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:
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.
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:
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…
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…
Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons)
Greyish Saltator (saltator coerulescens)
Clay-coloured Thrush (Turdus grayi)
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…
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
… while others – as I am about to describe – seemed infinitely more closely connected with these geologically ancient water features…
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):
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:
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:
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.