Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: The Lacandon Rainforest and Maya Ruins

2018 Narrative

In Brief: Where else might you see the improbable trio of Scarlet Macaw, Acorn Woodpecker, and Eurasian Collared Dove as the sun rises over town? How about a warbler flock in one tangle with 8 species including Hooded, Golden-winged, and Chestnut-sided, another flock with point-blank Kentucky, Wilson’s, and Worm-eating? Or a huge fruiting fig loaded with tanagers, trogons, and toucans, plus electric-blue Lovely Cotingas, with the omnipresent backdrop roar of howler monkeys as mist rises from Maya temples hidden in the rainforest? Other birds ranged from a dazzling male Red-capped Manakin to the subtle browns of a hauntingly voiced Northern Schiffornis, and from the dayglow bill of Orange-billed Sparrow to the hammerhead crest of Royal Flycatcher. Away from the spectacular and mystic ruins and forest the birding was no less exciting: from scope views of Rufous-breasted Spinetail to Laughing and Aplomado Falcons perched in the same tree, and from hundreds of wintering migrant warblers to 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 Lacandon and our lodge on the ‘left bank’ of Usumacinta (‘sacred monkey’) River, the interstate highway of the Maya with a view across to Guatemala. Yesterday’s rain had cleared to hot and sunny for the drive, and brief stops and picnic lunch along the route gave us a sense of the area’s geography and diversity of birds, including numerous North American migrants. We reached Frontera Corozal in good time to settle in and enjoy a little birding, despite the late afternoon rain. Birds featured numerous warblers including Hooded and Ovenbird, tanagers including the handsome Yellow-winged, and excellent views of an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, plus the more expected Streak-headed Woodcreeper—not bad for a travel day! Plus of course Brown Jays and the roaring of howler monkeys.

After an early breakfast we headed down the Usumacinta River, Mexico on the left bank, Guatemala on the right, for our morning visit to the spectacular Maya ruins at Yaxchilán, with local guide Silvano. Cloudy skies made for pleasantly cool birding, which began with a feeding Long-billed (née Long-tailed) Hermit and the elusive Tody Motmot. The spectacle of the ruins was a great setting for a leisurely morning, where one huge fruiting fig kept us occupied for quite some time—and in the end yielded superb views of the incomparable Lovely Cotinga. First, good studies of the understated female, and then a couple of blindingly brilliant males that fed and perched for walk-away scope views. Fitting that some believe the ruler of Yaxchilán was named ‘cotinga jaguar’ after the Lovely Cotinga. Moreover, feathers from electric-blue male cotingas were used along with quetzal plumes in the emperor Moctezuma’s feathered crown. Other birds in “the fig” included 3 species of trogon, Keel-billed Toucan, Lesson’s (née Blue-crowned) Motmot, Red-capped Manakin, Black-faced Grosbeaks, and a pair of Crested Guans, along with a group of Central American Spider Monkeys. Some unexpected elevational migrant Blue-crowned Chlorophonias eluded visual detection, but sundry migrant warblers, the diminutive Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, and handsome Rufous-tailed Jacamar were enjoyed, plus numerous Wood Thrushes hopping underfoot. As we returned reluctantly to the launch some heavy showers arrived, along with swarms of chattering tourists—good timing. After lunch and a siesta we birded near town, where a nice selection of birds included scope views of Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Barred Antshrike, and a stunning male White-collared Manakin (thanks Jorge!), along with unconcerned howler monkeys feeding right over the road.

We awoke to what would become an almost omnipresent sound of this trip—the roaring of howler monkeys—and after an early breakfast headed for the morning to Bonampak. A fruiting gumbo limbo got us off to a good start, with male Rose-throated Becard and Bright-rumped Attila, followed by the handsome Chestnut-colored Woodpecker. Being ‘inside’ the forest was a wonderful experience, and highlights before being picked up by our taxi included Northern Tamandua (aka Collared Anteater), Long-billed Gnatwren and Black-faced (= Mexican, or Mayan) Antthrush. The ruins were spectacular as expected, and as we entered the main plaza a pair of Scarlet Macaws flew right overhead, adding to the aura. After viewing the colored murals we birded around the ruins, enjoying Louisiana Waterthrush, Wood Thrush, and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in wide-open ‘lawn’ habitats rather different from their summer homes. Other morning highlights included White-whiskered and White-necked Puffbirds, Cinnamon Becards, Green Shrike-Vireo, and a brief Royal Flycatcher. We headed back for lunch and a siesta before some birding on the edge of Frontera, which produced good numbers of wintering migrants, perched views of Aztec Parakeet, and a surprise Ladder-backed Woodpecker. A second morning at Bonampak we concentrated on forest birding and, despite the showery weather, found some great birds. We started with Black-and-white Owl (a bonus of the overcast skies), followed by Scaly-throated Leaftosser, a glowing Kentucky Warbler, a cute Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, and flocks with Black-throated Shrike-Tanagers, woodcreepers, and antbirds. Prolonged good views of singing Northern Schiffornis (née Thrushlike Mourner) and White-breasted Wood-Wren were also notable, as was a ‘warbler’ swarm as we were ready to leave—some 8 species in one tangle, including Chestnut-sided, Golden-winged, and Hooded, along with Tropical Gnatcatcher and both greenlets. The drive to Palenque was made in steady and often heavy rain, watching as rivers swelled and fields flooded! A few hours after settling in to our rooms and a nice dinner we were requested to move rooms to ‘this side’ of the river on the grounds, as the hotel staff were concerned we might be ‘trapped’ by high water! And it rained all night and all the next day, although the river never rose as much as feared.

At Palenque, we postponed our visit to the ruins for the next day, forecast to be less wet, and in the morning birded a side road near town where we found Double-striped Thick-knees and both Fork-tailed and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. In the afternoon, birding around the hotel grounds produced a selection of migrants and residents, including Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded Warblers (including a male in the restaurant!), Collared Aracari, Crimson-collared Tanager, and superb close-up studies of Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias. Our last sojourn into the Maya world was worth the wait, at the spectacular and complex site of temples framed by forested hillsides, under overcast (but not rainy!) skies. Birds during the morning vied with the ruins for our attention and included Black-cheeked, Golden-olive, Lineated, and Pale-billed woodpeckers, flashy Orange-billed Sparrows, Keel-billed Toucans, plus some superb views of migrant warblers, including a point-blank group featuring Kentucky and Worm-eating alongside the resident Golden-crowned Warbler. After visiting the museum we enjoyed lunch and a welcome siesta before more ‘local birding’ on and around the hotel grounds, where birds included an obliging Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, a bright rusty Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Lesson’s Motmot, the ‘usual’ nice selection of migrant warblers, and a couple of interesting snakes, for those so inclined.

Our week of enjoyable and successful forest birding amid spectacular ruins wrapped up with a grand finale loop through the Centla wetlands, where the sheer numbers of waterbirds—heron, egrets, ibises, storks, spoonbills, jacanas, Limpkins, ducks, and so on—were overwhelming. What a treat to compare so many species feeding together, plus fields full of Fork-tailed Flycatchers, a swarm of Grassland Yellow-finches, and hedges full of migrant warblers, including Blue-winged and Yellow-throated. Raptors included handsome Black-collared Hawks, numerous Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures and Snail Kites, plus Laughing Falcon and Aplomado Falcon perched in the same tree! Other birds of note were Cave Swallow, Yucatan Jay, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, and some photogenic Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. A Northern Tamandua ambling down the road was also amazing! But 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: February 2018