Mexico Travel DiaryBarranca Rancho Liebre (75159 bytes)

14 March 2002
For years I've wanted to see the Tufted Jay, endemic to the Sierra Madre Occidental in western Mexico.  The best place to find this bird is Barranca Rancho Liebre, a canyon near the Mazatlan - Durango highway in Sinaloa state.   Today at noon I park my rental car and hike into the barranca for the first time.  In less than 5 minutes, Tufted Jays glide across the trail in twos and threes, a dozen in all.  This is too easy.   It's as if someone whispered into a hidden microphone "Birder in the canyon, cue the jays..."
    Photographing a Tufted Jay is not so easy - they remain high and distant, soon moving on.  Today I just enjoy the canyon and other bird life.  Anyone who knows the isolated mountain "sky islands" of southeastern Arizona would feel at home here.   Slate-throated Redstart (41410 bytes)The wide trail leads through an open forest of oak and pine, with familiar birds such as Bridled Titmouse, Brown Creeper, but most of all warblers - Yellow, Grace's, Hermit, and Red-faced.  Other birds are new:   Brown-backed Solitare, and more nice warblers:  Crescent-chested, Rufous-capped, Golden-browed, and the delightful Red Warbler.  It is early spring here, but most of the oak leaves have turned reddish during the dry winter season just ended, giving the canyon an autumnal feel.  After about 2 km I reach an abandoned farmstead complete with iris, cacti, and agave, where live Yellow-eyed Juncos and Spotted Towhees.  From there an open pine glade, home to a Mountain Trogon, leads up to the barranca overlook.

15 March 2002
In late afternoon gnats swarm above the dry creekbed running through the barranca.  They provide supper for a Slate-throated Redstart, who darts out again and again from his favorite perch.  This warbler is something of a flibbertigibbet, fanning its tail in the typical redstart manner, restless, never still for an instant.  More cooperative is a Tufted Flycatcher, working its own swarm of gnats a few hundred meters up the trail.

Tufted Flycatcher (46780 bytes)

16 March 2002
Each day I hear the hoarse calls of Tufted Jays, and catch glimpses of them through the vegetation.  They are quite handsome, clad in white with black breast and face, bold crest, and navy blue wings.  The range of Tufted Jay is so small that they were unknown to science until the 1930s. They are unlike any other jay in Mexico or for that matter Central America.  Yet along the Pacific coast in faraway Ecuador, 2500 miles distant, lives a jay that is nearly identical - the White-tailed Jay.  It is a mystery how two jays so far apart can be almost alike in appearance.   The mundane explanation would be that the two populations are relics, all that remains of a species that once ranged from Mexico into South America.  Ornithologist Paul Haemig, however, has a different idea.  He suggests that the Tufted Jay is not native to Mexico, but was brought here from South America by humans, perhaps over 1000 years ago.  In support of the idea is the fact that pre-Columbian people of western Mexico traded extensively with northern South America.  Birds and bird feathers, used in clothing and ornaments, were major trade items.
    So this is why I have sought out the Tufted Jay.  Not to solve the mystery, of course, but to see a bird that may be a stranger in a strange land.   Was it brought here by humans, then released to make its way, or not, in the wild?   Or is it the last survivor of a once widespread line of jays? 

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