Monday 2 April 2018

Birding Yucatan and Northern Chiapas (Mexico Part 2)

Adrian Leather
Photography John Gordon
Feb 08-22.
Nine BC birders joined birding guide, Eric Antonio Martinez, and driver, Ramon Granados to roam Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas (Northern). We even sneaked into Guatemala. Birders were John Hodges (Roberts Creek), Mark Yunker & Jan Erasmus (Brentwood Bay), Ed Jordan (Quadra Island), Val George (Victoria), John Gordon (Langley), Jerry & Lynne McFetridge, and Adrian Leather (Quesnel).
Eric Antonio Martinez constructs amazing itineraries, with an exciting variety of habitats, offering the prospect of seeing and hearing new species.
Looking back, I can see a theme for each trip. My introduction to Mexican birding was via Luis Morales, and Mark Stackhouse, who showed the beauty of birds in Jalisco, and Nayarit. Oaxaca 2016, in Eric's own neck of the woods, was a bit of a lads trip, particularly as we spent the first week birding alone, before joining Eric. The trip to Southern Chiapas in 2017 was an all-out adventure, culminating in an epic hike on Volcan Tacana, near the Guatemala border. The 2018 trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, and Northern Chiapas could be characterized as birding among the ruins, or walking through your dreams.

Mexican Sheartail
The mainly flat limestone Yucatan Peninsula is divided into three states, Quintana Roo (roo being pronounced as ro in rock), Yucatan, and Campeche. As we headed to Tabasco, and Northern Chiapas, we skirted only a few kms from the northern border of Belize. Some of the prime birding sites are among the Mayan ruins, so this trip was a dream for birders, and historians. 
Having landed in Cancun, we drove to Playa del Carmen to catch a ferry to Isla Cozumel. A two hour crossing saw us dock in Cozumel around 1a.m. Cozumel seems to sell itself on a ticket of quiet sophistication, with the predictable row of expensive stores waiting to lure shoppers from the monstrous cruise ships. Cozumel, although close to the mainland, has a quite unique avifauna which makes it a very attractive birding destination. We listened to 3 Yucatan Nightjar in the grounds of our hotel in San Miguel. An early meeting in the hotel lobby saw us heading to an Oxo for supplies. Oxo is a sort of Mexican 7-11, and it is ideal for early morning coffee and snacks. We headed to an abandoned subdivision, more a subdivision which never really materialized. The streets and sidewalks provide birding boulevards, ideal for the international birders who flock here. We walked the subdivision slowly, hearing our first Caribbean Dove. 2 Yucatan Woodpecker eventually provided good views. 3 Cozumel Emerald were a treat. Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Caribbean Elaenia made the list. Birding in the subdivision was great fun, with lots of action.

Rufous-browed Peppershrike
 We added Rufous-browed Peppershrike (Cozumel), Yucatan Vireo, Cozumel Vireo, 5 Cozumel Bananaquit, 5 Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (Cozumel), a Western Spindalis (Cozumel), and a House Wren (Cozumel). 
Other goodies were 3 Black Catbird, a Hooded Warbler, and 2 Tropical Mockingbird, which became known as "Trop-Mock" for the rest of the trip. There are so many Cozumel specialties, and/or subspecies, that it became the standard joke to add the word Cozumel to anything.
A refreshment stop @ Alberto's Beach Bar added some Vaux's Swift (Yucatan), and a peach of a Yellow-throated Warbler was posing around the palms and beach furniture. 
Our next stop was Laguna Columbia, a few lively flooded ponds. 45 Black-bellied Whistling Duck were present. Among a variety of herons, and egrets, we noted a Least Grebe, a Purple Gallinule, 15 Northern Jacana, and a great find was a Smooth-billed Ani.

We made an early evening visit to La Planta de Tratamiento de Aguas Residuales de San Miguel. The star attraction at the sewage plant was Ruddy Crake. We heard approx 10, and saw 4 crake bathing in a small pool of roadside sewage overflow. What definitely didn't help our birding was some lads on motorbikes who kept riding up and down the road where the crakes were trying to enjoy their peaceful bath. Eric had some strong palabras for these guys. Nevertheless, some terrific opening birding for the tour!
Next day, we made our obligatory stop @ Oxxo, en-route to the delightful village of El Cedral, a beautiful spot in the interior of the island. El Cedral was like a celebration of birding. 2 Couch's Kingbird were a much awaited lifer for everyone! 3 White-crowned Pigeon showed well. 3 Yellow-faced Grassquit flitted about. 2 Green-breasted Mango joined-in the fun. A flock of 40 Cedar Waxwing was a surprise. 3 Purple Martin provided another nice fly-by. 2 White-fronted Parrot alighted in a village yard. A casual stroll along a country lane off the main street brought Hooded Oriole, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Blue Grosbeak, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Northern Parula, Ovenbird, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, White-collared Seedeater, and a stunner of a Painted Bunting. It was a fantastic birding spot, pretty much non-stop entertainment. 
Another neat stop on Cozumel was along the entrance road to the country club, where we enjoyed a selection of warblers, and a Yellow-throated Euphonia. A pond held 23 Black-necked Stilt, with 3 Common Gallinule, 5 Northern Jacana, and 5 American Coot, which of course was converted to "Cozumel Coot". A treat here was a scope view of Caribbean Dove.

We'd had a great time on Cozumel, with intense and colourful birding. We caught the ferry back to the mainland, with a little birding thrown in around the ferry terminal.
We checked into an eco-hotel near Playa del Carmen, with adobe style cabins, and what looked like very relaxing hammocks and rocking chairs on the front terraces. On these frenetically paced tours, there is little time to indulge in such luxuries. The restaurant was lively. A gentleman exuding a certain charisma and authority sat down at a piano and began a repertoire of tunes. I loved the atmosphere this created, the conversation maintained by two super-efficient waitresses who kept the food and drink flowing. It didn't take long for some of our crew to notice there was an in-house bakery with a wide-range of tempting treasures.

Yucatan Flycatcher

We birded the main trail @ La Reserva Toh, and La Ruta de Los Cenotes. 2 Plain Chachalaca made some noise. A Canivet's Emerald showed well. 2 Lesser Greenlet flitted sub-canopy. 4 Cave Swallow (Yucatan) were added. The subtle beauty of a Rose-throated Tanager was appreciated, The piping, flute-like notes of a Long-billed Gnatwren were well heard, but it took a while to obtain an open look at this tricky customer.
Long-billed Gnatwren

It feels as if at least 80% of Mexican species are major skulkers, but when you get a good look at the birds, it often makes the wait well worthwhile. The colour palate of 2 Grey-throated Chat was relished, and added dazzle was provided by a Scrub Euphonia, and 4 Yellow-throated Euphonia. Eric scoped a Black-headed Trogon. A Squirrel Cuckoo provided excellent viewing, and 6 Groove-billed Ani attended an ant swarm. Other birds @ Toh included 2 Yellow-lored Parrot, a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, and 2 Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Yucatan).

We moved on to Valladolid. The motel had a roosting flock of Groove-billed Ani which Jerry was observing. We missed the humour of Clive Keen on this trip, so I improvised a Clive voice and said something about Jerry checking his ani, on behalf of our absent friend. Clive was heading to Spain for some birding, so had a valid excuse for his absence. 

We ventured to the famous La Reserva de La Biosfera Rio Lagartos on the Northern coast of Yucatan. We enjoyed a great stop in the Ejido San Salvador area, and explored a trail linking a few ranches. We heard 3 Black-throated Bobwhite. A Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture gave close views as it teetered low to the ground. A Northern Harrier went by, and a Zone-tailed Hawk overflew. 2 Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl added vocals. A Crested Caracara, and Peregrine Falcon were also watched. 6 raucous Yucatan Jay could not be missed although they weren't keen to provide open views. A really nice find was a Yucatan Flycatcher, which we shared with a birder coming from the other direction. He was delighted as it was a lifer. A Yucatan Wren showed beautifully. Other nice birds were 2 Orange Oriole, 2 Mangrove Vireo, and 4 Blue-black Grassquit. A large pond provided 3 American Flamingo, 6 Little Blue Heron, 4 Tricoloured Heron, and 4 Roseate Spoonbill, but the major score was 4 Russet-naped Wood-Rail, including one which provided really close looks.

American Flamingo

Russet-naped Wood-rail

Lesser-headed Yellow Vulture

Roseate Spoonbill

 The following morning we made our usual early morning start thanks much in part tp the fresh coffee from the OXO store, Mexico's equivalent to our 7Eleven convenience store. Fueled up with caffeine and junk food we made our way to Rio La Gartos and the thorn forest and mangrove swamps of northern Yucatan.

Yucatan Wren
We visited Ria Maya Restaurante @ Rio Lagartos. The hummingbird feeders had Mexican Sheartail, and Cinnamon Hummingbird. A few Mangrove Swallow perched on boats. Over the water we noted 2 Sandwich Tern, an Osprey, and 6 American White Pelican.
Onward to the saltpans, Salinas Los Colorados, where we found 100 American Flamingo, and 155 Double-crested Cormorant. Eight shorebird species included 11 Ruddy Turnstone, and 2 Sanderling. 2 Lesser Black-backed Gull were a nice find, and a Magnificent Frigatebird was sighted. A further 4 Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture were added, and a Wilson's Snipe flushed by the van.

Barred Ashshrike

Rose-throated Becard

Black and White Warbler

Xocen offered terrific birding! We began with an early evening walk around the woods. We were enthralled to see and hear a Pheasant Cuckoo! One flew in and alighted on a nearby tree, and just when you thought it might perch for a while, it was gone. However, there was plenty of entertainment to quench any discerning birders thirst. A Thicket Tinamou delivered its haunting notes, and an excitable Singing Quail joined-in. We added Common Pauraque, Yucatan Nightjar, Yucatan Poorwill, and, a Vermiculated Screech-Owl was determined to be the vocal star of the night show. Wow! This was breathless stuff, like walking through my dreams.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Xocen was just as exciting in the daytime. A 04:30 start had us meeting with some local guides for coffee and sweet breads. Then, it was bird after bird, as we enjoyed Lesson's, and Turquoise-browed Motmot, 2 Laughing Falcon - one offering fantastic photo ops, 2 Barred Antshrike, 2 Tropical Pewee, a Yellow-throated Vireo, a Long-billed Gnatwren, a Red-billed Pigeon, and a Greenish Elaenia. Woodcreepers were represented by a Tawny-winged, an Ivory-billed, and 2 Ruddy. A Grey-headed Tanager was noted, and 7 Red-throated Ant-Tanager were active. 2 Green Jay joined the party. We heard a Pale-billed Woodpecker, and a Collared Forest-Falcon.

Laughing Falcon
 But the undoubted star of the show was an absolutely stunning Pheasant Cuckoo! It dropped into roadside scrub, but one of the guides spotted it, and Eric got the scope on it. Despite some predictable branches and leaves in the way, for the most part, we enjoyed breathtaking looks at a Pheasant Cuckoo - a dream fulfilled! I don't know about anyone else, but I was floating on air at this point.

Pheasant Cuckoo

As you may have noticed we had a wonderful time but this was only a beginning.
Stay tunes for the neck instalment.

"It's never too late to start going on oversea birding trips"
John Gordon
BC Canada  


  1. It was taken moments after sunrise which makes the colours pop. Handheld with the D500 and 200-500 zoom. We woke really early to get there early.