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30 December 2002 - 6 January 2003

Akumal, Coba, Tulum, Road to Punta Allen


We took a family vacation (my wife and I and our four children) to Quintana Roo, Mexico in January and did some birding each morning, usually from 7am to 10am, though on the trip to Coba we were active until almost 11am. Didn’t want to cut into too much of the snorkeling and beach time for family so we restricted birding to a few hours in the mornings. It all worked out for a great balance: trogons and parrots in the mornings, sea turtles and parrot-fish in the afternoon. My son Jon (13) and I, the two who did most of the birding, saw around 90 species in six days and we were happy with that. The rest of this report is broken down into a few categories that explain our experience with the amenities most birders are interested in and then a summary of birds we saw at various sites as well as some general birding advice.

Car rental:

used Budget rent-a-car from the Cancun airport, booking a Tsuru months in advance. But they won’t let you guarantee the thing with an advance payment, credit-card or otherwise, so when we arrived an hour and 45 minutes late (de-icing took that long here in Regina), our car was not there waiting for us. Even though I had called the kiosk at the airport the day before to confirm our booking and ask how long they will hold a car (they said two hours), they had given our car away to someone else. This was not altogether surprising and fairly typical of car rental in Mexico. They said they had no other cars to give me but I kicked up a fuss and used every sort of tactic I could dream up until they relented and said they would get a car ready for us. Renting a car in this part of Mexico is very expensive—it was $460 U.S. for the week—but indispensable for birding.


We stayed at a condominium called “Luna Azul” on Half-Moon Bay, Akumal, which is south of Play Del Carmen but a lot quieter. You book these privately-owned condos through a central agency on the internet. It works great. You can cook for yourself if you like but there are lots of good restaurants near by if you have a lot of money you need to get rid of. By booking this place and eating in we saved a lot of money. Our condo (one of eight units in the building) was very beautiful and comfortable—from the front balcony you are a stone’s throw from the ocean. You can see turtles coming up for air out front and out back the view is solid jungle west to the horizon: some birds—either hundreds of Vaux’s swifts, an osprey, a black vulture, or a kiskadee—were always in view.

Buying food:

Best grocery prices by far were in the Chedraui in Playa Del Carmen. The local grocerias at Akumal were very high-priced. Restaurants were outrageous.

General birding advice:

It is tempting but not really that safe to stop along the main highway south from Cancun. There are shoulders and I did pull off once or twice for it seemed to be the best place to find raptors. Better and safer is to take one of the roads that plunge away into the jungle perpendicular to the road, either west or east. Many of these now seem to be blocked off by the All-Inclusive mega-resorts but there are still a few open. We found that you have to get up at dawn to see the birds—the hours from 6:30 am to 10:30 am were best. Activity trailed off sharply after that. Places where you can see water birds were hard to come by—in retrospect I would have allowed for some time at Cancun to check out its lagoon or found some other lagoon on the peninsula. Some people find a lot of water birds at Coba Lake but that was not our experience. The Road to Punta Allen and into Si’an Ka’an, though passable and perfectly safe, is so bumpy that it is miserable to drive on. Which would be fine if there were many birds to see, but after driving thirty kms in two hours and seeing very few birds and none that we couldn’t find elsewhere, we realized that we had made a bad choice. As for general forest birding advice, it seemed to work best simply to walk along trails fairly briskly until we heard or saw signs of birds and then stop to stay in a birdy area for a while. There was little point in walking along slowly and trying to be thorough because birds often seemed to be concentrated in little roving groups spaced fairly far apart from one another. A lot different from what we see here in forest habitat where the birds are thinly and fairly evenly scattered through an area during breeding season—more, in fact, like what you find in fall here when migrants are passing through the woods in foraging groups led by local chickadees and nuthatches.

Birds Seen by Site

We’ve decided to talk about the birds by site and habitat rather than as a day-by-day log.

1. Road from Akumal core area north to Yalku Lagoon:

East side of road is landscaped garden space around condos with palms and other ornamental trees and shrubs. Some small vacant lots grown over with beach dune shrubs and plants. On the other side (west) it is low and dense jungle vegetation, mix of palms and deciduous trees, epiphytes. Short and very narrow overgrown trails head off into the jungle for ten or forty metres and then peter out, often at a place to dump trash. Some of these are worth visiting, but to find them you have to watch carefully as you make your way along the road.

Birds seen: Great-tailed grackles everywhere in developed areas, as well as melodious blackbirds. Next most common bird is Tropical Mockingbird, then Tropical Flycatcher and Social Flycatcher. Then Great Kiskadee. Many of these birds perch on utility wires and trees along roadsides. Orioles do the same—sometimes in interspecies flocks: Hooded make up half of the orioles you see, then a few Orange and Yellow-backed; Black-cowled oriole and Altimira we only saw once in this area. Yellow-throated warblers common around Condos, sometimes in twos and threes. Turkey vultures seemed more numerous than Black in Akumal. Lineated Woodpeckers appeared 1 or 2 per morning on utility poles along the road. Yucatan Woodpeckers 2 or 3 per morning in palms and on poles. One Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Saw two traveling bands of Yucatan Jays in the area as well. In a short trail leading to a 5 metre wide patch of water surrounded by mangrove, saw a White-winged Dove, a Northern Waterthrush and Belted Kingfisher. Twice from trails heard calls of Chachalaca coming from further into the jungle. On one short trail found Cinnamon Hummingbird; Yucatan vireo and White-eyed Vireo on some trails; also Gray Catbird, two Rufous-browed Peppershrikes. Saw hundreds of Vaux’s Swifts and 10-20 Southern Rough-winged Swallows swooping above the condos and the jungle.  Saw a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl on a tall perch in the jungle within thirty metres of the road.

2. Beach area of Half-Moon Bay, Akumal:
Coral sand beach with low, three and four-story condominiums:

Birds seen: royal terns flying by in midday; brown pelicans (singly and in small flocks), Black-bellied Plover (1), Osprey (daily), Magnificent Frigatebird (2 or 3 a day).

3. Yalku lagoon and immediately south of the fenced area where the lagoon continues in a shallow mangrove towards some private properties:

Access is from a road that runs south from the gate to Yalku past some homes. Habitat is low shrubs and mangrove, but the nice thing about the area is you can see into the distance toward some of the higher jungle vegetation away from the disturbed areas of the resorts.

Birds seen: at the shallow mangrove we had an excellent view of 2 Green Herons.  Also saw a Little Blue Heron and a Great Egret.  In a bush near the trail into this mangrove just outside the Yalku fenced area, there was a Common Tody-flycatcher. Also Common Yellowthroat and a Yellow Throated Warbler. At Yalku lagoon itself we saw a Great Blue Heron and Magnificent Frigatebirds flew overhead.  On a tiny island in the lagoon we saw a Solitary Sandpiper and a Spotted Sandpiper.

4. Road to Punta Allen (the first 30 kms)

Low palm jungle on west side of road, as well as mangroves with little or no open water to be seen. Beach dune vegetation and some jungle on the east side of the road, intermittent views of the ocean. Finally arrive at a bridge over an inlet from the ocean into large open (and empty of birds) mangrove after many kms along bumpy road.

Birds seen: On utility wires along the road there were Tropical Mockingbirds as well as Tropical Kingbirds.  At one spot we were surrounded by bird sounds, most of which came from Hooded, Black-cowled, and Yellow-backed Orioles.  We also saw a Yellow-billed Cacique while Turkey and Black Vultures flew overhead. We identified our first White Fronted Parrots—had good looks at perched ones for a change. At a spot where the road nears the ocean where there is low beach vegetation on both sides of the road we saw a Cinnamon Hummingbird at close range, perched. A group of Sanderling were on the beach. A couple of Yucatan Vireo, which is common most places. Had a good view of a Black Catbird too. We identified the Mangrove Swallows by getting a good look at their rumps as they flew over the jungle and mangroves. Other birds included Osprey, Vaux’s Swift, White-winged Doves in large flocks, Yucatan Woodpecker and Magnificent Frigatebird.

5. Coba

The habitat in Coba is divided into the townsite and lake/marshland areas nearby and then the forest along trails at the archeological site. Be sure to get there as early as possible. It opens at 8am. The drive to Coba along the highway that leads away from Tulum is good for birds but hard to stop along for there are very few pullouts.

Birds seen:
Enroute to Coba—Many of the common roadside birds plus our only Keel-billed Toucan (only Jon saw it), Yucatan Jays, and Hooded Oriole. At the townsite we saw our first Ruddy Ground Doves and a clutch of Yellow-Rumped Warblers.

At the lake we saw a grebe—likely Little Grebe—but couldn’t ID it and then it never emerged again. Nothing else on the lake or marsh.

On the start of the trail we saw a Hooded Warbler and a Black and White Warbler. We also found a Wood Thrush and a Hermit Thrush (one of only a few records for the Yucatan—see notes under Botanical Gardens below). We stopped on the trail to listen and we eventually saw a Gray Catbird, Black Throated Green Warbler, and a Magnolia Warbler. At one of the groups of ruins we had a look at some Yucatan Jays and our first Black-headed Trogon. Walking on the trails again we heard some birds sounds to one side so we stopped and walked into the bush a bit.  We looked around and right away started seeing birds moving in the lower half of the forest structure. First thing we identified was the bird of the trip! A Royal Flycatcher at close range! Then an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper was working on the trunk of a tree. A Rose-throated Ant-tanager and a Yellow-billed Cacique rounded out the group. We stayed with them for several minutes. This seems to be the best way to bird forested areas in the Yucatan—walk listening for bird sounds and then go to the side of the trail and watch and wait until things emerge. Sometimes the sounds fade away and there is nothing to see, but every so often it pays off.

Imitating a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl worked sometimes to draw them nearer but not always. In between as you walk the trails there is little or no sound or movement so I don’t think it pays to stop unless you have noticed bird movement or sound. Then we walked on to the main archeological site, the Nohuc Mul pyramid, which is the highest one by far. At the base to the right as you face the pyramid we heard birds and saw a lot of movement in the canopy, but crane our necks as we might we couldn’t get a clear view of anything—too many leaves! So we started walking up the pyramid stairs to see if we could improve our vantage point and right away got views of the birds: it was a bunch of Green and Brown Jays, as well as our first Squirrel Cuckoo, a Masked Tityra, a Rose-throated Becard, American Redstart, Great Kiskadees, and a Violaceous Trogon. We sat about 1/3 to ½ way up the steps and watched birds for a while. Then, continuing to the top we had excellent view of the forest for miles and saw a distant black hawk of some kind—likely Great Black but we didn’t get good enough look to be certain. On the return hike we had stunning view of another Black-headed Trogon at trailside, too close for binocs. Then we drove around the lake again and found a small crocodile in the weeds, a Great Egret or two, a little Blue Heron, our only Anhinga of the trip.

6. Puerto Aventuras

An all-inclusive resort that allows visitors and has a lot of park space and treed habitat. Could have spent much more time there but in the hour of walking around with the family in the most developed areas of the resort we still managed to see a few birds: Brown Pelican, Royal tern, Tropical Mockingbird, Spotted Sandpiper, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles.

7. Tulum

The road from parking lot to the actual site has some birding opportunities if you arrive early in the day. It gets busy with a shuttle and a lot of walking traffic later. Also at the outside of the walled area, west side, there are some trees that had birds. Inside the actual site (get there early, it opens at 8am) there are a few bushes and shrubs, palms with orioles, a few trees along the edges that can hold birds.

Birds seen: we saw our only White-collared Seedeater, lots of Mangrove Swallows, and a flock of Indigo Buntings. As well there were some of the common oriole species. Not the greatest place for birds but worth going to of course for the beauty and history of the place. But go early and get out of there before 10am!

8. Roads accessed from Highway 307 and leading south to various undeveloped beaches and resorts south of Akumal and north of Tulum—

Along the main highway itself we saw a Roadside Hawk and a White-tailed Hawk. There are a few roads that still lead west to public beaches or to nowhere in particular. The one into Xcacel gets you to a lovely wild beach with no development (yet!) and there we saw a Lineated Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, White-crowned Pigeon (our only one), and Yellow-throated warbler. There is a foot trail that leads from the beach south of the Parking lot that ends up at a freshwater lagoon that has some little freshwater fish in it.  At the time of year we went there some of the path was partly flooded but walkable. That was where we had our view of a White Crowned Pigeon.

9. Botanical Gardens at Puerto Morelos

Trails through native deciduous forest, higher woodland and more diverse than the palm jungle you find near resorts. Excellent walking trails and a “tower” which is actually a ladder strapped to a tree with a few boards thrown together in the canopy—it is more stable than it looks but we didn’t see anything from the top anyway. Seems like it should be a fantastic place for forest birding.

Birds seen: best bird we saw there by far was a Collared Trogon. We were surprised to find a Hermit Thrush there as well—not even on the checklist for the region. (Later we got home and read on a Mexico Birding chat group that one had been sighted at the botanical gardens in December at the exact location where we saw it.) Had smashing looks at some North American warblers, including Hooded and Kentucky, Ovenbird, and Northern Waterthrush. Also a Wood Thrush. However, we seemed to have little luck getting the resident birds to show their faces. By the time we arrived it was 9am or so and everything was either quiet or well up in the canopy behind leaves. Others have had much more luck at this site and I think I would change my approach there by trying to arrange with the attendants to let me in earlier in the morning. I’ve since heard too that a man named “Luis” who works at the gardens enjoys taking visiting birders on walks through the area. That might also help but when we were there, things were very quiet. Might have just been a bad day.

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