Mexico-November 2017

This won’t be a great piece of  literary birding prose, but just a few notes and pix of a recent trip to Mexico for a Thanksgiving break. Ingrid and I wanted to escape the northeastern cold and so we headed for the Yucatan, Mexico for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Oh…and birding…definitely some of that!

We planned to head for Cozumel for a few days, before heading down to Tulum. The island of Cozumel has a few endemics and some local races that may be future splits (e.g., Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Western Spindalis, Bananaquit, etc.) and also offered a chance to partake in some snorkeling.

18th -21st November –Cozumel
We landed in Cancun, headed outside the terminal and took the ADCO bus to Playa Del Carmen. The bus departed from right outside the arrival terminal. It took about 45 minutes, dropping us off a block from the ferry. We found our way to the ferry, and found that there were a couple of ferry operators. Arriving in the afternoon, there were no ferries between 1pm and 5pm which was a surprise to us, and something to be aware of, if arriving at the ferry in the mid-afternoon. The other, slightly more expensive operators offered a 3pm ferry, so we took that. Return tickets cost two of us 180 pesos total and took an hour or so. Don’t expect to see many birds on the crossing.

We were staying on the west side of the island which is the tourist strip. We were at the Iberostar, an all-inclusive hotel Ingrid had booked, which, as it happened, was right next to the road to the village of El Cedral, about 20 miles south of the ferry port. This was, by pure coincidence, a spot Chris Benesh had given me as a good spot to grab some endemics. Score one for the awesome girlfriend! The hotel was great, right on the beach and for a birder used to living on Twinkies and chips on a birding trip, this was top-shelf stuff!

Our cool digs at the Hotel Iberostar, Cozumel.

The grounds were well-wooded and held a good assortment of wintering warblers, the most abundant being American Redstart, Magnolia, Yellow-throated, ‘Golden” Yellow and the odd Cape May Warbler. Black Catbird was a shoe-in and Tropical Kingbirds sallied from almost every exposed perch.

Magnolia Warbler -one of the commoner neotropical migrants

An easy, slam dunk tick…Black Catbird

After a long day of travel we relaxed in our room, took in the sunset and indulged in the dinner buffet.

The sun sets on Cozumel (Ingrid Ducmanis)

19th November – Cozumel
The following day, I was excited to bird and was up at first light. Walking out along the main road, Northern Waterthrushes skulked around the parking lot, white-crowned Pigeons swooshed overhead and Summer Tanagers called from the dense trees lining the Hotel driveway.  It was birdy, with Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-faced Grassquits and Black Catbirds in the roadside trees.

Yucatan Woodpecker – smaller billed than the similar Golden-fronted Woodpecker

The track down to the beach, through low dense jungle, offered looks at both Yucatan and the endemic Cozumel Vireo, Yucatan Woodpecker, Caribbean Eleania, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Tropical Mockingbird. I bumped into Chris Benesh and Cory Gregory leading their FieldGuides group. After exchanging pleasantries, I left them to it and carried onwards.

I made it back to join Ingrid for breakfast. We then made our way to the hotel dock and were picked up for our afternoon snorkeling excursion. We booked with Cozumel Cruise Excursions and for $50 per person, we can recommend them for a great couple of hours snorkeling – we visited three spots and saw Sting ray, barracuda, nurse shark and a variety of fish. The water was crystal clear and the snorkelling was fantastic and freshly-prepared guacomole and a beer made it even better.

Downtown San Miguel, Cozumel

Instead of dropping me at the dock, I had the boat drop me off in San Miguel where I picked up a rental car from rentadoraisis@prodigy.net.mx  The car was an old VW bug…no A/C, hand-crank windows, etc. I was unsure it would ever start back up every time I turned it off! That night, after Ingrid and I had dinner, I set off on an outing to try for some night birds. Cozumel was the only spot that seemed to have spots for Yucatan Nightjar in November, but I was unable to pinpoint any reliable spots. And, given the somewhat sketchy nature of the rental car, I was hesitant to go further afield. I headed for the nearby sleepy town of El Cedral. The road out to El Cedral started right across from the hotel. As I got into town, there was nobody around, no lights, and it was kind of eerie…like a ghost town. As I turned down each lane, dull amber light from the street lights barely penetrated the unpaved edges. The second road I turned down, I noticed the unmistakable shape of a caprimulgid silhouetted on the road. Common Pauraque. It seemed everywhere I drove in this town they danced in and out of the streetlights, giving phenomenal views!

Common Pauraques performed well in El Cedral

20th November – Cozumel
Dawn saw me heading north in the VW Bug, destined for the sewage plant area in the NW part of the island. This area was known as the best spot to see Ruddy Crake and a selection of the island endemics. The track at the north end of the island was notoriously pot-holed and in bad shape. It took me a while to navigate the road before arriving, finally, at the Water Treatment plant. Unfortunately my journey was halted by a huge flooded area that spanned the road. As I pondered what to do, the FieldGuides crew passed me by in their high-clearance vehicles, waved at me, crossed the pool  and vanished into the distance, bound for certain crake success.  As I stood looking at the pool, wondering how I was going to see Ruddy Crake now, I was more than surprised when one walked out of the roadside vegetation, looked at me, and continued walking across the road. Ree-sult!! A few other birds were seen: White-collared seedeater, a brief Green-breasted Mango, Caribbean Dove, Palm, Yellow-throated Warbler and American Redstart. Melodious Blackbirds perchedup in the distance and despite searching, no Western Spindalis (of the Cozumel race) were seen.

Sewage Plant
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40631877

As I headed back, I found a few Hooded Warblers in the bushes, and a few pewee sp. I was unsure what species were likely here, and given the difficulties of their id, my brief views were inconclusive. A brief stop at the El Presidente Grid – an area of overgrown roads and housing development, produced few birds.

My ISIS-sponsored VW bug birding in the El Presidente grid

Good views of Cozumel Vireo, several Hooded and Parula Warblers were had, but few birds of note were seen. I returned the car, took a taxi back to the hotel and chilled out on the beach with Ingrid.

21st November – Cozumel and Tulum
My last morning was spent birding the road down to the beach adjacent to the hotel. A confiding Yucatan Vireo fed out in the open, several Summer Tanagers flitted around with some Caribbean Eleanias, and the ubiquitous Tropical Mockingbirds and Black Catbirds foraged out on the forest edge. Yucatan Woodpeckers, a Northern Waterthrush and a vocal Northern Beardless Tyrannulet showed well, but not so the only Mangrove Cuckoo of the trip that only called once from deep within the jungle. A Tennessee Warbler was seen briefly but the highlight was walking back and seeing the familiar shape of a hummingbird perched up ahead of me – Cozumel Emerald, my last endemic and at the last hour!!

At the last hour, managed the endemic Cozumel Emerald..a female, beggars can’t be choosers!

Iberostar
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40607976

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40640063

The Watcher

We left Cozumel and picked up our car rental in Carmen Del Playa. We rented from reservas@america-carrental.com for $190 (including all the insurance necessary in Mexico) for 6 days. As many had noted when picking up a car here in Carmen Del Playa, the company is not organized, and despite repeated confirmation from them that someone would meet us at the designated spot, they never showed up and we had to call them. It all worked out, but I would recommend taking a taxi directly to the office to save aggravation. Aside from the pick-up, the car was great.The best part was that we were able to drop this off when we were leaving at Cancun airport, which was convenient.

We headed off south for the hour drive to Tulum, our base for the next 6 days. After a drive through a built up part of town, ticking off Collared Aricaris flying across the main road, we drove down a narrow coastal swathe of road and ended up at Kira’s Beach House.

Kira’s Beach House, Tulum. Incredibly chill and charming

Tulum was idyllic, quirky, charming and absolutely beautiful. The beach house accommodations were awesome and our room was surprisingly modern and spacious. The sand was like powder and the sea was warm, aquamarine and clear.

Ingrid – beautifully rocking the hat

This was just what the doctor ordered and Ingrid was more than happy – this was definitely her kind of place. She had scored two out of two on the accommodation front!

22nd November – Tulum
Spent the day relaxing with Ingrid.

Obligatory vacation selfie. Enjoying the tranquil beauty of Tulum

Doing her thang!

23rd November – Muyil
I headed off at the crack of dawn to Muyil ruins. The ruins were not open until 8 (despite other reports stating that entry was possible prior to the official opening). Heading south on Rt 307, as you enter Muyil, the ruins are on the left. Shortly after, on the left is a bus stop, and right next to that, on the left is a narrow unpaved road that runs down the western side of the ruins and ends at a boat launch. I turned down this road and parked in a gravel parking lot on the right. It was evident that this road was very birdy, with Northern Barred, Ivory-billed  and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers, two calling, and well-seen Mexican (Mayan) Anthrushes, Eye-ringed Flatbill, my first cool Yucatan Jays and a great view of a Stub-tailed Spadebill. Despite many calling, they were incredibly difficult to see. A mixed flock of warblers included Black and White and Louisiana Waterthrush, while other species included a female Rose-throated Tanager and a striking Grey-headed Tanager,

At the boat ramp, two Russet-naped Wood Rails paraded around in the open giving great looks.

Russet-naped Wood Rail showing really well at the boat launch at Muyil

Muyil
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40711921

After relaxing back at the beach house, we got dressed and walked down the beach for a cocktail before taking a Thanksgiving dinner reservation at the beach restaurant La Zebra. Amazing ambience, great food and beautiful company made for a memorable evening.

A fantastic Thanksgiving meal at La Zebra restaurant with my beautiful lady.

24th November – Punta Laguna and Coba
An early morning 5am start today. Ingrid agreed to get up at zerodarkthirty and take a trip out with me. The Spider Monkey reserve at Punta Laguna seemed to be a good destination to do some birding and for her to see some native wildlife. We planned to stop at Coba afterwards to check out the Mayan ruins and again, hopefully add a few good species to the list. After a brief pre-sunrise, yet unsuccessful, stop to check for Yucatan Poorwill, we continued on and found the reserve quickly. I had high expectations based on previous reports but it was rather quite in the trees surrounding the parking lot. Ruddy Ground Doves and our first Green Jays were seen. Paying our entrance fees, I declined to take a guide to show us the monkeys. After 50 yds down the path, a spotted a troupe of Spider Monkeys overhead, moving quickly through the trees.

Spider Monkeys performed really well for us at Punta Laguna!

Urging Ingrid to follow me, we kept pace with them until they stopped and fed above our heads for 20 minutes giving great looks. Ingrid was thrilled. On the way back I pointed out a few birds, but I was keen to find the cave that had hosted roosting Mottled Owls in the past – although one of the commonest Neotropical owls, it has eluded me, a real nemesis bird. After some trial and error, we had just found the cave when Ingrid suddenly shouted, “What’s that…something just flew out of the cave”. Figuring it was likely a Mottled Owl, her final directions got me on a life bird…but not the one I expected. A Lesson’s Motmot, not a Mottled Owl, sat motionless on the branch, showing well, and right out in the open. I’ll take it! It would be the only one of the trip!

Ingrid made it quite clear where she was not going, but I descended into the cave and despite looking, no Mottled owls fell into the beam of my flashlight. Dang!!

“Come out, come out wherever you are!”. My descent into a cave looking for roosting Mottled Owls. (Ingrid Ducmanis)

On the way back, several skulking Green-backed Sparrows, a smart Pale-billed Woodpecker and an Eye-ringed Flatbill were seen, and then a couple of low “chup-chup” calls alerted me to my only Kentucky Warbler of the trip, seen really well, but briefly.

It was getting warm, so we headed back to the car, and made a beeline for Coba. As we left, about a mile down the road, flashes of black and orange halted our progress. Several adult male Orange Orioles, a Yucatan endemic, crossed the road but didn’t give great views. But a splendid male Black-cowled oriole did! While parked up, a small passerine flit up briefly and although I could see just the head, it belonged to a female Grey-breasted Chat! Another Yucatan endemic but hardly satisfying views.

Coba
It was unavoidable that we would arrive at the ruins later in the morning, and as expected, the place was packed with tourists. We paid our entrance fee and checked off the requisite ruins. Impressive though they are, the event was mired by the busloads of tourists.

Too many people and not enough ruins!

However, several birds made their presence known: Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Lesser Greenlet, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Couch’s Kingbird, Brown Jay, White-breasted Wood Wren and Red-throated Ant Tanager and my only Yellow-throated Euphonias.

Watching several hundred people scale the top of the highest ruin, did nothing to instill excitement, so we left and headed for the nearby lake to try for the secretive Spotted Rails.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40733665

We drove to the end of the road on the west side and parked the car. Scanning the reed bed fringes produced nothing! A pair of Orchard Orioles, a few Groove-billed Anis and a lone Limpkin were present, while out on the lake Pied-billed grebe and Anhingas were seen.

Snail Kite showed really well by the lake edge, even taking a Snail just to show Ingrid why they are called what they are called!

Since it was midday, several vultures began to appear and scanning the distant trees, I was shocked to see the distinctive black and white form of a King Vulture. Despite trying to get Ingrid on the bird, it disappeared and never reappeared. A close vulture swooping over the water right in front of us was not typical Turkey Vulture behavior and it was quickly identified as a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and gave great views and photo opps, as did a young Snail Kite, showing off with a Snail just to prove to Ingrid how they get their name!

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture

Adult Zone-tailed Hawk providing awesome views!

Just then, appearing right over our heads, doing its best Turkey Vulture impression was that old mimic, Zone-tailed Hawk. It gave great views before disappearing behind some houses.

Spotted Rail was apparently not going to show, so I gave up and we headed off into town for some lunch. We made our way back to Tulum, glimpsing several Brown Jays crossing the road as well as the distinctive shape of several Keel-billed Toucans.

Keel-billed Toucan

After a long, but successful trip, we chilled out on the beach, soaking up the beautiful weather, swimming and relaxing with a refreshing Mojito from the beachside bar. Tremendous.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40733783

25th November – Muyil
Suffering from a head cold, I only made a brief stop at Muyil this morning, which did not provide as much excitement as before and was rather quiet. Birds of note included Brown-crested and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, several flocks of chaetura swifts, which based on range were Vaux’s. A Gray-headed Dove, White-bellied Emerald, Yellow-backed Oriole, Red-throated Ant Tanagers and Clay-colored Thrush were easy to see, but a highlight was finally seeing a trogon – two Black-headed Trogons chased each other around the treetops giving good views. A search of the scrub and village across the road from the entrance to the ruins produced a Zone-tailed Hawk, a Swainson’s Thrush and several Hooded Orioles.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40762418

26th November – Camino Vigo Chigia Road, Felippe Carillo Puerto
This was to be my big birding day out. Feeling much better after a good night’s sleep, I left at 4:45am to drive the hour to the area of Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve. The road that leaves the town of FCP and travels through prime jungle habitat, is well-known and probably THE best single spot for birding on the Yucatan. I left early to try for night birds. I decided to try the track that leads south into the reserve from Hwy 307, some 35 km from Tulum. I found the turn off and despite being great habitat I was bummed not to flush any poorwills off the road. After four km, I reached the unguarded entrance to the reserve and turned around figuring it wasn’t worth going any further. On the way out, just before I reached the main highway, I played the tape of poorwill and nightjar and all I heard was a distant, brief call of a Mottled owl. It neither responded nor came in! Grrr.

Boat-billed Flycatcher was only seen at Viga Chigo road.

I hurried to FCP and arrived at first light and began my exploration of the road. Despite high hopes of a birding avalanche, the area was generally quiet. I stopped at various spots and all was quiet…a Kiskadee here and a Least Fly there, but the trees were silent-ish! I stopped and walked, drove and walked, and gradually began to pick off a few birds one by one. An unseen, calling Mayan Anthrush, hinted at unseen hidden treasures deep within the forest. Two myiarchus-type flycatchers raised hopes they were Yucatan Flycatcher, a difficult identification given the similarities with the local subspecies of Dusky-capped. I had started to get my eye in and figured these were not meeting the grade for Yucatan and the id as Dusky-capped was confirmed by their mournful “weeuu” calls.

Pressing on, birds included Rose-throated Tanager, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Bright-rumped Attila and great looks at a Canivet’s Emerald and a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. Birds were starting to add up including Ruddy and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, White-bellied Emerald and Ladder-backed Woodpecker. At one spot, I thought the habitat looked good for Gray-breasted Chat, so I played the call and BOOM! In flies a male..awesome views and much more satisfying than the head of a female!

The heat was increasing, and as I stood quietly on the road looking at a rather barren group of trees, I noticed the silent flicking flight of a trogon – another Black-headed! I happened to turn around, just in time to see a Great Currasow walk quietly across the path, some distance away, and disappear into the forest. Further hard work finally turned up a Yucatan Flycatcher, or at least a bird I was happy fit the mold! Stopping one last time on the way out provided views of some skulking wrens, and in a matter of feet had nailed Long-billed Gnatwren, White-bellied and Spot-breasted Wrens.

I couldn’t help but stop-in at Muyil again on the way back. It was getting later in the day, but still it delivered a few birds. This was probably my favorite birding site. Small parties of chaetura swifts passed overhead, again likely Vaux’s but despite thinking they would appear different to Chimney Swifts, and knowing their size and subtle wing shape differences, I still couldn’t confidently put a name to them on sight, only on range. I’ll post some pix later.

Birding the village area across from the ruins entrance produced Brown Jay, Masked Tityra, Grayish and Black-headed Saltator and a small flock of Northern Rough-wingeds that didn’t show characters of Ridgway’s Northern Rough-winged.

Muyil
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40779768

Back at Tulum, I was happy to chill out and relax on the beach and enjoy some r&r, a highlight being my only Cave Swallow of the trip flitting over the rooftop. That evening we ate at the nearby La Onda restaurant for another fine Tulum meal.

27th November – Tulum to Cancun
The last morning Ingrid and I rose early to watch our final Tulum sunrise and what a spectacular send off we had.

Enjoying a pre-coffee sunrise outside our room (Ingrid Ducmanis)

We drove back to Cancun, dropped off the car and headed home, An amazing trip, an amazing place and great birding. Even though I was only birding for a few hours a day, some good planning and hard work managed to produce 90% of the birds a full-on trip might record, so I was happy with over 130+ species, despite missing some wanted birds such as Mottled owl, Yucatan Poorwill and Yucatan Nightjar.

Probably one of the nicest beaches we’ve been on..powder-soft sand and warm, crystal clear water made for a chill time!

I can’t recommend the Yucatan enough as an affordable destination for a birder/non-birding couple. Ingrid had a fantastic vacation and we both got to do the things we both enjoyed. We will be back! Thanks to Megan Crewe, Chris Benesh, Abby Darrah, Larry Sweetland and Niels Larsen for pre-trip help!

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