“Non-birding” in Mexico ….

Aztec Parakeet
Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeet. This bird flew in and landed right next to me while I was at the top of the Muyil viewing tower.

Living in Houston, it is just a hop skip and a jump to some excellent birding spots in Mexico. In fact, it can be quicker to get to the Yucatan on a super-cheap flight than driving to many parts of Texas. I recently took a short non-birding break to Tulum, on the coast about 75 minutes south of Cancun Airport. I say “non-birding”, but any birder will tell you that there is no such thing as a non-birding vacation!

Yucatan Jay
Yucatan Jay. Endemic to the Yucatan region of Mexico and, like most jays, a very cool-looking bird. It was common at Muyil, often encountered in large, noisy flocks.

My wife Jenna and I flew out of Hobby Airport in Houston on a direct Southwest flight to Cancun, and I picked up a pre-booked rental car from Enterprise on arrival. This company is not the cheapest option, but there are numerous banana skins, scams and hassles associated with car rental in Mexico, so I was happy to pay a little extra to be with a reputable and well-reviewed company. As it turned out, Enterprise’s service was exemplary from start to finish with no nasty surprises whatsoever. Less than seven hours after leaving our house, we were on a white sand beach under swaying palms, eyeing the Caribbean Sea from our beachfront casita, and not another soul in sight. Paradise indeed!

No stretch of paradise can possibly be complete without some good birds, and it wasn’t long before I had ticked off the local race of Golden-fronted Woodpecker (“Velasquez’s Woodpecker”) which might be good for a split one day. Its smaller, daintier-billed counterpart, the endemic Yucatan Woodpecker, was also encountered on several occasions during our 6-night stay.

Velasquezs Woodpecker
Golden-fronted (Velasquez’s) Woodpecker. A very common bird everywhere in Quintana Roo.

My birding was more or less restricted to the first few hours of daylight each day, as I had many other obligations. This turned out quite well as, in common with many parts of the tropics, birding started fast and furious at sunrise before going almost dead after 10.00am with hardly a bird to be seen or heard.

I settled on the Mayan ruins at Muyil for my main birding destination, seeing as it was just a 30-minute drive from our accommodation, and from recent eBird reports appeared to be by far the richest site in terms of species diversity within easy reach. And so it proved – three early mornings at the site produced 84 species. My one qualm with Muyil is that this archaeological site is gated and locked until 8.00am (or even later, because the arriving staff were never punctual), which is very frustrating as it is broad daylight by 7.00am at this time of the year, and the first hour of the day is without a doubt the best time to be birding.

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole at Muyil, one of five Oriole species seen at this site.

Fortunately, directly across the main road from the Muyil ruins entrance is a nice area of secondary growth bisected by several quiet residential roads, which allowed for some pretty decent birding before the “main event” at 8.00am when the Muyil gates opened.

Muyil itself consists of several ruined and picturesque Mayan structures set amid a parkland landscape, with denser primary forest beyond. At the back of the site, a trail leads through primary forest to a boardwalk, from which wet mangrove forest can be observed. The boardwalk leads to a fine viewing tower with panoramic views across large tracts of old-growth forest, and eventually a beach on a lagoon. It has all the habitat variety and ingredients for an excellent morning’s birding, and so it proved, even on the one day when weather conditions were far from ideal.

Russet-naped Wood Rail
Russet-naped Wood-Rail on the Muyil boardwalk – quite a stunner, as well as being a surprisingly large and lanky bird when seen at close range like this!

Muyil is easily reached from Tulum, simply follow the main road south towards Chetumal for about 20 minutes, until the village of Muyil – the entrance to the ruins is on the left. I imagine it would be an easy trip by bus or “collectivo” minivan for any Tulum-based birders without their own transport. Two fees are payable: 45 pesos (about $2.50) to gain access to the ruins, and a further 50 pesos for the boardwalk and tower.

We stayed on Soliman Bay, to the north of Tulum, which was productive in its own right, with mangroves, scrub and shoreline producing several interesting birds that were absent from Muyil, such as Mangrove Vireo and Black Catbird.

The obligatory one-day trip to the world-famous Chichen Itza yielded large numbers of tourists and not many interesting birds, with the notable exception of a pair of Bat Falcons around the temples and ruins.

Pale-billed Woodpecker
Pale-billed Woodpecker at Muyil.

Complete list of birds seen in Quintana Roo, Mexico, October 3rd-9th. Personal lifers are in bold:

Plain Chachalaca
Rock Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Ruddy Quail-Dove
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Squirrel Cuckoo
Vaux’s Swift
White-bellied Emerald
Cinnamon Hummingbird
Russet-naped Wood-Rail
Black-necked Stilt
Black-bellied Plover
Wilson’s Plover
Least Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Willet
Laughing Gull
Royal Tern
Magnificent Frigatebird
Anhinga
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Brown Pelican
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Cattle Egret
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
White Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Osprey
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Black-headed Trogon
Lesson’s Motmot
Ringed Kingfisher
Collared Aracari
Keel-billed Toucan
Yucatan Woodpecker
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Pale-billed Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Collared Forest-Falcon
Bat Falcon
Peregrine
Olive-throated Parakeet
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
Northern Barred-Woodcreeper
Greenish Elaenia
Eye-ringed Flatbill
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Tropical Pewee
Least Flycatcher
Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Couch’s Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Masked Tityra
Rose-throated Becard
Lesser Greenlet
Mangrove Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Yellow-green Vireo
Yucatan Vireo
Brown Jay
Green Jay
Yucatan Jay
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Cave Swallow
Clay-colored Thrush
Black Catbird
Tropical Mockingbird
Scrub Euphonia
Yellow-throated Euphonia
Olive Sparrow
Yellow-billed Cacique
Black-cowled Oriole
Hooded Oriole
Yellow-backed Oriole
Orange Oriole
Altamira Oriole
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Prothonotary Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Red-throated Ant-Tanager
Gray-headed Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Black-headed Saltator
Grayish Saltator

Total species seen: 114
North America life list: 857

Tropical Pewee
Tropical Pewee at Soliman Bay.
Lineated Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker at Muyil.
Altamira Oriole
Altamira Oriole trying to hide in the foliage at Chichen Itza.

Costa Rica, February 23rd-March 3rd 2018

Bare-necked Umbrellabird
Bare-necked Umbrellabird at the Los Toucanes trail, Arenal, Costa Rica, February 25th 2018. One of the most sought-after Central American birds due to its rarity, unpredictability, and striking appearance.

Costa Rica barely needs any introduction as one of the world’s premier birding destinations. There can be few places where such a large number of species can be seen in such a small geographical area. Combine this with a tourist-friendly infrastructure and straightforward access by air, and it is easy to see why Costa Rica is a standout choice for birders tight for time who want to see the broadest possible range of birds.

Silver-throated Tanager and Baltimore Oriole
Silver-throated Tanager and Baltimore Oriole enjoying a papaya lunch at the Mirador la Cascada, on the road from San Jose to Arenal.

My good friend Tim Harrop and I had just six full days to play with, and we decided on three main locations: Arenal Volcano, Monteverde, and Carara National Park. The first two sites are no more than twenty miles apart as the Bellbird flies, yet they offer an astoundingly different range of birds due to changes in elevation, rainfall, and habitat.

Rufous-collared Sparrow
Rufous-collared Sparrow, the only one of the 5 Zonotrichia sparrows not found in the US. It is common in highland habitats from southern Mexico through the far southern tip of South America.

Our first overnight stop was just a couple of miles from the airport at Costa Rica Airport B+B. This welcoming little hotel tucked away in lush gardens comes highly recommended for the on-site birding, and we made our acquaintance here with many of Costa Rica’s “backyard birds”, including several that we didn’t see again for the rest of the trip.

Black-cowled Oriole
Black-cowled Oriole out the back of Toad Hall restaurant on the shores of Lake Arenal, February 26th 2018.

The following morning, we made our way in the general direction of Arenal Volcano. We had intended to spend the first few hours of the day at the Volcan Poas, a high-altitude national park with several birds we would not be able to see at other sites during the trip. However, it turns out that Volcan Poas has been closed due to increased volcanic activity, with no prospect of it reopening anytime soon. It’s a sorry situation for the restaurants and fruit vendors who line the approach road to the park. In terms of the birds, we were still able to connect with some of the high-altitude specialties, especially in the last mile before the road closure, including Volcano Hummingbird, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Sooty Thrush and Flame-throated Warbler.

Green Hermit
Green Hermit – a fairly common hummingbird in some areas of Costa Rica, but hard to see like this. Fortunately, this bird was displaying at a small “lek” of several individuals in the forest and could be tracked down to a perch by its persistent call.

Further along the road to Arenal, a most worthwhile lunch stop is to be had at Cinchona – Mirador La Cascada, where a bird table and numerous feeders at a small restaurant provide a pit stop for hungry hummingbirds, barbets, toucanets and tanagers. We had our only Buff-fronted Quail Dove and Green Thorntails of our trip here.

Green Thorntail
Green Thorntail at Mirador de la Cascada. One of Costa Rica’s more striking hummingbirds, which we only saw at this one location.
Prong-billed Barbet
Prong-billed Barbet at the Mirador la Cascada feeding station.

One of the not-so-endearing aspects of Costa Rica is that it takes absolutely ages to get anywhere. The entire San Jose area is in a state of seemingly permanent gridlock. Even outside of urban areas, roads have many curves and slow trucks, and average speeds are low. Late on the first day we did finally reach Arenal Observatory Lodge, which is truly a stunning location and easily our favorite birding site of the whole trip. In fact, there is no need to even leave the grounds of the lodge, as the trail network is extensive and the birding nothing short of spectacular. More than 500 bird species have been recorded in the grounds.

Golden-hooded Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager, which is both lovely to look at and easy to find at Arenal.

The deck outside the Observatory Lodge restaurant, overlooking the mighty volcano itself, is possibly the most outstanding “big sit” location in the world. One of the most striking aspects of birding here was the almost constant views of Great Curassow and Crested Guan just a short distance from the viewing area. These enormous and delicious-looking gamebirds are understandably a popular quarry for hunters, but they thrive and even become tame in areas where they are not molested.

Crested Guan
Crested Guan, boldly feeding in full view of the Arenal Observatory Lodge deck. There were probably a couple of Great Curassows wandering around on the ground underneath as well.

Despite the excellent trails within the grounds, we decided to head just outside the Observatory gates for our first full morning here. The Los Toucanes trail now charges a $10 entry fee, but our investment repaid itself a hundred times when we found a Bare-necked Umbrellabird a mile along the trail. This is one of those spectacular, semi-mythical species that cannot be guaranteed anywhere, and indeed is now rare and highly endangered in its small world range in Costa Rica and Panama. One of the best birds I have ever seen, and we enjoyed spectacular views of it too.

Yellow-margined Flycatcher
Yellow-margined Flycatcher in a mixed species flock on the Los Toucanes trail.

Apart from the Umbrellabird, it is hard to pick favorites from the 116 species we observed at Arenal. Black-crested Coquette, a tiny, bee-sized hummingbird, would definitely be in the top five, and from a rarity perspective, both Cedar Waxwing and Cape May Warbler are great records for Costa Rica.

Red-headed Barbet
Red-headed Barbet at the Mirador la Cascada feeding station.

The Monteverde area was our next stop. This is the cradle of ecotourism in Costa Rica, and despite the eye-watering entrance fees for the reserves, at least you feel that the money is being well spent on conserving the entrancingly beautiful cloud forests here. Ecotourism at Monteverde is an industrial operation, with thousands of tourists pouring into the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve each day. It’s not as easy to bird as Arenal, with long periods during our six-hour visit where we saw few birds. However, with a lot of effort we did eventually come away with nice views of the emblematic Resplendent Quetzal, as well as other goodies such as Orange-bellied Trogon, the rare Brown-billed Scythebill, Azure-hooded Jay and Yellow-thighed Finch. Just outside the main entrance is a small restaurant which serves exceptionally good coffee to humans, as well as irresistible nectar to a range of hummingbirds including Magenta-throated Woodstar and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.

Resplendent Quetzal
Resplendent Quetzal at Monteverde. Perhaps the most emblematic bird in the whole of central America (and the national bird of Guatemala), it is found in high-altitude cloud forests but despite its gaudiness is not an easy bird to locate.

We also took in a couple of less-visited reserves during our trip to Monteverde: the Curi-Cancha refuge and the Santa Elena reserve, with Black-breasted Wood-Quail observed at the former location, and Buffy Tuftedcheek and Golden-browed Chlorophonia among the highlights at the latter.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Dusky-capped Flycatcher at the Curi-Cancha refuge in Monteverde.
Black Guan
Black Guan at the Santa Elena reserve.

The final location on our itinerary was the coastal Carara National Park and surrounding areas. This is one of the most biodiverse spots in the whole country, as it straddles the divide between the drier north and humid southern coastal regions, and birds from both north and south can be found in the park where their ranges overlap.

Scarlet Macaw
Scarlet Macaws. Thanks to conservation efforts, this spectacular parrot is now common and easy to find in lowland coastal forests in the Carara area.
Great Tinamou
Great Tinamou at the Carara NP headquarters trails. Early morning was the best time to find this odd-looking bird walking quietly beside the trails.

For a few weeks earlier in the winter, there had been regular reports of an exquisite Yellow-billed Cotinga in trees along the approach road to the Cerro Lodge, a few miles north of Carara National Park. It was more in hope than expectation that we went looking for this bird early one morning en route to the national park, and unbelievably we located it and had some crippling views. The Yellow-billed Cotinga is rather special because not only is it very rare (just 250-500 birds remain) and declining due to habitat loss, but also hard to see, as it usually sits motionless in the canopy of tall rainforest trees for long periods.

Yellow-billed Cotinga4
Yellow-billed Cotinga at the Cerro Lodge entrance road, one of the true “megas” of any trip to Costa Rica for those lucky enough to find one!

We walked the trails at the Carara National Park headquarters a number of times. We found the best trail to be the first (concrete) loop. The second and third loops have spectacular habitat but there were very few birds to be found – a comparable lowland rainforest experience to parts of south Thailand and Malaysia where bird diversity is as high as 220 species per square kilometer, but where you might glimpse just a handful of birds on each visit. On one afternoon, we finally located an army ant swarm on the first loop (the only one we found throughout our time in CR), attended by large numbers of birds of a variety of species including Black-faced Antthrush.

Gray-hooded Tanager
Gray-hooded Tanager at Carara NP. This bird was part of a spectacular mixed species flock attending an army ant swarm.

This trail also gave us Crane Hawk, Great Tinamou, Royal Flycatcher, Riverside Wren and plenty of Scarlet Macaws, the latter species keeping the numerous non-birding visitors happy.

Crane Hawk
Crane Hawk at the Carara NP headquarters trail. This bird feeds in an unusual way by reaching its long legs into tree holes and grabbing whatever is inside.

The riverside trail, a short distance up the road from the HQ, is often touted as the best single trail in Costa Rica for birding. We spent a morning there and came away with a good selection of birds including the local specialty Orange-collared Manakin.

Orange-collared Manakin
Orange-collared Manakin at the Riverside Trail, Carara NP. Not the best of photos but the vivid flame-orange color can be appreciated.
Black-throated Trogon
Black-throated Trogon at the Riverside Trail, Carara NP.

Finally, we spent some time around the mouth of the Tarcoles river, both on land and on a Crocodile Man boat tour into the mangroves. Boat-billed Heron and Panama Flycatcher both obliged on the boat tour, with Streak-backed Oriole and Olivaceous Piculet around the very birdy mangrove patch at the river mouth (the latter location accessible from the beach with no boat required).

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy Owl near the Tarcoles River.
Mangrove Yellow Warbler
“Mangrove” Yellow Warbler – with its distinctively chestnut head – proved to be common in mangroves around the Tarcoles River mouth.

In just over a week, our trip total was 328 species – a number that would be hard to beat anywhere in the world in such a small area and short space of time. We will definitely be back at some point in the future, with the Caribbean lowlands at La Selva high on the wish list for the next trip!

Tufted Flycatcher
Tufted Flycatcher at the Santa Elena reserve.
Northern Emerald Toucanet
Northern Emerald Toucanet at the Mirador la Cascada feeding station.
Orange-bellied Trogon
Orange-bellied Trogon (minus tail) at Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve.