TRIP REPORT: MEXICO – 2011 March – Veracruz
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PRIVATE TOUR OPTION
This tour is available as a private trip for any size group. The tour cost will vary with the number of people and any custom requests.
Trip report by Adrian Binns and Debbie Beer
Day 1 / March 1 – Jardin Botanico Cancun
My tour of the Yucatan began in Cancun, amid gorgeous sunshine and blue skies. Debbie and I met up with Robert Straub, rented our car, got stopped by the police within a few kilometers, and were finally off to explore birds and mayan mysteries!
Black, Turkey and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures soared in the skies. Social Flycatchers and Kingbirds, Tropical and Couch’s best separated by call, perched conspicuously. Great-tailed Grackles called and whistled everywhere.
Our main destination was Jardin Botanico Dr. Alfredo Barrera, located near Puerto Morelos, about 25km south of Cancun airport. At the entrance we were greeted by a Northern Waterthrush and Hooded Warbler on the road, the first of many familiar eastern warblers, including Magnolia, Black- throated Green, Yellow, American Redstart and Ovenbird. Families of Spider Monkeys cavorted through the trees, many with babies clinging to their bellies. We followed well-maintained trails through the 60-hectare lowland forest, stopping often for bird activity. The continuous, whistled notes of a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl aroused Cinnamon Hummingbird, Lesser Greenlet, White-eyed Vireo, Rose-throated Becard, and Orange Orioles. We admired Boat-billed Flycatcher, Green Jays, noisy Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Wood Thrush, and Dusky-capped Flycatcher. We climbed a rustic wooden observation platform for long views of the expansive wet scrubland. Magnificent Frigatebirds, Double-crested Cormorants and Anhingas were seen along the distant shoreline. I was keen to photograph some fast-moving butterflies, and finally got an excellent shot of an Yellow-fronted Owl-Butterfly.
We enjoyed dinner in Puerto Morelos, then drove further south to Tulum, where we would spend the night close to our morning destination.
Day 2 / March 2 – A Ruinous Day – Tulum and Coba
Don’t let the title fool you – ruins are spectacular places to visit! We began our morning with an hour of roadside birding, spending our time productively before the park opened at 8am. The road was buzzing with activity, featuring Groove-billed Ani, Plain Chachalacas, Ridgeway’s Northern Rough- winged Swallows, Yucatan Vaux Swifts, Spot-breasted Wren and a juvenile begging Red-throated Ant-Tanager. Orioles flashed brilliant orange and black from the treetops, enabling us to compare Orchard and the two similar looking Hooded and Orange Orioles. Flocks of Yucatan Jays moved noisily through the trees, with several immatures showing their yellow bills and eyerings.
We pondered a very sooty-looking Golden-fronted Woodpecker, realizing it was the Cozumel race, not often found on the mainland.
We drove several hundred meters back to the Tulum Ruins, where we spent the next 3 hours. Archeologists believe that Mayans occupied this ocean-front location during 1200-1521 AD, where it served as an important port down. During its heyday, stout walls encompassed brightly-colored buildings overlooking sparkling blue waters. Today, the views remain spectacular, though occupied only by Black Iguanas and tourists of all nationalities. Steady groups of people filed down the paths, but we seemed to be the only birders! We strolled the neat, stone-lined paths, enjoying great sightings of Yucatan Vireos feeding on Gumbo Limbo berries, Gray and Black Catbirds, Rufous- browed Peppershrike, Blue Bunting, Red-billed Pigeons, Couch’s Kingbirds, Grayish Saltator and Tropical Mockingbirds. American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia and Yellow Warblers flitted around the trees that dotted the ruins. Making our way back to the parking lot we stopped to watch a group of Papantla flyers putting on a show for the tourists. Four men dressed in colorful native costumes climbed a tall metal pole and perched on a wooden square at the top. They carefully wound 4 thick ropes around the top, then wrapped the ends around their own bodies. A fifth man ascended and played a lively pipe from the center perch. In a synchronized motion, the men pushed off the top and began to swirl steadily around the pole, dangling upside down and descending with each turn of the rope. They reached the ground about 3 minutes later amid applause and admiration. For a few pesos, Debbie got her photo taken with them!
Back at our hotel, we relaxed on the lovely rooftop terrace with fresh fruit and chilled juice for an hour. Rejuvenated, we embarked upon the second half of our day, driving about 30 minutes west to Coba. The area is known for its large permanent lake, as well as forested Mayan ruin, quite different from Tulum. We pulled over on the way to admire several Dark Kite Swallowtail butterflies puddling in a roadside depression to take in minerals. Coba lake held a Morelet’s Crocodile, as well as Least and Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants. White-collared Seedeaters flitted in the surrounding reeds, while Mangrove Swallows swooped overhead. A grove of lakeside trees hosted many birds, including Yellow-winged Tanager, Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonia, Clay-colored Thrush, and Social Flycatchers flying out and back over the water hawking insects.
Historically, Coba was settled earlier than Tulum or Chichen Itza, peaking between 800 and 1100 AD. It was among the largest of Mayan cities, once covering 50 sq km, home to 40,000 Maya. Coba’s architecture is a mystery, with it’s towering pyramids resembling those of Tikal, rather than the nearer sites. Some theories say that an alliance between Coba and Tikal was forged to facilitate trade. The ruins are extensive, with an estimated 6500 structures, only a few of which have been excavated.
During our visit, we had just enough time to walk through the second-growth woodland forest and see some of the main ruins. Debbie and I climbed ‘Nohoch Mul’ (42 meters) the tallest pyramid in the Northern Yucatan peninsula, where we enjoyed expansive forest views from the top, and aching legs on the way down – those ancient steps were very steep! We hired a tricycle ride to take us back 2km, where we found Bob investigating an ant swarm. Our bird list at Coba included Brown Jays, Stub- tailed Spadebill, Pale-billed Woodpecker and Black-headed Trogon. Driving out, we pulled over for flocks of White-fronted Parrots, screeching as they flew across the road. The sun set in lovely shades of pink and purple as we drove about one-and-a-half hours south to our evening hotel in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a lovely ending to the day.
Day 3 / March 3 – Felipe Carillo Puerto – Parrots, Pauraques and Puma
The town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto served as our home base for two nights, while we birded in this Mayan heart of Quintana Roo. We focused on the Vigia Chico Road, starting at the edge of town and working our way through tropical, semi-deciduous forest which hosts a high diversity of species.
We began at first light and stopped often, finding plenty of activity along an 8km stretch of dirt road. Yucatan Parrots, White-fronted Parrots and Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeets screeched from the treetops, competing with noisy Brown Jays, Green Jays and Plain Chachalacas. We enjoyed great looks at Mangrove Vireo, Black-headed Saltator, Olivaceous Woodcreeper and Black Catbird. A pair of Collared Aracaris caught our attention overhead, taking us away from examining a bell-shaped beehive at eye level just off the road. We followed 5 Yucatan Woodpeckers moving quickly from tree to tree, distinguished from the closely related Golden-fronted Woodpeckers by smaller size and yellow tufts at the base of the bill. In a second-growth clearing, a pair of Barred Antshrikes circled us noisily, followed by Yellow-billed Cacique and Squirrel Cuckoo. We enjoyed a great hummingbird show, with Cinnamon Hummingbird, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, White-bellied Emerald, and Canivet’s Emerald building a nest with complete disregard for a nearby ranch with several barking dogs. We got fleeting looks at a Turquoise-browed Motmot and elusive White-browed Wren (similar to our Carolina).
After a hearty Mexican lunch, we ventured back onto Vigia Chico Road, focusing on kilometers 8 through 14 for the afternoon. We got good looks at Black-headed, Collared and Gartered (Violaceous) Trogons. Debbie attempted to share her enthusiasm with some local kids on bikes by pointing out a lovely trogon, and was dismayed to catch a glimpse of one of them pulling out a slingshot and peering into the area where the bird had been perched a moment ago. This reminded us that local people still hunt for subsistence, and cured us of pointing out any more wildlife! Some butterflies danced around the canopy, while one Dark-spotted Polythrix posed nicely. A pocket of treetop activity featured Rose-throated Tanager, Yellow-backed Oriole, Rose-throated Becard, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Yellow-throated Vireo, two female Red-legged Honeycreepers, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Northern Parula and Black-and-white Warbler.
Across the track, a calling Northern Bentbill brought our attention to an extensive antswarm attracting Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-Tanger, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, White-bellied Wren, Spot-breasted Wren, Long-billed Gnatwren, Gray-throated Chat, Green-backed Sparrow, Hooded and Kentucky Warblers. We spent a long time enjoying this tropical experience.
Sunset found us at the edge of an open field dotted with palms sporting several Black-cowled and Hooded Orioles. A Gray Hawk flew to its nest high up in a tree, calling for its mate. Our first Gray- crowned Yellowthroat jumped from shrub to shrub, approaching us curiously. As light faded, the deep bark of a Mottled Owl joined the calls of a nearby Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, and we caught sight of a Yucatan Nightjar hawking insects from the dirt road. Driving back in darkness, we encountered a Gray Fox walking towards us, then, to our amazement, a Puma sauntered alongside the road before turning silently into the forest. We stopped the car to examine a large hairy spider in our headlights, noting that she was carrying thousands of spider babies on her back. A Common Pauraque swooped before us as we emerged into the agricultural plots on the edge of town, ending another wonderful day in the Yucatan.
Day 4 / March 4 – Balamku Raptors and Bat Spectacle
Today we drove deeper into the Yucatan, heading south towards Chetumal, then veering west to Calakmul, our destination. We stopped several times during our journey, enjoying sightings of Keel- billed Toucan sunning themselves at first light, along with Blue-black Grassquits and White-collared Seedeaters feeding in the grasses. Aside from numerous vultures, Roadside and Gray Hawks were the most common raptors, often perched on poles or tall trees giving them good vantage points. A stretch of agricultural fields hosted many calling Black-throated Bobwhites, as well as Blue Grosbeak, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Bronzed Cowbirds. Gray-breasted Martins hawked insects overhead, and we had excellent looks at a Laughing Falcon.
We reached Balamku after lunch, giving us about two hours to explore this important archeological site located near the mouth of the road that leads to Calakmul. Discovered in 1990, Balamku means “Temple of the Jaguar” in Mayan, so-named because of the well-preserved icons and friezes found on the structures. In the midday heat we were pleased with the quality of avian activity, if not abundance. A Hook-billed and Crane Hawk were perched conspicuously near the entrance, along with Collared Aracari, Green-backed Sparrow, Gartered and Black-headed Trogons. Bob found an elusive Bicolored Hawk well-concealed deep in the woods, and we studied it through a scope for a long time before it flew off.
We checked into our nearby lodge before driving several kilometers back down the highway to the site of a well-known bat cave, where we eagerly prepared for the evening spectacle. The nickname “Volcán de los Murcielagos” (Bat volcano) references the huge number of bats emerging at once like an eruption, but the official name is Balamku, the same as the nearby ruins.
We positioned ourselves safely on the side of the fast-moving highway, not far from a “Bat Crossing” sign – an interesting variation of the common wildlife-crossing signs that dot the highways. We focused on the ridgetop where the bats would emerge at dusk. Raptors appeared shortly, awaiting the same show as us, but eager for a meal, not photos! A Short-tailed Hawk circled over the ridge, followed by Gray and Roadside Hawks, then a pair of Bat Falcons. Suddenly, one bat was spotted, opening the floodgates for hundreds of thousands more. For nearly 30 minutes we watched in awe the spectacle of at least a million bats pouring out of their underground cave. They swirled in a continuous, undulating stream of motion, soaring up and away from the ridge line in waves, their calls audible but not loud. We were unable to find exact details, but several reports mention 2 million individuals and 8 different species. We witnessed 4 raptors snag a bat and fly away with it in its talons. As the light faded, we realized that some bats were crossing the road at eye level. We saw them zip out of the shrubs and zoom straight for us, veering away at the last second in a whir of wings. Miraculously, we didn’t see any get hit by the trucks that were passing at high speed. This was a wildlife encounter that I will never forget.
Day 5 / March 5 – The Wonders of Calakmul
Once the largest city of the Mayan Empire, the ruins of Calakmul are now recognized as a World Heritage site, and a critically important archeological site and Biosphere Reserve. Indeed, we found the fascinating pyramids and expansive wildlife of Calakmul were wonderful to explore.
Based at the charmingly rustic “Puerta Calakmul” lodge at the edge of the Reserve, we awoke to the sound of Black Howler Monkeys roaring in the forest, and the night watchman telling us he heard a Puma calling. After coffee and biscuits we set-off eagerly, hoping to catch some nocturnal activity before dawn.
It took us nearly 3 hours to drive the 60 km road down to the entrance of Calakmul, as we stopped often to look, listen and enjoy the experience. We were surprised and delighted at the number of mammals – Eastern Cottontail, Red Brocket Deer, Collared Peccary, and Central American Aguoti. Our first of several Ocellated Turkeys crossed the road at first light. A stop at a pond produced a Least Grebe and Gray-neck Wood Rail.
As we watched Scrub Euphonias in the treetops, the rough scolding of Red-throated Ant-tanagers alerted us to an ant swarm that attracted Long-billed Gnatwren and Northern Barred Woodcreeper, among others.
We reached the Calakmul car park at 7:45 am, where we found several curious Ocellated Turkeys, a pair of Bat Falcons guarding their nest hole high in a bare tree, and just one other car. Located about 30 kms from the border of Guatemala and many miles off the main highway, Calakmul remains remote and isolated from the typical tour circuit of Mayan ruins. We appreciated the solitude and set- off at a leisurely pace, enjoying the exotically beautiful songs of toucans and parrots, plus the wings of doves and the audible chatter of hummingbirds. For the next 8 hours we wandered the trails, pishing and imitating the pygmy owl to great success. We drew in mixed flocks of warblers that included Hooded, Magnolia, Black-throated Green, Black-and-white, and Blue-winged, as well as American Redstart, Ovenbird, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Lesser Greenlet, and Northern Beardless- Tryannulet. We heard the mournful call of Dusky-capped Flycatcher, and saw Blue Bunting, White- bellied Emerald, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Ruby-throated Hummingbird Stub-tailed Spadebill, Yellow-olive Flycatcher and trogons.
We watched a troop of Black Howlers including a young one feeding quietly in the trees. A small group of Spider Monkeys munched on succulents, getting their water high off the ground.
Additional bursts of activity brought a Plain Xenops, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, White-browed Wren and Northern Bentbill. White-tipped Doves were heard, but difficult to see.
Calakmul means “the city of two adjacent pyramids,” and we were duly impressed by Pyramids I and II which, at 55 meters height, reached high above the canopy, offering unforgettable views of a vast forest stretching to Tikal and beyond. We climbed Pyramid I getting eye-to-eye with a perched Bat Falcon, and looking down on Couch’s Kingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker and Great-crested Flycatcher. The summit of Pyramid II revealed a special sighting of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle on nest; through the scope we saw the female turning her egg with her large, hooked bill.
Driving back up the long, slow road, we stopped to study several parties of birds at different ant swarms. Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Ivory-billed and Ruddy Woodcreeper, Gray- throated Chat and Kentucky Warbler were all feeding actively. Roadside Hawks were always nearby, and sometimes startled from the ground where they were likely hunting large insects or small rodents and reptiles that were fleeing from the relentlessly advancing army of ants. We watched five Gray- headed Tanagers jumping comically on the road, intent on their feast.
As we entered our lodge at the end of the day, we spotted a Thicket Tinamou walking silently into the foliage, and a Bright-rumped Attila coming in to drink from the pond. A delicious meal and cold beverages served in a lovely rustic setting created the perfect ending to a wonderful day in Calakmul.
Day 6 / March 6 – Calakmul to Valladolid
Today we began a half-hour earlier than yesterday, in the hopes of seeing more wildlife during the wee hours of the morning. We were thrilled when our efforts were so richly rewarded! Driving slowly back down the 60-km road to Calakmul, we heard the spine-chilling roars of Howler Monkeys echoing around us, and spotted a Gray Fox crossing before our headlights. There were at least 3 Yucatan Nightjars calling and we watched one of them fly across the road several times. A symphony of owls sounded around us, including Mottled, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl and Vermiculated Screech Owls, one of which we saw well. Plain Chacalacas, Laughing Falcon and Blue-crowned Motmot added to the chorus. Bob tracked down the barking calls of a Barred Forest Falcon to its perch quite close to the road, giving us great looks. What a glorious way to experience the break of dawn in the forest!
With the rising sun came bursts of activity, and we stopped often to investigate. One stop at 7am yielded Rose-throated Tanager, Gray-breasted Chat, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, White-bellied Emerald, Canivet’s Emerald, Lesser Greenlet, White-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula, Magnolia and Black- throated Green Warbler. We saw 3 Great Currasows, one of which vanished into the shrubbery, while the other two crossed the road and could be seen walking on some fallen limbs a few yards inside the woods. We braked hard for our second, breathtaking sighting of Puma. A female adult sauntered out onto the road, paused, and turned to face the forest patch from which she had just exited. This must’ve been the signal for her cub to come out and join her. He followed her faithfully, even when she stopped to look at our vehicle for a moment. We even saw the cub jump playfully against his mother for a minute, before the two of them disappeared into the forest. Another spectacular experience and it was not even 8am!
By the time we reached the entrance to Calakmul we had added Long-billed Gnatwren, White-browed Wren and Mangrove Vireo to the morning tally. We were greeted by several curious Ocellated Turkeys, though our attention was drawn to a Yucatan Squirrel scampering up a tree. Noisy flocks of White-fronted Parrots flew over the canopy as we studied the resident pair of Bat Falcons for a while. We watched the large female tear into her latest meal, an unlucky vireo, and witnessed a mating between the two.
With a long ride ahead, we reluctantly turned around and worked our way back up the road. Another stopped car brought our attention to a troop of White-nosed Coatis shuffling through the woods. A roadside wetland produced our first Bare-throated Tiger Heron, along with Gartered Trogon, Bright- rumped Attila, Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes. White Satyr and Small Beauty butterflies flitted in the dappled sunshine. Surprisingly, reptiles were rather elusive, but we did see Yucatan Spiny Lizard and Bighead Anole back at the lodge.
We packed up and began the long journey north to Valladolid. The 7-hour drive was broken up with stops to check out another lodge, and have lunch before a heavy rainstorm rolled in, slowing our progress. An hour away from our destination, our headlights caught eye-shine from a nightjar. We pulled over and searched for about 45 minutes, hearing only the Yucatan Poorwill.
Driving a little farther, Adrian’s keen eyes spotted more eye-shine, and this time it was the Yucatan Nightjar perched on a roadside shrub, frozen in view for long minutes.
If not for the late hour and rumbling stomachs, we might’ve been more keen to experience the lively carnival that was going on in full swing in the square in front of our hotel. We enjoyed the music while dining in the open courtyard hotel restaurant, but were grateful that our rooms were located way in the back. We slept peacefully after the long exciting day.
Day 7 / March 7 – Flamingos of Los Coloradas
We awoke early, eager to explore the northern part of the Yucatan. Valladolid (pronounced Bye-yuh- doe-leed) makes a comfortable base from which to reach surrounding areas. With a population of over 50,000 people, the colonial town features interesting architecture, good restaurants and colorful shops. We drove north out of the main plaza square, reaching the coastal town of Rio Lagartos in 1.5 hours where we met up with Ismael, our knowledgeable local guide. He was happy to show us our target Yucatan Wrens moving noisily among shrubby thickets, along with a covey of Black-throated (Yucatan) Bobwhites. Turquoise-browed Motmots were staking out territories in a limestone quarry full of Black Iguanas, and Mexican Sheartails flashed their forked tails and brilliant plumages in the bright sunshine.
We saw Eastern Meadowlark, Common Ground-Dove, Vermillion Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, Savannah Sparrow, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Orchard Orioles and a Merlin. The skies were filled with soaring vultures, along with frequent flyover White-fronted Parrots, Osprey, White-tailed Hawk and Great Black Hawk. Shallow ponds hosted Blue-winged Teal and Black-necked Stilt.
Arriving at the salt flats of Los Coloradas, we were amazed and thrilled to see thousands of American Flamingos feeding on brine shrimp. Groups of vivid pink birds stalked in the salty waters, with unbelievably tall legs and long necks. It was evident in the pairings that the males were significantly taller than the females. Large flocks of shorebirds included Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers, Semipalmated Plover, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, White-rumped Sandpipers, Sanderlings, and a Snowy Plover chasing brine flies.
We visited the Los Coloradas town beach, where many fishing boats bobbed in the waters just a few meters from shore, anchored by long ropes in the sand. Ruddy Turnstones posed on the dock, while a Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gulls, Laughing Gulls, and Brown Pelicans swarmed around the fishermen, eager for scraps. Magnificent Frigatebirds circled overhead, ever-vigilant for an opportunity to steal another bird’s hard-earned meal.
Ismael escorted us to his family’s restaurant, “Isla Contoy” situated dock-side on a picturesque lagoon. The ceaseless activities of fishing boats, gulls, terns and pelicans just outside the window distracted us from our delicious seafood meal. Immediately after lunch we took a two-hour boat ride along Rio Lagartos to the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico – a wonderfully interesting and relaxing ride in the gorgeous blue waters and brilliant sunshine. Our boat meandered past mangrove coves where we saw Roseate Spoonbill, Tri-colored Heron, Little Blue Heron, two Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, Boat-billed Heron, White Ibis, Belted Kingfisher, and Morelet’s Crocodiles. Moving on, we encountered Reddish Egrets of both morphs dancing in the shallows behind a sandbar full of sitting birds, including Black Skimmers, American White Pelicans, Royal Tern, Caspian Tern, Foster’s Terns, Ruddy Turnstones, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and Black-bellied Plovers. We spotted two Great White Herons tucked against a shrub with their wings cupped open, behavior not exhibited by Great Egrets. Our boatman, Santiago, picked out a lone Anhinga soaring high over our heads among a flock of frigatebirds.
We returned to Los Coloradas to look for Zenaida Dove, with success. As daylight faded, we enjoyed the spectacle once more, of thousands of American Flamingos feeding in the salty waters, silhouetted by a brilliantly-colored sunset. We moved around the dirt roads of the salt pans, seeking the best
angle for photos in the setting sun. We came across a Willet, adding another species to our long list of shorebirds. A lone Peregrine Falcon crouched against the ground, concealing himself to ambush the unsuspecting flocks. Several Long-billed Curlews were seen feeding in tall grasses as we left the area. It was a glorious ending to our day on the coast.
Day 8 / March 8 – Chichen Itza Sacred Cenotes
Chichen Itza, the most famous of the Yucatan Mayan ruins, beckoned us with stories of a mysterious astronomical calendar, a gruesome ball court and children’s bones inexplicably piled inside a pyramid. David, our local guide and expert in Mayan archeology, described these wonders of Chichen Itza, and much more.
As usual, we began our day early and met David for breakfast at an upscale hotel. We birded the lush grounds for an hour, seeing Green-breasted Mango, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Masked Tityra, Black-headed Saltator, Yellow-throated Euphonias, Social Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Red- billed Pigeon, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Summer Tanager and Turquoise-browed Motmots.
We walked to the nearby ruins, where David explained that Chichen Itza means “holy mouth of the well” as evidenced by several fascinating Cenotes. These giant limestone holes extend deep into the ground, partially-filled with water and rimmed by lush vegetation. Turquoise-browed Motmots flitted from perch to perch, checking out suitable places from which to excavate their nest holes right out of the limestone. Hooded, Baltimore and Altamira Orioles posed in the sunny treetops, and a Gartered Trogon flew into view for several minutes.
David led us around the site, explaining about the fascinating frescoes of the restored structures, the lighting of the serpents during the two annual equinoxes, and the numerology behind the pyramid steps and tiers. We saw Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-winged Tanager and Bat Falcons. We walked pass hundreds of local villagers who were selling jewelry, masks, pottery, blankets and crafts from tables they had set-up along the path. We thought they added color, culture and life to this ancient archeological site that features so largely in the modern tourism economy of Mexico. We left Chichen Itza just as many tourists were arriving from Cancun, a 2-hour bus ride away.
After lunch in Valladolid, we headed back east to catch the Cozumel ferry from the south side of Playa del Carmen. We were told to arrive early to get on line, giving us plenty of time to muse about how the giant tractor trailers next to us were possibly going to fit onto the vehicle ferry. Indeed, the process was amazing. All passenger cars were called to drive onto the ship, following a circular track that led us up a steep incline onto the second deck. We scrambled out of our car and climbed to a higher level, from where we watched an amazing number of 18-wheelers and cargo trucks drive onto the ferry. We didn’t know how they would all fit, but our ferry swallowed every one of them, including a pick-up truck loaded with live llamas. It was after dark when the ferry pushed off and crossed the channel to Isla Cozumel in about 1.5 hours. The disembarking was equally efficient, and soon we had driven through the main city of the island and were checking into our hotel. We had enjoyed a wide variety of sights and experiences today, from the ancient wonders of Chichen Itza, to the bustling streets of Cozumel.
Day 9 / March 9 – Isla Cozumel, ‘la isla bonita’
We awoke well before dawn to beat the heat on this picturesque ‘isla bonita’. Common Paraques were still calling as we drove to the north side of the island, where the pavement ends, and the road continues as a bumpy but passable dirt road. In a few kilometers we came to a series of cracked- pavement roads known as the “north grid”, the remnants of a housing development never built. The lush, unimpeded vegetation hosts many of the birds found on Cozumel, including a handful of endemic species.
Vaux’s Swifts circled overhead and Caribbean Doves – commonly heard, but difficult to see – were calling while we walked up and down the empty streets lined with dense thickets. We were joined by Jake, a ornithological graduate student from Yale, whom we had met on the ferry the night before. He was one of very few birders encountered in the Yucatan, and both parties appreciated the company.
Our targets were the Mexican endemics that are found only on the island of Cozumel – the beautiful Cozumel Vireo, Cozumel Emerald (a longer-tailed version of Canivet’s Emerald), and the skulking Cozumel Wren. We soon located them all. Another endemic, the Cozumel Thrasher has not been seen for over 5 years.
We also had success with the Cozumel races of Bananaquit, Black Catbird, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and the ubiquitous Golden (Yellow) Warbler.
Resident Tropical Kingbirds and Tropical Mockingbirds were abundant, and Hooded was the most common Oriole. Other residents seen were Green-breasted Mango, Northern Beardless Tryannulet, Brown-crested Flycatcher and Mangrove Cuckoo,
Amongst our neotropical migrants, we saw Great-crested Flycatcher, Northern Parula, Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia Warbler, Gray Catbird, and Osprey. We added Worm-eating Warbler and Painted Bunting to our trip list.
We drove to the northern tip of the island to tick Cozumel Raccoon. At least 7 of them scampered tamely around the parking lot, begging for attention and scraps from some tourists who were doing a boat tour.
Following a relaxing lunch overlooking sparkling turquoise-blue waters, we ventured back out to explore the eastern side and southern tip of the island. A quick detour down the road to San Gervasio produced many of the same species from the morning. We opted not to enter the ruin site, but continued east across the island and south to Punta Sur. We stopped at an inland pond not far from the ocean, finding Pied-billed Grebe, Moorhen, Blue-winged Teal, Black-necked Stilts, and Belted Kingfisher. Royal Terns and frigatebirds soared above the rolling surf crashing against a rocky shoreline.
Few people used the beaches on the windy side of the island, though we passed plenty of cars enjoying scenic views of the ocean, as we were. We paid a small fee to enter the Faro Celarain Reserva Ecologica at the southernmost tip of Cozumel. We followed a dirt road down to a tall lighthouse at the bottom. At an observation area overlooking a marshy lagoon we saw at least 10 American Crocodiles sunning near the raised boardwalk, and a nice variety of waders and sandpipers, including Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Little Blue Heron, Wilson’s Plover, Black- bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Plover.
As the sun descended in brilliant pinks and purples, we found ourselves driving slowly around the quiet village of El Cedral. Dirt streets lined with neat little houses contrasted sharply with the bustling tourist atmosphere of San Miguel. Few outsiders come here, though there is a small remnant of Mayan Ruin near the town square. We enjoyed the peaceful late afternoon feeling, and were pleased to find a grove of fruiting trees around the village center loaded with kingbirds, Hooded and Orchard Orioles and the common warblers – Palm, Black-throated Green and American Redstart. We located a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on a distant palm tree, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia.
We spent our last night in the Yucatan with cold drinks in hand and the sound of the ocean in our ears, reminiscing about all the wonderful birds, animals and Mayan ruins we had experienced.
Day 10 / March 10 – Final Morning in Mexico
Our final morning in Mexico was full of bright sunshine, delicious food and spectacular scenery. We returned to the north grid at dawn, where we got good looks at our final target, a Cozumel Rufous- browed Peppershrike. Cave Swallows and Grey-breasted Martins swooped overhead while we scoped some perched White-fronted Parrots, and found Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and male Painted Bunting.
We briefly visited a local Country Club Golf Course where American Coot, Moorhen, Spotted Sandpiper and Northern Jacanas were feeding around a pond. We found a Green-breasted Mango on a nest directly over the parking lot, and watched it aggressively try to chase away a feeding Cozumel Yucatan Woodpecker. We pointed out the nesting hummingbird to the manager who was delighted to photograph it, and would surely share it with his patrons. Amid the attractive, natural landscaping, we saw a Collared Peccary and two reptiles – a small Brown Anole flashing his red dewlap, and a Brown Basilisk slithering through the undergrowth. As we left the grounds, Bob spotted one of several White-crowned Pigeons flying quickly across the road.
We spent our final hour in Cozumel relaxing over fresh orange juice and delicious breakfast pastries at a local café. We admired sleek, sparkling street decorations for the carnival festival, and ogled super-sized cruise ships anchored at the dock, overflowing with tourists.
We boarded the ferry and returned to the Cancun airport to catch afternoon flights home. We were thrilled to see 250 bird species including a great number of Yucatan endemics, wonderful mammals highlighted by Puma, and amazing cultural experiences at the Mayan ruins.