Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Lets have a chat

After a week away in the Netherlands, it was time to get back onto the patch. Unfortunately, by the time I managed to get to Collingham yesterday the Osprey that had been seen earlier had departed, via Langford Lowfields. Added to the Little Stint which was present whilst I was away, this amounted to two missed species for Patchwork Challenge...

However, better was to come today. I went out with two species in mind. I failed to find a Redstart, despite much scrub-bashing, but a Whinchat was present at Meering, in the rough grassland around the Eon Lagoon, favoured by this species in previous years. This is one of my favourite things about patching - knowing what to look for, when, and where. 

Shortly after the Whinchat, my first Tree Sparrows of the year appeared, with two birds flying west. I then headed for Ferry Lane Lake for a late lunch, where I came across a juvenile Black Tern, which rounded off a decent day on the patch. 

Friday, 19 August 2016

Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula Part 3 - Punta Allen & Tulum

Having now completed parts one and two of our trip, we departed Cozumel on the morning ferry. Returning to mainland Yucatan we turned south, passing through Playa del Carmen to reach Tulum. We decided to break our journey by spending the early afternoon at the Tulum ruins. These are spectacular, perched on clifftops overlooking the Caribbean, but overrun with mainly American tourists. The birding was uneventful – a nice male Altamira Oriole in song was about the best.


It was then onwards to Punta Allen, which is at the end of a long, narrow spit south of Tulum, flanked by the sea on one side and a large tidal lagoon on the other. As expected, the road deteriorated rapidly into a very bumpy track (with the occasional muddy hollow), and it took us an hour and 45 minutes to travel 50km or so – slow going. I was thankful I’d booked a bog-standard hire car (Chevrolet Aveo), rather than something fancier.

The old bridge at Boca Paila
The road to Punta Allen
Unfortunately one of these didn't make an appearance

After a nice, no frills lunch in Punta Allen (which is little more than a fishing village), we back-tracked for 30 minutes to our hotel, Sol Caribe. This was deliberately chosen for the next three nights due to its off the beaten track location, and its limited birding opportunities (to allow some proper R’n’R). This hotel proved to be a great choice, and our favourite part of the trip. With just eight rooms (of which only three were occupied), and no other development around, it felt like being on a desert island, and pretty close to paradise. And actually, there was some interesting birding to be had, with a path tempting path through the dense palm forest and mangroves at the back of the hotel. The only downside was the depressing amount of plastic on the otherwise beautiful beach – the strandline was full of it, and in some places there were patches metres wide.

The beach at Sol Caribe. Not bad.
Hideous amounts of plastic in the standline

Ecotourism is a big part of Punta Allen’s economy, being located on the edge of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, and the following day we took a boat trip with the other two couples in the hotel, who we’d befriended the previous night in the bar. We then spent an enjoyable four hours with a local guide. First we cruised around the lagoon, unfortunately failing to find any manatees (seen the previous day), but coming across several Bottlenose Dolphins.  We also visited a couple of islets with nesting Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, Brown Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants. Our guide also drove us straight up to a young Bare-throated Tiger-heron (one of the species I’d missed at Rio Legartos) in a patch of mangroves, and other species included Mangrove Swallow, Tricolored Heron, White Ibis, Magnificent Frigatebird, Osprey and Common Black Hawk. We then rounded the point at Punta Allen, seeing a couple of turtles (‘tortuga alba’, presumably Green Turtles), before heading a couple of kilometres offshore to snorkel on a reef, which was fantastic – although even to my untrained eye there was evidence of bleaching.

Bottlenose Dolphin
A young Bare-throated Tiger-heron

After some lunch and sunbathing, I then explored the mangrove path, seeing frequent Black Catbird, Banaquit and Yucatan Vireo, as well as Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Mangrove Warbler, Waterthrush sp. and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, as well as Great Blue Heron and Belted Kingfisher on the lagoon.

Black Catbird
Yucatan Vireo
Mangrove Warbler
American Redstart
Some cool bats. No idea what species.
Tropical Buckeye

The following day involved breakfast, a walk along the beach with some swimming, lunch, some sunbathing and more swimming, and supper, plus a brief foray down the mangrove path. Bird highlights were Zone-tailed Hawk and Grey Kingbird, both new for the trip, with a similar selection of additional species as had been seen the day before. Additionally, a couple of Royal Terns and several parties of distant Egrets flew north over the sea, and a distant nightjar (probably a Pauraque) was feeding over the mangroves at dusk, wrapping up a tough day.

The view from our room
Zone-tailed Hawk
Grey Kingbird
Sunset over the lagoon
White Ibises

Our last morning at Sol Caribe came far too quickly. I had a final walk down the mangrove path, hearing and then seeing a Spot-breasted Wren, whilst 3 Wilson’s Plovers and 3 Least Sandpipers were on the beach. Reluctantly bidding Punta Allen goodbye, we bumped our way slowly back to Tulum (briefly stopping at Boca Paila, where a Mangrove Cuckoo flew across), checking into the Hotel Azulik. This was an interesting place, and it felt slightly like style over substance. However, our room was perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, giving eye-level views of Brown Pelicans flying back and forth. Other things seen in Tulum included Osprey, Royal Tern Spotted Sandpiper, and a couple of Yucatan Jays.

The seaview at Azulik
Brown Pelican

The following day we were up early, arriving at Coba (just inland from Tulum) at first light. Whilst Amy snoozed in the car, I had a very enjoyable period of birding around the lake. Highlights were Limpkin, Least Bittern, Purple Gallinule, Ruddy Crake (2 giving their trilling call in full view), and best, a Spotted Rail, which eventually gave brief and obscured views once I’d tracked down its ‘sneezing’ call. Both species of rail were found on small pools present between the road and the reedbed on the south side of the lake. Great Blue and Green Herons and Pied-billed Grebe completed the list of wetland birds.

The lake at Coba
Productive little pools on the south side of the lake
Ruddy Crake - definitely cutest bird of the trip
Doing some calling
Purple Gallinule

In the surrounding trees, Yellow-bellied Elaenia was new, whilst also present were Hooded, Yellow-tailed and Orchard Orioles, Ruddy and Common Ground-doves, Indigo Bunting, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Cape May and Yellow-throated Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, Melodious Blackbird and Black-headed Saltator. Several hundred Barn Swallows were massing over the lake at first light, along with a single Rough-winged Swallow sp. and a Purple Martin. Two freshwater crocs cruising around the lake completed proceedings.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia
A cruising Morelet's Croc

After breakfast by the lake, we then entered the Coba ruins site at 8am. This was a bit frustrating as by now I was pushing my luck with the amount of time I was spending birding, so I wasn’t able to do this site to its full potential. Nevertheless, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Rose-throated Tanager (a Yucatan endemic), and Black-headed Trogon were new. Additional species included Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Black-headed Saltator, Yucatan Jay, Yucatan Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Orange Oriole, Grey Catbird, Social Flycatcher, Rose-throated Becard and Black-and-white Warbler. After climbing the pyramid at Coba (which is the tallest Mayan structure in the northern Yucatan), we made our way out of the site, then driving a short distance to a nearby underground cenote, seeing a Black-cowled Oriole but little else.

Black-headed Trogon
Eye-ringed Flatbill
Yucatan Flycatcher
Orange Oriole
Brown Basilisk
The pyramid at Coba
Panoramic views of the semi-deciduous forest
An underground cenote

We then headed to Punta Laguna, which is a lovely area of protected forest around a lake, run by the local community. One of the guides took us looking for monkeys, and we soon had several Spider Monkeys in our sights; less expected was a single Black Howler Monkey, which are apparently much harder to see. Birdwise, things were a bit quiet (but it was mid afternoon), with Black-cowled Oriole, Black-headed Trogon and Anhinga of note.

Forest at Punta Laguna
The lake at Punta Laguna
Yucatan Black Howler Monkey. Definitely a male...
Central American Spider Monkey looking gangly

As we left Punta Laguna, two Rough-winged Swallows were perched on roadside wires. One flew off as  I got out of the car,  but the other remained perched, showing a prominent pale patch on the lores – a feature of Ridgway’s RwS, but somewhat larger than shown in my ID guide, and I was unable to see the undertail coverts. Here, a Masked Tityra flew across the road, but of particular note was the sheer number of butterflies around, with hundreds over the road all the way back to Tulum, such that it was impossible not to hit them whilst driving – I must’ve killed 30-40 (and dodged as many again). The vast majority were Dark Kite-Swallowtails.

A deceased Dark Kite-Swallowtail

On our last full day, I left the hotel at 4am (confusing the hotel car parking staff in the process), and headed south from Tulum. My target was Sian Ka’an – a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site extending to some 528,000ha – nearly two and a half times the size of Nottinghamshire! Most people access this via the Vigia Chico road, from Felipe Carillo Puerto, but this isn’t really a honeymoon destination, and there was no way I had the time to get there and back, and do some birding, in one morning. However, I had spotted what looked like another track on Google Earth, off the main highway (the 307), and it was this I was looking for in the dark. Find it I did, but the forest was completely closed in along the track, and it didn’t look promising for nightjars. So I returned to the 307, turning west towards Chumpon. Approximately 320m along this road, still in the dark, I found an entrance to an old quarry on the northern side of the road. No Yucatan Nightjar or Yucatan Poorwill, but I had nice views of Lesser Nighthawk on the deck and in flight. As the day dawned, there was a raucous chorus of Plain Chachalacas, and I began to bird the forest edge around the quarry (which was very shallow, and presumably excavated to build the highway). I bagged my first Brown Jays, whilst a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl called and showed well. Other things included Spot-breasted Wren, Red-billed Pigeon, Black Catbird, Green Heron, Wood Stork, Solitary Sandpiper, Aztec Parakeet, Tropical Flycatcher (a flock of 21 taking up and heading north), Boat-billed Flycatcher, Social Flycatcher, Clay-coloured Thrush and Golden-fronted Woodpecker. A Grey Fox also put in a brief appearance.

Lesser Nighthawk
The quarry on the Chumpon road
Brown Jay

I then returned to the Sian Ka’an track, located at the KM181 marker on the highway 4km south of the Chumpon junction and signed to Faro de Vigia Chico. Parking the car a short way down the track near the entrance (at the Caseta Chumpon), I walked east for a couple of hours (not even scratching the surface of this huge protected area). The birds were patchy, and I failed to see some of the specialities that others see when accessing this site from Felipe Carillo Puerto. However, new species came aplenty, with Roadside Hawk, Blue Ground-dove, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Tropical Gnatcatcher, White-bellied Wren, Tawny-crowned and Lesser Greenlets, Red-legged Honeycreeper and Red-crowned Ant-tanager, whilst an ant swarm yielded Red-throated Ant-tanager and Tawny-winged and Ruddy Woodcreepers. The ant swarm was particularly impressive, but only lasted for 10 minutes or so after I found it and wasn’t attended by that many birds – although a male Hooded Warbler was very nice.

The Caseta Chumpon entrance to Sian Ka'an
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Red-throated Ant-tanager
Hooded Warbler
Roadside Hawk

A noisy band of Yucatan Jays followed me for at least half an hour, which rather impeded my birding for a while, but other birds included Caribbean Dove, Amazon sp. (Yucatans?!), Yucatan Woodpecker, another unidentified Woodcreeper sp. (seen only briefly, possibly Olivaceous), Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher (plus unidentified Contopus and ‘tropical’ flycatchers), Brown Jay, Spot-breasted Wren, Black Catbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Magnolia and Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias, Olive Sparrow and Black-cowled Oriole. On the mammal front, another Grey Fox showed well near the Caseta, and there were several Yucatan Squirrels around.

Yucatan Jay
Spot-breasted Wren
Ruddy Daggerwing
Field's Groundstreak
Grey Fox

However, the undoubted star was an Ocellated Turkey. This is a species that most tours travel to Calakmul to see (another couple of hours drive south of Tulum), and I had resigned myself to the fact that this was one of the endemics which I had no chance of seeing. However… barely a couple of hundred meters down the track, I spied a large bird off in the distance. And it looked a lot like a turkey! It slowly walked towards me, and I slowly walked towards it, getting better and better views of a superb Ocellated Turkey – what an absolute stunner. It eventually ran off into the undergrowth. Incredibly, it had reappeared by the time I returned, giving me another close encounter. I just hope a hunter hasn’t shot it by now.

A distant lump of a bird...
Ocellated Turkey. Stunning. 

The drive back to Tulum was punctuated by a couple more Brown Jays (interesting that I hadn’t seen this species further north in the Yucatan), and a Pale-billed Woodpecker flying across in front of me. And like yesterday, there were literally thousands of butterflies, again nearly all Dark Kite-Swallowtails, and many being struck by vehicles.

Our final day dawned, and we drive north to Cancun, breaking the journey with a visit to the botanical gardens in Puerto Morelos. Being the middle of the day, it was rather quite on the bird front, but I had my best views of the fortnight of Green Jay (and finally worked out their call!). Spider Monkeys and Yucatan Squirrels showed well, but there was no sign of any Agoutis.

Green Jay
Yucatan Squirrel
Pavon Emperor
A Longtail sp. (Eight-spotted?)

And so ended a fantastic trip (I mean, honeymoon). I clocked up 225 species, of which 190 were ticks, plus 10 species of mammal (excluding various unidentified bats).  Bird of the trip was undoubtedly the Ocellated Turkey, but my first hummingbirds and frigatebirds, and a whopping 22 species of wood warbler, were major highlights too. Of the 17 or so Yucatan and Cozumel endemics (depending on which taxonomy you follow and exactly where the Yucatan Peninsula starts and finishes), I missed four – Yucatan Amazon, Cozumel Vireo, Yucatan Nightjar and Yucatan Poorwill, plus Cozumel Thrasher (but given this species seems likely to be extinct I wont count that).  I also missed a couple of other coveted species like Black Skimmer, Collared Trogon, Keel-billed Toucan, and Collared Aracari. 
But these are all good reasons to come back to this beautiful part of the world one day.