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Cozumel: birding after hurricane Wilma,
One month after mega hurricane Wilma hit the Yucatan Peninsula I was at Cozumel Island. It was very depressing. All forest was destroyed and once common endemics were not found at all! I hope (and expect) that birding at Cozumel will be better in the near future although there is little hope for the Cozumel Thrasher.
This is a short note for birders interested in birding Cozumel Island and wonder how the situation was shortly after hurricane Wilma hit Cozumel. Wilma was a slow-moving category 4 storm who raged on Cozumel for 24 hours. I visited Cozumel Island on 23-26 November 2005.
I used the excellent ‘Where to watch birds in Mexico´ by Steve N.G. Howell (1999). He describes 3 best spots for the Cozumel endemic species (Cozumel Emerald, Cozumel Wren and Cozumel Vireo). Since 1988 there are no more spots for the endemic Cozumel Thrasher.
1. The first spot in the south, near Hotel Presidente, was already before Wilma not interesting anymore. At my time of visit the trees had no leaves at all. I only saw Black Catbird (2) and Yucatan Vireo (1) here.
2. The second spot is in the middle of the island (near km 6.8). This site was already before Wilma closed for public. There was a big fence with very obvious signs ‘no access, no trespassing’. Maybe access was still possible but I decided not to go here.
3. The last spot is Bello Caribe in the north. This was not very productive either and I only saw the endemic subspecies of Yellow Warbler here (Golden Warbler)(2) and Grey-crowned Yellowthroat (1).
The 3 classic spots were not productive so I pretty much searched the whole island. Driving around on Cozumel I looked for patches of green. I realised that after the hurricane the biggest disaster (for the birds) only started: starvation due to habitat loss. All the food is gone! I have seen not one flower on the island. Almost certainly things have changed now. Cozumel is probably green again and the best spots are different now. The best patch at my time of visit was in the middle of the island along the Cross-Island Highway. Some gardens between km 8 and 5. Here I saw on three mornings in total:
Caribbean Dove (1), Yucatan Parrot (flyovers), Groove-billed Ani (common), Tropical Kingbird (2), Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (1), Grey Catbird (2), Black Catbird (fairly common),
Tropical Mockingbird (common), White-eyed Vireo (1), Cozumel Vireo (1), Tennessee Warbler (2), Northern Parula (8), Magnolia Warbler (2), Myrtle Warbler (2), Black-throated Green Warbler (3), Palm Warbler (1), Ovenbird (1), Common Yellowthroat (15), Cozumel Banaquit (3) (endemic subspecies), Stripe-headed Tanager (1), Painted Bunting (4), Great-tailed Grackle (common), Baltimore Oriole (1).
In the scrub along the southeast coast I saw, except for seabirds and mockingbirds: Yellow-faced Grassquit (common), Blue-black Grassquit (common) and a vagrant Lincoln’s Sparrow (photographed). Of course the seabirds were still present. In this note the focus is on the passerines.
Birds not seen
With a lot of effort I saw Cozumel Vireo. Once common endemic Cozumel Emerald and Cozumel Wren I have not seen! I hope they are still around somewhere and birders will pick them up in the near future! The Cozumel Thrasher is a different story.
The Cozumel Thrasher (Toxostoma guttatum) is endemic to Cozumel Island, and so few are thought to exist that it is categorized as critically endangered. It was fairly common on the island until Hurricane Gilbert hit in September 1988. After that, few birds were seen. Two researchers from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico) made 15 visits to Cozumel between 1994-1998, and found only three birds, two of which were mist-netted, the last in July 1995.
That October, powerful Hurricane Roxanne hit the island, and for years, there were few credible sightings of the Cozumel Thrasher. Then in July 2004, a single bird was seen by researchers, reigniting the hope that the species was hanging on in small numbers.
Hurricanes and Cozumel are no strangers. Thrashers obviously evolved with and adapted to these storms. It is theorized that introduced boa constrictors, now established after being released by filmmakers at the end of a shoot in 1971, have become important predators on nesting thrashers (as well as other animals on the island). This added pressure may have made the birds vulnerable to hurricanes, unable to successfully regain their numbers after especially strong storms.
The fact that two previous hurricanes had such apparent devastating impacts on Cozumel Thrasher populations does not bode well for this species, considering the strength of Wilma and the amount of time it is expected to lash the island. We might not know for years whether or not the thrashers are gone. For generations they were able to cope with nature's blows, but our carelessness once again may have created a situation from which the birds cannot recover. Already, it is a great loss.
In contrary to the Lonely Planet of Mexico (2004) already since about 2000 the only ferries to the island go from Playa del Carmen. We went by the ferry who carries cars. This one runs 4-5 times a day and is not so expensive as the old ferry. It harbours just south of the city. The passenger-only ferry runs from the city center of Playa del Carmen.
Plenty of accommodation for every budget on Cozumel Island.
My visit to Cozumel Island was part of a 5 week trip to Mexico. In total I travelled with my (non-birding) girlfriend 3 months and visited Mexico, Galapagos, Ecuador and Peru. In total I saw 1035 species. It was a fantastic trip. The highlights were 1. Galapagos 2. Antpittas, Mindo (see other note on this website) 3. Diademed Plover, Peru. Downer of the holiday was birding at Cozumel. In Mexico I saw 430 species of birds in nearly 30 mornings of birding.