We had only arranged the trip two weeks prior to our departure, and as I was not familiar with any of the birds of the Yucatan Peninsula, I borrowed a friend’s field guide (the famously huge “A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America” by Howell and Webb) until the one I ordered from Amazon could be delivered (which didn’t even arrive by the time I had to leave). Using eBird as my guide, I began studying the most commonly reported birds seen in April, and the more I learned about Rufous-browed Peppershrikes, Bright-rumped Attilas, Masked Tityras, Cozumel Vireos, Yucatan Jays, Green-breasted Mangos, and Squirrel Cuckoos, the more excited for my trip I became. I prepared a list of the most frequently reported birds during the month of April that I needed for my life list using eBird’s brilliant Target Species tool. According to the list, my first new birds were most likely to be Great-tailed Grackle (reported on over 57% of all complete checklists), Tropical Mockingbird (42% of all checklists), and Magnificent Frigatebird (34% of all checklists).
We flew from Montreal to Atlanta at the ridiculous hour of 5:45am, having driven from Ottawa the night before and staying at the Marriott in the terminal. It was after 11:00pm by the time we went to bed, and I didn’t sleep a wink – we had to get up at 3:00am for the flight. From Atlanta we flew to Cozumel, arriving at 1:30pm. It was very hot and humid, and I was completely overdressed in my jeans and long-sleeved sweater. I saw some swallows flitting over the runaway and some large dark birds that were likely the Great-tailed Grackles flying over, but wasn’t able to grab my binoculars and confirm their identities. We passed through customs and security without any problems despite the long line and arrived at our hotel (the El Cozumeleno Beach Resort in the northern hotel zone) by 2:00.
Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we grabbed some lunch in the dining hut by the water, a thatch-roofed building with netting for walls and large gaps between the roof and the netting. On the way I identified my first life bird of the trip, the Great-tailed Grackle – no surprise there. The males resemble the Common Grackles we have in Ottawa, except they are a little larger and thinner, with large, showy tails. Females are similar to Rusty Blackbirds in fall plumage, except again for the tail. These birds were very common around the resort, even flying into the dining hut on the beach, and walking up to people looking for handouts on the patio. I got to know the variety of sounds they made, from the chattery “ki-ki-ki” notes to the shrill, high-pitched whistle “REEEE-Kee!” they gave at all hours of the day. I also saw and heard them on my most of my outings, which explains why they are reported on almost 58% of all complete eBird reports for the state of Quintana Roo.
We ate, then got ourselves settled in our room on the second floor overlooking the pool area. We didn’t do much that evening, given how tired we were from the early start to our day. After dinner, I sat on the balcony for a while, just watching the birds. A few Barn Swallows and swifts were hawking for insects above the hotel – I later learned that the Vaux’s Swift is the default swift on Cozumel this time of year, though they are hard to tell apart from Chimney Swifts – and a Turkey Vulture soared over fairly close to the hotel. Then I noticed three very large, dark birds gliding slowly above the ocean. I recognized them as Magnificent Frigatebirds by their size and shape; my second life bird of the trip!
Like Turkey Vultures, the Magnificent Frigatebirds spend most of their flight time soaring on huge wings, giving a single flap of their wings only occasionally. Unlike Turkey Vultures, they seem to have a clear destination in mind and glide slowly and inexorably straight toward it, with no wobbling or rocking. They reminded me more of a small aircraft than a living creature in the way they flew.
Magnificent Frigatebirds feed mostly on small fish, though they may also eat squid, jellyfish, and crustaceans swimming near the water’s surface. They hunt from the air, swooping close to water when they spot a potential prey item, but making very little contact with the surface when they catch their prey – they do not dive into the water like Osprey or kingfishers. Magnificent Frigatebirds also take prey items from land such as hatchling turtles, young birds, and sometimes eggs in much the same way, by swooping down without landing. I never saw them catch anything during my week on Cozumel; I only saw them fly by in an endless glide over the water.
While out on the balcony Doran spotted a different type of wildlife – there was a small hole in the lawn directly below our room, and a crab was sitting just inside the entrance! I’m not sure which kind of kind of crab it is, as my internet searches on the subject of terrestrial crabs in Cozumel have proved fruitless (except for the kinds you can eat). Although I looked for the crab whenever we walked by its burrow on our way to the dining hut, I never saw it; it probably was disturbed by the vibrations of people walking by. With the 60x zoom on my new camera, however, I had no issues getting photos of it from the second floor balcony.
The sunset later that evening was quite lovely as the clouds built up over the Yucatan Peninsula on the other side of the channel.
Right around sunset we noticed a large “pirate ship” sailing north while towing a smaller boat. We could hear an entertainer on the boat speaking rapidly through a microphone and his audience cheering even from the shore; it must have been some sort of sunset excursion, and it was loud.
About 40 minutes later, it sailed back the other way, toward the city of San Miguel. The sun had set completely by then, and the ship was lit up as though for Christmas. Music was blaring from the boat, and when we realized a few nights later that this was a nightly occurrence, we dubbed the boat the “party boat” because of how loud the music and cheering was. We saw (and heard) it sail past our resort every night while eating dinner in the dining hut next to the water, and once the novelty wore off, the boat became an annoyance to be avoided at suppertime.
Still, it was thrilling just to be in Mexico, and I found myself wanting to photograph everything as it was all so different from what I was used to in Ottawa – the vegetation, the architecture, the water, and the wildlife. Our first day was an exciting one, and we went to bed dreaming about all of the adventures ahead.