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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: The Lacandon Rainforest and Maya Ruins

2014 Tour Narrative

In Brief: The birding was spectacular: from close-up perched King Vultures to fancy Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers; from a Black-and-white Owl hooting above our cabins to ethereal White Hawks soaring against cloudless blue skies; from the primary colors of trogons and manakins glowing in the shady forest to a cryptic but spectacular Great Potoo; from the roars of burningly bright Scarlet Macaws to the omnipresent roaring of howler monkeys; and all against the backdrop of spectacular and mystical Maya ruins shrouded in rainforest. Away from the forest and ruins, the birding was no less exciting: from bizarre Double-striped Thick-knees to nesting Boat-billed Herons, and from hundreds of wintering migrant warblers to thousands upon thousands of waterbirds in nearby wetlands. As always, there are lots of birds in Mexico, plus friendly people and good food.

In Detail: After arrival in Villahermosa and a good sleep we made the drive out into the heart of the Lacandon, and along the way got a sense of the area’s geography and diversity of birds. We reached Guacamayas Lodge in good time for a little birding, which featured a wonderful Laughing Falcon, an obliging Pale-billed Woodpecker, and an amazing Great Potoo – not bad for a travel day!

We awoke to what would become an almost omnipresent sound of this trip – the roaring of howler monkeys – before taking a boat trip up the Rio Tzendales, and its accompanying travertine waterfalls. The birding started with great views of burningly bright Scarlet Macaws feeding on palm nuts, and other highlights included an elusive Sungrebe and the little-known Blue Seedeater, a denizen of bamboo thickets. Stops along the river produced Royal Flycatcher, Crested Guan, White-necked Puffbird, and Collared Plover. After lunch and a siesta we birded nearby habitats, finding a snazzy male Barred Antshrike and simply enjoying some of the commoner birds such as Yellow-winged Tanager and Squirrel Cuckoo.

The next morning we birded roadside and rainforest, and experienced a magical dawn chorus as night passed into day. Morning highlights included displaying male White-collared Manakins, a stunning male Red-capped Manakin, handsome Orange-billed sparrows, a LOUD Rufous Piha, and a Bat Falcon perched in beautiful light. After lunch we headed to Frontera Corozal, and the legendary Usumacinta (or Sacred Monkey) River- the interstate highway of the Mayas. Our only rain of the trip came this afternoon, with some heavy showers into the night.

Overnight rain made for a pleasantly cool morning as we enjoyed the forest edge and remarkable Maya ruins at Bonampak, known for their spectacularly preserved painted figures. Birds at the fruiting trees included a procession of orioles, tanagers, flycatchers, euphonias, tityras, and becards, plus a nice Green Shrike-Vireo and a male Painted Bunting. Among many other species we also found showy Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers, spectacular White Hawks, and noisy Rufous-tailed Jacamars before all too soon it was time to leave. Late afternoon birding reinforced the theme of abundant Neotropical migrants, including a stunning male Golden-winged Warbler, along with Crane Hawks and Rufous-breasted Spinetails.

We then we headed down the Usumacinta River with Mexico on the left bank and Guatemala on the right. Our  morning visit to the spectacular Maya ruins at Yaxchilán began with the spectacle of 10 (!) King Vultures at a dead cow on the riverbank, the vultures in varied plumages from dark juveniles to exuberantly adorned adults. Around the ruins, birds included woodcereepers, trogons, and toucans, plus Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds and a flashy Purple-crowned Fairy feeding at coral-bean flowers. As we returned reluctantly to the launch, a beautiful Blue-crowned Motmot sat seemingly indifferent to swarms of chattering tourists starting to arrive. After lunch (with a nesting Rufous-tailed Hummingbird right off the balcony!), we headed on to Palenque. Despite some vehicle problems (many thanks to the coach of German tourists and their perfect timing!) we arrived at our hotel in time for a short walk on the grounds – the highlight undoubtedly being a beautiful Fer-de-lance, but it moved quickly away on our approach.

Our last sojourn into the Maya world was at Palenque, a spectacular site framed by forested hillsides. Aztec Parakeets screeched overhead, Keel-billed Toucans fed in the trees, Squirrel Cuckoos hopped in the canopy, a Long-billed (née Long-tailed) Hermit showed well at a coral-bean tree, and other gems included a male Violet Sabrewing, the understated Worm-eating Warbler, and several Green Honeycreepers. After visiting the museum we enjoyed lunch and a welcome siesta. Highlights of our late afternoon birding included the bizarre Double-striped Thick-knee, close-range Fork-tailed Flycatchers (wow!), and some great ice creams!

After some amazingly successful forest birding we finished with a grand finale loop through the Centla Wetlands Biosphere Reserve, where the sheer numbers of waterbirds - herons, egrets, ibises, storks, spoonbills, jacanas, Limpkins, ducks, and so on - were overwhelming. What a treat to watch Pinnated Bitterns and Limpkins in the open, a surprise American Bittern, nesting Boat-billed Herons, and flock upon flock of egrets, ibis, and Wood Storks. “Raptors” included numerous Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, handsome Black-collared Hawks, and numerous Snail Kites, while the trees held literally hundreds of migrant warblers, including Blue-winged, Prothonotary, and Yellow-throated. A roving band of Yucatan Jays and a Mexican ferry experience filled out the day. And then, all too soon our week in the land of the Maya was over - thanks to all for making it such a memorable, fun, and bird-filled trip!

-Steve Howell

Updated: March 2014