A Field Guides Birding Tours Report

Gulf of California: Mexico's Rich Desert Coast 2021

December 5-11, 2021 with Micah Riegner & Jesse Fagan guiding

Field Guides Birding Tours
This Red-billed Tropicbird took flight in front of our boat on our offshore boat day. Photo by Micah Riegner.

Kino Bay is one of those special places to which I always hope to return. My adventures there started when I was just a kid, tagging along on my dad’s Prescott College Coastal Ecology course. I fondly remember those windy panga rides, the walks in the desert, the fresh flour tortillas hot from the tortilleria, the mudflats carpeted with shorebirds. These memories inspired me to set up this Gulf of California tour and, after almost two years of the Covid pandemic, we were finally able to run our first departure. Some of the highlights were seeing the enormous flocks of Brant and Redheads backdropped by the gorgeous desert along the Canal del Infernillo, the 130+ Craveri’s Murrelets and Red-billed Tropicbirds on our offshore boat day, the pair of Ridgway’s Rails that emerged from the mangroves practically at our feet, the pods of Common and Bottlenose Dolphins and the herd of Desert Bighorn on the cliffs behind Kino.

Our adventure began in Hermosillo, dusty capital of Sonora. Jesse and I picked up our rental vehicles, swung by the airport to pick up the group and from there we went straight to Kino in time for a delicious welcome dinner. The following day we took advantage of some calm waters to take a boat trip to nearby Isla Alcatraz. The island lies about 1.5 km from the mainland and supports an astonishing number of breeding seabirds. In the spring and early summer, the beaches are lined with honking Yellow-footed Gulls, Reddish Egrets, Tricolored Herons and Oystercatchers, while the guano-covered slopes teem with pelican and cormorant chicks. We hit it at the onset of the nesting cycle, so the pelicans and cormorants were just beginning their courtship and nest construction.

The next day was land-based. We left before sunrise and drove to a pristine patch of coastal desert in the mountains behind Kino. As soon as we stepped out of the vehicles, Jesse spotted a herd of Desert Bighorn Sheep on the ridge. Fantastic! It had been years since the last time I’d seen them in the Kino area. Shortly thereafter, Michael found a spectacular Western Diamondback, still too cold to move about. After seeing a Gray Vireo on a hillside covered in Elephant Trees (the vireos feed on their fruit during the winter), we birded the perimeter of Estero la Cruz, the enormous wetland just south of Kino. At our first stop, we drew out a pair of Ridgway’s Rails that swam across a small pond and paused momentarily in the sun right at our feet! We also had nice looks at a pair of Mangrove Warblers and a Northern Waterthrush in a line of Red Mangroves.

For our offshore boat day, we headed straight to the southern tip of Isla Tiburon, the largest island in the Gulf. On our way we saw the first of many Craveri’s Murrelets. These dove-sized alcids nest on several of the desert Islands. They’ll find a crack in the rocks just above the high tide line where they’ll lay up to three eggs. When the fluffy chicks hatch, they head directly to the water where they get fed by the adults. We circled Isla Cholludo, the tiny island packed with Cardons, then we headed across the channel to Isla San Esteban. On our way across we saw two Red-billed Tropicbirds resting on the water and a group of Long-beaked Common Dolphins. We scanned for whales, but unfortunately there weren’t any around.

The next day we did yet another boat trip, this time up the Infernillo Canal. This is the shallow channel between Isla Tiburon and mainland Sonora and it all belongs to the Comcaac, the indigenous group in this part of Mexico. For this outing we were lucky to be joined by Leonel Hoeffer, a Comcaac guide from the town of Desemboque, and he provided some insightful perspectives. For example, when we encountered a flock of several thousand Redheads he told us that, in Comcaac mythology, the Redheads brought the eelgrass seeds to the Infernillo so that they and the people could eat for the winter.

Among the Redheads were several thousand Brant, which also overwinter in the shallow eelgrass waters. Before arriving at our lunch spot on Punta Perla, a beautiful white sand peninsula at the northern end of Tiburon, we spent time with a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins. It was delightful to see a tiny baby with them, probably born in the sheltered lagoon nearby. While we were eating lunch the winds picked up, making a bumpy return to Kino. The following day we had our Covid tests at the hotel and, thank goodness, we all tested negative! We then birded around Estero Santa Rosa, another beautiful mangrove wetland where we enjoyed looks at Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers.

There are many important team members who made this tour possible: Nicole Cannon, our tour manager, spent many months making arrangements with Lorayne Meltzer, the Kino Bay Center Director, and Greg Smart, captain of the Lobo Marino and field station manager, and Cosme Becerra, captain of the Pardela facilitated our fabulous boat trips. Vickey Yañez prepared for us some great lunches, Hector Perez gave us an insightful presentation on the marine mammals of the Gulf, and Leonel Hoeffer guided us through the Infernillo Canal. It was great to have the Waterbird Monitoring Team Jaime Martinez and Lauren Dolinski with us for several outings and to hear about their monitoring program. And, finally, Jesse and I would like to thank all of you for joining us in this spin around the Gulf—we look forward to getting out in the field again with you soon!


One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant

Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)

BRANT (Branta bernicla)

The Infernillo Canal is an important wintering site for these handsome geese. We saw flocks of several thousand birds backdropped by the rugged Isla Tiburon.

Micah and Jesse put together this video of some of the tour highlights.

REDHEAD (Aythya americana)

In Comcaac mythology, the Redhead brought the seeds of the eelgrass to the Infernillo Canal so that they and the Comcaac could feed during the winter and spring. We witnessed flocks of several hundred as we motored up the turquoise waters.

LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)

We spotted a few on our boat trip up the Infernillo Canal.

SURF SCOTER (Melanitta perspicillata)

Three of these handsome ducks were out in the Infernillo Canal.

BUFFLEHEAD (Bucephala albeola)

We spotted some in Estero La Cruz and up the Infernillo Canal.

COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)

Four were hanging out in a sheltered bay near Isla Alcatraz.


Several hundred were seen at Estero La Cruz.

Odontophoridae (New World Quail)

GAMBEL'S QUAIL (Callipepla gambelii)

We had nice views of a flock on our way up to the church behind Kino Nuevo.

Podicipedidae (Grebes)

EARED GREBE (Podiceps nigricollis)

We saw rafts of several dozen birds.

WESTERN GREBE (Aechmophorus occidentalis)

The Infernillo Canal is an important wintering site for these handsome grebes. We saw flocks of several thousand birds backdropped by the rugged Isla Tiburon.

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A flock of several hundred brant whirled around us in the Canal del Infernillo. They come to these shallow waters to feed on eelgrass in the winter. Photo by Micah Riegner.
Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)

ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]

EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE (Streptopelia decaocto) [I]

WHITE-WINGED DOVE (Zenaida asiatica)

The common desert dove we saw throughout the tour.

MOURNING DOVE (Zenaida macroura)

Trochilidae (Hummingbirds)


We scoped one near the Prescott College Kino Bay Center.

COSTA'S HUMMINGBIRD (Calypte costae)

Lots of females were coming in to one of the feeders near the Prescott College Kino Bay Center.

Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules, and Coots)

RIDGWAY'S RAIL (YUMA) (Rallus obsoletus yumanensis)

We had outstanding looks at a pair that popped out of the mangroves at Estero La Cruz.

Gruidae (Cranes)

SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis)

Somewhat of a surprise, a pair flew past us in the Cardon forest.

Recurvirostridae (Stilts and Avocets)

BLACK-NECKED STILT (Himantopus mexicanus)

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Some happy birders after just having seen Craveri's Murrelet. Photo by Micah Riegner.
Haematopodidae (Oystercatchers)

AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER (Haematopus palliatus)

Seen at various sites throughout the tour.

Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)

BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (Pluvialis squatarola)

Common on the mud flats at Estero La Cruz.

SNOWY PLOVER (Charadrius nivosus)

A couple of these were mixed in with the flock of Wilson's Plovers that we saw at Estero Santa Rosa.

WILSON'S PLOVER (Charadrius wilsonia)

We had nice close studies of a flock at the mouth of Estero Santa Rosa.

Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)

WHIMBREL (Numenius phaeopus)

LONG-BILLED CURLEW (Numenius americanus)

Seen regularly out on the mudflats at Estero la Cruz.

MARBLED GODWIT (Limosa fedoa)

RUDDY TURNSTONE (Arenaria interpres)

We saw a small flock on the mud flats at the north end of Estero La Cruz.

BLACK TURNSTONE (Arenaria melanocephala)

Jesse spotted a flock out at Windy Point near the boat launch.

SANDERLING (Calidris alba)

We saw these combing the beach at Punta Perla and Estero Santa Rosa.

DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)

One was hanging out with a group of Western Sandpipers at the north end of Estero la Cruz.

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Our group focused on finding Gray Vireo in the desert. Photo by Jesse Fagan.

LEAST SANDPIPER (Calidris minutilla)

These were out on the rocks near the boat launch.

WESTERN SANDPIPER (Calidris mauri)

Our best views were at the north end of Estero la Cruz. The estero is an important stop over site for these migratory shorebirds.

SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus griseus)

Seen on the mud flats at Estero la Cruz.

RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus lobatus)

We chased a single individual out near Isla Tiburon.

SPOTTED SANDPIPER (Actitis macularius)

We spotted a few near the boat launch.

GREATER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa melanoleuca)

We had nice views out at Estero la Cruz.

WILLET (WESTERN) (Tringa semipalmata inornata)

The Comcaac call this bird "peeweewee" because of the sound it makes. Common throughout the tour.

Stercorariidae (Skuas and Jaegers)

PARASITIC JAEGER (Stercorarius parasiticus)

One bulleted past us near Isla San Esteban.

Alcidae (Auks, Murres, and Puffins)

CRAVERI'S MURRELET (Synthliboramphus craveri)

Woohoo! A lifer for everyone on the tour. We counted over 130 of them between southern Tiburon and the mainland of Sonora. Most were already paired up.

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Micah photographed these cooperative Ridgway's Rails that emerged from the mangroves. It's not often that they come out in the open like that!
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)

BONAPARTE'S GULL (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

Small flocks of these dapper little gulls were out between Isla Tiburon and the mainland of Sonora.

LAUGHING GULL (Leucophaeus atricilla)

One of the most common birds of the tour. We saw them just about every day.

HEERMANN'S GULL (Larus heermanni)

Another super common gull in the Gulf of California. Most of them breed out on Isla Rasa.

RING-BILLED GULL (Larus delawarensis)


Another lifer for most folks on the tour. This species is nearly endemic to the Gulf of California.

CALIFORNIA GULL (Larus californicus)

We scoped a few out at Estero la Cruz.

HERRING GULL (Larus argentatus)

These large gulls with pink legs were on a sand spit

GULL-BILLED TERN (Gelochelidon nilotica)

Several were out on the mudflats at the north end of Estero la Cruz.

CASPIAN TERN (Hydroprogne caspia)

Common in Estero la Cruz.

FORSTER'S TERN (Sterna forsteri)

ROYAL TERN (Thalasseus maximus)

ELEGANT TERN (Thalasseus elegans)

BLACK SKIMMER (Rynchops niger)

We saw a long line of them when we entered Estero la Cruz by boat.

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A remote cobble spit on Isla San Esteban covered in California Sea Lions. This is their main breeding site in the Gulf of California. Photo by Micah Riegner.
Phaethontidae (Tropicbirds)

RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD (Phaethon aethereus)

Woohoo! Another highlight of the tour. We saw a couple out past Isla Tiburon.

Gaviidae (Loons)

PACIFIC LOON (Gavia pacifica)

A huge flock flew past us as we boated out to Isla Tiburon.

COMMON LOON (Gavia immer)

Common around Kino Bay and in Estero la Cruz.

Procellariidae (Shearwaters and Petrels)

BLACK-VENTED SHEARWATER (Puffinus opisthomelas)

We spotted a few out near Isla San Esteban.

Fregatidae (Frigatebirds)


Sulidae (Boobies and Gannets)

BLUE-FOOTED BOOBY (Sula nebouxii)

BROWN BOOBY (Sula leucogaster)

Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)

BRANDT'S CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax penicillatus)

We had nice opportunities to compare those off-shore cormorants with the more common Double-crested Cormorant.

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Our encounter with Bottlenose Dolphins in the Infernillo Canal. Photo by Micah Riegner.

DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Unfortunately it's been a rough couple years at the breeding colony on Isla Alcatraz. Very few pairs were able to fledge young due to short food supply.

Pelecanidae (Pelicans)

AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

We saw several lined up out at Estero la Cruz.

BROWN PELICAN (Pelecanus occidentalis)

We had great views of adults and juveniles at the islands we visited.

Ardeidae (Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns)

GREAT BLUE HERON (Ardea herodias)

SNOWY EGRET (Egretta thula)

LITTLE BLUE HERON (Egretta caerulea)

One patrolled the shallow waters at Estero la Cruz.

TRICOLORED HERON (Egretta tricolor)

Seen at both Estero la Cruz and Estero Santa Rosa.

REDDISH EGRET (Egretta rufescens)

Lots of great views out at Estero la Cruz.

BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON (Nycticorax nycticorax)

Out on the rocks at Isla Alcatraz.

YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON (Nyctanassa violacea)

We saw a couple tucked away in the mangroves at Estero la Cruz and out on the rocks at Isla Cholludo.

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Micah's photo of Black-vented Shearwater from the offshore boat trip.
Threskiornithidae (Ibises and Spoonbills)

WHITE IBIS (Eudocimus albus)

Fairly common on the mudflats of Estero la Cruz.

Cathartidae (New World Vultures)

BLACK VULTURE (Coragyps atratus)

A few were catching the thermals off Isla Alcatraz.

TURKEY VULTURE (Cathartes aura)

Pandionidae (Osprey)

OSPREY (Pandion haliaetus)

One of the most common birds around Kino. They were beginning to nest while we were there.

Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)

NORTHERN HARRIER (Circus hudsonius)

Distant views at Estero la Cruz.

SHARP-SHINNED HAWK (Accipiter striatus)

A few winter migrants were around Estero la Cruz.

COOPER'S HAWK (Accipiter cooperii)

We had our best looks at one just behind the hotel.

HARRIS'S HAWK (Parabuteo unicinctus)

One of my favorite desert birds! We saw a small group out at Estero Santa Rosa.

RED-TAILED HAWK (Buteo jamaicensis)

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Linda Rudolph photographed this Craveri's Murrelet as it sped away from our panga.
Alcedinidae (Kingfishers)

BELTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle alcyon)

Scope view at Estero la Cruz.

Picidae (Woodpeckers)

GILA WOODPECKER (Melanerpes uropygialis)


We called in a pair at the Gray Vireo spot.

GILDED FLICKER (Colaptes chrysoides)

We saw a few at dusk in the Cardon forest.

Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)

AMERICAN KESTREL (Falco sparverius)

MERLIN (Falco columbarius)

A "Taiga" type hunted the peninsula at Estero la Cruz.

PEREGRINE FALCON (Falco peregrinus)

A few were patrolling the cliffs of Isla Alcatraz.

Tyrannidae (Tyrant Flycatchers)

GRAY FLYCATCHER (Empidonax wrightii)

We saw one in the place where we saw the Gray Vireos. So many little gray birds!

BLACK PHOEBE (Sayornis nigricans)

Linda spotted us one at Estero la Cruz.

SAY'S PHOEBE (Sayornis saya)

ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER (Myiarchus cinerascens)

A fairly common winter bird in the desert around Kino.

Vireonidae (Vireos, Shrike-Babblers, and Erpornis)

GRAY VIREO (Vireo vicinior)

One of my favorite desert birds around Kino. This species spends the winter along the coast of Sonora where it feeds on the fruit of Elephant Tree. We saw a couple along a desert wash outside Kino Bay.

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Paul Beerman managed to capture this Merlin as it bulleted past us at Estero La Cruz.
Laniidae (Shrikes)

LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE (Lanius ludovicianus)

Fairly common in the desert around Kino.

Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)

COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)

We spotted a pair near the hotel one morning.

Remizidae (Penduline-Tits)

VERDIN (Auriparus flaviceps)

Hirundinidae (Swallows)

MANGROVE SWALLOW (Tachycineta albilinea)

Seen at various sites around Estero la Cruz.

VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW (Tachycineta thalassina)

Several were flying around in the Cardon forest.

Regulidae (Kinglets)

RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET (Regulus calendula)

Polioptilidae (Gnatcatchers)

BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHER (Polioptila melanura)

One put on a show in the desert behind the Kino Bay Center.

Troglodytidae (Wrens)

ROCK WREN (Salpinctes obsoletus) [*]

CANYON WREN (Catherpes mexicanus) [*]

CACTUS WREN (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)

There were a couple out in the Cardon forest.

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The Infernillo Canal is an important wintering site for Redheads. Photo by Paul Beerman.
Sturnidae (Starlings)

EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris) [I]

Mimidae (Mockingbirds and Thrashers)

CURVE-BILLED THRASHER (Toxostoma curvirostre)

We had nice close looks at one in at the "Gray Vireo Spot."

NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD (Mimus polyglottos)

Ptiliogonatidae (Silky-flycatchers)

PHAINOPEPLA (Phainopepla nitens)

Seen in the desert out towards Estero Santa Rosa.

Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)

HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus) [I]

Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)

HOUSE FINCH (Haemorhous mexicanus)

Passerellidae (New World Sparrows)

RUFOUS-WINGED SPARROW (Peucaea carpalis)

The lot across from the Kino Bay Center had been a good place to find this species in the past. This year was no exception.

BLACK-THROATED SPARROW (Amphispiza bilineata)

We spotted a few in the Cardon forest.

LARK SPARROW (Chondestes grammacus)

Fairly common in the desert behind Kino.

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Mangrove Warbler female and male. Photos by Linda Rudolph and Micah Riegner.

WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

SAVANNAH SPARROW (LARGE-BILLED) (Passerculus sandwichensis rostratus)

It was cool to see a pair out in the halophytes at Isla Alcatraz. This population is endemic to the coast of Sonora and Baja.

CANYON TOWHEE (Melozone fusca)

One was near our parking spot the morning we went looking for Gray Vireos.

GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE (Pipilo chlorurus)

A common winter resident in the desert around Kino. We had nice looks at a bird on Isla Alcatraz.

Icteridae (Troupials and Allies)

HOODED ORIOLE (Icterus cucullatus)

A pair seemed to be hanging around the Kino Bay Center.

GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE (Quiscalus mexicanus)

Parulidae (New World Warblers)

NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH (Parkesia noveboracensis)

It was tricky to draw him out, but eventually he showed at Estero la Cruz.

ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER (Leiothlypis celata)

We spotted a few in the mangroves at Estero la Cruz.

COMMON YELLOWTHROAT (Geothlypis trichas)

We had halfway decent views of a bird skulking around in the mangroves at Estero la Cruz.

YELLOW WARBLER (MANGROVE) (Setophaga petechia rhizophorae)

We had fantastic views of both male and female at Estero la Cruz.

YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (AUDUBON'S) (Setophaga coronata auduboni)

Two were out in the mangroves at Estero la Cruz.

Cardinalidae (Cardinals and Allies)

NORTHERN CARDINAL (Cardinalis cardinalis)

PYRRHULOXIA (Cardinalis sinuatus)

We saw one in the desert near the Kino Bay Center.


DESERT COTTONTAIL (Sylvilagus audubonii)

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Linda Rudolph caught this Brown Booby right before it hit the water!

HARRIS'S ANTELOPE SQUIRREL (Ammospermophilus harrisii)

We encountered several in the desert behind Kino Bay.

ROCK SQUIRREL (Spermophilus variegatus)

BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN (Tursiops truncatus)

We spent a good half hour with a pod near Punta Perla in the Infernillo Canal.


We encountered a small pod of these oceanic dolphins between Isla Tiburon and Isla San Esteban.

CALIFORNIA SEA LION (Zalophus californianus)

We had great looks at several hauled out at Isla San Esteban and Isla Alcatraz.

BIGHORN SHEEP (Ovis canadensis)

Fantastic! Jesse spotted a small herd in the mountains outside of Kino.



Michael found a great big individual under a piece of cardboard out in the desert.

Totals for the tour: 123 bird taxa and 7 mammal taxa