FCP

Our planned second conquest of Mexico didn’t start too well, as we arrived at Manchester Airport to discover that a nano-metre of snow had resulted in the delay of our flight to Cancun for FIVE hours on Feb 22nd, 2010.

On the downside, this meant we had to hastily rearrange car hire, contact our first hotel stop in Felippe Carillo Puerto (hereafter referred to as FCP), and reconcile ourselves to the fact that we’d miss an hour or two of light when we eventually landed in the great and promised land – I bet Hernan Cortes never had these problems….

On the upside, it meant we got to drink lots more Stella and Guinness than anticipated before we boarded the 11 hour flight west.

From left, Barry McCarthy, Paul Thomason, John Dempsey, Neill Hunt

We landed in darkness, picked up a stonking Nissan X-trail from American Car Hire, and with Tropical at the wheel barrelled off into the steamy Mexican darkness, with FCP a mere three and a half hours away.

The night was heady with potential as the fortnight lay ahead of us – What adventures would we have? What would we see? What would we get up to…

…100 metres later we were stopped by an armed police checkpoint – the first of many military and police stops we encountered…these chaps it had to be said were in the main quite surly, but when you’re holding a big gun, I suppose it’s down to you to decide the mood you’re gonna be in, not a carload of tired birders with infant school Spanish…

They let us through fast (Most of ’em did over the fortnight, once they heard “Miramos los pajaros” and caught a whiff of fajitas, cervesas and other things best left unmentioned emanating from the X-trail) and Tropical pressed south through Tulum and down the 307 to reach FCP at midnight, by which time we were fully acquainted with the quaint Mexican tradition of vehicle death by tope.

We booked into El Faisan Y El Venado for two nights, and after a taco or two at a roadside stand, hit the hay, with the sounds of roosting Cattle Egrets and Great Tailed Grackles in our ears.

FCP was a great, chaotic wee town to spend two nights, and it boasts a fine line in cockerels and Mexican karaoke at 4am.

It also has the advantage of being right on the doorstep of the Vigia Chica Road – a fairly straight and easy track that leads right through 30 clicks of secondary forest growth, clearings, pools and scrub.

Plenty of trails leading off into the undergrowth to explore, some leading to pools, others to dark and scary places in the woods, where bogles lurked.

We hit it at 5.30am each morning for the next two days, and the birds starting coming one after the other – magnificent….

We flushed two Pauraques on the first morning as we drove on before dawn, then it was flycatchers, wintering New World warblers, toucans, parrots, raptors, herons, vireos etc all the way.

Bat Falcons and Grey Hawks (above) perched up in the grey, humid dawn, American Redstart, Hooded Warbler, Black Throated Green Warbler, Parula etc etc flitted about the high branches, and parrots – Yucatan and Yellow Lored – plus Aztec Parakeets squawked and flapped like crazy as they woke from their roosts.

Bewildering hummingbirds zipped about, and a grumpy looking Bare Throated Tiger Heron scowled from the opposite side of a cenote one morning, while at another pool, Ruddy Crake emerged from the reeds glowing red and tiny in the dawn before scooting back into cover, leaving us to be feasted on by belligerent mozzies.

On our first morning we were lucky enough to hit a minor ant swarm about 5km down the track from the school – gold dust in neotropical birding, as they drawn in loadsa birds.

The birds aren’t after the ants, rather the other insects that the ants scare up.

Frustratingly for a digiscoper, the birds rarely sit still, but when Grey Throated Chat, Hooded Warbler and Ruddy Woodcreeper are flitting around in front of you, with Black Catbird, Yellow Rumped Attila and Spot Breasted Wren, it’s hard to care too much about the quality of the shots. Even close to the bustle of the little town, there were birds to get blown away by – Keel Billed Toucans, Blue Grosbeak and Blue Grey Tanager were all happily living cheek by jowl with the rest of the population.

After about 9.30am, the humid early mornings turned seriously hot, seriously quick, but the Vigia Chica still had birds to offer, even if many species had quietened down – 12.5km down the track, the tangle of trees and strangler figs, ferns and sawgrass peters out for a while on the right.

Here, plenty of New World Warblers – stunning Yellow Throateds, Parulas, Magnolias etc fed in the palms alongside several oriole species, and the local Black Vulture population hung out, warming up on branches before a day of circling and scavenging – well someone’s gotta clear the dead dogs off the road. With them were two superb King Vultures.

Even when it got hot in the afternoon the Vigia Chica was worth a look, while FCP itself had Cinnamon Hummer nesting  by the roadside, and Black Crowned Tityras sat up in the trees.

The sheer variety and elusiveness of the forest birds could be quite intimidating at times, but it was exhilarating birding as we tried to get our heads round the Mexican avifauna.

Luckily Bazzo’s obsession with flycatchers, Trops’ uncontained enthusiasm for the unknown, and Neill’s cool-headed approach to hummingbirds stood us in good stead.

Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies…

FELIPPE CARILLO PUERTO LIST:

(All km marks are from the school at the top of the Vigia Chica road as a starting point, and the birds are in the order we first encountered them – I really can’t be bothered sorting ’em into families!)

KM 0.2: Pauraque, Yucatan Woodpecker, Brown Jay, Green Breasted Mango, Great Tailed Grackle, Cattle Egret, Greyish Saltator, Tropical Mockingbird, Pale Vented Pigeon, Yucatan Parrot, Ruddy Ground Dove, Aztec Parakeet, Red Billed Pigeon, Great Egret, White Eyed Vireo, White Winged Dove, Social Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Couch’s Kingbird, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Yellow Throated Vireo, Linneated Woodpecker, Yellow Crowned Parrot, Grey Hawk, Golden Olive Woodpecker, Ladder Backed Woodpecker, Yellow Faced Grassquit, Altamira Oriole, Plain Chachalaca.

KM 1.2: Least Flycatcher, Green Jay, Bat Falcon, American Redstart.

KM 2: Rufous Browed Peppershrike, Rose Throated Becard, Black Headed Saltator, Blue Grey Tanager, Yellow Bellied Elaenia, Rose Breasted Grosbeak.

KM 2.4: White Tipped Dove, Hooded Oriole, Black Crowned Tityra, Pale Billed Woodpecker.

KM 3.5: Yucatan Flycatcher, Canivet’s Emerald.

KM 3.9: Roadside Hawk.

KM 4.7: (pool on right): Bare Throated Tiger Heron, Turkey Vulture, Magnolia Warbler, Tropical Peewee, Blue Grey Gnatcatcher, Southern House Wren, Northern Bentbill, Squirrel Cuckoo.

KM 5: Black and White Warbler, Rose Throated Tanager, Red Throated Ant Tanager, Blue Bunting, Bright Rumped Attila, Grey Throated Chat, Black Catbird, Hooded Warbler, Mangrove Vireo, Summer Tanager, Spot Breasted Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Scrub Euphonia, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Wedge Tailed Sabrewing.

KM 5 (pool on left): Ruddy Crake, Limpkin, Grey Crowned Yellowthroat.

KM 6.2: Black Throated Green Warbler, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Orange Oriole.

KM 11.8: Golden Fronted Woodpecker.

KM 12.1: Wood Thrush.

KM 12.5: Great Kiskadee, King Vulture, Prairie Warbler, Melodious Blackbird, Groove Billed Ani, Yellow Throated Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula, Nashville Warbler, Northern Rough Winged Swallow, Black Cowled Oriole, Sharp Shinned Hawk.

Around the town of FCP: Keel Billed Toucan, Blue Grosbeak, Purple Martin, Cinnamon Hummingbird.

To the temple of the turkey

We were rained off the Vigia Chica road by 9.30am on Feb 24th, and after a sturdy breakfast of omelettes, tortillas, refried beans and chips, left FCP and began the journey down to the south west and Calakmul, with Neill at the wheel, happily negotiating miles of poverty-stricken villages slowly decomposing in the tropical heat and brightening skies, dead dogs in the road (commoner than roundabouts in Milton Keynes), military checkpoints, roadside amigos selling crucifixes on wooden necklaces that would weigh an elephant let alone Mother Teresa down, veering to within 3 clicks of Belize, and best of all, a garage made out of the chassis of old yellow, blue and red buses.

Very cool road trip (Playlist = Havana 3am, Los Lobos, Walker movie soundtrack).

Birding was good too, as the roads got poorer and the maps began to lose all relevance to the infrastructure – Mexico is full of villages and roads, that just aren’t on the map, existing in their own alternate universes, their main purpose being to confuse navigators.

Mangrove Swallow, White Collared Seedeater and inevitable, but atmospheric Black and Turkey Vultures whizzed by the window as the X-Trail powered on.

A quick stop at the Villa EcoToucan on Lake Bacalar was a good break from the two lane blacktops – Snail Kite, Northern Harrier, close-up Painted Bunting and Social Flycatcher, Neotropic Cormorant, Pied Billed Grebe and our first Magnificent Frigatebird of the trip, were such good refreshment, we didn’t even hassle the nice hippy lady there for a beer.

And although it is clearly proper Mexican etiquette, we didn’t run over her dog either.

Nearer to Calakmul we passed Belted Kingfisher, Bat Falcon and a gorgeous, gorgeous Swainson’s Hawk, migrating over a cloudy ridge, the first of several we would see, and one of the birds of the trip for me.

We pulled into the Hotel Puerta Calakmul at 4pm in heavy rain. The place was another eco-hotel, which really means bamboo huts, with mosquito screens instead of walls, although it must be said, this was a very, very nice one.

Look! There’s our house!

After an excellent dinner of beer, spaghetti, beer, fish, beer, bananas in tequila and a bit more beer to be on the safe side, Neill, Trops and I headed off along the damp tracks, walking around the closed gate of the Calakmul biosphere reserve to look for big red backed tarantulas (they like coming out after the rain).

We did see lots of big spiders caught in the glare of our head torches, but sadly no big hairy scaries.

That said, the beams did catch 4 roosting Ocellated Turkeys peering down at us from the trees above – we’d see loads more the next day.

Surprisingly, and most unpleasantly, it was freezing cold in the jungalows that night, and we shivered under the unnecessary mosquito nets…someone should introduce our new age friends to the wonders of central heating.

In the middle of the night, Bazzo sat bolt upright in bed, still fast asleep, and said: “Great days. Great days. Never to be forgotten”.

Then he went straight back to the land of Nod.

Ah, the amazing properties of Avloclor and Paludrine, our constant anti-malarial companions on the trip….but a fine summation of our journey nonetheless.

Up early the next day, we hared down the 50km long approach road to the Mayan temples of Calakmul, startling what may have been an Ocelot in the pre-dawn gloom, then bumping into no less than nine Great Curassows (astonishing birds), numerous Ocellated Turkeys, Keel Billed Toucans,Yellow Billed Caciques and Plain Chachalacas – the approach road to the temple is probably worth more time, but we wanted to get deeper into the woods before it got too hot.

It was unnervingly quiet walking around the maze of paths that led to various temples, but the birding was good, if slow and hot work – loadsa Yankee warblers, plus Orange Crowned Warbler, Lesser Greenlet, Brown Headed Parrot and dirty great big Yucatan Black Howler Monkeys and Central American Spider Monkeys crashing through the trees above us.

Sadly the monkeys possessed neither trumpets nor tin drums, so I was a little disappointed.

Yucatan Woodpecker was still pretty common, and a few Wedge Tailed Sabrewings zipped about in the tops of the trees.

Now, in case anyone out there is labouring under the mistaken belief that these Mayan temple thingies were used for human sacrifice (if you haven’t seen “Apocalypto” yet, don’t do it before dinner), let me put you straight – they are clearly raptor watching platforms built by ancient Aztec birders.

The view from the top of ’em is breathtaking – stretching for miles over the forest canopy, although the vertigo that goes with ’em is as unpleasant as a ritual disembowelment.

White Crowned Parrot, King Vulture, Black Swift and more were ‘scopable from the top (no one confronted us about our tripods when we went into the vast temple site, although some folk have problems), but I could only stomach half an hour on the top before edging back down…what a wimp.

I did manage our first Violaceous Trogon at a safer level while I waited for the boys to come back down to earth, so it wasn’t an abject defeat.

Once all down at ground level, the birding seemed to pick up again as we hit a fairly large and varied feeding flock….Stub Tailed Spadebill, Baltimore Oriole, Black Headed and ViolaceousTrogon, Wood Thrush, Tawny Crowned Greenlet, Wedge Billed Woodcreeper, and the usual mix of Yankee warblers all flashed by above us, with Red Throated Ant Tanagers, confusing hummers and invisible squawkers, squeakers and whistlers, all at neck-breaking high levels for observation from the forest floor.

Really, really exciting when you hit a flock like this – there are birds everywhere, the branches twitch and it’s hard to keep up with the movements above you – a complete contrast to the general silence of the forests. We were clearly all moved by the experience (some more than others, as Tropical quickly became the first of the crew to succumb to Montezuma’s Revenge), so much so that we got lost on the trails back.

At least this meant we bumped into more Grey Throated Chats and a lurvely Kentucky Warbler, plus Grey Necked Wood Rail as we tried to find our way back to the entrance.

Ants the size of SUVs took advantage of us where they could (ask Neill) , even trying to get into my optics…

Where’s a hungry Least Flycatcher when you need one? (I know, they don’t eat ants, but y’know…)

Keeping cool heads as the Howler Monkeys roared laughing at us from above, we eventually retraced our steps and got back to the car, pulling out of the biosphere reserve and getting back to eco-jungalowland by 5.15pm – not for the standard crew booze-up, but for a trip to a nearby bat roost.

When I say “bat roost”, it was more Batopolis, as 7 million bats poured out from a cave we couldn’t go to see (scientists were mist netting them there) and streamed all around us beside a busy Mexican highway.

They brushed past our faces in their thousands, before forming huge smoky trails like Starling or Knot in the early evening sky.

An incredible sight, with Cooper’s Hawk, Bat Falcon and Roadside Hawk all zoning in to pick ’em off.

The bats were easy pickings for any half manoeuvrable raptor really.

You may have seen this spectacular roost on Attenborough’s “Life of Birds” and any natural history documentary about Mexico worth its salt.

Mainly Broad Eared Free Tailed Bats apparently, with some Parnell’s Bats and other species. Bit disappointing not to get to the batcave, pretty cool to see the animals in the air and brushing past our faces all the same.

Mucho cervesa that evening and another cold night in the jungalows.

Brekky the next morning gave us a stonking Collared Aracari (a cross between a clown and the Guinness toucan) on a tree above us, before we hit the road again, and headed for Palenque.

Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies…

CALAKMUL LIST:

Swainson’s Hawk, Bat Falcon, Grey Headed Dove, Ocellated Turkey, Yellow Billed Cacique, Keel Billed Toucan, Yucatan Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Great Curassow, Magnolia Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Black Throated Green Warbler, Scrub Euphonia, Brown Headed Parrot, Yellow Throated Vireo, Aztec Parakeet, Mangrove Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Orange Crowned Warbler, Blue Bunting, Yucatan Woodpecker, Black Swift, King Vulture, White Crowned Parrot, Violaceous Trogon, Southern House Wren, Grey Catbird, American Redstart, Tree Swallow, Stub Tailed Spadebill, Baltimore Oriole, Nashville Warbler, Blue Grey Gnatcatcher, Black Headed Trogon,  Grey Chested Dove, Wood Thrush, Altamira Oriole, Tawny Crowned Greenlet, Cinnamon Becard, Wedge Billed Woodcreeper, Buff Bellied Hummingbird, Least Flycatcher, Yellow Bellied Flycatcher, Red Throated Ant Tanager, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Grey Necked Wood Rail, Grey Breasted Chat, Kentucky Warbler, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Blue Black Grassquit, Roadside Hawk, Indigo Bunting, Green Throated Hummingbird, Mealy Parrot, Cooper’s Hawk, Collared Aracari, Chestnut Headed Oropendola, Montezuma’s Oropendola.

Usumacinta Marshes and Palenque

We whizzed west from Calakmul at 8.16am on Feb 26th, on the way to Palenque, passing Swainson’s Hawk, Wood Storks and Crested Caracaras, as we entered a new avifauna, through farmlands and dog dead villages, along Route 186, where Laughing Falcons started to appear on roadside posts and the number of egrets began to increase exponentially.

Several military checkpoints (“I wonder if he’ll let me play with his carbine, if I let him look thro’ my ‘scope?“) later and by 11am we turned off the tarmac at San Elpido, and drove slowly down a dirt track that threaded thro’ farmlands with marshy edges, stacked with birds.

Gorgeous Vermillion Flycatchers, Fork Tailed Flycatchers and Orchard Orioles fed in the scrub and damp grasses, and Lesser Yellow Headed Vultures, Turkey Vultures and various bewildering grey brown flycatchers and kingbirds zipped about.

The great thing about Lesser Yellow Headed Vultures is that they tend to search for carrion low down, sweeping about just feet above the ground like demented harriers, and coming very close – much more amenable than high flying TVs and flappy flappy Black Vultures.

Great birding, with numerous Kiskadees and Social Flycatchers, wintering Yankee warblers and Rough Winged Swallows. Yellow Rumped Warblers started appearing – a common winterer, as numerous as American Redstart in some parts of Mexico.

In the blue, blue sky above a superb White Tailed Hawk drifted over – our first of the trip.

As we moved on, the 186 sped through mile upon mile of marshland, ideal grazing, with flooded edges right by the road harbouring Black Bellied Whistling Ducks, Jacanas, herons, egrets and flycatchers by the gazillion.

Only problem was, there’s no place to stop on this fast road, so we kept going, until we turned off the tarmac again on the track to San Marco – more marshlands and pools, fields and flycatcher-friendly fencing, but at least you could stop whenever you wanted. Which we did. Frequently.

Spiny Tailed Iguanas behaved disgracefully at the side of the track, unconcerned by human presence – there are loads these imposing critters in Mexico, all mighty cool and aloof – even when they’re indulging in al fresco rumpy-pumpy.

Raptors were exceptional here, and exceptionally obliging, perched up at the roadside, almost ignoring us as we got out to admire ’em.

Roadside Hawk and Aplomado Falcon were just stunning – the latter is supposed to be quite scarce, but we scored with at least 6 (3 in one field) in the Usumacinta Marshes to the north of Palenque over the next few days, lovely falcons.

Grackles and ground doves were at the trackside, with the odd Yellow Warbler, Bank Swallow overhead and a scattering of common wintering waders – Greater Yellowlegs etc.

Black Collared Hawk was a real bonus – again happy to sit by the roadside as we blatted it with digi-cameras pointed out of the window, like most raptors here it just didn’t care about us, as it sat deep in concentration and after a meal.

An Eastern Meadowlark sang from a fencepost as we crawled by – a highlight for me, as I’ve missed the species at Cape May up in New Jersey – like a few of the American wood warblers we encountered, it’s always nice to get a species back.

We pushed on, failing to find the much-praised track to Santa Rosa, but amid the traffic of bustling, crazy Balancan, Laughing Gull and Royal Tern flapped about the town’s ornamental concrete sided lake, and a stonking 15 foot long Alligator was hauled out in the sun, gob wide open, just waiting for an unwary dog/terrapin/child/grackle to come too close – superb.

Very odd, very Mexico.

We crossed the Rio Usumacinta at 2.30pm, and barrelled on towards Palenque, through rich farmland bizarrely like Cheshire!

Great big Ringed Kingfishers, much larger than Belted, with shining chests, sat up on wires, and as we got closer to our destination, it was reassuring to see that the rigorous  Mexican standards of traffic safety were strictly enforced in this neck of the woods.

The high blue hills of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas rose above us as we pulled into Palenque and the edge of the real deal hardcore rainforest. Our digs (the cheapo, but clean El Panchan, not the posh “traveller” one) were just inside the park gates, and cost the princely sum of £18 for three nights.

Dumping the bags, we strolled out towards the recommended jungle restaurant/bar of Don Muchos – it was beer time.

We crossed a small bridge as the gloom began to gather, and on the dark forest stream below it, a brain-frying Agami Heron was fishing quietly – unbelieveable!

Naturally none of us had cameras, but just seeing a bird this hard to connect with, so close, was just astonishing.

Like looking into an alternate universe, or possibly heron heaven.

Most beautiful heron in the world? Probably.

We liked Don Muchos – the walk down to the place alongside the stream and dense jungle gave us Agami, Louisiana Waterthrush, Ovenbird, Wood Thrush and Yankee Warblers, and despite the high hippy quota, a night necking Modelos and Mescal, while listening to the Mexican bands and sounds of the jungle was just fine with us.

Once folk started fire dancing and we lost count of the tequila slammers, it was time to stumble off to bed.

With a spring our step and a slight headache behind the eyes, we were up before dawn the next day and went up to the temples and ruins that Palenque is famed for.

They don’t open till 8am, but you can walk rainforest trails in the meantime – dark, damp, wild places, cathedrals of towering buttressed trees, covered in vines and strangler figs, rushing streams and dense undergrowth.

Orange Billed Sparrow, Wood Thrush, Red Throated Ant Tanager and Long Tailed Hermit showed, lots of squeaking and checking sp in the undergrowth didn’t.

Once into the temple complex we tried to get ahead of the crowds and moved straight for the temple of the cross, before spending the day wandering the trails and scoping the rainforest from the top of the structures.

Hot, humid and superb birding.

Here’s a few more temple shots for the history freaks…

Good birds – Yellow Breasted Chat, Squirrel Cuckoo, Berylline Hummingbird etc showed, but they were kinda sparse – until we got to the tree.

The tree deep in the temple complex was fruiting and drew in an incredible variety of species….nothing for it, but to climb a nearby temple and scope the branches, weighed down by birdies.

Collared Aracari, Golden Hooded Tanager, Yellow Winged Tanager, Black Cheeked Woodpecker, Yellow Throated Euphonia, Social Flycatcher, Violaceous Trogon, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, American Redstart, Black Throated Green Warbler, Yucatan Woodpecker, White Crowned Parrot, Orchard Oriole, Streak Headed Woodcreeper, Red Legged Honeycreeper and Tropical Parula were all in the branches or nearby.

For once, a Violaceous Trogon sat the right way round to show off its yellow belly, allowing me to get a few shots in the gloom, while parrots squawked overhead and Turkey Vultures got up out of the rainforest for a spot of thermalling.

Pleasing to see White Crowned Parrots sitting up in the trees here, although the steamy, overcast day meant any shots taken from more than 50 feet way were always going to come out poo.

A wander round the temples brought us more warblers – Worm Eating, Magnolia, Black Throated Green, Black and White etc, and a nice Yellow Throated Vireo. A Bat Falcon sped through the compound, putting the willies up everything like a particularly flashy wee Hobby, and Least Flycatcher and Swainson’s Thrush popped up in the undergrowth.

A quick look behind the Temple of the Inscriptions (the trail is still closed, but we got far enough down it to see Slaty Tailed Trogon, Common Tody Flycatcher and Rufous Tailed Hummer), before heading back to the central temple for a spot of raptor watching.

We scoured the massive rainforest stretching up the slopes above us in the mist and raptors began to appear – Red Tailed Hawk, Coopers Hawk, Great Black Hawk and most magically of all, the target raptor here – White Hawk (picked up by Tropical, who was not surprisingly dumbstruck by his discovery).

White Collared Swift, King Vulture, numerous TVs and Black Vultures passed over us, but as this was Mexico, the raptor watch wouldn’t be complete without a touch of the surreal.

We picked up a very high bird, with a long, long tail, gliding through the mist – thoughts turned to Swallow Tailed Kite, but it turned out to be a Magnificent Frigatebird – wasn’t expecting one this far inland…very odd. Very Mexico.

Leaving the ruins, we spent the afternoon birding the road back towards El Panchan – Nightingale Wren and Buff Throated Saltator were cool, but I missed a Scarlet Rumped Tanager (luckily Neill got me onto one of these stonkers the next morning).

The Saltators were feeding on figs around a wee eco-tourism place, and Swainson’s Thrush, Black Headed Trogons, hummers etc came in to join the feast.

I tried digiscoping some of the American wood warblers coming down to a stream to drink, but they were just too flighty…even a particularly patient Hooded Warbler proved beyond my meagre skills.

Time for round two at Don Muchos.

Another day, another hangover, and we woken before dawn by the low growling of howler monkeys before a dawn hike into the rainforest just down the hill from the temple entrance.

The problem with rainforest birding is that the first man down the narrow trails gets the bird, while companions only a few feet away frequently miss it – so it was this morning, as I found a Mexican Antthrush, only for it to melt away into the vegetation on the sloping forest floor before the lads saw it.

(Movie fact film fans, apparently this area was where many of the jungle scenes in “Predator” where filmed).

Such is life – Trops got Royal Flycatcher in much the same way, although three us had already walked underneath it oblivious.

At least we all got great views of Collared Trogon and White Breasted Wood Wren, before taking a spin up the Ocosingo road for a spot of raptor watching at KM40.

White Hawk, Short Tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon and White Collared Swifts joined the vultures as we scoped from the side of the busy round out across the valley.

In the afternoon we returned to the Usumacinta Marshes for another blizzard of birds – plenty of Yankee waders, herons and egrets, flycatchers and a statuesque Jabiru, towering over everything in a fields that contained crowds of caracaras, vultures, egrets, White Tailed Hawk and Aplomado Falcon.

Crocodiles (Morelets?) floated silently in the quieter pools on the track down to San Jeronimo (a place we never found). Jacanas scurried amongst cattle and Anhingas were common – usually perched up drying their wings.

Double Striped Thick Knees stood motionless in heat shimmering crop fields, and Red Winged Blackbirds flew alongside the wheels.

Louisiana Herons and Pinnated Bittern joined the heron list, and Groove Billed Anis were everywhere.

We birded the tracks of this endless marsh till dusk, picking up bird after bird – stunning habitat, full of species – White Tailed (Black Shouldered) Kite, Montezuma’s Oropendola (try saying that after a tequila or two), Yellow Headed Parrot, Common Black Hawk etc etc.

Leaving the marshes as the mosquito and bug horde began to sound like rain on the windscreen we stopped to marvel at a swarm of Lesser Nighthawks feeding over a cattle field, while Pauraques rose from the roadside.

Birding heaven.

Dawn on our final morning in Palenque, after another bruising evening in Don Muchos, and we tried the rainforest trails and road just before the temples again, scoring with Crimson Collared Tanager, Chestnut Headed Oropendola, Long Tailed Hermit, loadsa Yankee warblers and Squirrel Cuckoo.

Best of all, was a Blue Crowned Motmot (I’m not making these names up, honest), perched high in the canopy, and one of the species we were aching to connect with.

Then it was off up the Ocosingo Road for our next birding area – next stop, and next blog entry, the Sierra Madre de Chiapas highlands and Sumidero.

Thanks for sticking with it.

Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies…

PALENQUE LIST:

Usumacinta marshes:

Laughing Falcon, Vermillion Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Little Blue Heron, Arcadian Flycatcher, Groove Billed Ani, American Redstart, Lesser Yellow Headed Vulture, Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Clay Coloured Thrush, Rough Winged Swallow, Bank Swallow, Yellow Rumped Warbler, White Tailed Hawk, Tropical Kingbird, Orchard Oriole, White Collared Seedeater, Tropical Mockingbird, Grey Hawk, Common Ground Dove, Fork Tailed Flycatcher,  Black Bellied Whistling Duck, Neoptropic Cormorant, Northern Jacana, Yellow Crowned Night Heron, Black Collared Hawk, Plain Breasted Ground Dove, Ruddy Ground Dove, Black Necked Stilt, Eastern Meadowlark, Greater Yellowlegs, Aplomado Falcon, Hook Billed Kite, Yellow Warbler, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, White Winged Dove, Ringed Kingfisher, Osprey, Crested Caracara, Solitary Sandpiper, Short Billed Dowitcher, Great Blue Heron,  Barn Swallow, Mangrove Swallow, Tree Swallow, Wood Stork, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Anhinga, Jabiru, Double Striped Thick Knee, Red Winged Blackbird, Bare Throated Tiger Heron, Blue Black Seedeater,  White Ibis, Squirrel Cuckoo, Roadside Hawk, Killdeer, Forster’s Tern, Gull Billed Tern, Louisiana Heron, Pinnated Bittern, Blue Winged Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Blue Grey Tanager, Green Kingfisher, Least Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, White Tailed (Black Shouldered) Kite, Montezuma’s Oropendola, Yellow Headed Parrot, Yucatan Woodpecker, Cinnamon Becard, Black Crowned Tityra, Social Flycatcher, Brown Jay, Green Heron, Great Crested Flycatcher, Common Black Hawk, Common Yellowthroat, Blue Grey Gnatcatcher, Lesser Nighthawk, Pauraque.

Rainforest:

Agami Heron, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Green Heron, Hooded Warbler, Wood Thrush, Grey Catbird, Orange Billed Sparrow, Long Tailed Hermit, Red Throated Ant Tanager, Grey Headed Dove, Wilson’s Warbler, American Redstart, Magnolia Warbler, Berylline Hummer, Brown Jay, Yellow Breasted Chat, Squirrel Cuckoo, Swainson’s Thrush, Ruddy Quail Dove, Collared Aracari, Golden Hooded Tanager, Yellow Winged Tanager, Black Cheeked Woodpecker, Yellow Throated Euphonia, Social Flycatcher, Violaceous Trogon, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Yucatan Woodpecker, White Crowned Parrot, Orchard Oriole, Streak Headed Woodcreeper, Tennessee Warbler, Red Legged Honeycreeper, Bat Falcon, Least Flycatcher, Worm Eating Warbler, Yellow Throated Vireo, Rufous Tailed Hummer, Black and White Warbler, Black Throated Green Warbler, Common Tody Flycatcher, Slaty Tailed Trogon, Red Tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, White Hawk, Great Black Hawk, Magnificent Frigatebird, White Collared Swift, King Vulture, Spot Breasted Wren, Parula, Tropical Parula, Green Backed Sparrow, Buff Throated Saltator, Nightingale Wren, Variable Seedeater, Keel Billed Toucan, Grey Hawk, Cattle Egret, Black Headed Trogon, Red Lored Sparrow, Scarlet Rumped Tanager, Double Toothed Kite, Tawny Winged Woodcreeper, Mexican Antthrush, White Breasted Wood Wren, Paltry Tyrannulet, Collared Trogon, Red Billed Pigeon, Summer Tanager, Wedge Tailed Sabrewing, Turkey Vulture, Short Tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Snowy Egret, Great Tailed Grackle, Feral Pigeon, White Winged Dove, Kentucky Warbler, Chestnut Headed Oropendola, Crimson Collared Tanager, Blue Crowned Motmot, Northern Royal Flycatcher, Little Hermit, Lesser Greenlet, Chestnut Sided Warbler.   

 

Up in the high country

Neill took the wheel out of Palenque and up the eternity of hairpins and yawning, jungle-draped chasms that is the Ocosingo Road after brekky on March 1st.

I’d like to be able to wax lyrical about this amazing mountain road – two and a half hours of breathtaking vertiginous forest views, 6,000ft up, where banditos once robbed travellers, until the army got seriously medieval and employed the most heavily armed and humourless checkpoints we came across.

I’d like to write about the indigenous native children brought up in bone-crushing poverty and chasing the X-trail to try and sell us bananas, or the mean hombres trudging up the hills with machetes in hand, or even raggedy families out gathering firewood.

I’d like to harp on about the lines of white traditional smocks hanging on the trees for sale around every tiny pitiful unmapped village.

But I can’t, because that most malicious of the old Mayan gods, none other than the notorious Bolloxotl, had dealt me a particularly wicked hand of cards that day.

Bolloxotl is the Mayans’ mischievous one, the one who makes birders sit on tarantulas, or just miss the fleeting shape in the jungle canopy that may once have been a Quetzal (that’s what Bazzo told us anyway).

Bolloxotl is the god that stops the ant swarms running and he is feared by all sensible birders.

This morning he bestowed upon me an almighty dose of the Aztec two-step, so I spent most of the time on the road into the high Chiapas diving into ditches and banos perched above plunging ravines, before dosing up on Immodium.

Quite why I my nether regions suddenly felt like Popocatepetl had moved south and was ready for serious business is a mystery – I’d only had a modest supper of beer, steak, beer, chillies, beer, chips, beer, refried beans, beer, salad, beer and a few mescals the night before….

By the time we got to the end of the Ocosingo Road, I felt a lot better, which was lucky as it was time to start birding the pine and oak woodlands above St Cristobal De La Casas, a great town, where Lesser Nighthawks arced above the illuminated central square in the evening, and xylophone troupes performed on the bandstand.

We checked out the track 2km up the Ocosingo Road from the St Cristobal junction first – Yellow Eyed Junco, Brown Creeper, Rufous Collared Thrush (common, but a stonker), Chestnut Collared Sparrow and Hammond’s Flycatcher were around the clearings, but as it was a hot afternoon the woods were fairly quiet.

Before we headed into town to find a place to stay for three nights, we gave the track 2.6km from the junction a bash. The wind had got up and cloud was sweeping down off the high forested ridges above us – colder certainly, and the birds were more active as a consequence.

Steller’s Jays foraged around the pines, calling loudly, and lovely Eastern Bluebirds sat on prominent perches, pulses of startling blue in the grey fading light.

Best of all was a full on male Townsend’s Warbler – the first of many we would see over the next few days.

I’ve always been a sucker for Yankee Wood Warblers (who isn’t?), but this species was stunning even by the standards of the rest of the clan.

We drove back into town at 5.30pm into the chaos of evening traffic, and booked into the Hotel Jardines del Carmen in San Cristobal de las Casas – a fine old Spanish colonial style hotel, with a balcony over looking the massive Mexican flag that fluttered above the town, hemmed in by a cruel world of shanties and hard poverty.

Next morning we hit km2.6 on the Ocosingo Road hard at 6.15am and hammered it. Although cold at first the birding was superb, and goatherds and wood gatherers seemed happy to see us whenever they passed.

The area wasn’t dissimiliar to the pinewoods at Formby, except the birds were different and we were 6,000 feet up.

Areas of tired dead crops broke up the trees and the edges here were very productive.

Hermit Warbler joined Townsend’s on the list and I was lucky enough to get a brief glimpse of a feeding Pink Headed Warbler before it melted away in the dawn gloom – the lads would score with two the next day.

Grey Silky (Flycatcher), Hermit Thrush, loadsa Yellow Rumped Warblers, Bushtit, Cedar Waxwing, Hutton’s Vireo and large groups of squeaking and twittering White Collared Swifts heading west on Spring passage made the place magical.

Hutton’s and Warbling Vireo, Band Backed Wren and White Eared and Garnet Throated Hummer – there were birds everywhere!

Tropical scored with a Ruddy Capped Nightingale Thrush, but it had scuttled into cover by the time the rest of us caught up with him.

By 11am we’d exhausted the track and with the day heating up, went to km2, where Magnificent and Amethyst Throated Hummers, Black Capped Swallow, Flame Coloured Tanager and a superb Crescent Chested Warbler ensured the smiles stayed on our faces.

The latter was in a feeding flock comprising Parula, Black Throated Greens, Townsend’s, Prairie, American Redstart, Hermit and Black and White Warblers – yankee warbler heaven.

The Black Capped Swallows were nesting on the secluded cliff face about a kilometre down the trail. Very cool.

We pulled out at 1pm and drove through St Cristobal and up to the cloud forest reserve at Huitepec – a calf-murdering ascent up steep steps through the cloud forest tangle.

The thin air at higher altitudes (7,000ft) meant we had to stop frequently. Luckily as we all treat our bodies as temples (no alcohol, no tobacco, macro-biotic diets, no telling lies etc) we survived. Just.

The trees and dry forest floor were quiet until we bumped into a feeding flock near the top of the trail.

With the forest floor covered in dry leaves, it was a bit like birding a particularly wild wood on the east coast in autumn.

Suddenly there was activity all around us, with Black Throated Jay, Band Backed Wren, Slate Throated Whitestart and a dreamy Golden Browed Warbler flitting about, some only feet away.

A Mountain Trogon on the way down the trail and a fine Black Throated Blue Warbler made the trek more than worthwhile…if you discount the hippy strumming a guitar at the summit.

Hopefully the indigenous folk conducting some sort of religious ceremony involving a crucible of smouldering wood sorted him out later.

Then it was back to St Cristobal, one of the four cities taken by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in 1994, and still with much poverty to address….street kids no older than five or six run around all night trying to sell trinkets for pesos amid the artsy fartsy folk and hippies in the town centre.

On March 3rd we went to km2 again, and Neill lured out two Pink Headed Warblers in the bushes and scrub to the left and above the main track. Great views of ’em – a bit like Dunnocks dusted in icing sugar if you ask me.

Much better was the breathtaking Red Faced Warbler that came into the Pink Headed tape lure, what a head pattern!

Then it was onto the holy mountain of Cerro Tzonyehuitz, or “TZ” as it is known to all but the most dextrous of tongue.

A good track hairpinned all the way up it through scrub and cloud forest (there I am at the top, proving that any hat which seems a good idea on holiday will in retrospect always make you look an arse).

The air was cool, crisp and thin above 7,000 feet, and the birding was hard.

Steep narrow trails snaked down through the dense forest, where abundant creepy crawlies and invisible Highland Guans lurked, the latter whistling like doodlebugs.

Hard scrabbling up and down the ravines way above the clouds brought us some nice Grey Silkys, a gorgeous singing Elegant Euphonia, the endemic White Breasted Hawk (mobbing a Red Tailed Hawk), Swainson’s Hawk, Band Tailed Pigeon and flocks of Violet Green Swallows.

On the way down I got flight views of a Spotted Nightingale Thrush as it zipped past me into the undergrowth, and the hillsides echoed to the sounds of Highland Guans, while wood warblers and Philly Vireo fed by the trackside.

Bazzo flushed two Singing Quail just outside one of the tiny Indian villages on the slopes.

Not too many species today, but all top quality stuff – maybe Bolloxotl was smiling down on us at last.

March 4th was our last morning at St Cristobal, and we went to km2.6 for another bash at the pines. We were confronted shortly after 6.30am by an irate guy who wanted to know if we had permission to be there.

Permission? Us?

Bazzo explained we didn’t as politely as is necessary when talking rural Latin American Spanish with an angry man waving a VERY BIG MACHETE and we told him we’d leave. 

We went in the opposite direction to him and carried on birding, but a short while later an old Dodge pulled up and asked again if we had permission.

Much more friendly this time, and no machetes involved, but we all felt a tad uneasy and decided to pull out and begin the journey through the hills towards Tuxtla Gutierrez and the Sumidero Canyon.

But not before Neill had managed to score Lincoln’s Sparrow and Spotted Towhee.

The road wound down out of the highlands, snaking down the Pacific slope of the Sierra Madre de la Chiapas until the roaring, screaming, smoggy, mental Mexopolis of Tuxtla Gutierrez hove into view.

Tens of thousands of souls try to survive here in a chaotic urban sprawl much like any other around the world, but perhaps considerably poorer.

How poor are people? 

Would you try to make your living by fire-eating for 120 seconds while the lights are on red at a busy road junction, in the hope someone will lob you a peso from an idling car?

Tuxtla’s one selling point of course is that it is directly beneath the stunning, startling, bird rich and awe inspiring Sumidero Canyon, a Mexican national park of scrub, forest and miradors looking out over the breathtaking rip in the earth that is Sumidero.

The wake on the water in the picture by the way is made by a boat about the size of a Mersey Ferry. That’s how deep Sumidero is.

We drove into the park in the heat of the day at 11am, but remarkably, birds were still very active and we were lucky to have a stunning afternoon.

Neill ran over Bazzo in the X-trail at the Mirador La Ceiba, but in his defence, it was quite hot, and he’d driven heroically for quite a few hours.

Once we saw the amount of birds coming into a nearby fruiting tree, Bazzo recovered reasonably quickly.

These things happen in any well-oiled hyper-efficient unit.

Green Parakeets, Varied Bunting, Rufous Crowned Motmot, the bizarre White Throated Magpie Jay, Streak Backed Oriole and an array of yankee warblers zipped about the fruit, while Black and Turkey Vultures rode the updraughts on the canyon lip, just feet above us.

We drove the reserve road for about 10 clicks until we got to the end, stopping at various miradors to bird.

Yellow Winged Tanagers, Violaceous Trogons, bold Green Jays and a lovely Belted Flycatcher, lured in by Neill’s MP3 collection, were our reward.

At the end of the track, at the Mirador Los Chiapas we met Edward.

Edward Vercruysse is Belgian and one of those world birders who disappears into the field on foot for long periods (in this case 11 weeks). 

A complete birding machine, with all other distractions in life stripped away, Edward is pure hardcore.

And great company to bird with for the remains of the day.

Barred Antshrike, various hummers, Rufous Capped Warbler, Boat Billed Flycatcher (finally), Blue Headed Vireo, White Lored Gnatcatcher and a superb Yellow Grosbeak all popped up as we birded the canyon together.

As we drove back out, Ridgeway’s Rough Winged Swallows were feeding along the lower slopes above the city.

We pulled out at 6pm, heading back into the roaring urban maw of Tuxtla, to stay the night at the Hotel Catedral, where Eddy was already ensconsed. 

After a shower, Edward joined us for a night on the tiles in the big city.

Next morning we walked into the national park at 5.30am, leaving the wheels at the locked entrance, and successfully tape lured a Buff Collared Nightjar in the area around the first trail on the left after the entrance.

Crazy call even by Nightjar standards. Listen to it on eBird here.

A good start to the day, but in contrast to yesterday, the whole place was a bit quieter – Short Tailed Hawk, Grey Crowned Yellowthroat, Ash Throated Flycatcher etc were nice, but it was an hour or two past dawn when we locked onto a superb Red Breasted Chat as it moved through the scrub, again by the Mirador La Ceiba.

Nice Streak Backed Oriole and plenty of Tropical Kingbirds.

Blue and White Mockingbird was calling in the morning grey, but we couldn’t find it.

Tropical met a mean Mexican bird guide who was leading a group about, using a laser pen as a pointer – effective but questionable, still the guy sure knew his stuff, picking out Bar Winged Oriole, Brown Crested Flycatcher and Short Billed Pigeon for Trops.

Great orchid type thing in Sumidero, but I’ve gotta id yet (found by Trops).

As the sun burnt through the mist, we decided to pull out, and with Edward aboard, pushed north, stopping off at the Nava’s Wren site 30 clicks north of the city to play MP3s to no avail.

We left the uber birder Edward in the muddiest, meanest rainforest we encountered there. He seemed happy enough.

I have no doubt he found the wren, but we had to move on.

Pleasure to met you Eddy. Hasta luego.

The X-trail pointed north and we began the long haul back up to the Yucatan coast, for the final stage of the trip.

Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies…

CHIAPAS LIST:

Yellow Eyed Junco, Brown Creeper, Cooper’s Hawk, Rufous Collared Thrush, Chestnut Collared Sparrow, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Yellow Rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), Steller’s Jay, Townsend’s Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Pink Headed Warbler, Hermit Warbler, Grey Silky Flycatcher, White Winged Dove, Yellow Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Bronzed Cowbird, Nashville Warbler, Bushtit, Garnet Throated Hummer, Warbling Vireo, Cedar Waxwing, Hutton’s Vireo, White Eared Hummer, Band Backed Wren, Black Vulture, White Collared Swift, Greater Peewee, Least Flycatcher, Red Tailed Hawk, Buff Breasted Flycatcher, Brown Backed Solitaire, Magnificent Hummer, Black Throated Green Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black Capped Swallow, Amethyst Throated Hummer, Turkey Vulture, Flame Coloured Tanager, Crescent Chested Warbler, Black Thrush, Spotted Woodcreeper, Mountain Trogon, Golden Browed Warbler, Black Throated Jay, Slate Throated Whitestart, Black Throated Blue Warbler, Great Tailed Grackle, House Sparrow, Red Faced Warbler, Maroon Chested Ground Dove, Ruddy Capped NIghtingale Thrush, Violet Green Swallow, Elegant Euphonia, White Breasted Hawk, Red Tailed Hawk, Band Tailed Pigeon, Swainson’s Hawk, Spotted Nightingale Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, Singing Quail, Lesser Nighthawk, House Finch, Summer Tanager, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Mourning Dove, Tropical Mockingbird, Green Parakeet, Varied Bunting, Altamira Oriole, Rufous Crowned Motmot, Violaceous Trogon, Western Tanager, White Throated Magpie Jay, Streak Backed Oriole, Northern Parula, Green Jay, Yellow Winged Tanager, Clay Coloured Thrush, Belted Flycatcher, Mountain Thrush, Barred Antshrike, Azure Capped Hummer, Olive Sparrow, Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Ruby Throated Hummer, Social Flycatcher, Canivet’s Emerald, Rufous Capped Warbler, Masked Tityra, Boat Billed Flycatcher, Plain Wren, Blue Headed Vireo, House Wren, White Lored Gnatcatcher, Squirrel Cuckoo, Yellow Grosbeak, Plain Breasted Chachalaca, Ridgeway’s Rough Winged Swallow, Magnolia Warbler, Short Tailed Hawk, Blue Grey Gnatcatcher, Grey Crowned Yellowthroat, Buff Coloured Nightjar, Blue Black Grassquit, Black and White Warbler, Ash Throated Flycatcher, White Eyed Vireo, Sharp Shinned Hawk, Red Billed Pigeon, Short Billed Pigeon, Tennessee Warbler, Red Breasted Chat, Indigo Bunting, Buff Bellied Hummer, Yellow Billed Cacique, Red Throated Ant Tanager, Bar Winged Oriole,  Brown Crested Flycatcher.  

Back to the coast

The final stage of our Mexican odyssey saw us powering north from Tuxtla Gutierrez having left “Eddy the Wren” deep in the bowels of a rainforest, 30 clicks from nowhere. These things happen. 

We had a long, long way to go.

The kilometres whizzed by and we were in Villhermosa by 2.30pm, not even halfway north towards the northernmost coast of the Yucatan peninsula.

Tropical drove like a man with a deadline, and by 5pm that day, we’d entered Ciudad del Carmen, with our sights firmly set on the old Spanish colonial town of Campeche.

We passed through mile upon mile of mangroves, marshes, farmland and sandy beaches on the way, “speed ticking” Roseate Spoonbill, Common Black Hawk , Osprey, Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern etc etc as the X-trail hurtled on into the night and the brainfrying confusion that is the traffic system in Campeche.

The road to hell ended in Spanish colonial heaven, as we dumped our bags in the Hotel Colonial.

A Unesco World Heritage Site, the centre of Campeche is amazing – perfectly preserved and oozing character from every pore. It is of course surrounded by a labyrinthine maze of shanties and roads that lead to nowhere.

I liked the Hotel Colonial, but I freely recognise that Neill and Trops held a different view, having discovered all the power switches in their room were actually in the shower.

Cue much fun with water and electricity….my how we laughed (well, how Bazzo and I laughed, I don’t think the boys were too impressed).

Fully beered up courtesy of the superb Blue Iguana bar, we dined on fresh fish and hit the hay before the second leg of our long push north on March 6th, destination Progresso.

We were in the mangroves and trails that skirt mile after mile of lagoon near Progresso by mid-morning, and very definitely in the dry heat of the north.

Bright blue skies and birds everywhere – American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Black Skimmer, Louisiana Heron, Reddish Egret etc etc.

Wonderful birding, and the waders…oh baby….Stilt Sands, Willets, Western and Semi P Sands, Semi P Plover, American Avocet, both Yellowlegs, Black Necked Stilts etc all feeding in the shallows against a backdrop of Pelicans, gulls, terns and stonking pink Caribbean Flamingos.

Royal Terns and Great Tailed Grackles were everywhere, and a nice little Mangrove (Yellow) Warbler even popped out to see us as the wind picked up and we drooled over lagoon after bird filled lagoon.

I like Great Tailed Grackles – they might be everywhere from the centre of cities to the remotest rainforest, but they have character and that counts for a lot, especially when they do the weird bill pointing thing…

Much of the coast around Progresso has been developed since Howell and Webb’s superb “Where to watch” guide, but there were still good birds for a Brit birder – Pied Billed Grebe, Lesser Scaup, American Herring Gull, Mangrove Swallow, Short Billed Dowitcher etc.

By 10.30am the wind had really strengthened, so we headed a little inland to the ruins at Xcambo – it was still gusting here amongst the small temples, but Yankee Warblers like Yellow Rumped (Myrtle), Yellow Throated, Wilson’s and Northern Parula were superb as always.

Neill’s MP3 got a Yucatan Wren going here, but the little weasel resolutely refused to come out of cover, unlike the bitey bitey chiggers, which seemed very interested in Tropical’s ankles (well, if you will wear shorts…)

The condition of his mind in the heat was perfectly illustrated when I heard him musing, to no one in particular, “Imagine the goings-on here 1,500 years ago. Football with human heads, Everything.”

Indeed. 

Perhaps it was time to move on.

We headed east towards Rio Lagartos through the coastal scrub bumping into Zone Tailed Hawk, Zenaida Dove, Orange Orioles and even a Merlin along the way, before meeting a Locust swarm head on 20 miles from target.

Splat.

Got to the wonderful fishing village of Rio Lagartos at 4pm, fuelled up at the Pemex and booked into the marvellous Hotel Villas de Pescadores for our last two nights, overlooking the lagoon, where frigatebirds, pelicans and skimmers swept past, and raptors, including Ospreys and Northern Harriers cruised over the distant mangroves.

Nice view from the room huh?

With an hour or so of light, we headed out to the crossroads 2 clicks out of town, where Canivet’s Emerald and Mexican Sheartails were feeding at a flowering tree, but otherwise it was a bit quiet.

So we drove back into town to check out the roost.

On Calle 19 in Rio Lagartos, the right hand turn just past the old military outpost, there is fantastic heron roost, where hundreds of birds drop in at dusk just behind the houses.

Remarkable watching Snowy Egrets, Boat Billed Herons, Great Egret, White Ibis, American Coot, Caribbean Moorhen and Louisiana Heron getting ready for bed just a few feet away in the gathering gloom.

This called for a great deal of beer.

Luckily our digs, as is often mysteriously the case, were right next door to the bar/restaurant, where sublime fish and ice cold beer never stopped.

We also met Diego (there he is look, remaining cheerful despite us not hiring him as a guide).

Diego Nunez is a cracking guy, who owns (I think) the Restaurante Familiar La Torreja, right on the Rio Lagartos waterfront. 

He’ll take you birding, fly fishing etc, but even though we didn’t use him, he never failed to give us information whenever we asked….a genuinely helpful birder, whose English was vastly superior to our Spanish.

If you’re ever in Rio Lagartos, look him up

Although he’ll probably find you first, if his uncle Elmer doesn’t.

In all likelihood, Diego seems so happy ‘cos we spent the equivalent of the GDP of this tiny little village on beer each night, or maybe he was genuinely pleased to see birders enjoying what his local patch has to offer.

More power to you Diego.

As it was Saturday night, the little village exploded in a fiesta of monumental proportions – numerous bands, parties, motorbikes, trumpets, firecrackers, singing, dogs barking, babies crying, wives and girlfriends berating drunken partners – all till 4.45am on Sunday, when the church belled tolled in admonishment and the little burgh fell silent as the grave.

Absolutely bloody magnificent!

Having slept fitfully through the fiesta maelstrom, we were up and out again for our last full day in Mexico, heading first to the crossroads just outside of town.

It was superb – plenty of activity, with Zenaida Dove, Mexican Sheartail, Yucatan Wren and numerous Yucatan Bobwhites giving themselves up, under the watchful eye of the local Spiny Tailed Iguanas, and Tropical Mockingbirds.

Palm Warbler and a deceptively bland looking Mangrove Cuckoo were in the scrub on the western track from the crossroads, where Neill found a brilliantly eccentric Lesser Roadrunner, and Grey Crowned Yellowthroats bucked the warbler trend by sitting still for more than a nano-second.

It was still windy, but as the sun rose, the light was good.

We nipped down the crossroads to the east, towards Los Colorados, detouring down the dirt track to the San Salvador Ranch, which gave us a fine young Great Black Hawk (check out the wimpy primary projection and longish tail raptor freaks) and a thoroughly charming Laughing Falcon in the arid scrub.

Then it was back to Rio Lagartos, for a great breakfast of toast, frigatebirds, omelettes, coffee and pelicans at the El Torrejo.

Refreshed we looked out over the lagoon, which was at low tide.

American Oystercatcher were on one of the distant banks, and a Peregrine sat up on a dead snag.

Best of all, an adult Kelp Gull followed one of the fishing boats back to the quay, shearing off and out onto the quieter reaches of the coast, but only after it had flown past us at about 250 metres – mega, I knew there were a few birds around Rio Lagartos, but I didn’t think we’d find one!

We celebrated with an outbreak of fevered photography as Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds behaved shamelessly inches away…

The temptation to end the trip in an orgy of beer and digiscoping was great indeed, especially when Bazzo saw the bill for our brekky, and Neill finally explained to Trops which end of a camera to look through…

But we are nothing if not professionals (well, okay, we were shambling wrecks after a fortnight in Mexico), and we hit the road one more time, heading out of the village and up to the saltpans at Los Colorados.

Very hot, very salty, very strange – when did you last see pink water?

Neill explained that this is where the world’s supply of dental mouthwash comes from, and he may well be right.

Snowy Plover, Caribbean Flamingo and a multitude of commoner yankee waders were in the salt heavy atmosphere, feeding in the shallow pans…not much we hadn’t seen before though, so we headed into the mangroves at Cenote Peton Tucha, 1.5km down the Los Colorados road from the crossroads, on the right.

Bazzo flushed a Yucatan Nightjar amid mutinous rumblings and whimpering pleas for beer, and the track got wilder and wilder as we pushed on toward the cenote (deep sinkholes in the limestone that Yucatan sits on).

Oh dear.

At least two Crocodiles lived here, which was cool, plus some dozy looking Boat Billed Herons (they are nocturnal after all) and a nice, if elusive Pygmy Kingfisher darted past once or twice. 

Turquoise Browed Motmot was calling, but we couldn’t see it in the tangle of trees and swampy vines.

We headed slowly back to Rio Lagartos for beer and digiscoping at 3.40pm.

The Black Skimmers were back in town and all was well with the world.

Tropical and Neill’s room had unaccountably flooded while we were out, so the nice lady who cleaned up the place had washed and pressed all Trop’s clothes – after two weeks on the road in Mexico, this service surely deserved some type of military honour, or a mention in dispatches at the very least.

Many beers later we crashed out, lulled to sleep by the waves lapping against the quay below us…ahhhhhhh…..

March 8 – last day in Mexico, on the road for Cancun early, and we had time to stop off at the Jardin Botanico Dr Alfredo Barrera Martin on the way to the airport.

Hot, full of mozzies and Yankee warblers, rope walkways, White Nosed Coatis and Central American Spider Monkeys.

Best and last bird was found by Trops – a Yucatan Vireo at eye-level beside the track. Great way to end the journey of a lifetime.

Last man standing? 

The Spiny Tailed Iguana who wouldn’t back down in front of us at the end of the Jardin Botanico trail.

So very Mexico.

Thanks guys, thanks Mexico, full North Yucatan list to follow, then back to some UK spring birding.

Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies…

NORTH YUCATAN LIST:

Wood Stork, Roadside Hawk, Anhinga, Laughing Gull, Ringed Kingfisher, Black Bellied Whistling Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, Blue Winged Teal, Great Blue Heron, Common Black Hawk, Roseate Spoonbill, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Osprey, Black Skimmer, Royal Tern, Collared Dove, Great Tailed Grackle, Feral Pigeon, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, White Winged Dove, American White Pelican, Ring Billed Gull, Forster’s Tern, Sandwich Tern, Double Crested Cormorant, Semipalmated Plover, Turnstone, Willet, Great Egret, Louisiana Heron, Little Blue Heron, Reddish Egret, Belted Kingfisher, Snowy Egret, Tree Swallow, White Ibis, Marbled Godwit, Grey Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, American Avocet, Black Necked Stilt, Barn Swallow, Mangrove (Yellow) Warbler, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Short Billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Caribbean Flamingo, Stilt Sandpiper, Pied Billed Grebe, Lesser Scaup, Common Ground Dove, Tropical Mockingbird, Tropical Kingbird, Yellow Rumped Warbler (Myrtle), Yellow Throated Warbler, Northern Parula, Wilson’s Warbler, American Herring Gull, Sanderling, Gull Billed Tern, Caspian Tern, Northern Rough Winged Swallow, Mangrove Swallow, Zone Tailed Hawk, Merlin, Zenaida Dove, Groove Billed Ani, Blue Black Seedeater, Blue Grosbeak, Aztec Parakeet, Orange Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Crested Caracara, Canivet’s Emerald, Mexican Sheartail, Boat Billed Heron, American Coot, Caribbean Moorhen, Night Heron, Yellow Crowned Night Heron, Yucatan Wren, Yucatan Bobwhite, Common Yellowthroat, Grey Crowned Yellowthroat, Palm Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Mangrove Cuckoo, Blue Black Grassquit, Yucatan Woodpecker, Ladder Backed Woodpecker, Red Winged Blackbird,  Solitary Sandpiper, Vermillion Flycatcher, Lesser Yellow Headed Vulture, Lesser Roadrunner, Yellow Billed Cacique, Barn Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Laughing Falcon, Great Black Hawk, Northern Harrier, Ruddy Ground Dove, Kelp Gull, American Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Snowy Plover, Grey Plover, Pygmy Kingfisher, Yucatan Nightjar, Cinnamon Hummer, Spotted Sandpiper, Vaux’s Swift.

Jardin Botanico:

Northern Parula, American Redstart, White Tipped Dove, Mangrove Vireo, Yucatan Woodpecker, White Browed Wren, Black and White Warbler, White Eyed Vireo, Yucatan Vireo, Yellow Throated Warbler, Tawny Crowned Greenlet, Black Throated Green Warbler, Canivet’s Emerald, Turkey Vulture, Great Tailed Grackle.

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