Yucatan and Cozumel Trip Report - the following is a composite of our fantastic 2015 to 2018 trips.
For over twenty years, Mexico has been one of my favorite countries, maybe even my absolute favorite, in Latin America. Its rich culture, interesting native foods, tremendous biogeographic diversity, and its many endemic birds and plants combine to provide memorable trips in all corners of the country. Over the years, I've made many good friends whose talents, hard work, and generosity always contribute greatly to our natural adventures.
While much of Mexico is dominated by the rugged Sierra Madre (about one-quarter of the country is mountainous pine and oak woodland), it also has isolated coastal slopes, the arborescent Sonoran Desert, southeastern rainforest, and a seasonally dry interior plateau. The one area that stands apart from these otherwise connected landscape features is the Yucatan Peninsula. This huge limestone peninsula, with no surface rivers or mountains, is almost entirely covered with intact forest and bordered almost entirely by mangrove-fringed shores and tropical seas.
While mountains and rivers play important roles in determining species distributions and in fostering endemism throughout the neotropics, what is so interesting about the Yucatan is that in the absence of these features, there are a surprising number of endemics. This becomes even more interesting when one considers that for parts of its geologic history, much or all of the Yucatan was under water. The reasons for the evolution of the Yucatan's endemics are probably complex and perhaps even unknowable, but they're fun to think about. Most of the endemics are sympatric in the region with their closest cousins, making their presence all the more unusual.
Our trip begins on Isla Cozumel which most
people know as a resort, cruise ship, and diving destination. Few are
aware, however, that the tourist activities are limited to a fairly small area
and that perhaps 90% of the island is covered in native forest.
Most of this is composed of dense stands of small-diameter, hurricane
adapted vegetation that provides habitat for many birds, both residents and
migrants, as well as wildlife such as collared peccary, northern raccoon,
white-nosed coati, iguanas (green and spiny-tailed), and others. Located about 12 miles
offshore from the mainland, Isla Cozumel has apparently been isolated long
enough, and is large enough, to have fostered the evolution of two endemic
birds, the Cozumel emerald and the Cozumel vireo.
There are also several endemic subspecies - Roadside Hawk, Rufous-browed
Peppershrike, Bananaquit, House Wren, Yellow warbler, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
We stay at the lovely Villas El Encanto, a comfortable oasis with beautiful rooms and excellent service. From here we visit a nearby side road with good habitat. The Cecropia trees, if in fruit, attract western spindalis, black catbird, tropical mockingbird, and sometimes rose-throated tanager and white-crowned pigeon; flowering Hamelia shrubs have Cozumel emerald and green-breasted mango; and the surround forest thickets are good for Cozumel and Yucatan vireos, rufous-browed peppershrike, Yucatan and golden-fronted woodpeckers, many migrant warblers (hooded, magnolia, blue-winged, American redstart, and ovenbird) and the endemic race of yellow warbler. In 2017 we were in the right place at the right time on this road and photographed Cozumel's first record of laughing falcon. Considering this bird's notoriously weak flight, it was amazing to think that it made the 12-mile trip across open ocean from the mainland.
On Cozumel, we also visit and have lunch at the Museo de la Isla de Cozumel. The Museo provides an excellent overview of the islands geology, hydrology, ecology, and history. It also has a small courtyard with a Hamelia shrub where we've sometimes seen Cozumel emerald. From the balcony restaurant we enjoy Caribbean views and sometimes sightings of yellow-throated warbler, ruddy turnstone, and royal tern before spending the afternoon at the islands wastewater treatment facility where palm warbler, northern parula, both groove-billed and smooth-billed anis (this is Mexico's only location for the otherwise widespread smooth-billed), northern jacana, lesser yellow-headed vulture, Vaux's swift, yellow-faced grassquit, white-collared seedeater, and other birds can be found.
One of the highlights at Villas El Encanto are our dinners which will be catered on the poolside patio by a local restaurant that goes all out with very tasty fare.
From Cozumel, we take the short ferry to the mainland from where we head south a short ways to Bahia Punta Soliman, a gorgeous bay with few visitors and a good beach restaurant. After lunch, we continue into the forests west of Tulum to the charming Casa Selva Orquideas where we have their unique cabanas, fine service, and excellent food all to ourselves for three nights. Our hosts - Erika, Chito, and Juan - are typical of my experience with the amazing people of Mexico in that they're easy going, fun, provide superb service, and have created a unique paradise. The grounds are rich with birds, and Yucatan, green, and brown jays are near daily visitors as are ivory-billed woodcreeper, white-tipped dove, black-headed saltator and turquoise-browed and Lesson's motmot. From here we spend time walking in the surrounding forest right outside our front door and also make visits to good sites just minutes away. Several of the regions endemics - Yucatan vireo, black catbird, rose-throated tanager, wedge-tailed sabrewing, buff-bellied hummingbird, Yucatan flycatcher, orange oriole, black-headed trogon, Yucatan woodpecker, and yellow-lored parrot - have all been found in the area, along with more widespread species such as green-backed sparrow, collared aracari, keel-billed toucan, long-billed gnatwren, stub-tailed spadebill, squirrel cuckoo, black-crowned and masked tityras, yellow-billed cacique, and many more.
One year they had a rufous morph of vermiculated screech-owl day roosting next door to the lodge as well as a kinkajou coming every night to a banana feeder.
From Casa Selva Orquideas, we make a morning trip to Punta Laguna, a well forested reserve with a beautiful natural lagoon adjacent to a Mayan village. While the beautiful lagoon is reliable for least and pied-billed grebes, limpkin, and anhinga, it's the forest here that's the real gem. Though neither is common, both Geoffrey's spider monkey and Mexican howler monkey can be found here. It can be a pretty good spot for army ants, and on several occasions we've had good luck in finding ruddy, northern-barred, and ivory-billed woodcreepers as well as red-crowned and red-throated ant tanagers, wood thrush, green-backed sparrow, hooded warbler and other species attending the ants. Northern bentbill, yellow-olive and sepia-capped flycatchers, eye-ringed flatbill, black-cowled and Altamira orioles, long-billed gnatwren, yellow-billed cacique, lineated and pale-billed woodpeckers, spot-breasted wren, yellow-throated and scrub euphonias, gartered and black-headed trogons and many others have been found here.
The nearby Mayan ruins of Tulum are a must-see, and we make a nice afternoon visit to the site where my good friend and co-leader, Benito Hernandez, does a great guided tour for us. As always, Benito is not only a wealth of information about history and archaeology, but he's a great story teller, too......as well as a great birder and naturalist. This post-classic site, with its fortress-like walls on three sides and the turquoise-blue Caribbean on the other, is particularly scenic. Benito gives us an interesting account of it's role as a center for traders, warriors, and administrators, while we occasionally get sidetracked by hooded oriole, indigo and painted buntings, black catbird, Yucatan jay, spiny-tailed iguana, Yucatan squirrel, white-nosed coati, and other wildlife.
Of course, while in the Yucatan, we have to make a visit to a cenote (sink hole), and while there are many popular and crowded ones, we've found an out-of-the-way spot called Cenote Mool Ich, where we're sometimes the only visitors. After a brief lesson in the area's geology and hydrology, we make a forest walk, looking for many of the above mentioned species as well as white-bellied wren and ferruginous pygmy-owl (which may be more common in the Yucatan than anyplace else I know). Nearby Laguna Coba is always worth a stop in the late afternoon for the sunset, the more open-country birds like blue-gray and yellow-winged tanagers, and chances to actually see ruddy crake which we've done several times here. Spotted rail, however, is more of a challenge and remains a "heard only" bird for me at this spot.
From the Tulum area we head short ways west into the drier forests of the Valladolid area. As is my habit, I'm always looking for unique lodging options, ideally "in the forest", away from the crowds, and with good service and food. Both Villas El Encanto on Cozumel and Casa Selva Orquideas are perfect matches, and as luck would have it, outside of Valladolid, there is another such place, Hacienda San Miguel. This historic site is had its origins in the mid 1500s after the Spanish conquest, and, after centuries of ups and downs, it now hosts visitors in very nice cabins. The dry forest and edges here are good for Couch's kingbird, blue-bunting, cinnamon and buff-bellied hummingbirds, white-eyed and mangrove vireos (at this latitude, they are often found far inland), melodious blackbird, both turquoise-browed and Lesson's motmots, rose-throated becard, black-crowned tityra, the Yucatan race of cave swallow, and more. The ocellated turkeys in the yard might not be countable, but they sure are beautiful....and endemic.
The Hacienda provides a perfect home base for three nights as we make day trips to Ria Lagartos, Chitzen Itza, and Ek Balam. Ria Lagartos is one of several biosphere reserves along the three coasts of the Yucatan, and it's extensive mangroves, shallow lagoons, and sand and mud flats provide habitat for abundant wildlife. From the small fishing town, we take a boat tour of the area, seeing American flamingoes up close as well as large numbers of laughing gulls, the uncommon lesser black-backed gull, dozens of black skimmers, several terns, many waders, and of course some shorebirds. In the mangroves, mangrove warbler and mangrove cuckoo are uncommon, but we've seen them here, and common black hawk is, well, pretty common. Wintering ospreys, American crocodile, and kingfishers (which are oddly uncommon) are also to be found. One of the highlights of the area, however is the Restaurante Ria Maya, where we have a nice lunch while enjoying the comings and goings of Mexican Sheartail and cinnamon hummingbird at their porch feeders. In the surrounding desert scrub, where cacti, agaves, and spiny legumes replace the taller forest found further inland, we always look for, and so far have never missed, the endemic Yucatan wren, a cactus wren cousin that can be a bit skulky here. Other birds of thickets and open country, such as crested caracara, Canivet's emerald, northern cardinal, common ground dove, blue-black grassquit, and the elusive black-throated bobwhite are sometimes seen here as well.
From Hacienda San Miguel, we also visit the extensive ruins of Chitzen Itza, one of the most well-known sites in the Mayan world. After entering the site's "back door", which is quiet and has good dry forest, we walk a nice trail to look for bright-rumped attila, boat-billed, least, and dusky-capped flycatchers, wintering summer tanagers and yellow-throated vireos, and others. On one visit we came upon a pair of day-roosting great-horned owls, an uncommon resident that seems to have keyed in on the large, huntable open spaces of the ruins. Once again, Benito gives us a great tour of this spectacular ancient Mayan achievement.
Finally we visit the recently opened and lesser known site of Ek Balam. Again there is good forest and we almost always have several hours mostly to ourselves as we walk the quiet outer trails looking for yellow-backed and yellow-tailed orioles, green jay, both species of motmot, rose-breasted grosbeak, black-throated green warbler, and clay-colored thrush.
The Yucatan is a big place, with lots to do and see. Though there are several million tourists who visit the area each year, you wouldn't know it with the unique tour I've set up. We stay in great places where we're often the only guests, we visit quiet and scenic birding spots with little to no traffic, and we explore several of the lesser known gems of the area, all while minimizing vehicle travel and optimizing our field time in this special part of Mexico. I can't wait to return next year !!