Photojournal - 27 and 28 February 2009

Flown south

Around the middle of February I figured I'd had enough of the grey and the cold of the short Vancouver winter days, and I booked myself on a flight to Mexico. On the 26th, I flew down, landing in Cancun and thence proceeding to a bus that took me to a hotel about an hour's drive south, near a town (and old Mayan site) called Tulum.

My trip was set for two weeks, so for the first little while I stayed at the hotel and acquainted myself with the sun, the pools, and the seemingly endless buffets. Naturally, I also acquainted myself with the local fauna. In this entry, I'll show you most of the characters I discovered in my first two days.

The most obvious bird I encountered first. They were most obvious not only because of their great number, but also because the males, like this fellow below, were quite noisy.


He's a Great-tailed Grackle. Grackles behave a lot like magpies or crows. These ones would hang around the palapas and tables, ready to swoop down and scoop up anything that got dropped, provided nobody was too close. They have an astonishing variety of different calls, so much so that I first thought I was hearing at least four or five different species.

The tails on grackles really do set them apart from other species. They're shaped differently, with more vertical displacement between the tailfeathers than horizontal—and most other species have almost only horizontal displacement between tailfeathers. They fascinated me.

Looking up from my calling grackle, I found that I was beside a beach bar, and that there was a fellow there with a couple of macaws on his arm. Macaws have very impressive tails, and beautiful bright colors.


The green one is a Military Macaw, the red one is a Scarlet Macaw, and the one in the white shirt is a Mexican. Scarlet Macaws are endangered, but I didn't know that at the time. It turns out that I had gone down unprepared; I hadn't researched any of the birds or wildlife, and I didn't take any guide books with me. It made for more of an adventure.

I found my next species on a tree in the jungle behind the bar. Even in the harsh sun (it was nearly 10am) it was easy to tell that this was some sort of kingbird. Kingbirds are a type of flycatcher, and flycatchers are fairly aptly-named; most of them hunt flying insects, making short flights from perches like this to nab bugs that fly by.


This particular flycatcher, it turned out, was a Tropical Kingbird.

I decided that it was probably a good idea to get out of the midday sun, so I headed back towards my hotel room. The hotel I was at, the Grand Sirenis, has a lot of jungle mixed in between its buildings, and in one such pocket of jungle I came across someone else who had come out to enjoy the sun.

Of course, that's an iguana. Iguana turns out to be the name given to most of the lizards in the family Iguanidae. There are about 50 species of iguanas, many of which have very limited ranges. The ones here are all from the species Ctenosaura similis, the Central American Spiny Tail Iguana, which has a fairly extensive range, including the entire Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama...pretty much the entirety of Central America.  

They can grow as long as 1.5 meters, although the largest one I saw on my trip was about 1 meter. Even at that length, it was a lot of lizard. The ones I saw this first day weren't that long, though.

Even though I hadn't been taking many photos this year, and I was far from my usual haunts, it was nice to know that I still could manage to find wildlife that was willing to stick its tongue out at me.


After capturing that fellow, I made it into the shade and stayed there until well into the afternoon.

When I ventured back out, around 5, I started by trying to get some photos of the grackles in flight. Here's one I particularly liked; it shows that funky grackle tail.


I walked along a short connecting walk between the pool area and the main route to the hotel lobby building; this walk was fairly narrow (just wide enough for a golf cart to pass a human who's standing to the side) and it had jungle on both sides. I sat on a bench at a small widening in the path, and took pictures of whoever came by.

The first bird I caught was an interesting fellow with a white belly, white eyes, medium bill, and some yellow bits. I tentatively filed him in the "tanager" category, but when I got out my books, I found that he was a White-eyed Vireo. He was perky but didn't stay around for long.

Another short-time visitor was this warbler, which I found up near the tops of the trees. This one's a familiar species from home, a Wilson's Warbler.  
After ten minutes or so, some noise and a flash of orange distracted me. I followed it back the way I had come and found that it belonged to what was clearly an oriole. Orioles are pointy-billed, black and orange or yellow birds. Their bright colors really appeal to me. I thought I had a Baltimore Oriole here, but the one white wingbar and orange median coverts identifies this as an Altamira Oriole.  

It turns out that there are a lot more oriole species than I knew about; at home I have only one oriole in range, the Bullock's Oriole. (Although I did see a vagrant Baltimore Oriole in BC once.)

Back by the pool, a Great-tailed Grackle was making some sort of display on the top of a palapa. I saw lots of them doing this maneuver, and I presume it has something to do with marking a territory or attracting a mate.

I wandered a bit past the pool towards the ocean, passing the lazy river, which is a long winding pool with moving water, for innertubing on. Just past the tube-launching post, I saw something yellow-breasted fly past and gave chase. I didn't catch that particular bird, but was distracted by another yellow breast that I found at the top of a fairly short tree.  

This was another Tropical Kingbird, known to the ancient Romans amongst us as Tyrannus melancholius.

My next catch was an oriole couple. I thought they were the same species of oriole that I had seen earlier, but looking at the photos, I see that these birds had two white wingbars, and didn't have color on their median coverts. Sorting through all the orioles in my books, I found that these are Hooded Orioles.


At least I had the "oriole" part right.

In that photo, I'm not sure if the left bird is a female or if it's a first-summer male, just coming into his colors. The right bird is definitely an adult male, though.

My next bird I found on a nearby lawn, although it quickly flew up into a tree. This one was a mockingbird, certainly, and it was a dead ringer for the Northern Mockingbird, which I've seen a bunch of in Virginia. Knowing my ignorance of the species in this part of the world, I was careful, though, and just thought of it as a mockingbird.


My caution was warranted here—this is a Tropical Mockingbird, not a Northern. According to the field guides for Mexico, the Northern doesn't range as far as the Yucatan. That's lucky for me, as I don't think I would be able to tell the difference between the two in the field. Or even at home with a photo. They're that similar.

I kept seeing more yellow-breasted birds flying about, and eventually I figured out that the flycatchers like to be out in the evening, to catch the bugs that fly in the time leading up to and around dusk. The trees were thick with kingbirds.

But that top bird looked fairly suspicious...I didn't know any kingbirds with a black face and white stripe on the head. I started looking for others like him and soon found some close enough for a more-detailed photo.  

It turns out that that bird wasn't a kingbird at was a Myiozetetes flycatcher...a bird in a different genus altogether. More particularly, he's Myiozetetes similis, the Social Flycatcher.

To make identification matters worse, I found another striped-head flycatcher, this one more rusty-colored and having a massive bill.


And he was my third flycatcher genus of the afternoon...he's Pitangus suphuratus, a.k.a. the Great Kiskadee.

I really enjoyed the variety I was finding, but I was also really wishing I had had the foresight to acquire and pack a field guide.

The sun was now about down, and the last of the evening's light was hitting the trees. I came upon an interesting blackbird, who had an interesting wear pattern on his tail. I think the bird is a Melodious Blackbird, but I'm unsure as to the cause of his condition.


My pal Carlo thinks that it's a sign of him having been in a cage for a while, but I think that the wear may be the result of a single incident, such as having a predator take a bite, or getting caught in a closing door or window.

As the light left the jungle, I headed back to my room to get ready for dinner. On my way, a fellow with a big wingspan flew over, and I got a few shots at him before he was out of range.

The size and shape (including the split tail) had me guessing frigatebird right away, and Magnificent Frigatebird is the only frigatebird that was in range. The white head means that this one was juvenile.


Frigatebirds are very effective at kleptoparasitism—feeding by stealing prey from others. The sad thing was that he was flying over a friendly photographer who was heading for an endless all-you-can-eat buffet; he could've just come on down and joined the party rather than having to steal for a living.

And so ended my first day of vacation in Mexico.

On the second day, I got up early and went out shooting before breakfast. As I was exiting my building, I saw some small ground-feeding birds, probably sparrows, on the lawn in front of me. As I was adjusting my camera, something bigger with a long brown tail flew across from right to left in front of me. I immediately gave chase, and as the bird stopped to perch I stopped and shot. Here's what I got.


That's a Squirrel Cuckoo, and it's the first Cuckoo I've seen in the wild. Naturally, I felt a deep connection to the bird. It was only perched for two or three seconds, and as it flew deeper into the jungle I was able to track its location for a little while but not able to get any better photos.

That seemed like an auspicious start to the day. Next I found a Tropical Mockingbird who was willing to model both his front end

...and his back end.  

If you look closely at the photos, you can see bristles coming out from his face near his bill. These are called rictal bristles, and they're helpful in catching insects, acting like a funnel into the mouth. Many insectivorous birds have prominent rictal bristles.

I found my next bird flitting from tree to tree, and from the yellow, black, and white I saw on it, and its size, I knew it was a warbler of some sort. Once I got it in my viewfinder, I knew it was a new species for me. It's called the Yellow-Throated Warbler, which seems a fairly apt name.


After all the birds in trees, I spent some time looking around on the ground, trying to find whatever it was that I had seen when I first emerged. Soon I found someone foraging in the shade. I thought it was a sparrow, but when I saw its bill I knew I had a finch or grosbeak, and the brown meant it was a female or juvenile. Turns out I had an adult female Blue Grosbeak.


Blue Grosbeaks don't make it up to Vancouver, so she was a lifer for me. (Well, to be fair, most every bird here in Mexico was a lifer for me.)

After that lady, I walked around the pool area and then down a road that goes around the outside of several hotel buildings. I saw what was obviously a woodpecker flying around (the red on the bird's head and the swoopy flight pattern being the giveaways), and finally caught up to him after a few perches, when he stuck his head around a trunk to look at me. Despite the sun being in the wrong place, there was actually enough reflected light to give me good detail on his face and breast.


That handsome fellow is a Golden-fronted Woodpecker. My Sibley's (US and Canada) field guide shows this bird with a yellow patch above the bill, and a yellow nape on the neck, so if I would have used that guide, I would have concluded I had some other bird. But it turns out that the colors on this species varies from place to place, with three distinct groups identified and lots of different birds intermediate to the groups. The local group for the Yucatan is the dubiously-named dubius group, and it has a red nasal patch and red nape. The ones in Texas are from the aurifrons group; since they're the only ones in the US or Canada, that's what Sibley's shows.

So there's danger lurking in using a nonlocal field guide, even one that is for an adjacent area and shows the same birds. I'll have to remember that.

Ah, but back to my morning meanderings in Mexico. I'd been hearing doves the whole morning (and off-and-on the day before), and I finally found one of them walking along the ground when I went for a brief foray into the sparse jungle by the road. It was an incredibly beautiful dove; I really liked the blue around the eye.


That's a White-winged Dove. Their wings aren't actually all white, but they have a white stripe on their upperwings and uppertail; the wing stripe shows as a white bottom rim to the wing when its folded.

The hotel had two groups of buildings that held guest rooms, and I now headed over to the group of buildings that I wasn't staying in. On the way, I found a familiar bird gliding overhead—a Turkey Vulture.


Vultures, both Black and Turkey, are fairly common in Mexico.

I walked a path through the middle of the patch of jungle that is in the middle of the other group of buildings, and along that path I found a three nice butterflies.

I never got an insect or butterfly guides to Mexico, but it turned out that one of my US-and-Canada guides had two of my three butterflies on its "tropical brushfoots" page. This is astounding to me, as I assume that there's lots of tropical butterflies that don't make it that far north.

Anyhow, that's how I came to know that my first butterfly, a green and brown beauty, is called a Malachite.


My next little fellow, with the blue body and the black-and-white design, I wasn't able to identify.


But the third, this purple and peach one, is called a White Peacock.


Before finding that last butterfly, though, I had gotten a bit hungry (it was 9:00 and I had been out since 7:30) and had gone to breakfast, which was a lavish buffet (plus eggs cooked to order) affair. Suitably stuffed, I completed my butterfly trio and wandered over nearer the guest building I was in.

On the way, I found a young iguana who seemed to be contemplating taking a big leap and making for the other side of the big blue divide.


Or at least, he was contemplating that, until this big pink mammal came floating by.


And in case you're wondering, yes, that was the lazy river.

The sun was getting higher in the sky (it was almost 10:00) and so I took my camera inside and spent the rest of midday reading a novel, eating lunch, having a siesta, and lounging by the pool (under a palapa). In other words, I stayed in the shade; I felt I'd already had a fair amount of exposure.

When the late afternoon and evening came, I was enjoying my poolside lounging too much to get up and take more photos.

So over the two days, I had accumulated something like 17 lifer birds, a few new butterflies, and one new iguana species. Although I didn't know all the new species' names and exactly how many of them I had at the time, I was nonetheless quite happy with these days, as I knew I had some good shots "in the can", including some really-spectacular birds like the Squirrel Cuckoo and the Magnificent Frigatebird. And I sure was enjoying life at the all-inclusive.

Your giant pink mammal,


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