Oaxaca’s coastal wetlands and upland forests straddle the southern zone of the great Pacific Flyway, the major western pathway for hosts of birds migrating south from the United States and Canada. These familiar winter visitors, such as Canada geese and ducks, including the Muscovy, black-bellied whistler, gadwall, baldpate, and shoveler, arrive and join an already-rich resident population of ibis, parrots, jacanas, egrets, herons, and anhingas, swelling the numbers into the millions.
Some of the most commonly seen residents are also the most spectacular and entertaining. The cootlike, blackish northern jacana (Jacana spinosa) amuses bird-watchers by appearing to walk on water. Actually, its clownishly large feet allow it to scoot across gardens of water-borne lily pads as if they were solid land, earning it the label “lily walker.”
Always impressive is the graceful swoop of a great blue heron (Ardea herodius) gliding to rest in a Oaxacan wetland. Unmistakable because of its regal six-foot (two-meter) wingspread and blue-gray coloring, the male great blue heron also sports a proud blue head plume. In the same marshland, you will also probably spot its smaller (about two feet, or half a meter, long), more numerous cousin, the snowy egret (Egretta thula), pure white except for its black beak. Although differing sharply in appearance, both species single-mindedly stalk through a pond ever so slowly, freezing rock-still when prey is spotted. After several seconds, pop! Down goes the bill, snaring a hapless crab, fish, or frog.
Try not to confuse the snowy egret with the smaller (18-inch) yellow-billed cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), an African native that began appearing in Mexico around 1900. True to their name, cattle egrets usually flock around cow pastures, where they feed on the hordes of bugs that follow livestock. Local Mexican people generally identify all herons and egrets collectively as garzas.
Oaxaca’s prime beach-bird actors, in addition to the swarms of gulls (gaviotas), terns, sandpipers, and boobies, are brown pelicans and big black-and-white frigate birds. Their collective feeding rituals, although quite distinct, are equally entertaining. That of the brown pelícano (pay-LEE-cah-noh) is the most deliberate. After spotting a school of their preferred prey, the pelicans, singly or in pairs, circle once or twice, then dive headlong into the billows, usually coming up with fish in their gullet. They rest, bobbing over the waves for a spell, seemingly waiting for their comrades to take their turns. Frigate birds (fragatas), by contrast, prefer either being fed or stealing food to hunting for themselves. They often reap bonuses from the efforts of villagers who haul in nets of fish right on the beach. Once the salable part of the catch is gone, kids have great fun throwing the residue overhead to a gaggle of wheeling frigate birds. In contrast to the pelicans’ mannerly behavior, it’s every frigate bird for itself. Frigates who miss a tossed morsel often try to snatch their fellow’s prize.
Flocks of small parrots screech, shriek, swoop, chatter, and swarm above Oaxaca’s coastal mangrove lagoons and tropical foothills. The best places to spot them are in fields or pastures adjacent to thick forests, far from town. Half a dozen species—mostly green, with a patch of color on their throat or forehead—are common. If you don’t get far enough into the country to see them, ask where péricos (PAY-ree-kohs) are for sale in big markets, such as Oaxaca City , Tlacolula , Etla , Tehuántepec, Tuxtepec, Pinotepa Nacional , and Valle Nacional.
Although you might be tempted to buy such a market parrot, don’t. Like all wild animals, parrots outside of their forest homelands present manifold difficulties. For starters, they quickly chew their way out of bamboo cages. Later, your airline will probably require that you buy a special “parrot ticket” for the flight back home. Moreover, after you arrive, parrots are all but impossible to get through customs. On the other hand, if you must have a pet parrot, best buy a pair of (never a single) certified healthy birds from a pet shop back home.
Among the parrots you’re most likely to encounter in Oaxaca is the foot-long green parakeet (Aratinga holochlora). A long tail and a red throat further mark the species, whose members prefer to flock in the drier woodlands above 3,000 feet (1,000 meters). Another, commonly seen in tropical lowlands, is the Aztec parakeet (Aratinga astec), at nine inches (23 cm), all green with an olive-brown throat. For superb color drawings and details, see A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern America by Steve Howell and Sophie Webb.