Yucatan and Palenque, Mexico - 7th - 20th March 2003

Published by John Bowler (John.Bowler AT rspb.org.uk)

Participants: John Bowler and Janet Hunter


We spent 2 weeks in Mexico, visiting Mayan sites in Yucatan for a week based at Tulum and then flying on to Villerhamosa to spend a week in the Palenque area. We hired a car at Cancun airport for the first week and just used local buses and taxis in the Palenque area. This was a fairly leisurely trip but we made efforts to visit sites early in the morning to maximise birding potential. We saw a total of 252 species and had great views of most of the east Yucatan endemics plus a good range of forest birds in the Palenque area, although there was a lack of access into better undisturbed forest at Palenque Mayan site. Both hotels we stayed at offered excellent on-site birding, with new birds picked up daily through repeat visits. This trip neatly complemented a later trip to Belize where we picked up most of the remaining Yucatan endemics.


• 5-6 Mar: fly to Cancun via Madrid (1 night and a few birds) and Miami, pick up hire car and drive to Tulum in the dark, where stayed at Las Ranitas hotel for 7 nights
• 7-8 Mar: all-day birding around Las Ranitas
• 9 Mar: drive south to bird in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
• 10 Mar: birded around Tulum Mayan Ruins
• 11 Mar: drive to Coba and birded around the lake first thing and then around the Mayan ruins
• 12 Mar: early morning birding around Las Ranitas including visit to mangroves, afternoon to Gran Cenote, Tulum for swimming and chilled birding
• 13 Mar: last early morning birding at Las Ranitias, then drive up to Cancun for flight to Villerhamosa and transfer to Chan Kah hotel resort, Palenque
• 14 Mar: all-day birding at Chan Kah resort
• 15 Mar: early morning visit to Mayan ruins at Palenque where birded the trails for most of day
• 16 Mar: early morning birding at Chan Kah resort, bus to Palenque town pm
• 17 Mar: taxi to Misol Ha for birding around the waterfall
• 18 Mar: early morning to Palenque Mayan ruins for second day of birding there
• 19 Mar: final early morning birding at Chan Kah, transfer to Villerhamosa airport and fly to Cancun for 1 night in the Best Westin Regina Hotel
• 20 Mar: birded around the Best Westin Regina resort, bus to Cancun airport later pm for flight back to London

Principal sites

The main birding sites we birded are listed below.

1) Tulum, Yucatan:

a) Environs of Las Ranitas. We chose this small friendly hotel as it is pretty much the last one south along the coast from Tulum town before the start of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve. The roadside habitats of patchy coastal woodland and odd fields backed by mangroves, proved to be a good starting point and provided busy birding in the early morning and late afternoon. A family of Yucatan Jayswere almost the first birds seen together with a Mangrove Cuckoo, whilst Black Catbirds were also easily found, together with other endemics such as Ridgeway’s Rough-winged Swallow and a Yucatan Vireo. Parties of orioles included Orange, Altamira, Yellow-backed, Yellow-tailed, Black-cowled, Baltimore and Hooded Orioles, whilst Yellow-billed Caciques and White-browed Wrens skulked in better forest patches and Cinnamon Hummingbirds and White-bellied Emeralds buzzed around the flowers. There were lots of wood-warblers here with Yellow-throated Warbler easily seen in the hotel grounds, whilst the roadside brush and paddocks held American Redstart, Prairie Warbler, Palm Warbler and Grey-crowned Yellowthroat plus Common Yellowthroat in marshy areas, and Yellow-rumped Warbler in the beach-edge scrub. Common species here included Great-tailed Grackle, Melodious Blackbird, Bronzed Cowbird, Tropical Mockingbird, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, White-collared Seed-eater, White-winged Dove, Common Ground-dove and Golden-fronted Woodpecker. Other doves seen included Mourning Dove and Ruddy Ground-dove, the latter joined in a paddock by a Spotted Sandpiper (!), whilst parties of parrots included White-fronted and Yucatan Parrots plus Aztec Parakeets. Raptors overhead and on the wires included Turkey Vulture, Common Black-hawk, Grey Hawk, Osprey and Roadside Hawk. The beach itself yielded a Wilson’s Plover with Sanderling at first light, whilst offshore were the expected Royal Terns, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Double-crested Cormorants and Brown Pelicans. An evening stroll produced Lesser Nighthawks feeding over the road at duck and a confiding Ferruginous Pygmy-owl sitting in a small tree by the reception entrance, whilst a daylight visit to the mangroves further north up the road yielded Mangrove Vireo, Caribbean Elaenia and a skulking Kentucky Warbler, although none of the hoped for Rufous-necked Wood-rails. There was a daily turn-over of birds here, especially the wood-warblers, perhaps indicating some migration going on, with the rarest bird being a Grey Kingbird (8 Mar) seen well perched on roadside wires.

b) Sian Ka’an reserve. An early drive south into and through the reserve (small entrance fee), with stops at likely-looking spots. Many of the birds seen around Las Ranitas were also common here, including Black Catbird but we also saw lots of new species. Roadside woodpeckers included both Ladder-backed and Yucatan Woodpeckers as well as lots more Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. A walk along a dry scrub and then mangrove-lined track to view a large lagoon produced Mangrove Warblers – the males with distinctive chestnut heads and White-bellied Wren, plus new wood-warblers in the shape of Northern Waterthrush, Swainson’s Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Parula and Yellow-breasted Chat. Mangrove Swallows and a Grey-breasted Martin hawked over the lagoon, which also yielded Green Kingfisher, Great White Egret and Black Vultures overhead. Columbids seen in the coastal strip included several White-crowned Pigeons, a flock of Red-billed Pigeons and a fine male Blue Ground-dove, whilst new roadside flycatchers included Tropical Peewee, Yucatan Flycatcher, Stub-tailed Spade-bill and groups of Social Flycatchers plus another Yucatan Vireo. Cinnamon Hummingbirds were common but we also picked up a Canivet’s Emerald here, plus many more orioles including several Orange Orioles. A bridge over a wide channel was a good place to stop for lunch with an active Osprey nest, Sandwich Terns in amongst the Royals, Blue Buntings and our first Plain Chacalacas in the scrub. We saw two more Chacalacas on the road as we drove back plus picked up Grey Plover and Forster’s Tern at a beach stop.

c) Tulum Mayan ruins. A very scenic if busy archaeological site but very birdy all the same. There were more Yucatan Jays, Aztec Parakeets and aRoadside Hawk in the car park area, whilst the swampy woods along the entrance track yielded Northern Waterthrush, Black and White Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Magnolia Warbler. The lightly wooded more inland parts of the ruins were busy with birds and less so with people, as the crowds mostly headed to the coastal section and beach. Amongst many species already seen (including more Black Catbirds) this area produced Rufous-browed Peppershrike, our only Cape May Warbler of the trip, Grey Catbird and lots ofYucatan Vireos but we also saw White-eyed, Mangrove and Black-whiskered Vireos here, whilst flycatchers included Boat-billed Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Caribbean Elaenia, Yellow-olive Flycatcher and Slate-headed Tody-flycatcher. The densest patch of dry woodland produced stunning Prothonotary and Hooded Warblers, which glowed in the shade, plus a splendid Ivory-billed Woodcreeper. The air above the open coastal ruins held a feeding flock of ca 80 feeding Cave Swallows plus 2 Mangrove Swallows and more Grey-breasted Martins, whilst the ruins crawled with large Iguanas.

d) Coba – the early morning drive from Tulum to Coba passes through extensive dry forest and we picked up a few new birds en-route including Clay-coloured Thrush, Short-tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Brown Jay and presumably wild Ocellated Turkeys running for cover from the verge, plus Northern Cardinal as we entered Coba village.

i) Lago Coba. We birded the lake early in the morning to look for rails and crakes, but were perhaps not early enough, as we failed to see Spotted Rail here. We did however see a couple of Ruddy Crakes and a Northern Jacana, whilst other new wetland birds included Little Green andGreat Blue Herons, White Ibis and Olivaceous Cormorants, plus Groove-billed Anis.

ii) Coba Mayan ruins. These lie in a very extensive area of rather dry and uniform looking forest. We birded around the main ruins and picked up a few new birds such as Squirrel Cuckoo, Black-crowned Tityra, Couch’s Kingbird (very distinctive call), Lesser Greenlet, Long-billed Gnat-wren, Black-throated Green Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, Scrub Euphonia and Yellow-throated Euphonia, in amongst large numbers of commoner wood-warblers, White-eyed Vireos andAztec Parakeets etc but nothing very exciting. A path to the right on our way back quite close to the gates, appeared to head into an area of much larger trees, and ignoring a fallen “no entry” sign, we birded this area hard and found a whole heap of new birds including Olive Sparrow, Northern Bentbill, Smoky-brown Woodpeckers feeding with a party of Green Jays, Lineated Woodpecker, Plain Xenops and a lovely Black-headed Trogon plus Thicket Tinamous calling nearby. Whilst attempting to track down the latter, a rhythmic rustling in the undergrowth lead us to a feeding pair of Mexican Ant-thrushes, which proved to be very confiding.

e) Gran Cenote. This lies just outsude Tulum along the road to Coba and is a shady spot on a hot day with interesting swimming opportunities. The adjacent dry forest (excellent track across the road) was good for jays (Brown, Green and Yucatan), Blue Buntings and Orange Orioles, whilst new birds included Vaux’s Swift, Greyish Saltator and a splendid Grey-throated Chat.

2) Palenque area, Ciapas:

a) Villerhamosa airport. Much wetter than dry Yucatan, the wet grasslands near the airport yielded lots of Wood Storks and Cattle Egrets plus Pale-vented Pigeons and Grey-headed Doves in the trees around the car park. Open wetlands along the route to Palenque also added Crested Caracara, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Little Blue Heron and Snowy Egret.

b) Chan Kah hotel resort. The spacious resort consists of cabanas spread out through a large area of wooded grounds including a densely wooded stream, a few large old-growth trees and scattered secondary woodland in amongst more open areas plus more formal gardens with lots of flowering shrubs. This was an excellent area for birding and we spent a lot of our time here especially early in the morning and around the pool in the heat of the afternoon. A Northern Potoo roosted rather brazenly daily in an open tree above our cabana (number 3), whilst other night birds included calling Pauraques and flocks of Lesser Nighthawks feeding high over the site at dusk, accompanied by Vaux’s and White-collared Swifts. Dawn brought a wealth of bird activity with wood-warblers all over the place. In amongst the hordes of American Redstarts, Yellow Warblers and Magnolia Warblers were Chestnut-sided, Yellow-throated (especially in palms around the pool), Hooded, Kentucky, Black and White, Wilson’s, Blue-winged, Orange-crowned, Worm-eating and Nashville Warblers, as well as Ovenbirds, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow-throated, Philadelphia and Yellow-green Vireos, Lesser Greenlet, Wood Thrush, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue Grosbeak and Yellow-breasted Chat. As at Tulum, there seemed to be a daily turn-over of warblers and each day brought new birds with Northern Parula, Tropical Parula and Tennessee Warbler all added on the last morning! Other numerous species here included Clay-coloured Thrush, Grey Catbird, Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker and Brown Jay, whilst Yellow-throated and Scrub Euphonias were also easily seen.

Hummingbirds attracted to the flowers included lots of Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, a fine male Wedge-tailed Sabrewing and a tiny Black-crested Coquette, plus Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers, and an array of tanagers including Golden-hooded, Crimson-collared, Summer and Blue-grey Tanagers plus several Red-crowned Ant-tanagers skulking in low cover by the stream. A constant “whee-cherr” call emanating for a dense bushy tangle across the track from reception revealed a pair of skulking Rufous-breasted Spinetails building a nest, with Yellow-billed Caciques and a Grey-collared Becard nearby. Squirrel Cuckoo, Violaceous Trogon, Golden-olive and Lineated Woodpeckers, plus Tawny-winged, Ivory-billed, Streak-headed and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers all appeared in the larger trees although calling Blue-crowned Motmots went unseen. Parrots included lots of Aztec Parakeets plus White-fronted, Brown-hooded and Red-lored Parrots, whilst new pigeons included Short-billed Pigeon and White-tipped Dove. Grassy areas held Indigo Bunting, Blue-black Grassquits, White-collared and Variable Seedeaters, Blue–black Grosbeaks and some outrageously bright Painted Buntings, plus Black-headed, Buff-throated and Greyish Saltators in nearby brush. Unlike Tulum, the oriole flocks here consisted almost entirely of Orchard Orioles with a few Baltimore Orioles mixed in, but there were also Chestnut-headed Oropendolas in the larger tress and a splendid Montezuma Oropendola calling from the top of the huge tree by the swimming pool. Flycatchers took some sorting out but over 7 days included Paltry, Yellow-bellied and Northern Beardless Tyrranulets, Sepia-capped, Yellow-olive, Least, Slate-headed Tody and Brown-crested Flycatchers, plus Eye-ringed Flatbill, Blue-grey and Tropical Gnatcatchers, whilst Southern House-Wren and Spot-breasted Wrens were new for the trip list. Midday saw a drop in bird activity but the poolside shrubby held lethargic groups of Masked Tityras and Collared Aracaris and occasional fly-over Ringed Kingfishers. Real highlights here included an Agami Heron lurking in the understory by the forested stream and a Rufous Mourner watched sitting motionless high up in one of old-growth trees.

c) Palenque Mayan ruins. Early visits using passing mini-buses ensured a good start on the trails, although omni-present security guards prevented a deeper exploration of the forest on tacks leading away from the ruins and thus no real chance for the larger skulkers such as Tinamous, ant-pittas and cracids. We found the best accessible trails to be those behind the main ruins and the longer trail that runs back down the hill to eventually reach the museum. We saw many of the same species here as at Chan Kah but the more intact forest produced many additional forest birds. Key new species were Slaty-tailed and Collared Trogons (also more Violaceous and Black-headed Trogons), Blue-crowned Motmot (great views of one perched over a stream), Pale-billed Woodpecker, Rufous Piha (listen for the loud call!), Royal Flycatcher, Bright-rumped Attila and several new hummingbirds including Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, White-necked Jacobin, Purple-crowned Fairy, Long-tailed Hermit and White-bellied Emerald. Also new here were Scaled Pigeon, White-crowned Parrot, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Red-throated Ant-tanager, Grey-headed Tanager, Olive-backed Euphonia; Ochre-bellied, Yellow-bellied, Sulphur-rumped and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers; Greenish Elaenia, Louisiana Waterthrush, White-breasted Wood-wren, Warbling Vireo, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, and Golden-crowned Warbler. Around the open ruins themselves we found Yellow-winged Tanagers and Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts, plus Collared Aracaris and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas in the large isolated trees, whilst raptors included Double-toothed Kites in the forest and Broad-winged Hawk over the clearing.

d) Cabanas Safari. A small hotel back along the road to Palenque town provided horse-riding for Janet, whilst I birded the open pastures with patches of woodland and gardens. This area held lots of commoner species already seen including Masked Tityra, but new birds here were Vermillion Flycatcher, Eastern Meadowlark, Variable Seedeater and Dusky Antbird, plus Violet Sabrewing and Buff-bellied Hummingbird on the flowering shrubs. Palenque town itself added House Sparrow and Feral Pigeon plus more Yellow-winged Tanagers, Mangrove Swallows and Grey-breasted Martins.

e) Misol Ha. We took a taxi out to the waterfalls and river at Misol Ha for the day. Best bird of the trip was a Lovely Cotinga perched on a dead snag over forest a few miles before the waterfall – fantastic! Misol Ha produced a few new birds such as Keel-billed Toucan and Olive-backed Sparrow in amongst a good range of commoner fare including more Louisiana Waterthrushes and another Double-toothed Kite.

3) Cancun

a) Best Westin Regina Hotel. A rather unprepossessing area of beach, grassy lawns and adjacent mangrove-lined lagoons for our final night and day in Mexico prior to an evening flight home, still produced a few new birds. Turnstones were new around the pool, whilst there were Laughing Gulls on the beach, an Anhinga flew over the lagoon and I located a Caribbean Dove at the mangrove edge. A few other birds of note included several Palm and Mangrove Warblers, Red-billed Pigeons, a freshly dead Prothonotary Warbler on the lawn outside the Italian bar and a Tricoloured Heron on the way to the airport.