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MEXICO -- QUINTANA ROO & YUCATAN

25-29 April 2004

by Gail Mackiernan and Barry Cooper

In April we spent 3 1/2 days in Cancun, a very inexpensive last-minute package deal that was too good to pass up. Barry and I both needed a break! We figured that we could use Cancun as a base and visit a number of other Yucatán peninsula sites. This actually proved not be a be a good idea, and about 1 1/2 days into the trip we opted to bag all the long drives and stick closer to Cancun and thus (we feel) we saw more birds. (It is a good axiom that any hour spent driving is one less hour spent birding!)

Sites visited (all in Quintana Roo state):
We dropped from our overly-ambitious itinerary Cozumel (the ferry from Pto. Morales no longer runs, necessitating a long pre-dawn drive to Playa del Carmen), and Río Lagartos. These and other places will have to be visited on another Yucatán trip, where we will (more sensibly) stay at a variety of accommodations nearer the birding sites.

Itinerary and birds:

April 25

We arrived at Cancun airport about 10:30 a.m., on a Vacations Express charter, picked up our rental car from Alamo (good value, compact AC Chevy in excellent condition), and drove to the Hyatt Regency in Cancun's zona hotelera, our base for 4 nights, to check in and drop off luggage. About the only birds seen en route were Great-tailed Grackles. When we got to the Hyatt, we found that check-in was 3 p.m. and that no ones' rooms were ready. We had been planning to drive to Cobá that afternoon and this problem cost us two hours' driving and birding time! (Having said that, the Hyatt was otherwise a fine hotel and we had very nice rooms, easily accessible parking and very helpful staff).

We left the hotel about 1:15, still with all our luggage, and drove south on the very good road 307 to Tulúm, then taking the not-quite-so-good road  NW to Cobá. We made a couple of stops along the way to look at roadside birds, which were especially abundant on the road from Tulum to Coba. Arriving at Cobá at about 3 pm, it was still pretty hot, so we got a Coke at a local restaurant and admired the large lake with Least Grebes, Limpkins, etc. We then birded the grounds of the Villas Arqueologicas (a Club Med facility which that day looked devoid of guests.) By 4 pm it was cool enough to start exploring the roadside and lake edge. A short burst of the tape brought out two RUDDY CRAKES which then sat next to each other preening for superb views. Certainly one of the birds of the trip! No luck however on Spotted Rail. Unfortunately, because we had not been able to complete check in at our hotel, we could not stay until dusk to look for nightjars which are supposed to be common in this area. A long drive back to the Hyatt, and then a room service supper (very nice-- delivered with fresh flowers and a smile!)

Birds seen at Cobá and along the road in and out included the following:

Snail Kite                      Great Black Hawk
Ruddy Crake                     Limpkin
Northern Jacana                 Keel-billed Toucon
Yellow-bellied Eleania          Yucatan Flycatcher
Cave Swallow                    White-browed Wren
White-bellied Wren              Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat             Bay-breasted Warbler
Yellow-winged Tanager           Blue-black Grassquit          
White-collared Seedeater        Grayish Saltator
Yellow-backed Oriole            Hooded Oriole
Rose-throated Becard


April 26

We had arranged from the USA to meet a guide, Arturo Bayona, at the town of Felipe Carillo Puerto and bird the Vigio Chico Rd. in hopes of Ocellated Turkey and other forest birds. However, despite getting up very early and driving like the devil, it took a good three hours to reach this area from Cancun and we arrived at 7:30 a.m., well after dawn. By the time we had off-loaded into Arturo's van and driven to the start of the road, it was already getting hot. In retrospect we should have skipped the open areas at the beginning of the road (which held widely-encountered species) and gone directly into the intact forest where birds were of greatest interest to us. As it was, by the time we reached this part of the road, it was hot, sunny and breezy -- and dead bird-wise! So unfortunately we ended up with essentially only one or two species which we did not end up seeing at other, closer, sites. We also discovered from Arturo that no one knows a "sure site" for Ocellated Turkey here, it seems to be as much chance as anything!

As a result we decided to bag this about lunch time and drove back to Cancun. En route we re-thought our original plans and made the decision to stay closer to home base from now on! We stopped briefly at the Marin Botanical Gardens to arrange an early entrance the next morning (they will let birders in at 7 am if you arrange it with the supervisors ahead of time). Later that evening we had a nice seafood dinner in town, overlooking the lagoon, as the sun set.

Top birds today included our only identified Yucatan Parrots of the trip [many unidentified parrots seen daily] and nice views of Eye-ringed Flatbill at its nest.

Birds seen at Vigio Chico included:

Thicket Tinamou [heard only]      Blue Ground-Dove
Yucatan Parrot                    White-fronted Parrot
Smooth-billed Ani                 Ferruginous Pygymy Owl [heard
Canivet's Emerald                 Green Kingfisher
Lineated Woodpecker               Pale-billed Woodpecker
Ruddy Woodcreeper                 Olivaceous Woodcreeper
Common Tody Flycatcher            Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Yucatan Flycatcher                Eye-ringed Flatbill and nest
Couch's Kingbird                  White-bellied Wren
Yellow-green Vireo                Yucatan Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo                    Hooded Warbler
Red-throated Ant-Tanager          Black-headed Saltator
Yellow-tailed Oriole              Hooded Oriole
Yellow-billed Cacique             Rose-breasted Grosbeak


April 27:

This was a relaxing day, and we started off with a short drive south on 307 to the start of the Central Vallarta road, about 1 km south of Pto. Morales on the west side (accessed from the local lane -- take the carril derecho). This is the road referred to earlier trip reports as "a dirt road opposite the botanical gardens" but now it is paved and is well-marked by a huge Mayan arch -- the road is now termed the "rutas los cenotes" and signed for the village of Central Vallarta 15 km away, and then beyond this through good forest until it intersects with the main e/w road from Cancun (Rt. 180 ). It offers miles of excellent birding through (initially) scrub and then fairly intact forest. The small village of Central Vallarta is also good birding, with many established fruit and flowering trees. It is an historical village, established in the last century by chicle collectors; many of the once-abandoned houses are being restored. We met an American woman who lives there and who has a rental cottage, and is encouraging birders to stay (see below for contact info.).

We got to the start of the road at dawn (about 6:15 a.m.) and immediately got into birds.  In about an hour, we left and went over to the Botanical Gardens. These are about 1 1/2 km. south of Pto. Morales on the east side, again accessed from the right-hand local lane. It is easy to miss the entrance -- there is a large concrete sign on the right, but it is about 50 feet beyond the actual entrance -- which is an iron gate with a white thatched stucco arch. We parked in front and beeped our horn and an employee came out and unlocked the gate. (However, two days later he told us that he got into a bit of trouble doing this -- apparently only the boss is supposed to open the main gate. What they want you to do is to park outside the exit gate about 100 yards down the road, and come in that way, it is partially opened in the early morning to let employees in. You pay el jefe when he arrives -- ps. 70.00 pp.).

The gardens have about 3 km. of trails, most of which are natural (we found it hard to find the beginning of the east end of this trail -- it starts behind the Mayan ruins -- but the west end starts behind the bathrooms). The natural trails lead through dry scrub and forest, down past mangroves, and also has a 10 meter observation tower over the canopy. The paved trails also goes to some excellent places for birds, esp. the Mayan farm and the palm grove. There is also a waterfall (electrically run, it goes "on" at about 9 am) which attracts lots of birds in this dry climate.

We walked the trails twice and then re-did some of the closer areas before it got too hot. That day there were almost no other visitors. The greatest excitement was walking along the natural trail past the chicle collector's camp and hearing (but not seeing) Ocellated Turkey gobbling several times -- unfortunately moving away from us as it called! The gobble starts as a strange Unk! Unk! noise then speeds into a gobble not unlike that of the common North Am.Wild Turkey, but with a slightly different tone. Other good birds including three species of trogons  and both Spot-breasted and White-bellied Wrens and a superb adult male Grey-throated Chat.

Birds seen on Central Vallarta Rd. and in Marin Botanical Gardens:

Laughing Falcon [CVR]            Plain Chachalaca
Ocellated Turkey [heard]         White-tipped Dove[MBG]
Caribbean Dove [MBG]
Aztec Parakeet                   Cinnamon Hummingbird MBG
Black-headed Trogon              Violaceous Trogon
Collared Trogon                  Collared Aracari
Keel-billed Toucan               Yucatan Woodpecker
Ruddy Woodcreeper                Ivory-billed Woodcreeper
Yellow-bellied Eleanea           Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Boat-billed Flycatcher           Streaked Flycatcher   
Rose-throated Becard             Spot-breasted Wren [MBG]
White-bellied Wren               Yellow-Green Vireo
Tawny-crowned Greenlet           Rufous-browed Peppershrike   
Grey-throated Chat    [MBG]      Red-eyed Vireo            
Bay-breasted Warbler             Prothonotary Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler              Scrub Euphonia
Yellow-throated Euphonia

En route back to Cancun we stopped for a while to look at the wetlands just south of the side road into Pto. Morales from Rt. 307. These had been much praised by other birders but we didn't find too much. We also checked the wetlands south of the road into the Cancun's zona hotelera from Rt. 307, seeing a few new species for our list.

Birds seen in Pto. Morales and Cancun wetlands:

Least Grebe                      Neotropical Cormorant
Anhinga                          Tricolored Heron
Little Blue Heron                Green Heron
Glossy Ibis                      Blue-winged Teal
Black-bellied Whistling Duck     Northern Jacana
Black-necked Stilt               Spotted Sandpiper
Roseate Spoonbill                Snowy Plover
Killdeer                         Spotted Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone

Back at Cancun we decided to take the afternoon off, and had a late lunch at the hotel's outside café. We were astonished to find that there was an active Sooty Tern colony just off our beach, and we enjoyed seeing the birds fly in and out while we ate. We estimated about 500 birds with many sitting on nests.  Also, fly-by Sandwich and Royal Terns

While on the Central Vallarta road that morning, a woman had stopped and introduced herself. She encouraged us to drive in to her village in the late afternoon (around 5) when lots of parrots, toucans and other birds came into feed and roost. We took her up on this but unfortunately ran into the only serious rain of the trip (afternoon thunderstorm). This cut down on activity but we did manage to see quite a few birds while walking around the village under our umbrellas!

Birds seen at Central Vallarta in evening:

Aztec Parakeet                  White-fronted Parrot
Keel-billed Toucan              Streaked Flycatcher

April 28:

This was our last full day and we decided to forgo any extensive drives and instead stick to birding the Botanical Gardens and the Central Vallarta area. The storm the evening before had cooled things down and we were able to stay out all day, with just a break for a pleasant lunch in the little fishing town of Puerto Morales. This time we concentrated in the morning on the road, going in about 8-10 km. and reaching areas with larger trees and less disturbance. Later we went into the Botanical Gardens (about 10:00 am) finding it rather busy but managing to get away from people and seeing some more good birds. (Unfortunately the turkey made itself scarce). When we left we arranged with the boss to arrive at 7 am the next morning, just before driving to the airport. We still had not seen some species supposedly common in the area (e.g. Black Catbird, Rose-throated Tanager) and were getting a bit frustrated. Still a great day's birding with many good birds including two pairs of Turquoise-browed Motmots along the CVR. We at last got to grips with Green-backed Sparrows with at least four birds [include. singing males] along the CVR. But be careful as we also had a single Olive Sparrow singing along this road. Also we spent a delightful evening birding around the village of Central Villarto with lots of good birds including three species of humming birds, a superb Long-billed Gnatwren and great views of a pair of Yellow-tailed Orioles foraging at almost ground level.

Birds seen along the Central Vallarta road and in Botanical Gardens:

Gray Hawk                        Roadside Hawk
Plain Chachalacha                Aztec Parakeet
White-fronted Parrot             Ferruginous Pygymy Owl
Paraque                          Black-headed Trogon
Violaceous Trogon                Collared Trogon
Blue-crowned Motmot [heard]      Turquiose-browed Motmot
Keel-billed Toucan               Collared Aracari
Yucatan Woodpecker [MBG]         Golden-olive Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker              Ivory-billed Woodcreeper [MBG
Barred Antshrike                 Bright-rumped Attila [MBG]
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher       Rose-throated Becard
Spot-breasted Wren               Green Jay
Yucatan Vireo [MBG]              Blackpoll Warbler
Yellow-throated Euphonia         Green-backed Sparrow [CVR]
Olive Sparrow [CVR]              Black-headed Saltator
Black-cowled Oriole [MBG]

After lunch we did some shopping and then headed back up the C. V. road, aiming to reach the village by 4:30 p.m. This proved a good plan and we found it to be very active (as promised) with several new birds added including catching up with species missed earlier by one or the other of us. This was the only place we saw a number of hummingbirds including the much-wanted Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, feeding at ornamental trees. However, despite considerable tape-trolling, no Black Catbird! We left the village as it was getting towards evening, and went back to Pto. Morales for supper (at Los Pelicanos, very good). On the drive we had about eight Lesser Nighthawks hunting moths.

Birds seen in evening on road and in village:
Plain Chacalacha                    Aztec Parakeet
White-crowned Parrot                Lesser Nighthawk [8]
Canivet's Emerald                    White-bellied Emerald
Wedge-tailed Sabrewing                Long-billed Gnatwren
Yellow-tailed Oriole                Yellow-billed Cacique

April 29: We drove to the Marin Gardens by 7 am, to find no one there. However within 15 minutes several employees arrived, and explained about the preferred early-entrance logistics. We loaded up with water and snacks and set off on our last try for some local goodies. Almost the first bird was stunning looks at a male Rose-throated Tanager on the ground, but as this was our only one of these despite hours birding, they are apparently not as common here (or at this time of year) as suggested in Howell's book. We then immediately ran into an ant swarm with a lot of activity from ant-tanagers (both species),  four species of woodcreepers  and other birds. When this slowed down, we continued around the natural trail slowly, Barry climbed the tower (Gail hates heights) and we generally greatly enjoyed our last foray. Quite a few goodies were seen, but no catbird and no more sign of the turkey. Oh well, there has to be a next time!

We re-packed our birding gear, drove to the Alamo car return, and hopped on the shuttle to the charter terminal. A quick change into fresh clothes, some last-minute shopping, and back to reality!

Birds seen last morning at gardens:

Laughing Falcon                    White-tipped Dove
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Black-headed Trogon                Blue-crowned Motmot
Yucatan Woodpecker                Golden-Olive Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker                Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
Ruddy Woodcreeper                Ivory-billed Woodcreeper
Barred Woodcreeper                Barred Antshrike
Yucatan Flycatcher                    Spot-breasted Wren           
White-browed Wren                Tawny-crowned Greenlet    Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Gray-throated Chat                    Red-crowned Ant Tanager
Red-throated Ant Tanager            Rose-throated Tanager
Black-cowled Oriole

Common and widespread species:
Several of our top target birds turned out to be suprisingly common. For example, up to six Yucatan Jays were seen daily. While quite common, a brilliant species and one of the top birds of the trip. Orange Oriole was another superb species that was so numerous we simply ticked it in the daily log. Likewise Mangrove Vireo and Lesser Greenlet, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Masked Tityra were all seen daily. As indicated by the following list, there were still quite a few North American neotropical migrants around.

Common and widespread species that were seen on most of the days:

Magnificent Frigatbird                Brown Pelican
Great Egret                        Double-crested Cormorant*
Great Blue Heron*                    Snowy Egret*
Black Vulture                    Turkey Vulture
Osprey*                        Common Moorhen*
Laughing Gull                    Rock Dove
Red-billed Pigeon                    White-winged Dove
Ruddy Ground Dove                Aztec Parakeet
Groove-billed Ani                    Vaux's Swift
Golden-fronted Woodpecker            Tropical Pewee
Eastern Wood Pewee*
Dusky-capped Flycatcher*                Brown-crested Flycatcher*
Great Kiskadee                    Social Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird                    Masked Tityra
Barn Swallow                    Bank Swallow*
Tropical Mockingbird                Red-legged Honeycreeper
Clay-colored Robin                    Gray-cheeked Thrush
Veery                            Blue-gray Gnatcatcher*
Brown Jay                        Yucatan Jay
Mangrove Vireo                    Lesser Greenlet
American Redstart                    Black&White Warbler
Northern Waterthrush                Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler            Northern Cardinal
Melodious Blackbird                Great Tailed Grackle
Bronzed Cowbird*                    Orange Oriole
Altamira Oriole                   
* Recorded on not more than two days.

As a result of adjusting our itinerary we gave up on the Cozumel and north Yucatan specialties. However, this change gave us more relaxed birding  and allowed us to pretty much clean-up on all but a couple of the mid-Yucatan birds [the exceptions being the elusive Black Catbird and the uncommon Gray-collared Becard]. In all we managed to record 162 species [including two heard only] and rack-up about 25 lifers. Not too bad for less than four days of birding.

Logistics:

Books used:

Howell, Birds of Mexico and Central America
Howell, N.G. A Bird-finding Guide to Mexico
Plus a few trip reports from Blake Maybank's page, including those of Gruff Dodd.

Tapes: We made up some tapes but used them little except for the crake. Instead we relied more on tape-playback when necessary.

Accommodations:

We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Cancun. However we did identify some other places to stay that are a lot more convenient to birding sites:

Cobá: Villas Arqueologica (supposedly arrange directly on site, not through Club Med, to get reasonable rate). Nice grounds right on the lake.

Felipe Carillo Puerto (Vigio Chico Rd.) -- Arturo says birders are being encouraged to stay at Hotel La Casona, Calle 65 No. 746, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, Mèxico, fax: 01(983) 8340313, Tel:01(983)8340344  Arturo took us by there and it does look nice.

Pto. Morales area:  Denise Madrid has a cottage to rent in Central Vallarta, 15 km on a good birding road from Rt. 307, we know nothing about its amenities but contact Denise at denisemadrid@yahoo.com for info.

Denise also gave us a brochure for a new ecolodge, Genesis Ek Balam, which is 1/2 hour from Chitzen Itza and a doable drive to Rio Lagartos and north coast Yucatán sites. It looks very good, the brochure talks about good birding on grounds, contact is: www.genesisretreat.com

Also, there are several small hotels in Puerto Morales right on the beach so these could be checked into on spec (we didn't get any contact info.)


Gail Mackiernan and Barry Cooper
Gail@mdsg.umd.edu



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