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!

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