Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Mexico's Yucatan Peninsular Part 1 - Rio Legartos

I can’t quite believe its two months ago already, but at the start of April I travelled to Mexico with my new wife, Amy, for our honeymoon. We’d settled on the Yucatan Peninsular as providing the ideal mix of jungle, beach and activity, and weren't disappointed with our fortnight stay! With several endemic species on offer, as well as a wide range of other species, the birding was excellent - although I would've done things differently if it was purely a birding trip (I only had to be reminded twice that it was our honeymoon and not a birding trip), and having never been to the New World before, a large proportion of what I saw was new to me. Coupled with some interesting mammals, coral reefs and Mayan ruins, there was plenty to keep us occupied.

We began our trip with a one night stay in Cancun; our flight was supposed to arrive around 4pm, but having suffered a delay on the way out, we arrived just at the same time as several flights from the US, meaning that clearing customs took ages, and by the time we’d picked up our rental car, it was already dark – so I only managed two species, Great-tailed Grackle (about the commonest bird there is in Yucatan!), and several Gray-breasted Martins.

Great-tailed Grackle
Gray-breasted Martins

I’d picked our hotel in Cancun quite carefully, avoiding one of the big beach-front complexes and going for a smaller, cheaper option (El Rey Caribe) which just happened to have a ‘jungle courtyard’; so I was up at first light for half-an-hours birding before breakfast.Tropical Mockingbird, Great Kiskadee, White-winged Dove, Clay-coloured Thrush and Yellow Warbler were all soon to become very familiar, and I also added Orange Oriole (my first Yucatan endemic), Yellow-throated Warbler and Plain Chachalaca. Another 20 minutes after breakfast added Social Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Black-cowled, Orchard and Hooded Orioles, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, and the only Greyish Saltator of the trip. My first ever hummingbird zipped fast and avoided identification, but more familiar birds were present in the form of Peregrine,  Barn Swallow and the introduced Collared Dove.

The 'jungle courtyard' at El Rey Caribe in Cancun
Great Kiskadee
Tropical Kingbird
Summer Tanager
White-winged Dove

After this first taste of Mexican birding, we somehow found our way out of Cancun (road signs are not a Mexcian strength), and headed towards Ek Balam, a Mayan complex on the way to Rio Legartos. Taking the toll road, it felt like we were driving through unbroken jungle (albeit secondary jungle?) for most of the way, and we barely saw another car. I had a few tantalising glimpses of birds dashing across the road, but did add Yucutan Jay and the first of many Turkey Vultures.

We arrived at Ek Balam, and enjoyed a couple of hours wondering around this small but impressive Mayan site, the highlight being the climb to the top of the pyramid, affording amazing panoramic jungle views from the top. It was also fairly free of tourists and quite birdy, and I bagged a range of species including exotic looking Turquoise-browed Motmot, Groove-billed Ani, Melodious Blackbird, Bronzed Cowbird, Green Jay, Vaux’s Swift, Yellow-tailed Oriole, Ruddy Ground-dove, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Yucutan Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Cinnamon Hummingbird and Black-headed Saltator. There were lots of Rough-winged Swallows zipping around the ruins; those that I saw well enough appeared to be Northern, although examination of photos suggests that at least one Ridgway’s was also present.  

The Mayan ruins at Ek Balam 
The view from the top of the pyramid at Ek Balam
Turquoise-browed Motmot
Black-headed Saltator
Ruddy Ground-dove
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Hooded Orioles
Grey Cracker 

After a swim in the cenote at Ek Balam (cenotes are basically big sink holes formed due to the limestone geology and seem to be particularly favoured by Motmots), we carried on north. Jungle began to gave way to ranching land, and new birds were Laughing Falcon and Black Vulture

The cenote at Ek Balam

We eventually reached the Yucatan's northern coast, arriving at the small fishing town of Rio Legartos. The town sits on an estuary complex (designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve), and is famed for its flamingos. We were to have two days guided birding (remember this is definitely not a birding holiday) with Diego Nunez of Rio Legartos Adventures, which proved to be well worth the money. Having dumped our bags at Diego’s posada, we had a walk along the waterfront, where the birdlife was abundant – Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls and Ruddy Turnstones abounded, whilst Magnificent Frigatebirds (very cool birds) soared over the town. A few American White Pelicans were on a sand bank, and other birds moving around included Royal and Cabot’s Terns, American Flamingos and Double-crested Cormorants. A meal at Diego’s waterfront restaurant watching the sun set was very pleasant, made even better by a Yellow-crowned Night-heron.

Rio Legartos
Rio Legartos
Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans
Magnificent Frigatebird
Double-crested Cormorant

The following day we were up early for an insanely good morning’s birding with Diego, with new species coming thick and fast. Driving along a track that bordered scrubby ranch land on one side and coastal scrub on the other, Yucatan Wren and Mexican Sheartail, the two local endemics (only found on the Yucatan’s northern coast) gave themselves up without too many difficulties, along with several other local specialities – Yucatan BobwhiteCrested Caracara and Lesser Roadrunner.

The ranch track and Diego's 4x4
Yucatan Wren - virtually the size of a small eagle
Mexican Sheartail
Yucatan Bobwhites
Crested Caracara
Lesser Roadrunner - not running along a road

Added to these, as well as many of the species I’d seen yesterday, were Pauraque
Yucatan and Lineated WoodpeckersCrane HawkMerlinCommon Ground-doveWhite-tipped DoveAztec ParakeetBuff-bellied HummingbirdBarred AntshrikeDusky-capped FlycatcherBlue-grey GnatcatcherSpot-breasted WrenMangrove VireoBlue-black GrassquitVermillion FlycatcherEastern KingbirdNorthern Cardinal, and Painted and Indigo Buntings. There were also good numbers of Yank warblers to get excited about - ProthonotaryBlack-and-WhiteWilson’s and Hooded Warblers, Common and Grey-crowned YellowthroatsAmercian Redstart and Northern Parula. Phew! The only downside was that the fly-over parrots (either the endemic Yucatan or more widespread White-fronted) were always too distant or too fast to identify...

Crane Hawk
Aztec Parakeet
Common Ground-dove
Barred Antshrike
Northern Cardinal
Vermillion Flycatcher - day-glo!
Northern Parula - oh for one of these on Shetland...
Black-and-White Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Red-eyed Vireo
Mangrove Vireo

Having birded the track (which I'm sure still had plenty to offer…), Diego’s 4x4 gave us access to a small wetland area nearby, and to some wetland areas back near Rio Legartos. Here, we added Wood Stork, Northern Jacana, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Warbler, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue, Green and Tricolored Herons, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, American Coot and Red-winged Blackbird. There were small numbers of waders on offer, including Black-necked Stilt, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Spotted and Least Sandpipers, and a Dowitcher sp. We also had tail-end views of 3 Collared Peccaries disappearing into the undergrowth.

Diego in action
Wood Stork
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and American Coots
Mangrove Cuckoo
Black-necked Stilt, White Ibis and Willet
Little Blue Heron
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Northern Jacana
Least Sandpipers
Red-winged Blackbird
The back-end of a Collared Peccary

It was then time for lunch, after which Amy had a siesta and I went out birding (surprise surprise), taking the road west from Rio Legartos towards San Felipe, passing the local dump on the way (complete with Black Vultures). With scrubby ranch land and small wetland areas, I bagged quite a few species we hadn't seen in the morning, including White-collared Seedeater, Northern Waterthrush (locally abundant!), Palm, Magnolia and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Killdeer, Northern Beardless-tyrannulet, Couch’s Kingbird, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Tree Swallow, Zenaida Dove (another local speciality), Great Black Hawk, Boat-billed Heron (in two colonies) and two cool-looking Grey-necked Wood-rails. A roadkill Squirrel Cuckoo was the only one I managed to see all holiday, and I also glimpsed a White-nosed Coati crossing the road in the distance.

The local tip
Black Vulture
Roadside habitat
Eastern Kingbird
White-collared Seedeater
Couch's Kingbird
Northern Waterthrush - more often heard than seen
Palm Warbler
Grey-necked Wood-rail
Solitary Sandpiper
Boat-billed Heron - what a beak
An ex Squirrel Cuckoo

After a nice evening meal in Diego’s restaurant, we then headed out onto the estuary, in the dark, in a boat to look for crocodiles. Motoring along through the mangroves at high speed in the pitch black looking for the glint of crocodile eyes in our guide’s spotlight, whilst encountering shoals of leaping fish, was quite an experience. Things got even more interesting when our guide nudged the boat into the edge of the mangroves and stepped out of the boat, getting us to shine the spotlight into the water. Neither of us could see anything, but after a minute he plunged both hands in and pulled out a crocodile. A baby one, but a croc nonetheless! After letting us have a look, he then handed it over to me – and I wasn't going to say no! – before we releasing it; all involved were unharmed.

A baby croc
I wasn't quite expecting to have it handed to me

We spotted several other crocs, including some rather large adults (which our guide didn't step into the water with...), apparently mainly American (saltwater) crocs but also one Morelet's (freshwater) croc (although I certainly couldn't tell the difference in the dark). Birds included Yellow- and Black-crowned Night-herons, but no Yucatan Nightjars, despite checking out several spots for them. And that concluded an excellent day!

A bigger croc...
...and an even bigger one

It was up again early the following day for another morning out with Diego. This time we headed east to the salinas at Las Coloradas, driving the tracks on the bunds that separate the saltpans, which are a magnet for birds. Whilst we’d seen many of the species yesterday, new ones included Lesser Scaup, Great Blue Heron, American Oystercatcher, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Stilt and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated, Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers, Least, Gull-billed and Caspian Terns, Lesser Black-backed, American Herring and Kelp Gulls, Belted Kingfisher, Savannah Sparrow, Mangrove Swallow and Common Black Hawk. Better views were had of Zenaida Dove, but the real stars were the American Flamingos, with packs of several hundred on a number of the saltpans.

Pink water, white salt, blue sky
There was plenty of good wader habitat!
Neotropical Cormorants
Snowy Plovers
Wilson's Plover
Pelicans and terns
Stilt Sandpiper
Least Tern
American Flamingos
American Flamingos
Little and large pelicans
Zenaida Dove
Savannah Sparrow
Common Black Hawk
The Gulf of Mexico

And that concluded our stay in Rio Legartos; the only speciality which I missed and didn't see later in the trip was Black Skimmer; other people seem to see these in their hundreds, but they were conspicuous by their absence during our visit… And so off we headed towards Chichen Itza. On Diego’s recommendation, we stopped en route at a small village called Kikil. The cenote here, as predicted by Diego, hosted a Bat Falcon which showed well in the adjacent trees. Rose-throated Becard and Boat-billed Flycatcher were also new, and I had great views of a Yucatan Woodpecker

Kikil cenote
Bat Falcon
Yucatan Woodpecker