Birding paradise in Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit

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rivnaybirdsfrontI woke up at dawn in my hotel room in San Blas, Mexico a little bleary-eyed  and made my way to the lobby, where I was met by one of the most expert bird guides in the country, Francisco Garcia.

We drove a few miles to a dock in La Tovara National Park and in minutes we had set off in a small boat called a panga, out along the estuaries through the park’s thick growth of mangroves.

I was fully awake now, as we drifted along the deserted waterway. With the morning haze still swirling on the water we passed clumps of floating spider lilies. We were soon sighting one bird species after another from boat-billed herons to white ibises to tropical kingbirds. As our boat headed into the water trails through the mangroves, the growth was so thick in the tunnel-like waterways that at times we’d have to duck under low-hanging branches. La Tovara’s 1,606 acres of protected wetlands offer up a true slice of bird-watching heaven.

La Tovara National Park is one of the prime spots for viewing birds in Mexico. Riviera Nayarit the tourism destination where La Tovara National Park is located sits along the western migratory route for birds flying south from North America. Depending on the time of year, Riviera Nayarit has over 450 endemic and migratory bird species.

Birders are by their nature a quiet group they have to be in order to practice their craft. So it might come as a surprise that, according to the 2013 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation, there are approximately 47 million birders in the United States. Birders are travelers, too, with 18 million of them having traveled outside the U.S. to add to their bird-watching life lists.

San Blas has an incredible variety of habitats that shelter birds, including fresh and saltwater marshes, tropical forests, mangrove swamps, farmland, groves, beaches, tropical forests and open water. San Blas has 12 bird-watching routes, making it perfect for a two-week birding getaway. One thing to take into account is the hordes of mosquitoes. Do yourself a favor and pack an excellent insect repellent.

According to Francisco, the optimum months for a birding excursion are November through April, with the absolute peak being January through March. Each year, the region mounts a San Blas Christmas Bird Count, which this year took place Jan. 2-7, within a 15-mile radius in San Blas. The count’s 30 birdwatchers racked up 16,000 birds sighted, and identified 285 species. Three species were viewed in the region for the first time: Bewick’s wren, the flammulated flycatcher, and the Mexican whip-poor-will.

In addition to sighting myriad birds, there‘s always the chance visitors will encounter other residents of La Tovara, including American crocodiles and freshwater turtles sunning themselves on half-submerged mangrove branches. In those moments when birds weren’t in sight, Francisco shared insights about the ecosystem of La Tovara. He pointed at a red mangrove’s scattering of yellow leaves and explained, “Mangroves shed their yellow leaves in an effort to leach salt out of the brackish water of the estuary.”

San Blas itself is a laid back and unpretentious beach town. The main street is lined with casual eateries many of them open-air selling fresh seafood, including local oysters. When birders are off the trail, they can explore some of the area’s historic sights, like the 18th-century Fort of San Basilio. 

The Riviera Nayarit region has 192 miles of coastline and lots of activities to complement a birding trip. Whale-watching is excellent in Banderas Bay during the months of December through March, when migratory humpback whales arrive. Riviera Nayarit is also home to the Huichol Indians who are renowned for their colorful, visionary art that is inspired in part by peyote ceremonies. Visitors will find lots of opportunities to buy reasonably priced Huichol artwork. Travelers have the option to stay in high style at luxury resorts or seek out budget accommodations in some of the smaller seaside towns. Regional cuisine is also fantastic, with an emphasis on fresh seafood. The Mexican government is investing in Riviera Nayarit as a tourism destination, so infrastructure on the main roads is excellent, making self-drive adventures possible.

Source: USA Today