Mexico Day 5: The Water Birds of Punta Sur

American Crocodile

American Crocodile

We didn’t have any more guided excursions planned, so on Wednesday Doran and I rented a car to drive around the island and explore on our own. The rental did not go well – the company delivered the jeep we were expecting, but the transmission was standard, which meant we couldn’t drive it. So the guy called his company and asked them to send the only car which had automatic transmission, an old Chevy. Although a convertible, it looked fairly old and hard-used, lacking both a rear view mirror and a back license plate. Doran wasn’t even able to tell what type of Chevy it was. I won’t call it a junker, but it was close, and we accepted it and prayed that everything inside worked just fine.

We made it to Punta Sur on the southern coast of Cozumel without any problems, although the shake that appeared once the car reached the 80 km/h speed limit was worrisome. Fortunately the speed limit dropped drastically inside the eco-park, and once we passed the gate we entered an area with low-growing shrubby plants on one side and the ocean on the other. There was a narrow strip of rock and sand on the ocean side, while the opposite side reminded me of a scrubby desert. Swallows swooped over the land on both sides, and all the ones that I saw appeared to be Barn Swallows. We saw a couple of iguanas sunning themselves in the road and had to slow down until they ran off into the vegetation.

Caribbean Sea

Caribbean Sea

Celarain Lighthouse - Punta Sur

Celarain Lighthouse – Punta Sur

There were very few birds perching out in the open, so I took notice when I saw a medium-sized grayish bird with a white belly sitting on an exposed perch on the desert side. Doran stopped the car so I could get a get a look, and my first impression was that it was a Gray Kingbird, a species I had seen in Florida two years ago. When I looked at my photos later, however, I noticed two field marks that made me doubt this ID. The first was the bill – it was huge. The second was its belly – although the breast was white, the belly was pale yellow. It looked more like the Thick-billed Kingbird in Sibley, but the Yucatan Peninsula is well outside of the Thick-billed Kingbird’s range, and when I posted my photos online others agreed with my original Gray Kingbird ID.

Gray Kingbird

Gray Kingbird

We decided not to stop in at the lighthouse but to proceed directly to the short boardwalk and viewing tower overlooking the Colombia Lagoon. This area reminded me of Florida because of all the water birds. I didn’t know where to look first: there were a couple of egrets (white and gray) in the water in front of us, several shorebirds on the sand, a crocodile in the water only a few feet from us, and an Osprey in the shallow water a fair distance away.

Observation Tower overlooking Laguna Colombia

Observation Tower overlooking Laguna Colombia

Unfortunately none of the birds were close, as the boardwalk didn’t extend to the sandy spit beyond the tower. I snapped a few photos of the Osprey first as I never see them on the ground like this.

Osprey

Osprey

Next I snapped a few photos of the shorebirds. A few Least Sandpipers were running along the sand, while a group of Semipalmated Plovers foraged along the water’s edge.

Semipalmated Plovers

Semipalmated Plovers

The crocodile was just lazing in the water, paying no attention to the people standing right above him. I overheard a guide identify it as a Saltwater Crocodile, though it seems this is a colloquial common name used on the island rather than the formal species Crocodylus porosus.

American Crocodile

American Crocodile

A single Turkey Vulture flew by overhead, and I noticed a pair of Black Vultures perching atop the trees on the island across the lagoon. As I scanned the island, I also saw some Roseate Spoonbills perching there too, their bright pink feathers standing out against the green foliage. A pair of Magnificent Frigatebirds began gliding over the lagoon, and I was able to take my best photo of this species to date. The wingspan of these birds is incredible!

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird

Next I considered the herons out in the lagoon. A dingy grayish heron was the closest to the boardwalk, and I had trouble identifying it as it didn’t match anything I was familiar with. My first guess was Tricolored Heron, but that species has a distinct white belly in all plumages, while this bird had a brown belly. When I checked my field guide apps on my iPhone later I realized that it was a juvenile Reddish Egret – a lifer for me!

Reddish Egret (Dark morph Juvenile)

Reddish Egret (Dark morph Juvenile)

A white egret was also fairly close, and although I initially thought it was a Great Egret – having forgotten that the Reddish Egret has a white phase as well as a dark reddish phase – the colour of the bill tipped me off that my initial ID was wrong. The outer half of the bill was black, while the inner part was pink, reminding me of the bill of a juvenile Glaucous gull. This was another Reddish Egret, an adult white morph bird. Like the juvenile dark morph Reddish Egret, the juvenile white morph has an entirely dark bill.

Reddish Egret (White morph adult)

Reddish Egret (White morph adult)

A juvenile white morph was around as well. It was fishing quietly in the water until a juvenile dark morph decided to go after it! I don’t know what the issue was, but after chasing the white morph down the beach, the dark morph went back to fishing quietly a good distance away from it.

Reddish Egrets

Reddish Egrets

Reddish Egrets

Reddish Egrets

A second heron species put in a brief appearance when a Snowy Egret flew over, trailing bright yellow feet on black legs.

The shorebirds were making their way toward us, so I turned my attention to them. There was a group of about 10 plovers feeding along the sand, and at first all I could see were Semipalmated Plovers with their orange legs and black-tipped orange bills. Then I noticed one whose forehead appeared whiter than the others. I took some photos to look at later, and when I noticed the colour and size of the bill I knew it was something different – a Wilson’s Plover, another bird I wasn’t expecting. This bird has a summer range extending along the southern Atlantic coast of the United States and is rare in Canada. Its large bill allows it to catch and eat larger prey items that other plover species would pass over.

Wilson's Plover

Wilson’s Plover

The Least Sandpipers were much closer, too, including this one in the shallow water next to the boardwalk.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

While we were watching the birds another pair of birders joined us – a couple from Iowa. They were the only people I saw with binoculars (other than Luis) on the entire trip, and so we talked for a bit. The man pointed out a small heron on the shore behind us, and when I saw the bill I thought it might be a juvenile Boat-billed Heron, which is one of the herons I was hoping to see. When I checked my field guides at the resort later, however, I realized the plumage was wrong for Boat-billed – this was one of the night herons. Although the white spots on the wings have been worn off, it had a long thin neck and an all-dark bill which fits juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron better than Black-crowned Night Heron. I was hoping to see an adult again as I wanted better photos of this species; however, finding a juvenile sitting quietly out in the open was nice, too!

Yellow-crowned Night-heron (Juvenile)

Yellow-crowned Night-heron (Juvenile)

After enjoying the birds of the boardwalk we continued our drive to the end of the park. We heard Yellow Warblers singing in the brush next to the road and saw several Barn Swallows and Great-tailed Grackles. We also came across this Black Vulture standing on top of a hut:

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

When we reached the end of the road, we asked one of the guides whether there was another view of the lagoon. He told us that although the boat ride was not available, we could view the lagoon from the dock. We walked a short distance from the parking lot to the dock, and I heard another woodpecker in the thickets that sounded like the call of a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Once again I was not able to see anything.

We passed a couple of signs in Spanish and English before coming to the end of the dock.

Signage at Laguna Colombia

Signage at Laguna Colombia

The view wasn’t terrific, but we could see the mangroves and a few white egrets walking through the water a great distance away.

The dock at Punta Sur

The dock at Punta Sur

Much closer was this beautiful Tricolored Heron foraging for food just beyond the dock. I’d always wanted better photos of the herons we’d seen at Eco Pond in the Everglades, and I was thrilled to get this chance.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

The Tricolored Heron is a dapper bird; it makes me think of a Great Blue Heron in formal dress clothes. The colours are darker, sharper, and well-defined, and the whites are whiter. I particularly love the red and white markings running down the length of its neck.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

None of the white herons were anywhere close enough to photograph, so we turned to leave. Although there was not as much activity at the boat dock as there had been at the boardwalk, the Tricolored Heron alone was worth the stop.

We got to see a couple of songbirds, too. One flew in and landed at the top of some vegetation, and I was happy to see the familiar colours of an Eastern Kingbird. This was another bird I hadn’t seen since the beginning of last September, and wouldn’t see in Ottawa until mid-May.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

We hadn’t yet reached the parking lot when I heard the rich, warbling song of a bird coming from the tall vegetation right beside the path. Although it sounded as though it were right in front of me, I wasn’t able to spot it. I started pishing, and that finally brought it out into the open. The bright yellow underparts and rufous supercilium startled me; I had finally had my Rufous-browed Peppershrike, a bird that had made my most-wanted list at first because of the name, and then because it is such a cool looking bird. It stayed in view for only a few seconds, just long enough to take one photo before it flew across the path, disappeared into the vegetation, and resumed its song.

Rufous-browed Peppershrike

Rufous-browed Peppershrike

It surprised me when I learned that the peppershrike is a member of the vireo family, and one of the largest members at that. To me it sounds more like a grosbeak or an oriole than a vireo, and looks nothing like any of the vireos that breed in eastern Canada with that thick bill. Like other vireos, it moves slowly among the foliage where it often hangs upside down looking for insects. It is often found at the forest’s edge, sometimes with other species of birds, although it is usually difficult to observe foraging deep in the foliage – as I knew from experience.

After it flew it disappeared, but I could still hear it singing fairly close. I took a snippet of video to capture the lovely song (I didn’t want to shoot a longer one as I was worried about both battery life and memory card space; as it turns out, I had no reason to worry about either).

Neither Doran nor I were into snorkeling or beach-lounging, so having seen everything we wanted, we left Punta Sur. It was well worth the visit as I was able to add three lifers and several familiar species to my Mexico list. Now that I’ve added the Reddish Egret to my life list, this leaves only the Little Blue Heron as the only regularly-occurring ABA-area heron I haven’t yet seen.

Our visit to Punta Sur was one of the highlights of our trip, and a place I’d love to visit again.

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