The YUCATÁN and CHIAPAS
The Biggest Twitch in the Mayan Empire
4-11 January 2008
Guide: Michael Retter
Twitchers: Ruth Miller and Alan Davies
Michael, Alan, and Ruth on Isla Cozumel
Day 1: Arrival in Cancún
We spent more time than we’d planned in Cancún this afternoon because the rental company didn't have our car. Once we got one, we proceeded directly to Playa del Carmen to get the ferry across to Isla Cozumel. We had to leave our car on the mainland and get another one in the island due to logistics. It was incredibly windy this evening, which made the ferry ride more eventful than usual, but we arrived on the island on time. Our next rental car, however, was unavailable for pickup as the location closed an hour early! No matter. A very helpful man next door led us to a place that rented VW beetles, and of course, we got the bright magenta convertible! After a nice dinner, we rested in preparation for the morning's birding.
Day 2: Isla Cozumel and Cobá
Alan and Ruth mistakenly set their clocks one hour behind, so we had a leisurely start this morning. As it turns out, there were great birds right in the hotel's courtyard. We had amazing looks at a couple Yellow-throated Warblers as they crept along in the palm fronds. Then a flock of Myrtle Warblers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flew in. Then a Tennessee Warbler and a Northern Parula. By far the prize of the flock, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler then appeared and delighted for a good 10 minutes.
But we had to be off to look for the island residents, so we sped . . . well, putted . . . south in the "Pink Panther" into some native habitat. One of the first birds we heard was a singing Cozumel Vireo, but he didn't want to come out to play. The same was true of a Rufous-browed Peppershrike from the enemic population. The birds soon picked up, though. Odd speaks and clucks in the undergrowth led us to a Black Catbird, which proved to be the most abundant bird during our visit. We were delighted to find a pair of Western Spindalises feeding in a small fruit tree. The stunning male and completely different dingy female spent quite a while chowing down, and they were eventually joined by a Cozumel Bananaquit. Across the road, a Cozumel Wren started singing and nicely responded to playback. We still had two endemics to go, though. A bit further down the road, we found a small group of White-crowned Pigeons obligingly perched atop a dead snag. After they left, a male Yucatán Woodpecker replaced them and proclaimed his rights to the territory. Caribbean Doves cooed from the understory, and a couple flushed across the road, but we never managed to see one perched. As we walked along, we noticed small birds feeding in the grass along the road ahead. They turned out to be the endemic subspecies of Yellow-faced Grassquit! We came to a house with an obnoxious barking dog, whose owner walked out to say "hola" to us. He was quite interested in our birding and asked if we'd yet seen a hummingbird. "No!" we exclaimed. "Do you know where there are any?" He told us of two locations, the first a trail, the other a bank of flowers further along the road. We tried the trail first, and although we didn't see a hummingbird, we did have excellent views of Caribbean Elaenia. Ten minutes of waiting at the flower bank yielded a spectacular adult male Cozumel Emerald. It's amazing how much longer its tail is than most other Chlorostilbon. The sun was getting high, but we still hadn't seen the vireo, so we returned to the place we'd heard it earlier and played some tape. Nothing. A Mangrove Cuckoo started singing close by, though, and we eventually had very nice views of two of them. A male Golden Warbler put on a nice show darting around over our heads, as well. We were about to leave when, bingo! A Cozumel Vireo started singing again. A little patience was rewarded with amazing views of this unique orange-colored vireo, certainly the most impressive of the island's endemics. With all of our targets viewed, and well, we returned to the mainland.
It was then on to the ruins of Cobá. A thorough check of the lake outside the ruins did produce a Spotted Rail, but it was quite distant. We also noted Mangrove Swallows and Northern Jaçana. Once inside the ruins we were inundated with mixed flocks. We strained our necks to pick through the birds and then realized, hey--there's a pyramid right there that would put us at eye level with them! This proved to be a great idea. Masked Tityras passed just by the top of the pyramid, and a cadre of warblers--Black-and-white, Black-throated Green, American Redstart, Northen Parula--danced at little more than arm's length. They were soon joined by a flock of cute little Yellow-throated Euphonias. A noisy Squirrel Cuckoo called from the trees growing out the side of the pyramid next door, but did eventually fly out onto an open branch for us. It was hard, but we eventually tore ourselves away from the pyramid and proceeded into the forest. A strange call from overhead alerted us to the presence of a pair of Rose-throated Tanagers. What luck! Since the hurricanes of the past couple years, this species has gotten harder on the mainland and nearly impossible on Cozumel, where it used to be easy. We considered ourselves very luck to cross paths with these guys. A rustle of leaves drew our attention to a Thicket Timamou fleeing our approach, but unfortunately, only Alan and I were able to see it in time. Another mixed flock produced a male Gray-collared Becard. Again, our luck was amazing: this bird eludes even seasoned birders of Mexico, so seeing one so well on the first day of birding was quite a treat. It was almost closing time, so we walked back towards to parking lot. A clucking noise overhead distracted us, and drew our attention to a singing male Black-headed Trogon. We watched this yellow-bellied beauty for a while, admiring its blue eye ring and canary yellow belly until we really had to leave. We enjoyed our short ride to the hotel in Valladolid, knowing tomorrow's drive wouldn't be so leisurely.
Day 3: Río Lagartos
We'd planned to drive straight to Río Lagartos this morning, but the birds would have nothing of it! A gas station stop gve us a glimpse of what ws to come: Grayish Saltator, Black-headed Saltator, Altamira Oriole, Couch's Kingbird, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper. While slowly driving through the outskirts of a small town, a flock of hundreds of small passerines flushed from the side of the road, so naturally, we stopped to check 'em out. Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak made up the bulk, but we also found Painted Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Baltimore and Orchard Orioles. Surprisingly, a Yucatán Flycatcher appeared in the tree over the flock, and we somehow managed to ignore the brightly colored birds below to properly identify this peninsular endemic.
A few kilometers south of Río Lagartos area, the habitat changed abruptly from a fairly green, relatively tall forest to dry desert thornscrub. This area gets just as much rain, but the soil is sand, causing most of the rainfall to quickly drain away. While we drove on a back road into the desert scrub habitat, we noticed a large bird with a very long tail sitting up on an exposed dead snag--it was a Lesser Roadrunner! The bird remained there, singing, for ten minutes or more, allowing us to snap a few photos. Ruth and I had an amazing look at a displaying Mexican Sheartail, but Alan was just too far down the road to see it. A Mangrove Vireo came in with a flock of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and started to sing for us, but we weren't too impressed! We found five species of oriole here: Orchard, Baltimore, Altamira, Hooded, and the endemic Orange Oriole. Other birds we came across included Yucatán Wren, Yucatán Woodpecker, Yucatán Bobwhite, Northern Cardinal, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Couch's Kingbird, Blue-black Grassquit, and Cinnamon Hummingbird. On the walk back to the car, we came across a flock of Groove-billed Anis feeding at an army ant swarm, and Alan finally saw a Mexican Sheartail.
As we arrived in Rio Lagartos, we immediately spotted a pair of Common Black-Hawks, the first of many, perched on a communications tower. From the dock, we noticed some distant American Flamingos, but we’d get much better looks soon.
We then set out with our captain on a boat into the mangroves, but not before stopping at a shorebird-covered mudflat. Highlights here were Snowy Plover, Marbled Godwit, Short-billed Dowitcher, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, and Black Skimmer. Once into the lagoon, our knowledgeable captain took us directly to a Boat-billed Heron roost, and thereafter we quietly slipped into some mangroves, hoping to find a pygmy kingfisher. Though we couldn’t locate one, we did come across some Mangrove Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes. Back out on the main lagoon, our captain found a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. We were nearly on top of it, though, before any of the rest of us could locate it hiding in plain sight! While traveling fast through the main channel, we were nearly hit by an American Pygmy Kingfisher, as it flew from one side to the other. Though we were unable to relocate it, the view we had of the bird mere feet away was more than adequate! Additional stops at mudflat yielded a Lesser Black-backed Gull, easily over 100 Wilson’s Plover, and a large flock of dazzling American Flamingos! Finally, on the way back to the dock, we had an excellent look at a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and a dozen more Common Black-Hawks.
After a late lunch, we headed south through Valladolid and Felipe Carillo Puerto to Xpujil, where we had supper and turned in for the night.
Day 4: Calakmul
Unfortunately, Ruth had a short bout of the flu the prior night, so we had a late start, arriving at 11 a.m. As we found out, though, Calakmul lived up to its reputation, and we were astonished by the incredible birding we had during the hottest part of the day. A short stop at an antswarm on the entrance road provided our first views of Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Northern Bared-Woodreeper, and the flashy Gray-throated Chat. The first of many Brown Jays and Montezuma Oropendolas flew overhead. Continuing on, we rounded the corner to find five Ocellated Turkeys standing in the middle of the road. They allowed us to approach very closely, and we enjoyed prolonged looks at them as they passed in and out of the patches of light on the forest floor.
When we arrived at the entrance to the ruins, we quickly found the pair of Lineated Woodpeckers at the same nest tree discovered on last year’s tour. The grounds surrounding the entrance were sprinkled with exotic orchids, many of which were in bloom. We hadn’t made it a few steps past the gate before we were inundated by a flurry of activity. First, Alan asked, “What looks like a wren with a really long bill?” It was a Long-billed Gnatwren, and it was soon joined by a Tropical Gnatcatcher, a Northern Bentbill, a Magnolia Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, and another Gray-throated Chat. Then Ruth spotted a flashy male “Eastern” Blue Bunting. A small flock of Yucatán Jays passed overhead as we listened to a Central American Pygmy-Owl and a Thicket Tinamou sing in the distance. We also found a Collared Trogon and a Black-headed Trogon.
A frenzied feeding flock awaited us at the first set of ruins. A Violaceous Trogon and some Scrub Euphonias kept to the treetops, while Olivaceous and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers joined a Bright-rumped Attila and a Yellow-olive Flycatcher below. A bit further towards the main ruins, we looked up to see four Great Curassows walk out onto the path! We enjoyed amazing views of them at close range, studying the differences between two different morphs of the female and admiring the male’s yellow bill-knob. Nearby, we found both a Least Flycatcher and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, giving us a great comparison of the empids’ plumages and voices.
One of the truly memorable things about Calakmul is its lack of excavation. The grounds surrounding the main plaza and even the temples themselves are still covered with huge trees. Thus, you really don’t have any idea how big the pyramids are until you walk up the stairs, clear the top of the canopy, and turn around. Thousands of square miles of untouched rainforest, Black Hawk-Eagles whistling overhead, Keel-billed Toucans feeding below eye level, spider monkeys playing on the tops of the pyramids, a Bat Falcon perched on the pyramid across the plaza, and Crested Guans hooting in the distance. In a word, breathtaking. You really have to experience it to fully appreciate the grandeur and grasp the feeling of exhilaration.
We enjoyed lunch at the top of the tallest pyramid, taking time out to digiscope some toucans, howler monkeys, and Bat Falcons, but our late start meant that we really had to be moving.
We began driving towards the main highway, but not before stopping to admire a flock of ~20 Ocellated Turkey begging for handouts on the road! We also picked up Wedge-tailed Sabrewing and Buff-bellied Hummingbird here at a roadside flower bank.
On the long drive to our hotel in Palenque, we saw saw Great Black-Hawk, Roadside Hawk, and Gray-necked Wood-Rail from the car.
Day 5: Yaxchilán
We rested again this morning, as Ruth had an exhausting day at Calakmul considering she was under the weather and climbed to the top of a giant pyramid! Since time was precious, we opted to skip the more cut-over Palenque ruins and head south to the lush riverside site of Yaxchilán. A Snail Kite perched alongside the road merited an impromptu stop.
Just getting to the ruins is an experience. The first leg is by boat, cruising down the Rio Usumacinta, with Guatemala on the right. On the way we saw both Mangrove and Ridgway’s Rough-winged Swallows, as well as many sun-basking alligators. Once at the site, we must first will walked up a set of stairs built into the river bank, through some dense tropical rainforest, and then into the depths of a damp, dark catacomb. Bats brushed by our heads as we carefully made our way towards the literal light at the end of the tunnel. As we got closer, the blood-curdling calls of howler monkeys filtered through the passageway. And then, wow! We walked directly out into the Great Plaza, surrounded by ruins and studded with massive fig trees.
Predictably, the huge fruiting fig in the middle of the Plaza kept our attention for hours. The howler monkeys were not happy about our visit and proclaimed their discontent with raucous roars. A flock of noisy Plain Chachalacas was crashing around before beating a hasty retreat upon our arrival. Then a pair of Keel-billed toucans showed up. Even though we saw dozens the day before, it’s hard to get tired of these amazing multicolored birds! The Ruth said, “Sorry to pull your attention away from such colorful birds . . . it’s probably nothing, but what’s the dull gray bird perched up in the top of this tree?” An immature Lovely Cotinga—well worth it! Closer inspection revealed an odd wisp of down behind the ear and blue and purple spots below; it was a young male. Not long after that, one of us was lucky enough to be looking at the right place at the right time as the wind blew, the sunbeams shifted, and the shining blue and plum belly of an adult male cotinga. We were so entranced, not even the screams of a Scarlet Macaw were enough to pull us away! We ended up finding at least 4 males as we keyed in on the distinctive rattling sound their primaries make when flying. Over the next two to three hours, this amazing tree was also visited by Chestnut-sided Warbler, Bananaquit, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Olive-backed Euphonia, Golden-hooded Tanager, Yellow-winged Tanager, Collared Araçari, Short-billed Pigeon, Aztec Parakeet, Black-cheeked Woopeker, and Montezuma Oropendola.
We did have to stop to rest our necks from time-to-time, and there were birds to be seen on the Great Plaza itself. A Wood Thrush hopped around robin-like, and a male Blue Ground-Dove joined a Green-backed Sparrow to feed on some grass seeds. A small, non-descript brown bird then demanded our attention, as it flew from ruin to ruin. After minutes of study, we realized it was a female Blue Seedeater—a very rare bird indeed! Eventually it flew to the edge of the plaza and hopped into a thick stand of bamboo, never to be seen again.
Somehow, we tore ourselves from the fig tree to admire the ruins and their amazingly preserved carvings, especially the intricate stellae. Some even still have paint on them. It was nearly time for the ruins to close, so we needed to get back to the dock to meet our boat. A very obliging White-whiskered Puffbird would have nothing of it, though, and we spent a good 10 minutes looking at it through the scopes.
A brief walk along the old airstrip on the way out yielded a cadre of leaf-eaters: Buff-throated and Black-headed Saltators, and a large flock of Black-faced Grosbeaks. At the top of the stairs before we decended to the river, we found a Long-billed Hermit and a dazzling Blue-crowned Motmot.
Besides a dazzling sunset, we were treated to large flocks of parrots on our boat ride back to the hotel. With patience, we had decent views and comparisons of Red-lored, Mealy, and White-crowned Parrots. As the sun dropped below the flaming pink horizon, dozens of Lesser Nighthawks came out to feast.
Day 6: Bonampak and Palenque
An early start today proved very fruitful. Bonampak is just “inland” of and slightly higher in elevation than Yaxchilán, so it has a greater diversity of species, including many from the lower foothills. It’s safe to say that this was our most productive spot of the trip. The birding was so fast-paced along the entrance road that we never even made it to the ruins!
Little Tinamous sang from the dark floor of the rainforest, and playback lured two in very close. It was shortly thereafter that we ran into a massive understory feeding flock. It’s here, with these flocks of suboscines, that you feel like you’re really in Neoptopical rainforest. We saw antbirds: Plain Antvireo and Dot-winged Antwren. We saw furnariids: Plain Xenops, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, and the massive Strong-billed Woodreeper. And of course, we saw tyrant flycatchers: Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, and the amazing Northern Royal-Flycatcher. There were also some very cool oscine passerines in the mix, like Long-billed Gnatwren, Spot-breasted Wren, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, and the gorgeous emerald Green Shrike-Vireo.
Meanwhile, Spotted Wood-Quail, Pale-vented Pigeons, Mexican Antthrushes, and Scaly-throated Leaftossers sang all around us. Once the flock was gone, we decided to go after a couple of the more enticing species. First we tried the leaftosser. We crawled into the dark understory of the forest, everyone got a comfortable place to sit, and we played the song. Within seconds, a Scaly-throated Leaftosser shot in like a huge blackish bullet, and sang just off the ground in full view for what seemed like half an hour. Incredible!
Next came Mexican Antthrush. Employing the same strategy, we waited. The bird sang back. And waited. It continued to get closer. It finally came within a few feet, but always just behind a big log. It sounded like it was ready to come out behind one of the ends of the log when Ruth whispered, “I’m very sorry, but there’s a pair of huge red trogons just over our heads”. For the next 15 minutes we enjoyed killer looks at a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons. The antthrush slowly walked off, singing along the way, but we didn’t care. We were fixated on these beautiful emerald, ruby, ebony, and topaz-colored birds.
Further down the road, a loud snapping sound could be heard. It was a lek of White-collared Manakins! It took a while, but we eventually left with very satisfying views of both sexes. A large flock of immense White-collared Swifts circled overhead, and we were able to pull out a few Chestnut-collared Swifts among them.
By now it was 10 a.m., and we had to be moving again in order to make it to our hotel by dark and still have to time to bird along the way. But as seemed to be the case at nearly every stop this trip, the birds would have nothing of it. An Orange-billed Sparrow sang from the shadows, and his glowing orange bill eventually popped into view. A fruiting tree attracted Black-cowled Orioles, Brown-hooded Parrots, and more Keel-billed Toucans. A Thrush-like Schiffornis sang along the trail, and with patience we were able to admire this odd, brown bird and ponder what exactly it was. (It has a clouded taxonomic history.) A pair of Dusky Antirds put on quite a show as we returned to the car. We enjoyed a lunch in the parking lot with a very cooperative White-whiskered Puffbird. It remained in the scopes the entire time we were eating, and we left it in the same spot as we reluctantly drove away.
The foothills south of Palenque merited a few stops, and we were not disappointed. Red-legged Honeycreepers were everywhere and in every plumage state, from dull greenish winter birds, to streaky females and vibrant indigo males. Combing through them rewarded us with a couple stunning Green Honeycreepers. We whistled in a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl at another spot, and it brought with it a mobbing flock of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Yellow-billed Caciques! See the caciques and seeing the well is quite a treat; this species usually stays very low and quiet in the dark tangles and bamboo thickets.
Dusk approached as we drove through Ocosingo, and with it came the most surprising observation of the trip. A pair of backlit macaws were flying high above the mountains, heading south. Unfortunately we weren’t able to identify them to species, but neither Military nor Scarlet should have been there, so they were exciting nonetheless.
We arrived in San Cristóbal right at suppertime, and we enjoyed a delicious local meal while sipping margaritas while trying to remember all the day’s birds.
Day 7: San Cristóbal and El Sumidero
What a difference a day makes. It was cold this morning as we birded the high-elevation pine-oak woodlands east of town. So cold that the birds took a while to wake up! The sun’s warmth started to filter through the pines and gorgeous bromeliads, though, and a noisy flock of Band-backed Wrens and Yellow-backed Orioles arrived to investigate our presence. A male Garnet-throated Hummingbird displayed overhead. Rufous-collared Robins sang from the treetops but did a great job of staying completely hidden from view. A short bout of tape-playing coaxed one out for us, though. We didn’t really notice the trogon in the background of the robin recording, but a ruby-bellied male Mountain Trogon did, and we spent a good deal of time admiring him. Berylline and White-throated Hummingbirds sang nearby.
By now, the insects were really flying around, and the warbler flocks became active. Townsend’s, Hermits, and Olives made up the bulk of the flocks, but we also picked out Crescent-chested and the amazing Red-faced. Mixed in with them was a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper and an individual of the resident notius subspecies of Plumbeous Vireo, which looks more like a Cassin’s—certainly one to keep an eye on for a future split! Below the warblers, both Pine and Buff-breasted Flycatchers provided our empid fix for the morning. A Greater Pewee whistled overhead. On the walk back to the car, we found a Gray Silky.
Mid-morning found us traveling west through Tuxtla Gutiérrez to the spectacular El Sumidero canyon. The dry thornforest on the lower slopes of the foothills provided a taste of Mexico’s dry Pacific slope birds, but our location in interior Chiapas also meant there were Gulf-slope species present, making for an odd combination of birds. It was very birdy considering the hot midday sun beating down from overhead. Imitating a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl brought in Plain-capped Starthroat, Nutting’s Flycatcher, Yellow Grosbeak, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Canivet’s Emerald, Barred Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-vented Oriole, and eventually, an actual pygmy-owl.
Lunch was enjoyed picnic-style under a large shade tree adjacent to an open savannah. Here we paused to look at Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue Bunting, and Olive Sparrow.
As we traveled higher into the foothills, it became lusher, wetter, and cooler, and large stands of bamboo became apparent. Here we hiked through the forest to obtain a breathtaking view of the canyon. Along the way we found two of the area’s most sough-after endemics, Belted Flycatcher and Blue-and-white Mockingbird. A flocks of pale-eyed Green Jays and pairs of Olive Sparrows were ubiquitous. We also found migrants, like Blue-winged and Worm-eating Warblers.
After another stop to view the canyon (and marvel at the Brown Pelicans in the fresh water below), it was off to Villahermosa. Short stops to stretch along the way, yielded White-tailed Kite, Aztec Parakeet, Keel-billed Toucan, Red-lored Parrot, and jaw-droppingly close views of a displaying Montezuma Oropendola. The trip was made much more interesting due to the recent flooding, but a couple minor detours and some shallow water were all that stood in the way. Supper was exquisite, and consisted of local seafood-filled empanadas and tortilla soup. Then it was early to bed, in anticipation of our very early departure tomorrow morning.
With such a whirlwind tour of southern Mexico, we were certain to miss some goodies, but we ended up with a much higher species list that we’d expected, and Alan and Ruth netted many much-needed regional endemics for their worldwide big year, making it a smashing success.
This list includes all the bird species that were recorded by at least one of us. Taxonomy and nomenclature closely follow Howell's Checklist of the Birds of Mexico and all subsequent AOU supplements. Quotation marks denote a possible future split. For instance, "Eastern" Blue Bunting means that the eastern form may one day be split from Blue Bunting. Brackets denote the larger taxon that a species has been split from. For instance, Galápagos [Audubon's] Shearwater means that Galápagos Shearwater was once considered a subspecies of Audubon's Shearwater (and may still be by some authorities). Parentheses denote an alternate name used by some checklists.
h = heard only
^ = endemic to northern Middle America
* = endemic to Mexico
(Y) = endemic to the Yucatán Peninsula
(C) = endemic to Isla Cozumel