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Birding the Yucatán: Cozumel Island

posted by Tim Avery at
on Sunday, February 9, 2014 

Part 1 of 3...

Back in October 2013 my company announced that our department would be going on a team building trip--the destination: Belize.  The planning got underway, and everyone including myself was planning what we wanted to do while there.  I had a laundry list of Caribbean species I hadn’t seen in Costa Rica that I wanted and could see in Belize so I knew what I would do with any free time I had.  But in December we were notified Belize was not going to happen for various reasons--and we would be sent to Playa Del Carmen on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico instead.  It was a win-win situation as there were numerous species found here that I hadn’t seen before, as well as a handful of endemics.  In all there were about 90 species I could add to my life list if I were lucky--so back at the drawing board I made new plans for Mexico.

The beautiful blue water at Playa Del Carmen

I’d lie if I didn’t say it was pretty awesome for my company to send me on a trip like this--it ended up being a reward trip as opposed to a team building trip, so we had more freedom with what to do--in fact there were no required things to do once in Mexico--everything the company did was by choice.  They planned trips to various ruins, scuba-diving, snorkeling, theme parks, etc.  A very gracious offering indeed.  But I wanted to see new birds, so that meant planning my own trip within the trip.  I spent a few weeks pouring over information on the internet and in eBird planning my trip.  I would basically get 3 and ½ days to go birding if I so pleased, so I decided on the following. On Tuesday the 4th I would go with my team to Chichen Itza and look for birds there.  That night I would pick up my rental car in Playa Del Carmen so the next morning I could drive 3 hours south to Camino Vigia Chico, a well known birding location visited by most tours that go to the Yucatan.  I would work my way back north stopping at several ruins along the way.  The Third day I would visit more ruins 25 miles inland at Coba, and spend the afternoon on Cozumel Island.  My last morning I planned on visiting a Botanical Garden near Cancun before returning my rental and being done for the trip.   This sounded great… Until I started reading about flamingos.

Call it weird, call it whatever, I have this weird love of Flamingos.  I still remember seeing Pink Floyd (the Chilean Flamingo that escaped from Tracy Aviary 20 some odd years ago) near Saltair when I was young and wanting to see “real” wild flamingos.  Since then I had managed to see 3 of the 6 species found on our planet--and on the Yucatan, I could add #4, the American Flamingo.  There was a short 311 kilometer (193 mile) drive to a small fishing village named Rio Lagartos where with 100% certainty I could see the flamingos--so I changed my plans to make this the brunt of my trip.  What follows are the 3 days of birding I ended up doing--on Cozumel Island, at Rio Lagartos, and Coba Ruins. This is Part 1: Birding Cozumel.

Welcome to Cozumel Island

I woke up early on Tuesday the 4th.  I was supposed to be going to Chichen Itza with a tour group, but decided to skip that so I could fit in all the birding I wanted to do.  Instead I caught an early taxi to the Playa Del Carmen Ferry so I could hop across the water to Cozumel Island--as I waited to get going the first birds of the morning were LAUGHING GULLS on the beach.  Once there I snagged a taxi to take me to the San Gervaisio Ruins in the middle of the jungle in the middle of the island.

The Ruins at San Gervaisio

I was the first person there and had the place to myself--I got right ot birding.  Inside the gate I saw a MAGNOLIA WARBLER followed by AMERICAN REDSTART.  The beauty of birding in the tropics in our winter is you get all the resident species and our wintering birds as well.

Magnolia Warbler just inside the gates

I was a little bothered right off the bat.  I paid $5 to get in and then you walk 150 feet and have to pay another $5 again--I still don’t quite get it.  The guy at the 2nd gate wanted me to pay $5 more for my camera, but I argued that I wasn’t here to “video” their ruins, I was taking pictures of birds.  After 2 or 3 minutes bantering he finally conceded and let me pass without paying the additional $5--sheesh.  Once in the birds started popping up right and left. Warblers flitted about in the bushes and trees, zipping from spot to spot. There were TROPICAL KINGBIRDS and TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRDS at every corner.

Tropical Mockingbirds are abundant 

I set out to find some of the local specialties, but the more abundant and obvious birds kept getting in the way.  Small flocks of YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUITS hopped around the lawn.  BLACK-THROATED GREEN-WARBLERS, NORTHERN PARULAS, and more MAGNOLIA WARBLERS passed by in the short trees lining the main set of ruins.  It was birding at its best.

Warbler Madness on Cozumel Island

Top L to R: Yellow-throated, Magnolia, Northern Parula
Middle L to R: Common Yellowthroat, Yellow, Black-and-white
Bottom L to R: Ovenbird, Black-throated Green, American Redstart

Finally I spotted some movement from within the jungle and picked out a pair of BLACK CATBIRDS.  Each time I saw this species here they seemed to be in pairs. An oriole flew over and I got excited for a moment--it turned out to just be a HOODED ORIOLE.  I started down a path into the jungle and immediately found myself engulfed in mosquitos.  A quick stop to cover up and then back to the birds.  The warblers came out in force here.  OVENBIRDS, NORTHERN PARULA, AMERICAN REDSTART, YELLOW-THROATED, and BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLERS all came out to the edges.

Best look I've ever had at a Yellow-throated Warbler

I spotted my lifer SWAINSON’S WARBLER working the underbrush, while more catbirds called from nearby.  A couple of the “Cozumel” variety HOUSE WREN perched out in the open for good views.  Although similar to our House Wren, these birds are much bigger, and obviously different.  This species is generally recognized as its own, but the AOU hasn’t acted on splitting it yet.

"Cozumel" House Wren singing

Walking the paths through the jungle YELLOW WARBLERS started showing up--perhaps one of the most abundant species I saw here.  As it warmed the birds were slightly less active.  I did have the good fortune to get 2 brief looks at WESTERN SPINDALIS on the loop out from the main compound back to the site known as “The Arch”. Near the arch there were quite a few cooperative YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUITS for photography.

Yellow-faced Grassquit is a gorgeous bird

CARIBBEAN DOVES could be heard the entire time calling but spent their days deep in the understory out of view so I had to settle for the audibles. Back near the entrance I finally saw a hummingbird--unfortunately it was a RUFOUS-TAILED and not he endemic Cozumel Emerald.  I also saw one more HOODED ORIOLE before heading back out the gates.

Hooded Oriole always stunning

Once outside I walked the power lines heading to the right of the entrance leading into the jungle.  I started imitating a pygmy-owl and the birds poured in. Yellow Warblers, BANANAQUITS, BLACK CATBIRDS, and YUCATAN WOODPECKERS.  TROPICAL KINGBIRDS, Parulas, Gnatcatchers, and more HOUSE WRENS came to the edge of the forest.  Try as I might I couldn’t get a Cozumel Vireo or any local flycatchers to appear.

Black Catbird--I mean they are wayyyy Black

Bad picture of a Yucatan Woodpecker

My taxi took me back towards the town where I asked him to take me to the Country Club which is known as a good birding location as well.

The Country Club is a Bird Sanctuary as well

Once there I had him drop me off at the clubhouse and asked him to wait at the entrance so I could walk the road back through the Mangroves and see what turned up.  There were again quite a few warblers from up north here--new species for the trip included both species of WATERTHRUSH, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, CAPE MAY and BLACK-THROATED BLUE-WARBLER. Other species typical of the area including GREAT KISKADEE and MELODIOUS BLACKBIRD were also present.

Great Kiskadee looking for lunch

Again, the YELLOW WARBLERS dominated the songbirds in the bushes.  I decided to try to call in a COZUMEL VIREO and pulled out my phone.  I started playing the call and almost immediately had one come in. The only problem was the racket brought in several YUCATAN VIREOS which chased the other bird away.  The Yucatan birds didn’t mind posing nicely after running off the specialty species.

Yucatan Vireo posing at the Country Club

CARIBBEAN ELAENIA was calling emphatically form the side of the road, but moved around the bushes too much for a photo. Near the entrance there is a decent sized pond that had the usual AMERICAN COOTS and a handful of COMMON MOORHEN.  There was also one NORTHERN JACANA and a LITTLE BLUE HERON.  Several small flocks of BLACK-NECKED STILTS looked wildly out of place in the tropics.

Black-necked Stilts at the Country Club

I met back up with my taxi driver who drove me back to town and dropped me off.  I almost missed the boat back to the mainland, because I thought I had till noon--I planned on spending an hour at the shops near the ferry but when I arrived I saw the boat I was supposed to be on loading up.  The schedule switched mid morning and the boat was actually heading in at 11:00am and it was 10:59.  Literally 1 minute after I boarded they pulled the gang-planks and headed back to shore.  I had missed the endemic Cozumel Emeral which was mind boggling having read reports at how abundant it was.  And I did not rediscover that thought to be extinct Cozumel Thrasher. I wished I had more time so I could have spent an entire day combing the island for birds--I guess next time :)

I wasn’t scheduled to pick my car up till later in the afternoon, but decided that if I could get an early jump I could leave for Rio Lagartos, and avoid driving in the dark, so I headed to the rental place where they had no problem letting me go a couple hours early.  I knew there were 3 routes to Rio Lagartos, all of which it said took 3 to 4 hours.  The GPS put me on the main toll route which is a very nice road and there was basically no traffic--that’s because at the end of the route you pay about $25 American to have used the highway!  I stopped once when I saw a flock of YUCATAN JAYS streaming across the road.  I hoped for pictures but the lighting was bad.  Along with the jays came 7 SQUIRREL CUCKOO, some BLACK-CROWNED TYTRA’s and a couple of Orioles.

I only had one slight issue on the trip over when I stopped in Valladolid to get gas.  The station THIEVES (yes not worker, he was a common criminal)  told me they accepted cards, but when I went to pay he changed the story.  When I handed him the cash, he slipped one of my bigger bills in his pocket and replaced it with a smaller one I didn’t even have--and claimed I hadn’t given him enough--I argued with him but it was pointless.  I was in his country in some backwoods town and the only option I had was to be extorted of about $20 more American.

As I left the town I had a bad taste in my mouth--shitty human beings exist everywhere in this world.  Here I am contributing to their livelihood and they steal from me.  I only had about $10 in cash left after being robbed--but I had a full tank of gas so that was a plus. So onward I drove, the final 90 Kilometers to Rio Lagartos, where part 2 will pick up...

11 life birds at Cozumel and driving / 11 total trip life birds / 54 total trip species

Photos from Cozumel:

eBird Checklists:
San Gervaisio Ruins
Cozumel Country Club
Highway from Cancun to Valladolid

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Blogger Jeff Cooper said...

Sounds like a great trip, Tim. I am envious of your excursions. I went to Playa del Carmen a few years ago with my wife and my brother and his wife. We had lots of fun, but it killed me knowing I was missing some great birding opportunities. I was the only birder and it was pretty much done covertly while out with the others. Nice report and images!

February 10, 2014 at 9:58 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Jeff: Thanks Jeff! It reminds me of college when my baseball team went to Florida for spring break and the entire trip was baseball wall to wall--the birds there were amazing, but all I was able to do was sneak a look here and there. I consider myself very lucky that I am able to do the things I do now.

February 11, 2014 at 7:35 AM  
Blogger José said...

Congrats on your vacations, panoramic photos look incredible. Cozumel is great place for vacations, it has a lot of fun activities on land and also water. Here is some info on the matter: scuba diving and snorkeling in Cozumel .

July 24, 2015 at 10:42 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this. I am returning to Cozumel next week and you seem to have seen many more birds there than I did previously. Great blog with great photos. Thanks for posting on the Internet.

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Blogger Quilts2 said...

In a recent trip to Cozumel, we saw a robin sized bird that was black with a yellow stripe on the wings and the tail. Not sure what it was...anybody know?

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