The Yucatan peninsula is famous for its beaches.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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!
Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens)
Tricoloured Heron (Egretta tricolor)
I spent time in mature mangroves, but also saw areas of young secondary growth where conservationists are replanting them.
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.
Mangrove Warbler (Setophaga petechia)
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.
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
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).
Vermillion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus)
Mangrove Vireo (Vireo pallens salvini)
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).
Unnamed lagoon near Progreso
On a couple of trips out from Merida, I clocked up: Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Plover, Western Sandpiper (I think – correct me if I am wrong), the wonderfully large Willet, Greater Yellow-legs, Lesser Yellow-legs, and Black-necked Stilt.
Wilson’s Plover (Chararius wilsonia)
Willet (Tringa semipalata)
Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)
Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) – I think??
Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavapes)
The main forty-mile long lagoon at Progreso is a good destination to see American Flamingo:
Laguna Rosada near Progreso
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.
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).
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.
Juvenile Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritas)
We also paddled past a raft of Lesser Scaup:
Female Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis)
Closer inland, I also got a distant shot of Blue-winged Teal:
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:
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.
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:
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.
Royal Tern (Sterna maxima)
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.
Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atrcilla)
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)
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:
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.