Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Cleanup on Peninsula Yucatan (and Cozumel Island)



The Yucatan wasn't high on our list of places to visit in Mexico since we had already spent a week in Belize not so long ago. But since Natalia had a conference to go to in Merida, we decided to bird and explore the area while we were in the neighborhood.

In making our plans we relied heavily on Ross Gallardy's excellent trip report. Sites we visited: Rio Lagartos, Ek Balam, Xocen, Coba, Cozumel.

American Flamingo at Rio Lagartos. This wasn't a bird we were targeting on this trip, but we certainly weren't complaining when this one landed in front of us.

First off, the Yucatan is awesome. This isn't a secret. Cruise ships pull up to its major tourist ports by the dozens. While such a touristic influx would ruin many places, and indeed Playa del Carmen is a bit of a postmodern consumerist hellhole (we didn't dare set foot in Cancun), the region is big enough and has enough attractions that it is possible to get away from the crowds, especially if you happen to be focusing on birds.

The birding is excellent of course, but there's also the fascinating Mayan temple ruins, the water-filled swimmable sinkholes (called 'cenotes'), postcard-worthy beaches and then phenomenal diving and snorkeling. No wonder everybody wants to go here.

We were joined for the mainland part of our trip by notable S. African ecologist and bird-nut, 'DuJuan Grandes' (Duan Biggs), who we met at the conference.

Birder extraordinaire Dr. Sr. DuJuan Grandes (et al.) birding in the forest at Xocen

Our first birding stop, Rio Lagartos, is an essential one for any visiting birder as its one of the only places in the world one to see two endemics: the Mexican Sheartail and the Yucatan Wren.

The endemic Mexican Sheartail at the Restaurante Chiquila feeders, Rio Lagartos


The hummingbird is easy as pie. All you have to do is visit the restaurant Chiquila outside of town where the owners maintain a couple sugar-water feeders. We also encountered the local bird guide here, Ismael, and made plans to bird with him the following morning.

The wren can be found along the highway outside of town that cuts through scrub habitats.  We found this road to be loaded with birds (and mosquitoes; come prepared).

Yucatan Wren outside Rio Lagartos. Yet another endemic Mexican wren belonging to the oversized Campylorhynchus genus.

Turquoise-browed Motmots were everywhere.

We ran into several 'Christmas trees' of Turqoise-browed Motmots, in which they just seemed to cover all the branches like ornaments. They would always disperse as we approached though so it was hard to capture this effect.

The orioles were thick, coming in three superficially similar flavors: Orange (endemic), Hooded and Altamira. Be careful with those.

Otherwise I'll let these photos do the explaining...

The endemic Yucatan Jay near Rio Lagartos

Lesser Nighthawk near Rio Lagartos

A pair of the endemic Black-throated Bobwhite. These things were calling all over the place, but a bit tricky to see. If you drive the gravel roads in the early am you should stumble upon them though.


There are quite a few flooded areas (their size and existence dependent upon recent rainfall) along the scrub road outside Rio Lagartos, and it's supposedly a decent place to find a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail.  No luck for us find that notoriously tough bird, but we came across a few shorebirds including this cute Black-necked Stilt.
There were lots of tropical raptors in the area including Roadside Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Laughing Falcon and this molt-messed Zone-tailed Hawk. Sr. Grandes wanted a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, but we somehow missed that one.

Most tourists come to Rio Lagartos to hire a boat to explore the lagoon and see flamingos, Boat-billed Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and other aquatic species, but Natalia and I opted instead to skip town early to visit the ruins at Ek Balam on our way south to Valladolid.

Natalia atop the main temple at Ek Balam. We chose this place over the more famous and not-far-away Chichen Itza for several reasons: 1) There are forests that provide birds and shade; 2) there are way fewer visitors (I hate crowds); 3) Climbing the pyramids is allowed.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker at Ek Balam. Confusingly enough the subspecies here has a red 'front' or nasal tufts. The similar-looking Yucatan Woodpecker is the one with the golden 'front'.

We picked Valladolid because of its proximity to the private reserve Xocen and made plans with the local bird expert, Ismael Arellano Ciau (no relation to the Rio Lagartos Ismael). Unfortunately he wasn't available the first night, so we went out with his colleague, Angel, who isn't quite as knowledgeable bird-wise (he typically leads cultural tours). Angel did know the location of the Vermiculated Screech-Owl in the area (score!).

Red morph of the Vermiculated Screech-Owl. By range this should be the 'Middle American' or 'Guatemalan' subspecies. Tropical owls are difficult enough as is, but they will only get harder if they continue being split!

And thanks to Ross Gallary's GPS point we were also able to find a Yucatan Poorwill.

One of the tough nocturnal endemics, the Yucatan Poorwill at Xocen. Clearly I still haven't mastered the hand-held night shot.

Unfortunately the Yucatan Nightjar was nowhere to be found. Presumably July isn't the best month to look for them.

The next morning we went out with Ismael and another guide, Miguel, who helped us sift through swarming masses of Yellow-green Vireos to find our top target, the Rose-throated Tanager.

Rose-throated Tanager (with Black Catbird) at Xocen. This enigmatic Piranga tanager (meaning it is actually a cardinal and not a true tanager) eluded us in Belize, so we were pretty hyped to catch up with it in Mexico.


Ismael took us to a nearby spot in the late morning where there had been a pheasant cuckoo present some weeks ago. Unfortunately the cuckoo had moved on, but we got to see this cool cenote with cascading fig tree roots, attendant Cave Swallows and Turqoise-browed Motmots.

This iconic scene was a nice consolation for not seeing a Pheasant Cuckoo. Here we have a strangler fig perched on the edge of a karst sinkhole (cenote) with its roots cascading some 12 meters (40 feet) down to the sinkhole floor. 
There's an endemic subspecies of Cave Swallow in the Yucatan that specializes in nesting in cenotes. We caught up with this group hanging out in a cenote parking lot.

Natalia and I parted ways with our excellent guides and Sr. 'Grandes' to make our way down to another ruins, Coba, en route to Playa del Carmen.

The birding squad at Xocen. Ismael and Miguel were great local guides. They just formed a company called Yucatan Jay Expeditions & Tours. If you want to bird this area look them up.
The Coba ruins were impressive and in the midday heat, we appreciated the shade provided by the forest canopy. There were birds around, but we missed out on our one realistic target: Scrub Euphonia (they all ended up being Yellow-throated, which is supposedly rarer here).

Natalia wanted to get a move-on, but I convinced her to allow us 20 minutes to bird the boardwalk overlooking the emergent marshes fringing the nearby lake. To our astonishment Spotted Rail was an easy find here in the mid afternoon.

Spotted Rail at the Coba Lagoon. This is one of those birds I thought I just wouldn't ever see despite spending plenty of time birding within its range of occurrence. We saw two of these gaudy things with minimal effort.


Least Bittern at the Coba lagoon. Any day that includes an Ixobrychus bittern is a good day in my book. 

After a quick stop to swim with whale sharks, it was over to Cozumel for some diving and a bit of relaxation. Of course while on the island, it's essential to get out and bird at least one morning to get Cozumel Vireo and Cozumel Emerald. It's also worth trying to see the Cozumel Wren, which is technically a subspecies of House Wren, but is quite a bit different and likely to be split eventually.

We took our rented jalopy north out of town and quickly came across Cozumel Vireo (and endemic Yucatan Vireo) among the throngs of Yellow Warbler, but we weren't having any luck with the Emerald. As we were making our way back toward town we came across a couple birders (Mexican guide with an English client) by the side of the road, so we parked and approached to see what they were up to.

The guide immediately began blasting Ruddy Crake tape and out came a couple into view. Nice!

We were still basking in the crake afterglow when he began smashing out some Cozumel Wren tape and just like that we had two tricky birds in the bag. What luck!

Cozumel Island Wren. This bird is quite a bit different than a standard House Wren. For one it lives in the forest. Second, it has a long yellow bill and is quite pale overall. Third, it just sounds really weird. Of course House Wren taxonomy is a bit of a Gordian knot, so don't expect this split to happen any time soon.

Before we left, we were also able to glean some advice from the guide (wish I had caught his name) on where to get the Emerald. The next afternoon we had it at the flowering tree he had suggested in El Cedral. Ka-boom.


Cozumel Emerald, El Cedral
Stumbling upon this guide helped us tick our targets quickly and efficiently, which was awesome because it left us plenty of time to snorkel, dive and enjoy the island's beautiful beaches.

My only regret is that cleaning out so many bird targets in the Yucatan leaves us little in the way of targets to entice us to return!

With so many cheap flight connections into Cancun, birding the Yucatan is a bit of a no-brainer. And with all the other area attractions it can be an easy one to sell to non-birder family and friends. Vayanse ya!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Oaxaca, a birding paradise in Mexico


Natalia and I like to plan birding trips ourselves, sometimes hiring a local guide to help us target specialties. But planning a wedding is a consuming endeavor. Add on top of that organizing a two-week post-wedding tour of Colombia for a party of 11 people ages 10 months to 71 years and our planning energies were pretty well sapped. It was our first time to Mexico, so we wouldn’t really know where to begin in such a big bird-filled country, anyway. Plus if things went badly we would have to answer to a couple of birder-scientist companions who were along for the ride. So, despite previous mediocre experiences, we convinced ourselves to outsource the planning and hired a guide to lead us and another couple on 5-day birding around Oaxaca, Mexico’s birdiest state.

Varied Bunting in Oaxaca. Mexico is famous for its colorful buntings.

Mexico in general, and Oaxaca specifically, exceeded our wildest expectations. The landscapes and birds were surprisingly well-preserved. Mexicans learned long-ago that forested watersheds are critical for preventing flash floods and ensuring a reliable high quality source of water, which sustains life in the arid mountain valleys. As a result mountaintops have been free of logging for at least the past 50 years.

Beautiful forested mountains on the road up to Arroyo Guacamaya


These environmental policies have been a boon to the endemic birds of Oaxacas cloud forest and montane bird species.

A sun-dappled endemic West Mexican Chachalaca we found near Teotitlan
This endemic Collared Towhee we saw in Arroyo Guacamaya looks to me a lot like an Atlapetes Brush-Finch


Yes! That's the one! The towhee reminded me of this Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch we saw just a bit down slope. Of course the taxonomists have decided that this thing is a tanager now, and not even in the same Emberizid family with towhees despite the resemblance.


This endemic White-throated Towhee is a bit more in line with other birds of the arid southwest called 'Towhee.' Spotted Towhees were also around, but I didn't make much of an effort to photograph them.

Birding along elevational gradients in Mexico is a whole different experience than what I’m used to in the super humid regions of the northern Andes. The Mexican forest starts off as a scrubby, thorny dry thicket and steadily grows wetter as you climb and the peaks begin to gather more and more rain. Eventually, the forest switches to pine, much more reminiscent of highlands of the North American West than anything tropical.

Lookout tower at Arroyo Guacamaya in the pine forest. Beautiful spot to have a delicious snack or lunch of hot chocolate and memelitas after a morning of birding

The deserts in between Mexico City and Oaxaca, where they were preserved, shocked me with their beauty. It was the start of the ‘wet’ season, so all the plants had recently flushed out leaves, so the normally brown landscape was cast in a cheery spring green. The cactus forest at the Botanical Gardens of Helia Bravo Hollis blew me away. The vegetation was so diverse in form, yet all of it so thick and structural, that it reminded me of a coral reef.

Cactus forest from the 'canopy tower' at the Jardín Botánico Comunitario Helia Bravo Hollis

the endemic Boucard's Wren, one of 10 Campylorhynchus wrens found in Mexico

Gray-breasted Woodpecker making excellent use of the columnar cacti

Curve-billed Thrasher enjoying some cactus tuna
After gawking at the cactus forest and its highly adapted resident bird life we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the nearby Restarante Itandehui in Zapotitlan, which specializes in local cactus-based cuisine. Many dishes are made from cactus buds (tetechas) and we were brave enough to try the appetizer of fried cactus caterpillars (cuchama).

Another gem of a natural site was the Military Macaw nesting spot in Cañon el Sabino. Even though it isn’t a terribly species rich spot (and we didn't tick any endemic species here that were not seen on other parts of the trip), the thorn forest has an otherworldly beauty about it. And getting to look down upon these passing multicolored macaws from a cliff-side vantage-point was a special experience.

Military Macaws at Cañon el Sabino

The stream at the base of the canyon was thick with Russet-crowned Motmots

We were glad our guide, Manuel, had convinced us to visit the macaws and the cactus garden. If Natalia and I had planned the trip ourselves we probably wouldn’t have put the macaw site on the itinerary, having already seen the species in South America, but in the end we were really glad we went.

Unfortunately, some of the other itinerary and time-management choices Manuel made for us were baffling. We spent the third morning birding at an artificial dam and nearby degraded pastures outside Oaxaca looking at such trashy birds as Killdeer and Least Grebe. It wasn't until near noon that we began to head toward the Pacific zone desert hills, which were tough to bird in the early afternoon blazing heat. We did manage to get the most important target, the Orange-breasted Bunting...

The beautiful endemic Orange-breasted Bunting put in a great appearance on the side of Carretera 190. Manuel made sure to get us this bird since it was featured on the cover page of the trip checklist!

...but we were forfeited entirely the opportunity to see a few other endemics we were supposed to have a chance to see, such as Citreoline Trogon, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker and Gray-crowned Woodpecker (all listed in bold on the checklist Manuel printed for us).

After some cross-examination of the important birds remaining on our lists, we demanded that Manuel take us up to the high mountains on our final full day. This paid off big-time as we were able to see Dwarf Jay, Natalia’s most desired target, and several other high elevation specialties. 


We tried hard for Dwarf Jay up in the high pine forests of Arroyo Guacamaya and then just when we were about to give up a flock of 20 enveloped the canopy above noisily foraging in the moss-laden branches like nuthatches. 

This is a terrible photo of the endemic Red Warbler, one of my top targets for the trip. These were common up high in Arroyo Guacamaya.

Brown-backed Solitaire in Arroyo Guacamaya. This is a bird that, like many solitaires, sounds a lot cooler than it looks.

Manuel came highly recommended by a Mexican birder friend, so we were surprised to discover upon our first pre-dawn meeting that he was not Mexican, but a French ex-pat. Manuel’s accent was a bit thick and he is quite soft-spoken, which led to some miscommunication. But Manuel is not only a sharp, experienced birder, but also an accomplished ornithologist. He understands the distributions of Mexican birds better than Steve Howell (author of the most popular Mexican field guide and bird-finding guide), picks up on all the vocalizations and knows Mexican natural history inside out. He has seen much of Mexico’s bird life in the hand and his commentaries in the field (when they were intelligible to our party of Hispano/Anglos) were top-notch.


Birding with Manuel does give one that exciting sense of exploration and discovery that birding sometimes brings. And we came across some notable birds.

We found and photographed this Mangrove Cuckoo South of Tehuacan in a scrubby dry forest. This bird was not only hundreds of kilometers from a coastline, but well outside the range published in Howell and Webb. I guess these things sometimes do occur in mangroves, but this is terribly named bird.
Our final life bird of the trip was this Botteri's Sparrow, which is remarkable for how unremarkable of a bird it is. Just look at that drabness! I'm pretty confident that without Manuel we would have overlooked this thing, especially given its proximity to House Sparrow territory (note chain link fence in background).


Finally, I present to you Manuel's bird of the trip, this poorly-known rowleyi race of Green-fronted Hummingbird we encountered along carretera 190. It resembles a 'Cinnamon-sided' Green-fronted Hummingbird, what with the cinnamon sides showing, but that taxa (which is a potential split) is believed to only occur on the far side of the Mexican isthmus. Another possibility is that this is an intergrade between nominate Green-fronted and 'Cinnamon-sided.'
Oaxaca is full of incredible birds, and has the feeling of a place ripe for onrithological discovery. With five days we were barely scratching the surface. I hope one day we can return, not just for the birds, but also the food which we found to be universally fantastic.

After a long drive back to Mexico City we had to set off to Merida for a conference. And of course more Mexican birding in the Yucatan peninsula! More to come...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A birdy wedding

Dear readers,

Apologies for the radio silence, but it has been a busy couple months.

June was mostly consumed by a wedding (featuring myself as the groom and Natalia as the bride) and associated family travel in Colombia. And then much of July was spent in Mexico, my first trip south of that ever increasingly controversial border.

More on Mexican pajaros will come later. For now, at the risk of coming off as vain, I want to take some blog space to cover a rare example of a birder wedding. Not only was this a wedding between two birders, but also everything was bird themed.

origami bird backdrop to the wedding

Bird cake.

Cake toppers; Jabiru and Maguari Stork

Birds in the bride’s hair.



Bird on the groom’s lapel.


looks like a N. Cardinal!

Being an outdoor wedding, birds were invited, though naturally only synanthropic species were able to attend, such as Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Saffron Finch, Tropical Kingbird, Ruddy Ground-Dove, etc.

Each table had a bird mascot, and thus all guests were required to do some bird identification to match their name cards with the table sign-posts.

the coveted Blue Jay table


Identify the bird or you don't get to eat dinner

But let's get to some live action birds before everybody gets confused about what kind of blog this is.

Post-wedding we took my visiting immediate family (parents, two brothers, their wives, 3 nieces and two nephews (ages 10 months through 11 years) on a two-week tour of Colombia. We split our time between the coffee-growing region and the Caribbean coast. Both these regions are known for their birdwatching potential (indeed there isn’t really a place in Colombia without tons of bird diversity), but given the range of interests and abilities among our party of 13, bird sightings were mostly incidental to more family-friendly activities.

Nevertheless, when in the tropics even with minimal effort, some astonishing bird things just always seem to happen. Before we even left Cali, we made sure to hit up Finca Alejandria, where birding is made completely effortless thanks to the 30 hummingbird feeders and trays of bananas.

Long-tailed Sylph, Finca Alejandria at km 18

Golden Tanager looking for some bananas

Banana feeders are great because they attract a wide range of frugivores. Here's a Red-headed Barbet chowing down.
We made two trips to Alejandria. Once for a pre-wedding photo-shoot and then again a couple days later with the fam. Both times the highly-desired Multicolored Tanager (Endangered and endemic to Colombia) put in an appearance.

Multicolored Tanager

Multicolored Tanager

After the end of the official festivities, we travelled by bus to coffee-growing region north of Cali. From a vacation farmstead near Armenia we made forays to various local attractions including: Parque el Café (kind of a coffee-themed version of a Busch Gardens amusement park); Panaca (a farm-animal themed park, which unlike Parque del Café, has stuck a bit more to its core theme and not built tons of roller coasters and other conventional crowd-pleasers); Salento and the scenic Cocora Valley; and birdiest of all, the Quindio Botanic Garden.

Southern Lapwing in a pasture in the Cocora Valley
Natalia has a way of attracting news cameras and as soon as we arrived at the botanic garden, the film crew that just so happened to be shooting a piece on bird watching, immediately wanted to interview the both of us with our binoculars and cameras in hand. Within the hour we were on national news talking about the value of the site for conservation and its attractiveness for birdwatchers.

Shall we review?

The place has a bunch of hummingbird and tanager feeders (check and check).

Messy looking adolescent male Flame-rumped Tanager transitioning into adult plumage, Jardin Botanico de Quindio


It’s also got a canopy tower, a rare commodity in Colombia.

The birdwatching feature that impressed me most was the forest bird blind. Instead of the usual small open windows to peer through, the entire wildlife-facing front was a giant panel of polarized glass. This allowed birdlife (and mammal life, there was an agouti present) to approach well within excellent bare-eye viewing range without being startled. It also could accommodate large groups without people obstructing each other’s views.  I had never seen a blind like this before. With feeding stations bringing in a steady parade of birds and with the darkness of the fully enclosed shelter and the largeness of the polarized viewing pane, it felt like sitting in some kind of live-action wildlife movie theatre.

As evidence of the effectiveness of the polarized glass at the Jardin Botanico de Quindio blind, I present this Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, a normally skittish bird that sat out in the open a few meters from a less than silent group of 25 or so casual observers. This photo taken through the glass turned out pretty well too.

The one disadvantage of this site is that it is a relatively small fragment of forest, isolated from protected areas in a sea of degraded agricultural and pastureland. It lacks the hyper diversity and specialty species would make it a worthwhile stop for high-level birders. For the Neotropical novice, however, it is not to be missed.

The last leg of the family tour was spent along the Caribbean Coast, most notably, at Tayrona National Park, home of the Lance-tailed Manakin and Cotton-top Tamarin, among other creatures.

The critically endangered Cotton top Tamarin. endemic to northern Colombia. These guys are not difficult to see in Tayrona NP.

Tayrona brought back some fond memories from my first trip to Colombia back in 2010.

Crested Caracara with prey on the beach at Tayrona National Park


After the obligatory stop through Cartagena we newly-weds skedaddled off to Mexico City. What kinds of fascinating birds would Mexico bring for us? Stay tuned to find out.