The Yucatan Peninsula – from Celestun to Tulum and Cozumel and everything in between

25 December 2013 – 11 January 2014

The Yucatan Peninsula has 11 endemic species, 2 near endemic species, and 2 Caribbean species that are found along the coast and nowhere else in Mexico. Species that are restricted to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico include Yucatan (Yellow-lored) Parrot, Yucatan Poorwill, Yucatan Nightjar, Yucatan Woodpecker, Yucatan Flycatcher, Yucatan Wren, Rose-throated Tanager, and Orange Oriole.  If you were counting you may have noticed that I forgot a couple of Yucatan endemics, but that is because the Yucatan Jay, Ocellated Turkey, and Black Catbird also occur outside of Mexico but geographically speaking still occur on the Yucatan Peninsula. The Yucatan Jay for example can also be seen in eastern Tabasco, which it is still technically within the Yucatan Peninsula. The Ocellated Turkey is easily found in Calakmul, but these turkeys can also be seen in Tikal in Guatemala, more or less still a part of the Yucatan Peninsula. The Black Catbird is also often considered a Yucatan endemic but Black Catbirds also occur in Guatemala and Belize, again basically still the Yucatan Peninsula. The 2 near endemics are more easily found in the Yucatan Peninsula but they also occur in other areas. The Mexican Sheartail is quite abundant along the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula but a small population also occurs in the state of Veracruz. The Yucatan (Black-throated) Bobwhite is often considered a Yucatan endemic but a population of Black-throated Bobwhites also exists in the La Mosquitia Honduras. Other Caribbean species that are found in Mexico include the Zenaida Dove, White-crowned Pigeon, Western Spindalis, Caribbean Dove, and the Caribbean Elaenia.

Yucatan Wren, Mexican Sheartail, and Zenaida Dove occur only along the northern coastal reaches of Mexico so we headed up towards Puerto Progresso to try our luck. We found a great little RV park and hotel (Bienstar) in Chelem and set up camp for three days. The folks at Bienstar are very accommodating and they even have hot water and internet. On Christmas day we headed east along the coast and stopped along the highway just outside of Puerto Progresso. Within minutes of making our first early morning stop we were presented with several Yucatan Wrens and a Mexican Sheartail… not bad presents for Christmas! We leisurely drove along the coast taking in the sites and birding a bit, even finding a nice empty beach on which we enjoyed a nice Christmas lunch.

Lunch time on the beach near Puerto Progresso

Lunch time on the beach near Puerto Progresso

The wind, as is typical, started to pick up in the afternoon making birding a bit difficult. We still needed to find the Zenaida Dove, but all we could find were Eurasian Collared Doves and White-wing Doves so we headed back to camp to relax. The next day we drove west of Chelem to try again for the Zenaida Dove, Yucatan Bobwhite and perhaps look for some Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We randomly turned down a 2-track that lead to the beach just outside of Churburná and flushed a good sized group of Yucatan (Black-throated) Bobwhites which obligingly stopped a short distance off giving us nice long looks! Fantastic start to the day! We continued to walk down the 2-track and flushed a Zenaida Dove. It did not cooperate as well as the Bobwhites, instead winging quickly out of view, but luckily we both managed to get good enough looks as it winged past us and saw the characteristic white trailing edge in the secondaries.

The Yucatan Peninsula has seen a new visitor in recent years as well; the Lesser Black-backed Gull. The Lesser Black-backed Gull is common across Europe but is now a regular visitor in North America and an increasing number seem to be wintering in a few spots along the northern Yucatan Peninsula. Several Lesser Black-backed Gulls have been sighted along the coast in the state of Yucatan so we went to take a look. We found several Lesser Black-backed Gulls along the road from Chuburná south towards Sierra Papacal. A nice surprise for us, but perhaps the biggest surprise for us that day was some low cooing we heard in the coastal scrub. It was clearly a dove and was neither White-winged nor Mourning so, not recalling the song terribly well, we assumed it was a Zenaida Dove, but the sound was not quite right… hmm… We spent some time listening to various dove calls on our phone (oh the value of a thorough collection of bird songs!) and realized that what we were hearing was a Caribbean Dove. Caribbean Doves occur in the Yucatan Peninsula from the northeast coast of Quintana Roo south and west through Campeche, but not in the northern part of the state of Yucatan. There were actually three Caribbean Doves calling in the immediate area so it wasn’t just a case of a single wayward bird. Still wanting to see this bird, we spent a good bit of time looking for it before trying playback. Playback resulted in a quick response as it called back strongly and flew across the track for us. A very pale dove with a white face and chest and a rufous nape and back, further confirming that we did indeed have a Caribbean Dove. We were also able to record the call despite strong winds as further confirmation. We searched for more information about Caribbean Doves in northern Yucatan but could not find any information except one sighting of 10 Caribbean Doves in Celestun in 2004 in eBird. We might have initially been quite skeptical of such an observation but after running into 3 in a small patch where we did, who knows? Caribbean Doves have been seen with regularity in Rio Largartos in the state of Quintana Roo, also on the northern coastal strip of the peninsula, but our observation may be the first in the area where we found them. Perhaps Caribbean Doves are either expanding their ranges or are found locally in more areas of the state of Yucatan and have been overlooked?

After 3 relaxing days we headed to Merida to meet up with Josh’s mom and friends for 12 days of sight-seeing throughout the Yucatan. Merida was great, we lazed around the city, enjoyed traditional Yucatecan food, took in the massive market with over 2,000 vendors and generally let ourselves be tourists for a couple of days. The market is pretty impressive – whatever it is that you need you will be sure to find it there, from chicken feet to handmade leather shoes to fresh flowers to hammock hanging hooks. From Merida we took a day trip to the ruins at Uxmal, which were among our favorite ruins.

Detailed stone work at Uxmal

Detailed stone work at Uxmal

The detail and carvings in the stones here are something to behold. Hundreds of Cave Swallows also nest in the ruins allowing for close up views, including of some very cute faces poking out mud nests if you peak into the correct places. In many places, areas that have been screened off to prevent people from entering have gaps that allow the swallows to come and go.

After our fill of Merida we headed out to Celestun to relax a bit and see some American Flamingos. There is a bustling business in Flamingo boat trips, which follow a set schedule at a set cost. Normally boats do not leave until 8 am, but early trips can be arranged by talking to the boatmen at the dock rather than the ticket window the day prior. We paid $1200 pesos for a 2 hour trip up the lagoon and through the mangroves.

American Flamingo, Celestun, Mexico

American Flamingo, Celestun, Mexico

As soon as we left the dock we could see flamingos flying overhead and feeding in the distance. I’ve seen flamingos before in zoos, but nothing compares to seeing them in their own habitat. A pink bird on stilts with a neck longer than its legs… a simply spectacular sight even if they are not terribly rare or hard to find.

American Flamingos

American Flamingos

As we made our way along and through the mangroves we tallied the expected wetland birds such as Tricolored, Green, Little Blue and Great Blue Herons, both Snowy and Great Egrets, American Flamingos, American Coots, American White and Brown Pelicans, Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants and many Belted Kingfishers.

Into the mangrove tunnel (Celestun)

Into the mangrove tunnel (Celestun)

The boat trip also takes in a great little mangrove tunnel that was something of grand-slam of mangrove birds for us – no sooner had we entered the tunnel and the magical world of mangroves  than an American Pygmy Kingfisher flitted up onto a mangrove root just in front of us. Shortly thereafter a Common Black Hawk flushed and darted away through the canopy.

Boat-billed Heron

Boat-billed Heron

A very few minutes later we spotted both a Bare-throated Tiger Heron and a juvenile Boat-billed Heron who both kindly posed for photos, both too close to get the whole bird in the frame! The final bit of the tour takes in a nice board walk to a fresh water spring where we saw three American Pygmy Kingfishers, all of them so close and confiding that binoculars really weren’t necessary.

American Pygmy Kingfisher

American Pygmy Kingfisher

It was a great trip and it was fantastic to be able to show Josh’s mom Flamingos, a Boat-billed Heron, several Bare-throated Tiger-Herons and several American Pygmy Kingfishers. If you do go to Celestun and go on the boat tour, definitely try for a first-light departure, it skips the crowds and is a wonderful trip.

Celestun seems to largely be a day trip destination for tourist as there are not many restaurants open for dinner and few hotels. If you are headed to Celestun we would strongly recommend that you avoid the Eco-hotel Flamingo and opt instead for Hotel Gutierrez, which also serves the best breakfast in town and the only good coffee and tea!

After we got our fill of American Flamingos we headed towards Chichen Itza, one of the most famous ruins in the Mexico if not the world. We arrived at the ruins as soon as the gate opened to avoid the crowds.

The morning was pleasant as we wandered through the crumbling buildings taking them in and leisurely reading the signs while still checking out a few of the local birds. Right above one of the ruins we spotted a beautiful Turquoise-browed Motmot which made all of us smile. Birding was a bit slow that morning but we managed to see 37 species without trying too hard (eBird list).

The grand pyramid at Chichen Itza

The grand pyramid at Chichen Itza

Around 10:30-11:00 we made our way back from the furthest corner to the main plaza and pyramid and the crowd was ridiculous. Apparently the masses really start building around this time, and certainly the morning’s tranquility was gone… time to leave. There were already throngs of people everywhere in the ruins and there were still many hundreds of people queued for tickets when we left shortly after 11:00. The next morning we birded the grounds of Hacienda Chichen. Our first bird of the mourning was another lovely Turquoise-browed Motmot followed by crystal clear looks at a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl which we stumbled upon perched right in the trail. We also had great looks at several Rufuos-browed Peppershrikes and the endemic Orange Oriole. After a pleasant stroll through their grounds we had a really nice breakfast on the patio. Even if you are not a guest at Hacienda Chichen, if you swing by for a meal you are free to bird the grounds – just check in with the reception quickly first. The trails at Hacienda Chichen are not terribly extensive, but for us they were quite birdy despite a bit of drizzle and combined with a relaxing late breakfast it made for a very pleasant morning (eBird list).

The next morning we headed to Coba early to bird around the lake before the ruins opened. We were a bit disappointed in what we found – houses right up to the water ringing basically the entire lake. On our visit the water level was high and we tried for Spotted Rail for my mom and her friends but we did have incredible looks at three Ruddy Crakes foraging in the open. Birding inside the ruins is much better in our opinion, though the gates again do not open until 8AM.

Pyramid at Coba

Pyramid at Coba

We found a couple of mixed species flocks with Black-headed Trogon, Gartered Trogon, Bright-rumped Attila (of which we managed to see three in a morning, none of which were singing!), Green Jay, and Orange Oriole. The ruins at Coba are different from many of the other ruins in the Yucatan in that they haven’t been so extensively cleared. Coba is set among the trees and many of the ruins have only been partly restored providing a much more romantic feel, quite similar to Calakmul. The grounds at Coba are also quite large so we rented bikes to be sure to see the ruins before the mid-day heat set in (or in our case the afternoon rains). The rain continued all afternoon and through the next morning so we headed to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. We had booked tent cabins at Cesiak which is located inside the Biosphere Reserve. The tent cabins there are very rustic but comfortable and while the price might be a bit high for what you get, the setting could not be better and mood is quite charming; white sand beaches and clear blue water with a cozy and tasty little restaurant.

The coastline at Sian Ka'an

The coastline at Sian Ka’an

Cesiak offers a boat trip through the mangroves to a small Mayan temple which returns with the option of jumping in the river and floating down amongst the mangroves. I took this trip in 1998 when I visited the Quintana Roo coast as part of a university conservation biology class and thought it was amazing. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate so we missed the river trip this time, bummer! Josh and I walked the road one morning and despite less than ideal weather we still spotted several Black Catbirds, another Yucatan specialty, among profuse warblers. The wind kept the birds down that morning and the jeep tours that roared down the road were more than a bit obnoxious (what a foolish way to enjoy a Biosphere Reserve – go on a resort or cruise “excursion” driving in a conga line of jeeps for lunch at Punta Allen. Too bad Sian Ka’an is now mostly used as a 4WD trail). In any case, our eBird list.

We had one more ruin left to visit – Tulum – the famous ruins situated right on the bluffs overlooking the ocean.

Tulum ruins

Tulum ruins

Unfortunately we did not arrive early enough to avoid the massive crowds, but despite the hordes of people and the epic vender gauntlet to get to the actual archaeological site, the ruins are pretty amazing and the setting is beyond compare – definitely still worth seeing. The ruins at Tulum are much smaller than nearby ruins, but the mall sized shopping complex at the entrance makes up for that (the shopping area is several times the size of the ruins!). Throughout our time in Mexico we have managed to avoid most of the touristy areas so visiting the Riviera Maya was quite a shock to us, both having visited the area 15+ years ago. There is so much coastal development and so much has changed, many areas are completely unrecognizable! The coast of Quintana Roo has been transformed from tropical coast scrub to mega resorts. The beach and bay that used to exist in Akumal, a once sleepy beach town, where I studied beach pea (a coastal plant) is no longer accessible and is covered with private mega mansions. My heart sank as we drove through town and promptly turned around. The Rivera Maya should more aptly be named Maya Vegas.

A tearful goodbye was said to Josh’s mom and back on our own we headed out to Cozumel for a few days to look for the Cozumel endemics. A decent storm system settled over the Yucatan and we actually had fairly rough conditions for the ferry over. Our first two days in Cozumel consisted of constant rain and lots of wind so we “hung out” with the cruise ship tourists while catching up on photos, blog pots, and talking with family and friends. The next morning the rain stopped just in time for us to squeeze in 30 minutes of birding behind our hotel (Hotel Villablanca). The grounds keeper at the hotel pointed us to a small 200 m trail through some nice coastal scrub behind the tennis courts. How perfect! In just 30 minutes we found all of the Cozumel endemic species; Cozumel Vireo, Cozumel Emerald, and Cozumel Wren. OK, I lied, we did not find all of the Cozumel endemics. We missed the Cozumel Thrasher, but unfortunately this guy has not been seen on the island since 2004. Hurricane Gilbert devastated Cozumel in 1988 and the previously common Cozumel Thrasher was particularly decimated. A few individuals were seen here or there up until 1995, after which 9 years passed before it was documented again in 2004. While it is possible that the Cozumel Thrasher is holding on in an unsurveyed part of the island, it could just as easily already be extinct, unfortunately. Although the Cozumel Wren is still considered a subspecies of the House Wren, our first impression was that this seems like an obviously different species. It appears larger, less barred, with a white chest and a longer and heavier bill. The song is really not at all like any of the three major forms of House Wren on the mainland (Northern House Wren, Southern House Wren and Brown-throated House Wren). We also had several Yucatan Vireos, Bananaquits, and another interesting subspecies the Golden (Yellow) Warbler, aka the petechia group of the taxonomically diverse and confusing Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechial) that occurs on Islands throughout the Caribbean (Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico). The Golden Warbler subspecies has a bit of rufous on its cap and is more strongly streaked red below, but otherwise looks the same. For our third third day on the island the sun finally came out, so we rented a scooter and made a circuit of the island looking for birds.

On the Moto

On the Moto

Our first stop was in the abandoned subdivision south of town described in Howell’s Bird Finding Guide. This was really productive for us – we wandered through the grid of streets and were pleased to find Yucatan Woodpecker, Yucatan Flycatcher, Western Spindalis, Rose-throated Tanager, Caribbean Dove, White-crowned Pigeon, Cozumel Emerald, Coxumel Vireo, Yucatan Vireo and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. Next we checked out the weedy fields near the ruins at El Cedral to look for Smooth-billed Ani and Prairie Warbler, but no luck on either (in fact we did not see a single Ani in 4 days on Cozumel). We continued further south on our scooter along the amazing coastline with crystal waters and white sand. We stopped at a roadside restaurant to enjoy our first coco loco… not too bad J After our little break we scanned the fresh water ponds for the off chance of a Masked Duck but found a Pied-billed Grebe and more Yellow Warblers, so we headed towards the ruins at San Gervasio. We walked a few side tracks along the road that leads to the ruins but the heat of day had set in and it was pretty quiet. To make a complete tour, we headed up the coast north of town towards the sewage treatment plant (always good birding!). We heard several Ruddy Crakes and Sora in the marsh and saw the usual suspects, though the scrubby abandoned street grid there looks like a good spot for a morning’s birding as well, at least until the cruise “excursion” of dune buggies comes tearing through. And by tearing through I mean revving their engines while driving slowly in a conga line between their guide car and their chase car. We found it pretty laughable but hey what’s life without a little judgement! After a long day of birding we headed into town for a nice dinner. We ate at Nuevo Especies, a new little Italian place with all homemade pastas. The food was fantastic and the gnocchi was some of the best we’ve yet to encounter.

The shores of Cozumel Island

The shores of Cozumel Island

We were still on the lookout for one more Caribbean specialty on Cozumel Island; the Caribbean Elaenia. Recent e-Bird reports indicated that one of the better places to spot them was along the road to the San Gervasio ruins, so we headed back there in the morning. Unfortunately when we arrived the gate was locked and we were unable to talk our way in early. The ruins do not open until 8:00 am so we birded a few side roads nearby. Along the second side road we heard a Northern Cardinal singing and calling so we went to investigate only to find a Northern Cardinal trapped in a cage along the road. As we approached to free the bird a man came out and mumbled something about training his bird to sing by exposing it to wild birds. Josh told him that it was not OK to trap wild birds but the man responded that this was not a wild bird because everyone has them in their homes. We tried to explain to him that Northern Cardinals are indeed wild and they are not to be trapped, but to no avail; the man took the cardinal and drove off down the road on his motorcycle. I wish there was an easy way to prevent people from trapping wild birds but without enforcement and education trapping wild birds will continue. At least you can try to explain to folks that they are wild and try to point out that they are more beautiful in nature than stressed out in a cage, and that if you continue trapping wild birds all birds will end up as rare as parrots have become in so many places. On the brighter side, shortly thereafter along another side road we finally found Caribbean Elaenia. We also heard and saw more Caribbean Elaenias along the road to the ruins, so it is indeed a good spot to find them, we tallied a total of 5, though still couldn’t find a Prairie Warbler. The morning heat set in quickly and by 9 am bird activity was quite done, so we headed back to pack up and head back to the mainland.

We will be offline for the next couple of weeks, but we will be back posting about birds and more travel adventures when we return!

 

 

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3 Comments on The Yucatan Peninsula – from Celestun to Tulum and Cozumel and everything in between

  1. Connie Beck // January 12, 2014 at 6:15 am //

    bananaquits????

      Connie Beck

    “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”  — Marcus Tullius Cicero

    Like

  2. gborgmann // January 14, 2014 at 1:00 pm //

    right now the ocean/beach would be a relief from WI
    beautiful colors -ocean, birds and views

    Like

  3. On our last cruise we had the chance to do the Chacchoben Mayan Ruins Excursion in Costa Maya with Shore Excursioneer. We love the lush jungle and the well preserved pyramids. Some of them were open to even climb. Next time we will visit Tulum as we heard so much about this place. Love Mexico!

    Like

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