25 - 29 March 1998
by Glenn Czulada
Carol and I chose the Yucatan for the same reasons you might have. It's tropical and easy to get to. We left Newark at 10 AM and arrived in Cancun at 1:30 PM. As we left the concourse, we were immediately surrounded by the sound of GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES. Instead of heading north into Cancun like the bulk of the tourists, we headed south toward Tulum. The wires were full of kingbirds and I'm ashamed to say that after four days of solid birding, I still don't know the difference between a TROPICAL KINGBIRD and a Couch's Kingbird. The books say the only way to safely identify them is by call, and that is one of the details that I never researched before the trip. Don't make the same mistake I did.
The road south of Cancun had completely changed since my "holiday" trip to Cancun ten years ago. At that time I recall a shady tree-lined two lane road that still had character. Now they are hard at work turning it into a four-lane superhighway to Tulum. Although this will make is easier to travel south, it will undoubtedly be followed by more building construction and habitat destruction. TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRDS were everywhere on the wires, and BLACK VULTURES filled the sky.
We had considered stopping at the Botanical Gardens, which is mentioned in the trip reports, but we missed it due to the confusion caused by the heavy road construction.
The first good bird of the trip was a RINGED KINGFISHER which we spotted on a wire. We made our way through Tulum, later referred to as "el Dumpo" by my traveling companion, Carol. Even though it was late afternoon, both of us were surprised by the lack of birds flitting in the scrub along the highway. We did make some stops, but the lack of road shoulder did not make for good roadside birding. We spotted a GRAY HAWK in the trees and the first of many AZTEC PARAKEETS on a side road stop. We timed our arrival in Felipe Carillo Puerto at dusk and were greeted by hundreds of VAUX'S SWIFTS over the town. Except for one RED-BILLED PIGEON, we were surprised by the lack of species diversity in town. The ubiquitous grackles were everywhere.
Felipe Carillo Puerto is a delightful small Mexican town with a population I estimate at 3,000. It has not been ruined by an influx of tourists. Locals don't stare at you, but you are noticed. We thoroughly enjoyed strolling the town in the evening, but searched in vain for Lesser Nighthawks around the street lights.
Our guides/hosts Arturo and Adriana arrived for dinner, and we planned the events of the next two days. We came to find quite quickly that these two are very special people. They are educators and ecologists with a deep love of the fauna and flora of Mexico. They are very concerned about protecting them and have devoted their lives to educating their countryman about the natural history of their country. They have founded and run a school for local Mayan children and sponsor field trips for the area schools. This is all done without charge, with their living expenses paid by small research grants they received from various institutions in the US. They have established contacts with both the Massachusetts and Seattle Audubon Societies, and their van was donated to them through fund raising efforts of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
We stayed at the Hotel El Fayson y el Venado in the center of town -- cheap, clean and recommended with a very good restaurant.
We were waiting for sunrise when we heard either a Yucatan Nightjar or Yucatan Poorwill. Unfortunately Arturo didn't know the call, and we didn't do the research to figure out which one. I thought we would have the opportunity to get at that bird again, but we never did hear another night bird the entire trip. Upon further study and recollection at home, we ticked off the YUCATAN NIGHTJAR because its call was similar to a Chuck-Wills-Widow. We heard the first of many FERRUGINOUS PYGMY OWLS and a MOTTLED OWL.
Our birding that day was to be done on the Vigia Chico road (which ended in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve). This is a dirt track with good forest on both sides, easy pulloffs and little paths leading off to farm fields. We birded the paths and during the first few hours of the day had very good activity. Many of the birds we saw were the easy ones that we were to see throughout our trip like YUCATAN JAY, GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER, AMERICAN REDSTART, CINNAMON HUMMINGBIRD, SOCIAL FLYCATCHER, YELLOW-BELLIED ELAENIA, and BLUE BUNTING. Some of the birds that we were to see only on this road were BARRED ANTSHRIKE, CITREOLINE TROGON and SQUIRREL CUCKOO. This road is very good for birding and shouldn't be missed on a trip to the Yucatan. More details are available in a "Winging It" article.
At 9 AM the activity dropped off dramatically, and there was hardly a bird to be found. But Arturo and Adriana kept the morning very interesting with lively conversation. They are self-taught naturalists and are much to be admired for the generous giving of their knowledge.
This is limestone country, and there are many cenotes (sinkholes) in the area. We had brought our snorkels along hoping to swim in a crystal clear cenote. We had a nice lunch at one, but it was too cloudy and murky to invite swimming. Plus, the 6-foot crocodile sunning himself on the opposite bank didn't make the thought of cooling off very attractive.
After a lazy lunch, our guides drove us back for a tour of their school. School classes from the area are brought to their center for education in local ecology with no charge to the schools or children. The classrooms are filled with pictures of various animals and habitats drawn by the students. The school's name means "Ecological Conscience" and participates in exchanges with classrooms in the US. An entire wall is devoted to drawings from US students. While we were there, Arturo and Adriana were preparing for a trip to Ohio where they were going to live with a teacher and give tropical ecology workshops to the students. Arturo is a musician, and their presentations are a mixed media event with Arturo playing and singing the songs he has composed.
Late afternoon found us back on the road. Bird activity had picked up. We were on our own, but we were able to tick off YELLOW-BILLED CACIQUE, TROPICAL PEWEE, BLUE-CROWNED MOTMOT, YELLOW-THROATED EUPHONIA, BLACK-HEADED SALTATOR and our first looks at a FERRUGINOUS PYGMY OWL that we called in with a tape.
Day three found us awake at dawn ready to leave our friendly town haven. Shortly out of town, we were stopped again by the military searching for drugs. This time we were given a pretty through going with their flashlights poking under our seats and in our trunk.
The birds were flashing in front of the car, but it was still too dark to ID many. We passed a hawk, and I could kick myself that we didn't quickly stop and take a look. The poor road shoulders, traffic and the rush to get to Muyil discouraged me from even a quick stop.
Muyil is about one hour North of FCP. As soon as we piled out of our cars at Muyil, Arturo called Diva Diva, and we got our first look and sound of MELODIUS BLACKBIRD. A tree with a huge canopy spread over a hut in the parking lot. A flock of three different types of orioles were hopping all through it. By the time you'd get your binoculars on one, it would drop out of sight. I wish we had studied our orioles the night before, but I was determined to start getting them right. Your would think Orioles would be easy as there are only six listed as common or uncommon. But I didn't do my homework before the trip, and it was showing. We finally ID'd a HOODED ORIOLE.
It was obvious things were going to happen in a big way this morning. The sun was out just right, and there was very little wind. Right away we had a PURPLE MARTIN overhead. The F.P. OWL popped out of a hole in the big tree, and we had a mutual good look. A BLACK SALTATOR started calling with its diagnostic chuck call. This is one that is so easy I hope to remember it for life. OVENBIRDS were pecking down low, and PALM WARBLERS were everywhere. We even had a gook look at a RUFOUS-BROWED PEPPERSHRIKE. This was one bird that was big on my "to get list" simply because I like the sound of its name. We called the ground doves which were pecking Common and RUDDY GROUND DOVE. In retrospect, I know they were mostly Ruddies with Common a possibility.
WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATERS were everywhere. If and when I do get to San Ignacio, I'll know what they look like.
The grounds near the entrance to the ruins were covered with nice grasses with small trees interspersed. CARIBBEAN ELAENIA's were hopping up and down from six feet to the ground. We were marking up quite a list in just a few minutes. Just past some ruins we went on a path into the forest. On the way in we had a male BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER. This bird was one of two rare birds on the Yucatan checklist that made our list. We walked down a heavily canopied forest on a single-track path. Snakes -- I was in the lead. Somebody had to do it; besides, a TURQUOISE-BROWED MOTMOT in the deep forest made it worth it. We caught a few quick glimpses of birds hopping in the thick underbrush, but had no chance at an ID. The forest was quiet, so we headed back out to the birdy grounds of the ruins. Just before we came out of the forest we noticed RED-THROATED ANT TANAGERS hopping around and then discovered a bona fide ant trail.
Only I had a look at a warbler that I deduced was a female Wilson's. The checklist had it as rare, but I figured that as we had just seen a male Black-throated Blue Warbler; so why not? I thought the bird was too small to be a hooded, and the eye line looked more like the Wilson's. I couldn't coax it out to look at it better. The next day I removed this bird from my list after I had a good long look at a definite female HOODED WARBLER and realized that was most likely my bird from the day before.
Back on the grounds the birds were not letting up. There were flocks of seedeaters all over, with lots of other species at all tree levels. Other birds of note were MANGROVE VIREO, CLAY-COLORED ROBINS, YELLOW-THROATED EUPHONIA, WEDGE-TAILED SABERWING and OLIVE SPARROW.
Our lunch at Lake Chunyaxche was not a loss with NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH and TREE SWALLOW added to the list.
Our planned destination that night was Coba. But it was still early in the day, and on the advice of Arturo and Adriana, we decided to beef up our list with a trip to the sea. We headed south along the coast from Tulum toward the fishing village of Boca Paila. The excitement was building because we knew we had many coastal birds to add to the list. We both guessed twelve. Forty-five minutes of slow driving on a bad road brought us to the outlet to the ocean. "Bad road" was an understatement. The first part, which was "paved", had potholes even worse than Pennsylvania's. Then we hit the unpaved section.-- Well, one could say it was paved -- with pointy rocks and small boulders at some spots -- and potholes that virtually spanned the road. We weaved through them like drunken sailors.
We drove slowly down the spit catching glimpses of the gloriously blue ocean on one side and the bay on the other. ROYAL TERN, BROWN PELICAN FRIGATEBIRD, BLACK-COWLED ORIOLE. I was hoping for shorebirds, and glassing a long stretch of deserted beach yielded a mixed flock of RUDDY TURNSTONES and SANDERLINGS, OSPREY, BELTED KINGFISHER, SANDWICH TERM and SPOTTED SANDPIPER. Blackbirds were flying across the road and singing in the scrub sounding like Red-winged Blackbirds in Spanish. They had to be BRONZED COWBIRDS, but their secret ways made identification very difficult. The prize of the trip was a BARE-THROATED TIGER HERON who appeared to be just waiting about ten feet from the road for us to drive by to see him. He was a gift -- "Here they come. They've seen me. Now I'll go."
It was too late to head for Coba, so we booked a cabana on the beach. For $30 we each had our own hut in a picturesque setting, and the sound of the ocean pouring through the window.
It was still light out, so we had time to go where all birders want to go, the town dump. I bribed the guard with $1 US to get us past the No Trespassing signs. He was happy, but puzzled to let us in to do our "work". It stunk, and it sure was a dump, with only hundreds of black vultures and cattle egrets to keep our interest. We didn't stay long.
We left our cabana well before dawn and began the ride to Coba. We were promptly stopped again crossing the Tulum intersection, this time by soldiers dressed in black. They gave us a cursory wave through the roadblock. We were hoping to get the Yucatan Nightjar or poorwill that we missed the first morning and made a number of stops to listen. Unfortunately, we heard nothing that resembled our birds.
As light quickly gathered, the birds were flying across the highway. Out first stop was about five miles before Coba at a very large spreading tree in front of a store. The birds were hopping, orioles were flying back and forth, and it was obvious that this tree was attracting birds in a similar way that the big tree at Muyil did. We had SCRUB EUPHONIAS, and they confused us for a time because there were two newly fledged younguns in with them. As always when we had a flock, there were Magnolia Warblers. We had great looks at another likely warbler migrant, but weren't able to identify it. Other goods birds were ROSE-THROATED BECARD and ORCHARD ORIOLE.
Two funny people things happened at this tree. Carol got in the path of a trail of biting ants and within minutes was jumping around swatting at herself and crying out in pain. She high-tailed it for the car to remove her jeans and shake them out. I was about three feet away but also had the pleasure of making acquaintance with one or two and can attest that, though small, their bite was vicious. An old Mayan wandered over to us and was taking great pleasure in pointing out the Great-tailed Grackles to us. I decided to do the neighborly thing and let him use my Zeiss to have a better look, until I realized that he had only one eye left, and that one was all red and half-closed.
By this time we were starting to get the orioles down. They are not that hard, once you look at enough ALTAMIRAS and HOODEDS to realize the size and bill difference is readily apparent with practice. With these two down, the rest fall easily into place.
On to Coba. We stopped at the lake and immediately had what we called a Pied-billed Grebe. We needed the scope, and I hope it wasn't a Least Grebe. GREAT BLUE HERON. There were a few cormorants on the lake, and after discussion we called them OLIVACEOUS. Martins were flying over the lake, and -- more troubles -- were they gray-breasted? Then we found about 100 perched on a tower and concluded they were PURPLE MARTINS. We decided to take a look at the Club Med and maybe get some coffee. We met some guests who told us about the birds that bothered them at their table. Mummm... -- maybe Bananaquits. But breakfast looked like a big ordeal with probably a wait, and we had birds to see. No Bananaquits.
It was after 8:30 AM by the time we entered the ruins, and it was getting very hot. Coba is big, and the ruins are far apart. It sits in scrub jungle, and many ruins were well restored. The great pyramid was awesomely impressive. We climbed to the top and were rewarded with a view of the surrounding jungle and Coba lakes.
Birding was quiet and overall disappointing. But a few more ticks we did get. There was a great look at a ROADSIDE HAWK, and a flock of warblers had a PROTHONATARY and a BLUE-WINGED in it.
By the time we got back to the shops at the entrance, we were overheated and dehydrated. We each grabbed a quart of water and Gatorade and drank it down. I was getting reluctant to go to Chichen Itza as planned. Birding the jungle in Coba was poor, and I had seen enough tourists for one day. Why not head back to Tulum and the good birding at Muyil? A bus driver steered us away from Chichen Itza when he told us the forest was even more scrubby than at Coba. I wanted another swim in the blue ocean.
We decided to go back to Tulum, get another cabana, swim and bird Muyil tomorrow before leaving. For $10 I got a small thatched cabana with a sand floor. For $30 Carol got a room with a seatless toilet, a cement floor and no electricity. All of the places we stayed at, everyone had the manners and good taste to wait until we said two rooms and then not comment. I am 39 and happily married, and my traveling companion, Carol, is 58 (and looking). This clerk couldn't understand why we didn't want one room, "not one bed or two small beds?" I assured him we were just amigos.
Before nightfall we were out again looking for lifers. GRAY-BREASTED MARTIN sat on a post. ORANGE ORIOLE finally, and a LEAST FLYCATCHERS passing by. We had a gnatcatcher with a black head, but not a good enough look to ID it. We stopped at a yoga hotel and had a fine dinner. There we sat, hot and bedraggled, among very nicely dressed upper-middle class health nuts eating a delicious meal.
Back at the cabana, I opened my window and was greeted with the chugging of a generator. As always before bed we went over our checklists and added the new birds. By candlelight we listened to bird tapes until about 9:30 PM. I was tired, it was hot and muggy, and I got ready for bed praying the generator wouldn't run all night. About 10:15, it cut off.
We were staying at a "hippie camp" filled with young people from all over the world. At 10:30 the music/party started with speakers at full volume. I could understand each and every word.. The floor and bed throbbed with the beat of the music. Carol later told me she was tempted to take her scissors and cut the power lines to the bar, but she was afraid of getting electrocuted. Instead, she prayed for a lightning strike (or something) to blast the bar into oblivion. Somehow, we both feel asleep.
As we left the cabanas before daylight, two young girls (Italians) were standing waiting for a cab. In broken Spanish we figured out they needed a ride to the bus stop. It was on our way, so I said no problem. Carol surprised me because she acted like she didn't want to give anyone a ride who was part of the party scene the night before, but she got a twinge of charity and the girls shoehorned themselves and their enormous packs into the back of our VW.
By dawn we were at Muyil. We added BALTIMORE ORIOLE, INDIGO BUNTING, GRAY-CROWNED YELLOWTHROAT, and a RUDDY WOODCREEPER. The highlight of our morning was great looks at a LAUGHING FALCON laughing while perched in a bare tree. Otherwise, the grounds were not as productive as the previous day.
One last stop was a restaurant about five miles South of Tulum. After a hearty Mexican breakfast, we birded the road East toward Lake Chunyaxche. We saw flocks of PAINTED BUNTINGS, more SEEDEATERS and BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUITS. This road is definitely worth a stop!
Our time had run out and we drove back to Cancun. On the way we were able to backhand WHITE IBIS and GREAT EGRET flying across the highway before leaving for home.
Glenn Czulada ,
926 Main Street,
Dickson City, PA 18510, USA;