to the boat for a short swim before heading back to La Paz.

Back to the marina we bid our fantastic crew adieu and board taxis for the short ride up the malecon to the Hotel Los Arcos. Very comfortable. Dinner is at Rancho Viejo, an excellent carne asada, street food kind of place.

April 25, 26

Laura and I rent a car from National and head south for Todos Santos, another favored hang out from the eighties. My how things have changed. Much of the town businesses-restaurants, galleries, tourist shops (which didn't used to be here) are run by gringos. We stayed at the very comfortable and reasonably priced Posada del Molino two blocks down form the Pemex service station on Rangel. LESSER NIGHTHAWKS plied the evening skies. On the morning of the 26th I birded an agricultural area behind the baseball stadium just down the street. The area was quite birdy but the only new species I found here for the trip were WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS. A brief visit to the estuary next to Posada La Poza turned out AMERICAN COOTS, RUDDY DUCKS, SAVANNAH SPARROW and a WESTERN GREBE.

We drive to San Jose del Cabo for the night but haven't enough time to bird the estero or nearby sewage facility. Lodging is at the very comfortable and well priced El Encanto Inn downtown. Baan Thai restaurant is across the street, excellent Thai food with some Mexican influence.


Notes: We chartered the 80-foot Don Jose from Baja Expeditons and were very pleased with the quality of the service, food and naturalist John Conlon.

Learn about the next Sea of Cortez trip scheduled for April 2005.

Sunset at the Sea of Cortez, photo by Roger Wolfe
Sea of Cortez Sunset



Roger Wolfe for Monterey Seabirds

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