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MEXICO -- QUINTANA ROO -- Isla de Cozumel

28 February - 03 March 2007

by Gail Mackiernan and Barry Cooper

In 2005, Isla de Cozumel was devastated by Hurricane Wilma, a category 5 storm with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph. We (like all birders) despaired over the fate of the several endemic species and subspecies found on the island. The first reports were, in fact, very disheartening. However a recent report by Rick Taylor on Mex-Birding was encouraging and so we took advantage of an enticing package deal to visit the island, which we missed on our 2005 Yucatán birding trip.


We stayed at the Hotel Vista del Mar,, on the south end of the town of San Miguel. This hotel is right in town and thus convenient to everything. They will bring a nice Continental breakfast to your room every morning between 8:30 and 10:30; we came back in late morning each day as it got hot and the breakfast was very welcome. Initially, we worried about noise as there is an active “bazaar” in the plaza under the hotel, but it is shut down at 8:00 p.m. and it is completely quiet after that. Service was good and the room large and comfortable; we had one looking onto the plaza and that is probably quieter than one facing the street. The only negative was that during the day parking was a problem near the hotel due to hoards of tourists (there is no hotel-only parking). However at night we could park right in front. There is a McDonald’s (if you need a fix) a few doors away. Mostly we ate at the Casa Denis, a well-known (and excellent) restaurant just east of the main plaza.

Car hire:

We rented a Nissan Tsuris through Thrifty. The office is across the park in front of the airport, you need to walk over to it as there is no in-airport desk. (Or have one of the many tourist-aid folks around call them from the airport.) The Tsuris is not the best car in the world but it is roomy, the AC worked and it got us around the island.


For reference we used Howell and Webb’s “A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America.” Most of the sites in Howell’s “A Bird-finding Guide to Mexico” are still extant, despite Wilma, although others have been obliterated by the hurricane or altered by development. Several trip reports were of use, these were mostly from Blake Maybanks’ web site  Finally, thanks to those who answered our inquiries on BirdChat and Mexico-Birding, especially Dr. Bob Curry, Dr. Juan Martinez-Gomez and Rafael Chacòn.


February 28th

Arrived [on a Continental Airline flight] to Cozumel International Airport at about noon, picked up rental car from Thrifty and drove to our hotel Vista del Mar located in downtown San Miguel [more commonly know simply as Cozumel]. After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we headed out to the abandoned residential development site mentioned in Howell and several prior trip reports. This site is located just before and on the opposite of the road to the Hotel Presidente (turn left at a sign for “Horse-back Riding” about 250 meters before the hotel}. The site consists of a grid of several miles of roads leading through natural woodland. A few houses are being lived in or are in the process of being developed. However, for the most part the area is a good close-to-town spot to start birding. We then drove out to the village of El Cedral. This area provided different habitat, including some very productive gardens with fruiting and flowering trees and bushes. The local people were very friendly and did not mind us strolling around and peering into their gardens once we told them we were looking for birds.

March 1st

Early morning birding at the “El Presidente grid” site of the previous day. After an early afternoon break [at the heat of the day] we birded the grounds of the golf course situated at the north-west end of the island. The management of this course is very eco-friendly and has developed the area with wildlife in mind. The trail runs through some good forest patches and passed several ponds. Due to the good supply of water this was one of the birdiest spot of our trip. We must emphasize very strongly that the golf course is private and prior approval must be obtained at the clubhouse before attempting to access the area. They are quite properly concerned about birders interfering with golfers. At dusk we listened for Yucatán Nightjar at the end of the entrance road but without success.

March 2nd

Started out at dawn birding the ponds at the extreme eastern end of the Cross-Island Road. These turned out to be pretty unproductive. We then drove back down the road towards the entrance to the San Gervasio Ruins. About half-mile before this site we noticed a good-looking area on the right hand side of the road, where a hurricane-damaged house is being restored. There is a fence and gate surrounding an overgrown garden and orchard. The property is owned by the person in the house across the road, who gave us permission to enter. The abundant flowering and fruiting trees attracted a host of birds. We then drove the 6K entrance road to the San Gervasio ruins (open at 7:00 a.m.)  and birded around the rancho just before the ruin’s parking lot (after asking permission from the owner). We again took some downtime at the heat of the day. During late afternoon, we birded again the gardens at El Cedral followed by a dusk visit to the El Presidente site. This time we were successful with a single Yucatán Nightjar heard and briefly seen.

March 3rd  

Again started out at dawn on the eastern end of the Cross-Island Road. We birded some side roads here, and arrived at San Gervasio Ruins just as the gate opened at 7.00 a.m.  Our strategy was to then drive to the end of this road and bird the ranch and adjacent area, as we had been told by Rafael Chacòn that this was a good site for the Cozumel Wren. Fortunately we found the bird (a nice singing male) with about an hour to spare before heading for the airport and home.

Habitat overview:

The damage from the category 5 hurricane was obvious everywhere. Many of the larger trees are dead, snapped off or with leafless upper branches (some with regrowth from the base). As a consequence there is little closed canopy woodland, and extensive vine tangle and herbaceous undergrowth covers what was probably once shaded forest floor. Undoubtedly this has had a serious impact on the birds, especially those whose preferred habitat is closed forest canopy or which feed primarily on fruit. The best forest that we could locate, such as it was, is at the Presidente grid (although this was not terribly birdy) and around the golf course.

Although we did find all the expected endemic species, they occurred in lower density than has been reported from trip reports pre-Wilma. We did not get a whiff of either resident tanager, the attila (a Cozumel endemic subspecies), nor any raptors save a single kestrel. The status of these birds seems to be uncertain as several recent reports also have missed them. Wintering North American warblers also seemed thin on the ground. We saw no wintering thrushes.

A word on the Cozumel Thrasher. We did search for this species, armed with information from researchers as to the most recent areas where birds had been (or may have been) seen. We did not use tapes – a permit is needed to use them in any case, a rule which should be honored -- besides which we had no desire to possibly disrupt a critically-endangered species. However we did do some “squeaking and spishing” which generally brought in quite a few birds, including most mimids within hearing. Alas none of them were the Thrasher. However flying out it was obvious that many acres of possible habitat exist on Cozumel, much of which is not easily accessible (no roads).  So hopefully this species does still cling to existence.

Bird List:

In less than three full days’ birding, we saw seventy-one species including three of the four Cozumel endemics, as well as a number of the distinctive Cozumel sub-species.

Least Grebe
Five birds including two juveniles on a pond at the golf course.

Pied-billed Grebe
Single bird on a pond at the golf course.

Brown Pelican
Recorded close inshore on two dates with a maximum of ten birds.

Single bird seen in flight at the golf course.

Magnificent Frigatebird
Suprisingly scarce with just seven birds over the three days.

Little Blue Heron
Three birds recorded including singles at the golf course and Middle Island Road pond.

Cattle Egret
Small numbers recorded on most days.

Black-crowned Night Heron
Four birds flying around at dusk at the golf course.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Eight birds seen at the golf course ponds.

Blue-winged Teal
Ten birds at the golf course ponds.

Black Vulture
Very common & widespread.

Turkey Vulture
Common & widespread.

American Kestrel
Just a single individual seen.

Ruddy Crake
Heard calling from a reedy area at the golf course.

Common Moorhen
Several birds seen around the golf course ponds.

American Coot
Common at the golf course and at the Cross Island ponds.

Northern Jacana
Up to eight birds at the golf course ponds (including a pair with three tiny chicks) and a single bird at the Cross Island pond.

Ruddy Turnstone
12 birds seen along the shore by our hotel.

Least Sandpiper
Four birds seen along the shore.

White-crowned Pigeon
Three individuals of the handsome pigeon were seen in flight and perched in the late afternoon along the golf course entrance road. Similarly 5 birds were seen at dusk flying around the woodlands at the “El Presidente grid”.

Zenaida Dove
Scarce with two birds seen at El Cedral, this species is considered rare on Cozumel.

Common Ground-Dove
Another unexpectedly scarce dove with five birds seen, in ones and twos.

Caribbean Dove
Seen regularly in small numbers at the “El Presidente grid”. The birds were usually seen walking along one of the many roads that dissect this site. Quite shy and did not allow very close approach. Other birds were heard calling at various wooded sites.

Yucatán Parrot
We had great views of a single bird perched at the top of a tree calling noisily in the late afternoon. It was seen from the main El Cedral/Cozumel road about 4km north of the turnoff to El Cedral. Additionally a party of five and a single bird were seen on two separate days in the early morning along the Cross Island Road.

Mangrove Cuckoo
More common than expected, with birds seen at a variety of sites on three days with a daily maximum of seven birds. Probably the best sites were woodlands along the Cross Island Road and the rancho adjacent to the San Gervasio Ruins.

Smooth-billed Ani
Three birds seen in a cattle pasture at the rancho adjacent to the San Gervasio Ruins.

Groove-billed Ani
A single bird seen at the same site as the previous species.

Lesser Nighthawk
Two birds flying around at dusk at the golf course entrance road.

Many birds heard calling (and some seen on the road) at dusk both at the entrance road to the golf course and at the “El Presidente grid”.

Yucatán Nightjar
While greatly outnumbered by the Paraques, a single bird was heard calling, singing and briefly seen in flight in response to tape playback at the “El Presidente grid”.

Vaux’s Swift
A party of eight birds [presumed to be this species based on time of year] seen while driving along the El Cedral/Cozumel road.

Green-breasted Mango
A total of eight birds seen over our four days. The best site was along an ATV trail at the rancho adjacent to the San Gervasio Ruins, where we saw several individuals. Single birds were also seen at the golf course and in woodland along the Cross Island Road.
Cozumel Emerald
Naturally, this very attractive endemic was one of our top targets of which, after some difficulty, we managed to obtain excellent views. Altogether we saw seven individuals which included two males and a female feeding in the gardens at El Cedral. Additionally a single bird was seen at the  “El Presidente grid” and three birds along the road behind the rancho adjacent to the San Gervasio Ruins. All were feeding at a common red-flowering shrub.

Yucatán Woodpecker
A total of four birds seen with a pair at the rancho adjacent to San Gervasio Ruins and a pair in woodland along the Cross Island Road.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
An extremely bright male was seen at El Cedral.

Caribbean Elaenia
Three birds seen, including a pair feeding in a fruiting tree in a garden at El Cedral.

Eastern Wood-Pewee
A single bird heard calling in woodland at the golf course.

Yucatán Flycatcher
Our only sighting was a single bird well seen in a garden along the Cross Island Road.

Brown-crested Flycatcher
A total of four birds seen at widely scattered sites.

Tropical Kingbird
Fairly common & widespread, being recorded daily with a daily maximum of fifteen birds.

Purple Martin
A party of six birds seen at the San Gervasio ruins.

Cliff Swallow
A single bird seen at the golf course.

Cedar Waxwing
We were quite surprised to see this bird on three out of four days including parties of ten and twelve birds.

Cozumel Wren
The most difficult of the three endemic species to find and, in many ways the most interesting. We finally had excellent views of a singing bird at the rancho adjacent to the San Gervasio Ruins. More specifically it was in the area behind the rancho where the ATVs are parked.

The bird appeared quite different from the North American House Wren, from which it has recently been split. It is larger, less compact and longer-tailed, with fairly pale buff upperparts and creamy-white underparts. The bill is thin and noticeably longer with an obvious pale yellow lower mandible. In most respects it quite closely resembles the St. Lucia House Wren. The main difference between it and the latter species is that the Cozumel Wren’s long thin bill is straight and not decurved as that of the St. Lucia wren. The song is also quite distinct from that of the N.A. House Wren.

Gray Catbird
A total of eleven birds seen including about eight around the rancho adjacent to the San Gervasio Ruins.

Black Catbird
An extremely common and widespread species. We saw over thirty birds during our three days [and heard many others] and it was seen in virtually all the areas we visited. Given the huge amount of suitable habitat, we would guess the island supports at a minimum several thousand birds. Given this species high density, one wonders whether it may be out-competing the Cozumel Thrasher. It would be interesting to know if the Catbird has increased greatly since the 1980’s [when the thrasher was reportedly quite common].

Tropical Mockingbird
Another common & widespread species.

Blue-gray (Cozumel) Gnatcatcher
Quite numerous and widespread. In all we recorded about 15 birds in a variety of locations, including birds carrying food at probable nest sites. All birds were of the distinctive race cozumelae. This form looks noticeably darker than the nominate race with dark slaty gray upperparts and dusky gray underparts, and a very wide, prominent eye-ring.

White-eyed Vireo
At least five birds recorded.

Cozumel Vireo
A total of eight individuals of this rather elusive and attractive endemic were seen. We eventually found this species at most of the sites visited. Probably the best area would be the shrubby woodland along the Cross Island Road and the Rancho adjacent to the San Gervasio ruins. This species seems to prefer a shrubbier edge habitat than the following.

Yucatán Vireo
A common and widespread species. Recorded daily with a daily maximum of ten birds seen and many others heard.

Rufous-browed Peppershrike
The only location we saw this Cozumel  endemic race insularis was at the  “El Presidente grid” where a pair responded to pishing and allowed excellent views. Several other birds were heard singing at this site.

Hooded Warbler
Two adult male birds seen in roadside woodland along the golf course entrance road.

Yellow Warbler
Several brightly plumaged males of the nominate race aestiva  were seen but they appeared far less common than the following form.

Golden Warbler
This very distinctive [males only] and attractive Cozumel race of the Yellow Warbler was very common. It responded well to ‘spishing’ providing excellent views. The females appeared identical to the nominate race aestiva which [per Howell] is widespread in Mexico.  In all we estimated we saw over 30  male “Golden Warblers”. Probably, a similar number of  females [of indeterminate race] were seen..

Black-and-White Warbler
Three birds seen.

Black-throated Green Warbler
A total of five birds seen including a single individual which may have been an hybrid between this species and the Golden-cheeked Warbler.

Yellow-throated Warbler
A total of four birds seen. The best site for this and many other of the wintering warblers was the trail around the golf course.

Black-throated Blue Warbler
A single female was our sole record, at El Cedral in a fruiting tree.

Northern Waterthrush
Single bird seen from the golf course trail.

Northern Parula
Three birds seen from the golf course trail.

Magnolia Warbler
Five birds seen during the trip.

Palm Warbler
A fairly common species with an estimated 20 birds seen during the trip.

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler
The most numerous wintering warbler with an estimated forty birds seen during the trip.

Common Yellowthroat
About ten birds seen during the trip.

[Cozumel] Bananaquit
The white-throated Cozumel race caboti  was fairly common and widespread. The species was seen daily and at most of the sites visited. The daily maximum count was eight birds.

[Cozumel] Yellow-faced Grassquit
Another fairly common and widespread Cozumel endemic race. Seen daily with a daily maximum of twenty birds. This form appeared drabber than those birds we saw in Cuba and the Bahamas with less extensive black on the breast. Good locations for this species were the rancho adjacent to San Gervasio Ruins and the gardens at El Cedral, always in grassy or shrub/grass habitat.
Northern Cardinal
At least one bird heard singing along road into El Presidente grid.

Painted Bunting
A total of six birds recorded, including several bright males, with the best site being the private garden off the Cross Island Road with at least three birds seen [see March 2nd itinerary for location of this spot].

Indigo Bunting
Very common at El Cedral, with ten and fifteen birds seen on our two visits to this site. Otherwise scarce with only two birds seen.

Great-tailed Grackle
A very common [too common in fact!] and widespread species.

Hooded Oriole
This highly attractive oriole was recorded on three days with a total of ten birds. Most easily seen feeding in a fruiting tree at El Cedral.

Orchard Oriole
About ten birds seen mainly in the gardens at El Cedral.

Gail Mackiernan and Barry Cooper
216 Mowbray Road, Silver Spring Maryland 20904

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