Mexico Day 4: Birding Cozumel

Black Catbird

Black Catbird

On Tuesday we woke up to another beautiful day in Cozumel. We had been upgraded to a room on the ninth floor, high up in the sky where the Barn Swallows and Vaux’s Swifts hawked for insects during the day, and the view of the island was spectacular. On the east side, the golf course spread out below us; to the west, we could see the mainland as a dim haze across the water, and watched the cruise ships sailing down the turquoise-blue water of the channel each morning. Magnificent Frigatebirds floated across the sky on an irregular schedule, while the Great-tailed Grackles screeched and squawked from the ground below. The only thing we missed was our view of the crab in its hole in the lawn.

Our plans for the day included a morning of birding the island with Arturo, a local naturalist who worked as a taxi driver. He picked us up at 7:00 am, a slightly more reasonable time than our trip across the mainland the day before. When Arturo met us in the lobby, I didn’t immediately realize he was our guide as he wasn’t wearing any binoculars; he is more of a photographer, and kept a camera with a long lens in his cab instead of binoculars.

Ninth Floor View

Ninth Floor View

We drove to the northwestern tip of the island, where the main road dissolved into a series of gravel trails. Before we had even arrived at our parking spot Arturo found a lifer for me, a pair of Black Catbirds skulking in the vegetation at the edge of the road. They looked like a cross between a Common Grackle and a Gray Catbird, but much smaller and daintier than either species. They stayed in view long enough to get only one photo before flying deeper into the tangles, much like their gray cousin in Ottawa.

Black Catbird

Black Catbird

We checked the beach first where we came upon a flock of about six Ruddy Turnstones and 21 Sanderlings. The Sanderlings immediately flew off to a spot further up the beach, but the Ruddy Turnstones remained. It continued to amaze me how numerous and how tame these birds were on the island, considering how few pass through in Ottawa during migration.

Ruddy Turnstones

Ruddy Turnstones

We walked some of the trails, which were fairly birdy considering how warm it was already. Arturo pointed out a Bananaquit high up in a tree and Yellow Warbler in a shrub at about eye level; the Cozumel subspecies (called the Golden Warbler) is different from the one we have in Ottawa, and has a reddish-chestnut cap instead of the yellow head of the American Yellow Warbler. I got a good look at the rufous cap, but wasn’t able to get a photo of it as it was moving quickly about the leafy interior of the shrub.

In fact, very few birds that we saw were cooperative for photos. We found one large pocket of birds which included a White-eyed Vireo, an American Redstart, two Northern Parulas, two Black-throated Green Warblers, and a Magnolia Warbler; they were all flitting in the shrubs lining the trail about 5 or 6 feet above our head, and there were more moving around that I couldn’t get a look at. This flycatcher flew out and perched in the open, and I snapped a quick photo before it moved off. I had no idea what it was at the time, and it wasn’t until I got home that Mark Gawn (whose field guide I had borrowed) identified it as a Caribbean Elaenia.

Caribbean Elaenia

Caribbean Elaenia

We also saw a Western Spindalis (formerly known as the Stripe-headed Tanager – a tough bird to get at no. 116 on the list) and a Yellow-faced Grassquit (relatively easy at no. 36), two of the birds on my most-wanted list, but neither stayed in view long enough to photograph them.

There were some open spots along the trail with bright orange lantana flowers in blossom, and we noticed a few butterflies nectaring on them. They were quite skittish, though, and rarely rested on the flowers long enough for my camera to focus on them. This Zebra Longwing was the only butterfly I was able to photograph. I love how the body has the same colour yellow markings as the wings.

Zebra Longwing

Zebra Longwing

We found a couple of vireos in the shrubs as well, and pishing brought them out in the open long enough to study them and see the large bill and drab colouring of the Yucatan Vireo. This is a relatively common bird at no. 24 on my list.

Yucatan Vireo

Yucatan Vireo

A pair of Anhingas flew over, adding a new bird to my Mexico list, and Arturo told us that some birds that live on the mainland fly over to Cozumel to feed for the day, then fly back to the mainland in the evening. We headed back to the cab after an enjoyable hour watching the birds flitting around the trails, and on our way out we spied a group of at least 13 Black Vultures standing around on a side road. If some dead animal was around to attract such a large group of vultures, I couldn’t see it.

Black Vultures

Black Vultures

As we were driving out, I spotted a couple of birds walking the side of the road. I asked Arturo to stop to see what they were. He said they were White-collared Seedeaters, but I didn’t get a good look at them and two of them disappeared into the vegetation before I could try to photograph them. One brownish bird stayed in view, but when I reviewed my photos later on I realized that she didn’t have the stubby, rounded bill of a White-collared Seedeater. As best as I could tell it was a female Indigo Bunting with the pointed, two-tone bill, streaky sides, and dark malar stripe contrasting with the white throat. This ID was later confirmed for me my Mark Gawn, who has much more experience with female LBJs of the Caribbean than I do!

Indigo Bunting (female)

We left the shore to do some birding inland, stopping in at the country club and golf course before heading south. The pond at the entrance looked inviting with a pair of Black-necked Stilts visible on the far bank; a crocodile resting on a sandy spit (!!!) and some other birds were also present, but Arturo kept driving until we reached the parking lot. After we arrived Arturo took us to a flowering shrub just inside the gate where we found another island endemic, the Cozumel Emerald, sipping nectar from the flowers. A brilliant metallic green hummingbird, it didn’t stick around long enough to get a good look at the underside or to get a photo. A small Bananaquit also came to feed on the flowers’ nectar, and it too was flitting around too much get a photo of it. At that point someone from the country club came over to talk to Arturo, and as it seemed we weren’t welcome, we left.

We continued our way through the town of San Miguel, but as we passed the marina we stopped to check out the water birds in the area. A single Brown Pelican standing on the docks provided a photo opportunity too good to pass up.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

The usual Laughing Gulls were present, standing around and sharing some gossip.

Laughing Gulls

Laughing Gulls

There were quite a few Ruddy Turnstones around as well. They were wandering around the sidewalk looking for food, and in one photo I counted 21 of them! Males and females appear quite similar; the birds with the reddish backs and white heads are adults in breeding plumage, while the ones with brown backs and heads are adults in non-breeding plumage. It was Arturo who told me that the turnstones were searching for food dropped by human visitors – much like gulls and crows, they are scavengers, feeding on garbage and carrion as well as aquatic invertebrates and insects.

Ruddy Turnstones

Ruddy Turnstones

Our stop at the pier was brief as Arturo was keen to take us to the next stop on the agenda: the small inland village of El Cedral. There I took so many photos of the local hummingbirds that I will have to leave them for my next blog post. Stay tuned!

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