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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: The Yucatan and Cozumel

2023 Narrative

In Brief:  The American Flamingo might be the Yucatan Peninsula’s most iconic bird, and we learned that the lawn ornament is no substitute for seeing the real thing. From distant splashes of shocking pink in the Rio Lagartos estuary, to ridiculously stretched-out birds flying over the mangroves, to an astonishing drive-up view of several birds almost too close to focus on, we experienced the essence of this beauty, voted favorite bird of the tour. Also memorable were all birds with Yucatan in the name – regional endemics such as the wren, the gnatcatcher, and the jay, all of which we saw well. Some of the sought-after regional endemics have more descriptive names – Orange Oriole and Yellow-lored Parrot were two that we enjoyed thoroughly. We also experienced a touch of the wider Neotropical region, with favorites being sightings of Northern Potoo, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Middle American Screech-Owl (heard at close range), Collared Aracari, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-fronted Parrot, Lineated Woodpecker, and Barred Antshrike. One close ant swarm in a perfect viewing situation had us captivated for 40 minutes with about 10 species of birds taking advantage of the easy pickings. It was also fun to become familiar with birds on their non-breeding grounds, having escaped the northern winter, such as a male Painted Bunting and many Magnolia and Black-throated Green Warblers, White-eyed Vireos, not just a few Least Flycatchers, and several waders such as American Avocets. Then of course, there were more than just birds, such as blindingly blue Common Morphos, Crimson-patched Longwings, a giant Morelet’s Crocodile, and mind-numbing numbers of Central American Locusts in one of those swarms we had all only ever read about. The food was great throughout, most dinners enhanced by short walks to seek out local ice cream shops, and capped by our farewell meal at a fine restaurant in Cozumel.

In Detail: Our first morning’s birding stop could have been a little less hectic if the birds had just paced themselves, but instead we had an insane amount of activity all at once. It was pure fun. A Turquoise-browed Motmot was a shock perched on the powerline, as a flock of Yucatan Jays, Plain Chachalacas, and orioles competed for attention. A Lineated Woodpecker flew in out of nowhere and landed on a concrete power pole at close range. A pair of Spot-breasted Wrens at the first stop belted out their gorgeous duet, and we eventually had great views of these special birds. A short stop at El Muyil ruins was lovely, with our first taste of an army ant swarm attended by a Tawny-winged Woodcreeper and Red-throated Ant-Tanagers. A Lesson’s Motmot here was our only one of the tour. In the late afternoon we checked out the recently widened Vigía Chico road, where a Yellow-lored Parrot perched in just the right spot visible through a hole in the canopy. We stayed until dark, seeing a Yucatan Poorwill in flight then perched, followed by the low, purring trill of a Middle American Screech-Owl that refused to come out of hiding. On the way back to town, the eyeshine of a Northern Potoo stood out, and we were able to get decent views through the spotting scope.

With the construction disruption on the Vigía Chico Rd, we tried birding a different road south of town – and the birding was terrific. Gray-throated Chats were common, though it took a while before we had satisfying looks at a stunning male. Spot-breasted Wrens showed even better than the day before, and a group of Collared Aracaris was a great sighting. The top experience of the morning was down a forest trail by a large cenote, where a group of birds revealed a swarm of the tiny Labidus praedator army ants. There couldn’t have been a better place to view the parade of birds that took advantage of the flushed booty – the ants were back in the bushes, and the undergrowth was open. It was particularly fun to watch three species of woodcreepers and learn to tell them apart. Before departing for the afternoon birding, we noticed a bit of bird activity in town, right by the hotel. In our attempt to see the Yellow-winged Tanagers, we instead brought up a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and had great views of the lovely Blue-gray Tanager and our only Cinnamon-bellied Saltator. Back out in the field, we were better positioned to view the Mayan Antthrushes in the understory, and strolling along the road we bumped into an easy-to-see foraging male Red-capped Manakin.

We had one last morning near Felipe Carrillo Puerto when we tried the Vigía Chico road again, and despite the continuing roadwork we added some nice birds. A pair of White-fronted Parrots sitting in the early morning sun was an amazing sight; farther down the road a group of Collared Aracaris in a tree over the road was almost comical; a Roadside Hawk called from the top of a tree; Ivory-billed Woodcreeper became the final species of its family added to our list; and at last a Yucatan Flycatcher responded to playback silently, maintaining its perfect streak of being seen on 15 tours. An afternoon devoted to the drive to Valladolid was punctuated by a huge group of wintering Northern Rough-winged Swallows, followed by a White-necked Puffbird on a powerline (only the second time on this tour), and a large group of confiding Yucatan Jays attending yet another army ant swarm, this time of the larger Eciton burchellii, right on the shoulder of the highway.  We ended the day on the hotel terrace, deafened by hundreds of Great-tailed Grackles and Bronzed Cowbirds coming to roost in the plaza below while we watched bats departing for the night and a lone Peregrine Falcon claiming for itself the entire city below.

Blue Bunting and Greenish Elaenia were nice additions on our early morning outside of Valladolid, but it was a Lineated Woodpecker that really stole the show there before we continued on to the cultural marvel that is Chichén Itzá. The central plaza, the Caracol observatory, and the cenote were highlights, and we even saw some birds, including our only Masked Tityras and a confiding Turquoise-browed Motmot in the understory. On the drive north, we had to pause in one of the small towns to marvel at a massive locust swarm probably numbering a few million insects. (A query to Liz Bernays resulted in a response from Gregory Sword who studies these, and the species is Schistocerca piceifrons, native to Central America and apparently expanding northward with swarms being seen “only about 100-200 miles south of the US border in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon.”) We then quickly picked up the adorable Yucatan Gnatcatchers in their appropriate habitat while also bringing in a close pair of Barred Antshrikes. Driving onward, we were lucky to catch a glimpse of our only Lesser Roadrunner on the side of the road, while short stops at open fields were full of fun birds such as Indigo Bunting, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Orange Oriole. The late afternoon into the evening was then drawn out by our tire blow-out and the slow process of getting it fixed, but we still managed to get fed and a full night’s sleep, ready for another day of birds.

We had a bit of early morning roadside birding near town, but not before oohing and ahhing at the American Flamingos standing in the shallow estuary straight out from our hotel. On the roadside we quickly found a pair of charming Yucatan Wrens, and later, on the same perch sat a female Mexican Sheartail, both rather local endemics. We coaxed out a White-bellied Wren, having only heard it farther south before being called back by breakfast and the promise of a replacement van. The boat ride on the estuary and mangroves was a fun departure from our usual land birding, with highlights being several Common Black-Hawks, the full complement of herons and terns, and a super compact roost of Sanderlings. In the late afternoon we scanned the salt ponds, getting better views of several shorebirds such as American Avocet, adding Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and seeing one close Roseate Spoonbill.

One final morning out of Rio Lagartos started with our quickly checking some mangroves behind some houses in town, only to discover our first Blue-winged Teal and a group of American Flamingos right in our faces. Two Black Skimmers demonstrated their marvelous foraging technique in the shallow waters, while a Russet-naped Wood-Rail fed with a group of Red-winged Blackbirds. A side road by a conservation easement gave us a better experience with Yucatan Wrens, yet another Turquoise-browed Motmot, some flushed Black-throated Bobwhite, and our most prolonged views of Orange Oriole. A Bright-rumped Attila in the open acacia-mesquite scrub seemed very out of place. Farther down the road a flurry of activity near our stake-out Botteri’s Sparrow spot resulted in a pair of Morelet’s Seedeaters, a stunning Vermilion Flycatcher, and a male Painted Bunting, whose searing red undersides made it easy to pass off as another Vermilion Flycatcher until one looked in the scope and saw the multicolor details up close. On the drive to Playa del Carmen we paused for a vagrant Sandhill Crane apparently back for its third winter, but a Keel-billed Toucan flying over the high-speed toll road was appreciated only by those in the front seats of the vehicle. We arrived in time to get the 5:00 ferry with about one minute to spare, but the rush was worth not having to wait an hour for the next ferry. Laughing Gulls, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and Brown Pelicans saw us off as we motored towards Cozumel Island.

Cozumel birding was delightfully easy. We had both of the currently accepted endemic species, Cozumel Emerald and Cozumel Vireo, within the first 15 minutes of birding with little effort. Fortunately, there were plenty of other birds on the island, as well as some potential splits, to keep us busy for the rest of the day. A briefly seen Orange-crowned Warbler was a vagrant to the island (and may have been of one of the western subspecies to boot), a pair of Yellow-bellied Elaenias exposed their exaggerated crests, a Mangrove Cuckoo appeared out of nowhere and gave great views, and a Western Spindalis was briefly visible for some. We spent time with the endemic subspecies of House Wren before circumnavigating the island and viewing some ponds with Least Grebe, a Little Blue Heron, and a few other species. In the afternoon, we looked at birds that were only a few yards from us – Northern Jacanas showing their ridiculously long toes, Common Gallinules with their candy-corn bills, several Soras feeding out in the open, and initially very reluctant Ruddy Crakes which then without warning decided to waltz out in the open, a family of four joining even more calling hidden from within the marsh.

With all flights in the afternoon, we had a short bonus morning of birding not far from our hotel on departure day. We were even closer to a skulking Swainson’s Warbler, but it remained out of sight. White-crowned Pigeons were new for the list, and we finally saw Western Spindalis fairly well. Green-breasted Mangos put on a show for us, as did one last Cozumel Emerald.

- Rich Hoyer

Created: 14 December 2023