Unexpected Awe

The alternating red and white paper picador with their intricate cut outs, fluttered in the breeze. They were streamed on a line that led directly to the door of the Iglesia de San Sebastián, as though guiding me to enter into the white church. “Hey, let’s take a look inside,” I said, and grabbed Steve’s hand, giving him no voice in the matter.

We actually didn’t come to San Sebastián to see this church, or really to even visit this town. San Sebastián was simply a location description for the birding tour we were taking through Ecotours de Mexico out of Puerto Vallarta. We had birded along the road leading up to San Sebastián, which is an old mining town up in the mountains west of Puerto Vallarta. And by old I mean it was established as a mining town back in 1605 during the Spanish Empire period. Back then it was part of what was called New Spain and workers mined for gold, silver and lead. As of this writing the town still remains on the “tentative” list for being considered a World Heritage Site and is a popular bus tour for visitors to Puerto Vallarta.

Church of Saint Sebastian Mexico 1

Church of Saint Sebastian

I’ll be honest, Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding area had not really been on our bucket list of places to go birding. Our list is long and still includes places like Colombia, Oaxaca (Mexico), the obvious places in Africa, Thailand, some places in Europe, Brazil and some spots we haven’t hit yet in Ecuador and Panama. But we found ourselves in Puerto Vallarta because I was going to be attending a writing workshop in the area and so we figured we get in some birding before the workshop began.

We were staying in Puerto Vallarta at the Westin hotel (I was burning through the last of some hotel points, so we took advantage of the lovely stay there) and went on three different day tours with Ecotours de Mexico and we found that they’re a great company to go with. You travel by van and they leave early when it’s still dark so you can get to birding when the birds are at their most active. They bring along fresh pastries, stop for coffee and have snacks, drinks, yogurts, fruit and water for everyone. I don’t think any of our tours included more than eight birders in the group.

The drive up to San Sebastián is about an hour and half, but longer if you’re birding along the way. You’re birding by car with stops at spots where your guide knows it will be the birdiest. The road up to San Sebastián is a nice paved road, but we turned off a few times onto some gravel roads to some particularly birdy areas.  I like this kind of birding, as I hate walking and navigating tough trails in groups of people because I’m a slow hiker. I don’t mind doing tough trails with just Steve and a guide, but I get more anxious with a group of people because I don’t want to slow down the group, so car roadside birding is ideal for me. (Actually, canoe birding is my favorite. Yes, I’m that lazy.)

San Sebastian birding

I have a gallant husband who always offers to carry the camera.

Is it just me, or are the Chachalacas always the first birds encountered on a bird trip? And by “encountered,” you know what I mean: heard. As soon as we piled out of the van our ears were assaulted by the loud and raucous birds. The screeching and cackling aside, I was excited because these were new ones for me: they were the Rufous-bellied Chachalaca. An endemic!

West-Mexican Chachalaca

Rufous-bellied Chachalaca

I can still be awed by a bird I’ve seen before. For instance, take the Vermillion Flycatcher. Yes, I’d seen it before, but not in Mexico. So when our guide hollered, “Vermillion Flycatcher!” I looked for where he was pointing and began snapping photos. Oh, to be so lucky of a bird to have flashy red to show off to others.

Vermillion Flycatcher San Sebastian Mexico

Vermillion Flycatcher

After the excitement of the Vermillion Flycatcher (especially for those in our party who had never seen one), all eyes began sleuthing the tree branches for movement. I looked over at some scrub brush and found a bird sillhoueted. Pointing, I asked, “What’s that?”

Our guide lifted his binoculars to his eyes. “Oh, oh, that’s goooood!” he said excitedly. “You got the spotted wren! That’s a good bird.”

Snap, snap snap. I tried to get a good photo but the bird was in the wrong position. Or I was. Or maybe it’s the sun that was in the wrong position. I was happy about this bird because it’s a new one for me. I was also happy and feeling just a bit smug about being the one who found it. I was not, however, happy about the photo. And as I write this post I’m also not happy about the identification. The bird certainly has the characteristic spots on it and is definitely a wren-like bird, but it appears to have an eye ring and there’s no eye ring on a spotted wren when I look for images on the internet. But it could be the crummy light in the photo and the angle. Maybe it’s not an eye ring? I’ll never really know. So it’s a mystery and I’m open to any feedback and comments from you dear readers.

spotted wren mexico

Spotted Wren, perhaps?

Much  more obvious was the unmistakable Blue Mockingbird, which hopped out in the middle of the road to get a good look at all of us birders. No one prepared me for this elegant indigo bird. He was absolutely stunning. Mockingbirds have such a poor reputation in the US and are often called “garbage birds,” and while I don’t share that same sentiment, I sometimes just ignore them because I see them all the time in our yard at home. But this gorgeous blue guy caused me to become a bit smitten with him.

blue mockingbird mexico

Blue Mockingbird

We got in three hours of birding before we stopped at the town of San Sebastián. We all split up when we got to town. A couple of the ladies nosed around the shops looking for trinkets while a couple others found a cerveza and a park bench at the main square.

san sebastian mexico square gazebo

The gazebo at the main square.

I found the church.

When I grabbed Steve’s hand and pulled him into the church I was overcome with the same feeling I had when I saw a Vermillion Flycatcher for the first time, or saw that Blue Mockingbird earlier in the day.

I’d rather not say that it was breathtaking because I want to avoid the cliche, but it was breathtaking. It indeed took my breath away. I gasped with surprise. I was expecting the old church to be dark and cavernous like some of the old catholic churches or missions I had peeked in at the various cities and towns I’ve visited around the world. But this church felt light and airy and calming. The interior was clearly built and designed in the Colonial Spanish Baroque Style with its Corinthian columns and frescoes. The chandeliers (clearly a much-later addition) hung daintily from the ceiling.

Church of Saint Sebastian Mexico interior

Church of Saint Sebastian

After a little time in the town our guide gathered us all together to take us to a restaurant on the edge of town. We were the only customers, but we were promised an authentic lunch. I saw one thing on the menu: Molé. That’s all I needed to see. I ordered the chicken molé and ten minutes later I had my dish in front of me with chicken smothered in the dark chocolatey sauce. I took a bite, closed my eyes and was glad we decided to go birding in Puerto Vallarta.

Churches. Birds. Architecture. Unexpected birding locations. Molé. They all can leave me with an unexpected awe.

The List

List of birds we saw on the way to San Sebastián (Lifers in bold):

  1. Turkey Vulture
  2. American Kestrel
  3. Rufous-bellied Chachalaca
  4. Rock Dove
  5. White-winged Dove
  6. Eurasian Collared Dove
  7. Lilac-crowned Parrot
  8. Broad-billed Hummingbird
  9. Berylline Hummingbird
  10. Mountain Trogon (heard)
  11. Pale-billed Woodpecker
  12. Acorn Woodpecker
  13. Greater Pewee
  14. Pacific Slope Flycatcher
  15. Vermillion Flycatcher
  16. Tropical Kingbird
  17. Thick-billed Kingbird
  18. Masked Tityra
  19. Green Jay
  20. Common Raven
  21. Spotted Wren
  22. White-belly Wren
  23. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  24. White-throated Robin
  25. Brown-backed Solitaire
  26. Blue Mockingbird
  27. Golden Vireo
  28. Plumbeous Vireo
  29. Orange-crowned Warbler
  30. Nashville Warbler
  31. Yellow Warbler
  32. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  33. Black-throated Gray Warbler
  34. Wilson’s Warbler
  35. Painted Redstart
  36. Rufous-capped Warbler
  37. Slate-throated Redstart
  38. Summer Tanager
  39. Yellow Grosbeak
  40. Black-headed Grosbeak
  41. Blue Bunting
  42. Blue Grosbeak
  43. Great-tailed Grackle
  44. Rufous-capped Brush Finch
  45. House Sparrow