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MEXICO -- QUINTANA ROO
25-29 April 2004
by Gail Mackiernan and
In April we spent 3 1/2 days in Cancun, a very inexpensive last-minute
package deal that was too good to pass up. Barry and I both needed a
break! We figured that we could use Cancun as a base and visit a number
of other Yucatán peninsula sites. This actually proved not be a
be a good idea, and about 1 1/2 days into the trip we opted to bag all
the long drives and stick closer to Cancun and thus (we feel) we saw
more birds. (It is a good axiom that any hour spent driving is one less
hour spent birding!)
Sites visited (all in Quintana Roo state):
We dropped from our overly-ambitious itinerary Cozumel (the
ferry from Pto. Morales no longer runs, necessitating a long pre-dawn
drive to Playa del Carmen), and Río Lagartos. These and other
places will have to be visited on another Yucatán trip, where we
will (more sensibly) stay at a variety of accommodations nearer the
- Vigio Chico Road (Filippe Carillo Puerto)
- Marin Botanical Gardens
- Central Vallarta Road and Village (which proved to be great!)
- Wetlands in and around Cancun and Puerto Morales
We arrived at Cancun airport about 10:30 a.m., on a Vacations Express
charter, picked up our rental car from Alamo (good value, compact AC
Chevy in excellent condition), and drove to the Hyatt Regency in
Cancun's zona hotelera, our base for 4 nights, to check in and drop off
luggage. About the only birds seen en route were Great-tailed Grackles.
When we got to the Hyatt, we found that check-in was 3 p.m. and that no
ones' rooms were ready. We had been planning to drive to Cobá
that afternoon and this problem cost us two hours' driving and birding
time! (Having said that, the Hyatt was otherwise a fine hotel and we
had very nice rooms, easily accessible parking and very helpful staff).
We left the hotel about 1:15, still with all our luggage, and drove
south on the very good road 307 to Tulúm, then taking the
not-quite-so-good road NW to Cobá. We made a couple of
stops along the way to look at roadside birds, which were especially
abundant on the road from Tulum to Coba. Arriving at Cobá at
about 3 pm, it was still pretty hot, so we got a Coke at a local
restaurant and admired the large lake with Least Grebes, Limpkins, etc.
We then birded the grounds of the Villas Arqueologicas (a Club Med
facility which that day looked devoid of guests.) By 4 pm it was cool
enough to start exploring the roadside and lake edge. A short burst of
the tape brought out two RUDDY CRAKES which then sat next to each other
preening for superb views. Certainly one of the birds of the trip! No
luck however on Spotted Rail. Unfortunately, because we had not been
able to complete check in at our hotel, we could not stay until dusk to
look for nightjars which are supposed to be common in this area. A long
drive back to the Hyatt, and then a room service supper (very nice--
delivered with fresh flowers and a smile!)
Birds seen at Cobá and along the road in and out included the
Great Black Hawk
Eleania Yucatan Flycatcher
Wren Yellow Warbler
Seedeater Grayish Saltator
We had arranged from the USA to meet a guide, Arturo Bayona, at the
town of Felipe Carillo Puerto and bird the Vigio Chico Rd. in hopes of
Ocellated Turkey and other forest birds. However, despite getting up
very early and driving like the devil, it took a good three hours to
reach this area from Cancun and we arrived at 7:30 a.m., well after
dawn. By the time we had off-loaded into Arturo's van and driven to the
start of the road, it was already getting hot. In retrospect we should
have skipped the open areas at the beginning of the road (which held
widely-encountered species) and gone directly into the intact forest
where birds were of greatest interest to us. As it was, by the time we
reached this part of the road, it was hot, sunny and breezy -- and dead
bird-wise! So unfortunately we ended up with essentially only one or
two species which we did not end up seeing at other, closer, sites. We
also discovered from Arturo that no one knows a "sure site" for
Ocellated Turkey here, it seems to be as much chance as anything!
As a result we decided to bag this about lunch time and drove back to
Cancun. En route we re-thought our original plans and made the decision
to stay closer to home base from now on! We stopped briefly at the
Marin Botanical Gardens to arrange an early entrance the next morning
(they will let birders in at 7 am if you arrange it with the
supervisors ahead of time). Later that evening we had a nice seafood
dinner in town, overlooking the lagoon, as the sun set.
Top birds today included our only identified Yucatan Parrots of the
trip [many unidentified parrots seen daily] and nice views of
Eye-ringed Flatbill at its nest.
Birds seen at Vigio Chico included:
Thicket Tinamou [heard
only] Blue Ground-Dove
Ferruginous Pygymy Owl [heard
Eye-ringed Flatbill and nest
This was a relaxing day, and we started off with a short drive south on
307 to the start of the Central Vallarta road, about 1 km south of Pto.
Morales on the west side (accessed from the local lane -- take the
carril derecho). This is the road referred to earlier trip reports as
"a dirt road opposite the botanical gardens" but now it is paved and is
well-marked by a huge Mayan arch -- the road is now termed the "rutas
los cenotes" and signed for the village of Central Vallarta 15 km away,
and then beyond this through good forest until it intersects with the
main e/w road from Cancun (Rt. 180 ). It offers miles of excellent
birding through (initially) scrub and then fairly intact forest. The
small village of Central Vallarta is also good birding, with many
established fruit and flowering trees. It is an historical village,
established in the last century by chicle collectors; many of the
once-abandoned houses are being restored. We met an American woman who
lives there and who has a rental cottage, and is encouraging birders to
stay (see below for contact info.).
We got to the start of the road at dawn (about 6:15 a.m.) and
immediately got into birds. In about an hour, we left and went
over to the Botanical Gardens. These are about 1 1/2 km. south of Pto.
Morales on the east side, again accessed from the right-hand local
lane. It is easy to miss the entrance -- there is a large concrete sign
on the right, but it is about 50 feet beyond the actual entrance --
which is an iron gate with a white thatched stucco arch. We parked in
front and beeped our horn and an employee came out and unlocked the
gate. (However, two days later he told us that he got into a bit of
trouble doing this -- apparently only the boss is supposed to open the
main gate. What they want you to do is to park outside the exit gate
about 100 yards down the road, and come in that way, it is partially
opened in the early morning to let employees in. You pay el jefe when
he arrives -- ps. 70.00 pp.).
The gardens have about 3 km. of trails, most of which are natural (we
found it hard to find the beginning of the east end of this trail -- it
starts behind the Mayan ruins -- but the west end starts behind the
bathrooms). The natural trails lead through dry scrub and forest, down
past mangroves, and also has a 10 meter observation tower over the
canopy. The paved trails also goes to some excellent places for birds,
esp. the Mayan farm and the palm grove. There is also a waterfall
(electrically run, it goes "on" at about 9 am) which attracts lots of
birds in this dry climate.
We walked the trails twice and then re-did some of the closer areas
before it got too hot. That day there were almost no other visitors.
The greatest excitement was walking along the natural trail past the
chicle collector's camp and hearing (but not seeing) Ocellated Turkey
gobbling several times -- unfortunately moving away from us as it
called! The gobble starts as a strange Unk! Unk! noise then speeds into
a gobble not unlike that of the common North Am.Wild Turkey, but with a
slightly different tone. Other good birds including three species of
trogons and both Spot-breasted and White-bellied Wrens and a
superb adult male Grey-throated Chat.
Birds seen on Central Vallarta Rd. and in Marin Botanical Gardens:
Caribbean Dove [MBG]
Cinnamon Hummingbird MBG
Spot-breasted Wren [MBG]
Chat [MBG] Red-eyed
En route back to Cancun we stopped for a while to look at the wetlands
just south of the side road into Pto. Morales from Rt. 307. These had
been much praised by other birders but we didn't find too much. We also
checked the wetlands south of the road into the Cancun's zona hotelera
from Rt. 307, seeing a few new species for our list.
Birds seen in Pto. Morales and Cancun wetlands:
Duck Northern Jacana
Back at Cancun we decided to take the afternoon off, and had a late
lunch at the hotel's outside café. We were astonished to find
that there was an active Sooty Tern colony just off our beach, and we
enjoyed seeing the birds fly in and out while we ate. We estimated
about 500 birds with many sitting on nests. Also, fly-by Sandwich
and Royal Terns
While on the Central Vallarta road that morning, a woman had stopped
and introduced herself. She encouraged us to drive in to her village in
the late afternoon (around 5) when lots of parrots, toucans and other
birds came into feed and roost. We took her up on this but
unfortunately ran into the only serious rain of the trip (afternoon
thunderstorm). This cut down on activity but we did manage to see quite
a few birds while walking around the village under our umbrellas!
Birds seen at Central Vallarta in evening:
This was our last full day and we decided to forgo any extensive drives
and instead stick to birding the Botanical Gardens and the Central
Vallarta area. The storm the evening before had cooled things down and
we were able to stay out all day, with just a break for a pleasant
lunch in the little fishing town of Puerto Morales. This time we
concentrated in the morning on the road, going in about 8-10 km. and
reaching areas with larger trees and less disturbance. Later we went
into the Botanical Gardens (about 10:00 am) finding it rather busy but
managing to get away from people and seeing some more good birds.
(Unfortunately the turkey made itself scarce). When we left we arranged
with the boss to arrive at 7 am the next morning, just before driving
to the airport. We still had not seen some species supposedly common in
the area (e.g. Black Catbird, Rose-throated Tanager) and were getting a
bit frustrated. Still a great day's birding with many good birds
including two pairs of Turquoise-browed Motmots along the CVR. We at
last got to grips with Green-backed Sparrows with at least four birds
[include. singing males] along the CVR. But be careful as we also had a
single Olive Sparrow singing along this road. Also we spent a
delightful evening birding around the village of Central Villarto with
lots of good birds including three species of humming birds, a superb
Long-billed Gnatwren and great views of a pair of Yellow-tailed Orioles
foraging at almost ground level.
Birds seen along the Central Vallarta road and in Botanical Gardens:
Ferruginous Pygymy Owl
[heard] Turquiose-browed Motmot
[MBG] Golden-olive Woodpecker
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper [MBG
Bright-rumped Attila [MBG]
Flycatcher Rose-throated Becard
Black-cowled Oriole [MBG]
After lunch we did some shopping and then headed back up the C. V.
road, aiming to reach the village by 4:30 p.m. This proved a good plan
and we found it to be very active (as promised) with several new birds
added including catching up with species missed earlier by one or the
other of us. This was the only place we saw a number of hummingbirds
including the much-wanted Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, feeding at ornamental
trees. However, despite considerable tape-trolling, no Black Catbird!
We left the village as it was getting towards evening, and went back to
Pto. Morales for supper (at Los Pelicanos, very good). On the drive we
had about eight Lesser Nighthawks hunting moths.
Birds seen in evening on road and in village:
Lesser Nighthawk 
April 29: We drove to the Marin Gardens by 7 am, to find no one there.
However within 15 minutes several employees arrived, and explained
about the preferred early-entrance logistics. We loaded up with water
and snacks and set off on our last try for some local goodies. Almost
the first bird was stunning looks at a male Rose-throated Tanager on
the ground, but as this was our only one of these despite hours
birding, they are apparently not as common here (or at this time of
year) as suggested in Howell's book. We then immediately ran into an
ant swarm with a lot of activity from ant-tanagers (both
species), four species of woodcreepers and other birds.
When this slowed down, we continued around the natural trail slowly,
Barry climbed the tower (Gail hates heights) and we generally greatly
enjoyed our last foray. Quite a few goodies were seen, but no catbird
and no more sign of the turkey. Oh well, there has to be a next time!
We re-packed our birding gear, drove to the Alamo car return, and
hopped on the shuttle to the charter terminal. A quick change into
fresh clothes, some last-minute shopping, and back to reality!
Birds seen last morning at gardens:
Greenlet Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Red-throated Ant Tanager
Common and widespread species:
Several of our top target birds turned out to be suprisingly common.
For example, up to six Yucatan Jays were seen daily. While quite
common, a brilliant species and one of the top birds of the trip.
Orange Oriole was another superb species that was so numerous we simply
ticked it in the daily log. Likewise Mangrove Vireo and Lesser
Greenlet, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Masked Tityra were all seen daily.
As indicated by the following list, there were still quite a few North
American neotropical migrants around.
Common and widespread species that were seen on most of the days:
Great Blue Heron*
Ruddy Ground Dove
Eastern Wood Pewee*
Black-throated Green Warbler
Great Tailed Grackle
* Recorded on not more than two days.
As a result of adjusting our itinerary we gave up on the Cozumel and
north Yucatan specialties. However, this change gave us more relaxed
birding and allowed us to pretty much clean-up on all but a
couple of the mid-Yucatan birds [the exceptions being the elusive Black
Catbird and the uncommon Gray-collared Becard]. In all we managed to
record 162 species [including two heard only] and rack-up about 25
lifers. Not too bad for less than four days of birding.
Howell, Birds of Mexico and Central America
Howell, N.G. A Bird-finding Guide to Mexico
Plus a few trip reports from Blake Maybank's page, including those of
Tapes: We made up some tapes but used them little except for the crake.
Instead we relied more on tape-playback when necessary.
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Cancun. However we did identify some
other places to stay that are a lot more convenient to birding sites:
Cobá: Villas Arqueologica (supposedly arrange directly on site,
not through Club Med, to get reasonable rate). Nice grounds right on
Felipe Carillo Puerto (Vigio Chico Rd.) -- Arturo says birders are
being encouraged to stay at Hotel La Casona, Calle 65 No. 746, Felipe
Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, Mèxico, fax: 01(983) 8340313,
Tel:01(983)8340344 Arturo took us by there and it does look nice.
Pto. Morales area: Denise Madrid has a cottage to rent in Central
Vallarta, 15 km on a good birding road from Rt. 307, we know nothing
about its amenities but contact Denise at firstname.lastname@example.org for
Denise also gave us a brochure for a new ecolodge, Genesis Ek Balam,
which is 1/2 hour from Chitzen Itza and a doable drive to Rio Lagartos
and north coast Yucatán sites. It looks very good, the brochure
talks about good birding on grounds, contact is: www.genesisretreat.com
Also, there are several small hotels in Puerto Morales right on the
beach so these could be checked into on spec (we didn't get any contact
Gail Mackiernan and Barry Cooper