Monterey Seabirds
Sea of Cortez Trip Report
April 2005

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Baja California Sur--La Paz to Puerto Escondido
and the Offshore Islands in the Gulf of California
April 16-24, 2005

by Roger Wolfe

Click on photos to see enlarged images.

We arrive via Aero California to La Paz the morning of April 16, 2005. After checking into the infamous Hotel Los Arcos located on the malecon beachfront we head for my favorite restaurant in this charming city. Rancho Viejo serves Mexican barbecue of the finest kind. We order up some arrachera-grilled flank steak tacos and some cold cervezas. Ah, it's good to be back in Baja.

We see some birds on the hotel grounds such as COMMON GROUND DOVE, NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD, GILA WOODPECKER and the ubiquitous HOUSE SPARROW and ROCK PIGEON. On the way to the restaurant a COMMON RAVEN welcomes us to the peninsula. Over the nearby harbor several MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS soar like giant kites. An OSPREY flies by with a fish in its talons.

We return to the hotel for a nice long siesta and a couple of complimentary margaritas followed by a stroll down the malecon for dinner at Bismarckcito where we have some excellent seafood. Almejas chocoletas naturel -- tasty, raw, chocolate clams and Camarones alla diabla -- Hot and spicy prawns that we wash down with cold Coronas and lime. Now we're starting to feel like we're on vacation!

We return to Los Arcos along the malecon seawall along the waterfront. This is where you come to see and be seen in La Paz by foot or by car. It's Friday night and there are a lot of people out and as usual in La Paz everyone is friendly.

April 17

We have most of the day to ourselves before the others, who will be joining us, arrive. I had ambitious plans to visit Sierra de San Antonio for some of the montane endemic birds but somehow all my ambition has drained away. I'm content to hang out in town and relax.

We stroll the malecon in the morning with the joggers, walker and bikers. On the beach we see a smattering of shorebirds -- SPOTTED SANDPIPER, WILLET, WHIMBREL and MARBLED GODWIT.

Larids seen are immature CALIFORNIA GULLS congregating on the jetties with a few of the endemic YELLOW-FOOTED GULLS, a few juvenile HEERMANN'S GULLS with a single ELEGANT TERN.

We also see herons -- GREAT BLUE and both SNOWY and REDDISH EGRETS fishing in the shallows. A single BELTED KINGFISHER is the only one we'll see down here.

Around 2 pm we head to the marina and board our home for the next six days, the 85-foot motor vessel the Don Jose, which is operated by Baja Expeditions and here we hook up with my co-leader, the excellent Mexican naturalist Jose Sanchez.

By 5 pm the rest of our participants arrive on a shuttle from Los Cabos. Half the people who went on this trip last year have returned again this year. That says a lot for quality of the crew, the Don Jose and the awesome sights of Baja California Sur.

For dinner we take a five minute walk back to Rancho Viejo where we order a couple of kilos of arrachera and the rest of the fixings for tacos and that's plenty for our group of 13. I'd eat all my meals here if my wife would let me. On the way back to the boat we hear our first CACTUS WREN. A BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON on one of the boat lines rounds out the bird list for the day.

We settle into our cabin for the night. It's good to back on board.

April 18

Our crew of six arrives early this the morning and we get underway. As we leave the mainland behind and cross the channel to Isla Espiritu Santo we start seeing seabirds -- both BROWN and BLUE-FOOTED BOOBIES as well as a single flyby PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATER. Passing the smaller islets of Gallina and Gallinero we spot a PEREGRINE FALCON perched on the highest point.

Soon we arrive at the even smaller offshore islet of Los Islotes. This islet may be small but it is packed with birds and sea lions. We board the two skiffs or pangas, as they are known locally, and circle Los Islotes. Over the pinnacle we see PURPLE MARTINS and WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS. Lots of boobies and Yellow-footed Gulls nest here. We also see BRANDT'S CORMORANT and foraging on the rocks beside Sally Lightfoot Crabs are two BLACK TURNSTONES and a single WANDERING TATTLER.

Back on the boat we don wetsuits, masks and snorkels and reboard the pangas. This is the big attraction to Los Islotes; swimming with the Sea Lions. Most of the males have departed so the smaller females and pups are all that remain. Many tourists come here as the sea lions are friendly. Recent DNA analysis has revealed a divergence in this isolated population of sea lions. It is likely they will soon be recognized as species separate from the California race and will be known as the Sea of Cortez Sea Lion.

The sea lions swim circles and spirals around us. One is right in my mask and I feel its whiskers on my own. I look over and another is lying on Rick Allison's chest looking him in the eyes with her big browns. It looks like love! I see another mouthing the heel of Ray Wolfe's fin. All this sea lion activity makes it hard to snorkel as I can't stop laughing at their antics. They are truly in their element underwater.

From Los Islotes we do a few transects in search of whales. The conditions are spectacular, what the skippers back home call greasy calm. We start seeing many BLACK-STORM PETRELS flying about and from the crow's nest I spot a XANTUS'S MURRELET. But the crowning glory of the day comes when Jose spots a couple of dorsal fins logging at the surface. We study the shape carefully and then we see more. We even see the blunt heads briefly above water. We never see a blow or a fluke; these animals just sink below the surface and quietly disappear. I try like hell to get a photo but they're too far off.

These are the smallest of all the whales and are seen in dead calm conditions only. It is a first for both Jose and me, these are DWARF SPERM WHALES! Ten of them total. Later I will speak with a guide who has worked down here for 15 years leading tours and he's never seen one. We are extremely fortunate.

We anchor for the evening inside the caldera bay of Isla San Francisco and take the pangas into shore for a short stroll. We inspect the salt pans used by local fisherman and Jose introduces us to some of the local flora. On the beach we are met by a pair of AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHERS and two LEAST SANDPIPERS, and we also find our first Zebra-tailed Lizard.

Last year we sought protection in this sheltered bay from a north wind. Our day today was as calm as it could be but in the night the infamous Corumel wind arrives from the Pacific, crosses the plains between La Paz and Todos Santos and into the gulf. At 2:30 am things get rocking. This bay is protected from the north winds but not from the southwest. It makes for an interesting night's sleep.

April 20

We depart Isla San Francisco and as soon as we round the corner we are out of the wind and in a short time we anchor off Isla San Jose. After breakfast some of us board the pangas and others kayaks to explore the mangrove estuary. The light wind is a plus here in keeping the bugs at bay. This is the only place on our itinerary where we need to be concerned about biting insects; no-see-ums or in espanol- jejenes.

As we motor into the estuary we hear the call of a CLAPPER RAIL and soon thereafter we see and hear the first of many MANGROVE WARBLERS. On the sandy bottom we see an aggregation of Upside Down Jellies and along the edge of the mangrove roots we spot several good sized Red Snappers. Jose trolls with a fly on a drop line and ends up catching six of them which are then released.

Atop the mangroves we see three WHITE IBIS, a LITTLE BLUE and a GREEN HERON and we also add EARED GREBE to our trip list.

Neritic form of Long-beaked Common Dolphin, photo by Roger WolfeBack aboard the Don Jose we set off in search of whales and seabirds. While I'm taking a siesta Jose keeps watch and picks up a BLACK-VENTED SHEARWATER and a RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD. As the day wears on we come upon a pod of the Baja neritic form of LONG-BEAKED COMMON DOLPHINS which are paler overall and show a pale gray triangle on the dorsal fin. Everyone on board is up on the bow watching them ride our wave.

Motoring along we see some other interesting things go by such as a Green Turtle and Hammerhead Shark and both Thornton's and Common Manta Rays leaping clean out of the water.

Blue Whale, photo by Roger WolfeJose picks up the first big blow. Between Isla Catalan and the mainland we find ten BLUE WHALES. Everyone on board is thrilled. One of them looks thin; we can make out its spinal column under the flesh. On its left side just behind the dorsal fin is a large bump.

In the midst of all the excitement Jose calls out a BRYDE'S WHALE but it is uncooperative and slips off without the rest of us seeing it as they are known to do. We spend the night in the protected cove of the tiny fishing village of Agua Verde.

April 21


Agua Verde is the location of some of the finest sunrises I've ever laid eyes on. The sunsets on the Sea of Cortez are spectacular but the sunrises are even finer. We board the pangas for a visit to the village. As we pull onto the stony beach we see the local fishermen cleaning their catch of sea cucumbers. This is a scene right out of the Log from the Sea of Cortez where Steinbeck writes of this fishery which is all shipped to Japan.

Walking through the village we see some new birds. This may possibly be the HOODED ORIOLE capital of the world. They are ubiquitous here among all the washingtonia and date palms. ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHERS are also numerous and we get really nice looks at the endemic GRAY THRASHER. On our walk we also see WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW, BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD, PHAINOPEPLA, VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW and have excellent looks at both COSTA'S HUMMINGBIRD and BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER. Mammal highlight is a BLACK-TAILED JACKRABBIT.

Isla Catalan, photo by Roger WolfeBack aboard we search for whales between Isla Monserrat and Isla Catalan, finding another pod of Long-beaked Common Dolphins and a Blue Whale in the distance. We drop anchor at Isla Catalan, the most oceanic of all the islands in the Gulf of California. This is home to many endemic reptiles and plants. The snorkeling here at El Elephante, a rock formation resembling the head of an elephant, is excellent; we see a nice array of tangs, wrasses and parrotfish.

We take one of the pangas around the side of the island and hike back to the Don Jose via an arroyo. Jose teaches us about the endemic plants and we also manage to see two of the endemic reptiles -- a Santa Catalina Side-blotched and Santa Catalina Whiptail Lizards. New birds seen are LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE, BLACK-THROATED SPARROW and several VERDIN. We are escorted during the course of our walk by a pair of COMMON RAVENS which have developed quite a reputation among the fishermen who camp on the island. The birds have become very adept in finding ways to get into their food stores. Every time the fishermen devise a way to keep the birds out they figure out a way in.

We head back to the protected cove at Agua Verde for the night and see 3 MURRELET sp. en route.

April 22

Agua Verde Sunrise, photo by Roger WolfeThe sunrise this morning at Agua Verde is perhaps the most spectacular I've ever seen. After breakfast we head south along the coast to Santa Marta. This is the property described by Bruce Berger in his book on the Baja, Almost an Island. A caretaker family looks after things and Baja Expeditions has a palapa here used by kayak groups. Landing on the beach, we add two SEMIPLAMATED PLOVERS and our only RED-TAILED HAWK to the trip list. We also observe a pair of Turkey Vultures copulating atop a cardon cactus -- how romantic is that?

We visit the caretaker's family in whose garden we find an endemic XANTUS' HUMMINGBIRD. A stroll through the nearby arroyo reveals an interesting and diverse plant community. On the rocky beach we also find a Side-blotched Lizard.

Snorkeling here is also outstanding, with sightings of Sea of Cortez Angelfish and a Crown of Thorns.

From San Marta we proceed north in search of whales and seabirds all the way up and around Isla Monserrat off Puerto Escondido. This is as far north as we will go. Moving into blue water we come across a second RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD and succeed in getting photos of it.

We spend the bulk of the afternoon in search of cetaceans. In the channel between Islas Monserrat and Catalan we find a large pod of Long-beaked Common Dolphins with quite a few small youngsters among them. We spend a good 20 minutes with this group and see lots of sexual activity among them. Dolphins just want to have fun. A few pelagic type BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS put in a typical, brief appearance on the bow wave.

Around happy hour we find more whales. Two of the localized population of FIN WHALES are mixed in with a trio of blue whales which include a mother and calf pair and the skinny whale we saw two days previously, who we now dub "Bumpy" for the large bump and his left side. In this same area Jose calls out a flyby POMARINE JAEGER and I pick up a CRAVERI'S MURRELET lifting off the water. By the time we're back in Agua Verde we are one bunch of tired enchiladas.

April 23

Leaving Agua Verde for the last time we head east toward Islas Santa Cruz and San Diego. In passing these islands there are BLACK and LEAST STORM-PETRELS in view almost continuously and it is in this area that I spot two ASHY STORM-PETREL. This is a surprise; these birds are thought to be endemic to the California current on the Pacific coast so they are well out of their range.

We pass along the east side of Isla San Jose hoping to turn up some Sperm Whales without success. We tie up at the Las Animas seamount for some snorkeling and enjoy some excellent visibility. Looking down we can see the rock face of Las Animas disappear into the depths. Here we see some big groupers in the rock grottoes.

We come upon a feeding frenzy of Brown Boobies and pelagic type Bottlenose Dolphins. After passing Isla San Jose two Pink-footed Shearwaters soar by and 3 Murrelets on the water go unidentified to species.

We set anchor in a lovely little cove at Escondido Grande on Isla Partida where we take a stroll in the evening.

April 24

San Lucan Rock Lizard, photo by Roger WolfeCandelero, photo by Roger WolfeI'm awakened at dawn by the song of a CANYON WREN. We leave early for Espiritu Santo, separated from Partida by a mere 100-meter gap. We drop anchor at Candelero and we hike up into the amphitheatre above the beach. This is a lovely spot and here we find a San Lucan Rock Lizard and back at the beach a Coachwhip Snake.

We enjoy some of the finest snorkeling on our trip. The water here is alive with fish.

The short ride back to La Paz is with heavy hearts. We've had an excellent time that none of us will soon forget.


Roger Wolfe for Monterey Seabirds

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Last updated May 21, 2005