SOUTHEAST MEXICO: DETAILED ITINERARY
Southeast Mexico: Day 1 Our tour begins this afternoon on the famous island of Cozumel, situated just off the northeast corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, where we will stay for two nights.
Southeast Mexico: 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 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. Coastal habitats should turn up Magnificent Frigatebird and Royal Tern. Inland we will explore the woodland and weedy pastures for Cozumel’s endemic birds as well as 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 (if we are in luck), Caribbean Elaenia and the Cozumel form of Western Stripe-headed Tanager (or Western Spindalis), a potential split.
We should also encounter 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. 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.
Southeast Mexico: Day 3 After some final 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.
Southeast Mexico: 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 three endemic species which are restricted to the low scrub and woodland along the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the attractive Mexican Sheartail, the noisy Yucatan Wren and the perky Yucatan Gnatcatcher. All three 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.
A highlight of our visit will be our boat trip on the Ría Lagartos itself. As we leave the town we could see American White Pelicans fishing in the wider reaches of the estuary, bizarre Black Skimmers resting on a sandbar and Mangrove Swallows hawking insects over the waters. As the estuary narrows, we will start to explore the mangrove-lined fringes and even make our way up narrow channels roofed over by encroaching mangroves. The star attractions of these jungle-like 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 (especially as we may well get very close in our boat, as the waterbirds here are often unafraid), but the latter, as it stares down on 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.
Southeast Mexico: Day 5 After some final birding around Río Lagartos, we will head southwards to Felipe Carrillo Puerto for a two nights stay. We may arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Southeast Mexico: Day 6 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 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.
Southeast Mexico: Day 7 After some final birding in the Felipe Carillo Puerto area, we will drive to the well preserved archaeological site of Calakmul for a three nights stay.
Southeast Mexico: Days 8-9 The famous Mayan site of Calakmul was discovered by biologist Cyrus Lundell in 1931 and is situated in the 2800 square mile (7200 square km) Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in the Mexican state of Campeche, deep in the jungles of the greater Petén Basin region, about 18 miles (30km) from the Guatemalan border. Calakmul, the ‘City of the Two Adjacent Pyramids’, was a major Maya superpower within the northern Petén region. An amazing 6,750 ancient structures have been identified, the largest of which is the great pyramid at the site. It is estimated to have had a population of 50,000 people in its halcyon days.
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, the largest tropical forest reserve in Mexico, is a treasure trove of Mayan history in the heart of the Maya Forest and our visit will be one of the highlights of the tour. The remarkable Ocellated Turkey is commonly encountered and single birds or even parties often almost block the entrance road. This close relative of the better known North American Wild Turkey only occurs in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and adjacent Guatemala and Belize. In most of its range, this species has become very wary due to hunting, but here these spectacular birds have become completely fearless.
Another major target is the delightful Great Curassow, widely hunted elsewhere, but still fairly tame here. The males display their unique curly hairdo and two different morphs of the females could be encountered.
As dawn breaks and the forest awakens, one of the first birds to become active is the impressive Ivory-billed Woodcreeper whose calls permeate the gloom of first light. Lesson’s Motmots follow close behind and flocks of Yucatan Amazons vocalize from the huge trees surrounding the plaza. Bat Falcons hunt from exposed perches and sometimes the elusive Collared Forest-Falcon splits the air with its early morning calls.
Fruiting trees around the ruins often attract huge Crested Guans, colourful Emerald Toucanets, Collared Aracaris, Keel-billed Toucans, Masked Tityras, Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, and gorgeous Black-cowled and Baltimore Orioles. The large red flowers of exotic African Tulip Trees host a variety of hummingbirds including Rufous-tailed and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and White-bellied and Canivet’s Emeralds.
The entrance road to the ruins passes through untouched primary forest providing some very productive early morning birding. Overhead, the huge forest trees are inhabited by Gartered and Collared Trogons, Smoky-brown, Golden-olive and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers, as well as the huge Pale-billed Woodpecker (whose ‘double knock’ drum will soon become a familiar sound). Unobtrusive Red-billed Pigeons feed on ripening Cecropia fruit. Above the canopy, Vaux’s Swifts wheel around. The Yucatan peninsula form may represent a distinct species. As the sun warms the air, raptors make an appearance, sometimes including Bicolored and Zone-tailed Hawks. Tiny endemic White-bellied Wrens and White-breasted Wood Wrens skulk around the roots of fallen trees, uttering their beautiful song, while other forest inhabitants include Squirrel Cuckoo, the uncommon Blue-black Grosbeak and the secretive Green-backed Sparrow. Shy Mexican Antthrushes (a regional endemic) creep around on the forest floor while regional-endemic Yellow-winged Tanagers usually keep to the treetops. The mixed-species flocks often contain Olivaceous Woodcreepers, Long-billed Gnatwrens and Tawny-crowned Greenlets.
If we are fortunate we will find an army ant swarm with its attendant followers. The birds are often so engrossed in taking insects flushed by the marauding ants that they are oblivious to observers and allow a close approach. The most usual species found at these events include Ivory-billed, Tawny-winged, Ruddy and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, striking Grey-headed Tanagers and both Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, and Yellow-billed Cacique.
The forest also holds a wide array of tyrant-flycatchers, which include Northern Bentbill, Yellow-olive and Eye-ringed Flatbills, Greenish Elaenia, Northern Royal Flycatcher and Tropical Pewee.
At this season there are also good numbers of winter visitors to southern Mexico from further north, including Great Crested Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos, Blue-winged, Worm-eating, Kentucky and Hooded Warblers, and possibly Louisiana Waterthrush.
Groups of Yucatan Black Howler and agile Geoffroy’s Spider Monkeys are regular visitors to the fruiting trees near the plaza, while along the entrance road we could encounter Central American Agouti. White-nosed Coati, Collared Peccary, White-tailed Deer or even Mexican Red Brocket Deer.
We will also visit the famous Volcan de los Murcielagos (the Volcano of the Bats), a sinkhole from which at dusk emerge hundreds of thousands of bats. Swirling clouds of Broad-eared (or Broad-tailed) Bats fly high away to distant feeding areas while smaller species of the genus Pteronotus remain low within the woodland. Short-tailed and White-tailed Hawks, Bat Falcons and Barn Owls often hang around to try and pick off their dinners as the stream of bats literally darkens the sky.
Southeast Mexico: Day 10 Today we have a travel day as we head eastwards to Catemaco in the southeastern part of the state of Veracruz, where we will stay for three nights. The town is situated on the shores of the huge Laguna de Catemaco, dominated by the surrounding Sierra de los Tuxtlas.
Southeast Mexico: Days 11-12 We will spend these two days 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 for the first time 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 13 After some early morning birding in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas, we will head northwestwards to the town of Xalapa, where we will stay overnight. This afternoon we will have a first chance to look for the endemic and highly restricted-range Bearded Wood Partridge in an area of densely-vegetated ravines and tracts of montane forest.
As well as this major speciality, we will surely come across a good number of other species that will be new for the tour. Our time in this area is fairly limited, but possibilities include Singing Quail, Inca and White-tipped Doves, Ruddy Ground Dove, Barred Parakeet, White-crowned Parrot, Groove-billed Ani, Squirrel Cuckoo, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, White-collared Swift, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, White-bellied Emerald, Berylline, Azure-crowned, Magnificent, Amethyst-throated, Blue-throated and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Mountain Trogon, Golden-fronted, Acorn, Ladder-backed and Hairy Woodpeckers, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Greater Pewee, Cordilleran, Boat-billed, Tufted, Dusky-capped and Social Flycatchers, Brown and Green Jays, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Rufous-naped and Band-backed Wrens, Grey-breasted Wood Wren, Black-headed, Orange-billed and Russet Nightingale-Thrushes, Brown-backed Solitaire, Western and Eastern Bluebirds, White-throated, Clay-colored and Black Thrushes, Blue Mockingbird (a Mexican endemic), Long-billed Thrasher, Grey Silky-flycatcher, Phainopepla, Golden-crowned and Rufous-capped Warblers, Hooded Yellowthroat (a Mexican endemic), Slate-throated Redstart, Common Bush, White-winged and Blue-grey Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Rusty and Rufous-crowned and Song Sparrows, White-naped Brushfinch, Greyish Saltator, Audubon’s Oriole, Bronzed Cowbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Montezuma Oropendola, Black-headed Siskin, Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch, and Scrub, Yellow-throated and Elegant Euphonias.
Southeast Mexico: Day 14 After spending much of the morning around Xalapa, we will head for the city of Veracruz, where our tour ends this afternoon at the airport.