Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Mexico's Yucatan Peninsular Part 2 - Chichen Itza & Cozumel

After our first three days in Mexico, we headed south from Rio Legartos to towards the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, where we were to spend two nights at the Hotel Mayaland, a nice colonial-style building with its own gate into Chichen Itza. We arrived in the late afternoon and had a quick walk around the grounds, which produced lots of Clay-coloured Thrushes in a dusk chorus and my first two confirmed White-fronted Amazons, as well as plenty of large bats.

The view from our room; jungly
White-fronted Amazon

The next morning, I had just over an hour in the gardens before breakfast. Many birders seem to stay at Hacienda Chichen Itza, which apparently has some very birdy grounds, but Mayaland also had some nice habitat including a trail cut through an area of adjacent jungle. I quickly added a good selection of new species – Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Altamira Oriole, Tropical Pewee, Masked Tityra, Black-throated Green Warbler, Scrub Euphonia, White-eyed Vireo, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Vaux’s Swift, Yellow-winged Tanager and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Other species included Yellow-throated and Black-and-White Warblers, Red-eyed Vireo, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Golden-fronted, Yucatan and Lineated Woodpeckers, and Turquoise-browed Motmot, plus brief flight views of a Catharus thrush which didn’t reappear.

Ivory-billed Woodcreeper
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Masked Tityra
Scrub Euphonia
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
White-eyed Vireo
Black-throated Green Warbler

Four hours walking around Chichen Itza itself didn’t produce much different, but these Maya ruins are a must-see if you are visiting the Yucatan. I particularly liked the wildlife-themed carvings, which seemed to focus on snakes, as well as eagles and jaguars crushing men’s hearts in their talons/claws. 

The pyramid at Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza
An eagle grasping a man's heart
Bronzed Cowbird
Black Iguanas are difficult to miss in the Yucatan
Black Iguana

After this, I had another three hours in the hotel grounds and on the jungle trail, seeing much the same as I did in the morning plus a few extras – Yellow-throated Euphonia, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Southern House Wren, Tennesse Warbler and Greenish Elaenia (all new), plus Rose-throated Becard, Groove-billed Ani, Indigo and Painted Buntings, Buff-bellied and Cinnamon Hummingbirds, Yucatan Jay and Black-headed Saltator, amongst others. The only mammals I saw were several Yucatan Squirrels and one Dieppe’s Squirrel.

Southern House Wren
Painted Bunting
Yucatan Squirrel

The following morning I had another hour and a half around the gardens and trails, adding another eight new species – Grey Hawk (on a nest), Yellow-throated Vireo, Olive Sparrow, Red-billed Pigeon, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Cave Swallow  (around the main hotel building itself) and Violaceous Trogon. Other nice bits and pieces included Prothonotary and Magnolia Warblers, Green Jay and Plain Chachalaca

Grey Hawk
Olive Sparrow
Violaceous Trogon
Cave Swallow
Yellow-winged Tanager
Yellow-throated Vireo
Prothonotary Warbler
Frog Rana sp in an ornamental pond

After breakfast, we then began our journey to the Caribbean coast, where we took the ferry from Calica (where we saw a small group of Spider Monkeys), just south of Playa del Carmen, over to the island of Cozumel.Cozumel is set up for receiving big cruise ships, many of which come from the US, but supports several endemic species of bird and mammal, the exact number depending on which taxonomic authority you follow; although one of the birds, Cozumel Thrasher, may well be recently extinct. The west coast, facing the mainland, is relatively built up in places, and we were initially a bit ambivalent about the place. However, our accommodation, the Villas el Encanto, on the south side of the main town of San Miguel, was very pleasant, and a few little patches of scrub on plots in the vicinity allowed me a bit of birding either side of a walk into town; Green-breasted Mango, Cape May and Prairie Warblers, and Bananaquit were new, whilst there were plenty of other Yank warblers around – American Redstart, Northern Parula, Tennessee, Yellow-throated, Magnolia and (the near-ubiquitous) Yellow Warblers - and Yellow-faced Grassquits were much less skulking than their mainland counterparts.

Spider Monkey
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Cape May Warbler - much smarter than that grotty Unst individual...
Bananaquit - a proper Caribbean species 
Green-breasted Mango

The following day I had an early start, birding the ‘El Presidente’ grid just south of San Miguel – a failed housing estate, allowing access into some jungle habitat. The birding was good, although I only managed to see one of the three endemics on offer – Cozumel Emerald. Other new species were Yucatan Vireo, White-crowned Pigeon, Caribbean Dove and Black Catbird, and Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yucatan Woodpecker and Yucatan Flycatcher were of the Cozumel race. Fly-over parrots again eluded identification, although according to my ID guide only Yucatan Amazon occurs on Cozumel - but some googling suggests otherwise. 

Cozumel Emerald
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Crimson-patched Longwing

We then spent the rest of the day on the southern end of the island, at Punta Sur. This is a protected area (described as an 'eco beach park'), which raised our impression of Cozumel considerably – beautiful unspoilt white beaches and crystal clear blue seas, backed by a large mangrove-fringed lagoon which is overlooked in one place by a tower hide. It is popular with tourists, but the tourist infrastructure is very low key. The lagoon held Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, Osprey and Black-necked Stilt, amongst other things, andI also saw Golden Warbler, the Cozumel race of Mangrove Warbler. A couple of crocodiles (including one lurking under the board-walk at the hide) were also in evidence, whilst several Cozumel Coatis (a race of White-nosed Coati) were hanging around the carpark at the lighthouse. Most of our time, however, was spent on the beach, lounging around and snorkelling on the small bit of coral reef that lies close offshore. A very enjoyable day.

The tower hide at Punta Sur
A croc under the boardwalk
Roseate Spoonbills
Coastal habitat at Punta Sur
Looking towards the Punta Sur lighthouse
The view from the lighthouse
Cozumel (White-nosed) Coati
Even I had a swim, and I hate swimming
Beach art

In the evening, we bumped along a track at the northern end of the island, past the sewage works, to the place where boats take tourists over to Isla Pasion. The target here was the endemic, and critically endangered Cozumel Raccoon. We soon found a handful feeding at a big pile of pasta that had been thrown out behind one of the food shacks by the carpark. They were very characterful little animals, and clearly habituated to close human presence, as I could get to within just a few metres of them. The rarest mammal I have ever seen, beating the Mediterranean Monk Seal I saw two summers ago in Madeira.

Cozumel Raccoons picking the best bits out of some pasta
Cozumel Raccoon

The drive back down the track produced my second endemic bird, Cozumel Wren (although this species isn’t split by all authorities), dust-bathing on the track. As dusk fell, three Pauraques were feeding over the sewage works, and another nightjar sp. flew across the road on the drive back through the hotel zone.

Cozumel Wren

The following morning I returned to the start of this track, parking up and walking a network of tracks to the west. My main target was the third endemic, Cozumel Vireo, which I failed to see, but did add Grey Catbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush and Purple Martin, as well as several Pauraques on the track before dawn (no Yucatan Nightjars though), and a selection of other species, including Cozumel Wren and Cozumel Emerald, including a good variety of wood warbler.  After breakfast we headed to the Mayan ruins at San Gervaiso; Cozumel Wren and Cozumel Emerald again gave themselves up without any issue, but I still couldn’t find a Cozumel Vireo, and Ovenbird was the only new species.

Worm-eating Warbler
Grey Catbird
Male Black-and-White Warbler
Trackside habitat
The Mayan ruins at San Gervaiso

Cozumel Racerunner (I think)
Dirce Beauty

Having had our fill of Mayan ruins for the day, we then continued on the cross-island road to the wild east coast, finding a rather cool bar for lunch.  There are several small wetland areas visible from the east coast road, which held a decent selection of species: at KM33, a fairly large lake held Least Grebe, as well as Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Jacana, Spotted Sandpiper, and Reddish Egret. Another at the Buenavista Ranch (were we went horse riding) held some of the same, as well as Solitary Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs. A third, just south of the ‘Coconuts’ bar, held an Anhinga. A look at the sea at one location produced Wilson’s Plover, amongst a few more familiar other wader species like Sanderling and Grey Plover.

Least Grebe
Blue-winged Teal
Wetland habitat

On the way back to San Miguel, I was allowed one final crack at Cozumel Vireo, walking along a track into the jungle off the cross-island road. This was quiet at first, but as it got towards dusk, activity increased. Caribbean Elaenia was new, and I saw many species that were by now ‘normal’ – Black Catbird, Bananquit, Cozumel Wren, Cozumel Emerald, Green-breasted Mango, several species of American wood warbler, and Pauraque

Jungle track
Caribbean Elaenia (I think - one I struggled to ID)

However, try as I could, I just couldn’t find a Cozumel Vireo. With our ferry early the following morning, allowing no time for birding, I eventually admitted defeat. No-one seems to dip the vireo, so I was a bit deflated by this. But I didn’t have time to dwell on it – we were off on the next stage of our trip!