Monthly Archives: May 2016

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.

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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.

Red-crested warbler day

There will now be a short interval before recommencing my Yucatan trip report story.

Back on the patch today with a BANG! Very little time to storytell, so I’ll be briefer than usual

Caught up with this little guy again…

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‘Willowchaff’ the Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Before I left for Mexico, this Willow Warbler was jumping between Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler songs like a confused teenager. Today, he did a tiny bit of Chiffchaff, but was largely belting out his own proper song (you can watch the movie here).

Talking of belting out songs, I got a year tick just a tree or two away from old ‘Willowchaff’ with the high-volume songster, the Garden Warbler (you can also watch a video of this here)…

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Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)

…And later, at the other end of the patch, I was thrilled to hear “tchck…tchacklelacklelack…tchacklelacklelack”. No, it wasn’t the Hungarian Eurovision entry from 1976, it was the song of Cetti’s Warbler. The guys found it while I was away in Mexico (long-story cut short is this, once scarce, warbler is expanding its range and has been some time overdue a presence on the patch). I was worried as it hadn’t been heard for a bit, but I heard it sing its refrain three times (with multi-minute pauses in between) further down the River Roding than where found before, actually on the tiny Alders Brook. Big patch life tick.

So, a great day for Warblers – also a huge number of singing Blackcap and Whitethroat seemingly outnumbering Chiffchaff – was rounded off with a wonderful view of a pair of Reed Warbler on Shoulder of Mutton Pond (and small snippet of song from the – otherwise hopefully satisfied – male):

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Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Watching the Swifts dart around the sky over the ponds today (they arrived while I was away), I bagged another year tick with Hobby in hot pursuit of them or the accompanying House Martins.

In non birding news, I was pleased to catch-up with my first Grass Snake of the year, a juvenile curled up under a mat in the sun:

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Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)

But perhaps the biggest surprise was finding a feral Red-crested Pochard on Heronry Pond – a rare occasion where I was the finder of a good bird on the patch. A big patch life tick for me, and good patch year ticks for Bob, who arrived five minutes after I found it, and Jono who came along later to see it. At first I struggled to photograph it across the pond, but later walked around to the other side and found a gap just about big enough in the leaves to do a slightly better job of a record short:

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Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina)

Whilst other regular patch-workers traveled off around the country scooping some super birds such as Great Spotted Cuckoo and Red-footed Falcon, I was genuinely without envy on the patch as it was just magical today.

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

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The Roding and Ornamental Pond

Birding the Yucatan: Part II (above and below the canopy)

The Yucatan peninsula has some of the highest concentrations of vegetation in Mexico. I was pleasantly surprised how much land area remains forested, although it is, apparently and sadly, under grave threat of deforestation.

Even close to some of the busiest resorts are thousands of hectares of tropical forested land; jungle. ‘Jungle’ is an underused term these days I feel. Everyone seems to prefer the spurious accuracy of ‘rain forest’, even when that term is incorrect and jungle would be much better applied (even if it is rather broad). Strictly speaking, much of the jungle I visited was ‘medium height semideciduous tropical forest’. It almost certainly doesn’t receive enough rainfall to be labelled ‘rain forest’. So, shall we just stick with jungle?

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Medium height semi-deciduous tropical forest

A bird heard in the bush is worth…?

My jungle exploration began rather badly. I drove to one of the most biodiverse places in Mexico, the famous Celestun reserve from Merida. The journey took somewhat longer than it should have done due to a minor run-in with the Mexican  police… [Digression time]

For anyone who has never been to Mexico, one of the most noticeable things for a traveller from Europe is the number of police. Heavily armed, and – presumably when not battling with the cartels – probably rather bored cops are everywhere. A cynic might say that a tourist with a hire-car sticker which might as well say “bribe me!” on it is bound to get pulled over. But, to be fair to the officers who pulled me over on both occasions, I had actually done something wrong (the second time, I failed to come to a complete and dead stop at an “Alto” sign before pulling away at a junction). The less that is said about the rather more expensive first interaction with Mexico’s finest, the better.

… and so I arrived in the entrance town at around 8.30 am when the temperature was already about 37 degrees centigrade (100 Fahrenheit) and any self-respecting bird was hidden deep in the bush. Leaving the town, I drove out incredibly slowly on the dusty track  with my windows wound down. As much as I would have liked to have kept the air-con on, I needed the windows down and the fans off to listen out for a very special bird. Occasionally I would hear something and jump out of my car to listen and look into the impenetrable forest on either side of the track. By about the fourth time I did this, I was sweating heavily, the road seemed to sizzle and there were tantalising pools of heat haze in the distance.

I heard it really quite clearly. It was the sound of a wire brush being rubbed vigorously on taut linen. It was also the sound of a calling Yucatan Wren – endemic to the thin coastal strip  on the peninsula. It was very high on my target list and here was a bird calling a few metres away from me. I stared at the wall of vegetation stained by the dust from the road. The few dark cracks between trunks and stems yielded no views. I stood there for a minute, heard it call a second time, stood a further ten minutes, sweated a lot, and that was it. My only encounter with the wonderfully, but vulnerably, endemic Yucatan Wren.

Apart from a Northern Cardinal swooping across the road, a Turquoise-browed Motmot (which was a big tick for me until I saw about 45 more later in the trip) hiding in the undergrowth, and hundreds of circling vultures, I didn’t really see many other birds in this famous reserve and soon had to leave for some kayaking (which I may feature in the next episode of this three or four-part report).

Above the canopy

My second attempt at a walk in another jungle was slightly more successful, although the botanical gardens/eco-park didn’t open until 8am which meant the best hour or two had already been missed. Located at the extreme opposite (Eastern) end of the peninsula to Celestun, Jardin Botanico – Dr. Alfredo Barrera Marin, is about 65 hectares of conserved tropical forest. Aside from some collections of orchids, ferns, and cacti, it is mainly a 4km walk through preserved forest and mangroves. [Warning! some poor quality forest-light record shots coming up!] Straight away I heard, then saw, Chestnut-sided Warbler which seems to have left returning North rather late I would have thought. I remembered this bird well from Costa Rica.

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Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)

My second bird in the forest was a life tick, and full-time tropical resident, Lesser Greenlet (trust me, you don’t want to see my photo of it – it is even worse than the one of the wren below). Then, I had a full-on tropical song and courtship display from a pair of Spot-breasted Wren (only found in Central America and another life-tick):

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Spot-breasted Wren (Pheugopedius maculipectus)

But then it all went a bit a Mango-shaped. The heat intensified and birds stopped calling even from the thickest parts of woodland.

I climbed up a rickety ladder to an even more rickety rope-bridge and then, finally, something broke the silence. In fact it broke it in style. As I pushed my way through the mid canopy about 8 metres off the ground there was a machine-gun like barrage of short squawking. Unlike the Yucatan Wren, I hadn’t learned this call, but it sounded like a corvid. I brushed leaves aside gently and realised I was a only a few metres from the source of the racket. A largish shape brushed passed flashing a brilliant sapphire blue on the pitchest of black. A second and then third bird did the same. None stopped long enough to photograph or get a full and detailed view, but I didn’t need to study fine details. There was only one bird in that area that it could have been with that combination of distinctive colours: Yucatan Jay. My second peninsula endemic and a big fat life tick.

From there I climbed even higher up, to an observation platform punching out way above the canopy. Once out of the shade, I stood on the crow’s-nest type platform flinching in the heat and light. When accustomed to the brilliance, I could see for miles beyond the forest, over the mangrove swamps…

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Mangroves from viewing platform

…with the odd Great Egret, or Anhinga flying between fishing spots.

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Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) -photographed in Merida, not from the observation tower

Vultures flew high over the ground, but low over my head. The viewing platform swayed, not from some non-existent breeze, but from me shifting my weight from one leg to another. An unidentified Hawk – Hook-billed Hawk?, Roadside Hawk?, God-only-knows-Hawk? All ideas welcome – glided past.

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Unidentified Hawk

After the excitement of the Yucatan Jay, the Brown Jay was not quite so thrilling, but a juvenile watched me from a high tree-top not far away and adults moved about quite noisily:

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Juvenile Brown Jay (Psilorhinus morio)

I spent an age up there, almost willing more birds to fly past, and one did. A Black-cowled Oriole flew right passed me – a stunning vision of black and gold. I didn’t even raise my camera, I just watched it bewitched. Whilst I didn’t snap that Oriole, throughout my stay I did get Hooded Oriole (actually quite common, but always lovely to see):

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Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus)

…And, Altamira Oriole:

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Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis)

But perhaps it wasn’t the magic of the bird that had put a spell on me, but something more sinister: the heat. I had stood – with a hat and sun cream, but nonetheless – in the full glare of the sun for quite some time and so I wobbled down the many ladders back to the safe shade of the forest floor.

‘In’ the birds in the jungle

Despite the 40 degree heat, I was rewarded at the bottom with a sudden flurry of avian activity and three life firsts: Red-throated Ant Tanager, the familiar looking White-bellied Wren, and the very unfamiliar looking, but utterly fantastic, Rose-throated Becard. All three are really Central American specialists, although the Becard is found in some of the southern states of the USA, while the innocuous looking Wren is the sole member of its genus and is only found in a couple of narrow strips between Mexico and Honduras.

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Red-throated Ant Tanager (Habia fuscicauda)


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Female Rose-throated Becard (Pachyramphus aglaiae)


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White-bellied Wren (Uropsila leucogastra)

So, not exactly a bucket load of birds, but some super quality life-ticks and real birding memories. The Becard’s huge eye held me captivated for some time and she seemed almost as interested in me as I was in her (although I very much doubt that was the case).

Three more birds of the tropical forest

I shall sign off this middle instalment of my trip report (I am afraid you will have to wait until next time – or the time after if I split my last post in two – before I post my rather meagre trip-list) with three more photos from the trees:

The second of my North American winter migrants… Magnolia Warbler (life tick)

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Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia)

…The endemic sub-species of the Plain Chachalaca which my wife spotted from the hotel-room window (Life tick, although my second life Chachalaca as I saw ‘Gray-headed’ in Costa Rica a few years ago):

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Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula pallidventris)

Of all my birding shortcomings in Mexico (and there were many), perhaps the most embarrassing of all, was that I only identified one species of Hummingbird, although a couple more whipped past anonymously while I was at different stages of drunkenness throughout this trip. I leave you with a record shot of the Central American Cinnamon Hummingbird (also a life tick for me – huzzah!)

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Cinnamon Hummingbird (Amazilia rutila)

Next time on ‘Birding the Yucatan’, I will be displaying where I had a slightly better haul of birds – the Yucatan wetlands, and diving down into the deep of the Cenotes. Thanks for tuning in!

Birding the Yucatan: Part I

Disclaimer: If you are looking for a standard trip report, this multi-part meander may not be for you, although you could zip through the text focusing in on the species in bold, and the photos – I will also give a few location details in later sections. 

Introduction and an excuse

The Yucatan Peninsula is the Southern claw of the crab of land that stretches around the Gulf of Mexico (the Northern claw is Florida) – or that is how I have always looked at it on a map.

Tropical, lush, and archaeologically rich, with hundreds of miles of beaches and coral reefs (second only to the Great Barrier Reef in size). Little wonder it attracts vast numbers of tourists; mostly crowded together in holiday towns like Cancun and Playa del Carmen or in one of the many huge gated resorts where they roll from the all-you-can-eat buffet to the sun lounger and back again, seemingly oblivious to Mexico that is happening all around them. If my tone appears to be sneering, I should add that for almost a week of my two weeks in the Yucatan, I stayed in one of those resorts and can certainly see some of the appeal.

We were there for a wedding, we did touristy things, and partied a few times like my 35 year-old body can barely manage anymore. But I also attempted to do some birding.

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Magnificent Frigate Bird (Fregata magnificens) – rarely out of sight on the coast

I say “attempt”, because I am a little embarrassed by my species haul (only 87). This is partly down to the fact that it was not a birding holiday and so I was often doing other things, but also because I failed to be out early enough (due to a combination of: not planning ahead, driving too far and so arriving too late for the best birds (it was often over 40 degrees centigrade), and the fact that going to bed at 7am is not conducive to getting up at… err… 6am to go birding (if you know what I mean). I also did all of the birding alone and without a guide, although I realise that is nothing to brag about in this day and age.

But, excuses aside, there were some birds that were almost impossible to miss…

The Ubiquitous

The first bird I saw, soon after stepping off the plane was Tropical Mockingbird – a life tick for me (its range skirting many of the countries I have visited before) that seemed to rarely be out of eye-line or ear-shot.

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Adult Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) with young

If any bird could compete with the above in terms of common presence and volume of voice, then it was surely the Great-tailed Grackle. A bird I remember well from Costa Rica and the southern states of the USA where these jack-of-all-trade opportunists have massively expanded their range; they are brazen and omnipresent even in the urban centres.

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Male Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) gaping in the stifling heat at Chichen Itza

While on the subject of scavengers, it was also difficult to raise your eyes to the skies and not see an American Black Vulture (almost half the size of its Eurasian namesake) or Turkey Vulture (maybe someone can explain to me why some Americans call this vulture a Buzzard?) soaring on the thermals or cruising over the treetops sniffing out carrion.

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American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)


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Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

As with Costa Rica, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, and Tropical Kingbird were present in almost every location we visited, but I was disappointed not to add Boat-billed Flycatcher to my list.

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Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis texensis)

I didn’t see many species of dove, but those I did see were common flavours nearly everywhere I went: White-winged Dove (these guys are everywhere), the introduced Collared Dove (that I am well familiar with back in the UK), Ruddy Ground Dove (one of my favourite miniature doves), Feral Pigeon, and Common Ground Dove [listed in approximate declining order of commonality].

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White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica mearnsi)


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Ruddy Ground Dove (Columbina talpacoti)

Once these common birds had been ticked off the list, many others were somewhat harder to find, but they shall be the stars of my next instalments.

To be continued…