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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: The Yucatan and Cozumel

2018 Narrative

From the tiny but dazzling Cozumel Emerald to improbably proportioned and shockingly pink American Flamingos, and from awe-inspiring massive Mayan temples to the tranquility of our ‘green tunnel’ through the forest, the 2018 Yucatan and Cozumel tour hit the high points of this wonderful region, home to some great birds as well as its friendly people and distinctive regional cuisine. We did really well for endemics and regional specialties, from ‘unavoidable’ Yucatan Jays and Black Catbirds to elusive Gray-throated Chats and Ruddy Woodcreepers at an army-ant swarm, along with stunning Mexican Sheartails, garrulous Yucatan Wrens, and a sun-drenched Turquoise-browed Motmot. There was also a good diversity and abundance of northern migrants and more widespread neotropical species, ranging from the understated Swainson’s Warbler to the overstated Keel-billed Toucan. Whether it be a pair of perched Bat Falcons at close range or a ‘garden’ Morelet’s Crocodile, the memories of this trip will last a lifetime.

All arrived safely to the warm and balmy climate of the Caribbean coast of Mexico, with frigatebirds sailing overhead and a fresh onshore breeze. Early arrivals had time for a bit of birding nearby, and then we enjoyed a great dinner before a good sleep. Ah, Mexico… The first morning we birded around Puerto Morelos, and on stepping from the van encountered a band of stunning Yucatan Jays, an auspicious start. Birding near the highway and at the wonderful botanical garden, the birds included Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (with some work!), a burningly bright adult Altamira Oriole, some very unconcerned chachalacas, a surprise Collared Forest-Falcon, the distinctive Yucatan Vireo, and superb views of Northern Waterthrush.

We then headed south through the increasingly developed sprawl of the ‘Mayan Riviera’ (with its billboards, topes, and traffic) and suddenly, as if awaking from a nightmare, found ourselves on a quiet highway running between walls of green forest—what a contrast! And so to Felipe Carrillo Puerto (or simply FCP). After a pleasant lunch and siesta we spent late afternoon on the Vigia Chico road, finding our first parrots, woodcreepers, a stunning male Canivet’s Emerald, Black and Gray Catbirds side-by-side, nice fly-by Blue Ground-Dove and Scaled Pigeons, and a plethora of migrant warblers and vireos. A further day and a half here allowed us good time to sample the rich avifauna of this semi-deciduous/semi-evergreen forest. The abundance of certain wintering migrants quickly became apparent—notably Magnolia Warblers and White-eyed Vireos! Highlights of the first day (after some rain that made us a little apprehensive…) included a close tree full of Collared Aracaris, which were joined by their big (and even more colorful) cousin—the stunning Keel-billed Toucan; a very birdy patch (after the rain) with Bright-rumped Attila and a wonderful male Barred Antshrike; an antswarm with repeated views of Gray-throated Chat, Ruddy and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers, and sundry other species; and a fine ending with prolonged scope views of Pale-billed Woodpecker and a perched (!) Black Hawk-Eagle in a clearing. Another morning in the forest and edge was dominated by ‘the Yellow Warbler tree,’ where our quest to see a Yellow Warbler produced a 30-minute procession of some 28 species, including Yucatan Woodpecker, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Black-cowled Oriole, Gray-headed Tanager, and nine species of warblers. Some Hook-billed Kites showed well on the early thermals, plus Double-toothed Kites and another Black Hawk-Eagle before we headed back to town for lunch and the drive north to the picturesque town of Valladolid, our base for the next two nights.

Our earliest start of the tour found us watching post-roost flights of ibis and egrets as breakfast was prepared beside the beach barrier lagoon at Rio Lagartos, on the north coast of the peninsula. Breakfast was punctuated by Mexican Sheartail and Cinnamon Hummingbird before we headed out for some ‘real’ birding. A stop to admire the truly gaudy head colors of a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture soon turned into a group of Yucatan Bobwhites, then Yucatan Wrens, Orange Orioles, and plenty of other ‘stuff’ in great light—fun birding indeed. More vultures, plus some Crested Caracaras flew overhead, and after another covey of quail we lucked into a Lesser Roadrunner, running on the lesser road. A spectacular boat trip produced a good variety of waterbirds, including an impressive Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. After a local and very fresh seafood lunch we birded along the coast near Las Coloradas, finding more waterbirds (including Snowy Plover and Lesser Black-backed Gull) along with the elusive Zenaida Dove and handsome Mangrove Warbler. And then sadly it was time to head back to the hotel (but not before a roadside Laughing Falcon) for a fine dinner and good sleep—a long day overall, but what a great one.

After some early birding near Valladolid (including 11th-hour Yucatan Parrots!) we headed to the impressive ruins at Chichen Itza, packed with tourists and so different from the tranquility of FCP. Besides the ruins, birds featured a confiding pair of beautiful Bat Falcons and, with some luck, both Lesson’s (née Blue-crowned) and Turquoise-browed Motmots. After lunch we headed to Playa del Carmen in good time for the ferry to Cozumel and the last leg of our trip. The rolling ferry full of tourists and live music prepared us for a different aspect of Mexico, following the quieter times at FCP and Valladolid. Our day on Cozumel enabled us to explore most of the island and we did well with specialties, plus an excellent assortment of northern migrants. As expected, Black Catbirds, Bananaquits, Cozumel Emeralds, and the endemic races (species?) of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Yellow Warbler were easily found, but we had to work a bit harder for Cozumel Vireo and Cozumel Wren. Other highlights included a stealthy Least Bittern watching (!) a Swainson’s Warbler (‘leaftosser’) foraging, a surprise vagrant Pine Warbler, a Ruddy Crake in the road, low-flying swarms of the endemic Yucatan (‘Vaux’s’) Swifts, and those Pauraques that kept coming closer! Following an excellent last-night dinner downtown, and a good night’s sleep, there was an option for a last morning of birding, when we found the endemic race of Western Spindalis, plus a mixed-species flock of anis, when the larger size of Smooth-billed could be appreciated. But all too soon it was time to head back to the hotel for final packing and transfers to the airport for flights homeward. My thanks to all for making it such a memorable and bird-filled trip.

- Steve Howell

Created: 19 December 2018