Saturday, March 3, 2012

Birding, Beaches, and Ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula

Pyramid of Kukulkan, Chichen Itza

I just got back from a week-long family vacation to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. It was not primarily a birding trip, but with one morning with a guide and plenty of incidental sightings, I saw 108 species, 40 lifers (in bold), and 5 Yucatan endemics.

We started off the trip in Akumal, a town towards the south end of what is now referred to as the "Mayan Riviera," a tourist area on the northeast coast of the peninsula, on the Caribbean Sea. It is bordered to the north by the city of Cancun, and to the south by the gigantic Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a world heritage site. On the way south from Cancun airport, I picked up what would turn out to be the most common birds of the trip: Great-tailed Grackles, both Vultures, Eurasian Collared Doves, and my first lifer, Tropical Mockingbirds. For the rest of the day, I birded a bit around the hotel grounds, and went snorkeling in Akumal Bay, which is famous for its large population of Green Sea Turtles (I saw two, and a couple of stingrays as well). The birds were good, highlighted by multiple Hooded Orioles, Social Flycatchers, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Melodious Blackbirds, waterbirds like Brown Pelicans, Frigatebirds, and Royal Terns, and migrants, such as Yellow Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and White-eyed Vireo.
Hooded Oriole
The next morning, I spotted another lifer oriole, Altamira Oriole, in a on the hotel grounds. Also around were the usual suspects, including plenty of Tropical Kingbirds, one of the more common birds of the trip. Our plan for the day was to go to Hidden Worlds, an "adventure park" that offers ziplining, "skycyling," and, most interestingly, snorkeling in a cenote, which are the underground caves that form everywhere in the Yucatan's porous limestone. There are very few surface rivers in the Yucatan, because the whole peninsula is incredibly flat, so cenotes and subterranean rivers are the main source of fresh water. On the way there, I spotted my first endemic of the trip, the flashy turquoise-and-black Yucatan Jay, and in the parking lot I found the second, an Orange Oriole. The "splashdown" ziplining into and snorkeling in cenotes was really fun too. We did even more snorkeling back at the hotel, seeing another sea turtle, and a flyover Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture.
The third day was our big road trip, to the famed Mayan city of Chichen-Itza. On the 3 hour drive there, I was birding out the window the whole time, and was rewarded with 4 lifers: Bronzed Cowbird, Plain Chachalaca, Vaux's Swift, and Squirrel Cuckoo. The ruins themselves were pretty incredible, consisting of buildings from two distinct eras- one classical Mayan era, and a later period (including the largest and most famous pyramid) that shows strong influence from the Toltecs, another culture that merged somewhat with the Mayans. We were given a tour of the site by a guide we hired, Alfredo, which gave us a better understanding of the site than we would otherwise have had.
The Temple of Warriors
The Astronomical Observatory
The Ball Court
The birds at the ruins were also good. We had a couple of fly-over parrots, but could not get good enough looks to identify them. Also present were other tropical birds such as Grayish Saltator, Clay-colored Robin, and the usual Kingbirds, Blackbirds, and Grackles. At one point, when we were observing some unexcavated ruins in the forest, I noticed the vibrantly colored Green Jay, one of my top targets for the trip. At the same spot was a similarly neon Altamira Oriole, between them exhibit five out of six rainbow colors-- red, orange, yellow on the oriole; yellow, green, and blue on the jay. Even better was a large group of birds that we ran into after the tour was over, which included my lifer Black-headed Saltator, along with a Masked Tityra, the beautiful Turquoise-browed Motmot, and lots of migrants, including American Redstart, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, White-eyed Vireo, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. There was also a flyby Short-tailed Hawk, my only hawk of the trip.
Black-headed Saltator
Around this point, disaster struck. The money belt that contained our four passports, as well as some money, that my dad had had, was gone. We frantically retraced our steps looking for it (I got my life Couch's Kingbird in the process, but no one really cared), but couldn't find it. The place was so crowded it seemed unlike that the belt would have been on the ground for two minutes without being picked up. We went to security and the police back at the visitors center, to no avail, as well as talking to our guide from the morning, Alfredo. We eventually got in contact with the American consulate, and set up an appointment at the agency in Cancun for 9 the next morning, potentially wasting a whole vacation day or more. This also meant that we had to reschedule the birding trip we had planned for the next morning, but luckily there was no problem changing that to Saturday. A couple hours after noticing the passports were gone, we left the ruins, quite discouraged. About an hour into the three hour drive back to the hotel, my dad's phone started ringing. It was Alfredo, and they had found the passports. We sped back to Chichen Itza (despite multiple slowdowns and problems along the way) and arrived just around five, when the visitor center was supposed to close. Sure enough, Alfredo met us there and we got the belt back, passports inside (though not the $100, which is bad until you think that replacing the passports would have cost upwards of $600, plus a whole day). Relieved and exhausted, we turned around and drove back to the hotel, a three hour ride, this time in the dark.

We spent the next day not in a bureaucratic nightmare in Cancun but in the seaside ruins of the Mayan city of Tulum. Tulum is smaller and less important historically than Chichen Itza, but its beautiful location over the Caribbean Sea makes it an impressive spot.

Unsurprisingly, there were birds as well, including the usual suspects, both land and sea, as well as Yellow-throated Euphonias, Palm Warblers, a Northern Waterthrush, Cave and Rough-winged Swallows. The latter are of the "Ridgeway's" subspecies, which is endemic to the peninsula and may someday be considered a full species. The two best birds came just as we were leaving. I first spotted a pair of Aztec Parakeets in a tree just of the trail, and we got good looks at them. Then, just outside of the ruins, there was a Yucatan Vireo, a distinctive endemic that resembles a larger and much browner version of the familiar Red-eyed Vireo.
Aztec Parakeets
Yucatan Vireo
We spent the afternoon at a really incredible beach in Tulum. That night, as we stepped out of hotel room to go to dinner, a looked up to see a calling Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl right above our heads, an adorable and tiny tropical owl, and one of the best birds of the trip.
A Beach in Tulum
The next morning, Saturday, we woke up at quarter of five to drive to the tiny village of Muyil, in the famous Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. Sian Ka'an is mayan for "the place where the sky is born," and is a huge reserve protecting a vast swathe of natural habitat just south of the now developed "Mayan Riviera" and just north of the soon-to-be developed "Costa Maya." There we met our guide for the morning, Antonio. He was born in and still lives in the village of Muyil itself, and knew a lot about the birds of the area. We started off by walking through the village, looking for flycatchers and other birds of more open areas that would be active feeding early in the morning (it was 6:20 when we started). We were not disappointed. Antonio and I quickly spotted a pair of Blue-gray Tanagers, an Indigo Bunting, and a few Tropical Pewees, the pewees being the first of many lifers.
Birding the village of Muyil
Birds were abundant and diverse, and we soon found vocal Yellow-bellied Elaenias, tiny Ruddy Ground-Doves, the awesomely named Rufous-browed Peppershrike, which is actually a large vireo. The next spate of sightings included good looks at a Cinnamon Hummingbird, Yellow-faced Grassquit, another new endemic, the small, yellow-faced Yucatan Woodpecker, and the striking black-and-white Black-crowned Tityra. Soon a pair of parrots landed nearby, screeching loudly. They were White-fronted Parrots, the first identifiable ones of the trip. Another hummingbird turned out to be a White-bellied Emerald, which we got extended and excellent view of as it fed on flowers. Antonio's ear proved very helpful, as he knew all of the songs and calls, allowing us to see and identify much more. That knowledge, along with location knowledge, could be the best part of having a bird guide in a foreign country. The new sightings continued unabated, with Purple Martins overhead, a Yellow-backed Oriole perched on top of a tree (the fourth oriole species of the trip), and a pair of White-collared Seedeaters in a backyard. Antonio then heard an owl, and we tracked down a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, and got better looks in the daylight than we had the previous night. While we were watching, another hummingbird, the Canivet's Emerald, made a brief appearance.
Those two blobs are the owls. If you look closely, you can see the false eyespots on the left bird-- that is actually the back of its head.
We then took a side trail off the road (which is not very big in such a small village) into a somewhat more forest area, where a small brown-gray bird was climbing up a tree trunk. It was an Olivaceous Woodcreeper (spell-check says both of those words are misspelled), my 550th life bird. We also ran into a mixed flock of migrants, including Hooded Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, and Lesser Greenlet. Despite hearing a trogon nearby, we could not spot it. We tried a different trail, and got a brief glimpse of a trogon with a yellow belly as it flew away, making it either Violaceous or Black-headed, but could not positively id it. On the other hand, I did find a male Red-throated Ant-Tanager, and a Golden-olive Woodpecker. We headed back towards the main highway to get to the ruins of Muyil for more forest birding. Along the way, we had a Boat-billed Flycatcher, and a Gray Catbird, which frustratingly was not the endemic Black Catbird.
Returning after a glimpse of the trogon
The ruins of Muyil were far less excavated and less crowded than Tulum or Chichen Itza-- I think we only saw two other tourists there. They were also birdier. We quickly found our trogon, a cool female Violaceous Trogon, an excellent example of that uniquely tropical group of birds.
Violaceous Trogon
Muyil Ruins
There were plenty of birds around, including migrants like Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Black-throated Green Warbler. Also around was an endemic Yucatan Flycatcher, and a Yellow-olive Flycatcher, with its distinctive white eye. As Antonio and I started into the forest (my family had gone ahead to the other group of ruins), we spotted a large woodcreeper, but were not entirely sure what it was. We then saw a few Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, and realized that there was an antswarm, which is considered by some to be the pinnacle of tropical birding. A large swarm of ants moves along the forest floor, displacing all insects in its path, and lots of birds eat these fleeing insects, following the swarm. We quickly spotted a Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, some Tawny-crowned Greenlets, an Olivaceous Woodcreeper, a Black-and-white Warbler, and a few American Redstarts, in addition to the abundant ant-tanagers, which formed the core of the flock. It got even better when a huge Northern Barred Woodcreeper, a group of Yellow-bellied Elaenias and a Yucatan Flycatcher joined up, becoming incredible when the uncommon, elusive, and awesome Gray-headed Tanager made an appearance, and by the time the fourth woodcreeper species, a large and streaked Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, showed up, Antonio was just as amazed as I was.
This is one of a few female Ant-Tanagers that approached us to with arms-length
Eventually, we had to leave the ant-swarm, which was already tapering off. Before going to the next part of the trip, a guided boat trip, we stopped at and climbed a large Mayan pyramid. Looking up, we were surprised to see a trio of circling Wood Storks.

The next part of the tour began at a different part of Sian Ka'an. While we were preparing to go on the boat trip, it started pouring, so we took shelter in a small hut with a group of park employees (a somewhat less formal job in Mexico that seemed to consist of hanging out and chatting). When the rain finally stopped, we departed, with Antonio, his brother Pastor, and a fellow tourist, Sasha, from Britain. The Yucatan has very few lakes, but near Muyil there are three very large freshwater lagoons, connected by a canal built by the Mayans, and joined to the ocean (5+ miles away) by a meandering, mangrove-lined river through a wet savanna habitat very reminiscent of the Everglades.

Our shelter from the storm
 We started in one lagoon, crossed the Mayan canal into the other, and then stopped a little ways down the natural river to explore what our guides called a "pre-Spanish tollbooth," a Mayan structure that controlled commerce down the river. On the way there were plenty of waterbirds, including Green and Great Blue Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, American Coots, and a flying Limpkin.

We then entered the floating portion of the tour, where we got out of the boat and swam/floated on our own a ways down the river with Pastor, while Antonio stayed back with the boat. It was here that I, somewhat unexpectedly, saw two of the best birds of the trip. First, we heard an odd, gutteral series of hoots/coos/groans. I should have realized what they were, but was thinking along the wrong lines: I thought it was a waterbird until Pastor, who also seemed suprised, said "Mangrove Cuckoo." Sure enough, the bird, known for being virtually impossible to locate in the U.S., quickly popped into view in a mangrove, less than ten feet away. As we floated by, we got what might be the best possible looks at a Mangrove Cuckoo, even without binoculars. A little ways further on, we flushed a small bird with white corners on its tail as it flew away. It landed right next to the water, and we got an awesome look at an American Pygmy Kingfisher, a diminutive gem colored in bright green and rust-orange. Two great lifers, in a part of the trip where I didn't expect to see any birds, was a huge bonus, and brought the day life bird total up to 20!
Muyil Lagoon in Sian Ka'an
We walked back to the boat on a boardwalk through tall grasses that, as I mentioned before, looked almost exactly like everglades habitat. We then headed back through the lagoons, spotting a Neotropic Cormorant along the way, and arrived at the starting dock. As we ate the free fruit that our guides provided, I ventured into the forest one last time by myself, finding a mixed flock of birds, mostly ant-tanagers, that included a single Mangrove Vireo, two Yellow-billed Caciques, and a few unseen, but cacophonous Plain Chachalacas. We then had to leave, thanking Antonio and Pastor for being great guides, and headed north, to our next hotel, an all-inclusive resort in Playa del Carmen called Viva Windham Maya. On the way there were a few Cattle Egrets, a first for the trip, and when we arrived I had Sanderlings and Snowy Egrets, both trip birds. A tally revealed that we had seen 89 species for the day, with a few more heard-only, and I had gotten 22 lifers, my third-most ever (behind 2 days in Costa Rica). Not a bad day!

Unfortunately, that was about it for birding for the trip. I did see a couple of Sandwich Terns and a White Ibis at the resort, but it was mostly devoid of new birds. That was ok though, I had plenty to distract me, including tennis, windsurfing, kayaking, archery, eating as much as possible ("We've already paid for it all! If we don't eat very much, we're being ripped off!), and other typical tropical resort actives.
Windsurfing is hard!
So overall it was a really awesome trip. Good birding/beaching/archaeologying!

Odds and Ends

Sorry I haven't posted in a while, I've been busy with a lot of things, school foremost among them. I just got back from Mexico, a great trip with lots of good birds. A post about that will be up in a couple of days.

Also, I wrote a blog post about birding at the Superbowl of Birding in January for The Eyrie, the ABA's young birder blog that I am an editor for. You can read it at: