Dawn at the long stay airport car park, East Grinstead, finds four suspicious-looking characters inspecting the fine array of moths gathered around the floodlights. Oak Beauty is a "moth tick" for some! This must be a good omen for the impending trip? Graham Finch, Martin Kennewell, Ian Merrill and Richard Fray board the courtesy bus in high spirits.
An uneventful transatlantic flight with American Airlines is relieved by stunning views of an icy Greenland, far below. A pure white ice-shelf abruptly gives way to the deep, cold, blue of the North Atlantic. Inland the snow-covered landscape alternates between rugged peaks and long, straight fjords. It's difficult to figure how a flight from Gatwick to Texas can possibly reach such high, frozen, latitudes.
Dallas, Fort Worth Airport provides an opportunity to allay the Deep-vein Thrombosis and also opens up the bird list. Migrant Swainson's Hawks are mobbed by their Red-tailed cousins over the terminal building whilst American Crows and Mourning Doves feed in the car park. Heads pressed to the tinted glass of the departure lounge, gesticulating wildly, we are branded as nutters for the first of many times!
Shortly before midnight, and with eyes on stalks, we drop out of the car and into a very respectable motel at Felipe Carrillo Puerto (often abbreviated to FCP). Our first horizontal sleeping position for twenty-four hours is gratefully received, but the alarm has been set for an early start.
Friday 5th April
First light sees us bumping down the rough dirt road east towards Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. The route takes us through alternating blocks of plantation and cleared land, but with large stands of tropical semi-deciduous forest remaining.
We pile out of the car at a productive-looking spot, with a selection of Yucatan specialities top of the wanted list. Mangrove Vireo, Northern Bentbill, White-fronted Parrot and Yucatan Woodpecker are the highlights of the flurry of activity that inevitably accompanies the first hours in a new country. We are delighted to find that a full complement of wintering American wood warblers are still present, and all are in pristine breeding plumage. The dazzling hues of Magnolia, Black-throated Green, Yellow and Hooded Warblers decorate the foliage.
Ticks continue to materialise throughout an extremely productive morning. Black Catbird, Collared Aracaris, and Aztec Parakeet. Orange and Black-cowled Orioles are as stunningly colourful as Yucatan Flycatcher is difficult to identify! A male Rose-throated Becard is ahead in the "best-looker" stakes until we find a flock of Yucatan Jays. These stunners, with jet-black and bright-blue plumage forage the canopy in active, highly vocal groups.
During the intense heat of mid day we return to FCP town to recharge our batteries. Cold drinks, petrol for the car, and a bank for some Pesos. FCP is a lively little market town with smiling, friendly, inhabitants. Preconceptions of hostility are allayed and we enjoy an exploration of the colours and smells of the local fruit and vegetable market. Fruit identification proves almost as difficult as that of Empidonax flycatchers!
Not wanting to waste valuable birding time we return to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve road in the heat of mid-afternoon. The combined effects of changing time zones and the intense heat leaves everyone totally drained of energy. Birding is predictably hard work in the high temperatures, but Rufous-browed Spinetail and Wedge-tailed Sabrewing keep up the spirits.
Entry onto the reserve is notoriously difficult to negotiate, so we restrict our activities to the entrance road. Soon after we commence our return journey a small mammal is spotted on the track ahead. A White-nosed Coati is crossing, waving it's long stripy tail in lemur fashion. Then another. And another. To our disbelief a group of at least forty individuals is counted, and filmed, scampering across the track.
A final daylight stop produces White-bellied Emerald, Yucatan Parrot and the first of many mosquito attacks. The journey has been planned to allow time to look for nightbirds en route and we are not disappointed. Lesser Nighthawks perform a twilight flypast before Common Pauraque and Mottled Owl commence an evening duet. Although the latter species remain concealed, a pair of superb Yucatan Poorwills are happy to sit on the track, illuminated by the car headlights.
We complete the last few kilometres in a contented fashion, happy with our day's work, and mentally studying the restaurant menu. One last surprise awaits us, however. Graham hits the brakes and we all pile out to study a rather bemused, six-inch long, deathly-black scorpion at point blank range. What a finale!
Back at the hotel room and the video-boys provide action-replays of the day's highlights. This has to be the way forward in trip photography. We end the day with our first taste of superbly authentic Mexican cuisine. Enchiladas, salsa and refried beans, washed down with a bottle or two of Sol. Perfect.
Saturday 6th April
Déjà vu. Another dawn at the Sian Ka'an road, this time exploring a trail into a patch of undisturbed forest. A change of venue produces some different birds in the form of Red-throated Ant-Tanager and the endemic Green-backed Sparrow, a forest-floor skulker. A Turquoise-browed Motmot provides an explosion of vivid blues, while Yellow-winged Cacique and Rose-throated Tanager are more subtle but non-the-less welcome additions to the list.
A recording of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is recognised as a useful weapon for attracting small passerines in many parts of Mexico. The smaller birds approach the call of their arch-predator, intent on mobbing the owl. So GF's brand new mini-disk player sits on the track, very successfully churning out owl calls. And one minute it is playing, the next it is silent, with a large footprint across it! A brief inquest fails to identify the culprit, and we are without our secret weapon. It's back to the laborious shuffling of cassette tapes, then!
We have a stroke of luck as we leave the forest and bump into possibly the only two Mexican birders in the state. They sort us out on a few tricky identification matters, most notably that of Yucatan Flycatcher. With a long drive ahead we are forced to quit the birding early and head back to FCP. Bags are packed and a new stock of provisions purchased from the market before we crank up the air-con and head south for Palenque.
Thankfully we find the roads to be in much better condition than expected and progress is rapid along the straight, traffic-free expanses of tarmac. The whole of the Yucatan Peninsular, as far as Chetumal, appears to be table-flat and surprisingly forested. Low, dry, dense woodland extends to the edge of the carriageway and occasional mystery fly-over birds have to go unidentified as we make a concerted effort to put some miles under the belt.
A sharp turn to the west at Chetumal marks an abrupt change in scenery, as the topography takes on a more undulating appearance, with an occasional limestone outcrop jutting above the trees. What remains of the forest is now taller in nature, but large areas have been cleared and turned over to extensive sugar cane plantations.
Our journey takes us through numerous small villages, consisting of random groups of tiny whitewashed concrete houses with corrugated iron roofs or simple thatched timber shacks. It is obviously a very poor region, but we are still greeted with a smile and a handshake wherever we stop for a break.
Just as mid-day hunger sets in we come across a likely picnic spot in the form of Largo Siluitac. Whilst enjoying our home-made salad and mayo cobs we are treated to a bewildering array of birds around gardens sloping to the water's edge. Cinnamon Hummingbird, Yellow-winged Tanager, Kentucky Warbler and Grey Catbird feed in the scrub while Common Yellowthroat, Northern Waterthrush and Red-winged Blackbird frequent the lake margins. A wide belt around the perimeter of the lake is carpeted with huge water lilies on which throngs of Northern Jacanas nimbly trot. We set out on the next leg of the journey with full stomachs and notebooks.
As we enter the flood plain of the Rio Usumacinta the topography changes again, this time to a flat savannah landscape with pockets of marshland, much like the Llanos of Venezuela. Waterbirds come to the fore as numerous egrets, herons and Limpkins feed in roadside pools. A side road into the marshes takes us past a tree containing a family of Black Howler Monkeys enjoying their siesta. They drape themselves across boughs and stare down nonchalantly as the video cameras roll. Other highlights include spectacularly marked Bare-throated Tiger Herons, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat and our only pair of Double-striped Thicknees. Superb Fork-tailed Flycatchers and dazzling crimson male Vermilion Flycatchers adorn fence posts. We see out the day at some lakes close to the village of Playa Largo, adding Wood Stork, Ringed Kingfisher and Grey-necked Wood Rail to the list, together with Pauraque as dusk falls. As we drive back to the main road the treetops glow Christmas tree-like, to the light of hundreds of fireflies.
It's only a short drive to the town of Palenque, which we find to be very commercialised, obviously fuelled by visitors to the nearby Mayan ruin site. Our hotel, the cheapest we can find, is overpriced and smelly! Fortunately we don't savour it for long before finding a restaurant in which to celebrate Rich's Birthday with a very good Mexican "stew" and a beer.
Sunday 7th April
The Mayan ruins at Palenque are recognised as some of the finest examples of surviving architecture of the era. This is our next birding destination, as the national park protecting the site also keeps a small tract of lowland rainforest intact. At first light we walk the park entrance road, as the gates do not open until 08.00. First bird of the day is a Bat Falcon that rockets along the road at head height and passes so close that the air rushing over its wings is clearly audible. The unmistakable chiming gurgles of Montezuma Oropendulas start the dawn chorus and soon these giant icterids can be seen gliding over the treetops.
Birding is surprisingly slow in the lush tropical forest at the roadside, but the list steadily grows with the addition of Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Violaceous Trogon and Thick-billed Seedfinch. Highlight is our first sight of a huge Keel-billed Toucan with bight yellow breast and an oversized, multi-coloured bill.
We find a track into the forest further along the entrance road and things begin to liven up as we make our way through the undisturbed undergrowth. Crimson-collared Tanager, Chestnut-coloured and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and Spotted Wren all appear in the dull green light of the forest interior. An unmistakable Royal Flycatcher is an excellent find and a great source of relief in this land of impossible-to-identify flycatchers!
Further on, the track reaches the forest edge and follows a line of spectacular flowering trees whose branches are festooned with clusters of bright orange flowers and hordes of attendant hummingbirds, including Long-tailed Hermit and Violet Sabrewing. A confiding Louisiana Waterthrush struts through a forest stream on bubblegum-pink legs and our first Rufous-capped Warbler skulks through some nearby scrub.
In 1773 Mayan hunters told a Spanish priest of great stone palaces hidden in the jungle of what is now Northern Chiapas State. Various expeditions were made, braving the malaria that was prolific in the region, and though the presence of the pyramids was documented at the time no real progress was made to unlock the site's secrets. It was as recently as 1837 that the first scientific study was made of the site, by an amateur archaeologist from New York, named John Stevens. The Mayan ruins at Palenque were found to date back to the seventh century AD and the 500 buildings that made up the city covered an area of 15 sq. km, though only a small proportion of the site has been excavated.
The brilliantly preserved ruins stretch along a valley, with the pyramid-like Temple de las Inscripciones towering high into the clear blue sky and dominating the site. The dense jungle, which clings to the steep hillside, provides a fantastic backdrop to the site and adds to the mystical feel. The huge grey stone edifices are cloaked in the ferns and lichens of 2000 years of neglect, yet some of the carvings and Mayan hieroglyphs are still discernible. It is a truly awe-inspiring sight and even more imposing when one pictures it as it would have been at the peak of Palenque's power; painted bright red.
It is somehow fitting that the first bird we see is a stunning adult White Hawk soaring above the ancient stone peaks of the temples. It's pure white plumage with delicate black dots to primary tips give it an unearthly feel in this setting, and one can only wonder what the Mayans must have made of this sight 2000 years earlier? Back down to Earth and into the forest, we find a nesting White-necked Jacobin and Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. More wood warblers feed in the trees around the ruins, the certain highlight being a stunning male Chestnut-sided Warbler.
Late PM and we take another walk down our forest trail finding more success, this time in the form of a family party of White-breasted Wood-Wrens working their way through the understorey and then a huge Ivory-billed Woodcreeper high in the canopy.
Throughout the day the resident park guards have taken interest in our ornithological activities and just before dark one of the guards walks over to us with something in his cupped hands. We are amazed to see an adult Blue-crowned Motmot, which has apparently been hit by a car and handed to the guards. In the hand the bird is incredible, with huge bill and stunning iridescent blue plumage. When we show the guards the bird's illustration in our field guide they are highly amused by it's name and wander around repeating "Mot-mot, mot-mot" with great hilarity! After becoming a video-film star the bird suddenly perks up and flies up into the nearest tree in a thankfully happy ending to the saga.
The forests around Palenque allegedly hold a good variety of nightbirds, so the tape recorder and Maglites are produced as darkness descends. A Black-and white Owl calls, but shows no interest in a recording of its voice. A Kinkajou is much more obliging and this large, ginger, arboreal mustolid sits obediently in the spotlit branches of a tall tree.
In response to another burst of tape playback a Vermiculated Screech-Owl calls from the nearby campsite. We gradually close in on our quarry, volume of call increasing in proportion to our pulse rate. Finally we catch sight of the source of the calling: a swimming pool full of very large toads! Rather embarrassed we decide to sack the nightbirding and retire to Palenque town for a few beers.
Monday 8th April
Another dawn start at the mist-shrouded forest of Palenque. This morning it seems much more humid and sweat drips from our noses as we quietly pick our way through the leaf littered forest trail. This morning's stars include Blue-winged Warbler, Golden-hooded Tanager and Red-capped Manakin.
Another tour of the ruins, avoiding the weekend crowds, sees an impressive movement of migrant raptors overhead. Mississippi Kites, in tight flocks of up to eighty birds, wheel in the early morning thermals. Smaller numbers of Broad-winged Hawks pass over, but the aerial star is a huge Black Hawk-Eagle. Graham's Spanish is tested to the limit as he manages to smooth-talk a guard into letting us walk along a forest trail beyond the park boundary. The effort is worth our while, however and we add Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Grey-headed Dove, Little Hermit and Bright-rumped Attila to the list.
Another long drive looms large, so we collect our things from the shabby hotel and leave the overpriced tourist trap of Palenque town with little lament. We really must try to get hold of a map! The route south to San Cristobal de las Casas passes through the largely deforested hills of northern Chiapas and the road lies as a relentless series of snaking bends. Small blocks of virgin forest alternate with large areas cleared for agriculture and the ever-changing outlook makes for an interesting journey.
To the south of Ocosingo the sky blackens and it seems like we are going to be in for our first taste of Mexican rain. A torrential tropical downpour commences, as we continue to wind our way along the mountain roads. Windscreen wipers do double-time and the roadside gullies run like mini rivers. We cross a ridge and, to our amazement, the next valley appears to be snow covered. Surely not, we are in the tropics after all? When we reach the spot we find, to our disbelief, that the ground is covered with up to four inches of hail. The warm ground is immediately enveloped in a low shroud of mist, creating an extraordinary panorama in what should be a hot afternoon in tropical Mexico.
We cross an invisible boundary and the forest becomes dominated by pine trees, in a region that would now be strictly described as the 'Pacific Slope'. When we finally pull up at a likely looking spot, off the Ocosingo Road some twenty kilometres or so short of San Cristobal, we only have around an hour of daylight left. The change in the avifauna is dramatic. Yellow-eyed Junco and Chestnut-collared Thrush are now amongst the commonest species.
A small bird is glimpsed flitting through some low pine branches. A cry of "Pink-headed Warbler!" shatters the tranquil silence. Pink-headed Warbler is a highly threatened bird and a major target for the trip. It is not only very rare, but is also very attractive with a raspberry-red body and frosted-pink head. Spotted Towhee, White-naped Brushfinch and Lincoln's Sparrow round off an exciting hour and we set off to San Cristobal to track down a hotel.
Tuesday 9th April
It's a wonderful bright, clear morning as we again enter the montane pine and oak forest beside the Ocasingo Road. We're at an altitude of 2300 metres and the air is decidedly cold. It is quite noticeable that bird activity is slow for the first hour in the chilly air, with just Hermit and Chestnut-collared Thrushes to show for our efforts. The first target bird to be located is a stunning Blue-throated Motmot which is happy to sit on an exposed branch and show off it's flamboyant blue and green plumage to full effect.
This really is a great birding location. Cool, fresh, pine-scented mountain air and a deep blue, cloudless, sky. The trees are laden with colourful epiphytes and lichen and an occasional oak stands amongst the glades of towering pines. As soon as the sun has gained enough height to warm the air the trees seem to come alive with wood warblers, as small flocks work their way through the foliage.
It is immediately apparent that the Pacific Slope woodlands are inhabited by a different set of Nearctic winterers than those further north. Townsend's and Hermit Warblers replace the Magnolia Warblers and American Redstarts that predominated at the previous sites visited. Most flocks contain stunning Olive Warblers, while Crescent-chested Warbler proves to be relatively common and it's buzzing song is a regular sound amongst the pines. The real prizes are Red-faced and Golden-cheeked Warblers, both dazzling as they dart about the pine needles. Birding here really is reminiscent of a tour through one's favourite pages of "New World Warblers"!
White-eared, Garnet-throated and Magnificent Hummingbirds glimmer in the sunlight and even the empids are obliging in these parts, as a Pine Flycatcher calls repeatedly to confirm its identity! Our first Band-backed Wrens forage in the epiphytes and a male Mountain Trogon is just as magnificent as any other member of this family. Not to mention White-naped Brushfinch, Grey Silky-Flycatcher, Black-hooded Grosbeak and Tufted Flycatcher. This really is quite a site!
Our picnic lunch is unfurled on the car bonnet; the familiar scenario of fresh market-bought salad with mayonnaise in crusty bread. After a short lesson from Mr Finch we class ourselves as proficient in the highly skilled art of peeling a fresh mango! The perfect way to round off an outstanding morning's birding. An early afternoon walk down a track leads to a cliff face, which has nesting White-collared and White-throated Swifts as well as the localised, endemic Black-capped Swallow.
A short drive back to the west, and through San Cristobal town, takes us to Cerro Huitapec Reserve. The reserve centre is deserted upon our arrival and we have to make a stealthy entry via an alternative entrance used by the local goatherds. The habitat is very different from the morning's site, with the dry woodland being exclusively broad-leafed and much less "birdy" than our earlier destination. Slate-throated Redstart, Canada, McGillivray's and Golden-browed are new additions to our rapidly expanding warbler list. Highlight of the visit is a pair of exquisitely marked Singing Quail, found picking through the forest leaf-litter. This endemic gamebird has a wonderful call and its descending torrent of jumbled notes is an often-heard sound in the forest. Hammond's and Yellowish Flycatchers and a very smart Guatemalan Flicker complete our visit.
Wednesday 10th April
Las Grutas, a tourist attraction centred on some caves to the east of San Cristobal, contains similar habitat to the Ocasingo Road. Our early morning walk up through the pines produces similar birds but with the addition of the endemic Unicolored Jay and Rufous-browed Wren, the latter responding obligingly to tape playback.
By mid morning we exhaust the birding and set off south east on the next leg of the tour. Our destination is Parque National Lagunas de Montebello, an area of remnant cloud forest on the Guatemalan border. According to Steve Howell's site guide, with which we have essentially planned our trip, the area is home to a long list of highly specialised birds.
Much of the land to the east of San Cristobal is intensively developed for agriculture, with any remaining hillside patches of forest highly degraded. Villages, through which we pass, consist of long straight roads lined with rows of low shops and houses. They are colourful places, full of character, with ridged terracotta tiled roofs and walls of either clean whitewash or bright pastel colours. We stop for provisions at La Trinitaria and find a bustling, traditional town with clean streets and a huge square thronged with people. A lovely whitewashed Catholic Church dominates the scene. One of the preoccupations of the Spanish, during their 300 years of rule, was to replace pagan temples with Christian churches and Mexico's many fine mansions, monasteries and churches are a legacy of this era.
Good roads allow us to reach Parque National Lagunas de Montebello rapidly and we are looking for our birding site by late afternoon. Unfortunately we are very disappointed by the extremely degraded habitat and struggle to find any virgin forest whatsoever. The "scenic lakes set amid attractive pine-evergreen forest" are singularly unimpressive bodies of water surrounded by bare hillsides and dying trees. Eventually we find a fairly decent trail close to Laguna de Montebello and set off into the forest. Birding proves to be extremely hard work and our only reward for donating blood to five million fierce mosquitoes is Grey-collared Becard, Barred Parakeet and a distant Swallow-tailed Kite.
Somewhat disillusioned we drive the short distance to Tziscao to find accommodation. The town has a huge choice of two hotels, one of which looks barely habitable. Fortunately we really drop on with the other option. Situated on the shore of Laguna Tziscao, the hotel lights prove to be a great attraction to moths and as the evening darkens we are amazed at the number of spectacular species drawn to the walls. We set up our actinic tube (to attract more moths) and white sheet on the car bonnet. Even the hotel staff search for moths and bring them to us to photograph! It's an amazing night and serves to take our mind off the lack of birds.
Thursday 11th April
We're back on our chosen trail at first light. Surely early morning birding must be more productive? Alas no. We walk a long way, get severely bitten and have very little to show for it. Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Green-throated Mountain Gem, Brown-backed Solitaire and Yellow-backed Oriole are all new birds but the real stars continue to elude us.
We return to the hotel and convene an emergency committee meeting. After some debate and juggling with our itinerary we decide to cut short our visit to The Lagunas and are heading back west before mid-day. West of San Cristobal the road climbs steeply into the hills in a series of tortuous twists and turns. Combined with torrential rain and low cloud it makes for a rather strenuous journey and we finally arrive at Tuxtla Gutterrez late in the afternoon. Tuxtla is a huge city, which sprawls across a hot valley bottom. Our destination is El Sumidero Canyon, north of the city, and we inevitably find ourselves lost in the suburbs before too long. Thankfully Mr Finch performs his usual role of translator and a friendly local soon has us travelling in the right direction.
We finally arrive at the park entrance gates at 16.10 - to be told that they were locked at 16.00. Cue our translator and public relations representative once more! The staff are less than interested in our plight at first. We restrain Martin, not renowned for his diplomatic skills, and Graham soon has them feeding from his hand (with the help of a 100 Peso bribe). The gates are opened and we are away, faithfully promising to be back at 18.30.
The road winds steeply up through low thorn-scrub woodland, offering a panoramic view over the valley bottom and its sprawling carpet of concrete and tarmacadam. One of the first birds we see is a spectacular White-throated Magpie-Jay complete with long, forward curling crest. At a suitable spot we park up and check out the roadside scrub. Birding is hard work in the low, dense woodland but then we're used to working hard for our birds after the previous couple of days! Eventually we prise out a new bird or two, in the form of Rusty and Olive Sparrows and Red-billed Pigeon.
On our return trip we pull into one of the viewpoints or miradors. El Sumadero Gorge is a popular tourist attraction and it isn't difficult to see why. The scrubby woodland stops abruptly and gives way to vertical orange sandstone cliffs which plunge hundreds of feet to the mighty river far below. The scale of the vista is immense, like a mini Grand Canyon, and soaring Black Vultures appear as tiny dots far below.
Friday 12th April
We're at El Sumadero park gates by 06.00 and are waved straight through by our new friends. We follow the road further up the hillside this time, into taller oak-dominated woodland. This is a good move and the first few hours bring a flurry of good birds. Yellow Grosbeak, Blue Bunting, and an excellent Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush. Further up the road we discover a huge tree hung with garlands of bright orange flowers which is absolutely alive with birds. Bar-winged, Black-vented and Northern Orioles vie with Green Jays for nectar. Tennessee Warblers and Swainson's Thrushes all show orange, pollen-stained chins whilst a stunning male Blackburnian Warbler has no need for bright orange make-up!
Our next destination is Tuxtla Zoo located, inevitably, on the opposite side of the city. We must be honing our navigational skills, as we hardly get lost at all during our trek across town. Having found the zoo with flying colours we are bitterly disappointed to be told that the whole complex is closed for a whole year so that major refurbishment works can be carried out. We're not that easily deterred, though, and skirt our way around the compound looking for another option. With a great stroke of luck we bump into a member of the zoo's staff, who miraculously speaks fluent English, searching for crickets to feed the captive spiders. She, in turn, fetches the ZOOMAT's public relations officer, Lulu Cardenas. Lulu speaks perfect English and is keen to give us a personal guided tour of the zoo!
The ZOOMAT is a fine example of how a zoo should operate. The compound encompasses a large area of natural forest, with individual enclosures simply built amongst the natural vegetation. All animals and birds housed within its confines are native of the state of Chiapas and there is a heavy emphasis on conservation and education. We are not, however, here to admire the exhibits. The excellent habitat, good supplies of food, and protection from hunting have meant that many wild birds find the surroundings to their liking. The constant human contact has also led to many becoming incredibly tame and approachable.
Lulu shows us around the many interesting exhibits, such as Jaguar and its diminutive relative the Jaguarundi. Although her commentary is very well presented it is tricky to maintain our attention as Plain Chachalacas, normally shy and elusive inhabitants of the treetops, allow our approach to within inches! Black Agoutis are common and hop through the leaf litter like giant, long-legged guineapigs. We turn a corner and find a huge female Great Currasow sitting right beside the track. She stands up and reveals two small young that join her in looking for titbits on the forest floor. A huge black-and-white male Great Curassow materialises on the track before us. This amazing creature, with a bizarre frilly crest and swollen, yellow, bill-base is a very difficult bird to find in the open forest. Standing beside one is unheard-of! The male proceeds to feed the female in an act of courtship before catapulting himself ten feet into the air in a gurgling climax to his display.
Later a family of Crested Guans proves to be similarly obliging, while other new species encountered include Streak-backed Oriole and Banded Wren. The endemic Russet-crowned Motmot is relatively numerous in the ZOOMAT. These stunningly bright blue and green birds, with deep russet heads, are regularly encountered swinging their paddle-shaped tails from side to side, in pendulum fashion, as they perch.
It really is a personal tour and we have the site to ourselves throughout our two-hour visit. We thank Lulu warmly for her services and make a donation to the ZOOMAT before setting off across Tuxtla town in the direction of El Sumadero Canyon. At one set of traffic lights a young man runs out in front of the waiting cars with a large carrier bag. He proceeds to empty a pile of broken glass from the bag, roll in it bare-chested, and then thrust a long metal needle up each nostril. This really makes the busking of Covent Garden look tame!
El Sumadero comes up trumps again and we pull in another bag full of new birds. The endemic Nutting's Flycatcher and Ridgeway's Roughwing are found around the lower scrubby slopes. Higher up a torrential storm halts the birding but this soon subsides and certainly has the effect of stirring up activity. A large flock encountered at the roadside includes Blue-and-white Mockingbird and a pair of Fan-tailed Warblers. Another highly productive day is capped off with another excellent Mexican meal in Tuxtla.
Saturday 13th April
A final early morning back at El Sumadero. We still keep adding to our list, this time in the form of Plain Wren and Berylline Hummingbird. Our fieldguide describes the display call of Highland Guan as "a bizarre crashing tree sound". As we stand at the roadside, scanning our favourite flowering tree, a bizarre crashing tree noise resounds across the valley. We all instinctively spin round to see a huge, black Highland Guan swoop along the road! This is a very scarce bird, much reduced by hunting, and a great bonus at this site.
On our descent back through the thorn-scrub woodland we stop for a final attempt at Lesser Ground Cuckoo, which reputedly occurs here. The tape is played and one, possibly two, distant responses are heard. Slowly the calling approaches but the dense, tangled undergrowth makes pinning down its source a very tricky task. "I've got it!" A Lesser Ground Cuckoo is located preening quietly in a small clearing. This terrestrial skulker is notoriously difficult to locate and we soak up its subtle brown and rufous tones, with contrasting black, yellow and turquoise face pattern. An excellent bird to crown our visit to this excellent site.
The next leg of our journey, south towards the Pacific Coast, first takes us through downtown Tuxtla. Although we have been made very welcome during our stay, it is apparent that the town has a more iniquitous side. Many shops serve their customers through letterbox-like slits in heavily barred frontages. Guards toting flack jackets and Armalites, in a scene that hints at the town's lawless undertones, protect banks and up-market shops. We hastily head for the countryside.
The winding road south passes through dry, rolling hills with patches of sparse, thorny forest. We stop at a suitable lay-by for our now-customary salad and mayonnaise cobs, set the now-customary tape of Ferruginous Pygmy Owl running and immediately get a tick. Yellow-green Vireo, very nice with fresh mango, too!
Our first official birding stop is made mid-afternoon, on the flat coastal plain close to Puerto Arista. An area of riverside scrub bordering cultivated fields proves surprisingly productive, with Stripe-headed Sparrow, Mangrove Swallow, Pacific Parakeet and White-tailed Kite all being seen in the scorching heat. Another surprise is a flock of the highly distinctive Pacific Slope race of Northern Bobwhite, flushed from the grass. Surely a future split, the black-and-chestnut males bear no resemblance to their northern cousins.
Surprisingly, the totally man-made scene of fenced cattle pasture and orchards around Cabeza del Toro is the preferred habitat of Giant Wren. This endemic has a minute range and is high on our "wanted list". We make a few stops in the unlikely looking setting and play our tape. It's third time lucky and the distinctive shape of a Giant Wren is spotted in a distant tree. Another blast on the cassette and the wren performs a song flight bringing it into the very bush under which we are standing! It's a real stunner, the size of a large thrush, with rich rufous upperparts, white throat, sandy flanks and a bold white supercillium. Certainly a contender for "bird of the trip".
The coastal plain is alive with birds and it is apparent that there has been a large fall of migrants. In one particular paddock every bush and fence post sports either a Western Kingbird or a magnificent Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. A small fruiting bush holds no less than six Rose-throated Becards and a pair of Rufous-naped Wrens. It's difficult to drag ourselves away, but there's some sea to look at before dark.
The Pacific Coast fishing village of Boca del Cielo is a wonderful setting in which to spend the last hours of daylight. Palm trees, thatched huts, mangroves and golden sand. The area is again teeming with birds and we witness some unforgettable scenes of visible migration. Franklin's Gulls are streaming north in their hundreds, following the coastline. Many birds drop in to rest on the sandbanks and show their jet-black hoods, large white eyelids and beautiful pink-flushed breasts to stunning effect. Flocks of Barn Swallows and Bank Swallows number thousands, as they move north en masse, with some groups swarming through high in the sky and others skimming the sand. A lasting memory is the sight of literally hundreds of Lesser Nighthawks hunting above the lines of palm trees, set against the slate grey backdrop of an approaching electrical storm.
The supporting cast is equally impressive, with the extensive mudflats hosting numerous shorebirds. Marbled Godwit, Wilson's Plover, Willet, Royal Tern and Black Skimmer are just a few of the trip ticks added before the sun sinks as a red fireball into the Pacific Ocean.
A celebratory "cold one" and we're off west to our allotted overnight stopping point. Our route takes us through the town of Arriaga, where we have to stop at a railway crossing. We reach our destination, Tapanatepec, rather late in the evening and have to make do with a rather overpriced motel whose owner is in no mood for haggling. To add to our woes all the restaurants have finished serving and we have to make do with a beer and a bag of tortilla chips, consumed at a dusty table perched at the edge of the highway. It's a good job we're still on a high from the birding.
Sunday 14th April
Our first birding site is the Tapanatepec Foothills, just ten kilometres from the town. The dry thorn forest that covers the low, rolling hills is a unique habitat and supports some very special birds. Our first new bird is West-Mexican Chachalaca, which is easily found perching noisily on treetops close to the road. This is closely followed by a sparkling Green-fronted Hummingbird, another endemic of southern Mexico.
It is amazing how many good birds are found during visits to the "outdoor toilet". Graham scrambles off up the hillside to find a secluded spot, but before he can get on with his deed something catches his eye. "Orange-breasted Bunting!" Seconds later we are all beside him, taken aback by the dazzling colours of this amazing bird. The male has a bright blue back, grass-green crown and a golden-yellow breast with a bright orange spot in the centre. It looks bright in the field guide, but in real life we need sunglasses! We leave Graham in peace but before he can do what he has to do he's shouting us back again, this time for a White-lored Gnatcatcher.
Next bird to be found, singing from the top of a small bush, is our real target at this site. Rosita's Bunting is a very rare endemic with a tiny range. It is also a beautiful bird, the male being deep electric blue above with a contrasting rosy-pink breast and undertail. Again right up there in the "bird of the trip" stakes.
We try out our old trick with the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl tape and are yet again met with tremendous success. A Plain-capped Starthroat immediately flies in to investigate, as do the first of a host of Orange-breasted and Rosita's Buntings. A pair of Sumichrast's Sparrows are a real bonus, as this thorn forest specialist has a range almost as limited as that of Rosita's Bunting.
It was bound to happen at some point, but we are still excited to hear a real Ferruginous Pygmy Owl responding to our tape. We follow the source of the calls and after a few minutes we manage to coax it out into a viewable location. It's a fantastic little owl, with fierce yellow eyes facing forward and another pair of 'false eyes' in the feathering of its nape. We are amazed to see the number of small birds that fly in to mob it. Apart from various rare buntings, hummimgbirds are watched hovering just inches from the owl.
A Citreoline Trogon appears to see us off and we're on our way west, very satisfied with our morning's work. It's a long drive to Puerto Angel, again on a tediously winding road. In the early afternoon we have a break in a small village and enjoy half an hour at the local "Sunday League" baseball game. Baseball is an extremely popular sport in Mexico and even some tiniest of villages often have a pitch. It is all taken very seriously and it appears that most of the village has turned out to watch. The teams are turned out in immaculate strips and the standard of play is really very good.
It's late afternoon by the time we reach Puerto Angel, a small fishing port come holiday resort on the Pacific Coast of the state of Oaxaco (actually pronounced wah-haca). It's a scenic spot, with dry coastal hills sloping down to an inviting sea in an alternating series of low, rugged headlands and silver, sandy bays. Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies swoop low over the bathers in the town's sheltered harbour.
We travel a little further west along the coast, in search of our goal. Soon we are watching a rounded rocky stack, just offshore, at Playa Zipolite. It is whitewashed with guano, like a miniature Bass Rock, and though early in the breeding season it is a source of attraction for a number of seabirds. Sixty or so Brown Boobies are roosting on it's steep flanks, as well as a number of Magnificent Frigatebirds. It is, however, the exotic white forms chasing around the stack's summit which hold our attention. We count up to seventeen stunning Red-billed Tropicbirds soaring around the rock, white plumaged with subtle black markings, a bright red bill and long white tail streamers. Certainly one of the surprises of the trip and a very welcome filler of a large gap in the World List.
More Orange-breasted Buntings are feeding beside the track on our way back. They seem to be common garden birds here. Back at the coast road we find a Lesser Ground Cuckoo strolling across the tarmac, long tail cocked and in full view. It seems that no one has told this bird it is supposed to be skulking in the dense undergrowth!
At this point we have to make a decision. Do we stay for the night on the coast, where there is an ample supply of accommodation, or do we set off into the hills to the north and risk local advice that there "may be" a hotel at El Porvenir? The north wins, as it will save lots of driving time in the morning, and we set off along the constant hairpin bends of the Oaxaco Road. A flock of treetop Orange-fronted Parrots offer some relief, but it's a grueller of a drive. As dusk falls a pair of Mexican Whip-poor-wills flit over the car and we stop to listen to their distinctive calls carrying far down a cold, pine covered, valley.
We eventually reach El Porvenir to find that the "town" consists of three small houses. Not surprisingly none is a hotel. We've been had! The possibility of a night in a cold, cramped car seems strong and all is very quiet as we carry on our ascent for another hour. The next town, San Jose Pacifico, holds our only chance of a bed for the night and we are all mightily relieved when we find that it has just one hotel. A hasty supper of bread and soup is consumed and we are asleep within seconds.
Monday 15th April
First light and we are some way back down the hill near El Porvenir. The first bird we see upon getting out of the car is a Red Warbler. Possibly the most stunning of all New World warblers, this little gem is totally bright crimson-red with silvery-white ear coverts. This must be a good omen?
This is supposedly a site for White-throated Jay and we expectantly set off up the specified dirt track, happily playing our jay tape. Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush is relatively common here and a number of birds hop along the track. A fine male Black-headed Siskin sings from a treetop and a small flock of American Robins feed amongst the pines. But there are no jays to be seen.
The cool pine-oak woodland is heavily degraded by logging, with large patches of clear felled ground on some hillsides. The birdsong is accompanied by the constant whine of a chainsaw in a distant valley. Maybe the habitat in this area is not as good as it once was? We decide to cut our losses and set off back down the track jay-less. Some consolation is gained in the form of both Rufous-capped and Chestnut-capped Brushfinches, skulking in dense trackside vegetation.
We descend still further, as far as La Soledad. The trail here leaves the road and passes through tropical evergreen forest down to a coffee plantation in the valley bottom. Birding is better and we tick another three endemics Doubleday's Hummingbird, Red-headed Tanager and Blue Mockingbird. We leave the site light on some good hummingbirds, however, which are notoriously seasonal in their appearance.
The weather breaks as we set off north for Oaxaca City. The cloud base drops, it begins to rain and we are driving along the treacherous road in thick fog. But are we downhearted? Yes, we bloody are!
Eventually we begin to descend from the Sierra Miahuatlan Range and leave the cloud behind. The forest changes to arid scrub and then to agricultural land. Oaxaco, the state capital, is a large modern city and we struggle to locate any reasonably priced accommodation. A compromise is found, as is a very welcome restaurant, which serves to take our minds off what has been a relatively disappointing day.
Tuesday 16th April
You can't beat a good desert. The habit around Teotitlan del Valle, our first site, may not be true desert (actually being described as "arid temperate scrub") but it still sports some fine cacti. Just beyond the town we see White-throated Towhee, Dusky Hummingbird and Grey-breasted Woodpecker. By the time we reach good habitat the area is alive with song and the new birds come thick and fast. Blue-hooded Euphonia, Black-throated Grey Warbler and Dusky Flycatcher. A superb Ocellated Thrasher, with long decurved bill and heavily spotted breast, sings from a high bush. The trusty trip-to-the-toilet bird finding technique comes up trumps again, this time for IM with Bridled Sparrow.
The low hillside is covered in dense, dry thorn scrub from which an occasional prickly pear, tall cactus stem, or giant agave flower-spike protrudes. It would be no surprise to see Clint Eastwood ride into view in what seems the perfect setting for a Spaghetti Western. And if Clint needed Thick-billed Kingbird or Boucard's Wren he wouldn't be disappointed! The large wrens are great value and a noisy group works its way up the valley, with birds often singing from the highest agave spikes.
Distant whistles and muffled shouts alert the party to an exciting discovery and we are soon sprinting to the spot where MK is intently peering into the dense scrub below the track. After an anxious wait our stealthy quarry is relocated and we are all watching (and videoing) a fantastic Lesser Roadrunner at close range. Essentially a short-crested, pale-breasted version of its northern congener, the Greater Roadrunner, it's habits could not be more different. Whilst we have hand-fed the fearless Greater Roadrunners of Texas, where they strut boldly around open habitat, this Lesser Roadrunner is an extremely wary skulker sticking to dense cover. It's foraging gait alternates between slow, stealthy steps and darting snake-like runs, with head held out in front of body as it pursues prey. A bird of real character and certainly one of the prizes of our trip.
We stop to check out the reservoir close to Teotitlan del Valle and add another batch of new birds including Least Grebe, Least and Spotted Sandpipers. Finding a shaded drinking pool on the dry riverbed leading to the reservoir we are treated to fine views of Chestnut-backed Thrush, Cinnamon-rumped Seedeater and Bewick's Wren as the birds and us escape the withering heat of the midday sun.
After a brief siesta we drive the short distance to Yagul, another Mayan ruin site noted for its birding value. The ruins themselves, located on a high plateau, are fairly unimpressive but the panoramic vista of the surrounding landscape is superb. The countryside is spectacular, with large sandstone monoliths protruding from the sparse sun-baked and cactus-strewn plain.
A Virginia's Warbler, flitting through the Prickly Pears, is a real bonus to our warbler list and a good start as it really is too hot to be in the field. Clay-coloured and Bridled Sparrows feed on the ground around the ruins and a huge Curve-billed Thrasher delivers its tuneful song from a prominent, high perch. Star bird is a single Beautiful Hummingbird, which jostles for position with the numerous Dusky Hummingbirds to feed on the Prickly Pear flowers.
Time for a quick "cold one" at a friendly roadside store and then it's a return visit to Teotitlan del Valle. This time we travel another kilometre or so further up the valley into an area of taller, oak-dominated woodland. It's amazing what this subtle difference in altitude, and hence habitat, makes as we encounter a quite different set of birds to our morning visit. First a pair of very smart Bridled Titmice sporting elegant, curly black crests appear in the gnarled oak branches. The loose flock also contains a couple of Black-Throated Grey Warblers, but the star is a dazzling black, white and carmine-red Painted Redstart which hops along the bows flicking its white-trimmed tail. A great days birding at one of my favourite sites of the trip.
Wednesday 17th April
When reading trip reports prior to visiting a country some sites can become very intriguing. One such destination is the "Black Tank", just north of Oaxaco. Just what is this "Black Tank" to which every visiting birder makes a pilgrimage?
All is revealed when we pull up into a lay-by, early in the morning, next to a big bitumen-stained steel tank like the ones used as petrol-tankers but without the wheels. It is obviously something to do with highway repairs and is the landmark we need to find a certain trail that leads up the sparsely vegetated hillside. First new bird is Dickey's Oriole, closely followed by a Hepatic Tanager. We have to work harder for our target at this site but after a little tempting with the cassette recorder a Oaxaca Sparrow materialises. This is another bird with a tiny range, restricted to the uplands of central Oaxaco State. Just a kilometre further up the road and we stop to check out some similar habitat. Our site information proves to be spot-on and we collect another trio of endemics in the form of Pileated Flycatcher, Slaty and Dwarf Vireos. Slaty Vireo looks good in the field guide; in the flesh it's a stunner!
From this point the road starts to climb steeply and the vegetation gets progressively more lush until we are travelling through humid pine-oak woodland. Cerro San Felipe is an area of forest now set aside as a reserve and we pay a fee at the recently opened visitors centre to be allowed to drive down the track through the trees. The temperature is starting to climb under the clear blue sky and strong sunshine making the birding hard work. Red Warblers are relatively common and flit jewel-like through shafts of sunlight beaming between the pine needles. Black Thrush is a tick but rather uninspiring as it looks, to all intent, like a Blackbird in Leicestershire! Russet Nightingale-Thrush is rather more distinctive, though particularly skulking, but we are still lacking the star birds.
Further along the track and we stop for another scan. After our recent disappointments we are due for a little "jay luck" and this is where it happens. A chance glimpse of a distant jay leads to a scramble down the steep slope. Minutes later we are enjoying great views of the beautiful endemic Dwarf Jay as a small mixed flock works its way through the epiphytes and moss-covered boughs. The birds have delicate powder-blue throats that contrast with deep azure-blue plumage. Accompanying the Dwarf Jays, just like it says in the guide, are zebra-striped Grey-barred Wrens which also rummage through the many epiphytes. It's great when the plan comes together!
The next leg of the journey takes us further north, on Highway 175, to the cloud forest around the town of Valle National. Ahhh! Not more cloud forest?! Funnily enough the birding is hard work. Species density is typically low and it's often tricky to see any birds whatsoever. Finally the temperature begins to fall and activity increases. A White-faced Quail Dove feeding on the forest floor is a lucky call. As we walk along the highway we find that Red Warbler, Black Thrush and Slate-colored Solitaire are all relatively common. The ethereal, haunting song of the solitaire is constantly audible, adding to the atmosphere of this stunning setting as the sun sinks behind ridge-after-ridge of forested hills.
Thursday 18th April
We drive back up the hill at first light for another hard slog in the cloud forest. There are certainly more birds to be seen during a morning visit, but new species are few and far between. Blue-winged Warbler, Flame-coloured Tanager and Blue Ground-Dove rate as the highlights until we find a cracking little Bumblebee Hummingbird feeding on roadside flowers. This minute endemic hummer really does look scarcely larger than a bee.
A brief spell of birding produces Painted Bunting, the only Northern Cardinal of the trip and a fine male Golden-winged Warbler before we continue east.
A long stretch of two-lane toll-road cuts through some bird-packed marshland and we are soon scanning large flocks of waterbirds from the hard shoulder. A thousand American White Pelicans are counted, along with hundreds of Wood Storks and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. A few Roseate Spoonbills are dotted amongst the numerous herons and ibises, while every fence post seems to host a Snail Kite.
Friday 19th April
It is a great environmental tragedy that almost all of the lowland rainforest that once stretched across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (the "narrow bit" in the middle of Mexico) has been cleared. Only remnant patches remain, particularly in the Uxpanapa region that straddles the Veracruz/Oaxaca state boundaries. Here the distinctive jagged limestone, known as karsk, has made tree clearing difficult and pockets of forest cling on.
Dawn sees us bumping down the dirt road to Uxpanapa and it is immediately apparent that this is going to be a prolific birding site, as first Mealy and then Red-lored Parrots fly above the car. The majority of the road passes through pasture, with sparse clumps of trees being all that remains of the original forest cover. When we finally reach our remnant patch of virgin forest it is frighteningly small and it seems that the birds from miles around are all squeezed into this tiny area. We see White-crowned Parrot, Green-breasted Mango, Slaty-tailed Trogon and Rufous Piha all within metres of the car. A family party of Central American Spider Monkeys feed in a low treetop, affording stunning views of their near-human expressions and dexterity as the video-cameramen shoot off great lengths of tape.
Further down the road we find Short-billed Pigeon and Long-tailed Sabrewing before a narrow track is discovered leading into a fine patch of dense forest. The trail winds its way amongst huge buttress-rooted trees and across weird, knife-edged formations of pale grey limestone karsk. Our ultimate goal at this site is Nava's Wren, an extremely rare endemic, but we hold out little hope of success. We sweat our way through this tricky terrain for an hour or so until we come across a clearing where loggers have sadly felled one of the hardwood forest giants. All the way we play our recording, labelled on the cassette as "Slender-billed Wren". In an admission of defeat, someone has just said "Well, it was worth a try", when a dark brown shape is glimpsed traversing the pale limestone fissures. Bins are raised in a flash and to our communal disbelief a Nava's Wren darts between the rocks. The bird is actually singing, but the song is nothing like our recording. We immediately realise that our recording must be of the Nava's Wren's close congener, Sumichrast's Wren, of which our bird was once considered a race.
Martin whistles an imitation of our bird's call and it instantly responds. Soon we have its attention and it sits on a low branch, in full view, singing its little heart out. It really is a great bird, with proportions as bulky as those of a dipper, rich dark-brown upperparts, contrasting whitish throat and a very long, slightly decurved bill. Nava's Wren was first described to science as recently as 1973 and split as a full species from the closely related Sumichrast's Wren in 1993. We ponder as to whether the bird has ever been filmed in the field prior to this occasion?
Soon after the wren departs a Black-faced Grosbeak appears in the canopy overhead. We realise that we have used up all our luck at this site and set off back towards the main road. We rip off part of the underside of the car on the way back, but hey, we've just seen Nava's Wren!
We stop at a garage in the first village we reach and a friendly mechanic bolts our car back together. As if to counter stories of Mexican garage scams our mechanic tells us the repair is for free and we have to insist on giving him some money!
The fast toll roads ease the long drive north following the Gulf Coast and we reach an area of wetlands, Usmachincta Marshes, for the last hour of daylight. Snail Kites patrol over Northern Jacanas and Limpkins, while the overhead wires sport three species of kingfisher. A pair of Muscovy Ducks perform a flypast, the sun sets, and we drive on to Cuidad del Carmen where we book into in an overpriced downmarket motel.
Saturday 20th April
Having escaped the attentions of the local constabulary we settle down to a little birding in a patch of mangroves overlooking the Laguna de Terminos, just east of Cuidad del Carmen. The first bird we set our eyes upon is a bright yellow, chestnut-capped Mangrove Yellow Warbler. This species is a resident of the mangroves, but it is soon apparent the we are witness to a small fall of migrant wood warblers. Eight different species materialise from the trees in a matter of minutes, including a dazzling male Northern Parula.
A further short drive to a lagoon-side fishing village and we are walking between Brown Pelicans, which follow the small fishing boats ashore, while Magnificent Frigatebirds soar low overhead. Laughing and smithsonianus Herring Gulls are common and we pick out a few Forster's Terns from the many Sandwich Terns.
It's a long drive to the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsular but the toll roads are straight and fast, and we are savouring a "cold one" on Chicxulub Puerto beach, just east of Progresso, by mid afternoon. Although there is a pleasant sea breeze it is still ridiculously hot under the blazing Caribbean sun. There are birds to be seen, however, so we slap on the sunblock and set out into the dry coastal scrub.
The remnant patches of scrub in this area are a very specialist habitat and consequently harbour some highly range-restricted birds. Sadly the coastal scrub is disappearing rapidly, due to clearance for residential and holiday accommodation, making the most sought-after birds increasingly difficult to find.
It's no doubt a great place to look for birds in the early morning but not in the sweltering mid-afternoon heat! We are, therefore, amazed when we have seen two out of our three target species within the first half-hour of searching. First bird to fall is Mexican Sheartail, a tiny hummer with a swallow-like tail and long decurved bill. The Sheartails prove to be relatively common and a number are seen as they hover low down, between the mangrove-like bushes, to shelter from the strong wind. Yucatan Bobwhite is also easily found and we flush a number of birds. The tricky species is Yucatan Wren and it takes a couple of hours before Graham finds a small group of these large, noisy birds. His calls lead to a frantic dash trough the viciously thorny scrub and by the time everyone is watching Yucatan Wren there is much sweat and blood in evidence!
Delighted with our success we have a quick scan of the coastal lagoons before setting off on the new Merida to Cancun toll road. It's the fastest road that we've seen and we eat the miles. Our destination is Coba, another Mayan ruin site, located to the south west of Cancun.
Sunday 21st April
Coba is another Mayan ruin site, a couple of hours drive south west of Cancun. We begin the morning beside the large lake adjacent to the gates. Birding highlight here is a Ruddy Crake, an endemic described as "widespread and relatively common" but which has eluded us thus far. It's a very smart bird with a rich rufous-brown body and contrasting grey head.
We then join the tourists amongst the ruins, which are on a much smaller scale than Palenque and set amongst relatively dense forest. The overall effect is much less awe inspiring and we quickly divert our attentions to the slightly less crowded forest trails. New birds include Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Grey-headed Tanager and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager in-between groups of noisy, annoying sightseers.
The successes of the previous day have produced some gain on our itinerary and at a team meeting we decide to end the tour with a bonus trip over to Cozumel Island, located off the east cost of the Yucatan Peninsular. The thought of a number of island endemics, plus a bag full of Caribbean specialities, is just too much of a temptation!
We board the fast catamaran and set off into a wonderfully deep-blue Caribbean Sea, Royal Terns calling overhead. The crossing only takes forty minutes and soon we are docking on Cozumel Island. It's a rather strange place. The coast is lined with multi-storey hotels that dominate the long, low, island. It looks just like a chunk of the mainland coastline that has been lifted up and dropped in the ocean; it's difficult to imagine where the birds could be?
Monday 22nd April
With the sun rising around 05.30 this would give us just two-and-a-half hours in the field to clean up on the islands lengthy list of birds. It was going to be very tight and to keep us on schedule we changed our watches back into synchronisation with the rest of eastern Mexico.
Alarm at 04.30 and a taxi the short distance to our only birding site for 05.00. "It's very dark!" The moon and stars are gleaming down on us when we realise that the one hour change of our watches means that it will not now get light until an hour later than it had been doing in our time zone.
It seems to take a lifetime for the light levels to raise enough to permit identification of the birds that are singing all around. It's made all the worse by the fact that we know we must be away at 08.00 sharp. When dawn does finally break we find ourselves in an unlikely setting. Some years before a failed housing development has laid a series of estate roads but run out of funding before constructing the houses. Dense thicket woodland has repopulated the unpaved areas, but the roads are all intact. The area offers the strange experience of birding on a housing estate, with woodland where the houses should be!
It may look an unlikely setting but the birding proves to be superb. First new bird is Cozumel Vireo, a very impressively marked sandy-brown island endemic. Black Catbirds are abundant and very confiding, in total contrast to their skulking mainland counterparts. Yucatan Vireo is another common bird, as are the island races of Bananaquit and Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. Cozumel Emerald, the islands endemic hummer, puts in a brief appearance followed by a bag-full of Caribbean specialities such as Golden Warbler, Caribbean Elaenia, Caribbean Dove and some very impressive White-crowned Pigeons.
We've all but cleaned up on the target species in just an hour and a half. A dazzling Stripe-headed Tanager feeds in a fruiting tree during the walk back to the main road and a Rufous-browed Peppershrike, of the endemic island race, sings from a treetop. In the perfect conclusion to the trip a small wood warbler alights on the road in front of us. It's the last "proper" bird we look at in Mexico, New World Warbler number forty-three for the trip, and a tick for everyone. Palm Warbler had been high on everyone's "wanted list" and this little gem, with bright yellow throat and undertail and neat chestnut cap is a fitting finale.
All that remains is to collect our things and catch the ferry, where flying fish entertain on the return crossing to the mainland. Back at Cancun airport, just when we think we are home and dry, a final spanner is thrown in the works. Our hire car has received a few knocks over the last 5550 kilometres and Thrifty Car Rental are very quick to land us with a bill for the same.
Our tour of southern Mexico had been conceived just six weeks to the day before we touched down in Cancun. In spite of this very tight timescale everything had fallen into place perfectly, resulting in one of the best planned and most smoothly executed trips we had ever made. Mexico was a surprisingly diverse, friendly, and problem-free country in which to travel. A combination of some fine habitat and a good road network added to the pleasure, but it was the birds that were the real stars. A great range of North American migrants and winterers complement a stunning array of endemic breeders to produce an avifauna of unique appeal. We all left wondering why we hadn't been drawn to this charismatic land of mystical ruins, giant cacti and turquoise blue tropical oceans long, long, before.