Mexico Day 3: The Punta Laguna Spider Monkey Sanctuary

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting

After leaving the Tamcach-Ha Cenote we drove back out toward the highway, slowing down when we reached the lagoon at Coba. Luis asked the driver to pull over after spotting a colourful bird in a bare tree on the other side of the road; he identified it as a Yellow-winged Tanager, another bird I hadn’t yet come across in my studies. It was a pretty bird with a sky-blue head, yellow underparts, and a bright yellow patch in the middle of the black wings; we had fantastic views of it as it scurried along the branches of the dead tree, investigating the nooks and crannies in the bark for bugs like an impatient nuthatch.

It must have been an impressive bird, for even Luis brought out his camera and started taking pictures. At number 82 on my list of target birds, it has been reported on only 3.08% of all complete checklists, just slightly more common than the Blue Buntings and Gartered Trogon we had seen earlier.

Yellow-winged Tanager

Yellow-winged Tanager

Closely related to the Blue-gray Tanager (which we had also seen earlier in the day), this species is usually found at forest edges and in semi-open areas such as plantations, parks, and gardens. It was quite active, never sitting still for more than a moment which made photography difficult. Still, I was pleased with the images I got, especially once the sun came out from behind a cloud.

Yellow-winged Tanager

Yellow-winged Tanager

Yellow-winged Tanager

Yellow-winged Tanager

After taking our fill of photos, we stopped at a restaurant on the north side of the lagoon and had a delicious lunch. The open-air restaurant backed onto a small swamp, which our driver promptly investigated. When he noticed a Northern Jacana walking around he called me over, and I was able to get a much better photo of this species. Unfortunately the jacana was quickly walking away from us, but at least this image is in focus!

Northern Jacana

Northern Jacana

Several dragonflies were also buzzing around the marsh, and I managed to take a few photos when they landed. They all appeared to be skimmers, and with the black patches on the hindwings they looked fairly distinctive. The terminal appendages appear to be yellow; as best as I can tell, this is a Black Pondhawk, though I have based this extremely tentative ID on a couple of quick searches of the photo galleries of Greg Lasley and Tom Murray.

Dragonfly

Dragonfly (Black Pondhawk?)

While we were waiting for lunch to arrive I crossed the road and took some pictures of the lagoon, something I had meant to do earlier.

Laguna Coba

Laguna Coba

Laguna Coba

Laguna Coba

At least ten Black Vultures and three Turkey Vultures were soaring overhead, and several Great-tailed Grackles were hanging out in the reeds and alongside the road.

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

When I returned to the table I noticed a couple of swallows flitting over the marsh to our left, and when I pointed them out Luis identified them as Mangrove Swallows based on the noticeable white rump.

After lunch Luis took us to the Punta Laguna Spider Monkey Sanctuary. A splendid example of people co-existing in harmony with nature, Punta Laguna was set aside as a protected area by the Mexican government in 2002 some 30+ years after the owners originally created the sanctuary. It is home to about 600 Black-handed Spider Monkeys and a smaller group of Howler Monkeys; the official name Otoch Ma’ax Yetel Kooh means “the home of the spider monkey and the puma” in Mayan. Today the reserve supports both the scientists who have been studying these monkeys for over 40 years as well as many families who live off the land in the same way their parents and grandparents did.

Spider Monkey Sanctuary

Spider Monkey Sanctuary

With the help of a small boy who had been scouting the area, Luis took us to the entrance to a closed-off cenote which hosted a pair of Turquoise-browed Motmots. We caught a glimpse of one sitting just outside the entrance, but it flew as we approached. We sat and waited quietly for several minutes to see if it would return, and when it didn’t Luis began imitating a screech owl. This brought a few birds into view, including an American Redstart, but the motmot wasn’t one of them. I saw my third hummingbird species of the trip when this White-bellied Emerald landed in a tree several feet above us; although Luis said it was common, it was the only one we saw, and this was the best look I got at it.

White-bellied Emerald

White-bellied Emerald

After about 10 minutes we left, heading deeper into the jungle. We came upon one spot that was relatively birdy; we found a few familiar species such as Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler and another American Redstart, as well as a two new species, the Spot-breasted Wren and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper. Both of these birds were moving quickly through the trees about five feet above my head, and I wasn’t able to get a photo of either of them. A little later we came upon a small group of Yellow-throated Euphonias, and I did get a picture of one of them.

Yellow-throated Euphonia

Yellow-throated Euphonia

As we were walking along, Luis spotted an ant tanager (I can’t remember if it was a Red-throated or a Red-crowned Ant Tanager), but whatever it was, it vanished into the lush vegetation of the jungle before I could get a look at it. Later, the same thing happened when a Brown Jay landed briefly in a tree overhead before quickly flying off.

One of the best birds of the spider monkey sanctuary was a Mottled Owl. Luis led us down some rickety steps into a cavern that had partially collapsed; using a laser pointer, he pointed at a vine hanging down the back of the cavern and told us to follow it with our eyes. There a small shape perched quietly in the dark; it had a brown face, dark eyes, and white eyebrows and whiskers. Somehow my camera is able to take photos in low light without using flash while in “birdwatching mode”, so I was pleased to get one usable photo of the owl without disturbing it with the flash. The Mottled Owl was the most uncommon bird of my trip; at no. 169 on my target list, it was reported on only 0.4% of all complete checklists in eBird.

Mottled Owl

Mottled Owl

The narrow trail wandered deeper into jungle, criss-crossing itself occasionally so that I feared getting lost. It was a hot day, but the shadows beneath the tree canopy and the slight breeze made the heat and humidity bearable. We saw a single snake slither quickly into the vegetation, too fast to identify, and it surprised me how few herps were present. I was even more surprised by how few insects we saw – I was expecting it to be at least as buggy as the north woods at the height of summer, with spider webs strewn between branches and stems, small micro-moths flying quickly for cover beneath large leaves, butterflies and other small flies buzzing around sunny clearings, and ants and beetles trundling along the ground. We saw none of that. The only insects that I recall seeing were a few butterflies fluttering in the heavily treed jungle, and most of them flew by without stopping. At last one perched right in front of us, and I was able to photograph it and later identify it.

The Mexican Cycadian is a member of the family Lycaenidae, the gossamer-winged butterflies. As such, it belongs to the same family as the hairstreaks and blues, which almost always perch with their wings closed. This butterfly can be identified by the reddish-orange colour of the underside of the abdomen, and wings that are black below with rows of iridescent blue spots and one reddish-orange spot on the hindwing. The upper side of the wings are black covered with iridescent blue, though it is only possible to see these brilliant colours in flight. I was pleased to get my first photo of a Mexican butterfly, especially since it wasn’t too difficult to identify.

Mexican Cycadian (Eumaeus toxea)

I was also surprised at how few mammals we saw. We did see one squirrel running along a tree branch near the Coba lagoon, and that was it. There were no squirrels or chipmunks here, and although I presumed there were monkeys in the sanctuary, we hadn’t come across any yet.

In the jungle I heard the familiar song of an Eastern Wood-pewee; they are one of the last birds to arrive back on territory in Ottawa, so it was a song I likely wouldn’t hear again for another three or four weeks.

Then Luis found two birds foraging in a small open clearing. When he mentioned they were Painted Buntings my interest piqued, as this was a species I had hoped to see in Florida. Both a male and female were present, and although the female flew deeper into the jungle, the male stayed put as he gleaned seeds from the foliage.

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting

The stunning colours of the males has given them the name Passerin nonpareil (“without equal”) in French; unfortunately, the beauty of these birds has led to large numbers being trapped illegally in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean and sold overseas. The Painted Bunting is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List due to its long-term decline. The illegal trapping of these birds is just one factor in its decline; habitat loss, the destruction of swampy thickets and woodland edges for urban development, and the loss of staging habitats in Arizona and northwestern Mexico have also contributed to dwindling Painted Bunting populations.

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting

We left the jungle temporarily to walk out onto a narrow ledge above a small inlet of the lagoon. The water was well-vegetated, and I half-expected to see a heron stalking the shallow water or a kingfisher perching on a branch above the small bay. I wasn’t looking for anything as small as a warbler, so it amazed me when Luis found a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat sitting in some reeds. (Nope, I can’t spot it in this photo either!)

Punta Laguna

Fortunately my camera was up to the task of zooming in and finding the tiny Gray-crowned Yellowthroat even from a great distance away. Related to the Common Yellowthroat which inhabits the marshes and open areas of Canada during the summer, this bird may be found in marshes, open grassland with scattered trees, or brushy fields. It has less of a black mask than the Common Yellowthroat, and an extensive gray crown. This was my only warbler lifer of the trip, and ranked no. 122 on my list.

Gray-crowned Yellowthroat

Gray-crowned Yellowthroat

We startled two birds on the trail as we continued on our way, but fortunately they only flew a couple of feet into the vegetation. Luis identified them as Green-backed Sparrows, a handsome species which has a gray head with black stripes and an olive-green back and wings with no wing bars. It closely resembles the Olive Sparrow but can be separated from this species by the black stripes on the head and brighter back. The Olive Sparrow has dull brown head stripes and dull olive upperparts. Fortunately I got great looks at the two birds. I tried to get a photo of it through the layers of branches, but just as I managed to focus my camera on one of the birds it flew off.

A little further along we found a Spider Monkey working its way through the treetops. A gangly creature with long limbs, it carried its young on its back as it made its way from tree to tree. I only managed this one photo before it disappeared:

Spider Monkeys

Spider Monkeys

We stopped by the lagoon at the heart of the reserve but found nothing. It was getting close to 1:00 pm, and I imagined that most creatures were lying low in the heat of the day. From there it was a short walk back to the sanctuary entrance, but we heard an oriole singing and saw another Yellow-olive Flycatcher as well as a flycatcher that was either a Yucatan or a Dusky-capped Flycatcher.

As we left I mentioned to Luis that it was strange we hadn’t seen any raptors all day (except for the Osprey at the Coba Lagoon), and he said it was too windy for them. I also asked if there were any common birds we didn’t see that we really should have. Although he didn’t name any particular species, he said that we probably missed about 20 species due to the late start (we didn’t get to our first destination until about 8:00, about two hours after he normally starts birding). This was a bit disappointing to hear as I thought we did well with nearly 60 species in about 5 hours; still, we missed quite a few birds that I was hoping to see, such as the two bright red ant tanagers, the Squirrel Cuckoo, the Green Jay, the Rufous-browed Peppershrike, the Keel-billed Toucan, and any woodpeckers or raptors. We did get one last bird on the way back to Playa del Carmen; he pulled over onto the side of the toll highway (which was largely empty of empty of cars) to point out a Melodious Blackbird perching in a tree. A Masked Tityra was in the same area, the last one I would see on the the trip.

Melodious Blackbird

Melodious Blackbird

I was really satisfied with the outing, and ended up with 37 lifers, many of which I was able to confidently identify on my own. Luis was a fantastic guide who not only knew his birds, but could pick out silent birds sitting in the trees long before I was aware of their arrival. I don’t know how he managed to spot all the birds that he did in the clearing at the Tamcach-Ha Cenote; certainly I wasn’t aware of the Rose-throated Becards, Masked Tityras, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing or Black-headed Trogon until he pointed them out. Without Luis I would have missed all of them. I would definitely recommend Motmot Birding Tours if you are planning a first-time birding trip in the Yucutan Peninsula; Luis really knows the birds and the best birding locations and is well worth the money. It was truly an unforgettable experience!

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