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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: The Yucatan and Cozumel

2019 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 2019 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 the ‘unavoidable’ Black Catbird to the retiring Gray-throated Chat and subtle Yucatan Flycatcher; from the snazzy Turquoise-browed Motmot to the cryptic Yucatan Poorwill. There was also a good diversity and abundance of northern migrants and more widespread neotropical species, ranging from the striking Black Skimmer and understated Swainson’s Warbler to handsome Laughing Falcons and fierce Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. Whether it be a perched Bat Falcon peering down at us from a street lamp or the colorful Virgin of Guadalupe pilgrims, 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, where the birding suggested South Texas, but better = Green Jay, Altamira Oriole, Plain Chachalaca, Red-billed Pigeon, Great Kiskadee, and so on, plus Rose-throated Becard, a good selection of wintering warblers, and some local flavor in the form of Yucatan Vireo. 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, featuring a beautiful little Bat Falcon, great looks at Gray-throated Chat, and some very close (but invisible!) Middle American [Vermiculated] Screech-Owls. 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 White-eyed Vireos and Magnolia Warblers! Highlights of the first day included four parrot species in the first hour; scope views of Turquoise-browed Motmot and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl; an ant swarm attended by Ruddy, Tawny-winged, and Northern Barred Woodcreepers; great views of Long-billed Gnatwren and Stub-tailed Spadebill; and ending the day with Yucatan Poorwill. Another morning in the forest and edge was very birdy, including superb scope views of displaying Yucatan Parrots, the flashy Yellow-tailed Oriole, Gray-headed Tanager, and numerous other goodies. Stops in the forest produced Yucatan Flycatcher, Lesson’s Motmot, Red-capped Manakin, and an obliging Eye-ringed Flatbill before we headed back to town for lunch and the (Virgin-of-Guadalupe-rider-packed) drive north to the picturesque town of Valladolid, our base for the next two nights.

Our earliest start of the tour found us watching feeding groups of wading birds and pelicans as breakfast was prepared beside the beach barrier lagoon at Rio Lagartos, where we met up with local guide William Cruz Canto. After breakfast we headed to the nearby scrub, where we found Yucatan Bobwhites, Yucatan Wrens, and plenty of other ‘stuff’ in great light. A spectacular boat trip produced a good variety of waterbirds, including Clapper Rail and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, dapper Black Skimmers, and the striking little Mangrove Warbler—really, it’s “just” a Yellow Warbler… Oh, and those dancing flamingoes. After a fresh seafood lunch we enjoyed some Boat-billed Herons plus a Russet-naped Wood-Rail (talk about a confusing name for this recent split from Gray-necked Wood-Rail) and then birded along the coast near Las Coloradas. Here we found more waterbirds (including Snowy Plover, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and even a hybrid Kelp x Herring Gull!) along with an obliging Zenaida Dove. And then time to head back to the hotel (but not before a couple of roadside Laughing Falcons) for a fine dinner and good sleep—a long day overall, but what a great one.

After some early birding near Valladolid we headed to the impressive Maya ruins at Chichen Itza, packed with tourists and so different from the tranquility of FCP. Besides the ruins, the parking lot was fun—fruiting figs filled with flycatchers, orioles, Masked Tityras, and Yellow-winged Tanagers. 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 full 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 Swainson’s Warbler, two (!) vagrant Nashville Warblers, sunlit Ruddy Crakes, White-crowned Pigeon, and an amazingly tame Caribbean Elaenia. Following a fine last-night dinner downtown, and a good night’s sleep, there was an option for a last morning of birding, when we found the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo, a beautiful male (and drab female) 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: 18 December 2019