29 February to 21 March 1996
by John van der Woude
The Yucatan Peninsula and the transition zone to the mountains in Chiapas (the 'Atlantic slope') are well worth a birding trip. There are many typical Neotropical bird species. Moreover, many of the sites to be visited are around archeological 'ruinas', like Uxmal on the photo right. In the Chiapas mountains, we stayed a few days less than intended, because of some frightening stories told by a local hotel owner. Added to the warnings given in the Lonely Planet guide for the area around San Cristobal ('do not walk on back roads between the villages here'), and also the warnings given by the Foreign Affairs ministry in The Netherlands, we decided to bird in the Chiapas mountains only at apparently safe sites. This meant for example that we skipped the sites in the area between Ocosingo and San Cristobal, as described in Winging It as good birding sites. On the Yucatan Peninsula and at the transition zone to the Chiapas mountains we felt more at ease.
Notwithstanding these apprehensions, we had a beautiful birding trip, also in the mountains. We liked the contrasts in the scenery, although these are not so spectacular as farther South in the Neotropics, and the deforestation has taken its toll in the mountains and the transition zone to the peninsula. The weather was also full of contrasts. We had a cool norte for a few days, and some very hot days, but mostly we had fine weather with reasonable temperatures (27 degrees C, in the Chiapas mountains lower of course).
On several days: late-afternoon birding at the site of arrival.
29 Feb.'96 Arrival at Cancun (CA)
01 Mar. Morning birding W of Cancun, then on to Coba (CO)
02 Mar. Morning birding at Coba, then via Tulum South to Felipe Carillo Puerto (FE)
03 Mar. Birding all day in the forests along the road from Felipe to Vigia
04 Mar. Morning birding there too, then South to Bacalar
05 Mar. Morning visit to Kohunlich (KO), then on to E. Zapata, with late afternoon birding at Usumacintha marshes (ZA)
06 Mar. Birding at Usum. marshes and La Libertad; afternoon to Palenque (PA)
07 Mar. Birding at and around Palenque archeological site
08 Mar. The same
09 Mar. Morning the same, then via Agua Azul on to Ocosingo
10 Mar. Visit to Tonina archeological site (TO), afternoon on to San Cristobal de las Casas (SA)
11 Mar. Morning birding at park near hotel, and some touristic things; reconnaisance for next morning
12 Mar. Morning birding N of San Cristobal, then on to Tuxtla Gutierrez (TU)
13 Mar. Morning birding above Canyon del Sumidero, afternoon at Zoo
14 Mar. Birding here and there (from early morning) during the northward crossing of the mountains via Bochil (BO), to Teapa (TE)
15 Mar. Morning birding near Teapa, then via Villahermosa on (birding) to Ciudad del Carmen (CI) at the Gulf coast
16 Mar. Along coast and inland diversion on to Champoton (CI) and Campeche
17 Mar. From Campeche along several archeological sites to Uxmal (all: PU)
18 Mar. Morning at Uxmal, later on to Celestun (CE)
19 Mar. Morning birding N. of Celestun, then on to Progreso (PO), birding there afternoon, night at Merida
20 Mar. Early departure for Chichen Itza archeological site, sightseeing and birding there, then on to Cancun (CA)
21 Mar. Morning some trials for birding and some sightseeing, afternoon departure home
We flew with Martinair, a Dutch charter company, directly from Amsterdam to Cancun. Included in our package were two hotel nights in Cancun (the first and the last night) and the 3-week rental of a VW Beetle. We changed some money before going through the customs, but the rate here is not so good. In Cancun, esp. along the Avenida Tulum, there are several casas de cambio, open also late in the afternoon, with far better rates. Seeing the VW Beetle, with so little luggage space and without airco, we could not resist the temptation of accepting the very reasonable offer of a new VW Golf. Moreover, they gave us 30 percent reduction if we payed the difference with the Beetle cash and in advance.
The hotel in Cancun was the Howard Johnson, also called Plaza Kokai, near the 'city centre', but in a quiet surrounding. Restaurants in Cancun are notoriously mediocre. The main attraction of Cancun, apart from some birding (see below), was the incredible blueness of the sea, seen in the late morning from an official mirador facing East at the beach near the real big fancy hotels on the long peninsula.
In Cancun, we had our first experiences with the topes in this country, road bumps of a rather steep sort, but practically (!) all are indicated by signs.
Driving West to Nuevo X-Can (the 'x' is pronounced as 'sh'), in order to go to Coba, we had to stay on the old road, the libre. The cuota, the new and practically empty toll road, starting far outside Cancun, has no exit until Valladolid.
In Coba (photo of ruinas) we took a room in the rather expensive but very nice and cool hotel Villa Arqueologica Coba (credit card possible). The Villa hotel has a good restaurant with medium prices, but with the most expensive beer we have had on this trip (14 pesos; the cheapest was 3 pesos, but same brand - Superior).
The next destination was Felipe Carillo Puerto. By now we found to our pleasure that even the smaller roads are in good condition on the Yucatan. In Felipe, there are only very modest hotels. We found the hotel Maria Isabella the quietest, with the best possibility to park your car safely on this Saturday night. The price was an incredible 40 pesos, which is one tenth of the most expensive hotel we have had on this trip. The next evening we came back here, just because the birding had been so good that we wanted to stay an extra night. Both nights we ate at the El Faisan y el Venado, good food for the usual low prices. Around the corner of this restaurant is a good shop with all sorts of (sweet) bread. Together with some grocery stuff from a clean shop across our hotel, and bananas from the market hall across the restaurant, we had enough for lunch out in the forests. For breakfast on this trip we mostly had granola (cruesli) and milkpowder (Nido, for sale everywhere). As usual, bottles of mineral water (or, more often, purified water) are for sale in all sorts of shops.
To break up the long trip from Felipe to Zapata, we had a hotel South of Bacalar and payed a visit to Kohunlich the next morning. The reasonably priced hotel is called Laguna, and is situated at a very elongated lake.
Crossing the base of the Yucatan Peninsula, we had several military police checks. At one of these posts there had just been a terrible accident of one ADO bus against the back of another ADO bus. Apparently the driver of the second bus had not expected this stop in the middle of nowhere. At the gas station near Xpujil (invariably Pemex; the brand for a katalysator car is called magna sin or just magna) the young servants tried to cheat us in several ways, but we persisted and paid the right amount. As far as we know, this was the only case of serious cheating on the whole trip.
Zapata (Emiliano Zapata) is a town right in the marsh area of Usumacintha and La Libertad, so we choose to try a hotel there in stead of going on to Palenque and return for the marshes. We found a mediocre hotel (painted blue) on a quiet plaza near the river, about 200 m from the main road. The restaurant we found on that main road was called La Selva, had good food but no beer but good limon con agua mineral.
In Palenque, one of the main destinations, we stayed three nights. We took our time to look for a good hotel, and choose the Chan Kah resort about halfway the city and the Maya ruins (photo). It is a nicely landscaped resort with cool bungalows, and we had a hummer nest right in front of our bungalow. We tried the restaurant only once and realised that for dining we better had to go to the city. The bungalow cost us 350 pesos per night, but for the third night we had to move to a room in the older part on the other side of the road (300 pesos), because of some clumsiness of the reception people. The restaurants we had in Palenque itself were both good. The one is the cosy La Canada at the end of a short dirt road in a forest remnant, the other one the rather stylish La Selva. Both are at the exit of the town towards the ruins. A bit into the town were all the shops we needed, also a casa de cambio, and a Pemex station. Here too, we made our first phone call home from a shop. You have to say beforehand how long you want to phone, they dial, and they shut down the line when your time is over. We saw shops with this service (mostly small drugstores) in several other towns too.
The next stop was Ocosingo, a small and cosy town at about 1000 m, in order to visit the Tonina archeological site. This was a Saturday night, so the hotel of our first choice (at the plaza) was full. We stayed in the cheap hotel Agua Azul, with our car in the open courtyard around which the simple rooms are situated. We had a good meal on the terrace of restaurant La Montura, at the cosy plaza, just 150 m from our hotel.
Another two hours further into the mountains was the famous city of San Cristobal de las Casas. Here we had the good and reasonably priced hotel Mansion del Valle, opposite the La Merced Church at the Av. Mazariegos, which runs West from the zocalo (the plaza). It is, like most buildings in this historic city, a classic colonial building with a built-in court. They have a closed parking place at the backside. There is a good choice of restaurants in town. Remarkable was the early breakfast in the restaurant Tuluc at the Av. Insurgentes. Restaurant El Teatro offers nice alternatives (French/Italian) for the regular Mexican food, and the vegetarian food at Tierra Madre (Av. Insurgentes) was OK too. We liked this city very much. We bought some Indian embroideries, and my new leather belt, at the 'market' around the Santo Domingo church. Bargaining is only possible to a very limited amount. By the way, the better stuff here all seems to originate from Guatemala.
Tuxtla Gutierrez is just a big town, but inevitable for visiting two important birding sites. We stayed in the expensive but good hotel Maya del Sol, a bit motel-like with your car practically in front of your room, at a quiet court. We were not succesful in finding a good restaurant with a good parking place, but afterwards I think the restaurant of the hotel will be OK. The ring road around Tuxtla has been completed, and this hotel is situated 100 m after the junction of the (continuation of the) Av. Central with the Northern and the Southern branches of the the ring road. Although we did not particularly like this town, we had a pleasant early night at a small park plaza a bit West from the main zocalo. Here, during our meal (outside at a small white restaurant) a dancing night started in the park with a sort of rumba band, all in a cosy atmosphere like in the late fifties back home, with the park benches put together in rows, and a very polite audience.
It took us one whole day (with birding) to cross the mountains (photo) from Tuxtla to Teapa, the start of the plains of Villahermosa. Just before Teapa, there are sulphur baths in a lovely surrounding, with a simple hotel (no restaurant) on the same grounds. They charged us 100 pesos, a bit too much, but the fee for the sulphur pools is included, although two large, but easily flattened cockroaches in the room were included too. We stayed here as the only guests - in the weekend it may be quite different. I had a swim in the main sulphur pool, but the water was not very clean. In the darkness we drove on to Teapa to find a restaurant. This had to be at the plaza, in a huge empty hall with tv set on and dark window glass. The food was fatty.
In Villahermosa, we only visited the impressive Parque La Ventana, and drove on along the 180, which follows the West coast of the Yucatan Peninsula to Campeche. The ferries have been replaced by long bridges. After noon, we passed by Frontera, and had a lovely meal at the plaza, in a restaurant with an unmistakable colonial style. We arrived at Ciudad del Carmen rather late (it was dark already), so we did not have much time to look for a hotel (the city is not described in the Lonely Planet guide). With the help of a motorized policeman we found the very modern and expensive Euro-hotel, where we had one of the last rooms available. There was a Latin-American women's conference. In the morning, the reception people had some trouble in removing a big car in front of our car in the garage. The alarm of that big car went off, so several of the guests will have been awakened by our early departure.
Driving on along the coast North, we gradually realised that the topped-off palm trees and the many sand heaps blown in from the beach were traces of a hurricane some time ago. The road was remarkably quiet, and at the cosy lagoon of Sabancuy it became clear why - there was a deviation to the 186, the inland alternative for the 180, because of huge damage caused by the hurricane! We had to drive 100 km more than normal, in order to reach Champoton, from where we could continue the road to Campeche. Champoton is a sleepy little coastal town, with a splendid restaurant for the afternoon. It is called La Palapa, and is situated at the seaside of the boulevard, with a covered terrace overlooking the calm Gulf. We had their specialty, fish stuffed with shrimp, all very fresh and tasty. Driving back we witnessed the unloading of several sharks from a tiny boat.
From Champoton to Campeche there is a new and fast toll road inland from the old coastal route. Campeche is an old fortified coastal town, where we were quite content with the old hotel America Plaza. Car parking (with a night guide) is at the back of the Ramada hotel, with a voucher from the America Plaza hotel. As we had had our main meal already in Champoton, we just went along some bars/restaurants to have a few cocktails (bebidas preparadas).
At the famous Uxmal site there is not much choice in hotels and restaurants. We liked to stay near Uxmal itself in stead of going some 30 km or so further on. We had a room in hotel Mision, with a fantastic view on the maya site in the distance, across the endless forests that are so characteristic of the Yucatan scenery. The service in the hotel's restaurant was rather clumsy. I think the restaurant at the Villa Archeologica hotel will be better. But the next day around noon, just some 5 or so km further on towards Merida, we ate in a simple, but good and friendly wooden restaurant along the road (to the East side).
Celestun is a bit dirty, sleepy, old coastal village. Of the two hotels next to each other along the 'main' road along the beach, the one advised to us, Maria del Carmen, was full. In the other one, only after some patience we got a room at the seaside. Just a few meters to the North there are two nice restaurants. There is a gas station, as might be expected, but unexpectedly, they had no magna sin (unleaded gas). As we really had to fill up the tank, we kept the use of the car to a minimum here. We managed it until the next magna sin, in Hunucma.
Coming back from Celestun to Merida it was a quick drive to Progreso, as the ring road around Merida is ready, and from Merida to Progreso there is a broad two-lane road. From Progreso an enormous pier extends into the sea, but we were not allowed to go on it. The birding at the backwaters was very good (see below).
In Merida, we had a hotel away from the plaza as well as from the bus station, but nevertheless I woke up regularly because the buses, probably when saying goodbye for a long trip, used their horns for a minute or so. But the hotel (recommended by travellers that we met at Celestun) was good and not expensive, and we could park our car in the courtyard. It is called Hotel Dolores Alba. The city centre was very lively around 6 or 7 pm. We had nice drinks at a terrace on the Parque Hidalgo, a bit NE of the Plaza Mayor, and in the Cafe Express opposite. The headaches we got after that could easily be attributed to the air pollution caused by the bus and lorry traffic.
Driving from Merida back to Cancun, via the famous Chichen Itza maya site, was an easy job as we took the cuota (toll road). It starts well after Merida (some 30 km?), so we first thought we had missed it. The total toll rate for Merida-Cancun was about US$ 60, but it was worth it. And no topes anymore!
Broadly speaking, we have been in four different regions:
1. Inland Yucatan Peninsula - many forests, and rather uniform, although the Eastern and the Southern part are more humid. Trees are up to 20 m high.
2. Coast of Yucatan, and marsh areas inland from the coast.
3. Atlantic slope - the moist tropical transition zone from Yucatan to the mountains. Trees, where left, are up to 40 m high.
4. Mountains of Chiapas - remains of oak and pine-oak forests, and some cloud forest above that.
Cancun (abbreviated CA in the species list)
We didn't see many coastal birds. In and around the city we hadn't much luck either. There is much development. In the future, an 'ecological park' South of the centre may be worthwhile. Along the road to Punta Sam (North) there was a bit birding possible (coastal shrubs), as well as along the road from the airport directly to the hotel zone on the long peninsula.
The only birding really worthwhile was between the old and the new highway to Merida. Just after the bifurcation between the two (well West of Cancun), there were side roads from the old road (libre) to the left across the new toll road (cuota). Birding along these side roads (no traffic) was good, especially from the viaducts across the cuota.
Central in this location is a lake. The marshy border was good birding. On the archeological terrain (open at 8 a.m. only),birding was good right after the entrance, and we had a marvellous lookout from the big pyramid c. 1 km from the entrance. Before 8 a.m. we had good birding along a dirt road going at right angle from the lake in the village proper, which is situated opposite the hotel. Felipe Carillo Puerto (FE)
A good dirt road (photo), passable even after the rains we got here, goes from Felipe NE to Vigia Chico. We had picked up this site from a report by Jon Curson (1990). This was good birding, for many kilometers. To find this road from the centre of Felipe, go East at the round-about with the direction signs. Follow the two-lane road until you stand before a sort of longish cafe. Bend slightly to the left there, and go on straight (don't go to the right again). After some arable fields and a big school the forest begins (began). The forest was getting gradually better. The best part was in our opinion about 10 to 15 km from Felipe. Some 5 km further on, the forest was lower again, and there was an enclosed arable field again.
We did see only two or three cars during the whole day, and some cyclists - friendly people. There were several side tracks to go on foot. Kohunlich (KO)
Kohunlich is an archeological site (photo) near Belize, East of Chetumal. The side road that you have to take from the 186 was good birding (in the early morning) - fields and marshes and small forest patches. The archeological site itself (open at 8 am) is well wooded, but small, and we found no tracks into the forest. We saw forest border species especially.
Further West to Escarcega, there is a splendid lake at the village called Centenario (50 km East of Escarcega). We went up the side road East of the lake for 1 km or so, and saw a very attractive old forest lying on a peninsula in the lake. A local woman said that you may arrange a boat from a bit further down this side road, in order to get into that forest.
The Usumacintha and La Libertad marshes around the city of Emiliano Zapata are famous among birders. Yet, it was a bit problematical. Road 186, traversing the Usumacintha marshes, is busy, with many trucks. For that reason we decided to have the better part of the day (the morning) for the marsh between Zapata and La Libertad. This was not so bad indeed, but I think we should have been in the Usum. marsh (photo) nevertheless. We went there now only at 10 am. (We had been there the previous late afternoon already too.) In the early afternoon we left the 186 and took the side road East to Balancan, and then after some km a track South into the grassy marsh - finally a spot without traffic, and some interesting birds too. Then on to Balancan and a round back to Zapata. This part of the round trip was not really worthwhile. As a whole, however, and certainly together with the marshes between Villahermosa and the coast (CI), it was spectacular birding in this region.
We should still mention too that the previous night we had seen an enormous heron roost in the distance from the Western entrance of Zapata, in some huge trees across a lake.
Before 8 a.m., the time the 'ruinas' are opened to the public, the best birding was near the camping (some 2 km before the entrance) and especially the last 1 km before the entrance.
On the archeological site itself the best areas were: directly behind the entrance, at the brook behind the palace, and the various forest trails starting behind the Temple of Inscriptions.
The trail that starts from the new museum along the road up along a brook might be good also, but this opens up at 8 am either, and closes also at 5 pm. We didn't go there.
The grounds of our Chan Kah resort were also good.
A very bad dirt road leads from Ocosingo East to the archeological site of Tonina. To get there from the centre of the village, we just followed the instructions given in the Lonely Planet guide, although there were some signs now too. Including some birding along the road (many blossoming orchards with orioles) it took us one hour to get there.
Some 150 m before the entrance it was good birding in some lone trees and bushes near the road. On the excavation terrain itself (open at 9 am only) it was good also, especially in the wooded gully behind the entrance. Later and higher up the pyramid it became less good for birds, but there we were awed by the archeology.
San Cristobal de las Casas (SA)
As said in the introduction, we confined ourselves here as well in the next two sites to the apparently safer spots. Next to our hotel was the Cerrito (hill) de San Cristobal, that you can ascend via a long staircase through open pine wood. Along the stairs and behind the church on top (where joggers kept us a safe company) we saw already several of the bird species of this high altitude (2100 m).
Very good birding was the straight and open final 2 km of the road to Zinacatan (forest and non-forest species). This village was easy to find by following the signs from SCC first to Chamula, and then at a broad bifurcation, to Zinacatan. Some distance before this fork (as seen from SCC) was, in a sharp bend, the entrance to the nature reserve Huitepec. This opens only at 9 a.m., and there is nothing to bird at the gate, but this was well compensated by the birding near Zinacatan from 7 till 9. At the entrance of the reserve is a small office with shop, with a guarded parking lot. The reserve is situated on a rather steep slope, and the only, partly circular trail goes through two forest zones, a drier one below and a wetter cloud forest-like one above (photo). From the highest point of the circular trail, at a small shelter, an unofficial trail runs yet further into the forest. We were quite satisfied with the birding in this reserve, and we were glad that we have seen some cloud forest.
Tuxtla Gutierrez (TU)
In the morning we did the canyon rim, in the afternoon the Zoo. This appeared a good division. Both destinations were easily found from the ring road, both are indicated.
The entrance of the Parque Cañon del Sumidero is a large gate, probably it had just been opened at 7 am. The guard warned us dutifully that we should not stop along the first few km and at the first of the five parking lots at miradors (viewpoints), because of the chance of robberies by people that walk in from the nearby slums of Tuxtla. After a short stop at a lone flowering tree with Yellow Grosbeak shortly after the first P, we drove straight on to the end of the road, at the 5th P, with a cafeteria (open already). From there we walked back to the 4th P and saw several bush specialties like Blue-and-White Mockingbird and Slender Sheartail. From the cafetaria the view was wonderful, with egrets 1 km straight below us in the canyon. Driving back to the 3rd P, we walked a bit into a higher forest than usual here. But that was at 10 a.m., a bit too late for good birding here.
The Zoo was very interesting indeed (as indicated in several sources), to see many of the birds and mammals of Chiapas. In the wild, in the forest that this zoo mainly is, we saw Chachalacas everywhere, and both cracids at the start of the trail that traverses the park midway. The Harpy was an impressive memory of the one we had seen in Venezuela - now he looked at us much in the same way as then.
Crossing from Chiapa de Corzo to Rayon (via Bochil - BO)
The traverse of the northern mountain chain of Chiapas (until Teapa, see below) took us a whole day. We went early, and the roadside birding was good. It seemed reasonably safe as well - the scenery was semiopen, and there was regular traffic (but not too much). The bird list of today was rather diverse, as you cross several altitudinal zones and diverse habitats. You go from the tropical basin of Tuxtla up to the pine forests at 2000 m, and down again to Rayon at about 1000 m.
From Rayon to Teapa (TE)
This is typically the Atlantic slope - the hills at the transition from the mountains to the Yucatan Peninsula. It is a humid tropical area, and we saw several of the species of Palenque again, but also rather some new ones (like Laughing Falcon). Although there is much deforestation, there were small bits of forest everywhere as well as many lone trees - a typical semiopen habitat. Good birding did we have at the sulphur pools (even some waders at the most natural pool), and also 5 or so km back to the mountains from there, in the direction of Pichualco, along a short dead-end, surfaced road starting at a large lone tree (with Red-lored Parrot). Still some km further back was an interesting looking wet valley.
The marshes between Villahermosa and Ciudad del Carmen (CI)
The counterpart of the Usumacintha marshes along the 186, these, along the 180, were easier to bird because of less traffic. (This may be different when the whole 180 has been repaired.) The scenery is more varied also, although for the coastal waders Progreso (see below) was far better. From Frontera, a dirt road traverse along the river Usumacintha to the Usumacintha marshes at the 186 seems possible and interesting, but we didn't do it. In the restaurant of Frontera (see Logistics) was a promising poster at the wall about this total area (a biosphere reserve - whatever that may mean in Mexico).
Also the stray observations between Ciudad del Carmen and Champoton are indicated with CI in the list. The coastal road from Ciudad del Carmen on looks promising on the map, but we saw too often sand and blown-off palms tops only. The deviation at Sabancuy was long, but led us for many km along a good marshy canal beside the road.
The Puuc hill region (PU)
The (low) Puuc hils proper are at Sayil and Uxmal, but also the observations between Campeche town and Sayil are indicated as PU in the list. The habitat is much the same: a slightly drier sort of forest than we mostly had in the Eastern Yucatan. Especially the early morning hours along the now deserted old road (libre; in repair) from Campeche South was productive. Of the archeological sites visited here (Edzna, Sayil, Kabah, Uxmal), especially Sayil was nicely forested, but we were a bit too late here. We concentrated ourselves further on Uxmal, also because of the hotel there. Yet, as might be expected, we didn't see many new birds here anymore.
When entering Celestun you first cross a long lagoon. At the bridge there, excursions are offered to the flamingos further North in the lagoon. Because the people seem to have developed the habit of chasing the flamingos, to see them in flight, and because we saw them already in the distance because of that habit, we didn't do that excursion. But the flamingos are of a beautiful orange-red colour. The main attraction for us, however, were the coastal scrubs North of Celestun. We just followed the main street of the sleepy village closest to the beach some km Northward. There is practically no traffic along this dirt road. There are several side tracks to the East, which we walked for 100 m or so. Here were the specialties like Yucatan Bobwhite and White-lored Gnatcatcher.
We are glad that we did go to this coastal site too. There were far more waders here than on all the other coastal sites together. The authorities here have tried to develop the mangrove area East of the main road from Merida. As yet, the result is a large sort of mudflat area with spottily some short stubs of dead mangrove trees. A good asfalt road, not busy, winds through the area, and we birded for hours along this road. The road starts to the right, just before you would enter the village at the end of the broad two-lane road from Merida. From the winding road, several km long, we saw fifteen wader species, the most abundant being Least Sandpiper and Black-necked Stilt.
Coastal scrubs we did not see here, but we did see nice mangroves at the other side of the road from Merida (where we dipped for Rufous-necked Wood-rail).
A note on the archeological sites
The archeological sites are not only good for birding (ahem). We were really impressed by the archeological remains as well. The buildings are decidedly more than just ruins as they are mostly called (ruinas). The size, shape, and the sacral and arithmetic background of the buildings are very interesting, although we did not take a lot of time to dive into that business.
The birding brought us to eleven of the archeological sites in SE Mexico. Based both on archeology and on scenic setting, top ranking was Palenque, although it was mostly (except right after 8 a.m.) very crowded. Next comes for us Tonina, near the village of Ocosingo, because of its superb setting and shape, a huge terraced pyramid. Sharing a third place are Coba, Kohunlich, Sayil, Uxmal (in trip sequence).
Chichen Itza may be the most famous site of the whole Yucatan, but the scenic setting is poor. Nevertheless we are glad that we have been there, especially for the pyramid (Castillo), the observatory and the ball court.
Birds (see also species list below)
In Palenque, Slaty-breasted Tinamou could be heard at several locations in the forest behind the archeological site. We were very near one along the long trail behind the Temple of Inscriptions.
Once we recognized the sound of Thicket Tinamou, we heard them at several sites. The nearest we met them along the side road to Kohunlich.
Along the West coast we saw by chance both Cormorants together, and then realised that we should look out for further Double-crested.
We have seen Little Blue Heron in various stages between white and blue.
The light conditions were often so good that we mostly could see the yellow-orange feet of Snowy Egret at large distances. We dipped for Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, but finally found several Pinnated Bittern along the road from Villahermosa to the coast, after having missed even them at the Usumacintha marshes.
White Ibis was our last trip tick - when we were frantically in search for at least something to bird along the coast at Cancun.
We saw very few duck species. Apart from one pintail, we only saw Blue-winged Teal, albeit on several sites. This is our first Neotropical trip without Whistling-Ducks.
Raptors were not numerous, although we saw twenty species. Snail kites were the delight of the Southwestern marshes, as was the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (photo). A pair of White Hawk was splendidly performing in the air at the Palenque archeological site. Even the common tourists pointed them out to each other. Afterwards we saw them mating in a large tree to the left behind the Temple of Inscriptions. Both Black-Hawks were typical raptor encounters: sudden, clear (if you know what part of the plumage is the most important) and quickly disappearing. Laughing Falcon was one of the Atlantic slope species that we missed at Palenque, but got to see later on at Teapa. Bat Falcon did we see at both sites. Aplomado Falcon was one of the first birds we saw at the Usumacintha marshes, when entering from the Northeast.
Plain Chachalaca was rather common at many sites. Abundant were they in the Zoo of Tuxtla Gutierrez, in the wild. In the same way, we have added there Crested Guan and Great Curassow to our list. These too occurred outside the fences. We hope that Jon Curson, in his 1990 report, is right when stating that these birds can be regarded as truely wild.
Contrary to our expectations, Yuacatan (or Black-throated) Bobwhite was easily found in the open scrub fields N of Celestun. At Uxmal, we heard a song quite like that of Little Tinamou, but in the description in Howell and Webb for Little Tinamou (which doesn't occur there) we were kindly directed to Singing Quail! Ruddy Crakes were easily heard (and seen a few seconds) at typical marshy grass habitat at Coba and Palenque. Grey-necked Wood-rail was a trip tick obtained as a bonus when we had the long deviation to Champoton.
We were thrilled by the many waders at Progreso, but one stands out specifically. This was the Snowy Plover, a lifer, which we could approach very near on foot. Stilt Sandpiper was another lifer there. This indeed is, as Howell and Webb state, a species that might be easily overlooked, despite its name.
All gulls but one were Laughing Gulls. Loose terns mostly were Royal. Least Terns enlivened the air above the dead mangroves at Progreso.
From one of the viaducts across the toll road W of Cancun we were lucky to see White-crowned Pigeon. Red-billed Pigeon was the commonest pigeon, White-winged Dove the commonest dove, both in very diverse habitats. In the fields between Ocosingo and Tonina we saw a flock of about 7 of the not so common Mourning Dove.
Aztec Parakeet was rather common in especially the more humid Eastern part of the Yucatan. White-fronted Parrot was by far the commonest parrot. Yucatan Parrot was one of the specialties of Felipe Carillo Puerto, gotten into view after we heard them calling all the time during a strenuous search through the forest.
At Palenque, after closing time of the ruins, we stayed on the entrance road until dark and we were rewarded with both calls of Mottled Owl, and with the rolling sound of Vermiculated Screech-Owl. From our room at the sulphur baths near Teapa, we also heard Mottled Owl calling in the forest on the hill slope. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was really common - if you know the sound, and don't mistake it for the equally common Violaceous Trogon.
Lesser Nighthawk did we often see in the towns and villages, especially at dusk, above the enlightened plazas. Most spectacular were they as seen from our dinner table at the plaza of Ocosingo. Yucatan Poorwill (checked there with the help of a prepared tape) was the main reward for the owling we did at the end of our day in the forest at Felipe.
Unmistakable was the sound of the Northern Whip-poor-will that we heard, an hour or so before dawn, from our hotel at Uxmal, at 18 March. For Howell and Webb the occurrence of this species on the Yucatan Peninsula is still a question mark (and: 'should occur there as a transient'), but for us it is an exclamation mark.
Except for the hermits, Fork-tailed Emerald, Rufous-tailed and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, all hummers were regional (mostly mountain) specialties. These included amongst others Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Azure-crowned and Green-fronted Hummingbird and Slender Sheartail.
The pan-neotropical Violaceous Trogon (photo) was common here too. Trogon specialties were Mountain Trogon, and for the lower altitudes Slaty-tailed and Black-headed Trogon.
Only now we understand why some people call the large motmots 'thrash birds'. Nevertheless, they remain splendid birds.
We have seen many toucans (Keel-billed), especially at Palenque. But also at Felipe we saw them already, and there too we had our Collared Aracari.
Of the thirteen woodpecker species possible here, we have seen ten! We were happy with such neotropical goodies as Chestnut-coloured and Pale-billed Woodpecker, but equally with North-American reminiscences as Acorn and Ladder-backed Woodpecker. Golden-olive and Golden-fronted Woodpecker were very common.
We saw both woodcreeper specialties of this region, Tawny-winged and Ivory-billed. The latter, once you know its sound (but we saw also several), was rather common in the better Yucatan and Atlantic-slope forests.
Barred Antshrike was the only antbird we have seen. We often heard it in forest clearings. We saw no furnarids and no manakins. So, of these three typical neotropical families, we saw only one species.
The panamerican flycatcher family is represented better of course, but we didn't see many species of this family either. Most often, of the drabber ones, we saw Tropical Pewee. Two species from inside the more humid tropical forest were Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and Bright-rumped Attila (inasfar the latter is a flycatcher). Higher altitude specialties were Greater Pewee and Pine Flycatcher. Couch's Kingbird, of the Yucatan, sounds clearly different from Tropical Kingbird. Western Kingbird was a lifer from the near-Pacific side. Piratic Flycatcher, missed thus far elsewhere in the Neotropics, did we pick up at the Atlantic slope of Teapa.
Rose-throated Becard was rather common in several sites on the Yucatan as well as on the Atlantic slope. Masked Tityra outnumbered Black-crowned Tityra.
A group of five or so Purple Martin was clearly on migration Northward along the coast at Celestun. Mangrove Swallow occurred on several wet places, not only along the coast. Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallow sounds clearly different from Northern. Black-capped Swallow was a higher-altitude specialty in Chiapas.
One of the most remarkable bird encounters of the whole trip was with the Cave Swallows at Uxmal. In the course of the morning, hundreds of them flocked gradually together above the Great Temple. At last, around 10 or 11 a.m., one big swarm of c. 1000, seemingly all calling, swirled between the walls at the square. Gradually they began sneaking from this swarm into the many chambers around the square. We saw many old nests in the ridges up in the chambers. We got the impression that the swallows just all returned that day from their wintering grounds!
The Grey Silky was a typical wish-list species, and we well rewarded on both higher altitude sites. Here once more the quality of Howell and Webb's guide was proven - the flight image, depicted as an extra detail in the guide, proved to be valuable in the first identification.
Vocally, the Band-backed Wren made up for the other Campylorhynchus wrens that we missed. Forest species typical of Felipe (and some other sites too) were Spot-breasted, White-browed and White-bellied Wren, and White-breasted Wood-wren. The Spot-breasted's song was one of the most typical sounds of the more humid tropical forests here. At Tuxtla we picked up the more Pacific Banded Wren.
One of the absolute specialties of the dry forests along the Cañon del Sumidero was the shy Blue-and-White Mockingbird. What a difference, in all respects but shape, to the common Tropical Mockingbird.
Eastern Bluebird, only seen in the mountains (Chiapas) was a nice memory of the States. Brown-backed Solitaire did we hear and see first in the Huitepec reserve near San Cristobal, and later we heard it several times along the Bochil traverse of the Northern mountain chain. Other higher altitude thrush specialties were the Black and the Rufous-collared thrush, the first in the Huitepec reserve, the latter also along the road to Zinacatan.
We saw all three possible Gnatcatchers. The best memory is of the White-lored Gnatcatcher, seen several times in the coastal scrubs North of Celestun.
Mexico is a good country for jays. We liked especially the furtive Yucatan Jay. White-throated Magpie-Jay was a specialty from the other (Pacific) side.
Of the five vireo species that we saw, especially White-eyed and Mangrove were rather common, and often conspicuous by behaviour and sound. Solitary Vireo was restricted to the zone where it belongs - the mountains. Yellow-throated Vireo was one of those less common species again that we saw at Felipe only.
At one of the many beautiful semiopen spots along the mountain road from Tuxtla back to the North we saw a small group of Black-headed Siskin. Lesser Goldfinch was another Carduelis lifer. On the nightly zocalo (plaza) of San Cristobal we saw two palm trees full of brownish finch-like birds. The next morning, near the church on top of the stairs, we were able to identify them as House Finch. We guess that the roost counted some 400 individuals, affirming the somewhat hesitatingly stated quantitative occurrence for San Cristobal city by Howell and Webb.
Warblers were everywhere! SE Mexico obviously is an important wintering area for them. Most of them occurred in mixed flocks, with dominance of Black-throated Green, Black-and-White and Wilson's Warbler and American Redstart. Local specialties in the mountains were Crescent-chested, Rufous-capped, Golden-browed and Olive Warbler and Painted Redstart. Other goodies for us included Mangrove, Townsend's, Hermit, Yellow-throated, Worm-eating and Kentucky Warbler. Palm Warbler was scarcely a warbler for us - it foraged on the mud between dead mangrove trees.
We did not see many tanagers. Summer Tanager was still the commonest. Specialties, all in or near the more humid forests, included Grey-headed, Yellow-winged, Rose-throated, Crimson-collared, Scarlet-rumped (the 'traffic light') and Golden-hooded Tanager. Western Tanager was really western here too. Blue-grey Tanager was rare compared to their abundance in South-America.
Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonia enlivened the trees at the Maya ruins. The beautiful Blue-hooded Euphonia at Tonina was a fine memory of the lower Andean slope of Ecuador. Although we dipped for two of the three Honeycreepers, we saw the endemic Cinnamon-bellied Flower-piercer.
The twin Olive and Green-backed Sparrow did we see in their appropriate areas. Rusty Sparrow, at Tonina, was big and rather tame.
The White-collared Seedeater, as variable as the Variable Seedeater, was rather common, with its often misleading song.
Yellow Grosbeak was one of the few real wish-list species. We saw them very well in the early morning along the road to the Canyon rim at Tuxtla, between the first and the second mirador parking lot. Secret but rather common was the Northern Cardinal at the coastal scrubs N of Celestun. Black-headed Saltator was the commonest of the larger finch-like species, Indigo Buting the commonest of the smaller ones (apart from the seedeaters). We had terrific views of Blue Grosbeak in roadside ditches on the Atlantic slope.
Icterids were very common, both in numbers as in species. We saw both Oropendola's, both Caciques, three Blackbird species and ten (!) Oriole species. This is why Howell and Webb have three plates with Orioles, and also because you have to look carefully for the differences between the various plumages of similar species. We liked the orioles not only because of their conspicuous appearance and behaviour, but also they give here - with so many species represented - a special meaning to the many open and semiopen habitats. Some of the specialties were Orange Oriole in the Northern Yucatan, and Streak-backed and Black-vented Oriole in the mountains.
The last species to be mentioned is indicated by Howell and Webb as vagrant to the Yucatan - the unmistakable Yellow-headed Blackbird. We saw it in the NE part of the Usumacintha marshes, along the 186, on 5 March. The one specimen formed part of a flock of mainly Red-winged Blackbird, in low bushes near a small pond.
Looking through the species list, I first thought that we had seen a great majority of the species on more than one site, which might mean that we could have done with fewer sites on this trip. However, it appears that we have seen 133 of the 302 species on no more than one site. So, although this is not a sound evidence, we think it was good to divide our attention over so many sites.
One of the most memorable sites for species diversity was the forest between Felipe Carillo Puerto and Vigia Chico (site FE). Eleven species did we see only here.
CA=Cancun, CO=Coba, FE=Felipe, KO=Kohunlich, ZA=Zapata, PA=Palenque,
TO=Tonina, SA=San Cristobal, TU=Tuxtla G., BO=Bochil, TE=Teapa,
del Carmen, PU=Puuc hills, CE=Celestun, PO=Progreso (see report)
|Thicket Tinamou||FE KO PU|
|Least Grebe||CO KO ZA CI|
|Neotropic(Olivaceous)Cormorant||CO ZA CI CE PO|
|Double-crested Cormorant||CA CI CE PO|
|Brown Pelican||CA CI CE PO|
|Magnificent Frigatebird||CA CE PO|
|Tricolored Heron||CA CI PO|
|Little Blue Heron||CA CO ZA CI PO|
|Snowy Egret||CA ZA CI CE PO|
|Great Blue Heron||CA CO ZA TU CI CE PO|
|Great White Egret||FE ZA PA TU CI CE PO|
|Cattle Egret||CA ZA PA TO TU BO TE CI PO|
|Striated (Green) Heron||CO KO ZA TE CI PO|
|Yellow-crowned Night-heron||ZA PO|
|Wood Stork||ZA CI PO|
|Blue-winged Teal||CO ZA CI PO|
|American Black Vulture||CA CO FE KO ZA PA TO SA TU BO TE CI PU CE PO|
|Turkey Vulture||CA CO FE KO ZA PA TO SA TU BO TE CI PU CE PO|
|Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture||ZA CI|
|American Swallow-tailed Kite||TO|
|Snail Kite||ZA CI|
|Grey Hawk||CO FE PU|
|Roadside Hawk||FE KO ZA TO CI PU|
|White-tailed Hawk||ZA CI PU|
|Osprey||ZA CI CE PO|
|Crested Caracara||ZA CI PU PO|
|American Kestrel||ZA TO TU TE|
|Bat Falcon||PA TE|
|Plain Chachalaca||CA FE KO ZA PA TO TU TE|
|Black-throated (Yucatan) Bobwhite||CE|
|Ruddy Crake||CO PA|
|American Purple Gallinule||CO CI|
|Common Moorhen||CO KO SA CI|
|American Coot||CO SA CI|
|Northern Jacana||CO KO ZA TE CI|
|Black-necked Stilt||TE CI PO|
|American Golden Plover||PO|
|Grey Plover||CI PO|
|Semipalmated Plover||CI PO|
|Wilson's (Thick-billed) Plover||PO|
|Killdeer||ZA TE CI PO|
|Lesser Yellowlegs||CA TE CE PO|
|Spotted Sandpiper||CA TE CI PO|
|Western Sandpiper||CI PO|
|Least Sandpiper||TE PO|
|Laughing Gull||CA CI CE PO|
|Gull-billed Tern||CI PO|
|Royal Tern||CA CI CE PO|
|Common or Forster's Tern||PO|
|Red-billed Pigeon||CA TO TU TE|
|White-winged Dove||CA ZA SA TU BO CI PU CE PO|
|Common Ground-dove||CO FE PU PO|
|Ruddy Ground-dove||CO ZA CI PU PO|
|Olive-throated (Aztec) Parrot||CA CO FE KO PU|
|White-crowned Parrot||KO PA TO|
|White-fronted Parrot||CA KO ZA PA TE CI|
|Yellow-lored (Yucatan) Parrot||FE|
|Red-lored Parrot||KO TE|
|Squirrel Cuckoo||CO FE KO PA TE|
|Groove-billed Ani||FE KO PA TU TE CI PU CE PO|
|Mottled Owl||PA TE|
|Ferruginous(Austral) Pygmy-Owl||CO FE KO ZA PA BO TE PU|
|Lesser Nighthawk||FE PA TO SA CE|
|White-collared Swift||PA TO|
|Vaux's Swift||CA CO FE PU|
|Fork-tailed Emerald||CO FE|
|White-bellied Emerald||KO PA|
|Black-headed Trogon||FE PA|
|Mountain Trogon||SA BO|
|Collared Trogon||FE PA|
|Violaceous Trogon||CA CO FE KO PA TO|
|Belted Kingfisher||ZA PO|
|Ringed Kingfisher||ZA CI|
|Amazon Kingfisher||CO KO TE CI CE|
|Turquoise-browed Motmot||CO FE PU CE|
|Blue-crowned Motmot||FE PA TE PU|
|Keel-billed Toucan||FE PA|
|Golden-fronted Woodpecker||CA FE TO TE CI PU CE|
|Ladder-backed Woodpecker||TO PU|
|Smoky-brown Woodpecker||CA FE|
|Golden-olive Woodpecker||CA CO FE ZA PA TO TU PU|
|Lineated Woodpecker||TU PU|
|Pale-billed Woodpecker||FE KO PA|
|Olivaceous Woodcreeper||CO FE PA|
|Ivory-billed Woodcreeper||CO FE KO PA PU|
|Streak-headed Woodcreeper||PA TO|
|Barred Antshrike||FE KO ZA TO BO TE|
|Greater (Coue's) Pewee||SA|
|Tropical Pewee||CA CO FE KO PA PU|
|Vermillion Flycatcher||ZA TO|
|Bright-rumped Attila||FE PA|
|Dusky-capped Flycatcher||FE PU|
|Brown-crested Flycatcher||KO PU|
|Tropical Kingbird||ZA PA TO TE CI PU CE PO|
|Couch's Kingbird||CA CO FE KO PU|
|Fork-tailed Flycatcher||ZA PA|
|Social Flycatcher||CA CO FE KO ZA PA TO TE PU CE PO|
|Great Kiskadee||CA FE KO ZA PA TE CI PU|
|Rose-throated Becard||CO FE TO TE PU|
|Masked Tityra||FE KO PA TO TE PU|
|Black-crowned Tityra||CO FE|
|Tree Swallow||ZA CI|
|Mangrove Swallow||CA CO ZA PO|
|Purple Martin||PU CE|
|Black-capped Swallow||SA BO|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||ZA TO BO TE CI|
|Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallow||CA PU|
|Barn Swallow||CA ZA SA CE|
|Grey Silky-flycatcher||SA BO|
|Band-backed Wren||PA SA BO TE|
|Spot-breasted Wren||CA FE PA|
|Southern House Wren||TO SA|
|White-breasted Wood-wren||FE KO PA|
|Grey Catbird||CO KO PA TO PU|
|Tropical Mockingbird||CA CO FE BO CI PU CE PO|
|Eastern Bluebird||TO SA BO|
|Brown-backed Solitaire||SA BO|
|Wood Thrush||CO PA|
|Black Thrush [Robin]||SA|
|Clay-coloured Thrush [Robin]||CO PA TO SA TU PU|
|Rufous-collared Thrush [Robin]||SA|
|Blue-grey Gnatcatcher||TO BO TE PU|
|Yucatan Jay||FE PU|
|Green Jay||CO TU BO PU|
|Brown Jay||CA CO FE KO ZA PA TE PU|
|White-eyed Vireo||CA CO FE PA PU|
|Mangrove Vireo||CA CO KO PU|
|Solitary Vireo||TO SA TU BO|
|Lesser Goldfinch||TO BO PU|
|Blue-winged Warbler||CO TO|
|Nashville Warbler||SA BO|
|Yellow Warbler||PA SA CI PU|
|Mangrove Warbler||CI PO|
|Magnolia Warbler||FE PA TO TE|
|Black-throated Green Warbler||FE PA TO TU TE|
|Palm Warbler||CE PO|
|Black-and-white Warbler||CO FE KO ZA PA TO BO CI|
|American Redstart||CA FE PA TO TE PU|
|Ovenbird||CO PA TO|
|Common Yellowthroat||CO KO|
|Grey-crowned Yellowthroat||TO TE|
|Hooded Warbler||CO FE|
|Wilson's Warbler||PA SA TU BO TE CI|
|Rufous-capped Warbler||SA TU|
|Summer Tanager||CO PA TO BO TE|
|Western Tanager||SA BO|
|Blue-grey Tanager||ZA PA TE|
|Scrub Euphonia||CO PU|
|Yellow-throated Euphonia||CA CO KO PA TU BO TE|
|Variable Seedeater||PA TO TE|
|White-collared Seedeater||FE KO ZA PA TE|
|Lesser(Thick-billed) Seedeater||CA CO|
|Black-headed Saltator||CO FE PA TU PU|
|Greyish Saltator||BO TE|
|Blue Bunting||CO TU|
|Blue Grosbeak||KO BO TE|
|Indigo Bunting||FE KO ZA TO CI PU CE|
|Montezuma Oropendola||PA TE|
|Yellow-billed Cacique||CO PU|
|Yellow-backed Oriole||CO TU|
|Orange Oriole||CA PU|
|Yellow-tailed Oriole||KO TE|
|Orchard Oriole||KO ZA TO|
|Hooded Oriole||CO FE ZA PU CE|
|Northern (Baltimore) Oriole||TO TE|
|Black-cowled Oriole||CA CO FE PA|
|Red-winged Blackbird||KO ZA TE PO|
|Melodious Blackbird||CA CO FE PA TO BO TE PU CE PO|
|Great-tailed Grackle||CA CO FE KO ZA PA TO SA TU BO TE CI PU CE PO|
John van der Woude, The Netherlands: mail