22 - 30 September 1995
by Peter Lonsdale
The last week in September my non-birding (but indulgent) wife and I took advantage of the present cheap airfares and hotels within Mexico, and risked hurricanes (getting out just before Opal and Roxanne). In a rented VW ($189 for 8 days from Avis) we made a circuit from Cancun ($240 RT air from Tijuana) of several archaelogical sites, staying each night at a different hotel, trying to start each dawn at a good birding place. General route wasCancun-Cozumel-Coba-Tulum-Muyil-Bacalar-Dzibanche- Kohunlich-Uxmal-Chichen Itza-Cancun. We are from Southern California, with some experience of Mexican Pacific coast birding, and our trip list reflects this. Some species readily seen on the Pacific coast were not sought out (eg. Boat-billed Heron, Common Potoo); many migrating East Coast warblers, vireos, and empids went unidentified (those I was able to identify included WHITE-EYED and RED-EYED VIREOS; YELLOW, YELLOW-THROATED, BLACK-AND-WHITE, CHESTNUT-SIDED, BLACKBURNIAN, TENNESEE PROTHONOTARY, WILSONUS, HOODED and BLUE-WINGED WARBLERS; NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH, OVENBIRD, AM REDSTART, COM YELLOWTHROAT; YELLOW-BELLIED and ACADIAN FLYCATCHER).
The narrative that follows omits these and some very common residents (BROWN JAY, TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRD, GREAT KISKADEE, SOCIAL and BOAT-BILLED FLYCATCHERS, COUCHUS KINGBIRD, GT-TAILED GRACKLE, RED-BILLED PIGEON, RUDDY GROUND DOVE, GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER, GROOVE-BILLED ANI, BLACK and TURKEY VULTURES), and mentions most other spp only the first place we saw them.
As guides we took Howell and Webb, plus National Geographic, and D.W. Rogers RSite Guide: La Ruta Maya, a guide to the best birding locations...S (some useful info and lists, but barely worth its $9 price). Well worth the price was International Travel Maps 1:1,000000 Yucatan Peninsula map.
Landed at Cancun 1030 and left headed S (avoiding the city). First stop was after 25km at the Botanical Gardens alongside the main road at Puerto Morelos. A nice place, including patches of forest and mangroves as well as labelled plantings. Even at midday we found MELODIOUS BLACKBIRD, YUCATAN VIREO, YELLOW-BACKED ORIOLE, LESSER GREENLET, IVORY-BILLED WOODCREEPER, BLUE-GREY GNATCATCH, and ROSE-THROATED BECARD. Took the ferry from Playa del Carmen to Isla Cozumel, seeing only BROWN PELICAN, MAGNIFICENT FRIGATE BIRD, ROYAL TERN and (at the pier on arrival) RUDDY TURNSTTONE. After checking in at Hotel Barracuda on the waterfront--5 min. walk S of the pier, walked 2km south to car ferry pier, then into scrub .5km inland; BANAQUIT, COZUMEL VIREO, BLACK CATBIRD, VAUX SWIFT,migrant warblers.
Up at dawn, took a $3 taxi to center of island, intersection of Cross-Island and San Gervasio road. The latter was closed (even to walkers) til 0800, but found a good jeep track 200m past the intersection, going S past overgrown fields into good forest: YUCATAN PARROT, YUCATAN WOODPECKER, CARIBBEAN DOVE, RUFOUS-BROWED PEPPERSHRIKE, CARIBBEAN ELAENIA, COZUMEL WREN, YUCATAN FLYCATCHER, STRIPE-HEADED TANAGER, NORTHERN CARDINAL, WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER, YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUIT. Left the island at midday (missing Cozumel Thrasher and Emerald). Stopped on the beach at Pamul ( a few km S of Playa del Carmen) as a flock of EASTERN KINGBIRDs passed through; also DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT, SPOTTED SANDPIPER and TROPICAL KINGBIRD. Drove via Tulum (without stopping) to Coba, with YUCATAN JAY and PLAIN CHACHALACA flocks seen en route. Checked in at Villa Arqueologica hotel, lakeside at Coba ($40, not the $85 wanted by their U.S. 800 number for advance booking). Walk along the lake before dusk gave HOODED ORIOLE, GREEN HERON, GREAT EGRET, NORTHERN JACANA.
Dawn along the lake found BARE-THROATED TIGER HERON, RUDDY CRAKE (at the hotel turnoff), GREEN KINGFISHER, NEOTROPICAL CORMORANT, LEAST GREBE, GREAT BLUE HERON. After ruin-studed forest opened at 0800, we added AZTEC PARAKEET (seen at most other Mayan sites too), BLACK-HEADED and VIOLACEOUS TROGON, MASKED and BLACK-CROWNED TITYRA, RED-THROATED ANT TANAGER, BLACK-HEADED SALTATOR, CINNAMON HUMMINGBIRD, TROPICAL PEWEE, GREAT BLACK HAWK. Left at noon for a visit to the Tulum ruins on the coast (YELLOW-THROATED EUPHONIA, RIDGEWAYS (I think) ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW), then on S 20km to the much quieter site of Muyil. At the pyramid there, and on the trail to the lagoon, saw RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER, KEEL-BILLED TOUCAN, SMOKY-BROWN WOODPECKER, BIRGHT-RUMPED ATTILA, and GREY HAWK. Drove on to a hotel in Felipe Carillo Puerto by dusk.
At dawn, left FCP heading NE on the unpaved but OK Vigia Chico Road, which ends after 29km, at a barrier at the boundary of the Sian Ka-an Biosphere Reserve (well short of Vigia Chico). Stopped in the good forest at about 8km and walked up and down the road for 3 hours. As usual for a brief visit to a tropical forest, I heard many birds I never saw, and saw many flitting shadows I couldn-t identify, plus ROADSIDE HAWK, BLUE GROUND-DOVE, SCALED PIGEON, SQUIRREL CUCKOO, COLLARED ARACARI (and more toucans), RUDDY WOODCREEPER, PALE-BILLED WOODPECKER, WEDGE-TAILED SABREWING, CANIVETS EMERALD, GREEN JAY, SPOT-BREASTED and WHITE-BELLIED WRENS, ROSE-THROATED TANAGER, RED CROWNED ANT TANAGER, YELLOW TAILED ORIOLE, WHITE CROWNED PARROT, GREEN STRIPED SPARROW. At mid-morning drove to the end of the road, stopping for 2 groups of 5 GREY-NECKED WOOD RAILS, and 1 group of 6 OCELLATED TURKEYS. All three groups were first seen in the middle of the narrow packed chalk road about 50m ahead, and after we stopped the car they approached to within 10m in a very confiding manner. Probably the highlight of the entire trip. After noon, as the rains began, we returned to FCP, then sped down the highway to Bacalar, pausing only for HOOK-BILLED KITE and PALE-VENTED PIGEON. Checked in at Hotel Laguna at Bacalar, and watched a pair of LIMPKIN in the lake, from our verandah.
Up at dawn for the 50km drive to Dzibanche, a recently opened and very impressive Mayan ruin. In the agricultural fields just before Dzibanche we saw a flock of 40 FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHERS, plus BLUE BUNTING, BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUIT, WHITE-TAILED KITE, BLACK-BELLIED WH DUCK and SOLITARY SANDPIPER; the trees at the ruins were full of RED-LORED PARROTS and toucans. At the nearby Mayan site of Kohunlich we added RUFOUS-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD and YELLOW-OLIVE FLYCATCHER before returning with the afternoon rains to our Bacalar hotel and limpkins. Before dusk I drove 6km N of Bacalar, and took a jeep trail east to the lake through nice forest with clearings: BAT FALCON, ALTAMIRA and BLACK COWLED ORIOLES, MONTEZUMA OROPENDOLA.
In a rainy dawn, drove 7km N of Bacalar, then W a few km on unpaved road to the San Felipe Bacalar biological research station. Saw GREAT CURASSOW in the forest, but they were probably releases from the captive breeding program at the station, where dozens of them are being reared in cages. The station has an area of well labelled trees, adjoins a large marsh and has a friendly staff; the area would probably be very productive on a dry morning. Spent the rest of this wet day on a long drive across Yucatan to Uxmal, stopping only for ANHINGA and BLACK-NECKED STILT in a marsh, another GREAT BLACK HAWK, and VERMILION FLYCATCHER. On arrival at Uxmal, saw TURQUOISE-BROWED MOTMOT just outside our hotel (Hacienda Uxmal).
At dawn the now disused section of paved road between the Hacienda and the ruins had PAURAQUE and YUCATAN POORWILL resting on it and its verge, and YUCATAN NIGHTJAR flushed from adjacent scrub. Inside the ruins after 0800 we added BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD, WHITE-BELLIED EMERALD, CAVE SWALLOW, ORANGE ORIOLE, BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHER and many migrant warblers. On to Progreso and the coast at noon, with a stop for GREY-THROATED CHAT between Uxmal and the Merida ring road. The lagoon crossed by the main road at Progreso, and followed by the road east from there to Chicxulub offered close-up views of many common waders, egrets, herons, gulls and terns (including STILT SANDPIPER, not so common for us) plus BLACK SKIMMER and several hundred GREATER FLAMINGO. Continuing east of Chicxulub we searched the dune scrub and adjacent mangrove edges successfully for MEXICAN SHEARTAIL and ZENAIDA DOVE, but failed to find Yucatan Wren. Before nightfall we had driven east through several thunder showers (omens of approaching Hurrican Opal) to Chichen Itza.
Soon after dawn I found YELLOW-BILLED CACIQUE and WHITE-FRONTED PARROT at the trash dump (near the turn-off from the main road to the southern hotels). Spent most of the day at the Chichen Itza ruins, especially the less touristy and impressively overgrown Old Chichen section where we saw many migrant warblers and flushed YUCATAN BOBWHITE. Drove the short distance to a nice hotel in the centre of Valladolid, with SUMMER TANAGER at a brief stop en route.
Was mostly a drive from Valladolid to catch our noon flight home from Cancun, but we stopped at a couple nice wooded sites and an overgrown quarry en route (near Nuevo Xcan), just off the old (free) highway, and finally identified BLUE-CROWNED MOTMOT and MANGROVE VIREO.
We lucked out in missing hurricanes and having only one morning marred by rain. Advantages of Yucatan in September are off-season hotel rates ($15-40); few tourists at the Mayan sites, except at Chichen Itza and to a lesser extent Uxmal and Tulum; a flood of migrants; and (I think) the easy viewing of a large part of the Flamingo flock, midway between its less acessible breeding and wintering lagoons.