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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: The Yucatan and Cozumel

2021 Narrative

In Brief: Mexican Sheartail stole the show as favorite bird this year on the Yucatan & Cozumel tour – they were unusually common and easy to see this year, and the sparkling purple-wine throat and fancy tail of the male are hard to beat. But fourteen other species of birds made it to the participants’ favorite lists, and close behind was the adorable and super distinctive Cozumel Vireo (Toast-necked Vireo would have been more descriptive). In fact, though we spent only a single day and a short morning on the island, it gave us four more favorite birds, including a very cooperative Rufous-browed Peppershrike (endemic subspecies, to boot), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (ditto, a very dark gray one), Yellow Warbler (the endemic subspecies of the “Golden Warbler” group), and Swainson’s Warbler. The forest birding near Felipe Carrillo Puerto was superb, and we had several very attractive Gray-throated Chats on our second morning there. A male Summer Tanager’s red against the blue sky will be forever etched into our cortices, unusual Buff-bellied Hummingbirds were easy to see, one of several elusive Stub-tailed Spadebills perched perfectly for just a few moments, and a Barred Forest-Falcon surprised us by flushing a short distance, perching, then flying off through the forest. The water birds and specialties of the northern coast made for some fun birding. Besides the sheartail, endemic Yucatan Wrens charmed us at arm’s length, a Least Bittern smoothly appeared in the open and just as subtly slinked away, and three Rufous-necked Wood-Rails in the edges of the mangroves was more than most people see in a lifetime. Beyond the birds, we enjoyed a morning at the impressive Chichén Itzá, were awed by a huge Yucatan Tropical Rattlesnake crossing the road, delighted in many colorful butterflies and the adorable Pygmy Raccoons on Cozumel, and the delicious, fresh seafood on the coast.

In Detail: We started the tour just a few kilometers from our Puerto Morelos hotel where a nice, quiet side road gave our first taste of the regional flora and fauna. One of the first birds we saw as White-eyed Vireo, and that’s because they were everywhere, often the first to respond to an owl-imitation and pishing session. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl also sometimes responds to this, and we had one come right in on our first attempt. Yucatan Jays were super cooperative early in the morning, though we would see some almost every day of the tour. We also had our first of only a few Golden-fronted Woodpeckers here. The botanical gardens were rather quiet, though one fruiting tree had a constant parade of orioles and other larger birds; we ended up getting glimpses of our only Yellow-backed Orioles here, as it was hard to see through the midstory trees to the upper canopy. After our drive to Felipe Carrillo Puerto, we had an afternoon of birding on the Vigia Chico road, which never disappointed. We got great views of an Orange Oriole, which would turn out to be our only one on the tour. A Turquoise-browed Motmot perched in a dead tree right over our heads, and a Lineated Woodpecker gave us decent views. We stayed until dusk, and though no owls responded a Yucatan Poorwill began calling, and we saw its silhouette in flight against the darkening sky a few times before it settled into the deeper forest to call.

Our full day on the VC Road was nonstop action. Before we got to the farthest point where we wanted to start birding, a Laughing Falcon flew off the road, and we later heard the full song. Many Ovenbirds, Northern Waterthrushes, and Wood Thrushes flushed as we drove the narrow road. Among the throng of warblers and vireos responding to a pygmy-owl imitation was a pair of Spot-breasted Wrens and a gorgeous Hooded Warbler, and perhaps the Squirrel Cuckoo that came in so close was part of the mob. A Stripe-throated Hermit came in briefly and then vanished – a good write-in on the all-time tour list. A Rose-throated Tanager was finally spotted (and we ended up with only four of these for the whole tour), a Bright-rumped Attila showed nicely, and a pair of Gray-throated Chats joined one mixed flock. A fun surprise this morning was the Barred Forest-Falcon that had the wrens, vireos, and ant-tanagers scolding before we realized it was there. We didn’t stay for owling this afternoon, but just as it was getting dusk, hundreds of Brazilian Free-tailed Bats emerging from a limestone sinkhole somewhere off in the forest and dashing across the road caused us to stop and marvel at this amazing phenomenon.

We had another full morning on the VC Road, and it was quite different from the first morning. It started with the excellent find of a single Golden-crowned Warbler in a mixed flock with Long-billed Gnatwren and others, which though a widespread and common species in much of Central and South America, is very uncommon on the Yucatan Peninsula and was the first recorded in 13 years of WINGS tours here. A Plain Xenops in the same mixed flock showed well for some, and we had even more Gray-throated Chats than the day before. A vigil at the water-filled cenote (with the hand-written sign that in very florid language discouraged us from littering) gave us good views of a very excited group of Keel-billed Toucans and a small dragonfly later identified as the Peten Dasher. We stumbled across two swarms of the army ant Eciton burchellii, and one had some birds in attendance, including one each of Ruddy Woodcreeper and Tawny-winged Woodcreeper. Our last mixed flock finally produced an attractive Gray-collared Becard, never a common bird. Another highlight was being able to hear the amazing song of a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing perched low in the forest understory. The super rapid jumble of squeaks, gurgles, and probably also mimicry, never would have led one to think hummingbird.

Starting our next morning at an abandoned limestone quarry north of Valladolid was a great way to while away an hour before Chichén Itzá opened. Our only Ruby-throated Hummingbird, several adorable Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Mangrove Vireo were here. Two Yellow-lored Parrots flew by slowly enough that we could see the darker ear and the paler yellow-green rump and tail, and these would be the only ones we confidently counted on the trip list; parrots were inexplicably scarce this year, and those we heard flying over never perched visibly. Chichén Itzá proffered up its Bat Falcon, this year in the form of an individual soaring high over the ruins. A mixed flock of Green and Yucatan Jays around the ruins and over the souvenir hawkers was an incongruous sight. The drive north to the Dzilam de Bravo area yielded a Zone-tailed Hawk, a pair of White-tailed Hawks, a tundrius Peregrine Falcon, and very close cooch/orphanage/silliness of Groove-billed Anis. Once we got to the right habitat, it took us nearly ten minutes to locate a pair of the super cute, newly split Yucatan Gnatcatcher, and a adorable Ladder-backed Woodpecker joined the fray. We flushed a bevy of Black-faced Bobwhite as we drove on, and one last addition to the day list were two Yellow-crowed Night-Herons greeting us at our Rio Lagartos Hotel.

A cold front was passing through promising a slightly windier and pleasantly cool morning than is typical, so we opted to not do our boat ride this morning. We had a very productive first few hours in the desert-like coastal scrub, but not before being distracted by a female Mexican Sheartail feeding from a bougainvillea right in town, and then a huge feeding swarm of mostly Snowy Egrets behind some houses (one of which ended up in the jaws of a house cat). In the native scrub we had more Mexican Sheartails, a family Yucatan Wrens, a bunch of Morelet’s Seedeaters, Yucatan Woodpecker, and two Least Bitterns at the edge of a tiny little pond. The rest of the morning was spent counting over 1000 American Flamingos and sifting through thousands of shorebirds of many species, among which Snowy Plover was a favorite. In the late afternoon we added more water birds towards San Felipe, finally found a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and tallied more Belted Kingfishers, a bird one can never see enough of. We waited until dusk to see if any potoos or owls would appear, and we found instead a Botteri’s Sparrow at the waiting spot and then a Common Pauraque as it was just getting dusky.

Then came our morning on the Ria Lagartos estuary with Ismael, which was a fabulous boat ride with fine views of many water birds and specialties of the mangroves. It was awesome enough to have one Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, so it was amazing when Ismael spotted yet two more later in the morning. We had great views of Mangrove Yellow Warbler in the mangroves, while the views of Ruddy Turnstone and Marbled Godwit on the mudflats were memorable. A Merlin stirred up the Laughing Gulls, but he had his sights on Spotted Sandpiper, which evaded him by diving into the water not far from our boats. A huge Morelet’s Crocodile allowed us to get very close views. We finally boated all the way to the Coloradas bridge hoping for Bare-throated Tiger-Heron with no luck, finally spotting one out in the open almost all the way back to the hotel; a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture spotted overhead as we zoomed along was a good find. After one last amazing lunch with fresh shrimp, we had to make the long drive to Playa del Carmen with time for only a few very brief stops for new birds – Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a pond full of American Coots, and a Yucatan Tropical Rattlesnake crossing the road were all fun additions. We got to Playa del Carmen in time for the 5:00 p.m. ferry, but got held up returning the van, causing us to miss getting tickets by less than a minute. If it weren’t for the Howellism “What part of ‘Mexico’ don’t you understand?” it might have been more aggravating and worrisome than it really was, and we enjoyed drinks in the coastal breeze and the wheeling frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls while waiting for the next ferry.

It was amazing how different the birds were on Cozumel. At our first birding stop, Bananaquits and Cozumel Emeralds were instantly obvious. The first Cozumel Vireo didn’t take long either, and the mix of warblers was a bit different. Sure, there were still lots of Parulas, Magnolias, and American Redstarts, but it was nice to see Palm Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, and Swainson’s Warbler for a change. A Mangrove Cuckoo was very furtive, but everyone eventually had brief views. Rufous-browed Peppershrikes had been vocal but only quite distant, so it was good when we finally had one come in close and behave wonderfully. We ended up hearing a few Cozumel House Wrens, but one really showed well, demonstrating how different it is from any mainland form of the species. We saw plenty more birds in the afternoon, including more Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets, but the Ruddy Crakes stole the show. At first elusive, they didn’t seem to have a spot where we might see them. Then we found the perfect little trail that cut through the grass, and when we heard one, maybe two, we waited and watched the bluetooth speaker as a little parade of five Ruddy Crakes crossed the path, one after the other.

With just a couple more hours left on our last morning, we went out to spy two birds missing – Caribbean Dove, which we heard lots of and glimpsed one walking around in the distance. Then finally Western Spindalis appeared, first a female that wasn’t so cooperative, then a male, which also wasn’t so cooperative at first, and then finally he sat out in the open and gave us his all.

- Rich Hoyer


Created: 22 December 2021