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MEXICO - QUINTANA ROO & YUCATAN

4-11 March 2006

by Jason Hill


Trip Summary:

I spent one week chasing birds and Mayan ruins in the Yucatan during early March of 2006.  I traveled by myself via the bus in a circular loop starting and ending in Cancun and visiting the following cities:

Cancún
Puerto Morelos
Tulum
Coba
Felipe Carillo Puerto
Valladolid
Chichón Itza
Rió Lagartos

I previously lived in Costa Rica so I was looking for specific new birds and didn’t spend time looking for certain groups of birds (notably shorebirds, gulls, terns, etc.).  So that should be kept in mind when reading this report and determining if you’ll see specific species at sites that you plan to visit.  My basic strategy was to travel by bus during the early afternoon after having birded a site in the morning and seeing ruins or other interesting places in the middle of the day. This allowed me to bird the late afternoon and the early morning at a site (the next day), and to avoid the heat of the day on the air-conditioned buses. The bus system in the Yucatan is reliable, fast and efficient and a good way to meet other travelers.

Books:

To get around I used The Rough Guide to the Yucatan which just came out before Christmas of 2005. I usually use the Lonely Planet guide but I found this guide to be excellent!

Howell and Webb: Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America.

Howell: A Bird-finding Guide to Mexico, I photocopied the pages I needed so I didn’t have to carry the whole book with me.

I also consulted numerous trip reports from Birding The Americas trip reports web site.

I ate food from the places ‘on the street’ that Mexicans eat at and tended to avoid the restaurants that cater to tourists willing to pay 4 times more for the same food available in at a ‘local’ place. And no, I never got sick. I felt safe everywhere I went, but I also consider myself a smart and seasoned traveler.

Itinerary and birds:

March 4, Cancun

After delays and an over-booked flight I arrived into Cancun around 10:30 and took the Ado bus from outside the airport terminal to the downtown Cancun bus terminal. There I walked to a hostel for the night (many in the area, around $10 US dollars/night).

March 5, Cancun to Puerto Morelos to Tulum

I caught the 6am bus to Playa del Carmen and got off in Tulum. Buses to Playa del Carmen leave the Cancun bus station about every 15 minutes. Bus times at terminals are always clearly written out on large boards and it’s a great idea to write down the departure times of buses you’ll wish to catch the next day when you leave that town. I got off at the little bus station in Puerto Morelos. The bus doesn’t actually take you into Puerto Morelos, for that you’ll have to take a taxi if you really wanted to visit the town (but there’s no reason to do that). The bus takes under 30 minutes, and from the station I grabbed water at the shop next door. There isn’t much for food there, but there’s a good loncheria just 30 meters north of the bus station before you get to the Pemex gas station. I walked south down the main highway (be careful) to La Ruta de Los Cenotes directly across from the Marin Botanical Gardens (which is closed on Sundays). It takes less than 10 minutes to walk down to the Cenotes road which is marked by over-sized arches above the dirt road entrance.

I walked along this dirt road all morning, and saw only a few cars and some good birds. There isn’t much shade along this road, but the edges of the scrub along the road were flooded in many places. I saw many White-fronted parrots flying noisily over the road all morning along with good numbers of Mangrove, Cave and Barn swallows. There’s a wetland/garbage dump visible from the road that had many Great and Snowy egrets and a few Roseate spoonbills. It was hard to miss the groups of Brown Jays and Groove-billed anis along the roadways. If I had a car I would have skipped the first few kilometers of this road as the birding got better the farther I moved away from the highway. Eventually, I began to see many Altamira and Hooded orioles allowing great close-up looks. Above the first (and only) house I saw, there was a pair of Hooded orioles building a nest, and I couldn’t have seen less than 10 Tropical mockingbirds.

This road got very hot by 10am and the birding slowed down, so I head back to town around 11:30 to catch the bus to Tulum. By the way, the cenotes along that road are supposed to be very nice and there’s basically no one at them. Additionally, I think the birding would have been even better farther up Los Cenotes road.

Arrive in Tulum

I arrived in Tulum in the mid-afternoon and looked at crafts at some of the many stores selling them. I bought some fruit and some bread and caught a taxi cab out to the beach. I stayed in a Cabana on the beach at Cabanas El Mirador for $20 US/night. There’s a restaurant with great views of the ocean atop a cliff. There were many Brown pelicans and Laughing gulls at the beach with an occasional Caspian tern fly-over. I would buy any additional food and beer in town before coming out to beach.

March 6, Tulum to Coba

I arose early and sat on the beach in the dark observing two Yellow-crowned night herons hunting and many Sanderlings, Ruddy turnstones and Semipalmated plovers. I walked up to the road that runs parallel to the beach and birded along here all morning. It was great birding and as always, I could have greatly benefited from another pair of eyes looking for birds. I saw my first of many Cinnamon hummingbirds, White-eyed vireos and American redstarts.  A Roadside hawk flew along the road as well as several large groups of Melodious blackbirds and a few scattered Canivet’s emeralds.

I visited the Tulum ruins at 11am and I’d recommend them to everyone. The ruins didn’t add much in terms of birds with the exception of a few scattered migrating warblers in the few scattered trees. There’s a beach at the ruins that many people swim at.

Coba

I arrived in the mid-afternoon and had a nice summer tanager in a nearby tree. I considered this a sign of good things to come. Before relaxing for the night at the comfortable Sac-be Hotel, I wandered around the lake and ran into a birding tour. There are a few trees on the far side of the lake, near the school playground, where the birding tour kept a Pygmy owl whistle going for about 15 minutes. I entirely disapprove of this kind of ‘harassment’ of the birds for such a long period of time. The constant whistling brought in Cape May warbler, Baltimore and Orchard oriole, Indigo bunting, Yellow-billed elaenia and Yellow-winged tanager. At dusk approached they tried some Spotted rail tapes but were only successful in seeing a few Soras and Ruddy crakes. The water level was quite high which didn’t leave any muddy flats for rails to feed on. I ate dinner at the restaurant on the edge of the lake, just a couple hundred meters from the Club Med Hotel. The food and view of the lake were excellent and a perfect ending to great day.

March 7, Coba to Felipe Carrillo Puerto

The Coba Ruins opened at 7am, and I was the first person inside. Not only were the forested ruins just incredible in the early morning light, but the birding was fantastic. A few of the highlights were Yellow-throated euphonia, Squirrel cuckoo, pale-billed woodpecker and Green-backed sparrows. The wide trails and ruins are shaded by trees all day so you could bird here until the afternoon if you wanted to. However, around noon I left to catch the bus onto Felipe Carrillo, but found myself with an extra 3 hours after some confusion to the departure time of the bus. I walked back around the lake and up the main road heading to several cenotes. The road climbs uphill through town and then levels out mostly. On the left side of the road (still in town) there’s a water tower where I saw Black-headed saltator and bronzed cowbirds bathing. Just outside of town I noticed some trails heading off into the forest on the right side of the road (very obvious). These trails provided some great birding in the afternoon and produced blue-crowned motmot, Greyish saltator, Yellow-olive flycatcher, and Barred antshrike to name a few. The birding at Coba was wonderful and I could see spending another full day there and finding many more species. But I had other places I wanted to see and so I caught the last bus of the day back to Tulum and from there I caught the bus to Felipe Carrillo where I spent the night at a hotel on the main highway 302 that runs through town (also called Avenue Benito).

March 8, Felipe Carrillo Puerto to Valladolid

I followed the road that Howell recommends in his Bird-finding Guide to Mexico. My hotel was close to the intersection with the big statue in the middle that marks the turn-off as shown on Page 290 of Howell’s book. I started around 6am but in retrospect I should have grabbed a taxi to take me further down the road, as the forest doesn’t start for another 2.5km. However, I saw my only House wren, Grey catbird and Keel-billed toucan while walking through the outskirts of town. If you’re driving in your rental car, then I suggest driving slowly until you get out to the forest. The birding was slow for the first 1km after the school as the area along the road is being burned and cleared. However, once beyond that the birding along the road was excellent. I saw many good birds from the actual road including Grey hawk, lots of Black catbirds and a calling Ferruginous pygmy-owl. I tried several of the trails leading off the road into the forest and these trails produced Singing quail, Blue bunting and Smoky-brown woodpecker. The farther I walked the better the birding got. If I had a car I would have driven further down the road before starting to bird that morning, but I still had great birds. I could easily see spending another day birding here along this road and in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. There’s good shade along this road all day.

Bus to back to Tulum and then on to Valladolid

I really liked Valladolid. This town just had a good feel to it as I was walking around. There’s an American-style coffee house next to the bus station on Calle 39. The Parque Principal at night was lovely, full of people and 1000s of loud Great-tailed grackles. I stayed at the La Candelaria Hostel for $10 and they have laundry facilities. It was full of international travelers and was one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at. The craft and souvenir shops along the Parque Principal cater to tourists and their prices are expensive. Your best options for Mayan goods are at Chichen Itza or from Mayan women selling on the street at the Parque in the evening. I bought a lot of hand-made belts and shawls from a Mayan woman named Penelope, and these were the only hand-made goods I saw for sale in all the Yucatan. Almost all the shops and Mayans at the various ruins are all selling the exact same stuff. The trade in crafts has become much commercialized.

March 9, Chichen Itza and Rio Lagartos

I caught the first bus (at 7am?) to Chichen Itza, which takes about 45 minutes. Without doubt Chichen Itza was the biggest disappointment of my trip. By 11am the place was absolutely overrun by 1000s of tourists. But what about the birding you ask? Well, I must admit that I was very unlucky that day. It was so windy that I couldn’t keep my baseball hat on, and I wouldn’t have heard a bird chip if it had been perched on my shoulder. Secondly, a man had falling down the main pyramid a few days before and died, so the pyramids were all roped off and you couldn’t climb them. The ruins themselves were big and impressive but they couldn’t match the magic of Coba. Not even close. Still I managed to a few migrating American kestrels and a pair of Tourquoise-browed motmots.

I took the bus back to Valladolid and then a bus to Tizimin and a 3rd bus up to Rio Lagartos.

As soon as I got off the bus in Rio Lagartos I was approached by a man named Asuncion, who is the boss of all the guides who take people out to see the flamingos. He walked me over to my hotel, the Posada Leyli which cost me $10/night and was very lovely with a balcony. Then he walked me down to the tourist information booth on the bay and I haggled for a boat ride the next day. It definitely costs more when you’re by yourself. I didn’t mention that I study birds and am a bit bird-crazy as I figured this could only drive up the price. I ended up paying about $50 for a 3.5 hour tour. There’s no ATM in Rio Lagartos so plan accordingly! I had dinner at a little outdoor place on the main square by the basketball courts and watched soccer with the family who ran the place. Then I walked over to the bay and watched the locals fish by hand. I really can’t say enough about how much I loved Rio Lagartos. There were only a few tourists there and the town was just lovely. I wished I could have stayed another day and birded some of the mangrove forests by foot.

March 10, Rio Lagartos and back to Cancun

At 6am I met my guide (ecologico guia), Armando Cauich at his boat. What a great guy. I met him the night before and we walked back to his house to meet his family and to see some bird pictures. He offered to let me use one of his bicycles to get around Rio Lagartos. So we met at 6am and we walked over to a pocket of scrub behind the little bus station. There were nesting Boat-billed herons, Northern jacanas and all the egrets you could look at. As we were walking back I saw a good number of Mexican sheartails at flowering bushes outside people’s homes. We then spent the next 3 hours out looking at birds in the mangroves. Armando was very observant and knowledable, and just an all-around good guy. I would HIGHLY recommend him. We saw many Belted kingfishers, Roseate spoonbills, a few Common black-hawks and of course Flamingos. I think we saw close to 500 flamingos in a couple of groups. The guides are very good about not disturbing the birds and we anchored away from them. It was such a great experience seeing those pink flamingos. Armando told me there are flamingos here all year round, in various numbers.

On the way back, we stopped so I could swim in the salt ponds and rub salty mud all over me. “It’s good for your complexion,” Armando told me in Spanish. When we docked, I tipped Armando and said goodbye. He told me of a reliable place just outside town for Yucatan wren and Mexican sheartails. I walked back South along the main road to a cemetery about 15-20 minutes outside of town. I walked around the outside of the cemetery and got some great close-up looks at Mexican sheartails, including a juvenile being fed by his parents. I didn’t see any wrens, but I did see a flying Crested caracara and a Bare-throated tiger-heron along the roadway. There were lots of shorebirds out on the mudflats but I didn’t spend much time looking at them with my binocs. I would have needed my scope.

Bus back to Valladolid and then on to Cancun. I stayed at a hostel full of younger kids than me in Cancun.

March 11, Cancun to Storrs Connecticut

I took an early bus to Puerto Morelos to see the Botanical Gardens that open up at 8am. I was the only person there during the 3 hours I spent birding the place. The damage from the hurricanes was very obvious with many broken trees. It was another windy day and the birding was VERY slow. I did manage to see another couple of Common black-hawks hunting over the canopy and many Lesser greenlets.

Wow, the week went fast and it was time to leave already. I caught the bus to the airport. As they say in Spanish, Buenos momentos, Good moments. Don’t forget the Duty Free at the airport, where 1 liter of alcohol is only $12!!!

Suggestions: I wish I would have spent more time in Coba, Felipe Carillo, and Rio Lagartos. But that’s always the sign of a good trip, when you want to stay longer. Luckily I left many birds to still see on my next adventure to Mexico.

Birds seen:

I didn’t write down all the places I saw some of the more common birds (Melodious blackbird, Cinnamon hummingbird, Great kiskadee, etc.) So I designated those birds with an asterix * in the list. Those birds with an asterix were seen at many (if not most) places, so the table below should be thought of as “conservative” for those birds with an asterix. I saw many pewees and flycatchers and kingbirds but could only identify them by call notes a few times. They are much more prevalent that my list would suggest.

Key to species list:

PM: Puerto Moreles and Botanical Gardens
TU: Tulum and ruins
CO: Coba and ruins
FC: Felipe Carrillo Puerto
CZ: Chichón Itza
RIO: Rio Lagartos
X: seen only once, usually only one individual bird
XX: seen several times
XXX: Often seen or common




 

Species

Locations

 

 

 

 

PM

TU

CO

FC

CZ

RIO

Pied-billed Grebe

 

 

X

 

 

 

White Pelican

 

 

 

 

 

XX

Brown Pelican

 

XXX

 

 

 

XXX

Double-crested Cormorant

 

XX

 

 

 

 

Neotropical Cormorant

 

 

X

 

 

 

Anhinga*

X

XX

X

 

 

XXX

Magnificent Frigatebird

 

XX

 

 

 

XXX

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron

 

 

 

 

 

X

Great Egret*

 

 

 

 

 

XXX

Snowy Egret*

XXX

XX

 

 

 

XX

Tricolored Heron

 

 

 

 

 

XXX

Reddish Egret

 

 

 

 

 

XX

Cattle Egret*

 

 

 

 

 

XX

Green Heron

 

 

X

 

 

 

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

 

X

 

 

 

XX

Boat-billed Heron

 

 

 

 

 

XX

White Ibis

 

 

 

 

 

XXX

Glossy Ibis

 

 

 

 

 

XX

Roseate Spoonbill

X

 

 

 

 

XXX

Greater Flamingo

 

 

 

 

 

XXX

Blue-winged Teal

 

 

 

 

 

XX

Black Vulture*

XXX

XXX

XX

X

X

XX

Turkey Vulture*

XXX

XXX

XX

XXX

XX

X

Osprey

 

 

 

 

 

XX

Common Black-Hawk

X

 

 

 

 

XX

Grey Hawk

 

 

 

X

 

 

Roadside Hawk

 

X

 

 

 

 

Laughing Falcon

 

 

 

 

 

X

Crested Caracara

 

 

 

 

 

X

American Kestrel

 

 

 

 

XX

 

Singing Quail

 

 

 

X

 

 

Ruddy Crake

 

 

X

 

 

 

Sora

 

 

X

 

 

 

Semipalmated Plover

 

X

 

 

 

 

Killdeer

 

 

 

 

 

X

Northern Jacana

 

 

 

 

 

X

Spotted Sandpiper

 

 

 

 

 

X

Ruddy Turnstone

 

XX

 

 

 

X

Sanderling

 

XXX

 

 

 

XX

Laughing Gull

 

 

 

 

 

XXX

Caspian Tern

 

XX

 

 

 

XX

White-winged Dove*

XX

XX

X

XX

XX

XX

Common Ground-Dove

 

 

XX

 

 

 

Ruddy Ground-Dove*

X

 

X

XX

 

 

Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeet

XX

 

 

 

 

 

White-fronted Parrot

XX

 

 

 

 

 

Yellow-lored (Yucatan) Parrot

X

 

 

 

 

 

Squirrel Cuckoo

 

 

X

 

 

 

Groove-billed Ani

XX

 

XX

 

 

 

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

 

 

 

X

 

 

Lesser Nighthawk

 

 

 

 

 

X

Wedge-tailed Sabrewing

 

 

XX

XX

 

 

Canivet's Emerald

 

XX

XX

 

 

 

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

 

 

XX

 

 

 

Cinnamon Hummingbird*

 

XX

XX

XX

X

 

Mexican Sheartail

 

 

 

 

 

XX

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

 

 

X

 

 

 

Black-headed Trogon

 

 

X

X

 

 

Blue-crowned Motmot

 

 

X

 

 

 

Tourquoise-browed Motmot

 

 

 

 

X

 

Belted Kingfisher

 

 

 

 

 

XX

Keel-billed Tucan

 

 

 

X

 

 

Yucatan Woodpecker

 

 

 

X

 

 

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

 

 

X

 

 

 

Ladderback Woodpecker

 

 

 

X

 

 

Smoky-brown Woodpecker

 

 

 

X

 

 

Pale-billed Woodpecker

 

 

X

 

 

 

Tawny-winged Woodcreeper

 

 

 

X

 

 

Ivory-billed Woodcreeper

 

 

X

 

 

 

Barred Antshrike

 

 

X

 

 

 

Yellow-bellied Elaenia

 

 

X

 

 

 

Northern Bentbill

 

 

X

 

 

 

Yellow-olive Flycatcher

 

 

X

 

 

 

Tropical Pewee

 

 

X

 

 

 

Vermillion Flycatcher

 

 

 

 

 

X

Yucatan Flycatcher

 

 

 

X

 

 

Great Kiskadee*

XX

X

 

XX

 

XX

Boat-billed Flycatcher*

XX

X

X

XX

 

 

Social Flycatcher*

X

X

 

XX

 

X

Tropical Kingbird

 

X

 

 

 

 

Couch's Kingbird

 

X

 

 

 

 

Masked Tityra

 

 

XX

XX

 

 

Tree Swallow

X

 

 

 

 

 

Mangrove Swallow

XX

X

 

 

 

XX

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

 

 

 

 

XX

 

Southern (Ridgeway's) Rough-winged Swallow

 

XX

XX

 

XX

 

Cave Swallow

XX

 

 

 

 

 

Barn Swallow*

XX

X

 

 

 

XX

Green Jay

 

 

XX

 

 

 

Brown Jay*

XX

 

XX

X

 

 

Yucatan Jay

XX

XX

 

 

 

 

Spot-breasted Wren

 

 

X

X

 

 

House Wren

 

 

 

X

 

 

Clay-colored Thrush

 

 

XX

 

 

 

Grey Catbird

 

 

 

XX

 

 

Black Catbird

 

 

 

XX

 

 

Tropical Mockingbird*

XXX

XX

XX

XXX

XX

XX

White-eyed Vireo*

 

XXX

XX

XX

XX

X

Yellow-throated Vireo

 

 

X

 

 

 

Lesser Greenlet

XXX

 

 

 

 

 

Rufous-browed Peppershrike

 

 

X

X

 

 

Blue-winged Warbler

 

 

X

 

 

 

Orange-crowned Warbler

X

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Parula

XX

 

XX

XX

 

 

Magnolia Warbler*

 

X

X

X

 

 

Yellow Warbler

 

 

X

 

 

X

Cape May Warbler

 

 

X

 

 

 

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler

 

 

X

 

 

 

Yellow-throated Warbler

 

 

X

 

 

 

Black-throated Green Warbler*

 

 

X

X

X

 

Black-and-white Warbler*

 

XX

 

 

 

 

American Redstart*

 

X

XX

XX

 

 

Ovenbird

X

 

 

 

 

 

Kentucky Warbler

 

 

X

 

 

 

Common Yellowthroat*

XX

 

X

X

 

 

Hooded Warbler

 

 

 

X

 

 

Yellow-throated Euphonia

 

 

X

 

 

 

Yellow-winged Tanager

 

 

X

 

 

 

Red-throated Ant Tanager

 

 

XX

 

 

 

Summer Tanager

 

 

X

 

 

 

Greyish Saltator

 

 

X

X

 

 

Black-headed Saltator

 

 

XX

XX

XX

 

Blue Bunting

 

 

 

X

 

 

Blue Grosbeak

 

X

 

 

 

 

Indigo Bunting

 

 

X

 

 

 

Olive Sparrow

 

 

 

XX

 

 

Green-backed Sparrow

 

 

XX

 

 

 

Savannah Sparrow

 

 

 

 

 

X

Eastern Meadowlark

 

 

 

 

 

X

Melodious Blackbird*

XXX

 

 

 

 

 

Great-tailed Grackle*

XX

XXX

XXX

XXX

XX

XX

Bronzed Cowbird

 

 

X

 

 

 

Black-cowled Oriole

 

 

XX

 

 

 

Orchard Oriole

 

 

X

 

 

 

Hooded Oriole*

XX

 

 

XX

 

 

Altamira Oriole*

XXX

 

 

XX

 

 

Baltimore Oriole

 

 

X

 

 

 

Yellow-billed Cacique

 

 

X

 

 

 

 

Jason Hill

jason.hill@huskymail.uconn.edu