I took a trip to Quintana Roo and the province of Yucatan from May 25 through June 4, 2002, with a group of my insane friends. Although they are not birders, they take a real interest in my hobby and helped in spotting birds when we did joint side trips to attractions such as the Mayan ruins. However, because we have a tradition of various nocturnal activities, I did not try for the nightjars and potoos.
A few words about preparation and expectations. I relied primarily on Howell and Webb's Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. Reports I'd read on the Internet suggested this was the best available guide for non-North American migrants, and having looked at several of the alternatives, I'm strongly inclined to agree. I also downloaded a checklist of Yucatan birds which had been compiled by Kurt and Cindy Radamaker in 1999. Studying just the birds that occur in the Yucatan, rather than attempting to become familiar with all the birds listed in Howell and Webb, proved a good working strategy. Finally, I reviewed Howell's chapter on the Yucatan in his guide to birding locations in Mexico; references to bird lists for specific sites in the following material pertain to the lists in Howell's book.
This was my first birding trip to the tropics. My goal was to get one hundred life birds. The season was such that the North American migrants had long departed, so my total species count was not particularly high. The positive side of that was that virtually all of the birds I saw were life birds and I was not distracted by the movements of familiar species. Life birds are listed below in capitals.
My first birds seen after landing at the Cancun airport were a distant gull at the airport (probably Ring-billed) and the omnipresent Great-tailed grackles. It had been seventeen years since I had visited Cancun and I had no wish to see how it had changed. I immediately rented a car and headed down the 307 to South Akumal and the villa rented with my friends. On the way I saw vultures, a mystery swallow that may have been a juvenile Cliff swallow, Great egret, and a Tropical/Couch's type kingbird which did not call and therefore could not be specifically identified. I was a little disappointed to reach the villa without a new life bird to my name.
The villa was right on the beach, and was one of the strip of tourist developments which have extended an hour's drive south of Cancun (it wasn't my choice). Very little of the coastal scrub is left undisturbed in this strip and the impact on species diversity was evident. However, I quickly picked up several life birds while enjoying the beach with my friends: a GREAT KISKADEE that was to be our constant companion, HOODED ORIOLE nesting in a tree in the villa's parking lot (number 400 on my overall life list!), TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRD, BOAT-BILLED FLYCATCHER, MELODIOUS BLACKBIRD, and WHITE-WINGED DOVE. Also seen were several standard swallows, Brown pelicans, Cattle egrets, Magnificent frigatebirds, an Osprey, and the ubiquitous Laughing gulls.
In the morning I picked up SOCIAL FLYCATCHER and ALTAMIRA ORIOLE in the scrub between the villa and Route 307. I then took a trip to Akumal, missing the turn and heading too far north. This proved fortuitous as I found a pair of tityras sitting atop a billboard on the roadside; one was obviously a male MASKED TITYRA, but the other appeared to have a black cap and chestnut face patch, which would indicate a female BLACK-CAPPED TITYRA. I found this puzzling until I checked the species accounts and found that the tityras often associate in mixed-species flocks. A two-for-one deal sounded pretty good to me so I took it. I also had a vocalizing COUCH'S KINGBIRD and a less talkative SULPHUR-BELLIED FLYCATCHER.
That day my friends and I visited the Mayan ruins at Tulum. These are very scenic ruins on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Birds here included BLACK-COWLED ORIOLE, CAVE SWALLOW, and a nighthawk that I had only a brief look at and which might have been Common or Lesser. We also stopped to eat in the village of Tulum; while we sat at an outdoor cafe a troop of parakeets came screaming over. I got on them only for a moment, but it was enough to see that they had long tails. Later review of the books indicated that the only parakeet/parrot-type bird in the region with a long tail was the AZTEC PARAKEET.
Back at the villa we saw a GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER. We also had a bird that both I and one of my bird-savvy friends immediately dismissed as a Brown-headed cowbird - specifically, it had all the seeming of a juvenile male molting to adult plumage (with the pale hood where the brown would come in). It was only later that I noted in the guide that the species is not known in the Yucatan. I suppose it is possible that the bird was in fact a female Bronzed cowbird seen in odd lighting. I now wish that I had taken a closer look at the bird as the sighting, if valid, would indicate an unprecedented expansion of the Brown-headed cowbird's range. Under the circumstances I can't really stand by my identification.
One of my friends mentioned having noticed a park not far down 307 from the villa. It turned out that Aktun Chen, a large reserve with a scenic cenote (cave with underground pool), was less than five kilometers down the road. I visited the park that afternoon and birded the entrance road. There I saw YELLOW-THROATED EUPHONIA, YUCATAN JAY, WHITE-BELLIED WREN, BLACK-HEADED TROGON, CANIVET'S EMERALD, and LESSER GREENLET. The latter two birds gave me fits - I couldn't find a local hummingbird species that fit the characteristics I observed (it was a female), and it was not until I returned to the villa that I found the Canivet's picture at the back of the plates, well-separated from the bulk of the hummingbirds. Fortunately, I had carefully observed the tail pattern from below, and it matched perfectly to the figure in the book. The Lesser greenlet was difficult simply because it is such an active and nondescript bird.
A guide at Aktun Chen stated that Great curassow occurs there, but I never saw it (aside from caged birds kept there for the tourists).
The next morning I returned to Aktun Chen. Along the entrance road I had WHITE-BROWED WREN, YUCATAN VIREO, SCRUB EUPHONIA, MANGROVE VIREO, and SPOT-BREASTED WREN. Also, to my delight, a LINEATED WOODPECKER repeatedly made itself visible in the trees along the road. This was one of the birds I particularly wanted to see - it's spectacular, reminiscent of our Pileated woodpecker.
One of the guides at Aktun Chen said a red-breasted trogon species that was supposed to be found only in Chiapas had been regularly seen near the park's maintenance shed. The species he was referring to would be Mountain trogon, and if he was right, this would be an extraordinary find for eastern Quintana Roo. I did not see the bird myself and cannot vouch for the identification. Although he seemed at least somewhat knowledgeable about the local birds, I would think it more likely that this was a misidentification of a Collared trogon.
Pulling up to the villa, I found BRONZED COWBIRD on the lawn.
That afternoon my friends and I headed to Coba and the Mayan ruins there. These ruins are in the jungle and include a spectacular pyramid which is taller than the one at Chichen Itza. You can climb to the top and the birding there is wonderful. With the able and eager assistance of my friends, I found CLAY-COLORED ROBIN, SQUIRREL CUCKOO (in trees near the top of the first, smaller pyramid near the ball court), WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER, and LESSER GOLDFINCH. On the way to the largest pyramid I found a male YELLOW-GREEN VIREO with a female at first nearby, then (ahem) underneath, it.
As the afternoon wore on the trail suddenly became extremely birdy. It got to the point where I was fairly overwhelmed. BLACK-HEADED SALTATOR and TROPICAL PEWEE showed up, as did more Aztec parakeets. Hoping for the endemic, I followed a woodpecker only to find another Golden-fronted woodpecker; however, as I got my binoculars on it, I picked up a distinctive raptor shape flying through my field. It was a dark-morph HOOK-BILLED KITE! This was one of my "wish list" birds and I was very lucky to get it, as it was only visible above the canopy for a few minutes. Raptors in general were scarce on the trip, aside from the vultures, of course.
Back at the entrance to the ruins I took a moment to scrutinize the nearby small lake. The wires had a vocalizing TROPICAL KINGBIRD, and the lake itself featured my first OLIVACEOUS ("NEOTROPIC") CORMORANT, as well as Little blue heron and a distant (and for a while puzzling) pied juvenile White ibis.
I lured several of friends to a tour of the cenote at Aktun Chen. This is a spectacular cave system, very extensive, and I heartily recommend the experience. The cave housed numerous TURQUOISE-BROWED MOTMOTS as well as Cave swallows. On the way out I had brief looks at a hummingbird that I agonized over until finally concluding it was simply a female Ruby-throated hummingbird.
That afternoon I returned alone to the great birding at Coba. I stopped first at the small lake and picked up LEAST TERN perched on a post in the water - this bird wasn't on the Coba list and was an unexpected bonus. A NORTHERN JACANA flushed from the margin of the lake, and also present were LEAST GREBE, RUDDY GROUND-DOVE, and Limpkin.
The ruins and a trail leading into undisturbed jungle turned somewhat productive later in the afternoon, although not as worthwhile as the day before. New birds were PIRATIC FLYCATCHER, ROSE-THROATED TANAGER, several RED-THROATED ANT-TANAGERS bitching loudly at me while associating with a female RED-CROWNED ANT-TANAGER, VIOLACEOUS TROGON, BROWN JAY, and at last the YUCATAN WOODPECKER.
My friends and I spent the entire next day in a group activity that lasted well into the night and did not admit of birding. I begged off at 12:30 to salvage some sleep before an early start the next day.
We got started out at 6 a.m., reaching Chichen at opening time. I highly recommend this approach. The first two hours (8 to 10) were good for birds and sightseeing. After that the tourist army established a beachhead, sent in scouting parties, and then came through en masse. Note: contrary to published accounts, you are indeed permitted to climb to the top of the central pyramid.
One of the first birds I saw on the grounds was a GIANT COWBIRD. It was not until much later that I discovered this bird would be rather far out of range. I really don't know what the deal was with cowbirds on this trip. However, this identification I'm fairly sure of. I saw the red eye, the massive bill, the neck ruff, the long tail, and the long legs. There were Great-tailed grackles nearby for an easy size comparison, and the cowbird was at LEAST as large as they if not more.
Also present were Grey hawk, RIDGWAY'S ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW, YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUIT, WHITE-TIPPED DOVE, and GREYISH SALTATOR.
Only two friends accompanied me on this trip - others had visited the site on previous trips, or did it at different times that week. As we were walking along the western edge of the cleared-out area around the central ruins, moving toward the multi-columned Hall of Warriors, I had arguably the best sighting of the trip. A shape on the path ahead of us, which I'd assumed was just another iguana, suddenly spread its wings and showy tail and sailed off about ten yards. I knew right away it was one of the terrestrial cuckoos but couldn't remember the precise name. I hurried to get it in view again and had excellent looks at the black-and-white streaked pattern on the head. It disappeared into the brush after a few moments and I hunted up the picture I remembered from the book. It was a PHEASANT CUCKOO! I did not realize at the time how unusual this sighting was. It was not until Arturo Bayona (see below) expressed surprise at my account that I thought to read over the species description more closely. Apparently this is a famed skulker, often heard but almost never seen, and certainly not found right out in the open without any effort. I have no idea why the bird was acting in such an uncharacteristic manner, but it was clearly a wild bird and I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth. (Interestingly, the Pheasant cuckoo does not appear in the Chichen Itza list.)
I hit the hay at about 10:30 but my friends chose to watch an incoming storm from the palapa directly above my bedroom. It was like living downstairs from a frat house. At about 11:30 I roared at them to shut the hell up and was finally able to get a meager night's sleep.
I got up at half past hell and drove an hour south of the villa to the town of Felipe Carillo Puerto. The drive down 307 in the dark was not the best time I've ever had. In the town I met Gruff Dodd, a Welsh birder with whom I'd made contact over the Internet; we happened to be visiting the Yucatan at the same time and had arranged for a guided trip with the by-now-well-known Arturo Bayona. I cannot recommend Arturo highly enough; he is exceptionally skilled at spotting birds in the jungle understory, and knows most of the species and their calls intimately. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arturo first took us on the trails into the jungle behind the Felipe Carillo Puerto Instituto de Tecnologia. The first part of this trip was disappointing, as we heard many birds but could see few due to the thickness of the forest. I have a personal rule that a bird does not go on my life list unless I can both see and identify it; "heard-only" birds do not count for me, even night birds. (Thus, I'm still waiting to add Whip-poor-will!) Among the bird calls Arturo identified for us were Collared aracari, Thicket tinamou, Caribbean dove, and Blue-crowned motmot. One good sighting was PLAIN CHACHALACA.
On the back leg of the trail things picked up. Arturo and I found a dull-colored bird with the tody-flycatcher physiology which I later determined was a juvenile SLATE-HEADED TODY-FLYCATCHER. A parrot flew in to give the three of us good looks: WHITE-FRONTED PARROT. A pair of RUDDY WOODCREEPERS made an appearance, and then I found a different-looking woodcreeper with an obvious pale throat that turned out to be a TAWNY-WINGED WOODCREEPER. A perched ROADSIDE HAWK seemed oblivious to our presence. After we exited the jungle, we were enjoying a snack at Gruff's jeep when another parrot flew into the bushy tree by the parking lot. Gruff and I both saw the yellow lores and the dark earspot and identified it as the endemic YUCATAN PARROT! Once again, a supposedly reclusive bird afforded us leisurely, clear looks as it browsed on the outermost verge of the tree. It was still there when we moved on.
We then headed to the Vigia Chico road. It was not particularly birdy, but we found WEDGE-TAILED SABREWING, a well-viewed BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD, an adult Slate-headed tody-flycatcher, and NORTHERN BENTBILL with some work. I had requested that Arturo get me on a toucan, and after hearing a few birds that were not visible above the canopy, we found a KEEL-BILLED TOUCAN that perched for a short time in a bare part of a treetop. Really the quintessential tropical bird, and that bill is a marvel of nature. A little further on we spotted a Myiarchus which, based in part on the call and the complete absence of rufous in the undertail, I determined to be a DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER. Arturo saw a couple of birds that he could not get Gruff and I on before they disappeared - Ivory-billed woodcreeper and Ochre-bellied flycatcher.
The last stop to which I accompanied Gruff and Arturo was Lake Ocum and the road leading to it. (I'm not one hundred percent certain of the spelling.) This gave us three GREEN-BACKED SPARROWS, only the last of which was viewed to any extent by myself and Gruff; a GROOVE-BILLED ANI; and numerous MANGROVE SWALLOWS.
I returned to the villa absolutely exhausted and took a nap before rejoining my friends for a relaxing last night together.
Our time at the villa was up and my friends left for the States. I headed northwest, stopping at the Coba lake again. A Snowy egret waited there, the Northern jacana pulled an identical flyby (during which I got better views than the first time), and a BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHER was on the wires in town - identifiable mostly by its bushy crest and extremely large bill.
By late afternoon I was on Route 295 heading north to Rio Lagartos. A flying bird glimpsed quickly to the right seemed to have the characteristics of a caracara, so I turned around and relocated the bird sitting in the one branch of a distant tree not occluded by leaves. It was indeed the CRESTED CARACARA which had eluded me in Florida. I continued into town and took the obligatory flamingo boat tour. My guide immediately took us up to a group of BOAT-BILLED HERONS in the trees, and a little further on we found a pair of GREATER (AMERICAN) FLAMINGOS. Other waders on the tour were Roseate spoonbill, Green heron, Wood stork, White ibis, Great egret, "Great white" heron, and a possible juvenile Tricolored heron. At one point I asked the guide to take us in to a likely spot, and I quickly spished up a "Mangrove" warbler which came right up to us for naked-eye looks.
A flying dove showed white edges to the secondaries, for a good ZENAIDA DOVE appearance. On our way back in we swung by a sandbar to see a lone BLACK SKIMMER amongst the gulls and terns. From the dock I spied a flyby GULL-BILLED TERN.
As afternoon wore on to evening I took a rather unproductive drive down the road from 295 toward Las Coloradas. Some Western sandpipers were foraging in shallow ponds off the road, and in the town itself I had numerous LESSER NIGHTHAWKS flying overhead. The presence of Northern cardinals among the cacti came as a surprise to me - I'd thought them fairly rare and exceptional in Mexico, but I really don't know where I got that idea. Heading back to my hotel to the south in Tizimin I saw a RED-BILLED PIGEON and tracked it into the scrub.
In the morning I went north again, finding the first of several YUCATAN BOBWHITES easily visible along the road. I checked Rio Lagartos for American oystercatcher again, but somehow it was once again high tide. On the road to Las Coloradas I picked up BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUIT, BLACK-NECKED STILT, MEXICAN SHEARTAIL, a compliant perched YUCATAN WREN, a surprise pair of MANGROVE CUCKOOS in the desert scrub at close range, and a perched COMMON BLACK-HAWK. Also, I had a quick look at a gnatcatcher on which I discerned a complete black cap, but when I approached closer could get a clear look only at another bird, a female, that was plainly a Blue-grey gnatcatcher. Puzzling, and I made a note to look into this later. Continuing to the salt evaporation flats near the town, I found several SNOWY PLOVERS and was able to examine a smallish-looking vulture that proved to be a LESSER YELLOW-HEADED VULTURE.
That afternoon I took the long drive to Cancun airport, dropped off the rental car, took the bus to Playa del Carmen, and then the ferry to Cozumel. In San Miguel on the island I had a couple of CARIBBEAN DOVES perched on a roof edge in the late afternoon. I rented a moped. I'm really not a fan at all of the moped/motorcycle/ATV complex, particularly when operated purely for recreation by people who enjoy high speeds, loud noise, and habitat destruction. However, renting a car simply wasn't practical. It was my first time driving a moped and I had exactly one minute's instruction, but I managed to get the hang of it after only one minor fall. For much of the time riding the moped I went shirtless, with binoculars around my neck and the helmet tipped low (I was the only moped rider who actually wore a helmet). My transformation to birdwatching Heck's Angel was complete.
My last full day in Mexico and still nine species short of my goal of one hundred life birds. I started at the abandoned housing development off the road to Rancho Palmas, just north of the Hotel Presidente access road. Here I quickly found the Cozumel form of BANANAQUIT, BLACK CATBIRD, and "Golden" form of Yellow warbler. A few male COZUMEL EMERALDS flew overhead, but my best view was of a close perched female, with respect to which my earlier study of the Canivet's tail pattern stood me in good stead. I found COZUMEL VIREO with some work and the Cozumel form of Yellow-faced grassquit. I also heard Rufous-browed peppershrike but was unable to get a visual.
The sun was up so I went south and then west to check out the sand spit near the Punta Celarain lighthouse, where Roseate tern and Brown noddy were reputed nesters. After a long ride in the hot sun I was eager to get to my goal. Just stopping along the entrance road for a moment to check my directions, I had a guy pull up next to me and yell that there was no estacionamiento (no parking) there. I explained that I was not parking, merely pausing to look at my directions (I was still on my moped with the motor running), but he continued to harangue me. I got tired of this and eventually told him in no uncertain terms to get the hell away from me. Another kilometer or two down the road I found out what was going on. Unfortunately, I am sorry to report that access to the road is now blocked off for the lighthouse concession, with a required admission fee of $15, at a point less than half a kilometer short of the trail to the spit.
I thought $15 was outrageous and instead tried looking toward the spit and the offshore nesting islet from the beach off the road, but saw only two flyby terns - one a Sandwich tern, the other a possible Roseate but inconclusive. (I can't recommend Howell and Webb for the difficult terns; they don't bother to picture them.) By now it was quite hot, and well short of my goal, I retired to the public beaches on the west side of the island.
Some hours later I returned to the abandoned development south of San Miguel. The mosquitos were ferocious but I applied a product called "Bite Blocker." Two words about this product: it completely protected me from mosquitoes wherever it was applied; and it burned like hell on my sunburn. I think it's fairly toxic and would recommend it with those cautionary words.
It was quite warm and I was having little luck, still five birds short of my goal. As I was walking along a back road I came across an American couple around my age (that is, youngish) who were pouring concrete for the roof of a house on one of the abandoned plots. We exchanged pleasantries and they proved familiar with the local birds. Both the man (Shane) and the woman (Renee) indicated they had seen the thrasher, although only once perhaps in the two years that they had been there. Renee offered to show me a spot where a previous birder had reported good luck (with birds other than the thrasher), so she hopped on the back of my moped and we went back down the entrance road. Almost back at the ranch grounds we stopped where there was a clearing and the foundation of a building (just the lowest square of concrete blocks) on the right, or north, side of the entrance road. Here there were trees with large green fruit covered with thorns. (Botany? Not so much my strong suit.) A few minutes' wait here were extremely productive, with NORTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULET and STRIPE-HEADED TANAGER (finally!) making appearances. Renee was very helpful here as she continued to scan for new birds while I concentrated on getting the field marks of the birds we had seen. I then returned Renee to her husband and their roofing project.
Along the way we had heard, but not seen, the wren. I had indicated my interest in seeing the wren and both Renee and I marvelled that it had been so elusive. I was beginning to despair of it when Renee mentioned the "little bird" that was "living in a hole in their wall." I couldn't believe my ears. She had demonstrated familiarity with woodpeckers, so it could hardly be anything but the wren. I said as much to her, and we went around the side of their house where she pointed out the hole. I spished and immediately a COZUMEL WREN poked its face out, then flew into the trees! Little rotter.
(I have since consulted with Renee and Shane and they have no objection to my mentioning their names in this account. They love visitors so if you’re in the area of the abandoned development and see a young American couple working on their house, go ahead and say hi; they might be able to help you get on some birds! However, with respect to the wren living in their wall, spishing should probably be avoided from now on. Particularly in the busy tourist season that bird might be spished up once or twice a day now that its location is known, probably to the bird’s great detriment, so please do refrain. A patient wait should produce equally good results.)
After I took my leave from Renee and Shane, a brief downpour caught me on the way out. It passed quickly and I stopped once again at the magic spot Renee had shown me. Short of the elaenias, the White-crowned pigeon, and the Yucatan flycatcher, I couldn't think of any species I was likely to see in Cozumel that would be new – laying aside the unlikelihood of seeing the thrasher – so I had little hope. As soon as I arrived, however, I realized I had a hummingbird perched in a tree right in front of me. Although mostly backlit, I could see it was of a pretty uniform color and had a long, strongly arched bill. It was the GREEN-BREASTED MANGO that I had not seen on the mainland. I was sunburnt, tired, and facing a day of travel the next day, so I decided to call it quits with ninety-nine birds.
A block and a half short of my hotel, and thus only minutes from returning the moped, I had a minivan stop suddenly in front of me and I had to go into a power-braking move that left me and the moped on the pavement. I had only a minor cut on the hand (not even requiring a band-aid), but the moped's left rearview mirror was broken and a fiberglass panel was cracked. It cost me an additional $175 and I would have been much better off just renting a car on the island.
Back at the hotel I went over my notes and rediscovered the issue of the gnatcatcher from the previous day. Studying the species descriptions, I noted the comment that Blue-gray gnatcatchers often associate with other species - something which I really should have known from seeing them with warbler flocks. The details of my brief sighting, the location, and the habitat were all ideal for WHITE-LORED GNATCATCHER. I'd made my goal of a hundred life birds and was ready to head back to the USA.
Enough with the damn birds, already!