Monthly Archives: July 2016

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.

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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