Birding the Land of the Maya

Social Flycatcher, Salil Ruins, Yucatan (photo Bob Bowers)

Social Flycatcher, Salil Ruins, Yucatan (photo Bob Bowers)

A year ago, Prudy and I flew to Cancun, rented a car, and drove 2,000 miles around the Yucatan Peninsula, looking for and photographing Mayan ruins and birds.  Apparently we had a good time, because we just did it again.  Well, we didn’t repeat it exactly.  This time we skipped a few of last year’s destinations, like Xcalak, Xpuhil and Yaxchilan, replacing them with new spots, like Cozumel, San Cristobal and, keeping our ‘X’ string alive, Isla Holbox.  Those ‘X’ words, incidentally, have Mayan roots and are pronounced ‘esh’ if initial, like ‘Eshcalak’ and ‘sh’ if not, like ‘Isla Holbosh.’  This might come in handy if you travel to the Yucatan, and traveling to the Yucatan is something we would certainly recommend.  There are plenty of good reasons to visit Mexico’s uniquely shaped peninsula:  beautiful weather and beaches, some of the best diving and snorkeling anywhere, wonderful food and a lot of gentle and friendly people.  And of course, there are those ruins and birds.  For those still hesitant to travel to Mexico, you should also know that our own State Department has no travel advisories in place for any of the three peninsula states, or for that matter, the two adjacent states, Tabasco and Chiapas.

Yucatan Jay (photo Prudy Bowers)

Yucatan Jay (photo Prudy Bowers)

We’ve been traveling to the Yucatan almost as long as Cancun has existed as a developed tourist destination.  With today’s level of popularity, it’s hard to believe that Cancun had only three residents just 45 years ago.  Now there are more than 600,000 residents and three million annual visitors.  We started visiting Cozumel long ago for the underwater life, but this year marked the first time we came to bird instead of to dive.  Birding has some similarity to diving:  you immerse yourself in a selected habitat, enjoy the beauty of the moment, and look for (and try to identify) colorful creatures.  At the same time, birding has some advantages over diving:  the equipment and guides are cheaper, and if your equipment fails, you can still breathe.  On this latest trip, our equipment worked like a charm, and the birds we saw were as brilliant and fascinating as the Caribbean fish.  Cozumel is Mexico’s biggest island, about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide.  Considering that this relatively small island lies just 12 miles offshore, it is surprising that some of the mainland’s nearby birds are absent from Cozumel, while the island has 3 endemic species not found on the mainland, or anywhere else for that matter.  We enjoyed many of the 260 plus species found on Cozumel, including one of the endemics, the Cozumel Emerald, a striking green (of course) hummingbird with a long forked tail.  The toughest bird for us to identify would have been easy for many of you, a female American Redstart.  These winter visitors from North America were abundant on Cozumel, and, looking different from (and not associating with) the far fewer males, they were our mystery birds for more than a day.

Yellow-throated Warbler, Uxmal, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

Yellow-throated Warbler, Uxmal, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

Another new-as-far-as-birding place for us was Uxmal (pronounced ‘ushmal’, remember?).  The hacienda there was such a beautiful and comfortable place, and the birding so spectacular, that we extended our initial stay, and then returned for another night a week later.  Our upper, corner room came with a balcony that overlooked open, treed habitat, and a leafless plumeria tree you could reach out and touch.  Among the hundred birds we saw in that area, we especially enjoyed a curious Yellow-throated Warbler (another eastern U.S. migrant), that paused enough to give us a photo op.  A couple of White-fronted Parrots were also regular morning visitors that had us reaching for the camera.

American Flamingos, Celestun, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

American Flamingos, Celestun, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

We found it impossible to skip Celestun, even though we had been there 12 months ago.  There is something magical and magnetic when 10,000 neon orange American Flamingos squawk a cappella and swish-feed in knee-deep water, wading as if they were skating.  You have to see it to believe it.

(This article originally appeared in the March, 2015 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)


About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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