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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mexico: The Lacandon Rainforest and Maya Ruins

2011 Narrative

In Brief:  We saw great birds wherever we went on the Lacandon Rainforest and Maya Ruins tour. The favorite event was our morning boat ride up the idyllic Rio Tzendales, where we had a close encounter with two American Pygmy-Kingfishers and called in a scarce White-necked Puffbird. The nearby forest trail was a close second, with a noisy and bold Black-throated Shrike-Tanager posing for extended scope views, a normally skulky Stub-tailed Spadebill approaching the group almost fearlessly, an exploded lek of Long-billed Hermits through the middle of which the trail passed, and a Common Pauraque flushed off the trail twice. Birding amid the Maya Ruins of Bonampak, Yaxchilán, and Palenque was also delightful, the high-quality rainforest nearby giving up such great birds as White Hawk, Purple-crowned Fairy, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, White-vented Euphonia, and Lovely Cotinga. Even our hotels had some memorable birds, with a family of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers and a pair of Mottled Owls receiving several votes.

In Detail:  Even though some of our days were mainly travel days, such as our drive from the state of Tabasco to Chiapas, we still snagged some nice sightings, with a roadside stop for fancy Fork-tailed Flycatchers, a Bat Falcon, and an adorable Common Tody-Flycatcher, while Kentucky and Hooded Warblers roamed the forest floor at our lunch spot. We also got our first looks at Ochre-bellied Flycatcher and Bright-rumped Attila here.

The boat ride with Celedonio up the Rio Tzendales – including ascending a few travertine waterfalls – was a great morning. Some highlights were the truly wild Muscovy Ducks, at least eight Bat Falcons (never a trash bird, no matter how many you see), and at least three confiding Sungrebes. We got lucky when some Brown-hooded Parrots perched in a tree where we could see them well, but even luckier was finding our first pair of the extremely local and scarce Blue Seedeater just 10 minutes from the river mouth; we later had yet another one. Stopping along the riverbank was productive with our best Sepia-capped Flycatcher and almost countless Yellow-tailed Orioles singing their rhythmic duets.

Birding on our hotel grounds at Las Guacamayas provided the main target bird, Scarlet Macaw without too much effort, though it is now extirpated from a great majority of its historical Mexican range. A Great Potoo at the edge of its range was great fun as it responded from across the river and landed over our heads. Nearby we had a close encounter with a roadside Laughing Falcon and enjoyed a back-and-forth with Ruddy Crakes and Gray-breasted Crakes, the latter in the very spot where Steve Howell and I found them last year, the first record for Mexico.

Highlights from our morning on the Reserva Ejidal trail were many, starting with Black-headed Trogon and Rufous Mourner along the main road before we entered the forest. In addition to birds getting special favorite votes mentioned above, we also encountered several near-the-border specialties such as Plain Antvireo, Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky Antbird, and Blue-black Grosbeak. Leaving Las Guacamayas, we lucked into at least six King Vultures at a dead cow in a field by the road, allowing for perched digiscoped images from within the vehicle.

While quartered at Frontera Corozal, we visited both Bonampak and Yaxchilán ruins as well as covered some habitats along the roadsides between the two. Bonampak was extremely productive with Gray-headed Kite at our picnic breakfast and upon our exit from the ruins, while White-whiskered Puffbird, Green Shrike-Vireo, Gray-headed Tanager, and White-vented Euphonia were in the main area of the ruins proper, the latter one of the rarest birds in Mexico, confirmed by photo for the country perhaps only once before (and refound in the same clump of mistletoe by other birders a couple weeks later). We also ventured down the best forest trail here, getting great views of Slaty-tailed Trogon, Blue-crowned Motmot, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper (at an antswarm), Russet Antshrike, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager.

Bonampak was no less interesting, as we rode down the  Usamacinta River to the dock leading up to the ruins. While listening to a Spotted Wood-Quail from across the river in Guatemala all morning, we enjoyed views of a Long-billed Starthroat and a Scaly-breasted Hummingbird near the entrance, while walking into an aggressively defended territory of a Green-backed Sparrow.  A tiny female Black-crested Coquette hovered around some mid-story flowers long enough for all of us to see the field marks, followed shortly by a Golden-olive Woodpecker poking its head out of a presumed nest cavity. We got really lucky with a Ruddy Woodcreeper, army ants nowhere in sight, as well as with a pair of Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts overhead while we were at the highest of ruins. Watching the bottlebrush-like flowers of the orange flame vines (Combretum fruitcosum) was productive, with several Red-legged Honeycreepers and Golden-hooded Tanagers being the most colorful. Other highlights from the ruins were a cooperative White-breasted Wood-Wren in the understory and a White-winged Tanager in the canopy.  Birding the nearby roadsides resulted in our best views of White-bellied Wren, very close but heard-only Collared Forest-Falcon and Pheasant Cuckoo, and wonderful extended views of a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing.

Our last soujourn of the Maya world was at the ruins of Palenque, where we managed an early morning foray along a forest trail near the entrance. Here we were treated by close Slaty-breasted Tinamous (still a great sound to listen to), a nice visual of Mexican Black-faced Antthrush, at least two White-necked Jacobins (again, feeding from a blooming orange flame vine), and a confiding Worm-eating Warbler. Before entering the ruins, we lucked into a handsome adult Violet Sabrewing by the parking lot. In the ruins proper, while the Lovely Cotinga and White Hawk were undoubted highlights, a Royal Flycatcher, cooperative Spot-breasted Wrens, a Russet-backed Swainson’s Thrush, a soaring Double-toothed Kite, a Short-tailed Hawk, and a Black Hawk-Eagle added to the burgeoning list.

The open country was a good afternoon option, as birds such as Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Double-striped Thick-knee, and Botteri’s Sparrow don’t occur in the forested ruins. A fun learning lesson was provided by a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (our only one), on which the active molt in the primaries was visible as a gap in the bird’s wing as it hovered over our heads, feeding in the pink flowers of a Gliricidia tree. Even our hotel grounds were fun, with the pair of Mottled Owls hooting up a storm, followed by a Northern Potoo at close range. Daytime birding there featured our best views of Rufous-breasted Spinetail as well as Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and a huge flock of Red-legged Honeycreepers.

An ongoing theme throughout the tour was the company of birds we kept at our meals. At Las Guacamayas it was a Southern House Wren hopping around the tables and chairs while a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird kept returning to the hummingbird feeder by our table. At Frontera Corozal a Gray Catbird returned both days to forage among the chairs, while a Louisiana Waterthrush seemed to be hunting for scraps at our lunch stop in Lacanjá. At Chan-Kah near Palenque, the most fun were the Hooded Warbler on the chairs and tables followed by a bold family of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, stealing fresh fruit from the unguarded tray of plates waiting for the diners. When the early-arriving lady from their group got up to shoo them off the tray, they snuck around behind her and quickly stole some bites from her own plate!

After some amazingly successful forest birding, in which we saw all four possible trogons and fifteen species of hummingbirds, we finished with a grand finale through the marshes of Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve. The Limpkins, Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, and Snail Kites were too numerous to keep a close count (not to mention the utterly countless herons, egrets, ducks, and jacanas), and we had great views of rarer Pinnated Bittern, Black-collared Hawk and Gray-necked Wood-Rail, and good comparisons of Glossy and White-faced Ibises.

- Rich Hoyer

Created: 07 April 2011