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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Yucatán and Chiapas, Mexico, 12-26 March 2006,
A two-week trip combining birding with visiting Mayan and Spanish colonial sites. We have given notes on the main birding sites visited, and the most interesting bird species seen rather than an exhaustive species list. The site notes assume that the reader has access to Steve Howell’s Where to watch birds in Mexico (1999). We covered a lot of ground and saw some great sites and great birds, highlights including Ocellated Turkey, Great Curassow, Pink-headed Warbler, calling Highland Guans, a spectacular bat roost, and the fabulous Mayan sites at Chichén Itzá, Palenque and Calakmul. As we visited at the end of the dry season, most sites were very dry and got hot and very quiet by mid-morning. Hurricane Wilma in October 2005 clearly had a big effect on the Eastern Yucatán and its offshore islands with obvious tree damage extending a long way inland. Nectar and fruit-eating species in this area have probably suffered, due to the lack of food after the hurricane. Hummingbirds were hard work everywhere, although we did manage to find Cozumel Emerald, possibly the first confirmed sighting since Wilma. Tanagers were very scarce, with no sign of Rose-throated anywhere, or Stripe-headed on Cozumel. Several other previously-common Cozumel endemic sub-species were also not seen, and could be in serious trouble on the island. We have also included some notes from a birding friend and colleague at the RSPB, Zoltan Waliczky, who visited many of the same sites 2 weeks after us.
Lonely Planet guides to Mexico (2004 edn) and Yucatán (2003 edn). Invaluable, as always.
Steve Howell & Sophie Webb’s ‘A guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America.’ (1995). – essential reference but too heavy for the field.
‘Peterson Fieldguide to Mexican Birds’ – used for carrying in the field.
‘National Geographic guide to the Birds of North America’ (1987)– for N. American migrants
Steve Howell’s ‘Where to watch birds in Mexico’ (1999). – excellent and essential. Most information still up-to-date but now missing one or two good accessible sites (e.g. Calakmul and Cerro Tzontehuitz)
Trip reports: (Most on Birdtours.co.uk)
Sun 12 Mar: flew London Gatwick to Cancún, arrived 16:30 hrs, overnight at Hotel El Alux, downtown Cancún.
Mon 13 Mar: collected hire car 08:30, drove to Puerto Morelos (30mins), birded Botanic Garden 10:00 – 13:00, drove to Chichén Itzá via toll highway (2.5 hrs), overnight at Hotel Dolores Alba, birding and spot-lighting after dark near hotel 16:30-19:00.
Tues 14 Mar: birding near Hotel 06:00-07:30, Chichén Itzá 08:30-14:00, drove to Celestún via toll highway (3 hrs), overnight Hotel Eco Flamingos Playa.
Wed 15 Mar: birding Celestún area 05:30 – 12:00, drove to Campeche (3.5 hrs), arrived 17:30, overnight Posada del Ángel
Thurs 16 Mar: morning in Campeche, drive to Palenque (5 hrs), with brief birding stop in Usumacinta marshes (17:00 – 17:30), overnight Hotel Las Cañadas Internacional.
Fri 17 Mar: birding along Palenque access road 06:00 – 09:00, Palenque ruins 09:00 – 17:00, overnight Hotel Las Cañadas Internacional
Sat 18 Mar: birding along Palenque access road 06:00 – 09:00, Palenque site museum 09:00-11:00, drive to San Cristóbal via Ocosingo, (4.5 hrs), with brief birding stop between Ocosingo and San Cristóbal, (16:30-17:00), overnight Hotel Lucella.
Sun 19 Mar: Ocosingo Road, 2km site 06:00 – 13:00. San Cristóbal afternoon, recce Cerro Tzontehuitz access route late afternoon, overnight Hotel Lucella.
Mon 20 Mar: drive to El Sumidero (2hrs 15mins), El Sumidero road and lookouts 07:15-13:00. return to San Cristóbal, brief revisit to Ocosingo Road, 2km site 17:30-18:15 hrs overnight Hotel Lucella.
Tues 21 Mar: Cerro Tzontehuitz 06:00–11:00, drive to Palenque (5hrs), with several brief stops between Ocosingo and Palenque, overnight Hotel Águila Real, Palenque.
Wed 22 Mar: Usumacinta Marshes 07:00–09:30, drive to Calakmul area (6hrs), check-in at Rio Bec Dreams, near Xpuhil, visit bat roost in cenote 17:00-19:00.
Thurs 23 Mar: Calakmul access road and ruins (06:00-17:30), overnight at Rio Bec Dreams.
Fri 24 Mar: birding in hotel grounds 07:00-09:00, drive to Playa del Carmen (5hrs), arrive 16:30 hrs, drop hire car, 18:00 hrs ferry to Cozumel, arrive 18:45, book hire car, overnight Hotel Pepita.
Sat 25 Mar: birding San Gervasio access road 06:30-10:00, drive round S. end of Cozumel, afternoon snorkelling and chilling on Playa Palencar. Late afternoon recce to Bello Caribe area.
Sun 26 Mar: birding Bello Caribe area 06:00-08:30, 10:00 ferry to Playa del Carmen, arrive 10:45, 11:00 ADO bus to Cancún airport, arrive 12:15, flight home to London.
We pre-booked only two nights over the internet: a hotel in downtown Cancún (1st night) and at Chichén Itzá (second night). Everywhere else we just turned up and found a room. The only places where we could not a get a room at the first place we tried were Campeche (first 3 hotels full) and Calakmul (tried the Hotel Villas Puerta Calakmul, but they had no water, apart from what was in their swimming pool!)
All the places we stayed in were listed in the Lonely Planet guides, and were all clean and pleasant, and often virtually empty. Costs ranged from $20-45US per night for a room.
Hotels/guest houses used:
Cancún: Hotel El Alux, downtown Cancún, $30. Nothing special, but reasonably priced for Cancún and perfectly fine for a single night stop. Conveniently placed close to the downtown bus station, car hire offices and a supermarket.
Chichén Itzá: Hotel Dolores Alba, $41. Very nice, good restaurant, and chance to go birding in the vicinity in the early morning before visiting the ruins.
Celestún: Hotel Ecos Flamingo Playa, $35. Very peaceful seafront location, on the road leading north out of town.
Campeche: Posada del Ángel, $31. Lovely location right next to the cathedral, helpful and friendly staff, big room.
Palenque: Hotel Las Cañadas Internacional $45. Large comfortable place, with secure car park at the back. Easy to find, and convenient for heading out west to the ruins or north towards the marshes. Handy restaurant (‘Saraguato’s’) just opposite the front entrance of the hotel doing good food and two Sols for M$20 between 6-8pm.
Palenque: Hotel Águila Real $20, the only room available was cheap but cramped and airless with no external windows. Other rooms here probably much nicer.
San Cristóbal: Hotel Lucella $20, a bargain, lovely owners, slightly south of the town centre, so no problem parking on the street outside (difficult in the town centre), empty and peaceful for our stay (but could get noisy if busy?)
Calakmul/Xpuhil: Rio Bec Dreams, on the main highway 12km west of Xpuhil, $45 for a screened cabin and shared bathroom, lovely comfortable place run by a Canadian/English couple (Rick and Diane). Great food and a nice little bar. Good birding in the grounds, and the owners can arrange a guide to take you to the bat roost cenote. Our friend Zoltan stayed in the Hotel Villas Puerta Calakmul a few weeks later, when they had water again, but the food was lousy and they charged $100 US per night!! A better and much cheaper alternative close-by would be the camp-site, with a few cabins, and a good basic restaurant 7km down the Calakmul entrance road. Zoltan met the owner, Sr Fernando Sastre Mendez, who was very helpful and also acts as a wildlife guide in the Calakmul area. Sr Mendez can be contacted at:
Servicios Ecoturisticos de la Region de Xpuhil y Calakmul
Av. Calakmul S/N Entre Okolhuitz y Payan
Tel: (983) 87 1-60-55 / 87 1-60-64
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Cozumel: Hotel Pepita, San Miguel, $35. Big room, friendly, helpful staff and free coffee in the morning (but sadly not at 05:30!). Convenient for restaurants, car hire offices, dive shops, etc in San Miguel.
$873US for a compact saloon (Dodge Verna) for 12 days hire, including 100% Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) cover, from Hertz. Expensive, with half the cost taken up by the 100% LDW, but this guaranteed no hassle with being charged for scratches and dents at the end of the trip, good to know when you smack the bottom of the car on yet another unmarked speed-bump. Not many companies offer 100% LDW, most only offer 90% maximum. We collected the car from downtown Cancún on first morning, and dropped it off in Playa del Carmen on the way back. We had two car problems, which Hertz dealt with fairly efficiently, but not before some negotiation and persuasion on our part. The car started to run roughly on our third day, and got worse as we approached Campeche. After several re-directed and long-winded phone calls that evening, our Hertz contact in Cancún sent a replacement car from their Meridá office the next morning, arriving at our hotel in Campeche at 10am, but not before he first suggested I drive 200km out of our way to replace the car at the Hertz office in Cuidad del Carmen! I don’t think so! As we had planned to spend that morning in Campeche anyway this did not disrupt our travel plans. The replacement car was a Dodge Neon; bigger and more comfortable, but an automatic, therefore sluggish, difficult to overtake anything and with poorer fuel economy than the Verna. Also rather low at the front, grounding on several topes that should have been no problem. The Verna, or something like a Nissan Tsuru, would be a better vehicle for most Mexican Roads. However, the Neon got us safely through the rest of the trip, and managed the rough Cerro Tzontehuitz road with no problem. The second problem was that the guy bringing the Neon down from Merida had brought with him a load of car spares, including a car battery, in the boot. The battery had leaked acid, which became apparent a day later when Fiona’s rucksack developed a large hole where it had rested where the battery had been. The rucksack was a write-off and we had to cover the boot floor with cardboard to prevent any further damage to our stuff. Having informed our Cancún Hertz contact of the problem before returning the car, we still had to negotiate compensation at the Playa del Carmen office, although to his credit, the office manager did offer the full replacement value for the rucksack fairly quickly, and then got one of his staff to give us a lift down the ferry terminal. I do wonder how easy this would have been if we had not taken out the full 100% LDW option, as this is clearly how the hire companies make their money.
Driving and roads:
As we were moving from place to place fairly often, our strategy was to bird or visit sites of interest in the morning, and do all our long drives in the early afternoon heat wherever possible. This was a good plan.
Driving was surprisingly easy, but road signs can be poor, confusing, or totally lacking in places, and you have to keep a sharp look-out for speed-bumps (topes) in almost all towns, and sometimes on open roads. I had to do two emergency stops to avoid losing the sump! Many topes are conveniently marked by groups of small children selling food and drink to the slowing traffic! On the road from Palenque to Ocosingo, near the turnoffs for the Misol-Ha and Agua Azul waterfalls, this had been taken a step further with groups of women and children holding ropes across the road at windscreen height to try to stop cars and sell stuff to the occupants. Both ourselves and Zoltan encountered this annoying, dangerous and initially frightening behaviour on this stretch of road.
The toll highways (cuotas) were fast, wide and with little traffic, so stopping on the verge to bird was easy, but they are expensive. Stopping on normal highways to bird was not easy, with most having heavy and fast traffic, large drops from the tarmac to the road verge and few pull-in places. Pulling off the road would be much easier with a 4x4. The most difficult roads to find quiet, safe places to stop and bird were the main highway through the Usumacinta Marshes and between Ocosingo and San Cristóbal.
We encountered several military checkpoints between Palenque and San Cristóbal, where brief car searches for arms and drugs took place. While the initial impression of being flagged down by armed soldiers might be unsettling, these searches were always done professionally and very politely, with no problems. Most provided written English explanations of what was going on and why as soon as they saw we were foreigners. These soldiers are clearly just doing their job.
We had no contact with the police, other than being briefly (and rightly) shouted at once for going the wrong way down a one-way street on Cozumel.
San Cristóbal to Tuxtla Gutierrez: The cuota was partly shut on our visit. Only the first 30 km or so from Tuxtla back towards San Cristóbal were open, before traffic was redirected back, via a link road, on to the old, slow and twisty highway. Coming from San Cristóbal, the diversion on to the cuota was signed to the left, just after the km 47 marker post (but as we didn’t know the situation with the cuota on the way to Tuxtla, and didn’t trust the signs, we didn’t take this turn, and stayed on the old road, probably adding 45mins to our journey). Checking the current situation with this road in San Cristóbal or Tuxtla would be a good idea.
Merida to Celestún: When coming round the south of Merida on the ring-road (perifico), following the signs to Celestún will take you on Mex281 via Hunucma. Although straightforward, this road is slow and goes through several tope-ridden villages. Taking the earlier turn-off on the perifico for Uman, and then heading via Samahil and Kinchil is probably quicker.
Celestún to Campeche: We took the short cut via Chunchucmil and Halacho. The first 10km from Mex281 towards Chunchucmil were quite potholed, but the road improved after this. The 5km from Chunchucmil to San Mateo were dreadful, but fine from San Mateo onwards (through Santa Maria Acu and Cepada to Halacho and on to Calkini). A better route from Chunchucmil to Halacho might be via Kochol and Granada.Escarcega to Chetumal: Large sections of this road near Escarcega were being upgraded during our visit. The roadworks slowed us down, but the road will be much faster in future. Getting hold of petrol along this road can still be a problem. There is only one Pemex between Escarcega and Chetumal, at Xpuhil. We filled up in Escarcega, and intended to do the same in Xpuhil before doing the 200km round trip to Calakmul. Unfortunately, the Pemex in Xpuhil had run out of petrol when we arrived at 8pm, so we were forced to do the Calakmul trip the next day on our remaining half tank of fuel, trying to drive very smoothly and economically the whole way. We made it back to Xpuhil OK, and the kind owners of Rio Bec Dreams would have come and rescued us if necessary, but its worth bearing this in mind, as apparently the Xpuhil Pemex frequently runs dry. If we had hired a smaller car with smaller fuel tank, we might not have been able to do the Calakmul trip until more petrol arrived in Xpuhil. If you are stuck, we were told it might be possible to get ‘unofficial’ petrol (at a price) in Conhuás, just to the west of the Calakmul access road.
We only used buses to get from Cancún aiport to downtown, and from Playa del Carmen back to Cancún airport. Both services run by ADO – cheap, comfortable and efficient. With more time on our hands, travelling around the Yucatán by bus would have been an attractive idea, and much cheaper than hiring a car. Getting far off the beaten track, eg Calakmul, would still be difficult and time-consuming though. To get to the bus stands at Cancún airport, come out of the arrivals area, and immediately turn right along the outside of the airport terminal building, continue past the departures area entrances to the far end of the building, where the buses (and tickets) are found. There were a few ADO staff selling tickets outside the arrivals area, but vastly outnumbered by a scrum of taxi drivers, holiday reps and others, and easy to miss. The bus trip to downtown Cancún only cost M$35 each, compared to a taxi fare of about M$400 ($40US) !
Notes on birding sites
Jardin Botanico de Alfredo Barrera
We only had a couple of hours here on our first day, and it was hot and very quiet by 10:00 when we arrived. We did manage to see Plain Chachalaca, Yucatán, Green and Brown Jays, Aztec Parakeet, Spot-breasted Wren and Orchard, Hooded, Altamira and a single male Orange Oriole however. Many trees were badly damaged by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005, but the vegetation is starting to recover. Very few flowers around though and we saw no hummingbirds and no tanagers here.
After we arrived at the Hotel Dolores Alba in the late afternoon, we followed the directions of Michael Kessler (2004) and walked 300m along the highway back towards the ruins, then took the first right turn down a dirt road for c. 1km through scrub and dry woodland. Fairly quiet but nice views of Turquoise-browed Motmot and a party of Yucatán Jays and, after dark, a Common Pauraque taped in and spotlighted, and a Nine-banded Armadillo rummaging around in the dry leaf litter. Several Thicket Tinamous called at dusk but remained invisible. Next morning we birded along a rubbish-strewn track on the other side of the main road, only 100m from the Hotel. This track appeared to skirt round the edge of the Cenote Il Kil grounds, through scrubby woodland with open grazed areas on the right. We got no further than 500m down the track, seeing White-fronted Parrot, Masked Tityra, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Cave Swallows, Grey-breasted Martins and a small flock of Chimney or Vaux’s swifts. Chichén Itzá itself had few visitors when we entered at 08:30, but was very busy by 13:00 when we left. Birds included Black-and-white, Black-throated Green, Magnolia and Hooded Warblers, American Redstart, Masked and Black-crowned Tityras, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Boat-billed, Social and Brown-crested Flycatchers, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Rose-throated Becard, Indigo Buntings, and another 2 parties of Yucatán Jays.
The beach and pier yielded only Laughing Gulls, Royal and Sandwich Terns and a few Willet with Magnificent Frigatebirds overhead. A dawn start along the dirt road to the north of town immediately yielded 3 Yucatán Bobwhite and a Grey Fox on the road near the military base. Stopping at a side track 1.4km north of the base, the first birds seen were a noisy and very confiding pair of Yucatán Wrens. Walking down the side track produced another 3 Yucatán Wrens, an excellent close view of another male Yucatán Bobwhite, 2 White-lored Gnatcatchers, Aztec Parakeet, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Northern Cardinal, Palm Warbler, Mangrove Vireo, Vermillion Flycatcher (a common bird, but fantastic!) and American White Pelicans and Ibis overhead. We eventually got rather poor brief views of two female Mexican Sheartails, but had much better views later in the morning, when we found a female nesting in a cactus on the open rooftop seating area of El Lobo restaurant in the town square! (good breakfast there by the way). After breakfast we crossed the estuary to the pull-out east of the road bridge (marked by a large road sign giving distances to 3 towns; probably Merida, Uman, and Hunucma). There are now two short boardwalks leading into the mangroves from this pull-out, the longer of which (only 100m) leads to an observation tower that was being built when we visited. Five lucky minutes on the shorter boardwalk (only 30m long) provided Mangrove (Yellow) Warbler, a Rufous-necked Wood-rail, and a confiding American Pygmy Kingfisher. Around 400 American Flamingos could be seen distantly to the north from the road-bridge, but sadly we didn’t have time to take a boat trip up to see them. Also single Mangrove Vireo and Mangrove Swallow at the bridge. The dump south of town was pretty grim (thanks goodness for an air-conditioned car!) but had 10+ Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, another Yucatán Wren and at least 200 Tree Swallows hawking over it. We saw a single Bottieri’s Sparrow in roadside scrub near San Mateo, on the way to Campeche.
Not really a top birding destination, but a few good birds. 50+ Cave Swallows, 20+ Tree Swallows with a few Barn Swallows, Purple Martins and Grey-breasted Martins over the beautiful old city centre in the early morning. The trees in the Parque Principal in the busy city centre held Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Social Flycatcher, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, a stunning male Yellow-throated Warbler, Blue-grey Tanager, Summer Tanager, and Orchard and Hooded Orioles.
We made two visits, totalling 3 hours, along the Balancan Road, getting as far as 10km from Mex186 on the second visit. This was not nearly long enough to do the area justice, and we found only a few small patches of open water along this stretch of road. However, the highlights were: 1 Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Plain-breasted Ground-doves, 1 Double-striped Thick-knee, 4 Limpkin, 1 Bare-throated Tiger-heron, 1 Black-shouldered Kite, 1 Aplomado Falcon, 1 White-tailed Hawk, Wood Storks, Fork-tailed Flycatchers and Grassland Yellow-finches.
As indicated in other trip reports, access to this fabulous Mayan site for birding is now rather restrictive, with several of the previously good areas now off-limits, at least before the ruins open to the public at 8am. No tourist vehicles are now allowed past the guarded road barrier at the museum before 8 am, however you can leave your vehicle here and walk up the access road from here as far as the archaeological site entrance and car park before the site opens. The foot path from the museum up into the archaeological site is also shut and guarded before 8am. The Temple of the Inscriptions Trail appears to be permanently guarded and shut to visitors beyond the small Templo de Bello Relieve, although the guard here on our visit was friendly and interested in our birding activities and allowed us to accompany him for a little way up the trail for 20 minutes or so before politely asking us to return. On the first morning we birded up the entrance road from the museum at first light and headed down the first trail on the right, just before the road makes its first switch-back left turn. This trail goes through forest for a few 100m and across a stream above a small waterfall and pool, before heading out into scrubby secondary growth and farmland. Before the stream, a side trail branches off to the left, and climbs up along the stream to meet another trail leaving the road from the apex of the first switch-back left turn – this must be the ‘Cascada Trail’ described in Howell. Following the same tactic on the second morning, we met a ranger/guard from the National Park surrounding the ruins, who politely indicated that we should not go beyond the stream on the Cascada Trail, and that we should have obtained tickets for the National Park before entering this area, from the office by the entrance archway, a few 100m down the road from the museum towards Palenque town. We stopped and paid for these on the way out (only about M$10 each I think), but you may not need them if you already have tickets for the ruins (we didn’t that day). The Cascada Trail area provided good forest interior birding; Grey-chested Dove, American Pygmy Kingfisher, White-bellied Emerald, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, White-breasted Wood-wren, Wood and Swainson’s Thrushes, Ovenbird, Worm-eating, Kentucky and Hooded Warblers, Olive-backed Euphonia and Blue-black Grosbeak. Birding along the entrance road produced flyover Grey Hawk, Bat Falcon, Red-lored Parrots and a single large Yellow-headed Parrot (unexpected at this site), Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Scarlet-rumped Tanagers, Spot-breasted Wren, a female White-bellied Emerald sitting on a nest, Collared Araçari, Montezuma Oropendola, Black-crowned and Masked Tityras, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Buff-throated Saltator and a group of Howler Monkeys. The ruins themselves provided Black-hawk Eagle, Bat Falcons nesting in El Palacio, a Barred Forest Falcon on a nest, Long-tailed Hermit, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Collared Trogon, Keel-billed Toucan, Lineated and Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Red-throated Ant-tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Golden-crowned Warbler, Royal, Yellow-bellied and more Ochre-bellied Flycatchers.
Palenque to Ocosingo
We stopped briefly at the Lovely Cotinga site (Site 13.2 in Howell (1999), but the habitat here appears to be very degraded now, and the chances of seeing the Cotinga here probably slim. On the way back to Palenque we made several brief stops next to good patches of forest, seeing Swallow-tailed Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Brown Jays, Blue-winged and Yellow-throated Warblers.
San Cristóbal area
Driving to the area in the late afternoon, we stopped briefly on the highway maybe 35km from San Cristóbal, by a quiet patch of pine forest. In 30 minutes here, we saw a party of the local race of Steller’s Jay, a White-eared Hummingbird, several singing Eastern Bluebirds, and our first Rufous-collared Thrushes. The pine forest site 2km along the road to Ocosingo was one of the best sites visited on the whole trip. 100m or so up the dirt road from the highway, a grassy track leads off left straight up the hill. A little way up the slope to the left of this track there is a large clearing in the pines, with a few bushes scattered around its edge. The birding here was fabulous - we arrived at sunrise (surprisingly chilly!) and spent at least 2 hours here, as the trees dripped with Hermit and Townsend’s Warblers in stunning plumage, joined by a few Olive and Wilson’s Warblers, Solitary (Blue-headed) and Hutton’s Vireos, Brown Creepers, Rufous-collared and Clay-coloured Thrushes, Steller’s Jays and Yellow-backed Orioles and a White-eared Hummingbird. One of several ethereal singing Brown-backed Solitaires finally revealed itself, several Grey Silkies flew over calling and 2 Crossbills called from the tree-tops. The stars of the show were the 3 gorgeous Pink-Headed Warblers which gave mouth-watering, close-range, eye-level views, as they foraged and sang in the bushes at the edge of the clearing. We then continued along the dirt road for about 1km, just beyond the base of a rock face on the left, finding Crescent-chested Warblers giving their buzzing insect-like song, 2 Magnificent Hummingbirds buzzing around the flowering epiphytes adorning the pine trunks, Yellow-eyed (Chiapas) Juncos, and single Guatamalan (Northern) Flicker and male Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler. A skulking Rufous-browed Wren eventually showed well in the low bushes at the base of the rock face, and 10+ Black-capped Swallows hawked in front of the cliff.
We followed the directions in Howell (1999) from Tuxtla Gutierrez centre, but got lost. On the far (north) side of Parque Madero, you need to bear right at a major junction to stay on 11A Oriente Norte, at a point when the main road appears to continue straight on (no signs to Sumidero here on our visit). A better way to reach El Sumidero is now from the (new?) perifico. Coming from San Cristóbal, the highway crosses the Rio Grijalva just after Chiapa de Corzo. Turn right (north) on to the perifico 4.4 km after crossing the river. There is a large overhead road sign just before this junction, indicating the left and central lanes for Mexico (City), and Tuxtla, respectively, and the right lane (the exit lane) for ‘Centro de Abastos’ (or ‘C. d. Abastos’), but irritatingly, nothing as helpful as ‘Perifico’! Then turn right (north) on to the Sumidero Road 4.8 km along the perifico (the perifico goes over the Sumidero Road). There is a large radio mast on the right of the perifico just before the turning.
The Sumidero canyon is spectacular, and worth the trip for the views alone, but birding here was pretty disappointing. It was very dry here, got hot quickly and was very quiet by 09:00. We did manage to see 4 Russet-crowned Motmots, 10+ Streak-backed Oriole, White-throated Magpie Jays, 2 Canivet’s Emeralds, Golden-fronted Woodpecker (polygrammus race, very distinctive from dubius birds in the Yucatán) a single male Varied Bunting, 2 Ridgeway’s Roughwing Swallows, Western Tanager, Warbling Vireo, Nutting’s Flycatcher, Blue-hooded and Yellow-throated Euphonias and Olive Sparrow, but no sign of many of the site’s specialities such as Slender Sheartail, Belted and Flammulated Flycatchers, Red-throated Chat, Blue-and-White Mockingbird or Bar-winged Oriole.
This wonderful patch of cloud forest is east of San Cristóbal, accessed along a rough dirt track from the Tenejapa road. We would have loved to have more time to spend up here. Jan Vermeulen gives directions in his very useful trip report from 1999, but some new tracks appear to have been constructed since his visit. The Tenejapa road can be reached either from central San Cristóbal or from the perifico on the East side of the city. From downtown San Cristóbal, head east on Madero towards the church on the small hill (Cerro de Guadalupe). You reach a t-junction (with no signs of course) just before the church. Turn left here, then immediately right and follow the narrow one-way road skirting around the right hand side of the hill. This then becomes the (2-way) road towards Tenejapa. Alternatively, the perifico leaves the road heading south out of the city at a Pemex Station on the left (East), at an unsigned but obviously fairly major junction. The perifico winds up around the hills to the east of the city for 5.3km before reaching the cross-roads with the Tenejapa Road (Tenejapa is not signed coming from this direction, but it is coming the other way (from the north) on the perifico, and the junction in marked by a ‘Servicentro’ sign on the back right (north-east) corner. Heading east, 4.5km from the perifico, you reach the small village of Las Piedrecitos, and 1.5km further on, the road makes a fairly sharp right turn. The dirt road to Cerro Tzontehuitz goes left at the apex of this bend and was signed to ‘TMO Tzontehuitz’ and ‘Taza de Agua’. (‘TMO Tzontehuitz’ refers to the communications station on top of the hill). Don’t take the tarmac track which cuts back left from the road just before the sharp right turn. The dirt road is rough and slow, but was easily driveable in a normal car. After 1.9km turn right (‘TMO Tzontehuitz’ signed to the right, ‘Taza de Agua’ to the left). At the next fork, at 2.5km, turn left, then immediately left again (still signed to Tzontehuitz). After a further 2.8km, turn right (still signed to Tzontehuitz), but then fork left shortly afterwards at an unsigned turn. Continue upwards for just over 3km to the ridge-top, past another track coming up from the right after about 2km (this track from the right looked like a newer, and possibly better, road and may well link up with the right fork at the previous junction – but we didn’t have time to try this out). On the ridge-top, a power-line crosses the road. In the 200m before this, there are several small steep trails heading down the north-west slope, into dense cloud forest, and one heading back along the ridge-top through short scrubby forest. A few 100m further along the road, the road goes back underneath the power lines again. Near here there are several good spots to look over the forest canopy on the north-west slope. We only went a few 100m along the trails down the slope and then back along the ridge, but these provided a Grey-breasted Wood-wren, a party of 5+ Unicoloured Jays, a Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, Brown-backed Solitaires, Common Bush Tanagers, an Emerald Toucanet and several excellent but skulking Golden-browed Warblers. At least 150 Violet-green Swallows hawked along the ridge-top. We could hear at least 4 Highland Guans giving their amazing rising whistle calls and incredibly loud feather rattling display. We didn’t manage to see any of them through the dense, lush and tangled forest, but the canopy viewing points further along the road (indicated on the map in Vermeulen’s report) must be a good bet to catch a glimpse of one gliding between trees. There appeared to be many fewer migrant warblers here than in the pine forest site along the Ocosingo Road, with only a few Townsend’s, Wilson’s and Black-throated Green Warblers seen. The habitat on the south-east face of the ridge has been heavily degraded, with much encroachment for agriculture. The good forest on the north-west slope may well have survived due to the steep terrain. Its clear that human pressure in the uplands of Chiapas is very high, and it would be nice to see remnant patches of good habitat such as the Cerro Tzontehuitz cloud forest and the Ocosingo Road Pine/oak forest given some sort of formal protection.
Huge tracts of good forest surround these recently accessible Mayan ruins, well worth a visit in their own right. The habitats were dry during our visit and many trees had shed their leaves. It was very hot here between 11am and 3pm, and we could do little but snooze in the shade in this period. Climbing the impressive ruins gives a great view over the forest canopy, the sea of trees stretching almost to the horizon in all directions, with one of the Mayan ruins in Guatemala (El Mirador) just visible away to the south. The bird highlights were undoubtedly the 40 Ocellated Turkeys and single female Great Curassow along the access road in the early morning. Wandering around the ruins produced a single King Vulture high overhead, Bat Falcons, a Ruddy Quail-dove, Aztec Parakeets, Violaceous Trogon, Keel-billed Toucan, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Lineated and Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Olivaceous and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, Yucatán Flycatcher, White-bellied Wren, Hooded and Blue-winged Warblers, Red-throated Ant-tanagers,and great views of a troup of Spider Monkeys moving overhead through the canopy. Driving out the access road at dusk, we saw a Grey Fox, only 5 Ocellated Turkeys, heard Thicket Tinamous and flushed a large pale unidentified owl from a roadside tree. We saw at least 12 large tarantulas (black with red abdomen) on the road after dark, after a short sharp rain shower. We mistook the first one for a rat in the car headlights! We had our only rain of the trip, a torrential downpour, on the way back to Xpuhil.
When we first arrived at Rio Bec Dreams, Rick and Diane told us about a ‘bat cave’ that we might like to go and see. This is a dry cenote, back west along the highway close to the Calakmul turn. We were taken by one of the the Rio Bec staff, Juan, to the site just before dusk; only 10 minutes walk from the main road. At the bottom of the cenote, a cave system contains huge numbers (quite possibly millions) of roosting bats of several species. At around 18:20, a few bats started to emerge, soon turning into a thick stream spiralling up the cenote and out in a writhing snake-like swarm across the forest canopy and then up high into the sunset sky. Bats were still streaming from the cave over 30 minutes later when we left the site, drawing a strong ammonia-smelling breeze up with them from the cave entrance. This spectacular sight was one of the highlights of the trip and we had known nothing about it before that day! The icing on the cake was the Grey Hawk and Black-and-White Owl hunting the bats as they emerged (a seemingly easy task for both birds, so strange there were not more raptors in attendance). We also had tantalising views of a small plain grey Accipiter, possibly an adult Bicoloured Hawk, also taking a bat. Returning to our car after dark, we met one of the biosphere reserve rangers, monitoring visits to the cenote – hopefully to prevent any excessive disturbance to the site.
Birding in the gardens at Rio Bec Dreams and in the adjacent scrubby woodland was very good – the flowering trees and ponds in the gardens acting as a real magnet for a wide range of species. From our ‘jungalow’ before dawn we heard Yucatán Nightjar, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Thicket Tinamou and Plain Chachalaca. Birds seen before breakfast included Buff-bellied Hummingbird and nesting Green-breasted Mango, White-fronted and Yucatán Parrots, Yucatán, Green and Brown Jays, Blue-winged, Black-and-White, Hooded and Yellow-throated Warblers, Northern Parula, Black-cowled and Orange Orioles. The woodland behind all the buildings was quieter than the gardens but produced White-bellied Wren and Black Catbird.
The hurricane-battered woodland and scrub were showing some signs of recovery on our visit. Most trees had some leaves again, and many herbaceous plants were in flower. We birded the first kilometre along the San Gervasio access road early morning, having asked the guard on the gate on the cross-island highway for permission first. Four Cozumel Vireos were obliging and responded well to pishing and imitating their calls. Two recently-fledged juveniles gave nasal ‘cheh’ calls. Five Yucatán Vireos (including one nest-building) were more skulking. Black Catbirds and (Cozumel) Bananaquits were quite common, and we also saw 2 Caribbean Doves, Mangrove Cuckoo, Yucatán Woodpecker, Caribbean Elaenia, Brown-crested and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Common Yellowthroat, and Ovenbird. No sign of the Cozumel Wren or Emerald here though. Unfortunately we bumped into the only really unpleasant person we met in our whole trip here – an official from the ruins. This guy told us first that we were not allowed to walk down one of the side tracks leading away from the main access road, as it was ‘federal land’, and then later tried to tell us that we were not allowed to go bird-watching here at all. This would have been OK in itself, but he was incredibly rude and aggressive, and we could see no good reason for his behaviour. We suspect he just couldn’t stand that thought that foreign tourists might be anywhere near his ruins, without paying money. Despite having been told by the (perfectly friendly and helpful) gate guard that we could bird freely along the access road, we were going to pay at the ruins anyway. However after meeting this other obnoxious idiot, we had no intention of paying anything there! Very disappointing, as other birders have clearly been well received at San Gervasio in the past. Hopefully this was an isolated incident, as Zoltan took a taxi to the ruins and birded along the access road and on several of the numerous side roads in the vicinity of the ruins without any problems. He found several Cozumel Wrens there, but found only two Cozumel Vireos in that area.
At Bello Caribe, on our second day, we were lucky enough to find 2 Cozumel Emeralds, a female and an immature male, feeding on low flowering shrubs by the main dirt road, just before the old concrete Bello Caribe sign. As other birders had looked for, and not seen, this species since Hurricane Wilma, it was a relief to find at least a couple of individuals. Zoltan also found a full adult male just outside the San Gervasio information centre, and a female within the ruins, and hopefully there will be others scattered around the island. We also saw 2 Green-breasted Mangos at Bello Caribe, along with a single singing male Cozumel Wren, another 2 Caribbean Dove, single Yucatán Woodpecker, Cozumel and Yucatán Vireos, more Black Catbirds and Bananaquits, several Golden Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Yellow-faced Grassquits, Orchard Oriole and a flock of 25+ Eastern Kingbirds. At the end of the road beyond the sewage plant, we had 2 Roseate Spoonbills, 20+ White Ibis and 10 Chimney/Vaux’s Swifts flying past.
A pond along the east coast road, close to the Punta Celarain turning held 5+ Least Grebe, 2 Pied-billed Grebe, 3 Little Blue Heron, 5 Black-bellied Whistling Duck, 60 Blue-winged Teal, 100 American Coot, 1 Moorhen, 4 Black-necked Stilt and a 2m crocodile/caiman.
We found our last new species for the trip on the pier in San Miguel, while waiting for the ferry to Playa del Carmen – 5 Ruddy Turnstone happily feeding on chocolate biscuit crumbs!
Neither we nor Zoltan found Rose-throated Tanager or the endemic subspecies of Stripe-headed Tanager, Roadside Hawk or Rufous-browed Peppershrike on Cozumel, and there must be some concern for their survival on the island post-Wilma. Not surprisingly, we didn’t record Cozumel Thrasher either.
Felipe Carillo Puerto
We didn’t visit this site but Zoltan did: he found the famous Vigia Chico road rather disappointing. Birds were active in the first couple of hours after dawn but than activity dropped sharply after about 09:00. Between 11:00 and 15:00 he only saw about seven species along this road, driving slowly and stopping frequently. Probably this was due to the very dry and hot conditions at that time of year (mid-April). There is still plenty of good habitat left along this road.
What would we have done differently with hindsight?
Done less driving, and stayed longer at a few sites, probably cut out San Cristóbal and El Sumidero and left these for another trip. This would have been more relaxing and would probably have allowed us to see more of the birds on offer at the places visited.
Learnt more Spanish before travelling. Very little English spoken away from the main tourist spots. We got by OK, but a bit more Spanish would have made life easier in places.
Spent more time at the Usumacinta Marshes to do it justice – birded some of the other side roads.
Not visited San Gervasio on Cozumel! We saw all the key Cozumel birds at Bello Caribe anyway.