Wildlife in The Baja
Plenty of people come to Los Cabos to go a little wild, but there is a wealth of natural wildlife to be found all around the surrounding area if you know what to look for. Even in downtown Cabo you can see hummingbirds, iguanas, orioles, rose finches, desert falcons, ospreys, chipmunks and even the mysterious ring-tailed cat. Play a round of golf on any course and you are sure to run into plenty of the local fauna and in San Jose Del Cabo there is a fantastic lagoon and estuarine area which is famous for bird life of all kinds. It is well worth a visit early in the morning.
More than 100 mammals have been recorded in the Baja peninsula, two dozen of which are considered endemic. The extreme terrain and desert climate has made for some interesting adaptations. Among the list of carnivores that live in the wilderness are coyotes, mountain lions, foxes, bobcats, and raccoons. Mule deer live below 1,500 meters (5,000 ft.), and some white-tailed deer live in the higher elevations.
Desert bighorn sheep have yet to recover from the excessive big-game hunting of the early 20th century. And the endangered peninsular pronghorn (berrendo) survives only in a protected preserve. Also on the endangered species list is the endemic black jackrabbit. On the island of Espiritu Santo near La Paz there is a unique species of jackrabbit found only there.
The area is undoubtedly famous for these impressive animals and you can find out more about the gray whale migration here.
Other Marine Mammals
Besides the gray whale, Baja’s Pacific Ocean and The Sea Of Cortez host two dozen species of whales and dolphins, including blue, fin, sei and orcas in the whales and spinner and spotted dolphin plus the endangered vaquita dolphin, which once thrived in the northern Sea of Cortez.
The elephant seal and Guadalupe fur seal have made a recent comeback on Isla Guadalupe and nearby islands, where they were hunted nearly to the point of extinction in the 19th century. More common California sea lions, or lobos marinas in Spanish, live on and around several islands in the Sea of Cortez, including Isla Ángel de la Guarda near Bahía de los Angeles and Isla Espíritu Santo near La Paz. At Espiritu Santo the panga owners will take you to the colonies and you can even swim with them at times, however take care because the large bulls are often protective of their pups and harems and they may not appreciate you getting too close!
Marine biologists have labelled the Sea of Cortez the richest body of water in the world. The French marine biologist, Jaques Cousteu called The Sea Of Cortez the “World’s aquarium” and with good reason.
Diverse marine environments along both sides of the Baja Peninsula support thousands of species of fish. There are sailfish and marlin (collectively called billfish) and this is probably the main reason why there is a Cabo San Lucs! The fantastic sport fishing in the area fishery supports the entire town.
As well as the money-fish like marlin, there are ; corvinas and croaker, including the protected totuava; yellowtail, amberjack, pompanos, and roosterfish; dorado (mahimahi), wahoo, and bluefin, albacore, and yellowfin tuna, which can grow to sizes exceeding 180 kilograms (400 lbs.); various types of sea bass, including garropa (grouper) and cabrilla; flounder and halibut; snappers (pargo, including the red snapper, which is called huachinango in Spanish). More than 60 types of sharks live here, among them the hammerhead, thresher, bonito (mako), bull, whitetip, sand, blue, blacktip, and whale shark—the world’s largest fish at 18 meters (59 ft.) and 3,600 kilograms (almost four tons). In the summer you can charter a panga and go looking for whale sharks. If you are lucky to find one you can even get in and swim with these stunning creatures.
Eagle rays, guitarfish, stingrays, and other rays often rest on the sandy bottom of the sea, offshore from the southern part of the peninsula. Divers and snorkelers are sometimes lucky enough to see the Pacific manta ray glide by. With a wingspan of up to seven meters (23 ft.), it can weigh nearly two tons. Where you see one in the water or not, a walk on the beach by El Arco will definitely provide a view of these magnificent fish as they regularly jump clear out of the water on the Pacific side of the land spit.
The Humboldt squid is another unusual deepwater creature. It grows to 4.5 meters (15 ft.) long and weigh up to 150 kilograms (330 lbs.). It is becoming the apex predator in the area as the sharks are steadily fished out for the appalling fin trade. These squids are dangerous to divers in particular and great care should be taken when they are around in numbers.
Barracuda are found in both the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. And in Southern Baja around Cabo San Lucas, the flying fish puts on a good show as it leaps out of the water offshore.
Abundant shellfish, including clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, and shrimp, and spiny lobster, are found all along the coast.
With this great variety of plant and fish life comes an equally fantastic bird population. Ornithologists have identified at least 300 species, but unfortunately no one has published a Baja-specific field guide to date, though several Mexican bird guides include the species found on the peninsula and its islands.
Baja California Sur Birds (BCS Birds, www.bcsbirds.com) is dedicated to raising awareness of the area’s potential as a world-class bird-watching destination. The BCS Birds website is designed as a reference for naturalists and birders who wish to identify what they have seen here and who wish to learn what species are regularly observed around Cabo San Lucas.
Brown pelicans are common around Cabo and indeed in all of the Baja but are gone from the coastal islands of California and the U.S. shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Other noteworthy birds include the magnificent frigate bird, fisher eagle, cormorant, egret, gull, heron, loon, osprey, plover, sandpiper, and tern.
Charter fishing boats sometimes see pelagic birds such as the albatross, black-legged kittiwake, red phalarope, shearwater, surf scoter, south polar skua, storm petrel, black tern, and red-billed tropic bird.
The inland ponds, springs, lakes, streams, and marshes of Baja support two species of bittern, the American coot, two species of duck, the snow goose, the northern harrier, six species of heron, the white-faced ibis, the common moorhen, two species of rail, five species of sandpiper, the lesser scaup, the shoveler, the common snipe, the sora, the roseate spoonbill, the wood stork, three species of teal, the northern waterthrush, and the American wigeon.
Birds of the Sierra
The golden eagle, western flycatcher, lesser goldfinch, black-headed grosbeak, red-tailed hawk, pheasant, yellow-eyed junco, white-breasted nuthatch, mountain plover, acorn woodpecker, and canyon wren live in the peaks and valleys of the sierras, along with two species of hummingbird, four species of vireo, and eight species of warbler.
Falcons, flycatchers, hawks, hummingbirds, owls, sparrows, and thrashers live in the hot, dry desert environment, along with the American kestrel, merlin, greater roadrunner, vernon, turkey vulture, ladder-backed woodpecker, and cactus wren.
The largest bird in North America is the endangered California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), which weighs up to 11 kilograms (24 lbs.), with a wingspan of nearly 3.6 meters (12 ft.). A group of U.S. and Mexican scientists plans to release captive-bred condors in Baja’s Sierra de San Pedro Mártir in hopes that the more limited human presence will permit the bird to survive in the wild.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Thirty types of lizards live on the Baja Peninsula, including the large chuckwalla, which inhabits several islands in the Sea of Cortez and can grow to one meter (3 ft.) long. The desert iguana and the endemic coast-horned lizard are also noteworthy species. With lots of color photos, Amphibians and Reptiles of Baja California, by Ron McPeak can help you identify the many frogs, toads, salamanders, snakes, and lizards of the peninsula.
Five sea turtles live in Baja waters: the leatherback, green, hawksbill, western ridley, and loggerhead, which swims 10,460 kilometers (6,500 mi) between the island of Kyushu in Japan and the Sea of Cortez. All these turtles are endangered, and it’s illegal to hunt any of them or collect their eggs, but enforcing the law has been a challenge.
Many organizations are involved in turtle conservation efforts in Baja. One of the largest is Grupo Tortuguero (www.grupoturtuguero.org), which holds its annual meeting in late January–early February in Loreto. A who’s who of Baja influencers usually attends.
The beach at the Finisterra Hotel regularly plays host to nesting turtles and staff there surround the nests with protective cages until the young turtles hatch and make it to the sea in safety.
There are 35 species of snakes (serpientes) in Baja, about half of which are poisonous, although they rarely come into contact with people.
Nonvenomous kinds (culebra) include the western blind snake, rosy boa, Baja California rat snake, spotted leaf-nosed snake, western patch-nosed snake, bull snake, coachwhip, king snake, Baja sand snake, and California lyre snake.
Among the poisonous types (víbora) are the yellow-bellied sea snake, which resembles a floating stick in the water, and 18 species of rattlesnake (serpiente de cascabel or cascabel), including the common Baja California rattler, red diamondback, and western diamondback, which is the largest and most dangerous of Baja’s snakes and lives in the canyons of the northern sierras.
The only rattler that’s endemic to Baja California is the rattleless rattlesnake (Crotalus catalinensis), which lives only on Isla Santa Catalina in the Sea of Cortez.