Mexico Day 3: Two Trogons

Black-headed Trogon

Black-headed Trogon

We left the lagoon and drove a couple of kilometers into the jungle. Our destination was the Tamcach-Ha Cenote where Luis hoped to find the Turquoise-browed Motmots that breed in the underground caverns, but before we had driven too far he asked the driver to stop when he found a spot that seemed quite birdy. We got out of the van and started walking down the road; after only a few steps, Luis pointed out a Yellow-green Vireo foraging in a tree right above us. This vireo looks like a Red-eyed Vireo with bright yellow sides and flanks, and indeed these two birds were once considered to be the same species. It was a handsome bird, but like most vireos, it was foraging too high among the leaves to get a photo.

Fortunately, the male Gartered Trogon Luis found was much more obliging.

Gartered Trogon

Gartered Trogon

Trogons are some of the most highly sought-after species by traveling birders, and rightly so as they are very colourful and unlike anything we have in the north. I had two species on my list of desired birds: the Gartered Trogon and the Black-headed Trogon, the latter being the more common according to eBird. The Black-headed Trogon sits at no. 25 on my target list, having been recorded on 9.5% of all complete checklists. In comparison, the Gartered Trogon sits at no. 86, having been recorded on only 2.8% of all complete checklists. The Gartered Trogon is distinguished from the Black-headed Trogon by the fine black and white barring on the underside of its tail, the emerald green back, and the yellow eye-ring in males. Females are duller, with a dark gray head, back and chest, a dull yellow belly, and a broken white eye-ring.

Gartered Trogon

Gartered Trogon

The Gartered Trogon was once considered to be a subspecies of Violaceous Trogon (Trogon violaceus), a South American species. It was later given full species status due to differences in genetics and voice.

I was awed by this bird, and enthralled by the beautiful hues of green, blue and yellow contrasting with its black and white tail. I was also amazed by its obliging nature – unlike our tiny warblers and kinglets flitting in the foliage, it perched in one spot for several minutes. Trogons are mostly fruit-eaters, which might explain this; northern fruit-eaters such as waxwings, robins, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are also quite obliging and cooperative for photography.

Gartered Trogon

Gartered Trogon

We walked down the road for a bit, checking on a small clearing which hosted a Gray Catbird, several Clay-colored Thrushes, and a few small birds too high up in the shadowed leaves to identify. One side of the clearing was fenced off, as it led down into a deep pit.

In the Jungle

There was a small hut further in that gave the appearance of being abandoned, though we didn’t get close enough to check.

In the Jungle

We left after that, and continued on our way to the cenote. However, about two minutes later Luis asked the driver to stop again, and pointed out two small birds foraging on the ground at the edge of the road. He called them Blue Buntings, a species I hadn’t come across in any of the eBird checklists I’d studied. They were pretty little birds, the male a deep, dark blue with light blue highlights and the female a cinnamon brown.

Blue Buntings

Blue Buntings

At no. 83 on the list, Blue Buntings are secretive birds that prefer thickets, woodlands, and forest edges, and even singing individuals may be difficult to glimpse due to their dark colouration. Like other members of the Cardinalidae family, Blue Buntings forage for food on the ground, in thickets and in brushy understory for seeds, insects and larvae. They were handsome birds, and I would have liked a closer look, but we kept our distance in the van as we knew they would likely flush if we had driven any closer to them.

Blue Bunting

Blue Bunting

We stopped again when Luis spotted an Eastern Wood-pewee flycatching from a branch on the ground. Three Yellow-throated Euphonias were also flitting about the trees, low enough for me to finally get a photo of this species. Yellow-throated Euphonias usually forage for berries – primarily mistletoe – and small insects gleaned from twigs or bark in the mid-story and canopy, although once they reach the forest edge they will descend almost to ground level. These small birds often occur with the similar-looking Scrub Euphonia, which has a black throat, and although I’d studied both I never did see a Scrub Euphonia. At no. 103 on my list of target birds, they are far less likely to be seen than the Yellow-throated Euphonia (no. 39 on my list).

Yellow-throated Euphonia

Yellow-throated Euphonia

Finally we reached our destination, which appeared to be nothing more than a large clearing at the end of a dead-end road with a couple of small buildings (including a washroom) and a fenced-off hole in the ground. We birded the edge of the lush jungle first, finding all sorts of amazing birds. The first was the Turquoise-browed Motmot, which Luis found perching in a tree at the edge of the clearing. Try as I might, I couldn’t spot it until it flew down into the cenote. We followed, descending a circular staircase into a large underground cavern filled with turquoise-green water. A couple of spotlights were set up to provide light to the swimmers in the water, and on a couple of ledges several metres above the water we found four Turquoise-browed Motmots perching!

The Turquoise-browed Motmot is one of the most flamboyant birds of Mexico and Central America with its vivid hues of green, cinnamon, blue and turquoise. Although it is named for the bushy aquamarine eyebrow which stands out dramatically against the black facial mask, the motmot’s tail gets most of the attention. The two prominent central feathers are twice as long as the rest, terminating in two rackets at the end of the long, bare shafts. This unique tail develops when the weaker barbs of the middle portion of the shaft break off through wear and tear. Both males and females wag their tails in the presence of predators to warn them that the predator has been spotted, and that an ambush would likely fail.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Turquoise-browed Motmot

After attempting to take a few pictures in the dim light of the cavern, we ascended back up into the daylight where more birds awaited, including a Yellow-olive Flycatcher with its greenish-yellow body and grayish head, a Grayish Saltator, and two Rose-throated Becards. The becards flew in, landed in a tree in the middle of the clearing, then flew out a few minutes later without ever calling. This was a bird I had heard of prior to my trip, thanks to Kenn Kaufman’s book Kingbird Highway in which he described how the discovery of this rare Mexican bird at a rest stop in Arizona led to the coining of the term “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect”. While I hoped to see one, I didn’t expect to see any, let along a pair.

Rose-throated Becard

Rose-throated Becard (male)

Rose-throated Becard (female)

Rose-throated Becard (female)

I spotted a Magnolia Warbler flitting about in some tangles at the back of the clearing, while Luis pointed out a pair of Masked Tityras. The Masked Tityra is the more widespread of the two Tityra species that occur in Middle America, and is found at no. 47 on my list of target species. In comparison, the Black-crowned Tityra sits at no. 112.

Masked Tityra

Masked Tityra (male)

The Masked Tityra, easily identified by the reddish bill and bare red skin around the eye, is typically found in forest clearings, forest edges, and other semi-open habitats. Males are primarily white with a prominent black facial mask and black wings, while females are grayish-brown with black wings. They are usually seen alone or in pairs, and perch conspicuously as they forage for food. Their diet is composed mostly of fruits, though they will also eat insects or small lizards on occasion. Their range stretches south through Central America to northwestern and central South America, as far south as Paraguay. There are nine described subspecies; the one found in the Yucatan is Masked Tityra (deses) (Bangs, 1915).

I spent some time following them, and was happy to get photos of both the male and female.

Masked Tityra

Masked Tityra (female)

Luis also managed to spot a small hummingbird perching on a branch. Mexico is home to a great many hummingbird species, most of which look very similar to each other, so I only studied a couple before my trip (including the Cozumel Emerald, endemic to the island, and Green-breasted Mango, the most likely hummingbird to be seen according to my list of target species). Unfortunately, the Wedge-tailed Sabrewing wasn’t one of the ones I studied, so I had to accept Luis’s identification and hope that my photos would be enough to identify it on my own later.

Wedge-tailed Sabrewing

Wedge-tailed Sabrewing

The sabrewings are large hummingbirds with a strong black bill. In males of most species, the shafts of the two outermost primary feathers of the wings are thickened and are recurved, which is what led to the name of “sabrewing”. The Wedge-tailed Sabrewing is metallic green above and pale gray below, with a metallic bluish-violet crown and a distinct white spot just behind the eye. The tail is long and graduated. Fortunately it can be distinguished from most other hummingbird species in its range by its large size, wedge shaped tail, and metallic violet-blue crown.

The hummingbird was quite cooperative, allowing me to take multiple photos from both the front and the back.

Wedge-tailed Sabrewing

Wedge-tailed Sabrewing

Then Luis waved me over to show me something else: a Black-headed Trogon! Like the Gartered Trogon, it was sitting quietly in a tree. It was less colourful than the Gartered Trogon, but no less spectacular with its shades of blue, black and yellow, and powder-blue eye-ring.

Black-headed Trogon

Black-headed Trogon

The Black-headed Trogon is more gregarious than other trogon species, gathering in small groups of up to 12 individuals during the breeding season to forage and seek out nesting sites together. This one was by itself, and was just as cooperative as the Gartered Trogon we had seen earlier.

We left the clearing shortly after that to get some lunch and head to our final destination, but I was already greatly impressed by the number of species we had found already. I certainly wasn’t expecting a clearing at the end of a dead-end road to be so birdy, nor did I expect to see two trogon species in one day. In a day full of so many wonderful birds, this was definitely one of the highlights!

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2 thoughts on “Mexico Day 3: Two Trogons

  1. Magnificent photos of magnificent birds (the trogons.) What more can I say?

    Yes, it does get frustrating how many of the prettiest North American birds are either shy, hyperactive or both!

    • Thanks Suzanne! At least the Trogons were cooperative. And after your comment I’m just going to start calling them both Magnificent Trogons!

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