Sunday, December 30, 2012

Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico), Belize & Guatemala (Part 2)

Back on the mainland, we took a bus 2.5 hours south (picking up a Jabiru along the way) arriving in Felipe Carrillo Puerto a couple hours before sunset. Originally the plan was to make a quick stop at a supermarket, stock up on foods, and head straight to the famed Vigia Chico Road.  However, we were stalled for nearly two hours as we huddled under the supermarket overhang as it poured. The rain eventually ceased, we caught a taxi to the road and continued walking a couple kilometers in the dark. With our headlamps, we examined several milpas until we found one that looked good and set up camp.

Rain in Felipe Carrillo Puerto
At first light we headed back down the footpath towards the gravel road – the morning chorus was dominated by Yucatan Jays and the screeches of Olive-throated Parakeets and White-fronted Parrots overhead. Vigia Chico Road was by far one of the best areas we visited. We spent the entire day birding along the road and various paths leading into milpas and prime forests.

Track off Vigia Chico Road
I don’t even know where to begin on describing all of the highlights. With roughly 90 species, there’s just not enough time to type everything out! For those interested, you can find our counts for the day on eBird here ( Some of the highlights include: Keel-billed Toucans, Long-billed Gnatwrens, Rose-throated Tanagers, Gray-throated Chats, and five species of orioles. Of course, there were all of the peninsular endemics such as Yucatan Woodpecker, Yucatan Flycatcher, Yucatan Vireo, Yucatan Jays (everywhere) and without a doubt – the best bird of the trip, Yucatan Poorwill (SEEN!). 

Yucatan Poorwill
Yucatan Jay
Stumbling upon a Yucatan Poorwill was out of pure chance. Behind our camp, we heard this odd noise…perhaps a frog or insect. I was creeping around very slowly in thick vegetation trying to track down the culprit. Just before turning around and giving up, I noticed two eyes staring at me – Yucatan Poorwill! I could care less what that thing was making that noise, it led me straight to the poorwill! Not many birders get a good view of one in the middle of the day…let alone, get a photo.

After a successful day, we laid down in our tents and listened to Thicket Tinamous and a Collared Forest-Falcon calling not too far away. In the morning we’d bird the road back into town and head into Belize.

I also wanted to apologize for the lack of photos. My camera isn’t that great and since the others had good camera equipment, I decided to focus on audio recording instead.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico), Belize & Guatemala (Part 1)

What a fantastic trip! It’s been an incredibly busy couple weeks – after backpacking around the Yucatán, Belize, and Guatemala, I returned on Christmas Eve and jumped immediately into the hustle and bustle of the holidays. I still haven’t had much time to take a break yet as I prepare for a local Christmas Bird Count that I’m compiling, but I decided I must post something on the trip. In all, we recorded 315 species - quite a bit more than expected!

The afternoon of December 10th I stepped out of the Cancun Airport and met up with the two other birders joining me for the trip. After withdrawing pesos from the ATM, we didn’t waste time and boarded an ADO bus to Playa Del Carmen to catch a ferry to Cozumel Island. It was a nice change to be back in the tropics leaving the gray Midwest behind. Waiting for the ferry, we watched Magnificent Frigatebirds circling overhead, Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings working the beach the occasional Sandwich Tern amongst the hoards of Laughing Gulls.  After hearing horror stories of rough seas and sick people during the 10 mile ferry ride, we were pleased to experience very calm seas which allowed us to sit back and enjoy the 40min ride.

Cozumel Island is renowned for its beaches, diving, water sports, shopping, etc. and is a popular stop for cruise ships. Normally I would avoid touristy areas like this but Cozumel is home to several endemic species and there’s no way I was going to pass them up. Luckily, the tourists stay near the boat dock so the three of us ventured to the outskirts of town to our Couch Surfing host who agreed to put us up for two nights. To our advantage, his neighborhood was surrounded by prime island scrub. Since darkness had already fallen, we had to wait until the morning so we enjoyed a nice local dinner consisting of Chicharrón (fried pork skin), refried beans, and tortillas.

The following morning, we ventured out at first light walking down the road to an overgrown track. Black Catbirds were calling from every direction and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Tropical Mockingbirds, and the endemic subspecies of Bananaquit were just as numerous. Soon we started picking up specialties including a half dozen Cozumel Vireos amongst flocks of warblers, Yucatan Woodpecker, Mangrove Cuckoo, and the endemic subspecies of Rufous-browned Peppershrike. We reached the end of the track and ran into a nice party of birds including a cooperative female Cozumel Emerald (we did see a couple males later).

Birdy Track
Black Catbird
Cozumel Emerald (female)
After a quick break, we headed out to another promising patch of habitat picking up a half-dozen more Cozumel Vireos and finally…a Cozumel Wren! This proved to be the most difficult endemic to get (aside from Cozumel Thrasher which is presumably extinct). Too bad Cozumel Wren is currently lumped with House Wren, but still a great pick up!

Cozumel Vireo
That evening, we ventured back to this track in search of owls and nightjars. We only had a couple Common Pauraques, which called consistently within close proximity. This provided me some of the best audio recordings I recorded this trip.

The following morning before taking the ferry back to the mainland, we check the previous track once more picking up a few more new trip birds including Blue-winged Warbler, Green-breasted Mango and the endemic subspecies of Western Spindalis (aka Stripe-headed Tanager). We left the island with only 50+ species, but that was entirely expected for an island. Next post will be on the renowned birding location – Vigia Chico Road, which certainly gave the trip list a boost!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mexico is calling!

Several weeks ago it occurred to me that this has been the longest period of time in probably a decade that I haven’t traveled somewhere outside of the Great Lakes. Contrary to this year, in 2011 I found myself in a dozen countries…not just five states. This is blatantly unacceptable. Where have I not been yet? What can be done on a budget? Cancun, Mexico is probably one of the cheapest places to fly to south of the U.S. border – ok, let’s go to the Yucatán Peninsula! I created a quick itinerary and within a few hours of my initial idea, I started throwing out open invitations on Facebook. While most were too busy with university exams, visiting family and other preplanned trips, two birders eventually jumped on board including Eric Ripma from Indiana.

For the past couple weeks I’ve been working on the ultimate itinerary - to see as much as we can in a two week period.  I also enjoy the challenge of seeing how far one can go by spending as little as possible. With that said, we are not renting a car relying on the Mexican bus system and will camp for most of the trip. Here’s our route:

We’ll land in Cancun and proceed doing a big loop starting off on Cozumel for island endemics. We’ll then head south spending a couple nights outside Felipe Carrillo Puerto birding along the famous Vigia Chica Road before heading further south into Belize. When planning trips, I like to include bordering countries – especially when they have a lot of potential. In Belize we’ll bird the Mountain Pine Ridge (Stygian Owl!) and the Caracol ruins. Seeing that the famous Tikal Ruins are just on the other side of the border with Guatemala, we’ll also bird there for a day before heading back into the Yucatán. From here we’ll head west to the incredible Calakmul Ruins and finish the trip at the northern tip of the peninsula at Ria Lagartos.

I find it interesting to also include photos of items packed. Being a backpacking trip, we can’t carry much. Here’s what I’m taking.

From left to right: sleeping bag (2lbs 12oz.), solo backpackers tent,
 camera gear, acoustic recording equipment (from the Cornell Lab of
Ornithology to record songs/calls), dry bags, passport, binoculars,
extra clothes and a few toiletries and essentials. Surprisingly enough,
on my 4-month, nine county backpacking trip around Southern
Africa, I packed even lighter than this!

 All of these items fit perfectly into a camelback backpack and dry sac.
My flight leaves early tomorrow morning (Dec 10th) at 5:25am and I won’t return until Christmas Eve. Even though I have birded much of the southern U.S. border, Panama and Ecuador, this trip should still put my world list over the 2,000 milestone! In the meantime, enjoy the holidays and check back after Christmas for a trip report!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Taughannock Loon Watch (part two)

Taughannock Loon Watch - picnic table wind breaker
(Photo by Bill Evans)
Today marked the end of the season counting southbound loons over Cayuga Lake. Altogether, a little over 6,000 Common Loons were counted in addition to a half-dozen or so Red-throated Loons.  This appears to be quite an impressive number, but looking at the years 1993 through 1997, the average was over 10,000 loons! This fall actually fell well short (~600) than the lowest count between that period (6,703 in 1994). It’s hard to say if their numbers are considerably lower than 15-20 years ago after only one season. Idealy the count should be conducted for another couple seasons to establish an average. If the numbers like this persists, then we should start looking into factors such as avian botulism, which has affected large numbers of loons in the past.

Even on slow days, it’s never a dull moment on the lake. Stationary counts from Taughannock every morning, you’re bound to see other birds as well. During the five week period, I recorded over 70 other species– mostly waterfowl as you would expect. Some of the highlights include: Brant, 4,000+ Snow Geese, all three scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Merlin, Peregrine Falcons, a Golden Eagle, Snow Buntings on a daily basis, and of course, the occasional winter finch - White-winged & Red Crossbills and Common Redpoll all making an appearance.

I’m really going to miss it out there. This evening I drove back home (Ohio) so that I can start packing for my trip to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala this Monday. I'll post a little more on that this weekend!