(incl. Tikal Guatemala)
by Daniel Kronauer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
and Frank E. Rheindt (email@example.com)
From Dec 14 through 22 2000, we traveled around on the Yucatan Peninsula on what we term a "combined birding and herping" trip. The reason we opted for Yucatan is its high endemism and easy accessibility from the U.S. One of us (DK) is a passionate herpetologist, while the other (FER) is an avid world birder, but fortunately the areas of interest for both animal groups coincide well, so we could each just concentrate on the respective group upon arrival at the sites.
FER tried to concentrate on the Yucatan endemics and was able to record almost all of them. Notable exceptions included the Cozumel Thrasher (almost extinct and only seen very few times in the past decade) and the two nocturnals, of which Yucatan Nightjar is reported to be absent from the peninsula during this time of the year and Yucatan Poorwill showed no sign of being vocal, despite many hours spent in the right habitat at night while "herping". Apart from the Yucatan endemics, an unexpected high proportion of Mexican/Northern Central American endemics occurring in the area could also be seen, though some like Rufous-breasted Spinetail and Singing Quail were missed and others like Ridgway´s Rough-winged Swallow were probably seen, but their identification was put off and they failed to be re-sighted.
The following contains the site accounts (in chronological order) and
a complete trip list, as well as some information
on the best literature on the area.
Felipe Carrillo Puerto
General: A non-ruin site, and probably the best one for most of the Yucatan dry forest bird endemics, even though authors of other trip reports are true in that there may actually still be extensive areas of similar habitat left elsewhere on the peninsula, maybe even within closer reach of Cancun. Yet, the forest here is certainly better than the one at Coba (and probably most other Maya ruin sites as well), so a 2-4 day stay should get you at least more than half of the Yucatan bird endemics of your trip.
Access and Accommodation: The town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto is easily reached by public transportation. It is probably best to stay at the clean and economic Hotel "Faisan y Venado" (name may be slightly different) right at the big "zocalo" (traffic "circus") in the center of town, though there is supposed to be at least one more hotel somewhere else in town. (Beware of the lousy food in the hotels restaurant, though, unless you dont mind staying up all night).
From the "zocalo", its only about 5 blocks to the east (as described in Howells book and numerous other trip reports) before the street turns into a dirt road at a half-left turn (dont continue straight!). From here, its about 1.4 km through fields, gardens and scattered houses all the way to a big school situated near the edge of the forest. The road goes on through the forest for another 28 km all the way to the gate of the Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve, which is said to be hard to enter without a permit. In addition to the two lakes mentioned in Howell´s book there is a small swamp-like pond on the left side of the road at about 15 km from the school and about 2 km before a big clearing (see below) where several amphibian species can be observed at night.
Birds to focus on: The first few kilometers of forest are badly degraded, but should not necessarily be avoided because of that, as some of the species (Blue Bunting, Green-backed Sparrow, Mangrove Vireo, Black Catbird, Northern Bentbill) actually appear to be easier to find here along one of the numerous paths that connect the road with clearings than farther on where these paths become scarcer. Look especially for Rose-throated Tanager and White-browed Wren, as this stretch turned out to be the only spot where FER ever saw them!
As you continue on along the road, one gets the impression that the forest becomes slightly higher, less dissected by paths and less impacted, even though big clearings dont cease to sporadically line the road. There is one particularly big clearing of probably several square kilometers around 14-18 km, and beyond there, the forest becomes scrubbier again. The western edge of this clearing stayed active throughout periods of the day, even though the only endemic species FER found there was a (familiy?) party of female-colored Gray-throated Chats (weird birds if you dont see the males, and hard to ID, too).
Parts of the higher dry forest before this clearing can be accessed on only a few footpaths (though you should be able to find one) and tend to fall silent after the early morning. This is the area to look out for White-bellied and Canivets Emeralds, Wedge-tailed Sabrewings and mixed flocks containing Ivory-billed and Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Stub-tailed Spadebill and Lesser (common) and Tawny-crowned Greenlets. FER even got a really short glimpse of an Ocellated Turkey along one of these paths.
Make sure youre prepared for Myiarchus identification before you see one. FER was not, and so he saw one for a moment, ended up not identifying it and hoped for another sighting at this site in vain. Eventually, seeing a positive Yucatan Flycatcher on this trip turned out to be a real problem
General: We found this to be the most impressive Maya ruin site located in the midst of lush rainforest quite different from the scrubby dry forest found around the Mexican Yucatan sites.
We went in late December and had kind of expected that to be the dry season. The truth is that one of the three days we spent there was an almost complete loss of birding time due to rain.
BEWARE 1: We have both never experienced more mosquitoes and chiggers at any other site in the world, even though we have both spent several months at Amazonian and Old World rainforest sites, partly during the rainy season. Mosquitoes made it hard to keep your bins focused properly for more than 2sec, and the painful chigger bites on the ankles of the legs have left numerous scars and have still not properly healed until the time of writing (20 days later).
BEWARE 2: Reportedly, a birder got paralyzed in an assault by bandits in a nature preserve near the entrance road to Tikal around New Years Eve 2000-2001, i.e. only a few days after we left the area. However, the site of Tikal itself is crowded with tourists and we felt safe at all times.
Access and Accommodation: Once you manage to find a room in one of the three hotels at the site (expensive cheapest double room available for around $70), you can look forward to some exciting birding just a 5 minutes walk away from your bed.
If the hotels are full, you will probably have to camp at the public campsite or stay in Flores and come in by private transportation every morning (or by public and miss the morning hours).
Tikal is apparently accessible from Mexico (Chetumal) via Belize by public busses that take around 8-10h. Expect to be charged for all kinds of things one could come up with at the Belize border, especially if you travel with a rented car as we did. Other than that, we experienced no problems entering a foreign country with a Mexican rental car (even though ours did not even have a license plate!). Just bear in mind that the Belize borders close at 10.00pm and re-open at 7.00am.
A good place to look for amphibians is a little pond just left of the path entering the ruin sites of Tikal from the hotel area.
Birds to focus on: Like at any true rainforest site, the birds youre going to find are hard to predict and it pays to know their sounds or use a tape-recorder.
Around the big clearing where the hotels are, look for a huge flock of Montezuma Oropendolas at dusk/dawn. A Black-and-white Owl called and was easy to see in the hotel yard.
The clearings around the biggest temples (such as the Big Plaza) are good for parrots (which had to be left unidentified) at the same times of the day, and sometimes also for Crested Guans, in case you havent seen them in the forest throughout the day.
The Ocellated Turkey so hard to get at other sites is hard to miss here, and Great Curassows will probably not be missed if youre here for more than one day.
At the first intersection of trails, right near the toll booth, take a left towards the Temple of Inscriptions to cross some "High Forest" (you can only tell the difference because the birds are different). After a few hundred yards, there is even a small footpath signed to the right thats called "High Forest Trail". There are a few "high forest" associated birds that FER only ever saw on these trails/footpaths during the stay, like mixed flocks of Ruddy, Barred and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers, Gray-headed Tanager, Kentucky Warbler, White-necked Puffbird, Red-capped Manakin and Royal Flycatcher. Other high forest species around there included Mexican Antthrush and Scaly-throated Leaftosser (stalk up on it!), and FER probably has to consider himself lucky to have seen those without any acoustic gear and knowledge.
A few hundred yards before you arrive at the inconspicuous trailhead of the "High Forest Trail", there is a clearing with a few houses (not in use any longer?) to the left. The thicket at the edge of the clearing is where FER found White-bellied Wren every time he passed this spot. This bugger was pretty hard to tell apart from the White-broweds seen at Felipe Carrillo Puerto, but finally its unmusical calls helped nail it down.
The mid and high canopy mixed flocks generally didnt bother too much about big tourist groups of up to 50 people, and it was within the vicinity of such tour groups that all the more common mixed flock birds (Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, Sulphur-rumped and Sepia-capped Flycatchers, Olive-backed Euphonia (also around ruins) and Plain Antvireo) and even species such as Gray-collared Becard, Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet and Black-faced Grosbeak could also be seen.
Still, the most productive time was spent along small footpaths into undisturbed forest near the most distant temples. One such footpath (around one of the northernmost temples) dropped down into a mosquito-infested valley floor with some of the lushest forest imaginable, where a huge mixed flock kept FER busy the whole morning (Slaty-tailed Trogon, White-whiskered Puffbird, Rufous-tiled Jacamar, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Thrush-like Mourner, Green-backed Sparrow).
General: An impressive Maya ruin site within easy reach of Cancun though not as breath-taking as Tikal surrounded by some nice forest with frustatingly little bird activity throughout the day. There is a lake famous for Ruddy Crake right adjacent to the parking lot for the ruins. At the plaza in front of the toll booth, avoid the leftmost restaurant (the one with advertisement signs saying you wont find any cheaper food in Coba). The signs are right: DK along with a few other gringos was served spoiled meat, and FERs soda was warm and from the 70s.
Access and Accommodation: This is more of a one-day trip destination, since accommodation around the lake and the village of Coba is limited to a very expensive Club Mediterrane. If youre on public transportation, you will probably have to miss the early morning, which is bad, since this is not the first trip report claiming that the forest is dead and silent in the midday heat.
Birds to focus on: FER opted for spending the morning hours around the lake (especially the reed around the end of the road and beyond) looking for Ruddy Crakes. Good looks are hard to obtain unless youre lucky right at the start, so the first real forest birding around the ruins was only done around 10.00am when the last morning activity was just dying down.
Try seeing those crakes as early as possible and head right to the forest after that, so you have some better chances of spotting Turquoise-browed Motmots (the star bird of Cobas forest and supposedly easy to see FER just barely saw one with the last beams of day-light near the entrance).
The ruins near the entrance (where the bike rental guys are) were generally found to be a spot where many good birds could be seen (White-bellied Emerald, Tropical Pewee (common), Tawny-winged, Barred and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers). The only other notable forest birds stumbled upon in a long, long afternoon were Scrub Euphonia, Red-throated Ant-Tanager and Gray-headed Tanager, Yellow-billed Cacique and Yucatan Jay.
Other good birds in the gardens and secondary scrub around the lake (in the morning) included Blue Grosbeak, Hooded Oriole, White-tipped Dove and Yucatan Woodpecker.
General: It should be hard to find another island on this planet thats only 20km from the mainland but teems with endemism like a volcanic archipelago somewhere in the ocean. Apart from the 4 good bird species endemic to this tiny island, there are a couple more that may be awarded specific rank in the near future, and a whole bunch of morphologically diagnosable subspecies. Try and see as many of them as possible, and see your life list increase posthumously in 40 or 50 years!!! As if this was not enough, the island is the only spot in "proper Central America" where a few species can be seen that are otherwise restricted to a handful of Caribbean islands.
The unspectacular habitat (low scrub forest as on the mainland) makes the high rate of endemism all the more remarkable! Nowadays, the island is being developed as a tropical holiday paradise, and tens of thousands of tourists disembark from their cruise boats each week for a shopping and disco night in San Miguels city center.
Access and Accommodation: Many people (like ourselves) only fit in Cozumel as a one-day destination by taking the first boat in the morning from Playa del Carmen (4.00, 5.00, or 6.00am; changing schedules, so check the night before at the dock). This way you circumvent expensive accommodation on the island, but you run the danger of missing more than just one endemic if the birding goes bad.
The only public transportation that goes out of town on the island is taxis, so unless you want to rent a car or a bike or you come here by car ferry (expensive!), you will be interested in some habitat right near town. FER opted for the track that goes off to the left from the coastal "highway" about 6 km south of the dock, right before you get to Hotel El Presidente (as described in Howells book and other trip reports). Have the taxi driver drop you off right where the track branches off (there are some horse-riding facilities there) and walk the 3km track all the way to an abandoned housing development area with street blocks and half-completed houses.
Birds to focus on: On your way to the abandoned housing area, youll pass several clearings to the left. The first one was where FER saw most his Cozumel birds, probably because he got there first, and activity slowed down considerably towards the noon. Gorgeous Cozumel Emeralds were seen at any flowering shrub in that clearing, and it was not hard to pick up Stripe-headed Tanager, Cozumel Vireo, Cozumel Bananaquit and the island subspecies of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-faced Grassquit and Rufous-browed Peppershrike.
If youre only here for one day and noon is hitting, the best thing may be to stay around this clearing or others in the housing development area. Instead, FER opted for spending a few hours along dark paths through the scrub forest branching off from the track mainly to the left. This was very unproductive and only yielded one bird per 40min (though the nicer species included Yucatan Vireo (only one of the trip!), Black Catbird (common) and White-crowned Pigeon).
Dusk is when Yucatan Parrots (daily commuters) are reported to leave the island for the mainland, and FER saw his only one of the trip perched near one of the clearings in the late afternoon.
Apart from the near-extinct Cozumel Thrasher, which according to a Cotinga article in 2001 has only been reliably seen 4 times since 1994, the only currently recognized endemic species that can easily be missed is the rather unspectacular Cozumel Wren. FER started worrying about it when he still hadnt seen it at 4.00pm, so he tried a little harder around the thickets in the afore-mentioned clearing and finally saw it. (Again, this indicates that edge habitat might be more worth trying for seeing the endemics).
One can only hope that there wont be another hurricane as the one in the early 90s that almost completely extirpated the Thrasher and accounted for population crashes in most of the other endemics likewise.
General: When coming to Yucatan, most birders feel the necessity of visiting one of the coastal scrub sites along the north and west coast of the peninsula in order have a better chance of seeing 2-4 endemics that are either hard or impossible in the forest sites south of Cancun. Rio Lagartos a tiny fishing village in the mangroves - certainly deserves to be dubbed the most convenient site for those birders, since it is nearest to Cancun ("only" 5 hours by public bus via Tizimin) and it additionally offers the opportunity and facilities for some mangrove birding with lots of nice water birds. Furthermore, the fishing village is one of the most picturesque and laid-back places that can still be found around especially around the time of this visit, when all the little houses were replete with Christmas lights and ornaments.
Access and Accommodation: FER went to this site alone by public transportation (after DK had left Mexico). Once you arrive in town, you are likely to be approached by fishermen or "official guides" who offer boat tours into the mangroves. There is a birdwatching guide in town who is called Diego Nú?ez Martínez, so if you want to do a mangrove trip anyway, go with him, as he will probably be better able to show you species like the Boat-billed Heron, while the other guides repertoire may be restricted to the popular Flamingoes. Follow the sign in town to his office (which is in the Restaurante Isla Contoy, where they serve some good fish).
The first hotel-like place people are likely to send you to are the Cabanas not far from the bus terminal. The owner is very nice and the rates are cheap, but dont stay here if you care about a good nights sleep as you will be bitten to death by the nasty mangrove mosquitoes in those open huts. There is supposed to be another place in town thats not too much more expensive but a lot nicer.
Birds to focus on: Lots of good waterbirds and even mangrove birds like the Mangrove Warbler or the Mangrove Swallow can easily be seen right in town.
The best spots to try for the endemics could be anywhere on the other side of the mangrove belt in the dry coastal scrub, but unfortunately a lot of it has been converted into fields. Good patches are still around near the big intersection 3km out of town (cant be missed), where there is a big quarry that is supposed to host Turquoise-browed Motmots in the summer. This piece of scrub might be all it takes to see the missing endemics, but since time got short, FER decided not to take any chances and to walk (!) straight to the best piece of habitat that is supposed to be around (according to Howells book). That portion of scrub is located around 8km east of the intersection along the road to the little fishing village of Las Coloradas, where the road makes the first noticeable left-hand bend and a dirt track continues on straight.
The two most sought-after endemics, Yucatan Wren and Mexican Sheartail were easy to find in this area of scrub after a short while, and so were Cinnamon Hummingbird, Canivets Emerald, Yucatan Woodpecker and Mangrove Vireo. Other notable birds included Plain Chachalaca and Yucatan Jay.
FER had missed the Yucatan Flycatcher at all the other sites before this one, so there was some pressure there. Actually, Myiarchus flycatchers were quite commonly seen in the before-mentioned area of scrub in the mornings, but most of them turned out to be Dusky-cappeds, so beware of misidentifications. On one occasion, a Dusky-capped was observed chasing off a Yucatan from its perch and vocalize heavily thereafter.
Walk on along the dirt track that branches off straight from the road, and you will soon come to a bigger field (delimited by a wall) where Gray-crowned Yellowthroats and Southern House Wrens should be sought after.
The whole area of scrub is outstanding for orioles, but beware of wrong IDs: FER saw Orange, Hooded and Altamira Orioles almost in the same tree. (Among the standard birding sites in Yucatan where Orange Oriole can be seen reliably, this should be the nearest one to Cancun!).
Any stone walls along the tracks/roads may attract sun-bathing Lesser Roadrunners during the midday heat (FER saw one regularly about 1km before the aforementioned left-hand bend).
Yucatan Bobwhite is hard (though not impossible) to see well, and most sightings will be of flushed birds. If you still miss them, looking for them along the margins of abandoned fields will pay off more than trying to cover as much scrubby ground as possible.
The whole area is excellent for birds of prey, but the weather was exceptionally windy due to a "norte" (=northerly), and only the last of two days in the field afforded some views of soaring raptors (White-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, Great Black Hawk and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture the latter can also be found right in town).
With a car of your own, it is well worth continuing to Las Coloradas. On your way there, you cross a bridge whence Kelp Gull has been reported in a few winters (according to Howells book) and beyond there you get into some peculiar coastal bush habitat that looked as if it had the potential of being a lot more interesting (bird-wise) if the weather had been better.
On a last note: Diego also offers birdwatching tours into the scrub,
and if you are not on a tight budget, it might be worth pursuing, especially
if you dont have your own car. He knows some of the better spots of scrub
and even forest-like habitat (Bright-rumped Attila!) beyond the
left-hand bend. I think he charged something like $50 for mangrove tours
and $20 or $30 for jeep tours into the scrub (ask again, I might be wrong!).
Admittedly, he did not know a few of the passerines too well (flycatchers,
), but he just started off his career as a "landbird" tour guide,
and he might well have gotten there when you go to Rio Lagartos.
December 14-23 2000
Tikal (Guatemala) T
Felipe Carrillo Puerto (Quintana Roo) FCP
Cobá (Quintana Roo) Cb
Isla Cozumel (Quintana Roo) Cz
Río Lagartos (Yucatán) RL
common (usually several sites) cm
Birds endemic to the region comprising Mexico, Guatemala and Belize are printed in bold.
(Thicket Tinamou Crypturellus c. cinnamomeus FCP, heard only)
22. Bothrops asper - FCP
The single most useful site guide to the area and generally referred to as "Howell´s book" in this report:
Howell, S.N.G. 1999. A Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
Identification guides are relatively plentiful as compared with other regions in the Neotropics. We carried around two:
1.) Howell, S.N.G. and Webb, S. 1995. The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
2.) Peterson, R.T. and Chalif, E.L. 1973. Mexican Birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, USA.
We found this to be a good combination: The Peterson guide while outdated and insufficient for the more difficult groups (e.g. orioles) was handy for quick reference in the field (a real "pocket guide"). The Howell guide, on the other hand, was carried along in the backpack and was consulted after sightings of difficult species.
In the winter, you will need a field guide on North American birds in addition, preferably the 3rd edition of the National Geographic or the new Sibley Guide (released in Oct 2000, excellent paintings but little text!).
There are several good books on the herpetofauna of Central America but the most useful for the Yucatan Peninsula are the two following:
A very good (but heavy) book on the herpetofauna of the Yucatan Peninsula is:
Lee, J.C. (1996): The Amphibians and Reptiles of the Yucatan Peninsula. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 500S.
The advantage of this book is that it contains locality records in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala for every species.
The small version of this book (and therefore much easier to carry around in the field) is:
Lee, J.C. (2000): A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Maya World. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 402 S.
It contains for the most part the same color photographs as the big
one (or better ones) but lacks the exact locality records.