Mexico Travel Diary
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. 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
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.
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?