13 - 17 January 1997
by Jeff & Noel Perkins
With an intense new job starting 1/21 and little prospects of seeing the light of day for the next 6 months, Noel and I scrambled to put together a mini vacation with sun and birds and no telephones.Belize was 1st choice, but Chan Chich lodge was full. Hawaii was easy to get to from SF, but sorting endemics from introduced birds was something we didn't relish this time around. Our thoughts kept drifting back to our brief sojourn to Cancun last summer, and we decided to return and pick up where we left off.
Just so happens that all western Continental Airline flights to Cancun route through Houston, so Noel and I stepped off the plane for 12 hours to chase the Masked Ducks and Kelp Gull. It took us 15 minutes each to locate these ticks at Brazos Bend and Galveston, respectively - so we knew the birding Gods were on our side this trip.
Our summer trip highlight was a day at the Coba Mayan ruins - which we fully intended to revisit this time around. But unlike last time, the action was so good close to Cancun, we never made it that far south.
First of all, as far as familiar North American songbirds go, winter in the Yucatan is like a good spring day in High Island. 13 familiar warbler species, 5 vireos, Least Flycatchers and Wood Thrushes were everywhere we turned. And then came the Mexican endemics. The woods were a riot.
Our first afternoon was spent at the little publicized Jardin Botanico of Dr Alfredo Barrera Marin in Puerto Morelos, just 20 minutes south of Cancun. The park was fantastic, with great birds, fabulously maintained trails, and no other visitors. After we got used to the Spider Monkeys dropping nuts on our heads, our biggest worry was wiplash from trying to track all of the cooperative birds in our path. Top cool factor for the day was held by the WHITE-NECKED PUFFBIRD, whose haunting low whistle lured us to his bare perch above the canopy. That is, at least until the flock of COLLARED ARACARI descended to pick fruit too close to us to use binoculars. Madness erupted around an ant column that had RED-CROWNED ANT-TANAGERS, GRAY-HEADED TANAGERS, RUDDY WOODCREEPERS, and IVORY-BILLED WOODCREEPERS ignored our close proximity. In 4 hours, we barely made it around a third of the 5 kilometers of trials. Along with many more common or North American species, other endemic highlights of that 1st afternoon included:
This garden was so great, we scrapped plans for the longer drive to Coba, and returned to the Marin Gardens the next morning. We were rewarded with the same diversity and volume of birds as before, with top honors going to the COLLARED FOREST-FALCON that shyly posed for us in the understory. ROSE-THROATED TANAGERS, YELLOW-BACKED ORIOLES, SPOT-BREASTED WREN, and BOAT-BILLED FLYCATCHERS were some of the fun adds to the list, as was the shy FERUGINOUS PYGMY-OWL that we caught in wide-eyed surprise before he slinked back into the mangroves.
The next day would be an all day road trip to Rio Lagartos for a look at the flamingos. We were looking forward to getting to the northern Yucatan and the diversity of birds there. However, the exciting birding started barely off of square one. Leaving Cancun, we stopped to look at a ROADSIDE HAWK perched above an unassuming field at the southwest intersection of Hwy 180 and 307. In a few moments, we had LINEATED WOODPECKER, SQUIRREL CUCKOO, GREAT BLACK HAWK, BLACK-COWLED ORIOLE, and dozens of other birds. We liked this spot so much, we came back the next day, and within an hour, added CINNAMON HUMMINGBIRD, GRAY-HEADED KITE, and best of all, 2 KEEL-BILLED TOUCANS - all just beyond the Cancun hotel district.
The Rio Lagartos trip kept us raptor happy, as we added GRAY HAWK, COMMON BLACK HAWK, LAUGHING FALCON, BAT FALCON (with a female sitting in a nest cavity), and CRESTED CARACARA all along the roadside. For once, the parrots were cooperatve, and we got to look at both WHITE-FRONTED and YELLOW-LORED PARROTs perched in the sun.When we slowed down enough to scan the scrub, we added SCRUB EUPHONIA, GRAYISH SALTATOR, WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER, and ALTAMIRA and ORANGE ORIOLEs to the plentiful other birds along the way. And yes, 2 good GREATER FLAMINGO flocks were easily scopable along with many other waterbirds at Rio Lagartos itself. We opted not to take a boat ride into the preserve, although we were hustled by every gondolier in town that could catch up to our car window.
Once again, the trip was too short. We were amazed that our species count was only 125 birds after 3 days, but we were thrilled with the density and uniqueness of the species we saw. We were sad that we didn't make it back to Coba, nor spent more time out in the arid north, but that was supplanted by the awesome birding so close and comfortable to Cancun itself. With two great tastes of this area back to back, we would go back again and again.
Note: Mosquitos were present but mild in Marin Gardens, but we got blasted by chiggers, causing a 1st ever for me swelling of my ankles and limiting my later mobility. Oh well, a small price for a view of a Forest-falcon.
If anyone would like more details, a triplist, or notes from our earlier trip, please let us know.
We had 2 mystery birds that escaped our best guesses. Any sugestions would be appreciated:
At the ant-swarm, we had good looks at a bird 12-14", all black but with a purplish sheen to the back, bright yellow bill and legs. 1st thought was a Cacique, but the legs and bill were a bright lemon yellow. A juvenile Yucatan Jay kind of fits if bad light could make the blue back look blackish, but the light was too good and other Yucatan Jays showed bright blue. I'm at a loss, other than to suggest an out-of-range juvenile Purplish-backed Jay.
In the jungle, we heard several times a descending whistle call almost a dead ringer for Canyon Wren, except maybe a little softer, and a little slower in its descent down the scale. We never traced the voice to the bird, but heard it a good number of times.
Jeff & Noel Perkins