Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Last Day of BIrding. Have the Pancakes!

After returning from Rio Lagartos, we sat at dinner and discussed what we should do on our last day. It was the one day we left open, thinking we could return to the coast or try and find someplace close to Cancun. I suggested we visit Coba, a small near by city with a lake known in the past for having Spotted Rail and a great archaeological site set back in the jungle. Martin and Dan said it sounded good to them, so a plan was made.

We got up and left the hotel, a bit regretfully, I will say. We drove to Coba and scanned the lake, which the town is built around. There was some flooding going on. Several low lying businesses were partially underwater. It didn't look promising for rails at all, but we thought we would give it a go anyway.  We were a bit hungry and Dan and I were craving coffee, so we stopped at a restaurant next to the lake. The waiter told us they opened at 8:00AM, which wasn't too long. We said we would be back. We drove around the lake as far as we could, until flood waters were too deep. Both a Ringed and Belted Kingfisher were hunting from utility wires over the lake. The lake itself was almost devoid of water fowl. In fact, there were no ducks at all, only some Pied-billed Grebes.

Where we ran out of dry road had a small group of trees and some tall grasses in the water. We started scanning the trees and Martin found a female Cape May Warbler. I discovered a great looking lizard with a very long tail. Some friends identified it as a young Basilisk. Martin had moved down to the end of the grasses looking for dragonflies. Suddenly he started waving for us to come over. There was a Ruddy Crake working through the grasses. Crakes are almost always tough to see, but this one was semi-cooperative. We even got a few pictures. Then we saw another one and heard a third. A Limpkin strolled by. It was 8:00AM so we decided to celebrate with breakfast.

We drove back to the restaurant and parked the car. We went in only to find out they actually don't serve breakfast until 9:00AM. The 8:00AM opening was for the ruins, which, unknown to us, were right behind the restaurant. We decided to go to the ruins and come back out at 9:00AM. As we were preparing to go in tourists started to arrive, but not in huge numbers. We passed the souvenir vendors, who were also selling things for "almost free." We purchased tickets and walked in. It was a bit of a walk to get to the ruins. As we passed through the trees we came to a huge lot with hundreds of bicycles and pedi-cabs. This was rather disconcerting. How many people were they expecting?

We walked further in and the ruins were great! They are very similar to the ones at Calakmul, buried in the forest. There was a really cool structure with huge stone rings on either side, that I assume was a game court. The pyramid was awesome. We quickly found Yellow-throated Euphonias and a stunning Gartered Trogon. I found a couple of butterflies, including a Ruddy Daggerwing. It was finally 9:00AM, so we decided to go eat and then return.

We sat down and ordered breakfast. Dan and Martin got Huevos Mexicanos, but I am not all that crazy about eggs, so I ordered pancakes. They both looked at me like I was silly for getting pancakes in Mexico, but boy, were they wrong. The waiter brought our food and as soon as he sat mine in front of me Martin said "Those pancakes smell incredibly nice!" They were incredibly nice. I am not sure what they do to them, but they were the best pancakes I have ever eaten. They were yellowish, and I suspect they had corn in them. They were naturally sweet. I gave Dan and Martin both a bite and they were very jealous!

After we ate we went back into the ruins. Martin wasn't feeling very well and didn't want to walk a long way, so we agreed to meet at the restaurant at about 11:30AM. Dan and I took off to see some structures about a kilometer away from the entrance. We got about half way there when we heard a lot of jays calling down low. There was an ant swarm. Ant Tanagers were all over the ground. Ivory-billed, Olivaceous , and Ruddy-winged Woodcreepers were on the trees. We worked the flock for a bit and then took off walking to the ruins. I got about a city block down the path, when I realized I couldn't leave that ant swarm. I told Dan I was going back and would meet him later.

As I started back, I saw some movement on the forest floor next to the path. A White-nosed Coati scrambled up one of the trees and sat on a branch looking at me nervously. I have seen Coatis before, but I was still excited. I looked up and a family with two kids were approaching in a pedi-cab. I called out "Coati!" to them and pointed up in the tree, but they were not interested at all and didn't even answer. They probably thought I was crazy. All I know is that when I was a kid I would have freaked out seeing a Coati.

I got back to the ant swarm and the birds were still very active. A number of flycatchers were moving in the tree tops. Dan came back fairly quickly and we spotted an Eye-ringed Flatbill, a flycatcher. A Bright-rumped Attila came in for a few seconds. Even though there were no new birds, it was still so much fun to watch. It was getting close to the time we were supposed to meet Martin, so we headed back. We hadn't gone far when we noticed a young man kneeling down taking photos of something on a tree trunk. Of course we had to look. It was one of the creepiest things I have ever seen! A flat mass of huge caterpillars arranged in a large oval, tail to tail. Their mouths were moving. I took a short video of it. It doesn't even begin to show the shivery creepiness of it.
video

 Martin was sitting at a table in the restaurant. I was surprised he didn't have a plate of pancakes in front of him, instead of just a Coke Zero. We all had a drink and then headed back out to bird. We worked the roads above the lake. I took a few butterfly photos. We saw a few birds, but it was getting really hot. We found a different restaurant with a "Mayan" buffet. The restaurant was packed with people from tour buses, probably from cruise ships, but with it being a buffet, we didn't have to wait. The food was actually quite good. We had a bit of a drive back to Cancun, so we decided to wrap things up and head back.

This trip was so much fun! I highly recommend the Yucatan. There are enough wild areas left for it to feel exotic and to see plenty of things you won't see at home. It is easy to get there. It is easy to get around. We did everything with a regular car, an SUV was not needed. The food is so good. You can find reasonably priced hotels if you get out of the tourist areas. There are not the safety issues you have in other parts of Mexico. The people were wonderful! This would be a great first trip to the tropics. If you have any questions please let me know. Thanks for sharing our trip. I can't wait for the next one!

Photos-
http://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/sets/72157638365698434/

Bird List-
Yellow-throated Euphonia      
Orange Oriole                 
Yellow-tailed Oriole          
Great-tailed Grackle          
Melodious Blackbird           
Gray-throated Chat            
Red-throated Ant-Tanager      
Red-crowned Ant-Tanager       
Summer Tanager                
Rose-throated Tanager         
Black-headed Saltator         
Black-throated Green Warbler  
Magnolia Warbler              
Northern Parula               
Cape May Warbler              
American Redstart             
Hooded Warbler                
Common Yellowthroat           
Tennessee Warbler             
Black-and-white Warbler       
Tropical Mockingbird          
Tropical Gnatcatcher          
White-bellied Wren            
Spot-breasted Wren            
Yucatan Jay                   
Green Jay                     
Yellow-throated Vireo         
White-eyed Vireo              
Rose-throated Becard          
Masked Tityra                 
Tropical Kingbird             
Social Flycatcher             
Great Kiskadee                
Bright-rumped Attila          
Eye-ringed Flatbill           
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet 
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper      
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper      
Olivaceous Woodcreeper        
Pale-billed Woodpecker        
Golden-olive Woodpecker       
Belted Kingfisher             
Ringed Kingfisher             
Gartered Trogon               
White-bellied Emerald         
Wedge-tailed Sabrewing        
Squirrel Cuckoo               
White-winged Dove             
Eurasian Collared-Dove        
Rock Pigeon                   
Ruddy Crake                   
Roadside Hawk                 
Turkey Vulture                
Black Vulture                 
Green Heron                   
Cattle Egret                  
Little Blue Heron             
Snowy Egret                   
Great Egret                   
Great Blue Heron              
Pied-billed Grebe             


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Bit of Tourism, Then Back to Birding.

We had a bit of trip north on this day. We had decided to relax a bit and leave at about 9:00AM, but I still was compelled to do some birding around the hotel. A White-bellied Emerald was visiting the flame tree by the parking lot. Blue-gray Tanagers and a few other birds came into a fruiting tree behind the building next door. I got a couple of photos of a juvenile Gray Hawk across the road. After a breakfast of eggs with hotdogs (I really need to work on my Spanish!) and a fabulous glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, we took off.

This was our day to visit Chichen Itza. Since this is a birding blog, I won't go into great detail, but I will say it was pretty spectacular. I was put off by the gauntlets of vendors all promising that their kitschy goods were almost free. It was a bit crowded, which I expected. On a positive note, I felt like the open grounds were probably more like what the original inhabitants experienced. I did feel like the constant hawking of souvenirs on the actual grounds seemed disrespectful.

We left and drove to Valladolid and our hotel, Meson del Marques. Vallodolid is centrally located and is a good jumping off point for Rio Lagarto, our next birding stop. The hotel was an amazing surprise! I highly recommend it. The atmosphere is wonderful. Our rooms were beautiful. The restaurant was fabulous, with amazingly cheap prices and fabulous margaritas.  Unfortunately we arrived and left in the dark both days, so I never got to see it in daylight.

Morning came too soon. The drive to Rio Lagartos, which is on the coast, was uneventful, with a few Road-side and Gray Hawks. We came to our first stop, a road leading to Los Colorados. We got out of the car and Dan said he had a hawk. We turned to see a slate gray bird with a longish tail, unlike any hawks we had seen. Martin was thrilled beyond words, it was his long-time nemesis, the Crane Hawk. He had been in its range dozens of times, but had never been able to see one. He was able to take some diagnostic photos. It is always nice to get a "tart's tic" as they call it in the UK out of the way. It was a life bird for both Dan and me, also!

We quickly found a pair of Yucatan Wrens in the bushes near the road. A Vermilion Flycatcher sallied back and forth from a perch in the pasture. We moved down the road, searching for hummingbirds. Our main target was the Mexican Sheartail, which are fairly common in this area. We checked all of the flowering shrubs, but came up short. We also listened for Yucatan Bobwhite and Lesser Roadrunner, but again had no luck. We did see quite a few warblers and vireos working the shrubby woods along the road. I always wonder if I have ever seen any of the birds I am looking at before in Texas. I know the chances are infinitesimally small, but it is still fun to speculate.

We decided to drive into town, as we had read the sheartails can be found feeding in gardens there. Rio Lagartos is a small town, best known as a place to see American Flamingos. This usually involves a local guide taking you out in a boat. We have already seen flamingos, including one on the Texas coast that was banded as a youngster in the Rio Lagartos area, so we decided to pass. Driving into town it was obvious we didn't come from those parts. To be blunt, Martin is the whitest man in North America, with his blond hair and very fair English skin. We stood out like sore thumbs. Immediately guys on motorbike pulled up along the car offering boat trips. We politely declined and they would smile and speed off. We cruised around looking for flowers and didn't have any success finding the hummingbird. As we were driving out I noticed what I thought was a plastic flamingo in a swamp behind some houses. I yelled "Stop! Flamingo!" and we backed up. Sure enough about six were working the wet land. The owner of one of the houses motioned for us to go back and get a closer look, which we did. Martin slipped a guy a few pesos in thanks, which made the guy laugh.

We drove the opposite direction on the road we had birded earlier. We found quite a few flowers along the road and along with them, some hummingbirds. Most of what we were seeing were Ruby-throats, but we finally found our target, a female Mexican Sheartail. We were very happy, to say the least. We also discovered a Great Black Hawk perched. A Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture flew overhead. Our best find, though, wasn't a bird. A car stopped on the opposite side of the road and a very enthusiastic group of local birders jumped out.  They were with Yucatan Jay Valladolid Birding and were scouting for a birding festival, being held the following day. We had a great time visiting with them. The work with local Mayan groups trying to raise awareness of the wonderful birds in the Yucatan. They gave us advice on where to look for birds. We all left with huge smiles on our faces. They have a Facebook page. Check it out!

It was lunch time, so we went back into town. We went to a restaurant we had seen advertised, only to find it was closed. A young man, Diego, one of the guides for the flamingo trips, told us to follow him and he would take us to a different place with good food. We took him up on it. The restaurant was right on the water and we enjoyed terns, skimmers and gulls flying by. During lunch we saw a couple more flamingos across the bay. We pointed them out to a young couple and discovered the young man was from St. Auburns, right next door to where Martin grew up in England.

Diego told Martin he knew where a Mexican Sheartail nest was, so after we ate we followed him there. A nest with two hummingbird chicks was stuck on top of a light fixture hanging in front of a door to a small house. We stood across the street, so as to not disturb them and to make sure the mother felt free to come and go. Soon she arrived, perching on a phone wire over the street. She then flew in, feeding the two young birds. We certainly had not expected this when we started out in the morning. My new camera has a great zoom, so I was even able to get some photos.

We headed back to the Los Colorados Road to look for Lesser Roadrunner and Yucatan Bobwhite. There is a turn off to San Salvador, a decent dirt road. It was supposed to be a good area for the hummingbird, and we still wanted to see a male. We saw a few birds, including a couple of birds we flushed out of the grass that were certainly bobwhite. A beautiful Laughing Falcon perched up cooperatively. We came to a turn off and a man road up on a horse. He seemed agitated and in pain. Our Spanish is not always the best, but we finally gathered that he was injured and needed help. He asked that we drive back about a mile to a ranch house and let them know he was hurt. We took off and were about half way there, when two Yucatan Bobwhites strolled out on the road. We braked, but only stopped for a couple of seconds. We arrived at the ranch house and the communication problems started again. Martin was trying very hard to get them to understand. He usually does a great job, but this time they just weren't getting it. Finally I blurted out "El Caballero necesita ayuda! I am not sure that was grammatically correct, but they got the idea. We pointed them in the right direction and they tore out. Thank you Rosetta Stone!

We moved on, driving down to the beach at Los Colorados. We saw scads of flamingos along the way. We arrived at the beach in late afternoon and immediately found an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. I also found a friend, a darling five year old boy named Liam. I was actually able to carry on a bit of a conversation with him. He is going to be a heart-breaker someday. His mom came down and talked to us, as we watched fishermen bring their catch in for the day, including a huge pail of octopus. We had a long drive back to Valladolid, so we said goodbye to Liam and started back. As dusk was falling I noticed a bird on a snag in the middle of a field. We stopped and scored a Barn Owl.

Photos from the day-www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/sets/72157638334982335

Bird list-
Altamira Oriole              
Orange Oriole                
Orchard Oriole               
Great-tailed Grackle         
Melodious Blackbird          
Indigo Bunting               
Blue Grosbeak                
White-collared Seedeater     
Black-throated Green Warbler 
Yellow Warbler               
Northern Parula              
American Redstart            
Common Yellowthroat          
Northern Waterthrush         
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher        
Yucatan Wren                 
Mangrove Swallow             
White-eyed Vireo             
Rose-throated Becard         
Masked Tityra                
Couch's Kingbird             
Tropical Kingbird            
Social Flycatcher            
Great Kiskadee               
Vermilion Flycatcher         
Least Flycatcher             
Peregrine Falcon             
Merlin                       
American Kestrel             
Laughing Falcon              
Crested Caracara             
Belted Kingfisher            
Cinnamon Hummingbird         
Canivet's Emerald            
Ruby-throated Hummingbird    
Mexican Sheartail            
Barn Owl                     
Groove-billed Ani            
Black-billed Cuckoo          
Mangrove Cuckoo              
Ruddy Ground-Dove            
Common Ground-Dove           
White-winged Dove            
Eurasian Collared-Dove       
Rock Pigeon                  
Black Skimmer                
Sandwich Tern                
Royal Tern                   
Forster's Tern               
Common Tern                  
Caspian Tern                 
Lesser Black-backed Gull     
Herring Gull                 
Laughing Gull                
Western Sandpiper            
Sanderling                   
Stilt Sandpiper              
Ruddy Turnstone              
Lesser Yellowlegs            
Willet                       
Greater Yellowlegs           
Northern Jacana              
Killdeer                     
Black-bellied Plover         
American Avocet
Black-necked Stilt           
Short-tailed Hawk            
Gray Hawk                    
Roadside Hawk                
Great Black-Hawk             
Crane Hawk                   
Osprey                       
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture 
Turkey Vulture               
Black Vulture                
Roseate Spoonbill            
White Ibis                   
Green Heron                  
Cattle Egret                 
Reddish Egret                
Tricolored Heron             
Little Blue Heron            
Great Egret                  
Brown Pelican                
American White Pelican       
Double-crested Cormorant     
Neotropic Cormorant          
Magnificent Frigatebird      
Wood Stork                   
American Flamingo            
Black-throated Bobwhite      
Blue-winged Teal            

Monday, December 2, 2013

Calakmul. The Road to Ruins.


We had to get up very early to reach the gates to Calakmul before dawn. I think we left the hotel at about 4:30AM and arrived at the first gate a bit after 5:00AM. Even though it was very early for birds, with sunrise not until 6:00AM, this would maximize our opportunity to see mammals, with any of the cats being very high on our want list.  The bio-reserve is the best possible place to see Jaguar. The gate was open and we drove in.

We hadn't gotten 100 yards down the road when our first mammals crossed the road, a pair of Raccoons. Of course they are super common in Texas, but still, mammals are always fun! We drove a bit further and spotted eye glow. We eased up and saw a rabbit, probably an Eastern Cottontail. Guess who also lives in Texas? The next two sets of bright eyes were night birds, a Common Paraque and a Yucatan Poorwill. At least the poorwill isn't in Texas! We pushed on and as it got light we turned a corner and there in the middle of the road was a Gray Fox! Even though they live in Texas, I was still excited. I don't see fox very often. A couple of Great Currasows ran in front of us, allowing me one really awful photo.

We heard several eerie sounding whistles, Slaty-breasted Tinamous! Timamous are notoriously difficult to see. Their calls echo in the forest, but almost all looks, when you get one at all, is a tail end disappearing into the forest. They walk through the forest, camouflaged incredibly well. There were probably four or five calling and they sounded very close. Martin whistled back and one seemed to be coming closer. We peered into the dark forest, but didn't even have a glimpse. Martin whistled again and the bird seemed to be even closer. After several back and forths we gasped when the bird walked into full view! We were incredibly lucky. There were high fives all around and we got back in the car.

We arrived at the second gate and stopped to pay our fee. We heard hammering and saw a beautiful Pale-billed Woodpecker on a pole. The Ocellated Turkeys were still wandering around.  Now came the long slog to the ruins. The forest had been good up to this point. It became even better. All along the road flocks of Brown Jays flew up yelling. It sounded like they were announcing us, "CAR! CAR! CAR!" We had more Yucatan Jays, with their 1960s powder blue tuxedo wings. Much of the woods was flooded; we wanted dry ground, hoping for ant swarms. As we got further in we finally found a small swarm. Both Red-throated and Red-crowned Ant-tanagers were in attendance. We had several species of wood-creepers. The swarm was small and we decided to move on to try and find more.

video
We finally arrived at the site of the ruins. We started down the path towards the main temple and saw something amazing. An ant swarm was moving across the path, with the ants so thick it looked like smoke. We checked for birds, but didn't find any, but the swarm itself was stunning. None of us had ever seen one like it. I was able to get a quick video clip.







Calakmul is not one of the manicured archaeological sites. The pyramid and other structures rise right out of the jungle. We walked through moss draped trees and came face to face with a huge imposing temple. One of the nice things about Calakmul is that you are allowed to climb the structures. Unfortunately, my knees and sense of balance kept me from doing so. Dan climbed up and had incredible views of unbroken forest as far as he could see. I found it difficult to tear my eyes away from the tree draped structures and look for birds.

On the walk in we had passed a small lake. Martin was lusting after dragonflies, so he went back and Dan and I agreed to meet him a bit later. We wandered around and I found what was almost my bird of the day, a beautiful male Golden-winged Warbler, which is considered rare in that area. I photographed a few butterflies and we met back up with Martin. We did a bit more birding and decided to head back out to the entrance road. As we headed back to the car we flushed a Ruddy Quail-Dove.

We hadn't gone very far when we found another ant swarm. This one had five species of Woodcreepers, Ivory-billed, Ruddy, Olivaceous, Tawny-winged and Northern Barred. Ant-tangers were running everywhere. Martin found a Rufous Mourner, a real surprise, at least for me. A Squirrel Cuckoo came in, a bird I never tire of. Different flycatchers, including an Eye-ringed Flatbill, flitted around higher in the trees. It was very difficult to leave, but we were concerned about the gate being closed when we got back. We saw two more mammals, White-tailed Deer and Collared Peccaries, again, both commonly found in Texas. What the heck?

We worked our way back and were able to get through both gates with no problems. We arrived back at our hotel and had an excellent dinner. We discussed what we wanted to do the following day and decided to have a leisurely morning and leave for our next destination, Chichen Itza a bit later. I think we all slept very well.
Photos - www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/11172006624/in/set-72157638281416383

Bird list for the day-

Yellow-throated Euphonia     
Indigo Bunting               
Blue Grosbeak                
Gray-throated Chat           
Red-throated Ant-Tanager     
Red-crowned Ant-Tanager      
Summer Tanager               
Rose-throated Tanager        
Black-throated Green Warbler 
Magnolia Warbler             
Northern Parula              
American Redstart            
Hooded Warbler               
Common Yellowthroat          
Golden-winged Warbler        
Blue-winged Warbler          
Ovenbird                     
Gray Catbird                 
Clay-colored Thrush          
Swainson's Thrush            
Tropical Gnatcatcher         
White-bellied Wren           
Spot-breasted Wren           
Carolina Wren                
Yucatan Jay                  
Green Jay                    
Brown Jay                    
Lesser Greenlet              
Yellow-throated Vireo        
Mangrove Vireo               
White-eyed Vireo             
Masked Tityra                
Social Flycatcher            
Boat-billed Flycatcher       
Great Kiskadee               
Brown-crested Flycatcher     
Great Crested Flycatcher     
Rufous Mourner               
Least Flycatcher             
Eye-ringed Flatbill          
Northern Bentbill            
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper     
Northern Barred-Woodcreeper  
Ruddy Woodcreeper            
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper     
Olivaceous Woodcreeper       
American Kestrel            
Pale-billed Woodpecker       
Keel-billed Toucan           
Collared Aracari             
Wedge-tailed Sabrewing       
Yucatan Poorwill             
Common Pauraque              
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl   
Squirrel Cuckoo              
Ruddy Quail-Dove             
Ruddy Ground-Dove            
Red-billed Pigeon            
Scaled Pigeon                
American Coot                
Roadside Hawk                
Turkey Vulture               
Ocellated Turkey             
Great Curassow               
Plain Chachalaca             
Slaty-breasted Tinamou       

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Yucatan, Should I Stay or Should I Go? Felipe Carrillo Puerto to Calakmul

We had a long day ahead. We were moving south, almost to the border of Belize, and then west to Calakmul. Despite the longish drive, we decided to give Vigia Chico Road another shot. Before we left, Dan ran across the street from the hotel to grab a cup of coffee and brought me a cup of fresh squeezed orange juice. I can't say enough about how good orange juice can be in the tropics!

We decided to work for the Black-throated (Yucatan) Bobwhite in the scrubby fields at the start of the road. We heard a few calls and walked out on a dirt road through one of the fields. Martin whistled a few times, but got no response. Despite the lack of visible quail, we really enjoyed the field. There was a lot of "blue", Blue Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings. Orioles were abundant. We had been looking for Orange Orioles, but had only seen Altamira's and Hoodeds. Finally, a group of three birds flew around us. Martin was concentrating on photographing something, probably dragonflies, and didn't see them. Dan and I both saw the birds had orange backs, one of the distinguishing field marks and less extensive markings on the face. We also had a Black-cowled Oriole, which was new for me.

At this point we started the discussion about what to do next. Should we continue down the road, or cut out and drive to Calakmul and try to maximize our birding there? Dan and I voted to go, but Martin wanted to stay a bit longer. Martin was driving, so we stayed. We drove on and found a few birds, including a Golden-olive Woodpecker. There was a another Gray-throated Chat and a few other nice birds, but it seemed slower than the day before. We finally all agreed it was time to go.

We started south, driving to Chetumal, where you can cross the border into Belize. We kidded around about crossing over to get our passports stamped, but decided it probably wasn't a good idea. Anyway, I am boycotting Belize because of their anti-gay laws. We turned west and headed to the Campeche province. Our base of operations was in the town of Xpujil, at the Hotel Calakmul. Neither Dan nor I could get the hang of pronouncing Xpujil. That X threw us for a loop. By the time we left, a day and half later, we sort of had it, but probably not quite. As we entered town there was a fabulous statue of a very strong looking woman. I have had no luck finding out who she is, but she looks like she could kick your butt!
We checked into our hotel, which was great, by the way. It was immaculately clean, very comfortable and had a beautiful sparkling pool, with the best pool rules ever. (See my photos for the day.) We got our things settled in and jumped back in the car for the drive to Reserva de la Biosfera Calakmul.

When we talked about going to the Yucatan and I started doing research, Calakmul captured my imagination so throughly I really pushed to visit. It was way out of our way, but I just had to go. This is an area that is not well known to most Americans. The biosphere is massive, covering almost 15% of the state of Campeche. It is the site of the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul, an archaeological site comparable to Tikal in Guatemala, with 7,200 rements. The ruins are still mostly buried in the jungle, unlike the manicured Chichen Itza. The jungle holds five species of wild cats, including Jaguar, and well over 200 species of birds. Unfortunately, it is also very remote. The entrance road is 59 kilometers from Xpujil. After you turn on that road it is 20 kilometers to the first gate, then you drive another 40 kilometer to reach the ruins. The good part is the forest begins almost immediately after turning off of the highway. There is a lodge near the entrance gate, but it is very pricey, so we chose to drive from Xpujil.

We reached the turn off and found of local people manning a gate. They charged us an entrance fee and told us that gate is open all of the time. We turned in and started birding immediately. It was like the road at Felipe Carrillo Puerto; it was difficult to decide when to stop, as we were always wondering if it might be a bit better further on. We also wanted to make good use of the time scouting for the next day. The road was excellent, raised and dry. We had an agouti run across the road in front of us, so we stopped and hoped some predator would be chasing after it, but no. He was safe. We also found a Yucatan Squirrel. Then we had a wonderful surprise; a Great Currasow ran in front of the car! That was a very much wanted bird. We pushed on to the second gate, arriving right at 3:00PM, when the museum closes. We talked with the workers, who appeared to live there. They said there were Ocellated Turkeys behind the museum. We went back and one was walking around like a farm yard chicken, extremely tame and eating grain they threw out for it. It always seems a bit sleazy counting a bird like that, but I took it!

We worked our way back, birding along the way. A really awesome tarantula skittered across the road in front of the car. I was able to get some decent photos of it. A friend IDed it as a male Brachypelma epicureanum. We also had our best looks yet at Yucatan Jays, with a flock of adults and juveniles perching right by the road.  We got the main road, and headed back to the hotel. Dan took a quick swim before dinner, making me regret not bringing a swimming suit.

Here are my photos for the day-
www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/sets/72157638154679814/

Bird list-
Road to Calakmul

Yellow-throated Euphonia      
Summer Tanager                
Black-throated Green Warbler  
Magnolia Warbler              
Black-and-white Warbler       
Wood Thrush                   
White-bellied Wren            
Yucatan Jay                   
Yellow-throated Vireo         
Great Crested Flycatcher      
Eastern Wood-Pewee            
Yellow-olive Flycatcher       
Northern Bentbill             
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet 
Keel-billed Toucan            
Wedge-tailed Sabrewing        
Squirrel Cuckoo               
Roadside Hawk                 
Ocellated Turkey              
Great Curassow 
              
Felipe Carrillo Puerto

Plain Chachalaca              
Yellow-billed Cacique         
Orange Oriole                 
Yellow-tailed Oriole          
Black-cowled Oriole           
Great-tailed Grackle          
Melodious Blackbird           
Indigo Bunting                
Blue Grosbeak                 
Blue Bunting                  
Northern Cardinal             
Green-backed Sparrow          
Black-headed Saltator         
Thick-billed Seed-Finch     
White-collared Seedeater      
American Redstart             
Hooded Warbler                
Tropical Mockingbird          
Gray Catbird                  
Spot-breasted Wren            
Brown Jay                     
Mangrove Vireo                
White-eyed Vireo              
Masked Tityra                 
Couch's Kingbird              
Tropical Kingbird             
Social Flycatcher             
Barred Antshrike              
White-fronted Parrot          
White-crowned Parrot          
Olive-throated Parakeet       
Pale-billed Woodpecker        
Smoky-brown Woodpecker        
Ladder-backed Woodpecker      
Collared Aracari              
Cinnamon Hummingbird          
Buff-bellied Hummingbird      
Canivet's Emerald             
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl         
Groove-billed Ani             
Ruddy Ground-Dove             
Common Ground-Dove            
Eurasian Collared-Dove        
Rock Pigeon                   
Short-tailed Hawk             
Turkey Vulture                
Black Vulture                 
Cattle Egret                  
Snowy Egret                   
Black-throated Bobwhite - heard only       

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Yucatan. Felipe Carrillo Puerto. What's that light?

Sunrise comes a lot earlier in the Yucatan than it does in Texas. We thought if we started at about 600AM we could get some night birds. Not so! It was quite light out. There was a tiny cafe across from the hotel, where we grabbed coffee and I picked out a pan dulce from a plastic bag, choosing ones with the fewest ants. After knocking them off, it was really good. We got in the car and took off for Vigia Chico Road, just outside of town.

This 8 km road travels through a variety of habitats, starting with scrubby fields, into nice deciduous forest. Because of this, there is a large diversity of birds along the way. Almost immediately we spotted a Caribbean Dove, sitting on a stone wall under some large trees. I thought we had lost our chance for that species after leaving Cozumel, so I was really pleased. We heard some Black-throated Bobwhite calling; Martin tried whistling them in, but had no luck. A striking Turquoise-browed Motmot was sitting on a power line outside a farm house. Black-headed Saltators were calling. All of this and we had not even gone a half kilometer!

It is always difficult to know what to do. We knew the forest birding was better further down, but it is hard to drive off and leave birds. We decided to press on and drove further. A couple of kilometers down we were surprised to find another birder! We were even more surprised to find out he was from Kent, south of London. He and his wife had attended a destination wedding at Playa del Carmen and he had sneaked off for a day of birding. We joined forces for a while and "ticking" species off very quickly. Brendon, our new English friend, was really happy to have run into us, as almost all of his birding experience was in Asia, Africa and Europe. We got the scope out and scanned some distant trees, finding our first Keel-billed Toucans of the trip.

We all moved a bit further down and we found one of my goal birds, Rose-throated Tanager. That really sounds like a looker, huh? Wrong. They are really dull brown, with yellow under the throat on the females and a bit of rose on the male. We saw a number of these birds, but never a male. Then we found a bird that sounds dull, but is far from it, Gray-throated Chat. This bird is slate gray and white, with an incredible blaze of red down the middle of its chest. Unfortunately, it was very fast moving and I never even tried to get a photo. I was super excited about this, as it was probably my most wanted bird for the Yucatan. There were a bunch of other "color" birds, Blue-black Grosbeak, Gray-colored Becard, Rose-throated Becard, Lesser Greenlet and Green-backed Sparrow.

One of my favorite sounds on this road was the song of the Spot-breasted Wren. Almost all wrens have great songs. This one carried through the woods. It supplemented the song with a great call that sounded like someone running their thumb over a small comb. Northern Bentbills were calling all around us, with a crazy high pitched buzz. We even heard a Thicket Tinamou. There were many other calls that we never able to identify.

We went back to town for lunch and a little siesta. We planned on some after dark birding, so we wanted to be prepared. We drove back out on the road, dodging a few rain showers. We saw more mixed flocks and I photographed a few butterflies and a spectacular white, black and red day flying moth. After the sun set we started actively looking for eye shine on the side of the road.  We also listened intently. Our two targets were Yucatan Poorwill and Yucatan Nightjar. We finally saw a dot of red on the side of the road. We creeped up, and a bird flushed up in front of the car. Unfortunately, it had a long tail and white in the wing and tail, a Common Paraque. Then we heard a distant "will" call, the Yucatan Poorwill. That gave us a bit of hope. We continued cruising and spotted more eye glow, but it looked odd. As we came up we discovered it was a moth! The eye was large and reflecting red, just like a bird. None of us had ever seen anything like it. Finally, we saw more red eye, and found our Poorwill! We looked some more for the nightjar, but had no luck. Coming back into town we did have one more surprise. A Northern Potoo, one of the weirdest looking night birds in the tropic landed on top of a pole right in front of us. I tried to photograph it, but only got a weird shot that looks like a light on top of a pole.

Photos for the day-
http://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/sets/72157638098559915/

Bird list-

Scrub Euphonia                
Altamira Oriole
Hooded Oriole                 
Great-tailed Grackle          
Melodious Blackbird           
Blue-black Grosbeak           
Gray-throated Chat            
Summer Tanager                
Rose-throated Tanager         
Green-backed Sparrow          
Black-headed Saltator         
Thick-billed Seed-Finch       
Black-throated Green Warbler  
Magnolia Warbler              
Northern Parula               
American Redstart             
Hooded Warbler                
Common Yellowthroat           
Black-and-white Warbler       
Tropical Mockingbird          
Black Catbird                 
Clay-colored Thrush           
Spot-breasted Wren            
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 
Green Jay                     
Brown Jay                     
Lesser Greenlet               
Mangrove Vireo                
White-eyed Vireo              
Rose-throated Becard          
Gray-collared Becard          
Masked Tityra                 
Tropical Kingbird             
Social Flycatcher             
Boat-billed Flycatcher        
Great Kiskadee                
Dusky-capped Flycatcher       
Yellow-olive Flycatcher       
Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher  
Northern Bentbill             
Greenish Elaenia              
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet 
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper      
Olivaceous Woodcreeper        
Barred Antshrike              
White-fronted Parrot          
Olive-throated Parakeet       
Ladder-backed Woodpecker      
Yucatan Woodpecker            
Collared Aracari              
Turquoise-browed Motmot       
Blue-crowned Motmot           
Black-headed Trogon           
Cinnamon Hummingbird          
Canivet's Emerald             
Northern Potoo                
Yucatan Poorwill              
Common Pauraque               
Groove-billed Ani             
Squirrel Cuckoo               
Caribbean Dove                
White-tipped Dove             
Common Ground-Dove            
Eurasian Collared-Dove        
Rock Pigeon                   
Roadside Hawk                 
Turkey Vulture                
Black Vulture              
Thicket Tinamou               

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Yucatan, November 16/17. More cowbell!

I haven't done any birding blog posts in quite a long time. We just returned from the Yucatan and I thought it was a good opportunity to resume. We were there from November 16 to the 24. I am going to combine days when we did little birding due to travel, or we did some cultural stuff.

We arrived in Cancun just after noon on November 16. Our plan was to meet up with one of our favorite birding friends, actually favorite friends period, Dan Peak, grab a rental car and head to Cozumel to bird for at least part of the afternoon. One thing you learn in the tropics is to slow down, take a breath, and be very flexible. I won't go into detail, but we really should have checked to see if there was more than one terminal at the Cancun airport! Finding Dan took a little extra time, picking up the rental car took a LOT of extra time. By the time we left the airport, drove south and arrived at the ferry in Playa del Carmen, it was late afternoon. We did see my first life bird of the trip, Yucatan Jay, flying into a tree out side of town. Our only birding was at the ferry dock, where we had just a handful of terns, gulls and Magnificent Frigatebirds.

I had expected to do some sea birding from the ferry. The trip across to Cozumel is about 18 kilometers. Surely a few birds fly by. They probably do, but seeing them is not easily done. The ferry has benches and you can not get up and stand at the railing. It also started getting dark as we were going across. Instead of being entertained by dolphins on the bow wave and birds zipping by, we had to settle for a two ferry workers with a tape recorder and a cow bell, singing up front. The young man was very enthusiastic and not a bad singer. The Mexican passengers sang along. It was actually pretty entertaining. We were treated to a gorgeous full moon rise on the way.

We had a few more minor mishaps involving our original hotel, Hacienda San Miguel, which was flooded due to heavy rains earlier in the week. They moved us to their sister property, Vista del Mar, giving us sea view rooms. The rooms were fine, though being on the strip was a little noisy. The shower was wonderful. (This is a big deal to me.)

Now for the birding! We left at about 600AM. It was already light. We drove to an abandoned housing development mentioned in Steve Howell's book, A Bird Finding Guide to Mexico. This site was much better than I expected! This development was abandoned years ago and the forest has taken it back. The roads are still in decent shape, so it is the best of both worlds. . Because of its isolation as an island, Cozumel has a few endemic species and sub-species, not found anywhere else. It also is a good place to get Caribbean birds. We were the most interested in any bird with Cozumel in the name, Cozumel Vireo, Cozumel Emerald, a hummingbird, and Cozumel Thrasher, which unfortunately, is probably extinct. There is also a wren, Cozumel House Wren, which is possibly going to be split in the future from House Wren.

We found a fruiting tree and started racking up the species. I thought Black Catbird could be a problem, as they can be skulkers. Wrong! They were everywhere. They were joined by a pair of Western Spindalis, another new bird for me. Lots of warblers were in and out, padding my Mexico list with birds we normally see in Texas. A pair of Yucatan Woodpeckers were down the road, loudly calling. Yellow-lored Parrots, also called Yucatan Parrot, called and flew over. Yellow Warblers, of the golden sub-species, were in and out. We tore ourselves away and started driving side roads. Martin spotted a Cozumel Vireo, which is a really different looking vireo, similar to a Cassin's Vireo, but much browner. We also had Yucatan Vireo, which looks like a Red-eyed Vireo on steroids, along with the Cozumel sub-species of Bananaquit, Rufous-browed Pepper-shrike and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. We had no luck with the hummingbird or the wren.

We drove back into town, and headed north to the country club, which is supposed to be good for the hummingbird. We drove in and found a patch of promising looking flowers by the parking lot. I flushed a Common Paraque, and we found more warblers. A hummingbird darted in and we got decent looks at the Cozumel Emerald. I also got a terrible photo! On the way back to town we stopped along the way and saw quite a few birds in the woods by the side of the road.

We still needed the wren and were torn about what to do. We had a bit of a drive to our next location, after the ferry ride, and were not sure if we wanted to do it in the dark. We decided to keep birding and take the gamble. We drove out towards a set of Mayan ruins in the center of the island, which is known as a birding site, but when we turned down the road, it was really rough and the forest was cut well back, making it difficult to bird. We decided to go back to the abandoned housing development. Driving in we passed a stable with a group of carriages parked off the road. It was really scrubby and looked like a good spot for a wren. Sure enough, we were able to "pish" one out, so the gamble paid off.

The ferry departed at 500PM. We were, again, confined to the benches, so there was no birding. The same couple played the tape recorder and sang with the cow bell. Adding to the experience on the way back were the numerous very inebriated American passengers. What is it in tequila that makes people think they are fabulous dancers, even confined to narrow benches? We got back to Playa del Carmen, went to pick up our rental car with only a small incident with the key. (Note: if you rent a car in Cancun, you can't take it to Cozumel, even on the car ferry. There are secure parking lots in Playa del Carmen, where you can park. You can rent a car in Cozumel very cheaply. I recommend Isis. They have great reviews. We were quite happy.)

We had an uneventful, though rather slow drive to Felipe Carillo Puerto, where we checked into our hotel, El Faisan y El Venado, a decent clean hotel with an ok restaurant. 

Photos-http://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/sets/72157638045063913/



Bird List in reverse taxonomical order. (Sorry about that. I have some new birding software I can't figure out!)
  PAINTED BUNTING -
  WESTERN SPINDALIS
  YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUIT
  BANANAQUIT
  WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER
  BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER
  YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER
  PALM WARBLER
  YELLOW WARBLER
  MAGNOLIA WARBLER
  NORTHERN PARULA
  AMERICAN REDSTART
  HOODED WARBLER
  NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH
  OVENBIRD
  GRAY CATBIRD
  BLACK CATBIRD
  BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER
COZUMEL  HOUSE WREN
  RUFOUS-BROWED PEPPERSHRIKE
  YUCATAN VIREO
  COZUMEL VIREO
  MANGROVE VIREO
  WHITE-EYED VIREO
  MASKED TITYRA
  DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER
  EASTERN WOOD-PEWEE
  NORTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULET
  YELLOW-LORED PARROT
  YUCATAN WOODPECKER
  COZUMEL EMERALD
  VAUX'S SWIFT
  COMMON PAURAQUE
  GROOVE-BILLED ANI
  MANGROVE CUCKOO
  WHITE-TIPPED DOVE
  RUDDY GROUND-DOVE
  EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE
  WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON
  ROCK PIGEON
  RUDDY TURNSTONE
  NORTHERN JACANA
  BLACK-NECKED STILT
  AMERICAN COOT
  BLACK VULTURE
  GREEN HERON
  CATTLE EGRET
  LITTLE BLUE HERON
Playa del Carmen
 GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE
  TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRD
  YUCATAN JAY
  TROPICAL KINGBIRD
  WHITE-WINGED DOVE
  SANDWICH TERN
  ROYAL TERN
 LAUGHING GULL
  SANDERLING
  TURKEY VULTURE  GREAT EGRET
  BROWN PELICAN
  NEOTROPIC CORMORANT
  MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD

Friday, February 15, 2013

Put Down the Camera and Look at the Bird

When I first came up with the idea for this post, I used slightly stronger language, something to the effect of "Put Down the Freaking Camera and Look at the Gosh darn Bird." Fortunately, I re-thought that, but I am still thinking it.

You probably think I am anti-photography. Nothing could be further from the truth. I take photos. I take and post way too many photos. It is really enjoyable to get positive feedback on a photo of a bird. I also love looking at my pictures and remembering trips I have taken. So, why the negative title? Because I feel that photography has hurt my birding skills in some ways and I also feel it inhibits the progress of new birders. Let me tell you why.

When I was a new birder I remember more experienced people telling me to leave my field guide in the car. This seemed counterintuitive to me. If I didn't look at the book, how could I tell what the bird was? So this is what would happen-I would see a bird and grab the book, flipping through pages feverishly looking for a brown bird. I would look back up to see if the bird had a white throat and it would be gone. I would realize that I had missed all the important field marks. So, I started leaving the book in the car and made note of everything I could see on the bird. I also paid attention to how it moved, how it was shaped overall, it may sound weird, but how it felt. I started being able to say "Ok, this is a warbler," or "This is a sparrow." I didn't throw away the book. I spent hours pouring over it when I was at home. I didn't just look at the pictures, but I paid attention to the maps and actually read the text. It took time, but I improved.

How does this relate to taking photos? You may say, "But a picture captures the field marks better than my mind and it is easier to ID." Perhaps, but if you don't actually pay attention to what the bird is doing, how it moves, how it feeds, how it relates to other birds, you won't get to know the bird. It is kind of like the difference between a parent and a school photographer. You can tell who a child is by his photo, but do you know him? Would you recognize him in the mall, or running up to your car? I see a lot of new birders posting photos saying "What is this?" That is fine, but they are posting pictures of the same birds over and over. They don't seem to progress in learning that the dull winter warbler is an Orange-crowned, or that the hawk they see that doesn't look exactly like the photo in their one field guide is a Red-tailed. This is normal for a very new birder, but it seems to go on much too long in people who use a camera lens rather than binocular to look at birds.

I have even noticed this in my own birding. I sometimes pay way too much attention to getting a good shot, rather than enjoying and watching the bird. It takes time to get the exposure right, to set the correct ISO, to find the right composition.  I have started to lose the ability to get a glimpse of a bird and narrow it down quickly to a small number of species, or even the exact bird. I am hating that, so, I am trying to take fewer photos. The only time I make a big effort is if it is a bird that needs documenting or it is flirting, daring me to take its picture.  I don't want to regress. I want to really know the birds. I am a fairly experienced birder. So, if photography is an impairment to me, how much more an impairment is it to a newbie?

Birds are so worth knowing and loving. It is absolutely worth becoming a good birder. I wish I was better. I strongly encourage you to become a birder, not just a photographer. Spend 99% more time just looking at the birds, rather than photographing them, at least initially. You might miss a few IDs, but you will get to know the beauty of our avian co-inhabitants of this world. You will have fewer compliments on your camera skills, but you will have a wonderful relationship that will last your lifetime.