SOUTHERN MEXICO BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Southern Mexico: Day 1 Our tour begins this evening at our hotel at the southern edge of Mexico City, where we will stay for two nights. An airport transfer will be provided from Mexico City airport in the late afternoon or early evening.
Southern Mexico: Day 2 The huge, bustling metropolis of Mexico City is situated at an altitude of around 2250m (7400ft) and is surrounded by cool pine forests which cling to the slopes of the many extinct and active volcanoes. The most famous of these, the mighty Popocatepetl (5452m or 17,887ft) can often be seen smoking threateningly in the far distance.
At this time of year, bird song enriches the crisp morning air, in marked contrast to the noisy urban bustle of the valley below. Underfoot are thick clumps of bunch grass covering uneven volcanic rock, interspersed with outcrops of sharp lava, and this is the home of two handsome endemic sparrows. The exceedingly rare Sierra Madre Sparrow is nowadays known only from a small area south of the capital and from an area in distant Durango. The buzzing song is the best clue as to the whereabouts of this small, secretive bird. The pot-bellied Striped Sparrow is a more conspicuous creature, often found in noisy groups, and we shall make a concerted effort to find both of these restricted-range species.
A mix of verdant pine-oak forests, brushy thickets and small fertile fields adds to the diversity of this interesting area which is home to several other Mexican specialities. The attractive but often unobtrusive Strickland’s Woodpecker is endemic to a tiny area of central Mexico. The fetching Buff-breasted Flycatcher is the most distinctive member of that nightmare genus Empidonax. This group of flycatchers is often considered to be the bane of New World birders because they can be so difficult to identify. Other regional endemics include White-eared Hummingbird and the attractive Grey Silky-flycatcher.
Amongst the many other species that we may well encounter during our time in the area are Broad-billed and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Northern Flicker (of the red-shafted form), Dusky Flycatcher, Mexican Chickadee, American Bushtit, Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creeper, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Western Bluebird, American Robin, Curve-billed Thrasher, Hutton’s Vireo, Elegant (or Blue-hooded) Euphonia (usually found in mistletoe), Canyon and Spotted Towhees, Chipping Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Junco, Eastern Meadowlark, House Finch and Red (or Common) Crossbill.
We shall also visit a vast reedbed where the endemic Black-polled Yellowthroat can be found. It is known only from a few marshes in Mexico’s central belt, drainage of which now threatens the continuing survival of the species. With luck, we will be able to compare its head pattern with that of the Common Yellowthroat, which can also be found here.
These once extensive marshes were inhabited by the Slender-billed Grackle, a colonial icterid that was last observed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Unrelenting drainage of the Lerma marshes has led to the extirpation of this reed-loving species.
Secretive Soras forage along the reed edges, where Song Sparrows scratch in the soil. Flocks of Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds swoosh over the reeds and amongst them we will try to find the localized ‘Bicolored Blackbird’. The latter is usually considered to be a race of the more widespread Red-winged Blackbird but is a local breeding species that can easily be identified by the lack of a pale border to the red wing coverts in the male.
Other species of the area include Least, Pied-billed and Eared (or Black-necked) Grebes, Black-crowned Night Heron, White-faced Ibis, Mexican Duck, Northern Shoveler, Northern Harrier, Common Gallinule, Wilson’s Snipe, Horned Lark, Tree and Cliff Swallows, and Brown-headed Cowbird.
Southern Mexico: Day 3 This morning we will visit an area of natural arid oak scrub at the edge of Mexico City. Here we should be able to locate the endemic Hooded Yellowthroat, which unlike most other members of the genus Geothlypis favours dry brushy habitat.
Flowering trees and bushes sometimes attract Lucifer Hummingbirds and endemic Black-backed (or Abeille’s) Orioles, and we may also find the lovely, regional-endemic Rufous-capped Warbler, as well as Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Rufous-crowned and Black-chinned Sparrows, Northern Cardinal, Bronzed Cowbird and Lesser Goldfinch.
Afterwards, we will drive southwards via the expressway to Oaxaca de Juárez (or Oaxaca City) for a three nights stay.
Southern Mexico: Days 4-5 One’s first impression of Oaxaca City, the capital of the state of Oaxaca, is of a pleasant town of airy patios and pink arcades, famous for its Indian markets, surrounded by a desert plain amidst barren mountains. On closer examination, we find that this area was once the bed of a vast lake and careful irrigation by the Oaxaqueño farmers led to lush green vegetable and flower fields growing alongside desert cacti and scrub. Above the city, clear streams tumble down from pine-clad peaks.
The Oaxaca basin and the surrounding uplands are home to some rare and localized species: more Mexican endemics can be found in this area than anywhere else in the country. During our time here we will visit the undisturbed mixed pine-oak forests on Cerro San Felipe, looking for interesting endemics including Mexican Whip-poor-will, the rare Dwarf Jay, Russet Nightingale-Thrush, Rufous-capped Brushfinch and the skulking Collared Towhee. In addition, we may well encounter Mountain Trogon, Pine Flycatcher, the stunning Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, the dazzling Crescent-chested Warbler and Black-vented Oriole, all of which are restricted to the highland forests of Mexico and northern Central America. The truly exquisite Red Warbler, with its shiny silver cheeks, eclipses even the brightest of its northern cousins and often travels with them in mixed flocks.
We will also search an area of dense thorn scrub and oak thickets for such endemics as Dusky and Beautiful Hummingbirds, the rare Pileated Flycatcher, Nutting’s Flycatcher, Boucard’s Wren, the unusual Ocellated Thrasher, Blue Mockingbird, White-throated Towhee and Oaxaca Sparrow.
In a desert area with many organpipe cacti, we will find the endemic Grey-breasted Woodpecker and the boldly marked and endearing Bridled Sparrow. Rocky outcrops and inspiring Zapotec ruins are inhabited by curious Canyon and Rock Wrens. A small lake often holds a nice selection of water-loving birds including Ruddy Duck, American Coot, Killdeer, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, Black Phoebe and Buff-bellied (or American) Pipit.
Other specialities in this area include the near-endemic Thick-billed Kingbird, the strange-sounding, regional-endemic Brown-backed Solitaire and the near-endemic Audubon’s Oriole. Another good bird here is Olive Warbler, nowadays a monotypic bird family. If we are very fortunate we will even come across the outstanding and highly-prized endemic Aztec Thrush or the unpretentious, regional-endemic Grey-collared Becard.
Other more widespread species we may well encounter in this marvellous area include Northern Crested Caracara, Band-tailed Pigeon, Common Ground Dove, Mourning and White-winged Doves, Groove-billed Ani, the angry-looking Mountain Pygmy Owl, Rivoli’s (or Magnificent) Hummingbird, Elegant Trogon, Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers, Vermilion and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Greater Pewee, Western and Cassin’s Kingbirds, Northern Raven, Steller’s Jay, Grey-breasted Wood Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, Cedar Waxwing, Plumbeous Vireo, Orange-crowned, Virginia’s, Nashville, Audubon’s, Black-throated Grey, Townsend’s, Hermit and MacGillivray’s Warblers, the striking Golden-browed Warbler, Slate-throated Whitestart, Black-headed Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Lark and Lincoln’s Sparrows, and Scott’s and Hooded Orioles.
Southern Mexico: Day 6 Today we will continue southwards, passing through the spectacular Sierra Madre del Sur en route to Puerto Angel on Mexico’s Pacific coast for a two nights stay. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Southern Mexico: Day 7 During our time at Puerto Angel we will explore the nearby foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur where shade coffee groves provide an alternative environment for two endemic and extremely localized hummingbirds: the magnificent Oaxaca (or Blue-capped) Hummingbird and the attractive Cinnamon-sided Hummingbird. Other endemics in this area include Colima Pygmy Owl, Grey-crowned Woodpecker, Happy Wren and Golden Vireo. Additional species we may find today include Cooper’s, Broad-winged and Zone-tailed Hawks, Bright-rumped Attila, House Wren, Hepatic Tanager, the gorgeous Red-headed Tanager, Summer Tanager, Common Bush Tanager and Greyish Saltator.
Further into the mountains, we will explore the mixed pine-oak forest where the stunning little White-throated Jay, another extremely localized endemic, can sometimes be found making its way through the forest understorey. Black-headed Siskin, a regional endemic, can also be found here.
We will also take a boat trip offshore in search of seabirds. Pink-footed Shearwater, Black Storm Petrel, Brown Booby and Magnificent Frigatebird are all regularly encountered and with a modicum of luck and the right weather conditions, we could encounter some of the scarcer species, which include the rare endemic Townsend’s Shearwater (which breeds on the remote Islas Revillagigedo), Galapagos Shearwater, Least Storm Petrel (a Mexican breeding endemic), Nazca Booby, Pomarine Jaeger, Franklin’s and Sabine’s Gulls, and Black, Royal and Common Terns.
Southern Mexico: Day 8 After some final birding in the Puerto Angel region we will travel eastwards along the southern edge of the windswept Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the city of Tehuantepec, where we will overnight.
Southern Mexico: Day 9 The almost impenetrable, low, xerophytic, thorny scrub near Tehuantepec is home to the well-marked Cinnamon-tailed (or Sumichrast’s) Sparrow. Known only from this tiny corner of Mexico (just around the Oaxaca-Chiapas state border) this is an inveterate skulker inhabiting grassy edges in this restricted habitat. Doubleday’s Hummingbird is another endemic we may well encounter here amongst the flowering shrubs, and we will surely see some more Orange-breasted Buntings.
Other species we may well encounter include the charismatic Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, the enigmatic, regional-endemic Lesser Roadrunner, Grey-breasted Martin, Yellow Warbler and Stripe-headed Sparrow.
After this enjoyable interlude, we will continue eastwards to the hill country of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Here we will search the tangled vegetation of the foothill gullies for two of Mexico’s most dazzling endemics.
The Orange-breasted Bunting, whose shimmering turquoise upperparts, bright yellow-green cap and golden underparts have to be seen to be believed, is a true Mexican gem. Every bit as good as Orange-breasted Bunting, and with a tiny range, is the fabulous Rosita’s (or Rose-bellied) Bunting. The male is a vivid blue bird with a shocking pink belly, and seeing, admiring and enjoying this spectacular avian jewel will no doubt be yet another of the highlights of this remarkable tour.
Raucous screams may reveal the presence of the endemic West Mexican Chachalaca, while the endemic Green-fronted Hummingbird and the endemic Sclater’s Wren also make a living here. Colourful endemic Citreoline Trogons and Russet-crowned Motmots perch stolidly in the sub-canopy. Other species we should encounter include Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, the spectacular, restricted-range White-throated Magpie-Jay and Streak-backed Oriole.
Eventually, we will reach the small town of Arriaga where we will stray overnight.
Southern Mexico: Day 10 In the varied habitats surrounding the small coastal village of Puerto Arista we will experience one of the birdiest days of the tour. Mangrove-lined lagoons, a wide sandy shore along the peaceful Pacific Ocean, wide mudflats bordering a meandering tidal arm, extensive groves of small thorny trees, spiny thickets, pastures, fields with brushy edges, copses of mangoes and huge ceibo trees offering shade to the small farms will allow us to notch up a bird list featuring both quality and quantity.
Before dawn, we will be waiting under an impressive kapok tree for the distinctive rather gruff call of the Pacific Screech Owl and hope to catch this tiny nocturnal critter in the beam of our spotlight. The dawn chorus here is dominated by the loud chattering of regionally-endemic White-bellied Chachalacas and the chortling, rollicking song of the Giant Wren. The latter is endemic to a narrow coastal strip of the state of Chiapas, but luckily this impressive bird is quite common here and the noisy and showy family groups are a feature of this area. The White-bellied Chachalaca, here at the extreme western end of its area of distribution, is often hunted and so the birds keep a low profile deep in the thickets after their vociferous morning display is over. Boisterous and flashy regional-endemic Yellow-winged (or Mexican) Caciques flit through the flowering trees, where we also hope to see the localized Spot-breasted Oriole.
Other species we could well find in this habitat include White-tailed and Hook-billed Kites, Sharp-shinned, Grey, Harris’s, Crane and White-tailed Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Red-billed Pigeon, Ruddy Ground Dove, Orange-fronted and Pacific Parakeets, White-fronted Parrot, Pauraque, Lesser Nighthawk, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, the endearing Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, the exquisite Painted Bunting, White-collared Seedeater, Melodious Blackbird, the attractive Orchard, Altamira and Baltimore Orioles, and Blue-black Grassquit.
Later in the morning, when bird activity has ebbed away with the increased heat, we will divert to the nearby coastal lagoons, where a rewarding assortment of waterbirds can be found, including American White Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricolored and Green Herons, Great, Snowy, Western Cattle and Reddish Egrets, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Blue-winged Teal, Western Osprey, Snail Kite, Northern Jacana, Grey (or Black-bellied), Semipalmated, Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Western, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, Sanderling, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Short-billed Dowitcher, Laughing Gull, Gull-billed, Sandwich and Caspian Terns, Black Skimmer, Ringed, Belted and Green Kingfishers, Mangrove Swallow and Northern Waterthrush.
Afterwards, we will head for the city of Tuxtla Guttierez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, for a two nights stay. We will have another opportunity to bird the Isthmus of Tehuatepec should we still need to.
Southern Mexico: Day 11 The great canyon of El Sumidero, just north of Tuxtla, is an awe-inspiring sight. As we gaze down at the Rio Grijalva, far below, we may hear the sound of some distant songbird carried up to us by the wind or we may see a Short-tailed Hawk join the vultures soaring against the massive 1000m (roughly 3300ft) cliffs.
The main ornithological attractions of the area lie along the road which bisects the woods of the canyon rim. At lower altitudes, we find bamboo-cloaked dry thorn bush, which changes to evergreen woodland at higher elevations.
A series of rare and localized regional endemics are to be found in this wonderful place. The elegant Belted Flycatcher and Bar-winged Oriole can regularly be found here, but most prized of all is the gorgeous Red-breasted Chat. Actually a warbler, a good view of this skulking slate, white and red bird moving quietly through the thorny bush, tail cocked, is ample reward for a persistent search. The handsome Blue-and-white Mockingbird is another skulker, but fortunately, a proud singer, which may well help us find it. The delightful Fan-tailed Warbler is usually encountered near army ant swarms, where it will feed, undisturbed by our presence, on the insects that have been flushed by the marauding ants. Its intricate tail movements will remind us of Asian fantails. The fabulous Slender Sheartail is one of the great prizes here. At this time of year their favourite flowers are available and so we have a good chance of getting good looks at this lovely, but often unobtrusive hummingbird. Ridgway’s Rough-winged Swallows sometimes perch on overhead wires and the inconspicuous Flammulated Flycatcher betrays its presence with its piercing song.
Other restricted-range specialities of the area include the raucous Plain Chachalaca, the smart Highland Guan (which betrays its presence by its loud whistles), the near-endemic Buff-collared Nightjar, Canivet’s Emerald, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, the impressive Great Swallow-tailed Swift, Couch’s Kingbird and Olive Sparrow.
At this time of year, the widely-distributed but usually very hard-to-see Pheasant Cuckoo relentlessly utters its call from the patches of evergreen forest and hopefully, we will be able to feast our eyes on this much-wanted species.
Other widespread species include Brown Pelican (here far away from its more typical coastal habitat), Black and Turkey Vultures, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Bobwhite, Inca and White-tipped Doves, Squirrel Cuckoo, White-collared and Vaux’s Swifts, Buff-bellied and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Plain-capped Starthroat, Gartered and Collared Trogons, Velasquez’s Woodpecker, Lineated Woodpecker, Barred Antshrike, Greenish Elaenia, Yellow-olive Flatbill, Dusky-capped, Brown-crested, Sulphur-bellied, Boat-billed and Social Flycatchers, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Violet-green Barn and Cave Swallows, the secretive Banded and Cabanis’s (or Plain) Wrens, Swainson’s and Clay-colored Thrushes, Tropical Mockingbird, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Black-and-white, Tennessee, Magnolia and Wilson’s Warblers, American Redstart, Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias, Western Tanager, the amazing Yellow Grosbeak, appealing Varied and Blue Buntings, Rusty Sparrow, Great-tailed Grackle and Bronzed Cowbird.
Southern Mexico: Day 12 Early this morning we will visit an area of limestone karst habitat where we stand a good chance of finding the most enigmatic of Mexico’s 32 species of wrens. The striking Nava’s Wren favours bare limestone rocks, pinnacles and small cliffs, infested with an impenetrable tangle of vines and trees. Its beautiful and far-carrying song will lure us inside this amazing habitat where, with a bit of luck, we will be able to admire this little-known endemic at close range as it clambers over rocks before disappearing into its strange environment.
Other species we may well find here include the very localized endemic Long-tailed Sabrewing, as well as Grey-headed Dove, Stripe-throated Hermit, Stripe-tailed and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Blackburnian and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Bananaquit, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Red-throated Ant Tanager, Black-faced Grosbeak and Yellow-faced Grassquit.
Afterwards, we will continue northwards to Catemaco in the southeastern part of the state of Veracruz, where we will stay for two nights. The town is situated on the shores of the huge Laguna de Catemaco, dominated by the surrounding Sierra de los Tuxtlas.
Southern Mexico: Day 13 We will spend our time in the Catemaco area birding in the forests of the Sierra de los Tuxtlas. Our prime targets are three extremely localized Mexican endemics that are restricted to this small part of the country, Tuxtla Quail-Dove, Blue-capped Motmot and Long-tailed Sabrewing. Black-throated Shrike-Tanager is another restricted-range speciality that we may also come across.
The Sierra de los Tuxtlas is a very rich and exciting area for birds in general and additional species we may encounter here include Great, Slaty-breasted and Little Tinamous, Muscovy Duck, Snail, Double-toothed and Grey-headed Kites, White and Black-collared Hawks, Ornate and Black Hawk-Eagles, Russet-naped Wood Rail, Sungrebe, Scaled and Short-billed Pigeons, Blue Ground Dove, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Long-billed Hermit, Long-billed Starthroat, Violet Sabrewing, Spectacled, Mottled, Black-and-white and Striped Owls, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Ringed, Belted, Amazon, Green and Green-and-rufous Kingfishers, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Wedge-billed, Streak-headed and Spot-crowned Woodcreepers, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Buff-throated and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners, Barred Antshrike, Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, Sepia-capped and Yellowish Flycatchers, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Sulphur-rumped Myiobius, Tropical Kingbird, Northern Schiffornis, Green Shrike-Vireo, Slate-coloured Nightingale-Thrush, Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, Black-faced Grosbeak, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Olive-backed Euphonia and Blue-crowned Chlorophonia.
If we are lucky we will come across one of the rarer denizens of the area, such as Tody Motmot, Barred Forest Falcon or Collared Forest Falcon.
Southeast Mexico: Day 14 After some final birding in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas, we will head for the bustling little town of Tuxtepec for a two nights stay.
Southern Mexico: Day 15 On the Atlantic slope of the Sierra de Juarez a diversity of habitats range from lowland and montane rainforests through cloud forest to lovely mixed pine-oak woodland on the higher ridges. As a result of this diversity, a wide variety of birds can be expected, but we will, of course, focus on Mexican/Central American endemics and specialities.
Early in the morning, we may flush a shy White-faced Quail-Dove from the roadside or chance upon a secretive White-naped Brushfinch feeding at the edge of a track. The most characteristic sound of these forests is the ethereal, haunting song of the self-effacing Slate-colored Solitaire, but finding the songster itself can be quite tricky. The localized Unicolored Jay is often found in roving bands and we may also find the diminutive Dwarf Jay rummaging around in the pines.
Imitating the song of the Central American Pygmy Owl (a member of the Least Pygmy-Owl complex) often attracts mobbing passerines that may include Yellow-winged Tanager and the enchanting Blue-crowned Chlorophonia (both regional endemics), and hopefully also the owl itself. Tiny regional-endemic Bumblebee and Amethyst-throated Hummingbirds, as well as Berylline Hummingbirds, are attracted to the rich flower banks where we should also encounter regional-endemic Cinnamon-bellied Flower-piercers doing their thing. Other regional endemics we hope to find here include the shy Long-tailed Wood Partridge, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, the furtive Mayan (or Mexican) Antthrush and the large Grey-barred Wren.
Other species of more widespread distribution include the lovely White Hawk, Roadside and Red-tailed Hawks, Barred Forest Falcon, American Kestrel, Crested Guan, Brown-hooded Parrot, Striped Cuckoo, Chestnut-collared Swift, Long-tailed Hermit, Keel-billed Toucan, Smoky-brown and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, Olivaceous, Strong-billed, Spotted and Spot-crowned Woodcreepers, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Northern Tufted, Hammond’s, Olive-sided and Piratic Flycatchers, the pretty Rose-throated Becard, Spot-breasted Wren, noisy but unobtrusive White-breasted Wood Wren, Long-billed Gnatwren, the secretive Black-headed and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, Hermit, Black and White-throated Thrushes, Blue-headed, Cassin’s and Warbling Vireos, Golden-crowned Warbler, Crimson-collared and White-winged Tanagers, Buff-throated and Black-headed Saltators, Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks, Black-cowled Oriole and the retiring Yellow-billed Cacique.
Southern Mexico: Day 16 After some final birding in the Sierra de Juarez we will drive to Cordoba for an overnight stay.
Short stops at wetlands along the way may well produce Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Limpkin and Northern Jacana. We should arrive in Cordobá in time for some initial exploration.
Southern Mexico: Day 17 The area surrounding the town of Cordobá in the state of Veracruz is the centre of Mexico’s coffee-growing industry and it is here, on limestone outcrops where coffee is grown under shade trees, that we will be wanting to find the rare Sumichrast’s (or Slender-billed) Wren. This elusive endemic species is only known from karst outcroppings in central Veracruz and adjoining northern Oaxaca, where it plays hide and seek in the many nooks and crannies of this distinctive habitat.
The mournful calls of secretive Thicket Tinamous and the quavering whistles of cautious Singing Quails, both of which are regional endemics, emanate from the forested hills. We will keep an eye out for fruiting trees that are often visited by Red-lored Parrots, colourful Keel-billed Toucans, Emerald Toucanets (now restricted to Mexico and northern Central America after taxonomic revision), Collared Aracaris and feisty Montezuma Oropendolas, whilst the regional-endemic Curve-winged (or Wedge-tailed) Sabrewing and White-bellied Emerald flit about in flowering bushes.
Other species we may well find here include such regional endemics as Olive-throated Parakeet, Lesson’s (or Blue-diademed) Motmot, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, as well as White-crowned Parrot, Masked Tityra, the vociferous Brown Jay, the handsome Green Jay, Band-backed Wren, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and Tropical Parula.
Afterwards, we will head for Veracuz airport, where our tour ends in the afternoon.
(There are frequent flights from Veracruz to México City.)
YUCATAN PENINSULA PRE-TOUR EXTENSION
Yucatan: Day 1 Our tour begins this evening on the island of Cozumel, situated just off the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, where we will spend two nights.
Yucatan: Day 2 Although well known to the Mayas, who called it ‘Island of Swallows’, little remains of their influence on Cozumel now. A low-lying island surrounded by emerald seas and covered in dense scrub and woodland, this was Hernando Cortés’s choice of base from which to launch his conquest of this region of Mexico. Nowadays Cozumel is very much a tourist resort, although fortunately it lacks the tackiness of the much larger Cancun across the water and remains a pleasant backwater favoured by scuba divers (for its reefs are some of the finest in the Caribbean) and more discerning sun-seekers.
For birders, Cozumel is a very easy and productive spot, with a mixture of habitats ranging from coastal beaches, lagoons and mangroves to low woodland and large, overgrown pastures. No fewer than four endemic species inhabit the island, and from about September to April many winter visitors from North America are present.
During the autumn months, Cozumel has occasionally been struck by hurricanes, as have so many coastal areas in the region. Severe hurricanes in the 1980s and early 21st century appear to have wiped out the endemic Cozumel Thrasher, which was formerly a common species on the island. The other endemic birds on the island fared better: Cozumel Emerald, Cozumel Wren and Cozumel Vireo are not uncommon in the shrubby woodlands that cover much of the island.
We will also explore the woodland and weedy pastures for such Yucatan endemics or regional endemics as Yucatan Amazon, Yucatan Nightjar, Yucatan Flycatcher, Black Catbird, Yucatan Vireo and Rose-throated Tanager, and species largely restricted to Caribbean islands such as White-crowned Pigeon, Caribbean Dove, Smooth-billed Ani (uncommon), Caribbean Elaenia and the Cozumel form of Western Spindalis, a potential split.
In a marshy area, we will make a special effort to get good views of the endearing Ruddy Crake (another regional endemic), as well as Grey-crowned Yellowthroat.
We should also encounter Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern, Mangrove Cuckoo, Pauraque, Green-breasted Mango, Flammulated Attila, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Tropical Mockingbird, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Northern Parula, Yellow, Magnolia, Yellow-throated and Palm Warblers, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Bananaquit, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting and Yellow-faced Grassquit.
Yucatan: Day 3 After some early morning birding on Cozumel we will cross to the mainland of Mexico and then drive to the small town of Río Lagartos on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula for a two nights stay.
As we head northwards the vegetation becomes drier and more stunted, which is characteristic of the very arid and often windswept northern coast of this huge peninsula. We should reach Río Lagartos in time for some initial exploration.
Yucatan: Day 4 The extensive, mangrove-lined estuary and lagoons at Río Lagartos are known as the Ría Lagartos and this area combined with the extensive saltpans at nearby Las Coloradas forms a paradise for waterbirds. Now well-protected, this is one of the most impressive wetland areas in all Mexico and has become famous for its large flocks of flamingos in particular. The small town of Río Lagartos fronts on to the estuary and some of the local fishermen have turned to guiding visiting birders. At dusk, there is a spectacular roost of cormorants, herons, egrets, ibises and spoonbills in the mangroves right opposite the town.
Before we enjoy the waterbird spectacle we will track down two endemic species which are restricted to the low scrub and woodland along the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the attractive Mexican Sheartail and the noisy Yucatan Wren. Both are fairly easy to find in this area, as are the more widespread endemic Yucatan Bobwhite and Yucatan Woodpecker.
As we explore the farmland with its expanses of native scrub or wander through some relict forest patches amongst the mangroves, we should also come across Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Crane Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Northern Crested Caracara, Killdeer, Common Ground Dove, Olive-throated Parakeet, the wonderful Lesser Roadrunner, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Least and Vermilion Flycatchers, Tree Swallow, Mangrove Vireo, Scrub Euphonia, Northern Cardinal, Blue-black Grassquit, Red-winged and Melodious Blackbirds and Altamira Oriole.
The huge saltpans at Las Coloradas offer great birding. Several thousand American Flamingoes can be found here, and if we come across a big gathering the shimmering pink mass and regular lines of new arrivals flighting in will create quite an impression. Along the sandy shoreline, we will come across many Brown Pelicans, joining the gulls to see if there are titbits to pick up as the local fishermen bring their catches ashore. Laughing Gulls are numerous, and there are often one or two Kelp Gulls, American Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls present in the area, while Cabot’s Terns patrol just off the beach. Rather surprisingly, Zenaida Doves seem to love the beach area. This Caribbean island speciality only reaches the mainland in this part of Mexico. As we wander around the saltpans flocks of Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants will fly past and we will come across a splendid variety of shorebirds including Snowy and Semipalmated Plovers, American Oystercatcher, Black-necked Stilt, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Spotted, Semipalmated, Western, Least and Stilt Sandpipers, and Short-billed Dowitcher. Western Ospreys, Caspian Terns and Forster’s Terns fish in the lagoons, Gull-billed Terns hunt for large insects and from time to time a wintering Peregrine Falcon puts the shorebird flocks to flight.
The Río Lagartos itself attracts American White Pelicans that fish in the wider reaches of the estuary, bizarre Black Skimmers resting on sandbars and Mangrove Swallows hawking insects over the waters. The main attractions of the mangrove-lined waterways are the large but secretive Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and the strange, prehistoric-looking Boat-billed Heron (often considered a monotypic family). The former is impressive enough but the latter, as it stares at us with those enormous black eyes positioned over that incredible bill, is one of those birds that one remembers forever! Here too we can expect to see Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricolored and Green Herons, Great, Snowy and Reddish Egrets, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, White Ibis and the lovely Roseate Spoonbill. The localized Rufous-necked Wood Rail occurs in these mangroves, but we will think ourselves lucky if we come across this uncommon and shy bird.
Yucatan: Day 5 After some final birding around Río Lagartos we will travel westwards to the Dzilam de Bravo area, which is a good area for the perky endemic Yucatan Gnatcatcher.
Afterwards, we head for the town of Valladolid where we will spend the night.
Yucatan: Day 6 Today we will set off early so that we can visit the famous archaeological site of Chichén Itzá before it gets too hot and crowded. Chichén Itzá is the most famous, best preserved and most visited Mayan site in Central America, and for good reason: this is one of those world-class archaeological sites that even the most focussed birders are impressed by! Chichén Itzá reached the zenith of its power and wealth between 800-1000 AD before being abandoned in the 14th century. Dominating the huge plaza is the impressive Pyramid of Kukulcán (also known as El Castillo), which is built with 91 steps on each side, and a single step at the main entrance to the temple on its summit platform, making a total of 365, exactly the same as the number of days in a year. It is well worth the rather steep climb up to the top to enjoy the staggering view across the plaza and far, far away across the dry woodlands of the Yucatan. Going down again is not so easy (that drop of 91 steps looks a long way!), and most people like to hold on to the rope helpfully provided by the authorities. We will have time to see some of the other buildings as well, notably the strange ‘Ball-Court’. The rules of the game, and its purpose, remain obscure, but certainly at some period in the city’s history they seemed to involve the human sacrifice of either the losing or the winning team, or at least their captain! The site is also a good place to find Turquoise-browed Motmot and the endemic White-browed Wren.
After our visit to this wonderful place we will travel southwards to Felipe Carrillo Puerto for a two nights stay. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Yucatan: Day 7 Felipe Carrillo Puerto is situated not far from the huge Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and we shall bird along the excellent access road to the reserve, which passes through a large tract of primary and secondary forest, with varying levels of human disturbance. Early in the morning, we should come across Plain Chachalacas calling from high in the trees as White-fronted Amazons noisily flight out from their roosts and big Black-headed Saltators create a noisy cacophony. As we wander along the road, enjoying the easy birding conditions it provides, we will be looking out in particular for the endemic Yucatan Jay and Orange Oriole and regional endemics such as Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, White-bellied Emerald, White-bellied Wren and the stunning little Grey-throated Chat. The local form of the Carolina Wren is sometimes split as White-browed Wren.
Other birds likely to be seen in this rewarding area include Roadside Hawk, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Black-headed Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Lineated Woodpecker, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Tropical Pewee, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Rose-throated Becard, Brown Jay, Spot-breasted Wren, Grey Catbird, White-eyed Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, the handsome Blue Bunting, White-collared Seedeater, Orchard and Hooded Orioles, and the striking Yellow-backed Oriole.
After dark, we can look for the cute Middle American Screech Owl, Northern Potoo and the rather elusive endemic Yucatan Poorwill.
Yucatan: Day 8 After some early morning birding in the Felipe Carillo Puerto area, we will return to Cancún and fly to Mexico City to meet up with those arriving for the main tour.