Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Cleanup on Peninsula Yucatan (and Cozumel Island)

The Yucatan wasn't high on our list of places to visit in Mexico since we had already spent a week in Belize not so long ago. But since Natalia had a conference to go to in Merida, we decided to bird and explore the area while we were in the neighborhood.

In making our plans we relied heavily on Ross Gallardy's excellent trip report. Sites we visited: Rio Lagartos, Ek Balam, Xocen, Coba, Cozumel.

American Flamingo at Rio Lagartos. This wasn't a bird we were targeting on this trip, but we certainly weren't complaining when this one landed in front of us.

First off, the Yucatan is awesome. This isn't a secret. Cruise ships pull up to its major tourist ports by the dozens. While such a touristic influx would ruin many places, and indeed Playa del Carmen is a bit of a postmodern consumerist hellhole (we didn't dare set foot in Cancun), the region is big enough and has enough attractions that it is possible to get away from the crowds, especially if you happen to be focusing on birds.

The birding is excellent of course, but there's also the fascinating Mayan temple ruins, the water-filled swimmable sinkholes (called 'cenotes'), postcard-worthy beaches and then phenomenal diving and snorkeling. No wonder everybody wants to go here.

We were joined for the mainland part of our trip by notable S. African ecologist and bird-nut, 'DuJuan Grandes' (Duan Biggs), who we met at the conference.

Birder extraordinaire Dr. Sr. DuJuan Grandes (et al.) birding in the forest at Xocen

Our first birding stop, Rio Lagartos, is an essential one for any visiting birder as its one of the only places in the world one to see two endemics: the Mexican Sheartail and the Yucatan Wren.

The endemic Mexican Sheartail at the Restaurante Chiquila feeders, Rio Lagartos

The hummingbird is easy as pie. All you have to do is visit the restaurant Chiquila outside of town where the owners maintain a couple sugar-water feeders. We also encountered the local bird guide here, Ismael, and made plans to bird with him the following morning.

The wren can be found along the highway outside of town that cuts through scrub habitats.  We found this road to be loaded with birds (and mosquitoes; come prepared).

Yucatan Wren outside Rio Lagartos. Yet another endemic Mexican wren belonging to the oversized Campylorhynchus genus.

Turquoise-browed Motmots were everywhere.

We ran into several 'Christmas trees' of Turqoise-browed Motmots, in which they just seemed to cover all the branches like ornaments. They would always disperse as we approached though so it was hard to capture this effect.

The orioles were thick, coming in three superficially similar flavors: Orange (endemic), Hooded and Altamira. Be careful with those.

Otherwise I'll let these photos do the explaining...

The endemic Yucatan Jay near Rio Lagartos

Lesser Nighthawk near Rio Lagartos

A pair of the endemic Black-throated Bobwhite. These things were calling all over the place, but a bit tricky to see. If you drive the gravel roads in the early am you should stumble upon them though.

There are quite a few flooded areas (their size and existence dependent upon recent rainfall) along the scrub road outside Rio Lagartos, and it's supposedly a decent place to find a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail.  No luck for us find that notoriously tough bird, but we came across a few shorebirds including this cute Black-necked Stilt.
There were lots of tropical raptors in the area including Roadside Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Laughing Falcon and this molt-messed Zone-tailed Hawk. Sr. Grandes wanted a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, but we somehow missed that one.

Most tourists come to Rio Lagartos to hire a boat to explore the lagoon and see flamingos, Boat-billed Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and other aquatic species, but Natalia and I opted instead to skip town early to visit the ruins at Ek Balam on our way south to Valladolid.

Natalia atop the main temple at Ek Balam. We chose this place over the more famous and not-far-away Chichen Itza for several reasons: 1) There are forests that provide birds and shade; 2) there are way fewer visitors (I hate crowds); 3) Climbing the pyramids is allowed.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker at Ek Balam. Confusingly enough the subspecies here has a red 'front' or nasal tufts. The similar-looking Yucatan Woodpecker is the one with the golden 'front'.

We picked Valladolid because of its proximity to the private reserve Xocen and made plans with the local bird expert, Ismael Arellano Ciau (no relation to the Rio Lagartos Ismael). Unfortunately he wasn't available the first night, so we went out with his colleague, Angel, who isn't quite as knowledgeable bird-wise (he typically leads cultural tours). Angel did know the location of the Vermiculated Screech-Owl in the area (score!).

Red morph of the Vermiculated Screech-Owl. By range this should be the 'Middle American' or 'Guatemalan' subspecies. Tropical owls are difficult enough as is, but they will only get harder if they continue being split!

And thanks to Ross Gallary's GPS point we were also able to find a Yucatan Poorwill.

One of the tough nocturnal endemics, the Yucatan Poorwill at Xocen. Clearly I still haven't mastered the hand-held night shot.

Unfortunately the Yucatan Nightjar was nowhere to be found. Presumably July isn't the best month to look for them.

The next morning we went out with Ismael and another guide, Miguel, who helped us sift through swarming masses of Yellow-green Vireos to find our top target, the Rose-throated Tanager.

Rose-throated Tanager (with Black Catbird) at Xocen. This enigmatic Piranga tanager (meaning it is actually a cardinal and not a true tanager) eluded us in Belize, so we were pretty hyped to catch up with it in Mexico.

Ismael took us to a nearby spot in the late morning where there had been a pheasant cuckoo present some weeks ago. Unfortunately the cuckoo had moved on, but we got to see this cool cenote with cascading fig tree roots, attendant Cave Swallows and Turqoise-browed Motmots.

This iconic scene was a nice consolation for not seeing a Pheasant Cuckoo. Here we have a strangler fig perched on the edge of a karst sinkhole (cenote) with its roots cascading some 12 meters (40 feet) down to the sinkhole floor. 
There's an endemic subspecies of Cave Swallow in the Yucatan that specializes in nesting in cenotes. We caught up with this group hanging out in a cenote parking lot.

Natalia and I parted ways with our excellent guides and Sr. 'Grandes' to make our way down to another ruins, Coba, en route to Playa del Carmen.

The birding squad at Xocen. Ismael and Miguel were great local guides. They just formed a company called Yucatan Jay Expeditions & Tours. If you want to bird this area look them up.
The Coba ruins were impressive and in the midday heat, we appreciated the shade provided by the forest canopy. There were birds around, but we missed out on our one realistic target: Scrub Euphonia (they all ended up being Yellow-throated, which is supposedly rarer here).

Natalia wanted to get a move-on, but I convinced her to allow us 20 minutes to bird the boardwalk overlooking the emergent marshes fringing the nearby lake. To our astonishment Spotted Rail was an easy find here in the mid afternoon.

Spotted Rail at the Coba Lagoon. This is one of those birds I thought I just wouldn't ever see despite spending plenty of time birding within its range of occurrence. We saw two of these gaudy things with minimal effort.

Least Bittern at the Coba lagoon. Any day that includes an Ixobrychus bittern is a good day in my book. 

After a quick stop to swim with whale sharks, it was over to Cozumel for some diving and a bit of relaxation. Of course while on the island, it's essential to get out and bird at least one morning to get Cozumel Vireo and Cozumel Emerald. It's also worth trying to see the Cozumel Wren, which is technically a subspecies of House Wren, but is quite a bit different and likely to be split eventually.

We took our rented jalopy north out of town and quickly came across Cozumel Vireo (and endemic Yucatan Vireo) among the throngs of Yellow Warbler, but we weren't having any luck with the Emerald. As we were making our way back toward town we came across a couple birders (Mexican guide with an English client) by the side of the road, so we parked and approached to see what they were up to.

The guide immediately began blasting Ruddy Crake tape and out came a couple into view. Nice!

We were still basking in the crake afterglow when he began smashing out some Cozumel Wren tape and just like that we had two tricky birds in the bag. What luck!

Cozumel Island Wren. This bird is quite a bit different than a standard House Wren. For one it lives in the forest. Second, it has a long yellow bill and is quite pale overall. Third, it just sounds really weird. Of course House Wren taxonomy is a bit of a Gordian knot, so don't expect this split to happen any time soon.

Before we left, we were also able to glean some advice from the guide (wish I had caught his name) on where to get the Emerald. The next afternoon we had it at the flowering tree he had suggested in El Cedral. Ka-boom.

Cozumel Emerald, El Cedral
Stumbling upon this guide helped us tick our targets quickly and efficiently, which was awesome because it left us plenty of time to snorkel, dive and enjoy the island's beautiful beaches.

My only regret is that cleaning out so many bird targets in the Yucatan leaves us little in the way of targets to entice us to return!

With so many cheap flight connections into Cancun, birding the Yucatan is a bit of a no-brainer. And with all the other area attractions it can be an easy one to sell to non-birder family and friends. Vayanse ya!

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