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The Yucatan Peninsular of Mexico is situated in the South-east of the country, and broadly comprises the provinces of Quintana Roo and Yucatan. The area covered is larger and more spaced out than seems on the map, so driving distance was taken into account when planning the itinerary. Cancun can now be reached on a reasonably priced package - we booked in December and paid £350 each for flights and 7 nights hotel (room only), which was at the Hotel Laguna Verde. Most of the Yucatan and Quintana Roo area comprises low to medium height thorn forest (with smatterings of equatorial forest for good measure), with some of the more reasonable sites (including locations of hotels) being near Mayan archaeological sites. To vary the birds and habitat, the area to the North of the peninsular was also covered - there is a mixture of open and semi-open scrub, with semi-desert and coastal sand here.
The practicalities of the trip meant picking a car up at the resort, staying the first and last nights in the pre-booked hotel, and checking into hotels as we arrived at the various sites. This was not a problem in reality, as all had plenty of rooms available for low to reasonable prices, with the standard of accommodation ranging from basic (but clean and habitable) to very comfortable. The food in the restaurants attached to these hotels was also very good and reasonably priced.
The Mexicans we came across were all very friendly and helpful, despite only a minority speaking more than a word or two of English. We spoke no Spanish, but the odd word or phrase and flailing arms normally got the message over. Outside of the relatively affluent (and unreal) Cancun, the majority of Mexican standard of living is very 3rd world, with many of the families living in small, poorly made houses (although the prerequisite TV is usually present!). We didnít put much trust in local food and water but bread and prepacked meats and cheeses did for birding on the hoof food, and large bottles of water were readily available.
Dawn birding started at 6 in the morning, and ended with dusk at 6pm. The weather throughout was very hot, but usually with a cooling easterly wind. Travelling between sites, which usually lasted a couple of hours, was done over midday - a doubly sensible move since birds were less obvious and the potholes and topes (speed ramps) were better seen in daylight. Mosquitoes were present in small numbers, as were large biting flies. Jungle formula seemed to keep the former at bay, although there is a small risk of malaria, so prophylaxis is sensible (once weekly chloroquine over the counter is recommended).
The car was booked with Hertz (via the USA) from the UK - this was the best deal that included insurance with no excess. Most car hire companies will only hire a car with a £1000 excess (or 10% of the value of the car) - not a good idea when you see the state of Mexican roads and driving (although the latter was not as bad as we expected - with care!). Final costs will include hire, collision damage waiver (CDW), excess waiver if available, tax (10%), and any fuel due. Our total for an intermediate compact Chrysler Neon was £480 for the week. It seemed likely that we were given a rather battered car because we had no excess - it wasnít a bad idea, anyway, since Iím sure we added a few bumps and scratches of our own, which tended not to show. If there is an excess and the car is unmarked, I would guess that on return it would get a thorough once over for new marks. The roads were in better condition than expected. The new toll road from Cancun has a limit of 110km/hr, but only has exits from Valladolid, Chichen Itza, and Merida. The cost was £12 to Valladolid, and £2.50 from Valladolid to Chichen Itza. Route 307 south from Cancun also looks good, and may be the best way to get to Coba. The lesser roads have plenty of potholes to worry about, but the greatest danger came from the topes. These speed ramps are in almost all inhabited areas, and can be a chassis breaker due to their varying heights and often unexpected (and unmarked) occurrence. Petrol stations are few and far between - good maps show where they are. The car we had was big enough to hold four of us, a holdall and backpack each in the boot, and assorted optics and tripods.
Cancun - Pok ta Pok golf course
As usual with golf courses abroad, this area was very good for birds - and right next to the hotel as a bonus. Between the fairways were scattered clumps of trees, with one side of the course adjoining the lagoon. The bushes and trees on the perimeter of the golf course were lower and quite dense, and sheltered all sorts of local and migrant birds. Wood warblers (presumably on passage in most cases) were in the latter areas as well as Flycatchers and Hummingbirds. The trees scattered throughout the centre of the course were good for Woodpeckers, Hummingbirds, and more wood warblers. The greens and fairways also held a small selection of birds, in particular Ground & White-winged Doves, Sparrows, and Grackles. The main lagoon in the centre of the hotel area is extensive - perhaps 10km in length - and seems in the main devoid of birds (motorised watersports are held on here). Those that did appear included Frigatebirds, Ospreys, Cormorants and Pelicans overhead, in reasonably regular but small numbers. The strong winds perhaps kept some of the passerines under cover of the bushes. Species such as Bananaquit and Common Tody Flycatcher were unexpected, and again kept to the denser areas of vegetation.
Cancun - Jardin Botanico Dr. Alfredo Barrera M. (Botanical Garden)
A deserved lie in got us to the gates of the Botanical Gardens at 7:30am, but the English-less gardener wouldnít let us in, so we went to the seafront east of Puerto Morelos instead. The area covered was low coastal scrub, bounded by trees and mangrove pools, and was a good move, with long awaited Scissor-tailed Flycatcher along with male Blue Grosbeak & Common Tody Flycatcher. If the gardener had been more accommodating, we would have missed out !
We finally entered the gardens at 9:15. It was reminiscent of our earlier forest birding, but on a smaller scale and with lower tree canopies - not as painful. Just as much patience was needed, however. The gardens were not as impressive as we had expected - a weekís solid birding and its toll might have contributed! The local speciality of Yucatan Vireo did appear on a few occasions. Laugh of the morning was adding Moorhen as one of the last species to the trip list. Additional interesting birds in the gardens were Black-capped Tityra, Hooded Warbler, Squirrel Cuckoo and Bright-rumped Attilla.
The area was pencilled in for the lake in front of the Club Med hotel for Crakes, and the forests surrounding the Mayan ruins next to the lake. The birding divided itself into three parts - in and around the hotel gardens at first light; the village area on the opposite side of the lake to the hotel; and the forests in the vicinity of the ruins. Birding straight out of the hotel was excellent, with birds everywhere. On the water itself were Grebes, and some late Cormorants, following on from the impressive sight of a large Crocodile meandering slowly across the centre of the expanse of water. The reed fringed western edge held Limpkin, with a Northern Jacana on the exposed edge. The trees around the hotel were alive with birds early on, dominated by a large group of mixed Orioles, Social Flycatcher, and Ground Doves. An overgrown bushy area adjacent to the hotel should have had more potential, but did hold Spot-breasted Wren and Bananaquit. A Bat Falcon was perched at the top of the hotel mast, with a further selection of Orioles below.
The village on the opposite shore was excellent for wandering around, with a good mixture of birds. Small finch flocks were mainly drab juvenile Seedeaters, although they were found to contain a distinctive female Blue Grosbeak. The reeds were unfortunately devoid of Crakes, but a couple of Grey-headed Yellowthroats showed well. The end of the track at the west of the village was overgrown, but had Hummingbirds passing through, and the only Green-backed Sparrows of the trip. Within the village itself, white blurs of birds turned out to be boring feral pigeons, but the first Squirrel Cuckoo of the week was just below what may have been breeding boxes for the pigeons.
The Mayan ruins needed time and effort, and a good deal of wandering off the tracks into the depths of the trees. Videoing the birds here offered an extra challenge, since not only did its use cost 2, but no tripods are allowed in Mayan ruin sites. There were certainly some birds around the more semi-open ground holding the actual ruins but the real neotropic forest birds such as Motmots, Trogons and Becards had to be looked for in the thicker mixed woodland, with necks more than often painfully craned upwards towards the canopy. How we didnít get lost Iíll never know! Overall, a better site than at first predicted, with an excellent contrast in habitats and birds.
Punta Laguna is about 20km north of Coba, and is found by leaving Coba, and taking the 2nd exit from the triangular junction 1km from the village (the left turn goes to Valladolid, the right to Tulum). A ramshackle sign, matching huts / homes, and requisite tope signal the precarious left turn into this haven reserved primarily for Spider and Howler Monkeys. It comprises a tract of thick woodland situated next to a reed-fringed and rather quiet lake. A guide is needed, mainly to show the Spider Monkeys and birds, but is just as important so find the way back through the many tracks that branch through the forest. The first part of the walk was through a "living" area with domestic pigs roaming, but a Turquoise-browed Motmot didnít mind the smell. The birds within the forest had to be worked for, but plenty of (mainly) Wood Warblers were seen, and the first of what turned out to be a handful of Ivory-billed Woodcreepers (for the week). One of the best sites was that of a small group of Spider Monkeys swinging across the track in front of us - one almost didnít make it!
Felipe Carillo Puerto - the Vigia Chico Road
From the reports we had read and listened to, this seemed to be one of the best sites on the Yucatan peninsular, so we decided to stay two nights. Before reaching Felipe Carillo Puerto for a hotel, we stopped off at a track about 50km South of Tulum. This is a fairly rough track, which meets one of the entrances to the Sian Kaían Biosphere reserve after about 1km, and was picked particularly for its Orange Orioles (which I didnít see positively). The track is straight and seemingly quiet, but did have a (noisy) nesting colony of Social Flycatchers, hordes of Tree Swallows presumably migrating over, and a small variety of mixed birds just inside the open gate to the reserve. The area around the gates to the reserve entrance is also a good spot for birds (eg, Orioles and Couchís Kingbird). About half way between the road and the reserve, we took a side track to the south. This was a good move - a short way along was an ant colony, with attendant Red-throated Ant-Tanagers and single Grey Headed Tanagers. This track led to a clearing, which seemed quiet at first, but following a Squirrel Cuckoo into the forest found Peppershrike and more Orioles.
The Vigia Chico road starts at the town of Felipe Carillo Puerto, stemming five blocks from the easterly bound road from the centre. It is a compacted rock and sandy track, which eventually meets the coast at Vigia Chico after about 50km. We took a full day to cover the first 25km or so. The first kilometre is bounded by the outskirts of the town - rough dwellings and partly worked plots, but quickly gives way to forest. As usual with forest birding, a lot of time and patience was needed to see the birds. The books say it is best to look in the milpas (agricultural plots) early in the day, but these werenít particularly exciting on the first day, although one of the worked orchards was excellent on the second day. We also found three small lagoons along the track, but these had next to no birds, no critters, and next to no interest.
The best birds were found by stopping the car when we saw or heard something of interest, and barging into the forest edge for more. One small patch of forest (next to a milpa) contained a very active and varied bird party, including both Tityras, Peppershrike, Blue-winged Warbler, Rose-throated Becard, Green Jay, White-bellied Wren, and Canivetís Emerald & Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. It was also a good day for Woodpeckers, with Ladderback, Smokey-brown, Yucatan, four Lineated and hosts of Golden-fronted. The last Lineated was at dusk, dust bathing in the open road. Some good one-off memories were had - millions of ants crossing the track under the greedy eyes of a pair of Yucatan Jays; a solitary Keel-billed Toucan flying low and briefly over the tree tops; some brilliant Trogons perching in the open; and a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl perched directly above us.
The second morning, the plan was to drive the track first light to look for Ocellated Turkey, etc. Apart from a few wandering dogs and annoying vans, we drew a blank. After stopping once or twice and collecting Woodcreeper and Antshrike, we found a mini-mangrove / pools next to the track. Infested with mosquitoes (which kept their distance), it was also infested with birds. Many Warbler species and Social Flycatchers were here, but a Pygmy Owl tape intended to attract passerines brought in a real Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Predictably, plenty of Waterthrushes were here with the Social Flycatchers going ballistic over the tape.
On the journey back along the track to Felipe Carillo Puerto, we found an excellent milpa. As usual, a couple of small birds at the track side caught our notice, and we limboed the wooden gate at what looked like a good spot. The orchard itself held Cassivetís Emerald, plenty of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Seedeaters, and the best Rose-throated Becard do far. Birds of prey started to appear overhead at 9:15am. Mainly common vultures, two Great Black Hawks joined in, and then the prize of up to three King Vultures soared over. We had looked at these in the books, but considering their rarity, didnít dream of seeing them. A Short-tailed Hawk then flew in low over the trees and joined the throng, with a Grey Hawk calling from a nearby tree. This was the best BOP watching so far.
The hotel gardens were covered in the first afternoon and first two hours of the next morning, followed by the ruins. Although the latter was the reason for visiting the area, the former turned out to hold the best of the birds - in particular the gardens of the Hotel Hacienda. We hadnít even booked into the hotel before discovering the potential of the gardens, which had mixed palm and seeding fruit trees with few leaves predominating - better visibility. Yellow-winged Tanager was an early tick, but many different Orioles and Warblers were on show. Not many new trip birds were seen on the afternoon, but the variety and proximity made up. The afternoon ended close to dusk with many small horned bats flying past from the ruins area.
The plan for the following morning was to fill in time around the gardens until the ruins opened at 8am. The ruins were relatively disappointing bird-wise, but, after an early mist, and three Collared Aracaris in the palms of the Club Med, the species in the hotel gardens mounted as the sun broke through. Birds of the morning had to be a final total of seven Aracaris, and also a single Lineated Woodpecker just outside the grounds of the Hacienda. After larking about at the ruins (Grey-breasted Martin & Cave Swallows at eye level from the top of the pyramid), we took one of the tracks from the pyramid which led to a rather impressive grotto. The edges of the woods were covered, with three different Wrens, Yellow-green Vireo, and Masked Tityras seen.
Rio Logartos area
The plan following Chichen Itza was to head straight for San Felipe, on the northern coast, for a hotel, and put in a few hours at the coastal port of Rio Logartos. The problem was that the road from Tizimin to Rio Logartos quickly turns from forest to more open low scrub and fields, which proved superb country for raptors. It was also the start of Vermilion Flycatcher territory. A lagoon and separate small pool on the journey were also productive. The first (crocodile) lagoon produced Black-necked Stilts & Sora, and the pool (Blue-winged Teal originally stopped the car) attracted Indigo Bunting and an almost touchable Scrub Euphonia.
Entering San Felipe, the hotel was put off further by some enticing mangrove swamps surrounding tidal mud flats on the south edge of town. It was littered with waders, our first Mangrove Swallows, more Vermillion Flycatchers, and the ridiculous sight of what was probably a feral Muscovy Duck trying to land with dignity on the mud. San Felipe is a small town based on its fishing boats, and a haven for Laughing (and one rogue Bonaparteís) Gulls and Frigatebirds. The day ended spectacularly from the hotel balcony, with hundreds of herons and egrets passing over the waters edge to roost further east in semi-darkness. One group contained a line of over 100 Tricoloured Herons.
The last day in the Rio Logartos to Los Colorados strip was probably the best of the week, with a totally new avifauna and much easier birding (as compared with the neck-breaking forest work). The morning birding started where it had finished - in semi darkness on the hotel balcony. The tide was out, leaving plenty of mud for Yellow-crowned Night & Green Herons, along with other egrets. Small numbers of American White Pelicans were fishing in the channel. The mangrove swamps and exposed mud were as good again, with most of yesterdays waders, Belted Kingfisher finally appearing, and flyovers of White Pelican, Ibis, Cormorants and waders.
We then aimed for the crossroads, immediately South of Rio Logartos, which signalled the start of the Los Colorados road - the specific target was Lesser Roadrunner, but the road from San Felipe to the crossroads was too lively. A pool next to the road signalled great birding after we had stopped for a static Roadside Hawk. It was only metres from the pool which contained Bare-throated Tiger Heron and Belted Kingfisher. We stayed here for over half an hour - there were plenty of flypast raptors (Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture amongst Turkey, Hook-billed Kite, Crane Hawk). This is also where we started to see the first Hummers of the day, although only female Ruby-throated was definitely identified.
Another unsuccessful search for Roadrunners found us in Rio Logartos, another fishing village with a semi-enclosed sea front, with a length of tree covered islands offshore. On exposed sandspits in the channel were collections of birds, including Skimmers, Long-billed Curlew, gulls, terns, etc. We escaped the many Flamingo touts, but did end up chatting to Diego Martinez, who showed us an impressive collection of his own lists of birds in the area. We were going to allow him to take us on a boat trip, but lack of time persuaded us to drop in to the rubbish tip next to the crossroads (recommended by Diego). Looking around the dump for the last 1 hours of daylight found many Yucatan Wrens & Bobwhites, and two Lesser Roadrunners legging it away at an incredible (and funny) speed. A Laughing Falcon at the edge of the pool here was a lot paler than expected.