Development of Cancun as a tourist destination was begun in January, 1970, when there were just three residents. The last census in 2010 reported 628,306 residents. Today, Cancun is Mexico’s primary tourist destination with more than three million visitors each year, and if you are one of those, you’ll swear that none of them leave the city. Actually, relatively few of them do, and those that do roam seldom go further than Tulum, a couple of hours along the coast to the south, or a similar distance to the west, to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. For the most part our past visits to the Yucatan Peninsula have been similar. We’ve snorkeled the beaches of Cancun, dived the reefs at Cozumel and Akumal and toured the ruins at Tulum and Chichen Itza. These trips all took place before I became obsessed with birding, however, and there are a lot of birds in the Yucatan. In January we decided to make up for this oversight by flying to Cancun, renting a car and driving 2,000 miles through the three states of the peninsula, Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatan, as well as two adjacent states, Chiapas and Tabasco. We did all this in something less than a month, and it turned out to be a trip worth sharing.
Birding Mexico in January is particularly productive, since many North American birds fly south for the winter, augmenting the impressive number of Mexican residents. This can be a bit challenging for an Arizonan, though, since most of these migrants are from the eastern U.S. and rarely, if ever, seen in the west. When your vireo experience is pretty much limited to Bell’s, Plumbeous, Warbling and Hutton’s, you’re not prepared for White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, which might as well be Yucatan endemics for a westerner. Once you realize how many eastern U.S. migrants are around, though, you can relax and enjoy the opportunity to see birds that otherwise require a long trip east and some luck. The last time we birded the eastern U.S. I failed repeatedly to find a Hooded Warbler, for example, but in the Yucatan in January they were so common they almost became ordinary. At O Kaan, near Chichen Itza, Black-throated Green Warblers were as thick as House Finches here, and we discovered a flock of 200 Eastern Meadowlarks near Palenque. Other eastern U.S. migrants included Painted Bunting, American Redstart, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Northern Parula, Gray Catbird, Baltimore Oriole and Yellow-throated Warbler. The American Bird Conservancy estimates one and one-half billion birds of 200 species migrate through the Yucatan Peninsula each year, so this is clearly a good place for winter birding.
The icing on the cake for American birders, however, is the abundance of Mexican residents, birds you rarely, if ever, find in the U.S., east or west. These are often breath-taking colorful or otherwise spectacular birds with names to match, like Turquoise-browed Motmot, Melodious Blackbird, Red-throated Ant-tanager, Violaceous Trogon, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Masked Tityra, Rose-throated Becard and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. The peninsula is also home to eleven endemic birds found nowhere else, including Yucatan Jay, Orange Oriole and Ocellated Turkey.
We planned our itinerary to include as many Mayan archeological sites as possible, reason enough to visit the Yucatan, and these partially open areas in the jungle were easy places to find birds. Our favorites included Kohunlich, Calakmul, Palenque, Yaxchilan, Becan, Edzna and the Oka’an resort near Chichen Itza. And don’t overlook Celestun, a small fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico just 60 miles from Merida. Celestun is home to a 146,000-acre Biosphere Reserve, where more than 300 species of birds can be found, including thousands of wintering American Flamingos. An inexpensive boat tour will put you up close and personal with these beautiful neon-pink birds, as well as take you into mangrove channels where 5-inch Pigmy Kingfishers hang out. Our boat put us next to a feeding flock of 600 flamingos, and we could see nine other similarly-sized flocks. Adding in other groups of flamingos that couldn’t be seen at the same time gave us an estimated winter gathering of 10,000 birds. Celestun is Mayan for ‘painted stone’. We never found a painted stone, but ten thousand neon-painted flamingos was a great consolation prize.
(This article originally appeared in the April, 2014 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)