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.

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