Mexico Day 3: Birding at Laguna Coba

Ruddy Ground Dove

Ruddy Ground Dove

On April 18th Doran and I took the first ferry over to Playa Del Carmen to meet with Luis Ku of Motmot Birding Tours to do some birding near Coba and Punta Laguna. It was still fully dark when we left Cozumel, so we didn’t get to see any flying fish or other marine life. However, it was light enough by the time we arrived to see Luis waiting on the ferry pier with his binoculars. Normally Luis’ outings start at 5:00 am in order to arrive at his destination around sunrise, when the birding is best; unfortunately the first ferry didn’t leave until 6:00am, so we didn’t get across to the mainland until about 6:45 and over to Coba about an hour later. In this case there definitely would have been an advantage in staying at a resort on the mainland.

Luis was very professional, and very knowledgeable about both the birds and where to find them – the main reasons why we hired a guide. Although I had studied many of the common birds of the Yucatan Peninsula before the trip to gain some familiarity with them, seeing a bird in real life is quite different from seeing a picture in a field guide, or knowing their songs. Luis’ experience in this regard proved invaluable.

As we neared our destination Luis asked our driver to stop the van in order to point out some birds sitting on the overhead wires, including this Ridgeway’s Rough-winged Swallow. Although eBird and the ABA consider the Ridgeway’s Rough-winged Swallow to be a sub-species of the familiar Northern Rough-winged Swallow, some authors – including Howell – treat it as a full species. Although Howell doesn’t provide much detail in my field guide as to why he believes the Ridgeway’s Rough-winged Swallow to be a full, separate species, he does mention that its buzzy song is “harder” than that of the Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and that it has a pale forehead spot, a deeply cleft tail, and blackish distal undertail coverts. In this photo the pale spot above the bill is visible:

Ridgeway's Rough-winged Swallow

Ridgeway’s Rough-winged Swallow

We also stopped to look at a Tropical Mockingbird on a wire; although I was rapidly becoming used to hearing and seeing them, I was still very happy to find one sitting out in the open long enough to take its photo.

Tropical Mockingbird

Tropical Mockingbird

My first lifer of the trip was this Social Flycatcher, which looks much like the Great Kiskadee, except it has a smaller bill and its back is brown, not red. It is usually found perching out in the open near water adjacent to forest and edge habitats. These birds are almost always seen in pairs, and may be found in small social groups following the breeding season. A very common bird, the Social Flycatcher ranked as the 5th most commonly reported bird in Quintana Roo.

Social Flycatcher

Social Flycatcher

Our first stop was Laguna Cobá, a large, open lake close to the ruins. Luis asked the driver to stop the van so we could search for birds as we walked about half a kilometer around the lake. We checked a large, wet ditch on the opposite side of the road where I saw my next two life birds: a Northern Jacana (which is a type of shorebird that looks more like a rail with its long toes) and a Limpkin. I had wanted to see the Limpkin in Florida, but we never got to any of the right places. I managed to grab one quick, blurry shot of the jacana before it flew off, but fortunately the Limpkin was much more obliging. This wading bird is the only species in its family, and its nearest relatives are believed to be rails and cranes, which is interesting as it appears to have characteristics of both.

Limpkin

Limpkin

I spotted a smaller bird at the back of the ditch and was delighted to see the familiar face of a Solitary Sandpiper.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Luis spotted another familiar bird perching in the vegetation next to the road a little further ahead – a male Indigo Bunting. I usually hear these birds in Ottawa more than I see them, as they like to sing from the tallest part of the tallest trees where it’s difficult to see them, let alone photograph them. The only time I’ve seen them so low is in the late summer where I’ve occasionally found them among the corn stalks in agricultural areas. As a result, this is my best photo of this species to date.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

We followed a bend in the road and came to an area with tall trees on both sides, though there were houses on one side and a small slope on the other that dropped to the cattails surrounding the lagoon. The tall trees were a magnet for birds, and the lifers came thick and furious as Luis called them out: Blue-gray Tanager. Yellow-throated Euphonia. Cinnamon Hummingbird. Yellow-faced Grassquit. Hooded Oriole. Olive-throated Parakeet – five flying over. A male Baltimore Oriole and Yellow Warbler were not new for me, but nice to see. I managed to get my binoculars on all of these, and was stunned by the beauty of the hummingbird and the Blue-gray Tanager in particular. The tanager was at the very top of a tree whose flowers had attracted a few other hummingbirds as well, though I only managed to glimpse the bright reddish-orange colours of the Cinnamon Hummingbird among all the branches. I spotted a bird of my own, and though I recognized it from my books, I couldn’t immediately remember its name so I called out the field marks: small, light blue with dark wings, down-ward curving bill. Luis replied: Red-legged Honeycreeper, and then it clicked for me. Of all the birds we saw that day, it was those three birds I most regretted not being able to photograph. The Blue-gray Tanager was also the the least likeliest bird on my list of target species so far, sitting at no. 118 as it was reported only only 1.8% of all complete checklists.

Luis was still calling out birds, including Blue Grosbeaks – a pair of them were high up in the tree. The male flew off before I could get a good look at it, but I did get a photo of the female. My mother and I had chased this bird at Rondeau Park a few years back, with no success. I was happy to finally add it to my life list.

Blue Grosbeak (female)

Blue Grosbeak (female)

We saw another Social Flycatcher perching on a wire, and this time I got photos of both sides:

Social Flycatcher

Social Flycatcher

Social Flycatcher

Social Flycatcher

I spotted a couple of doves on top of a wall, and recognized them as Ruddy Ground-doves by their petite size and the difference in colour between the male and the female. The female was pale brown; the male a deep ruddy red. Ruddy Ground-Doves are common throughout their range, and breed in a variety of habitats that include farmland, riparian areas and suburban yards. They may produce up to four broods per year and may breed throughout the year in some parts of their range. It is this reproductive success which gives them a conservation status of “Least Concern”, meaning their population is stable.

Ruddy Ground-dove

Ruddy Ground-dove

The male flew from the wall to an overhead wire where I captured this image:

Ruddy Ground-dove

Ruddy Ground-dove

As we approached an opening onto the lake we spent more time examining the birds in the trees between the road and the lagoon. This Eurasian Collared Dove wasn’t a lifer, but as I haven’t seen this species since our trip to Florida I was happy to see it.

Eurasian Collared Dove

Eurasian Collared Dove

Luis pointed out a Clay-colored Thrush on the ground; there were a few of them foraging in the shade of the trees, reminding me of the robins I see flocking together in the late fall or early spring. This is another fairly common and easily observed species, inhabiting a variety of lightly wooded areas, often in close proximity to humans. Formerly known as the Clay-colored Robin, it is easy to see the similarity in structure and behaviour to the more familiar American Robin.

Clay-colored Thrush

Clay-colored Thrush

A Bronzed Cowbird flew up into a dead tree, posing in the sunlight and showing off his iridescent blue wing feathers. Like the familiar Brown-headed Cowbird, female Bronzed Cowbirds are drabber than the males, with a dull black or grayish-brown body and brownish eyes. I didn’t see any females while I was in Mexico.

Bronzed Cowbird

Bronzed Cowbird

The lagoon is a well-known spot for Ruddy Crakes, a small rail with a dark head and a reddish body. Like many rails, they are difficult to see, which is probably why this species is no. 147 on my list of target birds. Luis played a tape of its call in order to entice it out into the open; while we heard the crake responding in the reeds, it refused to show itself. According to Cornell’s page on the Ruddy Crake, its “distinctive explosive descending trill is unlikely to be confused with the vocalizations of any other co-occurring marsh inhabitant”. As such, I was comfortable in adding this to my life list as a “heard only” species, joining the likes of the Sedge Wren and the Cerulean Warbler, both of which I have yet to see.

While Luis was playing the call I was entranced by a pair of Limpkins sitting in a shrub nearby.

Limpkin

Limpkin

The lagoon itself was very quiet; we didn’t see any waterfowl except for a pair of Pied-billed Grebes. An Osprey circling above the water and a Turkey Vulture soaring high overhead were the only raptors we saw; for a moment I could have sworn I was back in Ontario!

We started heading back the way we came, and found a Couch’s Kingbird singing on the wire. It didn’t sound quite like the vocalization I’d heard on the Cornell site, but I was able to add this species and the Tropical Kingbird to my life list when Luis found the lookalike Tropical Kingbird singing too. The Tropical Kingbird has a liquid trilling call that is reminiscent of the Eastern Kingbird in that the notes of each phrase vary little in pitch, and there is no real melody to the song. In contrast, the song of the Couch’s Kingbird changes considerably in pitch, and has a distinct cadence. As I knew these two species were difficult to ID by sight alone, I was glad we were able to get both of them!

Couch's Kingbird

Couch’s Kingbird

Luis also pointed out a Grayish Saltator in the trees above our head. Saltators are part of the Cardinalidae family, and are essentially tropical grosbeaks. Although not as brilliantly coloured or as beautiful as some of the other birds found on our trip, it was still neat to see as it doesn’t resemble anything we have back home.

Grayish Saltator

Grayish Saltator

Grayish Saltator

Grayish Saltator

We also saw a Yellow-winged Tanager and the flock of Clay-coloured Thrushes again on our way back to the van; the one in this image looks less robin-like than some of the others we saw.

Clay-colored Thrush

Clay-colored Thrush

Although we were only there for about an hour, the road next to the lagoon was quite birdy. We tallied 30 species in that time, more than half of which were life birds for me. So far the day was off to a great success!

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2 thoughts on “Mexico Day 3: Birding at Laguna Coba

  1. Lots of good pictures here, but the Bronzed Cowbird is a stand-out. Perfectly captured the iridescence and the deep red eyes. I’m jealous, Bronzed Cowbirds I saw in Costa Rica didn’t pose nearly so nicely for me 🙂 They seemed to always be on the ground.

    The Indigo Bunting is also a great shot.

    • Thanks Suzanne! I loved the Bronzed Cowbird photo too. The Limpkin in the tree and the Indigo Bunting were also favourites (though there is another Indigo Bunting photo coming up in a few posts!)

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