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Birdwatching in the Yucatan Peninsula, February 26-March 13, 2008,
Let me tell you about a birding trip to the Yucatan Peninsula my birder friends and I took last month – and about a group of young bird watchers and bird guides we met along the way that portend a healthy blossoming of birding tourism for an unspoiled part of the Yucatan Peninsula. I want to get the word out about a largely under-appreciated, easily accessible birding area and at the same time to nurture the fledgling, birding-related, eco-tourism taking root in the states of Quintana Roo and Campeche, Mexico.
We are seven avid amateur bird watchers in our mid 60's who flew from San Francisco to the Cancun airport, rented two cars and headed south following the main coastal road. We went in late February, 2008, figuring it would be less rainy, but early enough in time to see the migrants and avoid Easter week in mid-March. Our plan was to spend two weeks to bird a number of sites on a drive that would take us on a big loop through the rural heart of the Yucatan peninsula. We drove down the coast of the state of Quintana Roo past Lake Bacalar to Chetumal, then across the peninsula’s interior to the state and town of Campeche, and then north and east, back across the peninsula to the Cancun airport and home. (We also spent a few days before and after the loop in and about the beach town of Puerto Morelos, comparing and tallying bird lists, walking the beach, drinking margaritas and swimming out the kinks from our bird walks and neck craning). We had lots of mild sun, a few breezes and almost no rain.
For us, the birding was the discovery of multiple hidden treasures: the sites and habitats we visited (sketched below), the young Mexican birders, the small villages, the Mayan ruins and the interior landscape of the Yucatan peninsula. In the end, the birds themselves were the icing on the cake.
Joaquin Pacheco, a high spirited and devoted new recruit to bird watching was our Mexican contact. A year and a half ago, this young man had participated in a two month long course, taught in English, for the education and training of birding guides. The course was organized and funded by Pro Natura, a Mexican conservation organization and the Mexican government. Joaquin’s boss is an involved supporter of Pro Natura and the owner of one of our stops on the trip: the Chicanna Ecovillage Resort near the town of Xpujil, Campeche. About 15 local residents of the area, like Joaquin, all employees of the Resort, also participated in the training. They included front desk workers, waiters, maids and gatekeepers. They were lodged and fed at the resort during the two month course and despite struggling with English and birding lingo, most all became avid birdwatchers in their own right as well as hopeful guides to the eco-tourists that are coming to the Yucatan interior in greater numbers. Two of our group had scouted out the area the year before and had met Joaquin and a few of the recent graduates. By the time we returned as a group this past February, Joaquin had been promoted to manager of the resort and the recently trained guides had mostly acquired and well thumbed their various bird books. (Their binoculars were still inferior, though, and the good field guides too scarce, so our group donated 5 new pairs of binoculars - $130 waterproof Alpen Pro 8x42's - and an assortment of new and used bird books). We were given guide services at no charge ($50 per day was the going rate) as thanks for the new binoculars and bird books.
Ezekiel was the most earnest of the guides. During the past year, he had shined as a participant in three separate bird counts in the Yucatan peninsula. He proudly led us to busy birding spots in and around his near-by village. He carried with him a well-worn copy of the 850 page Howell and Webb “Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America.” As we strolled along a dirt path that wound among the cultivated fields on the outskirts of his village, we heard Ezekiel rebuke a rifle-toting neighbor who had suggested the gringos look for the Great Curassow: “We can’t find any, you’ve shot them all,” he told him.
Another guide, Saturnino, took us to sites in and round his village where we scoped out, among a host of other birds, a Bright-rumped Attila, a Golden Warbler, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and even a Painted Bunting. Alas, we didn’t see the Turquoise-browed Motmot that taunted us from the thickets.
Damaso, who tends the highway entrance gate to the resort, is an older man, very soft spoken and respectful. His age didn’t stop him from being one of the most ardent and appreciative of the newly trained guides. His Peterson’s “Mexican Birds” was just as tattered as Ezekiel’s Howell, and was filled with notations. I don’t mean to be maudlin, but there was no doubt that Damaso’s eyes twinkled as he birded. During our bird walk in Saturnino’s village, his excitement bubbled over at one point after a particular satisfying sighting of a Painted Bunting, when suddenly blurted out, in English, “I am so happy.” His favorite bird was the Tropical Mocking bird because of its many beautiful songs.
And then there was our friend, Joaquin Pacheco, who in spite of his managerial duties at the resort was an ever-present and ebullient cheerleader for all things ornithological. He showed us his favorite jungle trail, he gave us a digital slide show of incredible bird pictures he’d taken over the past year, he joined us at table to listen and contribute to our end-of-day bird talks, he organized the various birding trips and arranged for the guides’ time off to accompany us, he acted as master of ceremonies for our little binocular/book presentation (as we presented the binoculars, we also bestowed on each of the guides an honorary membership in our own group’s grandiloquently, if tongue-in-cheekily named ‘Royal Academy’). And, as if to underscore his commitment to birding, just this past week, Joaquin sent us an excited email saying they’d recently sighted many more Trogans and Motmots at the Chicanna resort, and also even the rare King Vulture soaring overhead.
So you’re asking what birds, what birds? Well, as I said, we’re amateurs and what for us were great sightings may not live up to the expectations of a typical Victor Emanuel tour, but I doubt anyone would quarrel with sightings of such delights as the following, a small portion of the total number of species on our list. Here are the highlights, more or less in the order observed :
Black-throated Green Warbler
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (whole treefull)
Blue-black Grassquit (doing its jumping routine)
Red-throated Ant Tanager
Worm Eating Warbler
Golden Olive Woodpecker
Tanagers (Summer, Western, Blue-grey, Yellow-winged)
Orioles (Orange, Baltimore, Altamira, Black-cowled, Hooded, Yellow-backed, Orchard)
and so many more (over 100 species)
Here is a bit about specific birding spots —our group couldn’t agree on which location was the best —worth visiting. They are presented in the order we visited them:
1. Jardin Botanico outside Puerto Morelos: A lovingly maintained botanical garden just minutes from our “headquarters” in the beach town of Puerto Morelos. One of our group saw a dozen species, including the Green Jay, Violaceous Trogan, Rufus Browed Peppershrike, Yellow-throated Vireo, Masked Tityra and Summer Tanager—all while standing in the same spot and waiting for the birds to come to him.
2. Coba Mayan ruins: Both the heavily forested Mayan ruins and the tiny town of Coba are treasures. They are located on the edge of a medium-sized, crocodile infested, marshy lake (Cormorants, Anhingas, Limkins, Egrets, Herons and Grebes). We stayed two nights at the comfortable Villas Arqueologicas. Birdsong started at sunrise and reached a crescendo at dusk when one large tree at the junction of the marsh and main town road offered up a dozen cacophonous species, including multiple orioles, tanagers, Melodious Blackbirds, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Ancient cobblestone roads (Sacbeob in Mayan) radiate out like spokes from the Coba ruins to many other distant archeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula. Birding the ruins was almost secondary to the splendor of the ruins, . . . but not quite. Get thee to the ruins when the gate opens at 7:00 a.m. Our sightings included Trogans, Wood Creepers, Tanagers, Orioles, migrant warblers and Vireos.
3. Villas Ecotucan near Lake Bacalar - the lakeside road: We stayed two nights here in rustic
cabins next to Lake Bacalar. Good swimming. Good birding, especially on the dirt road that runs along the shoreline of the lake (Scrub Euphonia, Keel-billed Toucans, Yucatan Jays, Red-billed Pigeon, Yucatan Parrot, Rose-throated Becard, Blue Grosbeak, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Orange Oriole and much more). The proprietors were very eco-conscious, good cooks and knowledgeable birders.
4. Chicanna Ecovillage Resort; Chicanna ruins; the jungle trail. The Chicanna Ecovillage Resort is near the town of Xpujil. It is at the center of multiple rewarding birding and Mayan ruin sites, including the recently excavated, Calakmul and the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (which we didn’t get to). We stayed five nights at the resort and did not come near to exhausting all the birding possibilities which included rural roads, towns and ruins, not to mention the grounds of the resort and adjacent jungle trails. Just to whet your appetite: on the jungle trail, one of our group sat quietly at a water catch-basin and after an hour of watching a parade of exotic species come to drink finally left out of guilt that he was keeping some of the shyest birds from getting their turn at the watering hole. (In the Chicanna area: Red-Throated Ant Tanager; Hooded Warbler; Worm-eating Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler; Turquoise-browed Motmot, Green Jay, Blue-winged Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, etc.).
5. Village of 20 Noviembre. Take Ezekiel, one of the young guides from Chicanna. It’s his village and there’s so much to see, both of a charming rural Mexican village and of the birds.
6. Village of Eriberto Jara. Take Saturnino, one of the other newly trained guides. His village. Different birds.
7. Village and ruins of Becan and Chicanna are adjacent to the Chicanna resort. Take Damaso as your guide. Watch for the tree full of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Summer Tanagers in the village of Becan at dusk.
8. Hampolol Wildlife Station outside of Campeche. We drove from Chicanna to Campeche via the road from Xpujil to Dzibalchen and by the Mayan ruins at Edzna. Campeche is a beautiful coastal city. Stay at the Castel Mar for its old world splendor at modest prices, just ½ block from the charming central plaza. The Hampolol Wildlife Station is so filled with birds that it was as if we were in an aviary. The beauty of Campeche and the birds at the Wildlife Station make the extra driving to Campeche well worth it. The station is about 6 miles north of town and has a gatekeeper and an entrance fee. Don’t give up if the gatekeeper isn’t around when you arrive. He’ll be back soon. (Trogans, Motmots, Tanagers, Orioles, Buntings, Parrots, Wood Creepers, Woodpeckers, migrants, etc.)
If you are interested in making a similar trip and would like more information, please feel free to contact Joaquin Pacheco directly at his email address in Campeche: firstname.lastname@example.org or one of us here in the Bay Area: David Fielding (email@example.com) or Audrey Fielding (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In addition to Howells and Petersons birding guides, we cherished our Travelers Wildlife Guide to Southern Mexico by Les Beletsky (2007 edition) and the wonderful book, Animals & Plants of the Ancient Maya, A Guide” by Victoria Schlesinger.