By Dessi Sieburth

1 Western Tanager

The Western Tanager is a migrant that can be found in Los Angeles in the summer and in Mexico during the winter.

Many birds migrate long distances across international borders. The Pectoral Sandpiper, for example, migrates from Alaska to central South America. The Bar-tailed Godwit migrates from Alaska to New Zealand. On its way back to Alaska in spring, it stops to feed in the Yellow Sea region of China and Korea. Most migrants rely on available habitat in several separate geographic locations, including their wintering grounds, breeding grounds, and stop over locations. However, many migratory birds are inadequately protected for at least one or more of their stops, which contributes to the rapid decline of migrants around the word. A recent study by Runge et al. (2015) in Science shows that 91% of migratory species face threats somewhere along their migration route. For example, the Great Knot is only protected in 7% of its regular migration route. The Red-spectacled Amazon, a migratory parrot of Brazil, is only protected in 4% of its range. Both species are listed as vulnerable. Countries vary in their efforts to protect migrating birds. For example, Germany which is known for its conservation efforts, protects 98% of the areas where migratory bird species occur within its borders. However, only 18% of these migrating birds are protected outside the German border. China and India only protect 10% of regions which have migratory birds. International collaboration will be necessary to make conservation efforts successful.

Western Mexico is one location where many migrants from the U.S. spend their winters. San Blas is a small costal town located just north of Puerto Vallarta in Western Mexico. With its mild climate and variety of habitats, including mangroves, grasslands, and mountains, it is home to many species of endemic and migratory birds. On my recent December birding trip to San Blas, our group found over 300 species in just over five days.

Migrating birds we observed include Nashville Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Pacific-Slope Flycatcher, Blue Grosbeak, and Dusky Flycatcher, all of which can be found in the Los Angeles Area during summer, but winter in Mexico and Central America. The Nashville Warbler, the most common warbler we saw in San Blas, breeds both in the northwestern and northeastern U.S., and migrates to Mexico and Belize. Western Tanagers, which we saw feeding in tall fig trees, breed across the western U.S., but their wintering grounds are solely in southern and western Mexico. The Black-headed Grosbeak, which we also saw feeding in blooming fig trees, breeds in western North America and northern Mexico, but only winters in western Mexico. The Blue Grosbeak, which we found in riparian habitat, breeds throughout the southern U.S., but its wintering range is restricted to Mexico and Northern Central America.

We also saw both subspecies of the beautiful endemic Golden-cheeked Woodpecker (flavinuchus and chrysogenys) and the Northern Potoo, a Poorwill-like Nightjar.We needed to take a boat ride at night to find the Northern Potoo, which was perched motionless in a tree. The Northern Potoo is nocturnal and its primary food source is moths. Two of my favorite birds were the Bumblebee Hummingbird, the second-smallest bird in the world, and the Yellow-winged Cacique, which would travel in the hundreds every evening to roost in bamboo stands.

We found many migrants including Orioles, Tanager, and Warblers at “bird friendly” coffee plantations in San Blas. Bird friendly coffee plantations use native tropical forest to shade coffee plants. Many migrating bird populations have been declining because of deforestation. The native tropical forests at coffee plantations provide important habitat for migrating and endemic birds. Many countries including Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador have coffee plantations that grow shade-grown bird friendly coffee.

One way we can help to promote bird friendly shade-grown coffee plantations is to buy coffee that is grown in one of these plantations. Coffee which is solely labeled as “shade -grown” is not necessary bird friendly, as non-native trees may be used to shade the coffee plants. Coffee with the Smithsonian Bird-Friendly label is currently the only coffee guaranteed to be organic and bird friendly. Smithsonian certified Bird-Friendly Allegro coffee can be purchased in your local Whole Foods stores here in Los Angeles. Because birds are citizens of the world, they need to be protected globally.

Thanks to Mark Stackhouse, our excellent San Blas guide, and John Sterling, who took me to San Blas. All photos taken by Dessi Sieburth (, except the Blue Grosbeak taken by Beatrix Schwarz.

2 nashville warbler
This Nashville Warbler is a common migrant in San Blas in winter (photo taken in Los Angeles County)

3 Blue grossbeak
The Blue Grosbeak winters in San Blas, Mexico (photo taken in Los Angeles County)

6 Greater pewee
The Greater Pewee summers in Arizona and was common in coffee plantations in San Blas in winter

4 Golden cheeked Woodpecker
Golden-cheeked woodpecker (subspecies chrysogenys), an endemic species to western Mexico

5 Northern Potoo
A Northern Potoo at night in San Blas