Down Mexico Way
This was to be our 4th trip to Central America, having been to Costa Rica twice and Belize last year. I knew there wouldn’t be too many new ticks for me, but this was more of a recharging the batteries type holiday, rather than the jungle bashing we have done in the past. Therefore we had booked a fully inclusive stay at Akumal Beach Resort in Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula.
We travelled down on the afternoon of Monday 5th May and stayed overnight at a farm B&B at Rusper.
Tue 6th May 2014
We arrived at Gatwick for our lunchtime flight to Cancun. We flew out with my favourite airline, Virgin, on the 747-400 ‘Ladybird’. The massive advantage of going to Mexico rather than other Central American countries is that we could fly direct so there was no need to take the tortuous hub route through U.S.A. The flight was smooth and as enjoyable as a flight can be and about ten hours later we were touching down in sunny Cancun. My first Mexican birds were in the bag as we taxied to a stop, many Great-tailed Grackles were on the airfield. The process of getting into Mexico was also much quicker than the U.S. We collected our bags and headed for our transit to our resort, pausing on the way to play Customs Lottery, you have to push a button as you go through, if you get a green light you’re fine but a red light means you’ll get searched. We got green! We arrived outside into the heat of the afternoon to await our transfer bus. We had to wait until they had six people before the minivan would leave. 10+ Barn Swallows swirled around the airport entrance together with a larger hirundine, which shot through unidentified. A Tropical Mockingbird posed no problems. Our transfer took double the time it should’ve done thanks to an American couple who didn’t know which hotel they were staying at in Playa del Carmen (who does that?). The driver didn’t want to take them at first but eventually he did and in the end just left them in the middle of the town at their request to check in somewhere else for the night.
As a result it was dark when we arrived at Akumal Beach Resort so no new species were added. Bridgette fell over on the way to the room going down hard on a path whilst following the porter and wasn’t feeling too good at all by the time we had eaten supper. By morning she was being sick and feeling unwell which spoilt the first three days of the holiday for her.
Wed 7th May 2014
I awoke at dawn and took my first foray out into the grounds. Great-tailed Grackles were numerous and greeted the dawn with their electric calls. The holiday list started to grow immediately with Turkey Vultures, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, Ruddy Turnstones and Laughing Gulls along the beach, but no new birds.
Away from the sea I added Melodious Blackbirds, White-winged Doves and two pairs of Hooded Orioles. I also had close encounters with two Central American Agoutis and four White-nosed Coatis and an adult YUCATAN SQUIRREL with two juveniles was a life tick. They were similar to our Grey Squirrels only smaller. Reptiles included YUCATAN SMOOTH ANOLE, which was a lifer, two Brown Anoles, a Common Basilisk and three Black Iguanas, and that night a House Gecko.
Central American Agouti
I went back to the room and although Bridgette came to breakfast she didn’t feel well and spent much of the day resting.
I spent the rest of the day exploring the grounds, enjoying the odd Pina Colada and talking to other guests. I managed a few more species later in the day, new ones being two Vaux’s Swifts, two pairs of Great Kiskadees, a pair of Spot-breasted Wrens, the only sighting all holiday, a Forster’s Tern and flocks of 12 and 50 Cattle Egrets flying towards Akumal to roost. I also saw quite a few butterflies and moths, some of which I’ve still to identify, but many DARK KITE SWALLOWTAILS were new to me and a constant feature of the holiday.
Thu 8th May 2014
I was out early as ever seeing many of the usual species, along the seafront Double Crested Cormorant and eight Sanderlings were new for the holiday as was a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird along the drive. Agoutis and Coatis appeared everywhere around the site, one of the driver’s told me it was now easier to see Coatis at the hotels than in the jungle.
Bridgette was feeling a bit better so we decided to venture out to the ruins at Tulum. We checked the taxi prices from the hotel, it was MXN$600 (£26) but after a useful tip from another guest we found we could get a Colectivo (Local minivan taxi) by the entrance gate for much less. Colectivos are travelling constantly up and down the main road and you just put your hand out although they generally find you. However if you don’t mind travelling with the locals you can save a lot of money. It cost us MXN$70 (£5).
Arriving at Tulum we were stopped by a guide at one of the huts leading up to the ruins. We thought he was going to try and sell us a tour but he actually gave us a map, a lot of good info including which toilet was the best and if we did want to buy a tour, which operators to avoid, which was a very pleasant surprise.
We decided to go it alone and headed up the drive towards the ruins. We stopped at the market square and bought cold drinks. We also watched four men in traditional dress descending from a maypole tied by their feet whilst playing musical instruments, slightly odd but we were invited to make a donation to take pictures.
Flying without wings
We continued to walk up the road to the ruins and some raucous calls alerted us to birds in the scrub beside the road. They sounded like corvids and sure enough when they came into view they were YUCATAN JAYS, my first lifer of the trip. They came very close eventually and I could see that there were two adults and a juvenile, the juvenile told apart from the adults by having a yellow bill to match its yellow legs; the adults had black bills.
We entered the ruin site and it was scorching hot. There was very little shade so we were glad we had hats and water. Black Iguanas seemed to festoon every rock there enjoying the sun much more than we were. Birds were few although I did add three holiday ticks, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Tropical Kingbirds and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. I suspect the latter was the unidentified hirundine at the airport. Bridgette who is terrified of snakes managed to find one by almost sitting on it. As she sat on a rock it hissed at her, cue vertical take-off and ignoring my assurances that it was only a Green-headed Tree Snake (Parrot Snake) and it wasn’t poisonous she stood well back whilst I got a picture. This was the same species of snake she had run away from in Belize last year.
Green-headed Tree Snake
We left the ruins and as we waited for a Colectivo a Social Flycatcher was new for the holiday, singing from wires above the stop. Unfortunately the driver didn’t understand my shout to stop so we overshot the resort entrance by half a mile, which made the walk back home slightly longer.
We had some lunch and then Bridgette, who was still recovering from the bug she’d had went to rest in the room, and I wandered around the site. Most notable was a flock of 30 Cattle Egrets, but I added Collared Doves to the holiday list, it seems there’s no escaping them anywhere nowadays.
Fri 9th May 2014
I was out at dawn again and decided to walk down the beach to the neighbouring town of Akumal. As I wandered along the deserted roads, overhead wires seemed to be the place for seeing birds, with a constant variety of flycatchers, doves and orioles perched up. Agoutis were also out in force in the early morning foraging along the verges. Both Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Brown-crested Flycatcher were new for the holiday amongst the commoner Social Flycatchers and Great Kiskadees. A Golden-fronted Woodpecker gave excellent views as it fed on fruit.
After breakfast we decided to go to Yal-ku Lagoon in Akumal. This is a rocky freshwater lagoon, running about 500m from its beginning to the sea. It is home to large schools of brightly coloured fish and there is a sculpture garden along the shore. Here you could hire snorkel gear or just enjoy the environment. Bridgette opted for the former and I the latter. I really don’t like deep water. As we approached the entrance eight Royal Terns flew over and a Cinnamon Hummingbird feeding on a flowery hedge was new for the holiday. There were quite a few birds around the lagoon including a Spotted Sandpiper, which just wouldn’t settle and 3+ Green Herons, one of which showed very well, both species additions to my Mexico list. From the safety of my feet-cooling point on the rocks I could identify a large FRENCH ANGELFISH and several BLUE TANGS, which I’d never seen before. Bridgette enjoyed her snorkel and felt well enough for the long trip to Isla Contoy tomorrow where she would be snorkelling in the sea.
A couple of friendly Americans insisted we shared their taxi back to Akumal although if we’d walked as we were going to we would’ve beaten them back. A Yucatan Jay was in the trees where we disembarked.
Sat 10th May 2014
Today we had booked a full day out to Isla Contoy so we had an early pick-up around 6:30am. Isla Contoy is a small island c19 miles north of Isla Mujeres. The island is only 5 miles long and has an area of c2 square miles. Since 1961 it has been protected by the Mexican government and was declared a national park in February 1998.
With all the pick-ups along the route, morning rush hour and usual touristy confusions it took about two hours to get from Akumal to Playa del Carmen, where we would catch our boat to the island. On arriving at the port we were given drinks, cake and fruit for breakfast and an opportunity to use the facilities before boarding the boat for the island. Prior to boarding we were split into two groups of English speaking people and Spanish and the rest and assigned guides accordingly. We got a horribly healthy looking guide called Mark who the ladies thought had a passing resemblance to Orlando Bloom, cue sucking in stomachs from the men and trying to look less red and sweaty. He was a top guide who knew his stuff though.
I expected to see more birds on the 19 mile trip out but there were very few and they were all common. As we approached the island there must’ve been close to 1000 Magnificent Frigatebirds in the air. Four Great Blue Herons on the beach were holiday ticks. We put in to a small wooden jetty and were again split into groups of snorkelers and sunbathers and wildlife watchers, Bridgette in the former and me in the latter group. The first advantage of that was I could enjoy a welcome cold beer, not an option for the snorkelers. We were given an hour to explore whilst the swimmers did their thing.
It truly was a paradise island with white sandy beaches and swaying palm trees, which we later learnt weren’t native to Mexico. Of course beaches like that aren’t much use to birders so I headed past the beached people into the muddy fringes of a mangrove swamp. A White Ibis flew overhead bolstering the list and Frigatebirds were constantly overhead. Then I heard a call I’d last heard on Scilly, having heard a few over the years I knew it was a Northern Waterthrush, a good bird anytime. I glimpsed it amongst the mangrove roots, then had good views through my bins, so I crept closer and just as I was about to get a great shot I tripped over a root and a mangrove spike speared my left shin. Howling in pain caused the bird to fly off. I waded out into the clear blue sea to let the salt water cleanse my wound. On rocks just offshore I spotted a group of terns on some rocky islets. There were six Royal Terns, 10+ Forster’s Terns and 10+ BRIDLED TERNS, a lifer. Now was when I needed my scope, which of course was at the hotel, in fact I didn’t use it all holiday. Never mind I could see them well enough I just wouldn’t get pictures.
The snorkelers returned and we went to a palapa on the beach for a barbeque lunch of fish and chicken cooked by the boat crew and served by the guides. It was very nice. In the trees around us were many BLUE LAND CRABS and also lots of Hermit Crabs too.
After lunch Mark took us on a guided walk around the open part of the island starting at the lagoon where the Magnificent Frigatebirds bred so we were able to get up close and personal with them nesting on top of mangrove bushes. He gave us a good overview of wildlife and plants and then walked us up to a viewpoint where there was a great view over the island. Frigatebirds constantly streamed past at eye level giving amazing views and photo opportunities.
Then we had about an hour to ourselves before the boat sailed. We went birding, highlights were a Yellow Warbler at the lagoon and an amazingly confiding Osprey on a post just offshore. Black Iguanas were everywhere you looked. I also saw some butterflies and dragonflies including Julia butterfly and FAITHFUL BEAUTY moth.
I also added a few new fish to my life list, impressive as I only paddle and watch from the shore; I saw two huge OCEAN TRIGGERFISH, hundreds of SARDINES, YELLOWTAIL SNAPPER, a massive GREAT BARRACUDA and also a large CUSHION SEA STAR (a starfish) and MOON JELLY (Jellyfish, Aurelia sp).
Back on the boat under the shade of the canopy, welcome cold beers were handed around and we set sail past the rocky islet tern colony. We came out fairly sedately with the tide but returning to Isla Mujeres, our next stop, it was against the tide and there was only one way to do it, “pedal to the metal”. We took off very, very fast and caught air on several occasions, a great thrill ride. My souvenir was fingerprint bruises in my leg where the terrified woman next to me had gripped my leg so hard, and her husband had matching bruises the other side. She kept apologising profusely to Bridgette and I.
We were due an hour and a half stop off at Isla Mujeres for shopping and sightseeing, something which doesn’t appeal to either of us. We had a walk around but think Blackpool in the tropics and you get the idea. There were a few common species of bird there but the only new addition to the holiday list was Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon). We were back on the boat in under an hour having bought only an ice cream.
We sailed back to Playa del Carmen, bought the obligatory DVD, good value as it turned out, said our goodbyes and then spent the next couple of hours on the bus back.
Sun 11th May 2014
Today was the archetypal lazy Sunday where we didn’t go far. We ate, drank, swam and socialised with some new American friends. We also took a walk into Akumal town and looked around the shops. Of course I took the obligatory pre-breakfast walk but it was very much more of the same. The best bird was an adult summer-plumaged spotty Spotted Sandpiper on the beach but which I never got close to.
Mon 12th May 2014
Today Bridgette was finally well enough to go scuba diving with a local company, diving the caves at Dos Ojos. I was going too, to bird the site, as far as I was concerned there was only one thing crazier than scuba diving and that’s scuba diving in underground caves. The site had more birds than the resort and not only that a couple were lifers. As soon as we arrived in the car park I had a male ALTAMIRA ORIOLE, the first of three of these stunning orange and black orioles. Four Black Vultures overhead were new for the holiday, as was a Black Phoebe, which only showed once briefly. I helped Bridgette down to the cave entrance with her gear and waited until she was in the water before leaving. 10+ CAVE SWALLOWS were flying around the cave entrance, another lifer. At one of the other caves I was able to see their nests glued to crevices on the cave’s ceiling. Many bats were around the cave entrance, and Bridgette visited a larger bat cave on her dive, but I don’t seem to be able to find out which species they are.
I found a pair of Turquoise-browed Motmots at the next cave entrance, the first of four pairs seen of these brightly coloured birds. I only got one shot, not quite in focus but you’ll see what I mean about brightly coloured.
Then I decided to walk the forest trail and almost immediately ran into a pair of Plain Chachalacas scratching around in the leaf litter. I was also surrounded by Black-headed Trogons, I counted six in all, I’d never seen so many trogons together at once before. I also had nice views of a pair of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and a female hummer I couldn’t i/d.
I walked back up to the car park and heard a call I’d heard before in Costa Rica. I knew it was a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, but surely not in the middle of the day? I found it sat out in broad daylight and imitation of its call, which is very easy, brought it a little closer and we duetted for five minutes which was pretty cool. It was eventually mobbed by a Common Bush Tanager and flew off.
Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (record shot)
Bridgette returned from her second dive and we returned to the resort and we spent the rest of the day being incredibly lazy as we both had a big day out tomorrow.
Tue 13th May 2014
Today Bridgette was going on a diving trip to Cozumel and would be out most of the day. I had booked on what I thought was a morning’s birding trip to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. However the trip booking office had managed to book me on the tourist trip instead. This is why when Omar, our guide, picked me up he was confused to see me in long trousers with birding gear instead of t-shirt, shorts and a towel for swimming. He said don’t worry he would sort it out at the office. It was a bit of a mess, because there was no bird guide, and I had two options, go on the trip anyway (they would take me for the full day at no extra cost) or they would arrange transport back to the resort. I figured a day alone at the resort would be pretty boring and they assured me I would see wildlife anyway so I opted to go. As there was no bird guide they lent me a field guide as I hadn’t brought one.
It was a small party so that was nice, a family of three Americans, a Polish couple and me, and I ended up doing most of the bird identification for the party. Carlos, our driver took us in an air-conditioned van to a place on the edge of the reserve where breakfast was served. As I’d already had a full breakfast I didn’t have much.
Then we were driven to the boat station on Laguna Muyil where we were met by our boat captain, Pastor. At the boat station there were many hundreds of Dark Kite Swallowtails everywhere we looked and large concentrations were drinking from muddy puddles. Here’s a puddle-full.
Dark Kite Swallowtails
We disembarked after donning compulsory lifejackets and sped across the Laguna at high speed until we looked about to hit the opposite bank when Pastor threaded the boat into a narrow channel and reduced speed completely. Once in the channels there was at least a chance of birds and I soon found a bright Common Yellowthroat. We stopped at Mayan shrine briefly where the Americans and Omar put on their lifejackets like big orange nappies because they were going to float down the channel. After seeing the shrine I got back in the boat with the Polish couple and Pastor took us down the channels where eventually we came to a landing jetty. We got out here and were able to walk the boardwalk through the swamp whilst the others floated down to join us. Three Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures were overhead, also known as Savannah Vultures, a much better name. I had seen one of these in Belize last year so it was good to see more.
With everyone back on the boat we continued down the channels. Two juvenile Bare-throated Tiger Herons were sat in a bush at one point. An Osprey was sat on an islet where the channel emerged into a huge lagoon. We floated out into the centre to look for West Indian Manatees, and after a long wait in blazing sun we saw one. The views were quite brief and I had seen them much better and easier in the canals in Florida.
We moved out of the main lagoon and into an inlet which passed under a bridge. Here there were three swallows, a Tree Swallow, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow and a Barn Swallow. On a shingle islet there were nesting terns and I could see six Forster’s Terns and 2+ Least Terns as well as a nice Wilson’s Plover on the beach. Along the edge of the next group of mangroves was a Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron and three Green Herons. Finally Pastor found a huge Morelet’s Crocodile loafing at the water’s edge. It was about 12ft long and he took the boat almost within touching distance.
We returned to the boat station where Carlos was waiting to take us back to the stop where we had breakfast, for a traditional Mayan lunch of grilled chicken, rice with sweetcorn, black beans, salad and fresh juices and the opportunity to try the fiery Habanero sauce. The meal was very good but the sauce was worth avoiding.
After lunch we took a short drive to the Muyil ruins where we had a short guided tour.
There were another five Mexican species, new for my list, around the site which were White-collared Seedeaters, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-Green Vireo, Tropical Peewee and Bronzed Cowbirds. There were also masses of mozzies and my lightweight jungle trousers and long-sleeved shirt suddenly wasn’t so laughable for the rest of the party.
I said goodbye to the rest of the party and then Omar dropped me off last at Akumal and kept apologising for the misunderstanding. I said it wasn’t his fault and I’d had a good day anyway even if it didn’t go as planned.
In the evening there were a couple of good moths outside our apartment an Emerald geometrid moth (Synchlora xysteraria) and a Banded Sphinx moth (Eumorpha fasciatus).
Wed 14th May 2014
Today we would be following in the footsteps of the legendary Karl Pilkington; we were going to Chichen Itza. This meant another early start; we were transferred to a hub point by minibus where we boarded a luxury coach. We enjoyed relaxing and watching the scenery go by whilst we were served drinks and then lunch. It was almost like being on a flight. We also got a film and the lowdown on the historical site and to spread the word about it and also refrain from calling it Chicken Pizza!
I saw a few common species along the route, the best being two Vaux’s Swifts at Okaan.
It was very busy at the entrance to the historical site and we were given bottles of iced drinks and issued with our tickets, as with Contoy we were assigned an English speaking guide. Chichen Itza means “at the mouth of the well of Itza “ It is the second most visited archaeological site in Mexico today. The 24 metre high Kukulkan Pyramid, known as El Castillo (the castle), is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World elected in 07/07/2007. We also saw a lot of other impressive structures including the Temple of the Warriors, the Great Ball Court, the Observatory and the Church. We were assembled to give a handclap in front of the staircase of the El Castillo pyramid, which is followed by an echo that allegedly resembles the chirp of a Quetzal, but it didn’t sound like any Quetzal I’d heard but I was too polite to say so.
Unfortunately because of the limited time available we only had an hour to ourselves, but there were some good birds around the site including Squirrel Cuckoo, a male Masked Tityra and a Common Black Hawk, all Mexico ticks. Vaux’s Swifts were also very busy flying in and out of the top of the pyramid where they appeared to be breeding.
After the visit to Chichen Itza we visited the city of Valladolid where we went to La Casona de Valladolid, an all you can eat buffet style restaurant for what they called lunch although it was 4pm. The food was excellent. We arrived back at around 8pm, which made for a long but interesting day.
Wed 14th May 2014
Today was our last day and I was out at dawn. My keenness was rewarded with some good birds. I found a pair of ORANGE ORIOLES, a lifer, in a spot I’d looked at every day and only seen Hooded. There were half a dozen of those too. I walked a bit further and found a quiet jungle-lined cul-de-sac, which I wish I’d found on the first day. There were a lot of birds there including a Plain Chachalaca, a Cinnamon Hummingbird, a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl sat out calling and a Zebra Heliconian butterfly, the first of the holiday. The Spotted Sandpiper was on the beach again and this time I got a photo, they look great in summer plumage.
After breakfast we walked into Akumal for some last minute shopping. Then returning to the resort Bridgette hired snorkel gear to go and swim amongst the turtles offshore.
We were all packed and ready for the bus at 3pm and at the pick-up point the final new bird of the holiday was a Couch’s Kingbird sat on a treetop calling so I could easily separate it from its Tropical twin. There also appeared to be some movement going on ahead of a tropical storm that was coming. 45 Barn Swallows moved through in small groups whilst we waited for the bus.
The storm broke on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen and it was violent and sudden. Thankfully it was over by the time we boarded our plane home, a 747-400 ‘Pretty Woman’, which we had flown on before.
So ended an excellent relaxing holiday; there were fewer birds than usual and the first few days were marred by Bridgette’s illness, but it is definitely a place I want to go back to. Next time though in the migration season, which was over when we arrived, and I also want to learn to snorkel so I can get out to those turtles.
© Mike & Bridgette King 2014 The Gloster Birder