Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
Not being a particularly wonderful year financially (new office loans, market down, etc.), Avi and I decided to go birding in a "bang for the buck" manner. We took a Carnival cruise out of Galveston, with stops in Progreso and Isla Cozumel, Mexico.
For those who are interested in the economic particulars of such a trip, it cost us both around $1,300 for five days. This includes our fare, tips, fuel supplement, parking, gas for drive to and from Galveston, and our land expenses (taxis, onshore lunches). On the ship, we got all our meals (food available pretty much around the clock, though we mostly ate in the dining room), entertainment, activities, and excellent service. But, enough acting like an advertisement. If you have any questions, feel free to ask by emailing me directly.
The sailing itself, other than Galveston, was birdless, as far as we could tell. The only flying objects, once the ship has sailed, were Flying Fish -- and they do fly! In Galveston, we got the usual Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, and several Dolphin pods. The waters in which we sailed were quite rough for about half the cruise. I'm fortunate that I don't tend to get seasick, though the extreme movement lent itself to a couple of poor nights in bed, with up to 18 foot swells. Avi only had to take meclazine once, on the night after our stop in Cozumel.
Our first port of call was Progreso, Mexico. This is still a sleepy little town, not yet majorly affected by the cruise industry. We grabbed a cab to our birdingpal.org contact Bev Scott. She's a Canadian who, with her husband, went down to teach English in Mexico and stayed. Once again, I highly recommend using birdingpal if you want to bird during travels. I've only had good experiences with people who have guided me in other cities, and people whom I've guided here in San Antonio.
I was amused, when we grabbed a taxi and gave the address, that the drivers all huddled together and discussed where it was. Turns out Bev's neighbor is Jose's sister's neighbor and "you know where she lives, right?" This proved to me Progreso is still a small town.
First, Bev took us out to the Xcambo archeological site, "before all the cruzeros in their Jeeps and ATVs get there!" Birding around the area was fairly good. Along the way, we got our first life bird -- a flock of the pinkest American Flamingos I've ever seen. I guess a natural food diet works, at least for Flamingos.
Unfortunately, the ship's schedule doesn't permit you to start birding while it's early. We got in at 7am and, by the time we really got going, the day was already beginning to heat up.
At Xcambo, we managed to get a few good birds among some of our more familiar wintering US species. Among our life birds here were: Golden-olive Woodpecker, Tropical Pewee, Yucatan Wren, and Orange Oriole. I saw a woodpecker that looked like a Red-bellied. Bev thought it was a Golden-fronted. I wonder if it really was a Yucatan Woodpecker, which would have been an additional lifer. But, without a positive ID, neither one is on the list.
We continued on, driving around several areas, including Mangrove swamps, wetlands, and one path near many new construction vacation homes along the beach. There was an unfortunate paucity of waterfowl and shorebirds this day, so our numbers were lower than they might have been. But we still picked up a lovely Cinnamon Hummingbird and a Mexican Sheartail.
We ate lunch at Flamingo's in Progreso, with fried whole fish, Poc Chuc, and wonderful Mexican sodas -- Avi had apple and I had banana (the only black soda I've ever seen). Bev dropped us off at the free shuttle back to the pier, which is 5 miles long, and we got back to the ship with time to spare.
Our stop the next day was Isla Cozumel. Sadly, for most of the people on the ship, the weather in Cozumel was windy, cloudy, cool, and the water was too dangerous for any of the planned water-based excursions. Happily, for us, this made our birding day perfect! (Sorry folks!) We got off the ship and negotiated for a taxi. We told people what we wanted and, again, they huddled to get us the best person for the job. We negotiated the price to $90US for the 6 or so hours we needed and were off.
Our driver told us of the different places we would probably find the birds we sought and we told him we trusted him to take us around. Since Cozumel only has a few viable roads, we simply took a circuit, going south, north, and west, stopping at flowering gardens and little back trails along the way. The "El Presidente Grid" mentioned in Howell is now fully developed, so we didn't bother with a stop there, opting to spend the majority of our time in potentially more fertile areas.
I always find it interesting that people who live around nature, know nature. They might not know the specific names of things, but they have observed it, understand it, and, for the most part, enjoy it. Our driver went birding with us and helped point out birds we were missing. As a result, we got most of the island endemics, only dipping on the Cozumel Wren. The highlights for us were the Hummingbirds, both Cozumel Emerald and Green-breasted Mango, zipping in and out of the Bouganvillea and Firebush flowers. In the diffused light their brilliance really came out.
At our first stop, outside a Golf Course, there were several little birds hopping around under bushes and woodpiles. They looked like Northern Waterthrushes, but had bright yellow vents with the rest of the body having a pale, whitish background to its other markings. We couldn't find anything like them, so chalked them up to Cozumel variants of this species -- unless someone has a better suggestion.
We passed through the smaller town of El Cedral, in the center of the island, which I found utterly charming with its beautiful gardens and quieter atmosphere. We walked a couple of mangrove swamp trails running on the west side of the road along the eastern coastal road of the island. For lunch, our driver took us to a restaurant perched just above a beautiful beach on the island's east side - I have a feeling it was owned by a friend of his. Finally we stopped in at an area just before the entrance to the San Gervasio archeological site, a few miles off the cross-island road.
INTERESTING STORY: The area before the San Gervasio site has a business called Aviomar Adventures. They supply all sorts of adventure transportation to the cruzeros and tourists on the island. A couple of their workers also enjoy looking at birds. They approached us, wanting to discuss the topic and were pleased to tell us what we might see in that particular area: "Cardinales, colibri, trashers....." Wait a minute! Thrasher? The Cozumel Thrasher, the only one on the island is presumed extinct. I questioned him and he described, perfectly, the location and behavior of this family of birds, saying he had just seen it a few days prior. I showed him the drawing of the Cozumel Thrasher in my bird guide and he confirmed this was the bird he had been seeing. We didn't see one. But did he? Really? Hopefully, so.
Was it worth birding this way? It's certainly a great way to pick up some life birds and get a taste of different places to which one might want to return to on a land trip. For us, it was a way to get away, do a bit of birding and a bit of relaxing. We might try it again with different ports of call and, hopefully, calmer waters.
American White Pelican
Little Blue Heron
RUDDY CRAKE (heard)
GOLDEN WARBLER (In case they split or have split)
Black-throated Green Warbler
COZUMEL BANANQUIT (Not sure if this is a split or a joined, so listing it as separate from Bananaquit for now)
ORANGE ORIOLE cruzeros