We had a fantastic whirlwind of a birding trip with lots of beautiful birds, mammals, reptiles, Mayan ruins, and landscapes. We saw over 180 bird species in total, including Great Curassow, Ocellated Turkey, Black-throated (Yucatan) Bobwhite, Yellow-lored (Yucatan) Parrot, Yucatan Nightjar, Yucatan Poorwill (by sound only), Mexican Sheartail, Yucatan Flycatcher, Yucatan Jay, Black Catbird, Cozumel Vireo, Yucatan Vireo, Gray-throated Chat, Rose-throated Tanager, and Orange Oriole. In addition to these rare and endemic species, we saw many other awesome birds like American Flamingo, Boat-billed Heron, Bat Falcon, White-tailed Hawk, Crane Hawk, Canivet’s Emerald, Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Aracari, Turquoise-breasted Motmot, Amazon Pygmy Kingfisher, Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Painted Bunting, 8 different orioles, and 16 different warblers! The best time of year to bird the Yucatan Peninsula is between late January and early April (when the transient species occur here), and we definitely recommend that any birder interested in the Neotropics make a trip to the region!
1 APRIL - Tulum and Night-Birding at Felipe Carrillo Puerto (FCP)
We flew into Cancun to start our trip, Chris from Florida and I from Tennessee. I arrived a couple of hours before Chris and so decided to bird the grounds surrounding the airport while I waited, picking up Yellow-throated Warbler (in the metalwork in front of the crowded airport entrance!), Couch’s Kingbird, Tropical Mockingbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Great Egret, and a pair of Orange Orioles (feeding on the flowering trees in the courtyard in front of Terminal 2). Once Chris arrived, we rented a very basic, compact car (throughout the trip, it handled paved and unpaved roads without a hitch) and headed toward Felipe Carillo Puerto. We impulsively decided to stop by the ruins at Tulum on the way there (look for the large, eye-catching front gate/portal along the highway), pulling into a parking lot dominated by a dozen monstrous tour buses. Most of the gringos had come in waves to see the ruins, but we came to get a taste of the Yucatan birdlife in store. The environment was just OK, but the birds were pretty good. Table 1 lists the species seen around the mangroves and scrub…notable species included a Black Catbird, Ridgeway’s Roughwing Swallow (perched on a powerline above our heads, offering a great look at the distinct undertail coverts), and a family of Yucatan Jays (including a younger bird with its yellow bill and matching eye-rings; also seen along the highway north of Tulum), and a host of neotropical migrants (including our only Prothonatary Warblers of the trip).
After an hour or two at Tulum, we headed back down the highway toward FCP. We checked into El Faisan y El Venado, a pleasant and affordable hotel with good food and friendly service. It is also conveniently close to the Vigia Chico Road (just ask someone at the hotel where the road to Sian Ka’an is, the road that passes by the Escuela Tecnologico). We birded the road that night for Yucatan Nightjar and Yucatan Poorwill, and we heard both species but were not able to see them. The poorwill was especially responsive to playback, only a few meters away at several points in time, but the dark, scrubby habitat did not allow for a view of the bird. We may have been luckier if we had birded when the nightjars are supposedly more active (just after dusk instead of at 10 p.m.).
2 APRIL - Vigia Chico Road
We birded the Vigia Chico Road the next morning, and had a fantastic few hours! The environment was not as tranquil and undisturbed (and perhaps slightly less safe) as Calakmul, but the birding was still excellent, and we do recommend this as a part of any birder’s itinerary in the region, if just for the chance to see Yucatan Poorwill (see previous paragraph). Highlights included a gorgeous, male Gray-throated Chat participating in an army-ant-following flock of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers and a Ruddy Woodcreeper (the chat was not shy at all; within two meters at one point); two pairs of Rose-throated Tanagers; White-browed Wren; several Yucatan Flycatchers; one Yucatan Woodpecker; lots of Blue Buntings (in the weedy fields toward the beginning of the road); and several Yucatan Vireos. We also saw our first mammal of the trip, a gray fox darting across the road. See species checklist at the end of the report for a detailed bird list. Note, we did not venture much farther than 4-5 km down the Vigia Chico Rd. since bird activity in the scrubby fields at the beginning of the road kept our attention much of the morning. While several of the endemics can easily be seen along the field edges (and everywhere else in the Yucatan), some of the more difficult-to-find species are probably further along the road in more intact forest. As this was our first morning, we were uncertain at what time the bird activity would start to diminish. By 10:30am, the birds were noticeably quieter- however, flocks were not difficult to find, and the birding was still good up until noon.
We returned to the hotel- checked out and had lunch. Next, we drove to Calakmul- this is a fairly long drive from FCP (4-5 hours). Fill up your gas tank in Xpujil (gas is unavailable any further, and you will have a lot of driving to do within the reserve). The first set of gates into Calakmul immediately off Highway 186) supposedly close at 7pm so we planned according to this information. Not much seen en route, though we did pass good forest initially between FCP and Chetumal. Checkpoints were numerous, and try your best to follow the speed limit (which is very erratic- switches between 40km/hr and 100km/hr often) even though no one else seems to be- the police target gringos and a bribe is expected. There is a lodge at Calakmul near the aforementioned gate, but we opted to camp at an “eco-campground” 7km past the gate towards Calakmul. The campground is well-signed and has nice tents w/ comfortable mattresses that you can rent at a cheap rate. We did not make reservations, and luckily, aside from two other tourists, we had the place to ourselves. The campground was perfect if you don’t mind rustic living - was well kept and had friendly service; a resident troop of howler monkeys overhead; interesting latrines if you’re a man [but nothing to worry about]; buckets of freshwater for bathing in private “showers”; cold drinks and dinner available at a decent price. Compared to the lodge which ran $180 USD for a room, this was just fine. Once settled, we explored the road between the first and second gate (~30km). After dinner, we did some night-birding and found the owls to be quite prevalent- hearing multiple Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, Mottled Owls, and Vermiculated Screech-Owls at several points along the road.
3,4 APRIL - Calakmul
Howlers got the day started with their raucous calls in the pre-dawn hours. As daylight approached, they were joined by Blue-crowned Motmots, Pygmy-owls, and Slaty-breasted Tinamous (which can be found on a short 2km trail near camp).
Calakmul was definitely the best birding site of the trip. Imagine climbing to the top of Mayan pyramids and seeing continuous, tropical forest for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see…This place has been named a World Heritage Site for a reason! Not only did we see some rare and endemic birds, but we also saw a collared peccary, Central American spider monkey, 2-3 troops of Mexican black howler monkeys, a Greater Sac-winged bat, and several variegated squirrels. What a perfect place to bird! Remember to pack some water when you visit the ruins site (you can buy water at the campground near the beginning of the Calakmul road, 7 km south of the highway from Xpujil).
We birded the road toward the ruins on the morning of the 3rd and 4th, and Ocellated Turkeys were essentially “dirt-birds.” It seems they appreciate the open spaces that roads provide in order to perform their courtship displays. They were very densely packed and fairly evenly distributed along the road, and males were always bustling away from the middle of the road as we drove toward the ruins. Before we arrived at Calakmul, we were hoping to see Great Curassow nearly more than any other species, so we were very excited when we noticed a female along the side of the road. The car scared her, she flew up to a large branch in a nearby tree, and after a few seconds of admiring her as best we could through a tangle of branches, she flew off and disappeared into the forest. Please note that the curassows seemed easily disturbed, so be mindful of this for the health of the local population as well as for the luck of future birders. Although we got a decent look at the species, it was not fantastic. While birding the small trail that encircles an (apparently) ephemeral marsh-depression (7 km past the giant entrance portal to Calakmul), Chris saw a male Great Curassow. I unfortunately was birding a different part of the trail and was very disappointed to have missed such a great opportunity. However, we returned to the trail the next morning (the 4th) and saw a pair of Great Curassows in the same area. I heard the male booming his low-frequency call, and we stopped and watched him call and strut. Beautiful looks! And the female was just ahead nearby, providing a fleeting but beautiful sight! There is a small trail a kilometer or few past the trail with the curassows; it is just a few hundred meters long and ends at a great pond where we saw peccary tracks. We got fantastic looks at Boat-billed Heron, Collared Forest-falcon and American Pygmy Kingfisher here!
Along the road at Calakmul, the abundance and diversity was amazing. We got a poor but sufficient look at Yellow-lored (Yucatan) Parrot, and we once again got great looks at Yucatan Jay, Black Catbird, Yucatan Flycatcher, Gray-throated Chat, and Rose-throated Tanager. Some other beautiful species at Calakmul included Turquoise-browed Motmot, Keel-billed Toucan, and Collared Aracari. And the ruins were out of this world. One of the coolest sites I have ever seen. We could have spent a few more days at Calakmul for sure, but we had more Yucatan endemics to find! We left for a long drive to Valladolid at around 11 a.m. Once we arrived there, we checked in at the slightly expensive (for Mexico), but very comfortable, El Meson del Marques. This hotel has a pool and excellent dining, and it is very close to the highway to Ria Lagartos.
5 APRIL - Road along San Salvador Ranch; Rio Lagartos Boat Tour
We left 2-3 hours before sunrise from Valladolid for the north coast, with our targets set on Yucatan Wren, Black-throated Bobwhite, Mexican Sheartail, Lesser Roadrunner, and American Flamingo. Although we did not pick up Lesser Roadrunner, we did manage the rest, as well as some other new shrubland and grassland birds! In the morning, we saw a covey of Black-throated (Yucatan) Bobwhite within a half-hour of arrival. The covey included two males and two females. The bobwhites were great models, basking in the morning light for several minutes, just a few meters from us. We found them meandering along a driveway entrance on the road to Las Colorados, a few kilometers before we took the dirt-road turnoff for the San Salvador Ranch protected area (there is a noticeable sign at the entrance with wildlife photos and text in Spanish). Here, we saw several Mexican Sheartails as well as the only other birders that we saw on our entire trip! They had two guides chauffeuring them along the road (courtesy of Elmer, see below). These folks had managed to find Yucatan Wren in the early morning, just west of the turnoff for San Salvador Ranch road. We were in a frustrated desperation once the afternoon arrived, having yet to see this distinctive species. However, when we returned to the area in the late afternoon, we managed to see a small group of Yucatan Wrens after about an hour of effort. The species is listed as near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), making it that much more special to see these birds. Just after seeing the Yucatan Wrens, I was nearly run over by a bullying truck full of yelping locals in the back. However, it would not have been a bad time to hit the bucket, being on such a high note! Other than this encounter, we generally found the peoples of the Yucatan to be friendly and welcoming, so don’t worry. Other notable species along this road included White-tailed Hawk, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Painted Bunting (see Table 5 for full list of species). We also saw a few black (spiny-tailed) iguanas, white-nosed coati (a strikingly blond race of this species, too), gray fox, and a long, black snake with a yellow belly.
Between birding visits to San Salvador Ranch, we blew 500 pesos on a 2.5-hour boat tour of the mangroves and estuaries off Rio Lagartos. It was definitely worth it. Ask for Elmer once you get into town, or contact him at email@example.com. He was a very informative and congenial guy, and he definitely knows his birds. Our boat arrived within 30 meters of a Common Black Hawk, but the bird did not seem scared at all. This behavior made sense after our guide threw the hawk a fish. In this manner, we also got excellent looks at Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and Boat-billed Heron. At least the raptors and wading birds may offset any stress from the boat traffic with some extra energy. We saw more than a hundred gorgeous American Flamingos, one of my favorite species of the trip, with seven juvenile birds mixed in with the colony as well. Toward the end of the tour, we had a fantastic surprise when we happened upon a Gray-necked Wood-Rail skulking along a narrow offshoot of the main river. We also saw two crocodiles on this boat trip. See Table 6 for a full list of species seen. After having finally seen Yucatan Wren on our second visit to San Salvador Ranch (see above), we decided to head to Cobá for the night.
6 APRIL - Cobá (morning)
We birded the lake at Cobá in the morning. There is now development within 300 m on all sides of the lake, and from ours and others’ experiences, it appears that the Spotted Rail population may have been consequently extirpated. Although we did not find Ruddy Crake, we did manage to see the only Amazon and Ringed Kingfishers of the trip. After a half-hour at the lake, we moved onto the trails around the ruins. The ruins were neat, but I recommend visiting Cobá before Calakmul (if at all), as the enormous ruins of Calakmul made those at Cobá seem like a pile of pebbles. However, we did pick up a few interesting species at Cobá, including Crane Hawk, Black-cowled Oriole, and Yellow-billed Cacique. Chris also had a scorpion hanging out beneath his pants at our hotel (an otherwise decent joint, the Hotel Sac-be). Despite its lackluster, Cobá served as a good stopover point on our way to Cozumel Island.
6,7 APRIL - Cozumel Island
In the afternoon, we departed for Playa del Carmen. On the way, a police officer stopped us in a speed-trap (beware, especially on the highways between the more frequented tourist destinations!), but we bribed him for 40 USD and went on our way. We parked our car (150 pesos per day) at Playa del Carmen (just follow the signs for Cozumel Island and ask someone where you can park once you hit a dead-end). Then, we took the ferry to Cozumel Island, enjoying a beer and some generally cheesy Latin American music on the way over. We did some extremely fast-paced birding, as we had only the afternoon and a couple of hours during the next morning to see the Cozumel endemics. Although we dipped on Cozumel Emerald and some of the Cozumel subspecies, I am glad we did not spend much more time on this insane island!
We (rather, Chris, since I am an awful driver) navigated the island in a scarlet VW Bug convertible (there are plenty of rental agencies on the island, and several representatives will approach you as soon as you set foot off of the ferry). It looked like a fun little car until we realized that it was at least twenty years old and had a bum clutch. Anyway, it made for an exciting ride! Once we got the car and dropped our bags at the hotel, we birded the dirt road that leads to the ruins on the east-central part of the island (off of the only East-West highway along the island). Although we only had 45 minutes before the gate closed, we got excellent looks at Cozumel Vireo, Golden Warbler, Yucatan Vireo, and the Cozumel subspecies of Bananaquit (the latter two seemed especially common on the island). We drove south along the east coast of the island (with beautiful a view of the crashing, aquamarine ocean on one side and extensive mangrove forest on the other), passed the southern tip, and drove to El Cedral. We did not see anything noteworthy here, but the gardens around local houses may be a good place to look for Cozumel Emerald (although we had no such luck here during the following morning…the only noteworthy birds being another Golden Warbler and Yellow-faced Grassquit subspecies). We returned to the main coastal highway and soon pulled off at a random and short dirt road leading to a housing development. We hit a small jackpot with excellent looks at a pair of Cozumel Vireos as well as Cozumel Wren. As the sun began to set, we decided to return to our hotel. While taking a dip, we noticed a Black Catbird and a pair of Gray Catbirds among the poolside shrubbery...right in the middle of the city!
The next morning, we started before dawn at the abandoned housing development (mentioned in Howell birdwatching guide) in a successful attempt to see Yucatan Nightjar! Later at this development, we also saw Black Catbirds, Yucatan Vireos, and Bananaquits. We were hoping to catch Cozumel Emerald that morning around the perimeter of the Botanical Gardens, but we had to settle for White-crowned Pigeon and Green-breasted Mango. At 9 a.m., we returned to our hotel, packed our bags, showered, caught the next ferry to Playa del Carmen, drove to Cancun, and flew back home.
What an awesome trip! Now go see some birds!
Thicket Tinamou (H)
Black-throated Bobwhite (Yucatan Bobwhite)
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Yellow-lored Parrot (Yucatan Parrot)
Squirrel Cuckoo (Middle America)
Vermiculated Screech-owl (H)
Yucatan Poorwill (H)
Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Yucatan)
American Pygmy Kingfisher
Golden-fronted Woodpecker (East Mexico)
Northern Barred Woodcreeper
Barred Antshrike (H)
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Ridgway's)
Carolina Wren (White-browed)
House Wren (Cozumel I.)
Black-throated Green Warbler
Yellow Warbler (Golden)
Bananaquit (Cozumel I.)
Scrub Euphonia (Scrub)