Scottish sojourn: Part I (Raptor)

Scotland is beautiful.

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I actually can’t quite remember where this

This statement is so uncontroversial as to render it almost irrelevant. But it was driving almost 1000 miles around Isle of Mull, the South West coast, and the Cairngorms recently that it made this truism a truth again for me.

The lochs and the hills. So famous. And home to some spectacular wildlife, including some of the rarest and most impressive birds of prey in the United Kingdom.

Three of us travelled to Mull in search of eagles. Actually we may have been searching for different things, but I was definitely searching for eagles. White-tailed Eagle in particular. I had never seen one of these re-introduced giants before.

Despite there being two specially monitored breeding sites for tourists to see the eagles, the chicks have now fledged and are often away from the nest sites. And so it was when we visited. But we did have three sightings of these ‘flying barn doors’ all around the spectacular sea loch, Loch na Keal…

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Loch na Keal, Mull

On our first day we secured views of an adult and a juvenile on the hillside overlooking the loch. But on our second day, we were phenomenally lucky. We sat eating on the North East shore when an Eagle came straight towards us across the water. At first it resembled a Golden Eagle, but better views proved it to be a juvenile White-tailed- one of this year’s chicks. It was just an awesome being to behold. The largest bird of prey in the UK, and the fourth largest eagle in the world.
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Juvenile White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)

We didn’t get as close to Golden Eagle, but they were there – sometimes just tiny specks soaring over the ridges, occasionally perching. Even when not seen, there is a sense of presence from these mountain gods looking down from their olympian heights at everything beneath them.

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Glen More, Mull

Buzzard are everywhere on Mull, helping to put context on the scale of the eagles. There is also another raptor I was searching for on Mull. A bird I know only from France, and from stories. A bird facing almost certain extinction in England due to horrific persecution from some criminally managed grouse estates. The ‘sky dancer’, a bird I have identified as a grey ghost. The Hen Harrier. We watched this male hunting over the moorland at one of the highest road-accessed points on the island, but were also lucky enough to see two ring-tails as well on  separate occasions…

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Record shot of Male Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus)

Back on the mainland, I went to see the Osprey breeding site at Loch Garten (a rare occasion where I can show you a protected bird on a nest without breaking the law). Meet ‘Rowan’ the fledgling:

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Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

But I was also lucky enough to see this species twice more, including over the lochs around the ancient oak rain-forests (more on them in a later post) of the West coast:

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My experiences with these raptors were personal moments of some profundity to me. Each of the species above has experienced persecution. In the case of White-tailed Eagle that persecution has led to UK extinction, eventual reintroduction and now a slow recovery. In the case of the Hen Harrier the persecution continues and extinction gets closer. In this sad context, small victories are important like the petition to ban the sham of a country sport, driven grouse shooting, (note I am not necessarily against the hunting of grouse, just this particularly environmentally destructive practice) passing 100,000 signatures yesterday. Please do click here to sign up if you live in the UK: Sign here

Birding the Yucatan: Part V (The Island)

My wife on Isla Contoy

My wife on Isla Contoy

There exist few hospitable places left on earth that can claim to be truly ‘untouched’ or ‘unspoilt’, but given its accessibility, the small ‘Isla Contoy’ off the coast from Cancun, gets pretty close.

Only just over five miles long, this narrow strip of rock, sand, and mangrove only just peeks up above the turquoise waters of the Carribbean sea.

Isla Contoy seen on the approach from a boart

Isla Contoy seen on the approach from a boat

Much is made of the unspoilt wild beauty of the island, and it is very beautiful, but all is not quite what it seems. The island has secrets, and one of them is quite deadly.

First of all, it is certainly not a pristine habitat, untouched by the meddling influence of man. The scene of tropical paradise below is perhaps somewhat tainted if you realise that the palm trees should not actually be there at all, but were planted or introduced by humans…

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Introduced palm trees

In the foreground of the photo, and covering much of the island, is one of the four species of mangroves (more on them later as they are a clue to the island’s deadly secret).

The palms are not the only signs of the human touch. There are a few buildings, although literally only a few (in single digits), including a dock where visitors arrive, an observation tower where they look out, and a couple of habitations for the four or five rotating temporary conservation workers who are the only human residents. Aside from guides and scientists, only 200 tourists are permitted to visit a day, and must abide by a number of rules to protect the ecosystems (such as not wearing sun cream).

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View from the highest point on the island with dock and observation tower visible

While the human presence is thankfully small, there are large numbers of birds. Frigate birds in their many thousands use the islands as a breeding ground.

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Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)

The chicks perch precariously (frigatebirds don’t actually ever truly perch, they just sort of rest on something) in the mangroves above the lagoons while large fish swim around menacingly below. Sometimes the chicks fall in the water.

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Frigatebird chick

Wading shorebirds visit the islands in large numbers as well. I stood on a small jetty photographing the Spoonbills (below) in the distance on a lagoon when a guide brought his tourists to look at them. He pointed at them and said in Spanish “Mira! Flamencos” (“Look! Flamingos”) – I didn’t embarrass him and, to be fair, they were quite far away and flamingos do apparently visit the island in large numbers, although I didn’t see any there.

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Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja)

There are good numbers of ibis, herons, and all manner of waders, big and small, including the the ultimate ‘shorebird’…

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(Ruddy Turnstone) Arenaria interpres

I photographed this chap on the beach as we boarded our boat home. The reason it fills the  whole frame is I couldn’t step back far enough or change my lens fast enough to get a more pleasant aspect.

Terns and other sea-birds can also be found circling, or come on to the island to roost or breed. And that’s it. I mean, we are talking over 150 species, so not bad for such a small island, but there are no passerines whatsoever on the island.

The reason there are no resident perching/song-birds or anything similar, or any resident mammals, is the same reason why the island has never been been fully inhabited by humans. There is no freshwater. No rivers, no springs, or ponds, just very salty lagoons.

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Lagoon and the ocean

Humans have visited the islands for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Mayan pottery and carved shells have been found, but these were likely left by visiting sea-farers. The island has only ever been accessible by boat.

On approach and departure from the island, for miles, the sea is shallow and almost impossibly turquoise. We did some snorkelling, although the reefs in this area are not large or in great condition. More impressive is the odd dark circular shape that we saw as the boat moved through the sea. At certain points these rock-like shapes were really quite numerous – and sometimes almost the size of a small car. And they were moving. The island and the sea around it is an important breeding area for sea turtles. In fact all four of the major turtles breed on the island’s beaches: Loggerhead Turtle, Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, and the largest turtle in the world, the Leatherback.

We saw other dark shapes in the sea. From a distance it appeared to be a small black island, and then a floating mat of some sort. We got closer to see a densely packed flock (or ‘gulp’) of several hundred, maybe thousands, of cormorants…

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Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

As our boat powered alongside them, we all watched transfixed as the tightly packed gulp became a flight. The black shape, turned black and white by the splashing wings and feet, soon became an elongated cloud that stretched further than my camera lens could encompass and passed alongside and then out beyond the boat. It was a magnificent wild spectacle of the first order that is only poorly translated into pixels.

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Cormorants in flight

Trip list

Having finally come to the end of this rather long, serialised trip report of my time in Mexico, I can now include the trip list of species positively identified while we were out there.

As I said in a previous post, the list is nowhere near as long as it should have been, but it includes a number of life-firsts (marked below by a star*), and there were an even greater number of fantastic memories. The double-crested cormorants above, were not rare or unusual, but seeing this huge flock on a turquoise sea was an incredible experience I shall never forget. If you have the opportunity to visit the Yucatan, I heartily recommend it.

  1. Spotted Sandpiper
  2. Wilson’s Plover*
  3. Willet*
  4. Mangrove Warbler*
  5. Red-winged Blackbird
  6. Groove-billed Ani
  7. Tropical Kingbird
  8. Least Tern*
  9. Great Egret
  10. Palm Warbler*
  11. Dunlin
  12. Greater Yellowlegs*
  13. Black-necked Stilt*
  14. Mangrove Swallow*
  15. Mangrove Vireo*
  16. Tropical Mockingbird*
  17. Tri-coloured Heron*
  18. American Flamingo
  19. Royal Tern*
  20. Brown Pelican
  21. White Pelican
  22. Laughing Gull
  23. Caspian Tern
  24. Turnstone
  25. Sandwich Tern
  26. Ring-billed Gull
  27. Ruddy Ground Dove
  28. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher*
  29. Yellow Warbler
  30. White-winged Dove*
  31. Golden-fronted Woodpecker*
  32. Osprey
  33. Green Heron
  34. Black Vulture
  35. Northern Jacana
  36. Anhinga
  37. Altimara Oriole*
  38. Social Flycatcher
  39. Magnolia Warbler*
  40. Cinnamon Hummingbird*
  41. Black-crowned Night Heron*
  42. Pygmy Kingfisher*
  43. Lesser Scaup
  44. Double-crested Cormorant
  45. Reddish Egret*
  46. Vermillion Flycatcher
  47. Lesser Yellowlegs*
  48. Blue-winged Teal
  49. White Ibis
  50. Great Blue Heron
  51. Wilson’s Phalarope
  52. Empidonax (sp?) Flycatcher
  53. Turquoise-browed Motmot*
  54. Hooded Oriole*
  55. Clay-coloured Thrush
  56. Yellow-olive Flatbill*
  57. Greyish Saltator*
  58. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  59. Lesser Greenlet*
  60. Spot-breasted Wren*
  61. Turkey Vulture
  62. Hawk (sp?)
  63. Brown Jay
  64. Great-tailed Grackle
  65. Bronzed Cowbird*
  66. Great Kiskadee
  67. Red-throated Ant Tanager*
  68. Rose-throated Becard*
  69. White-bellied Wren*
  70. Myiarchus (sp?) Flycatcher
  71. Plain Chachalaca*
  72. Roseate Spoonbill
  73. American Golden Plover*
  74. Cave Swallow*
  75. Euphonia (sp?)
  76. Barn Swallow
  77. Northern Cardinal
  78. Collared Dove
  79. Black-cowled Oriole*
  80. Common Ground Dove*
  81. Feral Pigeon
  82. Yucatan Jay*
  83. Snowy Egret
  84. Yucatan Wren* (heard only)

*= Life Tick.

Peregrine: hit the deck!

So there I was, doing my tree survey (more on that another time) and minding my own business when a delinquent juvenile came and shook everything up. Literally!

I was by Alexandra lake when I noticed a lot of bird alarm calling. Then everything hit the deck or the water… crows, gulls, and pigeons all happily circling a minute earlier were suddenly grounded. I ran out from under the trees expecting to see a Peregrine passing high overhead. But it wasn’t. It was dive bombing birds on the ground!

There is a steep hillock on the western side of Alex and the Peregrine was out of view so I ran some more along the northern shore and around the side of the hill to hopefully get a better view.

“Be careful what you wish for” old people like saying. I now think they have a point. As I emerged into view of the pitches, the Peregrine was hurtling straight towards me at head height! For half a second I genuinely thought it was going to attack me, and even with hindsight, I think for half a second it actually contemplated it, but it pulled up hard and over me and it was then that I realised what was ‘wrong’. As it exposed its undersides to me, in my closest ever experience with a wild Peregrine, I could see the heavy streaking rather than the usual barring; it was a juvenile.

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Juvenile Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

I thought it would take a lot to top my Peregrine experience last week. But, this was something else. For the next ten minutes or so, I watched this youngster race around like some kind of avian joy-rider. Nothing was going to stop it and it would quite like to kill EVERYONE! I watched it plummet on a grounded crow, knock it sideways, and then try and jump on it from just a few feet away (this second time sidestepped by the stunned corvid).

It circled around the pitches like it was a Nascar racer. There was none of the careful watching from on high, followed by a well-aimed stoop, this was just hit and run. Soon, the grounded birds got fed up, or rather, pissed off. Some of the gulls and crows took off to mob this angry annoyance.

Thousands and thousands of generations of genetic programming have turned the Peregrine into a fine tuned killer. Every one of its physical attributes, its senses, and – most importantly perhaps – its instincts are honed to kill. This juvenile had those instincts in spades – possibly heightened by teenage hormones (I am clearly making this up now, but watching it did make me wonder), but not all that much of the skill or preciseness of an adult.

Courageous crows would mob the Peregrine, but then – using manoeuvring that would not be out of place in a Star Wars space battle scene – the falcon would turn the tables and attack its attackers. At one point, it sped towards a London Plane tree, surprised a perched crow and snatched at it with its talons sending the corvid spinning. The crow survived, the Peregrine had only a black feather in its talons.

If my description thus far has failed to persuade you that this falcon was a furious, feathered teenager, then try this out for size… it kept hold of the feather and landed on the football pitches where it proceeded to jump and stamp, and tear and rip at the feather like petulant brat…

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Peregrine attacking crow … err… feather

I am not sure who was more breath-taken: the falcon or me. It looked up angrily as gulls dive bombed it before taking off and repeating the process all over again. It landed three more times! Hopefully this youngster will soon improve its hunting skills.

Last week, I saw a family of Peregrines, and today I watched a juvenile practise hunting, all on the patch. They have clearly bred close by and I hope today’s experience is the beginning of more close encounters with these fantastic birds on the patch.

The Two Towers

I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

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Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers, Leytonstone

I was surveying trees on the patch when something caught my eye above the tree-line. Four shapes danced and tumbled together acrobatically in the air. It was a family of Peregrine. They raced, swerved, practised food hand-offs, and span, all with dizzying speed. These were the closest and best views I have had of Peregrine on the patch – they normally seem to be on their way somewhere else, but today this bit of sky was their play and bonding ground.

With no cliffs or hills on the ‘Flats’ (the clue’s in the name), the falcons eventually came to rest, split up and perched on the two towers:

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Peregrine Falcon (Falco perigrinus)

The towers they perched on are 50 years old this year. They are the tallest local structures and stand like sentinels over the Wanstead Flats. When I return from a day on the patch, I head towards the towers as that is my direction home. I can even see them and their neapolitan-style colouration (representing the green of the flats, the beige and grey of the urban, and the blue of the sky – or so I assume) from my office window several miles to the south in Canary Wharf.

I have always had a soft spot for the best of the 1960’s brutalist architecture: the scale, the clean angles, the functionality, and the fact that so many people love to hate them. These local features mean something to me and so I recently bought some original artwork to celebrate them:

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Hand drawing of ‘Fred Wigg & John Walsh Towers’ by Sarah Evans aka Oscar Francis

In the shadow of the towers stretches something much older: Evelyn Avenue and the grass land, scrub, and copses of the semi-re-wilding ‘School Scrub’ of the Wanstead Flats.

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Evelyn Avenue

This time last week, I assisted with a wildlife walk in the area…

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Me showing a temporarily captured Small Heath butterfly to a group of locals

Shortly after this was taken I also found the first ringlet butterfly on the patch this year. This evening, after heavy rains, the grasses only gave up the odd Skipper butterfly as well as hundreds of tiny Garden Grass Veneer micro moths (Chrysoteuchia culmella).

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Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)

In recent weeks I have seen all three resident species of the Skipper family in the area (the other two being the ‘Large’ and the ‘Essex’). All being grassland specialists, they seem to be doing well on the patch. The Wanstead Flats is surely the richest grassland habitat in London, and possibly in any major city.

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Grasses in School Scrub

Wildlife notes: On pioneers and procreation on the patch

Warning: the text that follows is relatively lengthy. These are taken from some of my observation notes from walking around the patch. It is also possible that some people may find some of the subject matter distressing, although I would hope not.

The Warbler of Oz

I have already noted how the first Cetti’s Warbler has recently arrived on the patch. Cetti’s are, of course, famously elusive. Often incredibly difficult to even get a glimpse of. Although their shyness contrasts with their explosively loud territorial song.

Where they are common, it often seems as if they are protecting a relatively small patch of reeds, not needing to sing-out from the reed/tree tops like other birds because of their penetrating voice. I am reminded of the Wizard of Oz, a relatively unassuming bird hiding behind a curtain of reeds and some trickery to make their voice appear supernaturally loud.

The new Wanstead Cetti’s is elusive to type – this is the best photo I have managed to steal of it, just an eye peering out from behind a curtain of Blackthorn:

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Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti)

But in other ways, the Wanstead Cetti’s is atypical. It clearly does not have an established territory yet and is highly mobile – I have heard it call at different places up and down the Roding, Tony and I followed it from bush to bush the other weekend although only getting fleeting glances, and we think it is the same bird that was also singing on Alex lake, several hundred metres away.

The only explanation I can think of is that it is a pioneer. As the species expands its numbers across the area, young birds are forced to find new territories. Males like ours find a new suitable habitat and spend time finding the best parts and, of course, singing for a mate.

As a classicist, I foolishly attempt to apply literary terms and motifs to natural phenomena, but even I am struggling with this one. A territorial song delivered where there is no rival to defend your territory from? A love song designed to attract a mate that is not there? It is like some sort of anti-soliloquy: rather than a monologue delivered to nobody but always heard by an audience; it is more a monologue aimed at an audience that is simply not there. Unless of course a few birders count as the audience.

Other patch pioneers

If it is any consolation, the Cetti’s, whilst alone, is not alone. Elsewhere on the patch, we have other birds singing to no-one. Our Chiffchaff-mimicking Willow Warbler is probably singing somewhat futilely now – although I am not 100% sure that a mate has not arrived. Similarly, its neighbour in Motorcycle Wood, the Garden Warbler, is still singing full pelt which might suggest it has not succeeded in drawing a mate out of the sky… out of thin air almost.

In Wanstead Park, we have two or three singing male Reed Warbler. At least one is quieter now and I have seen it with a female. But another is still singing its little heart out across the pond in the vain hope that it will woo a taken female, or summon a new female down from above.

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Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Sexual stories

Some resident birds have less trouble ‘attracting’ a mate. Today I was lucky enough to watch Coots mating at close quarters. Coot is a common water bird, and they always seem to be fighting, displaying, f***ing, or rearing young. But, actually, I realise today I have never really watched ‘the act’ itself as closely as I might have imagined. Here are my notes from today:

Male following female closely but slowly through the water. Male, insistent, neck outstretched, flat, and emitting loud ‘pitt!’ call repeatedly. Female swimming away, but clearly deliberately not escaping, given speed. Suddenly, female seems satisfied, turns body to side and plunges head beneath the water raising rump in the air. The male climbs on top of the female with its feet on her back. Initial motions seem almost ceremonial, female raises head briefly for breath, then plunges again and lifts rump and ruffles feathers more. Coitus clearly occurs although both birds’ cloaca remain invisible throughout. Act lasts a few seconds, and birds swim off although remain close by each other.

Not exactly romantic, but somewhat ritualistic like waterbird courtship. Fascinating! There  is, of course, another water fowl’s sexual antics which is infamous.

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The picture above hangs in my house. It can be looked at in many different ways, but I like to think it is a light-hearted warning against anthropomorphisation of animals. Every bird depicted is a predator and labelled, not by name, but simply as ‘murderer’. With one exception: the Mallard (‘rapist’). Anyone who has witnessed Mallards mating knows why this is. Here are my notes from a few weeks ago, also from Perch pond:

Perch pond. Two drake Mallard pursuing female frantically. Both attempting to mate. One appears more successful and is pinning the hen using typical neck-biting technique, although often both males are biting her. Female is struggling to stay above water as both males are on top of her. Vigorous thrashing and struggling lasts for some time. [I am genuinely fearful for the hen’s safety. I have never witnessed a drowning, but know that they occur] Eventually one of the drakes appears to give up and swims a little distance away. Copulation appears to continue, although may have just begun. Successful drake dismounts and swims off in opposite direction. Hen Mallard pursues successful drake, appearing intent on remaining close to copulating partner.

Of course, from human eyes, the act appears violent and abhorrent. It is literally difficult to watch. I was willing the female to get out of the water so that, at least, the risk of drowning was removed. Part of me even wanted to scare the drakes away, although my better self put such a silly idea aside. The aspect that fascinated me most was the hen’s behaviour after coitus. She pursued the successful drake closely, but without any signs of distress or violent intent. I can only imagine that if the act was successful and her eggs are fertilised then it is in her interest to remain close to her mate… successful brood rearing is more likely if both parents are present.

The next stage in the process

New life is everywhere on the patch at the moment. Every bush seems to emit the high-pitched begging calls of chicks. Nests are sat on and young are being demanding – the cycle of life that has existed ever since that first egg hatched (the egg definitely came before the chicken by the way – although species allocation is a human construct, and delineation between species is never clear-cut – at some point, there had to be a switch-over when an egg contains a chicken but the parents would have been designated as the closely related predecessors to a chicken).

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Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) with young on nest

Today I witnessed another scene that is difficult for modern human sensibilities. A Lesser Black-backed Gull swooped down and plucked a young coot chick from the nest with the mother sitting on top of it! I have seen many a cootlet and duckling taken from the water, but never from underneath the mother on the nest. There was a moment of squawking from the parents, but then the  Gull was off and the chick was swallowed.

If you are not feeling great reading this, let me end on a more cheerful note. I defy you not to find the photo below cute. This is actually just off the patch and in a garden near where I live and was taken a few days ago. A rather scraggy vixen and her two cubs:

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Red Fox family (Vulpes vulpes)

Birding the Yucatan: Part IV (take me to my beach)

The Yucatan peninsula is famous for its beaches.

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View from treetop hotel bar to Celestun beach

But actually, something I noticed about the Yucatan coast is that it was often less definitive than we are used to in the UK, for example. By that I partly mean that, while there are some lovely beaches, there are few cliffs. Land doesn’t just drop away into the sea, it is like the two elements struggle together or co-exist in some uneasy equilibrium of lagoons and mangrove swamps.

This sometimes means that, rather like the All Saints song lyrics, the actual point of transition was unclear, even unobtainable: “Out of reach, take me to my beach”. But I did my best to explore this rich mezcla of ecosystems.

Mangrove

I felt like a colonial explorer. Sitting in the front of a two-person kayak, but not paddling. My guide was doing the work while I held my camera poised as we moved slowly through dense mangrove swamp waters.

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The shallow waters are home to caiman, but they are rarely seen during the day. Caiman share the fish with a number of avian piscators as well, including this gem:

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Pygmy Kingfisher (Chloroceryle aena stictoptera)

Where the Mangrove ends and the open water of the lagoon (Ria Celestun in this case) begins, bigger predators can be found:

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Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax hoactli)

If there was one bird family I felt I covered pretty well during the two week trip, it would be the Ardeidae, the herons. Apart from the Black-crowned Night Heron* above (a life tick for me, completing a bit of a set alongside the Yellow-crowned Night Heron I saw in the Galapagos and Boat-billed Heron I saw in Costa Rica), I also found: Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tricoloured Heron*, Reddish Egret*, and Green Heron. Seven species, three of them life ticks*… not bad!

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Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens)

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Tricoloured Heron (Egretta tricolor)

I spent time in mature mangroves, but also saw areas of young secondary growth where conservationists are replanting them.

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Mangrove restoration

For a couple of days I explored the mangroves entirely alone. By alone, I really mean alone. Salt cracking beneath my feet and leaving tracks in the snow-like floor (albeit in 40 degree heat) with no other human for literally miles around. But I never feel alone, and certainly not lonely, when I am surrounded by wildlife. Aside from some of the common species (already referred to here), these walks through partially restored mangroves had a great cast list…

Mangrove Warbler with its red head distinguishing it from the very closely related American Yellow Warbler (both were seen). At Progreso, I watched a Palm Warbler scuttle along the floor finding insects, presumably refuelling before its flight back to Canada.

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Mangrove Warbler (Setophaga petechia)

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Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)

Bushes often had the very noisy Red-winged Blackbird on top of them in territorial display-mode. Equally, the extraordinary Groove-billed Ani often seemed to watch my progress from a safe distance looking like some dark-cowled creature from an early Sinbad movie. Much maligned because of their appearance, I find the ani family fascinating given their communal brood-rearing habits as much as for their aesthetics.

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Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

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Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris)

Mangroves attract specialists and generalists alike. I was often surrounded by Barn Swallow, but also by Mangrove Swallow. I was delighted to see Vermillion Flycatcher again, after a gap of over a decade (and despite the fact the only picture I could get was almost directly into the sun), but even more delighted to see my first Mangrove Vireo – a species endemic to Central America with the sub-species endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula (poor quality record shot only unfortunately).

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Vermillion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus)

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Mangrove Vireo (Vireo pallens salvini)

Lagoon

As I described when I opened this post, with an expression of the indeterminate nature of the Yucatan coast, one finds the perimeter of the Yucatan streaked with lagunas. Often difficult to reach or explore, but tantalising and somehow engulfing. The shallows are worked hard by industrious waders/shorebirds that would largely all be common to North American birders but were often new and exciting to me (with the exception of the circumpolar Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstone).

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Unnamed lagoon near Progreso

On a couple of trips out from Merida, I clocked up: Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s PloverWestern Sandpiper (I think – correct me if I am wrong), the wonderfully large Willet, Greater Yellow-legs, Lesser Yellow-legs, and Black-necked Stilt.

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Wilson’s Plover (Chararius wilsonia)

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Willet (Tringa semipalata)

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Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)

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Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) – I think??

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Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavapes)

The main forty-mile long lagoon at Progreso is a good destination to see American Flamingo:

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Laguna Rosada near Progreso

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American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)

Interestingly, I didn’t see any Flamingo at Celestun – which is famous for them, but I did see plenty of White Ibis.

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American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)

As our kayaks slipped out of the dense mangroves, the Lagoon opened up like a giant river (presumably why it is called Ria Celestun).

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Ria Celestun

The expanse of water  did not seem as promising for birds (I frowned as I could hear unidentified parakeets calling from deep in the mangroves), but as we paddled effortlessly South (effortlessly for me anyway, as I still wasn’t even attempting to paddle – I gave my guide a good tip so don’t judge me too harshly), we occasionally drifted past something interesting. We floated close past Double-crested Cormorants resting on exposed stumps and mooring posts, seemingly unfazed by our presence other than the odd glance, their emotionless emerald eyes betraying nothing. Birds incredibly similar to this would have witnessed the impact 66 million years before that wiped out their dinosaur cousins.

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Juvenile Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritas)

We also paddled past a raft of Lesser Scaup:

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Female Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis)

Closer inland, I also got a distant shot of Blue-winged Teal:

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Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors)

As we came ashore (although in the mezcla habitat of lagoon/mangrove swamp, I am not sure one is truly ashore), there was a lot of splashing and someone knocked something brown into the water. The brown ‘thing’ scuttled across the surface of water almost like a giant water-boatman (it was at least 12cm in diameter) until I gave it my ‘dry’ paddle to climb onto and put safely (unsure whether it needed ‘saving’) back on the jetty:

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Unidentified spider

In one of the mini sub-lagoons, I was taken back in time several months to an Essex twitch of Wilson’s Phalarope. This time I saw one more, much closer, but still too far to get a good picture, in its more typical environment.

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Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) and an unidentified sandpiper

The salty sand of dried Lagoons also serve as breeding grounds for terns. On one walk (I won’t disclose where) I quickly skirted around – at a respectable distance – some Least Tern I found on the ground as others helped warn me away by circling noisily over my head:

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Least Tern (Sternula antillarum)

Talking of terns, I also got good views of Royal Tern and had a flyover from the huge Caspian Tern on Progreso beach.

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Royal Tern (Sterna maxima)

Beach

It is on the beach-proper that I found Laughing Gull in large numbers, a single Ring-billed Gull, regular fly-overs from Brown Pelican and American White Pelican.

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Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atrcilla)

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Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)

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Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentalis)

Wherever we were on the coast, we nearly always walked in the flickered sunlight with the shards of shade cast by the pirates of the sky:

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Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)

Perhaps you will indulge me in one final journey as part of this epic trip report. I would like to take you next time to an (almost) untouched island.

Birding the Yucatan: Part III (Sacred Cenotes)

As everyone knows, something pretty cataclysmic happened about 66 million years ago. A ten kilometre wide lump of rock from space hit the earth with a pretty big bang. It is widely believed to have been responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals and birds. As a mammal who likes birds, I am somewhat guiltily grateful that this happened.

I have another reason to be grateful for this event. That piece of rock hit the earth (or rather the sea as it was then) where I went on holiday, the Yucatan Peninsula, and is also credited as a major reason why there are so many Cenotes in the Yucatan. Cenotes are naturally occurring sinkholes in limestone that expose (under)ground water. They are often very pretty:

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Dzibilchaltan Cenote with my wife posing in front of it

But Cenotes are/were more important than just being pretty. They are the major source of freshwater in the Yucatan (very few rivers or lakes exist there) and allowed the Mayan civilisation to flourish.

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Temple of the Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltan

The Mayans clearly recognised that they owed a lot to these exposed underwater sources of fresh water and showed their gratitude by throwing precious artefacts and people (human sacrifices) down to the watery depths. Nowadays tourists pay money to swim in them. Brightly coloured fish nibbled my feet as we cooled off in the water above.

Aside from their penchant for human sacrifice, the Mayans were a pretty cool civilisation, not least because they believed many birds were sacred. Everyone who goes to the Yucatan visits Chichen Itza ruins – with some of the most famous Mayan architecture:

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The largest Chichen Itza Pyramid

We just walked around on our own, but any tour guide will show you the Quetzal call clap. Stand in front of the main pyramid and clap your hands and you get an extraordinary echo that sounds nothing like your original clap. In fact it sounds rather like the call of the sacred (and very beautiful) Quetzal bird family; a layered-pitched squawk (presumably due to the vibrations returning to your ear at marginally different times due to each layer of Pyramid being a different distance from you – but feel free to correct me if my hypothesis is nonsense). The Mayan priestly class used this technique to persuade the people that there really was a Quetzal-headed god (Quetzalcoatl) inside the Pyramid and so they had better do what the priests told them. As if that wasn’t enough, depictions of the serpent-bodied god appear at the bottom of one of the set of steps  and at the right time the shadows from the setting sun make it look like a large snake is slithering down the pyramid.

As sources of fresh water and clearings in the forest, ruins and cenotes are useful places to watch birds. In the ruins of Chichen Itza , I saw lots of the notorious cuckoo-style brood parasites:Bronzed Cowbird

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Bronzed Cowbird (Molothrus aeneus)

Other birds found in, or near these places included: the Yucatan sub-species of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Greyish Saltator, Clay-coloured Thrush, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, and Yellow-olive Flatbill…

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Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons)

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Greyish Saltator (saltator coerulescens)

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Clay-coloured Thrush (Turdus grayi)

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Yellow-olive Flatbill (Tolmomyias sulphurescens)

Some of the birds were just fly-overs that had little to do with cenotes or ruins, such as this Osprey

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Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

… while others – as I am about to describe – seemed infinitely more closely connected with these geologically ancient water features…

Yokdzonot Cenote

A spectacular Cenote not given justice by my photo (the wide angle has distorted the image to make the limestone walls look lower than in reality – the water level is some 22 metres below the lip of the sink-hole):

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This cenote actually plunges a further 45 metres (150 feet) down to the black depths below the turquoise surface. The organic mirrors the geological as tree roots and stalactites both hang down to the water surface. Tropical freshwater fish, from brightly coloured slivers to whiskered brown catfish swim around the surface, predatory fish lurk in the rock holes and even more mysterious fish swim way, way below the surface and out of human sight. Some have evolved to the particular cenote or cave system they inhabit, and blind fish exist in the deep, purportedly catching their prey by touch or smell alone.

Given the stifling heat, the cool waters were a blessing to swim in. The distinctive calls of the Great Kiskadee meant its name echoed around the limestone chamber:

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Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) on tree roots

Turquoise-browed Motmots dropped down into the cenote like stones only to swoop up onto a branch, root, or rock ledge at the last moment and then swing their tails in a mechanical fashion like a colourful pendulum:

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Turquoise-browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa)

They are stunning gargoyles of these ancient and natural churches of rock and water, but the most breathtaking residents were smaller and plainer.

Tens of Cave Swallows would swirl around the perimeter of the cenote in a dizzying blur gaining speed and height. When ascending, they would explode out of the mouth of the cenote like steam from a pressurised container or the horrors of Pandora’s vase (it was never meant to be a box in case you are wondering). When descending, they would corkscrew all the way back down again, tracing the ancient contours of the rock until just above the surface of the water, they would disappear. I swam out to investigate this vanishing trick and found that the rock walls also vanish as they approach the water. There are deep cavities stretching several metres under the lip of the cenote far over head. On the cavity roof are the swallows’ mud nests. When we visited, there was almost constant activity in and out of the nests.

At another Cenote I received a fright when I swam out to see if there were similar nests near the edge. I swam into the gloom of the cave where the water became gradually colder due to the lack of light, looked up at the roof and out flew, not a swallow, but a very large bat. Bats are wonderful creatures just like birds, but it is hard to escape the cultural construction of fear and demonic foreboding that bats can draw out of our deep primeval subconscious – especially when encountered in a cave (what must our early ancestors have thought when they flicked around their heads in the firelight with their shadows cast huge on the cave walls?).

That the cenotes were deeply important sacred places to the Mayans was no surprise to me at all. I felt an enormous sense of privilege in being able to explore them.