Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Southern Mexico, 17.12.2014 - 29.12.2014

It was the last birding trip of 2014, and the first half of the winter break. It was the time of the year I desperately wanted to go south and escape the chills of winter in Berkeley. I cancelled Costa Rica plans and booked last minute tickets to Cancun, Mexico after discussing with Wojciech, a really smart Polish Physics student at Berkeley. 

Plain Chachalaca

Wojciech joined me a day later in Mexico, and by that time I had already rounded up the commoner birds in Yum Balam National Park with the Blue-Crowned Motmot standing out. We immediately headed out of Cancun to Isla Holbox, which is a 1-hour ferry away from Chiquila. Isla Holbox and especially Isla Pajaros were great nesting sites to spot all types of waders and the Magnificent Frigatebird. We camped on the beach, kayaked through the mangroves and swam pretty far from the coast in shallow seas. Overall, Isla Holbox is one of those places none of the Americans seem to know about, but the Europeans love - it is quiet, small, not rampaged by tourists every year, but has enough to sustain a decent vacation.

Altamira Oriole
Once we were done with Holbox, we decided to explore Yum Balam National Park from its western side through Solferino. We found out Gilberto, locally known as Gilapa, was the expert in the town. With nothing but the name, we tracked Gilberto down in the most ridiculous fashion - I drove from house to house, and Wojciech jumped out and crashed every house asking for our man. Victims included an old woman cooking dinner, a drunk girl, a construction worker and a restaurant owner. We finally blocked Gilapa's path as he was parking his white minivan and told him about our request to see birds. Surprised, bemused, but also excited, he readily agreed and we found a back-country way into the forests. The day started with a decent view of the Keel-Billed Toucan followed by several forest specialties and a juvenile Crane Hawk, which the three of us took about twenty minutes to identify. Gilapa saw his first Canivet's Emerald, with which he was quite excited and then we immediately tracked down a Collared Micrastur from its call. Overall, pretty decent birding. Gilapa also showed us his efforts for conservation and photographs of Jaguars, Ocelots, Margays, Pumas and Ocellated Turkeys from the park.

Bare-Throated Tiger-Heron

We left late in the evening in heavy rain. Seemed right to give an enthusiastic Wojciech some driving lessons. So Wojciech learnt to drive a manual car without power steering in the middle of a mexican jungle in heavy rain and dimming light. He did fairly well. That took us to Merida, since we reached Chichen-Itza too late. Not that either of us cared about the tourist trap.

After downing several tacos, empanadas and other typical Mexican street food, we left for Miguel Colorado. The only reason being a Cenote, or a sinkhole, which was not overflowing with tourists, was in a middle of a jungle and had clear water with fish. Little did we know we could also zipline! We got pretty late so we tried to crash on an old village road, only to wake up a bewildered family with barking dogs, We quickly escapes the scene and crashed in the car on a deserted road leading to a ranch. 

Barred Antshrike (female)
At Miguel Colorado, we met Raul, and by that time we had picked up broken Spanish through
Wojciech's Spanish tutorials in the car. We tried to use our broken Sanish but thoroughly confused Raul. That is when Bronco heard us and helped us out. Bronco was a typical US-returned Mexican. He was back after a 19 year drug-dealing cum contract-killing stint in Nebraska, and was now happily married in Escarcega with a wife and three kids. He was now a philanthropist. With Bronco's help we convinced Raul to leave us deep into the forest overnight and take us to the lake the next day. We did exactly that - camped at the edge of an untrodden sinkhole, from which at least a million bats rushed out in huge spirals at 6 pm. Bat Hawks lined the trees as the bats were surging out and they all grabbed meals before flying off. The bats were followed by a dozen Barn Owls and we heard Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls and Eastern Screech-Owls hoot the onset of night. 

Black-Bellied Plover (winter plumage)
The next day we birded around the sinkhole and we saw an adult Crane Hawk finally. A Grey Fox, wild papayas (which were indeed quite tasty) and three more hidden cenotes rounded up the morning's adventures. As if we hadn't been through enough mosquito trouble already, we gulped down three entire fish and moved on to the lake in the middle of the jungle. Middle of the jungle meant an hour's motorcycle ride with Raul and his friend Anthony from Miguel Colorado. And of course we got eaten alive by mosquitoes again. But it was totally worth it - Spider Monkeys, Collared Trogons, Black-Headed Trogons, a White-Striped Woodcreeper and a Dusky Hummingbird made appearances in the middle of the day. The lake was shrouded in tranquility and the view was breathtaking.

Black-Cheeked Woodpecker
After discovering that Raul had his own Mayan ruins in his ranch and that his mother was a Mayan speaker herself, we bid farewell to a teary Raul, his family, their pug Athenas and a Red-Lored Parrot as we made our way to Palenque in Chiapas. The Palenque ruins were beautiful beyond description and a noisy group of Black Howler Monkeys made up for the lack of wildlife for the day. After pouring through the descriptions of Mayan culture and tradition, we headed off to Montes Azules National Park - our aim was to camp in the middle of the cloud forests and wake up to the calls of Resplendant Quetzals and Scarlet Macaws. We had no idea what we were getting into!

Black-Headed Saltator

As we were driving along the untarred route to Montes Azules from the western side, we were

stopped by two drunk teens looking for a ride to their village. Of course we gave them a ride and, luckily enough, we they warned us about threas on the road like burglars and wild animals. We decided to call it a night since it was pretty much midnight and we crashed outside our new friends' home. We had no idea where we were or what we would do next. Every day was a mystery unfolding in front of us.

The next day we left for the national park and, this time, we approached it from the right side through Benemerito and Chajul. We were onto our second manhunt. A few inquiries yielded a name Pepe who had a boat and could possibly take us across the river into the jungle. We asked shopkeepers, housewives, kids on streets and even a man on his roof (no idea what he was up to) and finally tracked down Pepe. As expected he was surprised by our request, and luckily his charming daughter helped translate both ways. Within 15 minutes we were in a boat crossing the Rio Lacantun to the midst of the National Park. Pepe and his daughter were more scared than us as we had no idea what we were signing up for. Camping in the cloud forests. Sounded pretty awesome.

Blue Grosbeak

It was only after we were left alone in the densest of vine-tangled jungles shrouded in darkness that we felt the pinch. It was not just scary - it was creepy and the entire jungle was springing to life - mammals of all types were waking up, and so were the snakes, giant spiders and nighthawks. We set up camp and sat inside trembling at the thought of an approaching jaguar. Sure enough the Jaguar came by at around midnight, to drink from the river. Wojciech heard growling and I heard footsteps throughout the night. Neither of us slept well - we were continuously plotting escape routes and defense strategies in our minds as the possibility of a Jaguar attack loomed larger. 

Blue-Crowned Motmot
As soon as the sun rose, we discussed how lucky we were to survive the night and vowed never to take such a big risk again. The morning proved extremely fruitful as we spotted Montezuma Oropendolas, Collared Aracaris, Russet Antshrikes, Long-Tailed Hermits and Black-Cheeked Woodpeckers among many other species. Once we crossed back to Chajul and related our stories, even Pepe agreed never to let anyone in the jungle overnight. A new unwritten law had been passed in Chajul.

We made our way out of Chajul, only to find our car leaking motor oil at the rate of the Victoria Falls. A garage on the border of Guatemala was our only hope as they replaced a faulty oil filter with another faulty one, with Florenzo claiming it would only last a day. We got the right filter at Benemerito and I drove 12 hours straight to Merida. We finally made it into Chichen-Itza, which was as touristy as we had imagined, and then headed to Tulum. A full day's worth of snorkeling in sinkholes, coastal reefs and bays followed and we swam with sea turtles and rays. Of course I lost my glasses in the process (i wonder how I'm gonna explain losing my glasses in a Mexican sinkhole to my parents) and I wore Wojciech's glasses to drive while he used his optically corrected snorkel mask. Yes, we looked ludicrous, but that was the only solution!

A list of all the birds spotted on the trip:

Crane Hawk (juvenile)
1. American White Pelican - several around Isla Holbox and Isla Pajaros
2. Brown Pelican - several at Isla Holbox
3. Double-Crested Cormorant - 12 at Isla Holbox
4. Neotropic Cormorant - many at Isla Holbox
5. Magnificent Frigatebird - many at Holbox and Chiquila
6. Bare-Throated Tiger-Heron - 1 at Holbox while kayaking through mangroves
7. Great Blue Heron - several including one in white morph at Holbox
8. Great Egret - many around Holbox
9. Little Blue Heron - many around Holbox
10. Reddish Egret - 3 at Isla Pajaros
11. Cattle Egret - 3 in Miguel Colorado
12. Green Heron - 2 in Holbox
13. Black-Crowned Night Heron - 2 in Holbox
14. White Ibis - 4 in Holbox while kayaking
15. Wood Stork - 1 in Holbox
Great Blue Heron (white morph)
16. Black Vulture - Hundreds everywhere
17. Turkey Vulture - Many throughout Mexico
18. Savanna Vulture - 2 at Chajul
19. Osprey - 2 in Holbox
20. White-Tailed Kite - 1 near Solferino
21. Crane Hawk - 1 juvenile in Yum Balam, 1 adult in Miguel Colorado
22. Common Black-Hawk - 2 in Yum Balam
23. Gray Hawk - 3 in Yum Balam
24, Roadside Hawk - 2 in Yum Balam
25. Collared Micrastur - 1 in Yum Balam
26. Laughing Falcon - 1 calling in Yum Balam
27. Bat Falcon - 4 in Miguel Colorado near the sinkhole with bats
28. Plain Chachalaca - 6 in Yum Balam
29. Montezuma Quail - 2 in Montes Azules
30. Limpkin - 2 in Holbox
31. Black-Bellied Plover - 2 in Holbox
32. Spotted Sandpiper - 2 in Holbox
33. Pectoral Sandpiper - 1 in Holbox
Gray Saltator
34. Ruddy Turnstone - 5 in Holbox, 1 in Chiquila
35. Western Sandpiper - 2 in Holbox
36. Ring-Billed Gull - 2 in Holbox
37. Herring Gull - 1 in Holbox
38. Bonaparte's Gull - many in Holbox
39. Royal Tern - many in Holbox
40. Sandwich Tern - many in Holbox
41. Blue Rock Dove - many in towns
42. Red-Billed Pigeon - 4 in Yum Balam
43. Mourning Dove - many in Holbox
44. White-Winged Dove - 4 in Yum Balam
45. Common Ground-Dove - 2 in Yum Balam
46. Ruddy Ground-Dove - many especially near the Guatemala border
47. Blue Ground-Dove - 2 near Guatemala border
48. Grey-Chested Dove - 1 in Palenque
49. Ruddy Quail-Dove - 2 in Montes Azules
50. Green Parakeet - 5 in Miguel Colorado
Gray Hawk
51. Aztec Parakeet - many in Solferino
52. Orange-Chinned Parakeet - 3 at Chajul
53. White-Fronted Parrot - 1 in Miguel Colorado
54. Red-Lored Parrot - 1 in Miguel Colorado
55. Squirrel Cuckoo - 4 in Holbox, 1 in Miguel Colorado
56. Smooth-Billed Ani - several in Miguel Colorado
57. Groove-Billed Ani - many in the entire countryside
58. Barn Owl - 12 at Miguel Colorado coming from the sinkhole
59. Eastern Screech-Owl - 2 calling at Miguel Colorado
60. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl - 1 calling at Miguel Colorado
61. Common Nighthawk - 1 in Montes Azules
62. White-Collared Swift - 2 in Miguel Colorado
63. Long-Tailed Hermit - 1 in Montes Azules
64. Dusky Hummingbird - 1 in Miguel Colorado
Keel-Billed Toucan
65. Buff-Bellied Hummingbird - 1 in Yum Balam
66. White-Bellied Emerald - 1 in Montes Azules
67. Canivet's Emerald - 1 in Yum Balam
68. Black-Headed Trogon - 2 in Miguel Colorado
69. Collared Trogon - 2 in Miguel Colorado
70. Blue-Crowned Motmot - 1 in Yum Balam
71. Turquoise-Browed Motmot - 1 in Montes Azules
72. Blue-Throated Motmot -1 in Montes Azules
73. Green Kingfisher - 1 in Montes Azules
74. Emerald Toucanet - 1 in Palenque
75. Collared Aracari - 1 in Montes Azules
76. Keel-Billed Toucan - 1 in Yum Balam, 2 in Montes Azules
77. Black-Cheeked Woodpecker - 2 in Montes Azules
78. Golden-Fronted Woodpecker - 1 in Yum Balam
79. Yucatan Woodpecker - 1 in Yum Balam
80. Pale-Billed Woodpecker - 1 in Montes Azules
Magnificent Frigatebird
81. Ruddy Leafgleaner - 2 in Montes Azules
82. Laughing Woodcreeper - 1 in Montes Azules
83. White-Striped Woodcreeper - 1 in Miguel Colorado
84. Barred Antshrike - 3 in Yum Balam, 1 in Montes Azules
85. Russet Antshrike - 1 in Montes Azules
86. Greenish Elaenia - 1 in Yum Balam
87. Yellow-Bellied Elaenia - 1 in Yum Balam
88. Tufted Flycatcher - 1 in Montes Azules
89. Vermillion Flycatcher - 3 in Yum Balam
90. Rufous Mourner - 2 in Montes Azules
91. Great Kiskadee - 3 in Yum Balam
92. Boat-Billed Flycatcher - 1 in Yum Balam
93. Social Flycatcher - many everywhere
94. Tropical Kingbird - 3 in Yum Balam
95. Western Kingbird - 1 in Yum Balam
96. Cassin's Kingbird - 1 in Yum Balam
97. Rose-Throated Becard - 1 in Montes Azules
98. Mangrove Vireo - 1 in Holbox
99. Green Jay - 3 in Miguel Colorado, 1 in Montes Azules
100. Brown Jay - several in Miguel Colorado, Yum Balam and Montes Azules
101. Yucatan Jay - several in Yum Balam
102. Unicolored Jay - 1 in Montes Azules
103. Common Raven 1 in Montes Azules
104. Tree Swallow - many in Holbox
105. Northern Rough-Winged Swallow - 3 in Yum Balam
106. Brown Creeper - 1 in Montes Azules
107. Wood Thrush - 1 in Montes Azules
108. Louisiana Waterthrush - 1 in Holbox
109. Gray Catbird - 2 in Yum Balam
110. Black Catbird - several in Yum Balam
111. Tropical Mockingbird - many throughout Mexico
112. Blue-Winged Warbler - 2 in Yum Balam
113. Yellow Warbler - 2 in Holbox
114. Mangrove Warbler - 2 in Holbox
115. Yellow-Rumped Warbler - 3 in Yum Balam
Painted Bunting
116. Black-Throated Green Warbler - 2 in Yum Balam
117. Pine Warbler - 1 in Yum Balam
118. Black-and-White Warbler - 2 in Yum Balam
119. American Redstart - 2 in Holbox
120. Prothonotary Warbler - 1 in Yum Balam
121. Common Yellowthroat - several in Yum Balam
122. Gray-Headed Tanager - 1 in Yum Balam
123. Rose-Throated Tanager - 3 in Yum Balam
124. White-Winged Tanager - 1 female in Montes Azules
125. Yellow-Throated Euphonia - 4 in Holbox
126. Yellow-Faced Grassquit - 5 in Yum Balam
127. Blue-Black Grassquit - 1 in Yum Balam
128. Olive Sparrow - 2 in Yum Balam
129. Gray Saltator - 4 in Yum Balam, 2 in Montes Azules
130. Buff-THroated Saltator - 2 in Yum Balam
131. Black-Headed Saltator - 2 in Yum Balam
Roadside Hawk
132. Black-Faced Saltator - 1 in Montes Azules
133. Blue-Black Grosbeak - 4 in Yum Balam
134. Blue Grosbeak - 2 in Miguel Colorado
135. Rose-Breasted Grosbeak - 6 in Miguel Colorado
136. Yellow Grosbeak - 1 in Yum Balam
137. Northern Cardinal - 4 in Yum Balam
138. Painted Bunting - 1 in Miguel Colorado
139. Singing Blackbird - 3 in Yum Balam
140. Great-Tailed Grackle - Hundreds in Cancun
141. Bronzed Cowbird - 3 in Miguel Colorado
142. Wagler's Oriole - 2 in Yum Balam
143. Hooded Oriole - 2 in Montes Azules
144. Yellow-Tailed Oriole - 1 in Yum Balam
145. Altamira Oriole - 6 in Yum Balam
146. Yellow-Billed Cacique - 3 in Montes Azules
147. Montezuma Oropendola - 2 in Montes Azules
148. Black-Headed Siskin - 2 in Yum Balam
149. Lesser Goldfinch - 1 in Yum Balam
150. Lawrence's Goldfinch - 3 in Yum Balam

Until next time!

Royal Tern

Ruddy Turnstone

Sandwich Tern

Social Flycatcher

Squirrel Cuckoo (juvenile)

Vermillion Flycatcher

Yucatan Jay

Yucatan Woodpecker

Canivet's Emerald