Garden Variety Birds

Garden Variety Birds

By Dale Ingrey


bewicks wrenThere I was comfortably ensconced in my chair that Wednesday on the covered patio overlooking the beautifully manicured tropical garden of our casita. Beyond the bougainvillea and hibiscus hedges the Sierra Madre Mountains loomed in the distance and Lake Chapala spread out across my field of vision from east to west. I had just witnessed the drama of a Bewick’s wren grasping a butterfly in its beak down by the pool before I climbed the short flight of stairs to the patio, binoculars around my neck and coffee mug in hand. 

By this time of day, just before noon, the mist had dissipated and the air felt warmer than earlier in the morning when I had made my first visit to the garden.  The hummingbirds, orioles, goldfinches and sparrows were still active, taking turns visiting the fountain for a drink and darting in and out of the hedges. All of a sudden a golden-fronted woodpecker landed on the fountain and posed for a few seconds.  Where was my camera?

In the casita, of course.

A variety of tropical plants, cacti, poinsettia, dracaena, philodendron, coleus, snake plants, sword plants and bird of paradise were meticulously planted in the garden in front of the hedge with roses, sweet william, geranium, and marigold interspersed throughout.  The flowers attract a myriad of pollinators such as butterflies, bees, and wasps, as well as warblers, from the common Wilson’s, yellow-rumped and Nashville warblers which I am used to seeing at home in Southern Ontario, to the never before seen Lucy’s and Virginia’s warblers (at least by me).  And all the while the northern rough-winged swallows soar overhead catching flying insects. Occasionally the male vermilion flycatcher alights in the palm tree at the far corner of the yard pausing in his constant search for food. Like all flycatchers, he darts out without warning, snatches his prey and returns to perch and wait for another opportunity.

On Monday I had joined the Lake Chapala Birders for an outing to the marsh boardwalk in Jocotepec and was thrilled to see both American Bittern and King Rail, along with a good variety of diving ducks, herons, Northern Jacana, moorhen, white-faced ibis and American Coot; however this garden in our rented casita had provided more birding pleasure than just about anywhere else we have vacationed over the last dozen years or so. My friend Ron and his wife Maggie had kindly arranged this comfortable two-week rental for my wife, Nina and me, and enthusiastically showed us the sights in Ajijic and Chapala, all the while espousing the advantages of living in this “second best climate” in the world.  No surprise to me that the weather in Lake Chapala is a major attraction for thousands of winter weary Canadians and Americans. 

On Saturday I joined a group of hikers for an invigorating trek into the hills north of Ajijic where I marvelled at the beauty of nature.  Even during this very dry time of the year, January, wildflowers and shrubs were blooming. I tried to imagine these bone-dry ravines teeming with rushing water in the rainy season when the hills are transformed into various shades of vibrant green. Alas, not much opportunity for birding this day though, since my companions are hikers, not birders.

I did venture afield twice more, once to Cristiania Park in Chapala while my friend Ron was busy knocking tennis balls around the court, and then another time to join the birding group on an excursion to Tapalpa, which yielded several more lifers (birds seen for the first time), the brown-backed solitaire, acorn woodpecker, buff-breasted flycatcher, and ruffles-capped warbler among them. 

The final morning of our brief stay in Mexico arrived all too soon; however, I was determined to spend a couple of hours by the garden before heading to the airport. A male Nashville Warbler made a visit to the fountain before flying off. He was replaced by a yellow-rumped warbler, and then in turn hooded oriole, Scott’s Oriole, lesser goldfinches and grackles. The ubiquitous house sparrows that roost and build their nests in the underside of the patio roof seem to tolerate most casual visitors but these noisy grackles, a dozen or so, were clearly not welcome.  And neither was the American Kestrel that landed on the upper branch of the palm tree by the pool. This little falcon, a hunter of mice and small birds, must strike terror into the hearts of the resident sparrows and finches.  The garden was dead silent until the Kestrel flew off toward the western hills a few minutes later, having decided there was no easy prey here.

And then it was time to drive to the airport.  As I glanced skyward before loading the suitcases into the car, the swallows were soaring over the casas of Vista Alegre. Would some of these same winter visitors to Mexico manage to find their way back to Canada in the spring? I couldn’t help but wish then that I too could spend my winter months in the idyllic climate of Lake Chapala.


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