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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