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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: The Yucatan and Cozumel

Tour Narrative

From glittering Cozumel Emeralds to shockingly pink American Flamingos, our 2010 Yucatan and Cozumel tour hit the high points of this wonderful region, home to spectacular Maya ruins, pristine forest, and a distinctive regional cuisine. Strikingly handsome Yucatan Jays were “unavoidable,” but we had to work a little for Gray-throated Chat and Rose-throated Tanager—an effort rewarded with stunning males of both. A wind-blown agave plant held Yucatan and White-bellied Wrens plus a Mexican Sheartail, glossy Black Catbirds were present in record high numbers and Cozumel Island produced all of its extant endemics—plus the endearing Cozumel Raccoon. From eight species of colorful orioles in flowing trees and Snowy Plovers dashing after flies, to Ruddy Crakes performing on cue, motmots perched quietly amid ruins, and frigatebirds sailing over turquoise Caribbean waters, the memories of this trip will last a lifetime.

All arrived safely on the balmy Caribbean coast of Mexico, with light turquoise waters and frigatebirds overhead for the earlier arrivals, and a great seafood dinner for all. Ah, Mexico!

The first morning we birded around Puerto Morelos, including the wonderful botanical garden. Among the many birds were a selection of stunning orioles, very accommodating Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, several Yucatan Vireos, and a plethora of chachalacas. After a pleasant lunch in Tulum we took a walk around the ruins, taking in the commanding view over the aquamarine waters and reef. Birds were great, too, with point-blank Red-billed Pigeons, Yucatan Jays, Black-headed Trogon, and our first Black Catbirds.

On to Felipe Carrillo Puerto in good time to check in, rest a bit, and head out for late afternoon birding with Yucatan Poorwills calling. A full day and a half along the Vigia Chico Road allowed us good time to sample the avifauna of this rich semi-deciduous/semi-evergreen forest. The abundance of wintering migrants quickly became apparent in the numbers of Magnolia Warblers, White-eyed Vireos, and American Redstarts. Highlights the first day included great views of pairs of Rose-throated Tanager and Gray-throated Chat, plus Collared Aracari, Yucatan Flycatcher, Long-billed Gnatwren, a photogenic Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and a Spot-breasted Wren out in the open. Another morning in the forest featured Buff-bellied Hummingbird and White-bellied Emerald at red verbena, several Wedge-tailed Sabrewings, sun-haloed Aztec Parakeets feeding on seeding grasses, and a superb Roadside Hawk. After lunch we headed north to the picturesque town of Valladolid, our base for the next two nights.

Our earliest start of the tour took us through torrential showers and strong winds. But then we saw Yucatan Wrens and Mexican Sheartail in quick order, and then a male Painted Bunting. A spectacular boat trip produced a good variety of waterbirds, including reclusive Boat-billed Herons, both the Caribbean and the northern migrant subspecies of Osprey, and a great “shorebird workshop” on one sandbar. After a very fresh seafood lunch, we headed east to Las Coloradas and a truly surreal drive around the salt ponds, with strong winds piling up foam on the dikes. Birds were plentiful, with thousands of flamingoes, thousands of shorebirds, and a few Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures.We headed back after making a successful eleventh-hour try for bobwhites, plus a bonus Zenaida Dove in the road and a stunning Laughing Falcon. It was a long day but a great one.

After a quiet early morning at Ekbalam, where we worked hard for Yellow-billed Cacique, we headed to the impressive ruins at Chichen Itza. Besides the ruins, the birds were great, including flashy Green Jays, a confiding Turquoise-browed Motmot, a tulip tree full of orioles, and even a Bat Falcon.

After lunch we headed to Playa del Carmen in good time for the ferry to Cozumel, with a surprise agouti foraging in the rental car parking lot. The ferry full of tourists prepared us for a different aspect of Mexico, following the quieter times at FCP and Valladolid. Our two full days on Cozumel enabled us to explore most of the island, and we did well with the specialties plus an excellent assortment of northern migrants. Starting out in an area of low thicket woodland, the birding seemed quiet at first (if scope views of screaming Yucatan Parrots can be called quiet), but then we found “the old man’s fig tree” loaded with birds: Black Catbirds, Western Spindalises, Caribbean Elaenia, and a nice Yucatan Woodpecker. Cozumel Emeralds showed well, as did a pair of Cozumel Wrens, the local races (species?) of Bananaquit and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a goodly variety of warblers including the handsome endemic Golden [Yellow] Warbler. A drive around the outer coast afforded some spectacular views, plus a pond with ducks and jacanas. The afternoon’s highlight was undoubtedly superb views of Ruddy Crakes, a common bird but rarely seen—and even more rarely seen well. Lily-trotting jacanas and sunning crocodiles were also notable, and brief views of the endemic raccoon hinted at things to come.

The next morning we birded around El Cedral, which produced numerous warblers including Swainson’s, Cape May, and Prairie, plus more Yucatan Woodpeckers, Cozumel Vireos, elusive Caribbean Doves, and a surprise Grasshopper Sparrow. Post-siesta birding included an abundance of wintering warblers in the mangroves, Roseate Spoonbills, and point-blank endearing Cozumel Raccoons. After a cold beer and sunset, we headed back for a fun last-night dinner downtown and a good night’s sleep. It was nice to sleep in and enjoy a full breakfast before heading to the airport for flights homeward.

- Steve Howell

Updated: December 2010