Mexico – Part 1: Before the Wedding – August 11-15, 2016

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Our trip to Mexico can be broken down into two parts, “Before the Wedding” and “After the Wedding” because had it not been for a good friend getting married in Cancun, we would not have done a trip to Mexico this summer. However, when a friend that you’ve known since kindergarten, does a destination wedding to a part of the world that you’ve never been, why not turn it into an excuse to pick up a few of the country’s birds?! It doesn’t take much of an excuse to get us to travel, and with a wedding in Cancun to go to, Ross decided on an 11 day itinerary to bird all around the Yucatan. Ross will handle the first blog post since he spent the first few days before the wedding traveling the Yucatan by himself while I sat poolside at the resort.

In typical budget birding fashion, I arrived in Cancun on a very tight schedule. It was already 10:30 a.m. and I needed to be at my hostel on Cozumel by 2:00 pm. to pick up a bicycle. I made my way through customs and was soon standing outside at the Ado bus stop located just outside the terminal. The bus departed my stop at 10:55 a.m. and after a few more quick stops at the other terminals I was on my way south to Playa de Carmen. It took just over an hour to get to Playa de Carmen and as we pulled into the bus station at 12:21, I had nine minutes to make my way to the ferry terminal. Luckily, the ferry terminal is only a few hundred meters from the bus station and I soon found myself sitting on a large passenger ferry heading east to the island of Cozumel. (Wondering if anyone else out there has had a faster exchange than this?!)

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Playa de Carmen in the distance on my way to Cozumel

To save on costs, I opted to rent a bicycle instead of a car to get around the island. After picking up my bike at my hostel at 2:00 p.m., I made a quick stop for lunch, bought A LOT of water, and headed out under the midday sun to pedal a few miles north to bird the dirt road that leads to the waste water treatment plant along the north shore of the island. Even though it was hot {read: really really HOT}, it only took a few minutes to find two of my three main target birds on the island, Cozumel Vireo and Cozumel Wren. (But don’t underestimate how tricky it can be to bike around with all of your birding gear and bird at the same time.) Bird activity was surprisingly good for mid-afternoon and I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening slowly birding along the road enjoying great looks at Yucatan Vireo, Mangrove Warbler, Black Catbird, Yucatan Woodpecker, and a single female Cozumel Emerald. As dusk approached I headed back towards town, grabbed another burrito for dinner, and tried to catch some sleep.

I woke up well before light and headed south out of town to an abandon housing complex a few kilometers south of San Miguel. I arrived just as it was getting light and spent the rest of the morning biking around this forgotten town. It felt a bit eerie riding by myself through a labyrinth of forgotten roads, but luckily the high bird activity kept me busy. I soon found a few noisy Yucatan Parrots and then my main target of the morning, the endemic subspecies of Rufous-browed Peppershrike. With my other two targets found, I started birding the main entrance road towards the highway making numerous stops to enjoy the common avifauna, including more Black Catbirds, Cozumel Vireo, Yucatan Vireo, Western Spindalis, and Caribbean Elaenia. I had told the bike rental company that I would be at my hostel by 9:30 a.m. to drop off the bike, so at 8:45 a.m. I left the housing complex and headed back to San Miguel. After a quick shower and another burrito, I jumped aboard the 10:00 a.m. ferry and headed back towards the mainland.

a road in the abandon housing complex

A road in the abandon housing complex

Black Catbird

Black Catbird was the most common passerine on Cozumel

The original game plan was to meet the car rental employee at the ferry terminal, but unsurprisingly, the attendant was nowhere to be found. After waiting for 15 minutes, I decided it would be worthwhile to walk the 30 minutes or so to American Car Rental’s actual office. I arrived sweaty and slightly annoyed, but soon checked out my rental for the week and headed towards my first destination on the mainland, Xocen.

If I had to guess, I’d bet most birders who have been to the Yucatan have never heard of Xocen. It isn’t in Howell’s book so therefore who cares, right? Before leaving for the Yucatan, I did a lot of exploring on eBird and kept seeing checklists for Xocen. The more I looked in to it, the better the spot looked. It seemed to have a lot of potential and I was really excited to check the spot out. Xocen is a small town located just south of Valladolid and there’s a small dirt road that heads west out of town through some nice patches of forest. Although I never ran in to any other birders along this road, there are a few local Mexican birders who have been doing a lot of work in the area. It’s an absolutely fantastic spot and with its close proximity to Valladolid (and even Rio Largartos) I hope more birders will start adding this hotspot to their itineraries.

Sign at the beginning of the dirt road in Xocen

Sign at the beginning of the dirt road in Xocen

I arrived at Xocen around 3:00 p.m. and spent the rest of the evening birding along the first few kilometers of the road. Along the open sections of the road I found Black-throated Bobwhite, Black-cowled Oriole, Rose-throated Becard, and Northern Bentbill. I also found a few small feeding flocks with highlights such as Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Lineated Woodpecker, Carolina (White-browed) Wren, and Rose-throated Tanager. As evening approached and dusk fell, I could hear numerous Thicket Tinamous calling in the distance. After a very successful afternoon, it finally it was dark and I could start the search for my two most-wanted birds of the trip. My main reason for visiting Xocen was that it looked like a good location for Yucatan Nightjar and Yucatan Poorwill, my main targets. Surprisingly, it was only a few minutes after dark that I found the first of these targets, Yucatan Poorwill. Luckily I found a very responsive male and enjoyed fantastic walk away views as the bird called and sang directly overhead. Another 90 minutes of night birding produced a few Middle American Screech-Owls and brief views of my only vocal Yucatan Nightjar of the trip. Xocen was as successful as I had hoped it would be.

road in Xocen

The peaceful and extremely birdy dirt road in Xocen

Rose-throated Tanager

Rose-throated Tanager

Yucatan Poorwill

Yucatan Poorwill

Yucatan Poorwill

Yucatan Poorwill

Leaving Xocen around 9:30 p.m. I drove about 2 hours north before arriving at Rio Largartos. I slept for a few hours and then spent about 2 hours night birding before dawn. Sadly, the only thing I could find were two distantly calling Great-horned Owls. As dawn approached, the dry scrubby fields along the road to Colorados came alive and I soon found most of my target birds, including numerous Yucatan Wrens, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Black-throated Bobwhite, and Mangrove Vireo. I then focused my attention on searching for Lesser Roadrunner, but after about two hours of searching, I gave up due to the extreme heat. Instead I turned my attention to the actual town of Rio Largartos in hopes of finding a Mexican Sheartail. Luckily I happened upon a house that actually had two hummingbird feeders!! I soon had great looks at both Cinnamon Hummingbird and Mexican Sheartail and also found a sheartail nest.

Mexican Sheartail

Mexican Sheartail

urban Mexican Sheartail nest

Urban Mexican Sheartail nest

From here I decided it would be a good idea to head west to Progreso to search again for Lesser Roadrunner and then continue on to Celestun for the Rufous-necked Wood-rail. Long story short this is a really really long drive (about 7 hours) and my car didn’t have a radio. It was extremely boring and what felt like one of the longest drives I’ve ever done. When I arrived in Progresso (about 4 hours later) it was the middle of the afternoon and very quiet. I somehow found my only Yucatan Flycatcher of the trip and then decided to head to Celestun. Arriving in Celestun, I realized the tide was terrible for the wood-rails but not wanting to sit around for a few hours waiting for the tide to change, I decided to cut my losses and drive south to Felipe Carillo Puerto. For those keeping track, that’s about 12 hours of driving without a radio or anyone to talk to. What a terrible idea. The only silver lining in this debacle of a day was that I ran into a female Ocellated Turkey and her poults within the state of Yucatan. Although plenty of people see Ocellated Turkey during their trip to “The Yucatan” almost everyone only sees it in the state of Campeche. Actually seeing Ocellated Turkey in the state of the Yucatan is quite a rare event.

Arriving late in the evening in Felipe Carillo Puerto, I quickly made my way to my birding destination for the next morning, the dirt road heading NE from town. I found a quiet spot to sleep and quickly went to bed excited about the prospects of the birds to find the next morning. My hopes of birding this well-known hotspot quickly faded as heavy rain woke me up around 3:00 a.m. It remained dark and rainy all morning and birding was a struggle. Luckily persistence paid off and during lighter spells of rain, I was still able to find a few good birds including Stub-tailed Spadebill and my only Grey-throated Chat of the trip. By 11:30 a.m. I was getting pretty bored of the heavy rain and slow birding and decided to head back to town to buy an umbrella (I had forgotten mine at home) and grab some lunch. After about a 45 minute break, I headed back down the dirt road on the outskirts of town, but after a few kilometers I came to a sudden halt. A large tree had fallen across the road while I was in town! Although this put a damper on my plans for the rest of the day, it would have been way worse had I still been on the other side!

Luckily I was on the town side of this large fallen tree!

Luckily I was on the town side of this large fallen tree!

Without a way to get past the tree, I decided to head north and check out the lake near Coba. Although most tourists visit this site for the nearby ruins, the lake is also known as a reliable spot for Yellow-winged Tanager and Spotted Rail. Although I was unable to find the rail, I still managed to find a few interesting species including Yellow-winged Tanager, Snail Kike, Limpkin, and both Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias. It was now 4:00 p.m. and a decision had to be made –drive 2 hours in the “wrong” direction to Xocen for an early morning of birding and then drive 3 ½ hours to Silversands Resort for the wedding, or head directly to the resort and skip out on a morning at Xocen. After a few long days of driving and sleeping in the car, I couldn’t justify heading in the wrong direction and instead headed towards the resort for the night. Arriving a night early didn’t seem to be a problem for the staff and I soon found my way to my room. A few quick messages later and I was able to find Melissa on the resort grounds and spend the rest of the night eating and drinking with friends.

lago Cabo

Lago Cabo

Limpkin

Limpkin

Family of Yellow-throated Euphonias

Family of Yellow-throated Euphonias

Although I had arrived a day early at the resort didn’t mean that I had entirely given up on birding. Luckily the resort was only a 25 minute drive from Reserva Toh, so the next morning, Melissa, my friend Ab, and myself departed at 3:00 a.m. for some early morning birding. Night birding was slow, but the first two hours after dawn were quite productive with highlights such as Barred Antshrike, Northern Bentbill, Black-cowled Oriole, and Orange Oriole. We headed back to the resort around 9:00 a.m. so that Melissa could get ready for the wedding. I spent the rest of the day relaxing and preparing for the “post wedding” part of the trip that is covered in the next blog post.

View from our room at the resort

View from our room at the resort….a bit different than the typical car camping!

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