Mexico, 29 February to 21 March 1996
Birding trip report, John van der
Woude - www.jvanderw.nl
The Yucatan Peninsula and the transition
zone to the mountains in Chiapas (the 'Atlantic slope') are well worth a
birding trip. There are many typical Neotropical bird species. Moreover,
many of the sites to be visited are around archeological 'ruinas', like
Uxmal on the photo right. In the Chiapas mountains, we stayed a few days
less than intended, because of some frightening stories told by a local
hotel owner. Added to the warnings given in the Lonely Planet guide for
the area around San Cristobal ('do not walk on back roads between the
villages here'), we decided to bird in the mountains only at apparently
safe sites. This meant for example that we skipped the sites in the area
between Ocosingo and San Cristobal. On the Yucatan Peninsula and at the
transition zone to the mountains we felt more at ease.
Notwithstanding these apprehensions, we had
a beautiful birding trip, also in the mountains. We liked the contrasts in
the scenery, although these are not so spectacular as farther South in the
Neotropics, and the deforestation has taken its toll in the mountains and
the transition zone to the peninsula. The weather was also full of
contrasts. We had a cool norte for a few days, and a few very hot
days, but mostly we had fine weather with reasonable temperatures (27
degrees C, in the mountains lower of course).
See sketchy map
with places mentioned.
On several days: late-afternoon birding at
the site of arrival.
29 Feb.'96 Arrival at Cancun (CA)
1 Mar. Morning birding W of Cancun,
then on to Coba (CO)
2 Mar. Morning birding at Coba, then
via Tulum South to Felipe Carillo Puerto (FE)
3 Mar. Birding all day in the forests
along the road from Felipe to Vigia
4 Mar. Morning birding there too,
then South to Bacalar
5 Mar. Morning visit to Kohunlich
(KO), then on to E. Zapata, with late afternoon birding at
Usumacintha marshes (ZA)
6 Mar. Birding at Usum. marshes and
La Libertad; afternoon to Palenque (PA)
7 Mar. Birding at and around Palenque
8 Mar. The same
9 Mar. Morning the same, then via
Agua Azul on to Ocosingo
10 Mar. Visit to Tonina archeological
site (TO), afternoon on to San Cristobal de las Casas (SA)
11 Mar. Morning birding at park near
hotel, and some touristic things; reconnaisance for next morning
12 Mar. Morning birding N of San
Cristobal, then on to Tuxtla Gutierrez (TU)
13 Mar. Morning birding above Canyon
del Sumidero, afternoon at Zoo
14 Mar. Birding here and there (from
early morning) during the northward crossing of the mountains via
Bochil (BO), to Teapa (TE)
15 Mar. Morning birding near Teapa,
then via Villahermosa on (birding) to Ciudad del Carmen (CI) at the
16 Mar. Along coast and inland
diversion on to Champoton (CI) and Campeche
17 Mar. From Campeche along several
archeological sites to Uxmal (all: PU)
18 Mar. Morning at Uxmal, later on to
19 Mar. Morning birding N. of
Celestun, then on to Progreso (PO), birding there afternoon, night
20 Mar. Early departure for Chichen
Itza archeological site, sightseeing and birding there, then on to
21 Mar. Morning some trials for
birding and some sightseeing, afternoon departure home
We flew with Martinair, a Dutch charter
company, directly from Amsterdam to Cancun. Included in our package were
two hotel nights in Cancun (the first and the last night) and the 3-week
rental of a VW Beetle. We changed some money before going through the
customs, but the rate here is not so good. In Cancun, esp. along the
Avenida Tulum, there are several casas de cambio, open also late in the
afternoon, with far better rates. Seeing the VW Beetle, with so little
luggage space and without airco, we could not resist the temptation of
accepting the very reasonable offer of a new VW Golf. They gave us 30
percent reduction if we payed the difference with the Beetle cash and in
The hotel in Cancun was the Howard Johnson,
also called Plaza Kokai, near the 'city centre', but in a quiet
surrounding. Restaurants in Cancun are notoriously mediocre. The main
attraction of Cancun, apart from some birding (see below), was the
incredible blueness of the sea, seen in the late morning from an official mirador
facing East at the beach near the real big fancy hotels on the long
In Cancun, we had our first experiences
with the topes in this country, road bumps of a rather steep sort,
but practically all are indicated by signs.
Driving West to Nuevo X-Can (the 'x' is
pronounced as 'sh'), in order to go to Coba, we had to stay on the old
road, the libre. The cuota, the new and practically empty
toll road, starting far outside Cancun, has no exit until Valladolid.
In Coba (photo of ruinas) we took a
room in the rather expensive but very nice and cool hotel Villa
Arqueologica Coba (credit card possible). The Villa hotel has a good
restaurant with medium prices, but with the most expensive beer we have
had on this trip (14 pesos; the cheapest was 3 pesos, the same brand -
The next destination was Felipe Carillo
Puerto. By now we found to our pleasure that even the smaller roads are in
good condition on the Yucatan. In Felipe, there are only very modest
hotels. We found the hotel Maria Isabella the quietest, with the best
possibility to park your car safely on this Saturday night. The price was
an incredible 40 pesos, which is one tenth of the most expensive hotel we
have had on this trip. The next evening we came back here, just because
the birding had been so good that we wanted to stay an extra night. Both
nights we ate at the El Faisan y el Venado, good food for the usual low
prices. Around the corner of this restaurant is a good shop with all sorts
of (sweet) bread. Together with some grocery stuff from a clean shop
across our hotel, and bananas from the market hall across the restaurant,
we had enough for lunch out in the forests. For breakfast we mostly had
granola (cruesli) and milkpowder (Nido, for sale everywhere). As usual,
bottles of mineral water (or, more often, purified water) are for sale in
all sorts of shops.
To break up the long trip from Felipe to
Zapata, we had a hotel South of Bacalar and payed a visit to Kohunlich the
next morning. The reasonably priced hotel is called Laguna, and is
situated at a very elongated lake.
Crossing the base of the Yucatan Peninsula,
we had several military police checks. At one of these posts there had
just been a terrible accident of one ADO bus against the back of another
ADO bus. Apparently the driver of the second bus had not expected this
stop in the middle of nowhere. At the gas station near Xpujil (invariably
Pemex; the brand for a katalysator car is called magna sin or just magna)
the young servants tried to cheat us in several ways, but we persisted and
paid the right amount. As far as we know, this was the only case of
serious cheating on the whole trip.
Zapata (Emiliano Zapata) is a town right in
the marsh area of Usumacintha and La Libertad, so we choose to try a hotel
there in stead of going on to Palenque and return for the marshes. We
found a mediocre hotel (painted blue) on a quiet plaza near the river,
about 200 m from the main road. The restaurant we found on that main road
was called La Selva, had good food but no beer but good limon con agua
In Palenque, one of the main destinations,
we stayed three nights. We took our time to look for a good hotel, and
choose the Chan Kah resort about halfway the city and the Maya ruins
(photo). It is a nicely landscaped resort with cool bungalows, and we had
a hummer nest right in front of our bungalow. We tried the restaurant only
once and realised that for dining we better had to go to the city. The
bungalow cost us 350 pesos per night, but for the third night we had to
move to a room in the older part on the other side of the road (300
pesos), because of some clumsiness of the reception people. The
restaurants we had in Palenque itself were both good. The one is the cosy
La Canada at the end of a short dirt road in a forest remnant, the other
one the rather stylish La Selva. Both are at the exit of the town towards
the ruins. A bit into the town were all the shops we needed, also a casa
de cambio, and a Pemex station. Here too, we made our first phone call
home from a shop. You have to say beforehand how long you want to phone,
they dial, and they shut down the line when your time is over. We saw
shops with this service (mostly small drugstores) in several other towns
The next stop was Ocosingo, a small and
cosy town at about 1000 m, in order to visit the Tonina archeological
site. This was a Saturday night, so the hotel of our first choice (at the
plaza) was full. We stayed in the cheap hotel Agua Azul, with our car in
the open courtyard around which the simple rooms are situated. We had a
good meal on the terrace of restaurant La Montura, at the cosy plaza, just
150 m from our hotel.
Another two hours further into the
mountains was the famous city of San Cristobal de las Casas. Here we had
the good and reasonably priced hotel Mansion del Valle, opposite the La
Merced Church at the Av. Mazariegos, which runs West from the zocalo
(the plaza). It is, like most buildings in this historic city, a classic
colonial building with a built-in court. They have a closed parking place
at the backside. There is a good choice of restaurants in town. Remarkable
was the early breakfast in the restaurant Tuluc at the Av. Insurgentes.
Restaurant El Teatro offers nice alternatives (French/Italian) for the
regular Mexican food, and the vegetarian food at Tierra Madre (Av.
Insurgentes) was OK too. We liked this city very much. We bought some
Indian embroideries, and my new leather belt, at the 'market' around the
Santo Domingo church. Bargaining is only possible to a very limited
amount. By the way, the better stuff here all seems to originate from
Tuxtla Gutierrez is just a big town, but
inevitable for visiting two important birding sites. We stayed in the
expensive but good hotel Maya del Sol, a bit motel-like with your car
practically in front of your room, at a quiet court. We were not succesful
in finding a good restaurant with a good parking place, but afterwards I
think the restaurant of the hotel will be OK. The ring road around Tuxtla
has been completed, and this hotel is situated 100 m after the junction of
the (continuation of the) Av. Central with the Northern and the Southern
branches of the the ring road. Although we did not particularly like this
town, we had a pleasant early night at a small park plaza a bit West from
the main zocalo. Here, during our meal (outside at a small white
restaurant) a dancing night started in the park with a sort of rumba band,
all in a cosy atmosphere like in the late fifties back home, with the park
benches put together in rows, and a very polite audience.
It took us one whole day (with birding) to
cross the mountains (photo) from Tuxtla to Teapa, the start of the plains
of Villahermosa. Just before Teapa, there are sulphur baths in a lovely
surrounding, with a simple hotel (no restaurant) on the same grounds. They
charged us 100 pesos, a bit too much, but the fee for the sulphur pools is
included, although two large, but easily flattened cockroaches in the room
were included too. We stayed here as the only guests - in the weekend it
may be quite different. I had a swim in the main sulphur pool, but the
water was not very clean. In the darkness we drove on to Teapa to find a
restaurant. This had to be at the plaza, in a huge empty hall with tv set
on and dark window glass. The food was fatty.
In Villahermosa, we only visited the
impressive Parque La Ventana, and drove on along the 180, which follows
the West coast of the Yucatan Peninsula to Campeche. The ferries have been
replaced by long bridges. After noon, we passed by Frontera, and had a
lovely meal at the plaza, in a restaurant with an unmistakable colonial
style. We arrived at Ciudad del Carmen rather late (it was dark already),
so we did not have much time to look for a hotel (the city is not
described in the Lonely Planet guide). With the help of a motorized
policeman we found the very modern and expensive Euro-hotel, where we had
one of the last rooms available. There was a Latin-American women's
conference. In the morning, the reception people had some trouble in
removing a big car in front of our car in the garage. The alarm of that
big car went off, so several of the guests will have been awakened by our
Driving on along the coast North, we
gradually realised that the topped-off palm trees and the many sand heaps
blown in from the beach were traces of a hurricane some time ago. The road
was remarkably quiet, and at the cosy lagoon of Sabancuy it became clear
why - there was a deviation to the 186, the inland alternative for the
180, because of huge damage caused by the hurricane! We had to drive 100
km more than normal, in order to reach Champoton, from where we could
continue the road to Campeche. Champoton is a sleepy little coastal town,
with a splendid restaurant for the afternoon. It is called La Palapa, and
is situated at the seaside of the boulevard, with a covered terrace
overlooking the calm Gulf. We had their specialty, fish stuffed with
shrimp, all very fresh and tasty. Driving back we witnessed the unloading
of several sharks from a tiny boat.
From Champoton to Campeche there is a new
and fast toll road inland from the old coastal route. Campeche is an old
fortified coastal town, where we were quite content with the old hotel
America Plaza. Car parking (with a night guide) is at the back of the
Ramada hotel, with a voucher from the America Plaza hotel. As we had had
our main meal already in Champoton, we just went along some
bars/restaurants to have a few cocktails (bebidas preparadas).
At the famous Uxmal site there is not much
choice in hotels and restaurants. We liked to stay near Uxmal itself in
stead of going some 30 km or so further on. We had a room in hotel Mision,
with a fantastic view on the maya site in the distance, across the endless
forests that are so characteristic of the Yucatan scenery. The service in
the hotel's restaurant was rather clumsy. I think the restaurant at the
Villa Archeologica hotel will be better. But the next day around noon,
just some 5 or so km further on towards Merida, we ate in a simple, but
good and friendly wooden restaurant along the road (to the East side).
Celestun is a bit dirty, sleepy, old
coastal village. Of the two hotels next to each other along the 'main'
road along the beach, the one advised to us, Maria del Carmen, was full.
In the other one, only after some patience we got a room at the seaside.
Just a few meters to the North there are two nice restaurants. There is a
gas station, as might be expected, but unexpectedly, they had no magna sin
(unleaded gas). As we really had to fill up the tank, we kept the use of
the car to a minimum here. We managed it until the next magna sin, in
Coming back from Celestun to Merida it was
a quick drive to Progreso, as the ring road around Merida is ready, and
from Merida to Progreso there is a broad two-lane road. From Progreso an
enormous pier extends into the sea, but we were not allowed to go on it.
The birding at the backwaters was very good (see below).
In Merida, we had a hotel away from the
plaza as well as from the bus station, but nevertheless I woke up
regularly because the buses, probably when saying goodbye for a long trip,
used their horns for a minute or so. But the hotel (recommended by
travellers that we met at Celestun) was good and not expensive, and we
could park our car in the courtyard. It is called Hotel Dolores Alba. The
city centre was very lively around 6 or 7 pm. We had nice drinks at a
terrace on the Parque Hidalgo, a bit NE of the Plaza Mayor, and in the
Cafe Express opposite. The headaches we got after that could easily be
attributed to the air pollution caused by the bus and lorry traffic.
Driving from Merida back to Cancun, via the
famous Chichen Itza maya site, was an easy job as we took the cuota (toll
road). It starts well after Merida (some 30 km?), so we first thought we
had missed it. The total toll rate for Merida-Cancun was about US$ 60, but
it was worth it. And no topes anymore!
Broadly speaking, we have been in four
1. Inland Yucatan Peninsula - many
forests, and rather uniform, although the Eastern and the Southern
part are more humid. Trees are up to 20 m high.
2. Coast of Yucatan, and marsh areas
inland from the coast.
3. Atlantic slope - the moist tropical
transition zone from Yucatan to the mountains. Trees, where left, are
up to 40 m high.
4. Mountains of Chiapas - remains of
oak and pine-oak forests, and some cloud forest above that.
CA in the species list)
We didn't see many coastal birds. In and
around the city we hadn't much luck either. There is much development. In
the future, an 'ecological park' South of the centre may be worthwhile.
Along the road to Punta Sam (North) there was a bit birding possible
(coastal shrubs), as well as along the road from the airport directly to
the hotel zone on the long peninsula.
The only birding really worthwhile was
between the old and the new highway to Merida. Just after the bifurcation
between the two (well West of Cancun), there were side roads from the old
road (libre) to the left across the new toll road (cuota). Birding
along these side roads (no traffic) was good, especially from the viaducts
across the cuota.
Central in this location is a lake. The
marshy border was good birding. On the archeological terrain (open at 8
a.m. only),birding was good right after the entrance, and we had a
marvellous lookout from the big pyramid c. 1 km from the entrance. Before
8 a.m. we had good birding along a dirt road going at right angle from the
lake in the village proper, which is situated opposite the hotel.
Felipe Carillo Puerto
A good dirt road (photo), passable even
after the rains we got here, goes from Felipe NE to Vigia Chico. We had
picked up this site from a report by Jon Curson (1990). This was good
birding, for many kilometers. To find this road from the centre of Felipe,
go East at the round-about with the direction signs. Follow the two-lane
road until you stand before a sort of longish cafe. Bend slightly to the
left there, and go on straight (don't go to the right again). After some
arable fields and a big school the forest begins (began). The forest was
getting gradually better. The best part was in our opinion about 10 to 15
km from Felipe. Some 5 km further on, the forest was lower again, and
there was an enclosed arable field again.
We did see only two or three cars during
the whole day, and some cyclists - friendly people. There were several
side tracks to go on foot.
Kohunlich is an archeological site (photo)
near Belize, East of Chetumal. The side road that you have to take from
the 186 was good birding (in the early morning) - fields and marshes and
small forest patches. The archeological site itself (open at 8 am) is well
wooded, but small, and we found no tracks into the forest. We saw forest
border species especially.
Further West to Escarcega, there is a
splendid lake at the village called Centenario (50 km East of Escarcega).
We went up the side road East of the lake for 1 km or so, and saw a very
attractive old forest lying on a peninsula in the lake. A local woman said
that you may arrange a boat from a bit further down this side road, in
order to get into that forest.
The Usumacintha and La Libertad marshes
around the city of Emiliano Zapata are famous among birders. Yet, it was a
bit problematical. Road 186, traversing the Usumacintha marshes, is busy,
with many trucks. For that reason we decided to have the better part of
the day (the morning) for the marsh between Zapata and La Libertad. This
was not so bad indeed, but I think we should have been in the Usum. marsh
(photo) nevertheless. We went there now only at 10 am. (We had been there
the previous late afternoon already too.) In the early afternoon we left
the 186 and took the side road East to Balancan, and then after some km a
track South into the grassy marsh - finally a spot without traffic, and
some interesting birds too. Then on to Balancan and a round back to
Zapata. This part of the round trip was not really worthwhile. As a whole,
however, and certainly together with the marshes between Villahermosa and
the coast (CI), it was spectacular birding in this region.
We should still mention too that the
previous night we had seen an enormous heron roost in the distance from
the Western entrance of Zapata, in some huge trees across a lake.
Before 8 a.m., the time the 'ruinas' are
opened to the public, the best birding was near the camping (some 2 km
before the entrance) and especially the last 1 km before the entrance.
On the archeological site itself the best
areas were: directly behind the entrance, at the brook behind the palace,
and the various forest trails starting behind the Temple of Inscriptions.
The trail that starts from the new museum
along the road up along a brook might be good also, but this opens up at 8
am either, and closes also at 5 pm. We didn't go there.
The grounds of our Chan Kah resort were
A very bad dirt road leads from Ocosingo
East to the archeological site of Tonina. To get there from the centre of
the village, we just followed the instructions given in the Lonely Planet
guide, although there were some signs now too. Including some birding
along the road (many blossoming orchards with orioles) it took us one hour
to get there.
Some 150 m before the entrance it was good
birding in some lone trees and bushes near the road. On the excavation
terrain itself (open at 9 am only) it was good also, especially in the
wooded gully behind the entrance. Later and higher up the pyramid it
became less good for birds, but there we were awed by the archeology.
San Cristobal de las Casas
As said in the introduction, we confined
ourselves here as well in the next two sites to the apparently safer
spots. Next to our hotel was the Cerrito (hill) de San Cristobal, that you
can ascend via a long staircase through open pine wood. Along the stairs
and behind the church on top (where joggers kept us a safe company) we saw
already several of the bird species of this high altitude (2100 m).
Very good birding was the straight and open
final 2 km of the road to Zinacatan (forest and non-forest species). This
village was easy to find by following the signs from SCC first to Chamula,
and then at a broad bifurcation, to Zinacatan. Some distance before this
fork (as seen from SCC) was, in a sharp bend, the entrance to the nature
reserve Huitepec. This opens only at 9 a.m., and there is nothing to bird
at the gate, but this was well compensated by the birding near Zinacatan
from 7 till 9. At the entrance of the reserve is a small office with shop,
with a guarded parking lot. The reserve is situated on a rather steep
slope, and the only, partly circular trail goes through two forest zones,
a drier one below and a wetter cloud forest-like one above (photo). From
the highest point of the circular trail, at a small shelter, an unofficial
trail runs yet further into the forest. We were quite satisfied with the
birding in this reserve, and we were glad that we have seen some cloud
In the morning we did the canyon rim, in
the afternoon the Zoo. This appeared a good division. Both destinations
were easily found from the ring road, both are indicated.
The entrance of the Parque Caņon del
Sumidero is a large gate, probably it had just been opened at 7 am. The
guard warned us dutifully that we should not stop along the first few km
and at the first of the five parking lots at miradors (viewpoints),
because of the chance of robberies by people that walk in from the nearby
slums of Tuxtla. After a short stop at a lone flowering tree with Yellow
Grosbeak shortly after the first P, we drove straight on to the end of the
road, at the 5th P, with a cafeteria (open already). From there we walked
back to the 4th P and saw several bush specialties like Blue-and-White
Mockingbird and Slender Sheartail. From the cafetaria the view was
wonderful, with egrets 1 km straight below us in the canyon. Driving back
to the 3rd P, we walked a bit into a higher forest than usual here. But
that was at 10 a.m., a bit too late for good birding here.
The Zoo was very interesting indeed (as
indicated in several sources), to see many of the birds and mammals of
Chiapas. In the wild, in the forest that this zoo mainly is, we saw
Chachalacas everywhere, and both cracids at the start of the trail that
traverses the park midway. The Harpy was an impressive memory of the one
we had seen in Venezuela - now he looked at us much in the same way as
Crossing from Chiapa de Corzo to Rayon
(via Bochil - BO)
The traverse of the northern mountain chain
of Chiapas (until Teapa, see below) took us a whole day. We went early,
and the roadside birding was good. It seemed reasonably safe as well - the
scenery was semiopen, and there was regular traffic (but not too much).
The bird list of today was rather diverse, as you cross several
altitudinal zones and diverse habitats. You go from the tropical basin of
Tuxtla up to the pine forests at 2000 m, and down again to Rayon at about
From Rayon to Teapa
This is typically the Atlantic slope - the
hills at the transition from the mountains to the Yucatan Peninsula. It is
a humid tropical area, and we saw several of the species of Palenque
again, but also rather some new ones (like Laughing Falcon). Although
there is much deforestation, there were small bits of forest everywhere as
well as many lone trees - a typical semiopen habitat. Good birding did we
have at the sulphur pools (even some waders at the most natural pool), and
also 5 or so km back to the mountains from there, in the direction of
Pichualco, along a short dead-end, surfaced road starting at a large lone
tree (with Red-lored Parrot). Still some km further back was an
interesting looking wet valley.
The marshes between Villahermosa and Ciudad
del Carmen (CI)
The counterpart of the Usumacintha marshes
along the 186, these, along the 180, were easier to bird because of less
traffic. (This may be different when the whole 180 has been repaired.) The
scenery is more varied also, although for the coastal waders Progreso (see
below) was far better. From Frontera, a dirt road traverse along the river
Usumacintha to the Usumacintha marshes at the 186 seems possible and
interesting, but we didn't do it. In the restaurant of Frontera (see
Logistics) was a promising poster at the wall about this total area (a
biosphere reserve - whatever that may mean in Mexico).
Also the stray observations between
Ciudad del Carmen and Champoton are indicated with CI in the list. The
coastal road from Ciudad del Carmen on looks promising on the map, but we
saw too often sand and blown-off palms tops only. The deviation at
Sabancuy was long, but led us for many km along a good marshy canal beside
The Puuc hill region
The (low) Puuc hils proper are at Sayil and
Uxmal, but also the observations between Campeche town and Sayil are
indicated as PU in the list. The habitat is much the same: a slightly
drier sort of forest than we mostly had in the Eastern Yucatan. Especially
the early morning hours along the now deserted old road (libre; in repair)
from Campeche South was productive. Of the archeological sites visited
here (Edzna, Sayil, Kabah, Uxmal), especially Sayil was nicely forested,
but we were a bit too late here. We concentrated ourselves further on
Uxmal, also because of the hotel there. Yet, as might be expected, we
didn't see many new birds here anymore.
When entering Celestun you first cross a
long lagoon. At the bridge there, excursions are offered to the flamingos
further North in the lagoon. Because the people seem to have developed the
habit of chasing the flamingos, to see them in flight, and because we saw
them already in the distance because of that habit, we didn't do that
excursion. But the flamingos are of a beautiful orange-red colour. The
main attraction for us, however, were the coastal scrubs North of Celestun.
We just followed the main street of the sleepy village closest to the
beach some km Northward. There is practically no traffic along this dirt
road. There are several side tracks to the East, which we walked for 100 m
or so. Here were the specialties like Yucatan Bobwhite and White-lored
We are glad that we did go to this coastal
site too. There were far more waders here than on all the other coastal
sites together. The authorities here have tried to develop the mangrove
area East of the main road from Merida. As yet, the result is a large sort
of mudflat area with spottily some short stubs of dead mangrove trees. A
good asfalt road, not busy, winds through the area, and we birded for
hours along this road. The road starts to the right, just before you would
enter the village at the end of the broad two-lane road from Merida. From
the winding road, several km long, we saw fifteen wader species, the most
abundant being Least Sandpiper and Black-necked Stilt.
Coastal scrubs we did not see here, but we
did see nice mangroves at the other side of the road from Merida (where we
dipped for Rufous-necked Wood-rail).
A note on the archeological sites
The archeological sites are not only good
for birding (ahem). We were really impressed by the archeological remains
as well. The buildings are decidedly more than just ruins as they are
mostly called (ruinas). The size, shape, and the sacral and arithmetic
background of the buildings are very interesting, although we did not take
a lot of time to dive into that business.
The birding brought us to eleven of the
archeological sites in SE Mexico. Based both on archeology and on scenic
setting, top ranking was Palenque, although it was mostly (except right
after 8 a.m.) very crowded. Next comes for us Tonina, near the village of
Ocosingo, because of its superb setting and shape, a huge terraced
pyramid. Sharing a third place are Coba, Kohunlich, Sayil, Uxmal (in trip
Chichen Itza may be the most famous site of
the whole Yucatan, but the scenic setting is poor. Nevertheless we are
glad that we have been there, especially for the pyramid (Castillo), the
observatory and the ball court.
(see also species list)
In Palenque, Slaty-breasted Tinamou could
be heard at several locations in the forest behind the archeological site.
We were very near one along the long trail behind the Temple of
Once we recognized the sound of Thicket
Tinamou, we heard them at several sites. The nearest we met them along the
side road to Kohunlich.
Along the West coast we saw by chance both
Cormorants together, and then realised that we should look out for further
We have seen Little Blue Heron in various
stages between white and blue.
The light conditions were often so good
that we mostly could see the yellow-orange feet of Snowy Egret at large
distances. We dipped for Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, but finally found
several Pinnated Bittern along the road from Villahermosa to the coast,
after having missed even them at the Usumacintha marshes.
White Ibis was our last trip tick - when we
were frantically in search for at least something to bird along the coast
We saw very few duck species. Apart from
one pintail, we only saw Blue-winged Teal, albeit on several sites. This
is our first Neotropical trip without Whistling-Ducks.
Raptors were not numerous, although we saw
twenty species. Snail kites were the delight of the Southwestern marshes,
as was the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (photo). A pair of White Hawk was
splendidly performing in the air at the Palenque archeological site. Even
the common tourists pointed them out to each other. Afterwards we saw them
mating in a large tree to the left behind the Temple of Inscriptions. Both
Black-Hawks were typical raptor encounters: sudden, clear (if you know
what part of the plumage is the most important) and quickly disappearing.
Laughing Falcon was one of the Atlantic slope species that we missed at
Palenque, but got to see later on at Teapa. Bat Falcon did we see at both
sites. Aplomado Falcon was one of the first birds we saw at the
Usumacintha marshes, when entering from the Northeast.
Plain Chachalaca was rather common at many
sites. Abundant were they in the Zoo of Tuxtla Gutierrez, in the wild. In
the same way, we have added there Crested Guan and Great Curassow to our
list. These too occurred outside the fences. We hope that Jon Curson, in
his 1990 report, is right when stating that these birds can be regarded as
Contrary to our expectations, Yuacatan (or
Black-throated) Bobwhite was easily found in the open scrub fields N of
Celestun. At Uxmal, we heard a song quite like that of Little Tinamou, but
in the description in Howell and Webb for Little Tinamou (which doesn't
occur there) we were kindly directed to Singing Quail! Ruddy Crakes were
easily heard (and seen a few seconds) at typical marshy grass habitat at
Coba and Palenque. Grey-necked Wood-rail was a trip tick obtained as a
bonus when we had the long deviation to Champoton.
We were thrilled by the many waders at
Progreso, but one stands out specifically. This was the local very pale
race of the Snowy Plover, which we could approach very near on foot. Stilt
Sandpiper was another lifer there. This indeed is, as Howell and Webb
state, a species that might be easily overlooked, despite its name.
All gulls but one were Laughing Gulls.
Loose terns mostly were Royal. Least Terns enlivened the air above the
dead mangroves at Progreso.
From one of the viaducts across the toll
road W of Cancun we were lucky to see White-crowned Pigeon. Red-billed
Pigeon was the commonest pigeon, White-winged Dove the commonest dove,
both in very diverse habitats. In the fields between Ocosingo and Tonina
we saw a flock of about 7 of the not so common Mourning Dove.
Aztec Parakeet was rather common in
especially the more humid Eastern part of the Yucatan. White-fronted
Parrot was by far the commonest parrot. Yucatan Parrot was one of the
specialties of Felipe Carillo Puerto, gotten into view after we heard them
calling all the time during a strenuous search through the forest.
At Palenque, after closing time of the
ruins, we stayed on the entrance road until dark and we were rewarded with
both calls of Mottled Owl, and with the rolling sound of Vermiculated
Screech-Owl. From our room at the sulphur baths near Teapa, we also heard
Mottled Owl calling in the forest on the hill slope. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
was really common - if you know the sound, and don't mistake it for the
equally common Violaceous Trogon.
Lesser Nighthawk did we often see in the
towns and villages, especially at dusk, above the enlightened plazas. Most
spectacular were they as seen from our dinner table at the plaza of
Ocosingo. Yucatan Poorwill (checked there with the help of a prepared
tape) was the main reward for the owling we did at the end of our day in
the forest at Felipe.
Unmistakable was the sound of the Northern
Whip-poor-will that we heard, an hour or so before dawn, from our hotel at
Uxmal, at 18 March. For Howell and Webb the occurrence of this species on
the Yucatan Peninsula is still a question mark (and: 'should occur there
as a transient'), but for us it is an exclamation mark.
Except for the hermits, Fork-tailed
Emerald, Rufous-tailed and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, all hummers were
regional (mostly mountain) specialties. These included amongst others
Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Azure-crowned and Green-fronted Hummingbird and
The pan-neotropical Violaceous Trogon
(photo) was common here too. Trogon specialties were Mountain Trogon, and
for the lower altitudes Slaty-tailed and Black-headed Trogon.
Only now we understand why some people call
the large motmots 'thrash birds'. Nevertheless, they remain splendid
We have seen many toucans (Keel-billed),
especially at Palenque. But also at Felipe we saw them already, and there
too we had our Collared Aracari.
Of the thirteen woodpecker species possible
here, we have seen ten! We were happy with such neotropical goodies as
Chestnut-coloured and Pale-billed Woodpecker, but equally with
North-American reminiscences as Acorn and Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
Golden-olive and Golden-fronted Woodpecker were very common.
We saw both woodcreeper specialties of this
region, Tawny-winged and Ivory-billed. The latter, once you know its sound
(but we saw also several), was rather common in the better Yucatan and
Barred Antshrike was the only antbird we
have seen. We often heard it in forest clearings. We saw no furnarids and
no manakins. So, of these three typical neotropical families, we saw only
The panamerican flycatcher family is
represented better of course, but we didn't see many species of this
family either. Most often, of the drabber ones, we saw Tropical Pewee. Two
species from inside the more humid tropical forest were Sulphur-rumped
Flycatcher and Bright-rumped Attila (inasfar the latter is a flycatcher).
Higher altitude specialties were Greater Pewee and Pine Flycatcher.
Couch's Kingbird, of the Yucatan, sounds clearly different from Tropical
Kingbird. Western Kingbird was a lifer from the near-Pacific side. Piratic
Flycatcher, missed thus far elsewhere in the Neotropics, did we pick up at
the Atlantic slope of Teapa.
Rose-throated Becard was rather common in
several sites on the Yucatan as well as on the Atlantic slope. Masked
Tityra outnumbered Black-crowned Tityra.
A group of five or so Purple Martin was
clearly on migration Northward along the coast at Celestun. Mangrove
Swallow occurred on several wet places, not only along the coast.
Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallow sounds clearly different from Northern.
Black-capped Swallow was a higher-altitude specialty in Chiapas.
One of the most remarkable bird encounters
of the whole trip was with the Cave Swallows at Uxmal. In the course of
the morning, hundreds of them flocked gradually together above the Great
Temple. At last, around 10 or 11 a.m., one big swarm of c. 1000, seemingly
all calling, swirled between the walls at the square. Gradually they began
sneaking from this swarm into the many chambers around the square. We saw
many old nests in the ridges up in the chambers. We got the impression
that the swallows just all returned that day from their wintering grounds!
The Grey Silky was a typical wish-list
species, and we well rewarded on both higher altitude sites. Here once
more the quality of Howell and Webb's guide was proven - the flight image,
depicted as an extra detail in the guide, proved to be valuable in the
Vocally, the Band-backed Wren made up for
the other Campylorhynchus wrens that we missed. Forest species typical of
Felipe (and some other sites too) were Spot-breasted, White-browed and
White-bellied Wren, and White-breasted Wood-wren. The Spot-breasted's song
was one of the most typical sounds of the more humid tropical forests
here. At Tuxtla we picked up the more Pacific Banded Wren.
One of the absolute specialties of the dry
forests along the Caņon del Sumidero was the shy Blue-and-White
Mockingbird. What a difference, in all respects but shape, to the common
Eastern Bluebird, only seen in the
mountains (Chiapas) was a nice memory of the States. Brown-backed
Solitaire did we hear and see first in the Huitepec reserve near San
Cristobal, and later we heard it several times along the Bochil traverse
of the Northern mountain chain. Other higher altitude thrush specialties
were the Black and the Rufous-collared thrush, the first in the Huitepec
reserve, the latter also along the road to Zinacatan.
We saw all three possible Gnatcatchers. The
best memory is of the White-lored Gnatcatcher, seen several times in the
coastal scrubs North of Celestun.
Mexico is a good country for jays. We liked
especially the furtive Yucatan Jay. White-throated Magpie-Jay was a
specialty from the other (Pacific) side.
Of the five vireo species that we saw,
especially White-eyed and Mangrove were rather common, and often
conspicuous by behaviour and sound. Solitary Vireo was restricted to the
zone where it belongs - the mountains. Yellow-throated Vireo was one of
those less common species again that we saw at Felipe only.
At one of the many beautiful semiopen spots
along the mountain road from Tuxtla back to the North we saw a small group
of Black-headed Siskin. Lesser Goldfinch was another Carduelis lifer. On
the nightly zocalo (plaza) of San Cristobal we saw two palm trees full of
brownish finch-like birds. The next morning, near the church on top of the
stairs, we were able to identify them as House Finch. We guess that the
roost counted some 400 individuals, affirming the somewhat hesitatingly
stated quantitative occurrence for San Cristobal city by Howell and Webb.
Warblers were everywhere! SE Mexico
obviously is an important wintering area for them. Most of them occurred
in mixed flocks, with dominance of Black-throated Green, Black-and-White
and Wilson's Warbler and American Redstart. Local specialties in the
mountains were Crescent-chested, Rufous-capped, Golden-browed and Olive
Warbler and Painted Redstart. Other goodies for us included Mangrove,
Townsend's, Hermit, Yellow-throated, Worm-eating and Kentucky Warbler.
Palm Warbler was scarcely a warbler for us - it foraged on the mud between
dead mangrove trees.
We did not see many tanagers. Summer
Tanager was still the commonest. Specialties, all in or near the more
humid forests, included Grey-headed, Yellow-winged, Rose-throated,
Crimson-collared, Scarlet-rumped (the 'traffic light') and Golden-hooded
Tanager. Western Tanager was really western here too. Blue-grey Tanager
was rare compared to their abundance in South-America.
Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonia
enlivened the trees at the Maya ruins. The beautiful Blue-hooded Euphonia
at Tonina was a fine memory of the lower Andean slope of Ecuador. Although
we dipped for two of the three Honeycreepers, we saw the endemic
The twin Olive and Green-backed Sparrow did
we see in their appropriate areas. Rusty Sparrow, at Tonina, was big and
The White-collared Seedeater, as variable
as the Variable Seedeater, was rather common, with its often misleading
Yellow Grosbeak was one of the few real
wish-list species. We saw them very well in the early morning along the
road to the Canyon rim at Tuxtla, between the first and the second mirador
parking lot. Secret but rather common was the Northern Cardinal at the
coastal scrubs N of Celestun. Black-headed Saltator was the commonest of
the larger finch-like species, Indigo Buting the commonest of the smaller
ones (apart from the seedeaters). We had terrific views of Blue Grosbeak
in roadside ditches on the Atlantic slope.
Icterids were very common, both in numbers
as in species. We saw both Oropendola's, both Caciques, three Blackbird
species and ten (!) Oriole species. This is why Howell and Webb have three
plates with Orioles, and also because you have to look carefully for the
differences between the various plumages of similar species. We liked the
orioles not only because of their conspicuous appearance and behaviour,
but also they give here - with so many species represented - a special
meaning to the many open and semiopen habitats. Some of the specialties
were Orange Oriole in the Northern Yucatan, and Streak-backed and
Black-vented Oriole in the mountains.
The last species to be mentioned is
indicated by Howell and Webb as vagrant to the Yucatan - the unmistakable
Yellow-headed Blackbird. We saw it in the NE part of the Usumacintha
marshes, along the 186, on 5 March. The one specimen formed part of a
flock of mainly Red-winged Blackbird, in low bushes near a small pond.
Looking through the species list, I first
thought that we had seen a great majority of the species on more than one
site, which might mean that we could have done with fewer sites on this
trip. However, it appears that we have seen 133 of the 302 species on no
more than one site. So, although this is not a sound evidence, we think it
was good to divide our attention over so many sites.
One of the most memorable sites for species
diversity was the forest between Felipe Carillo Puerto and Vigia Chico
(site FE). Eleven species did we exclusively see on this site.