Monday, March 30, 2015

Isla Mujeres - Playa Norte and Coastal Zone

The dominant habitat of Isla Mujeres is of course the sea and the coastline.

Magnificent Frigatebirds are the most obvious species, soaring over the entire island. Laughing Gulls too are impossible to ignore, and are ubiquitous. On the sheltered western side of the island there are many marinas and beach clubs. These all have wooden piers or jetties, and there are many wooden pilings, all of which provide a perfect perch for the many Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants and Laughing Gulls here. At the south end of the island there are quite a few terns which use these, and on 28th I found a flock consisting of 42 Sandwich Terns, 3 Royal Terns and 8 Roseate Terns. These were all on a group of pilings just off shore from Capitan Dulche Beach Club.

The northern part of the island has a large and attractive beach (Playa Norte), and this is where most of the hotels are. The hotel gardens provide another different habitat, and it is likely that any visiting birders will spend a fair amount of time here. The dominant species here is Great-tailed Grackle, with a supporting cast that includes Tropical Mockingbird, European Collared Dove and White-winged Dove.

Adult female Magnificent Frigatebird
Adult male Magnificent Frigatebird
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Roseate Tern
Cattle Egret and White Ibis
Tropical Mockingbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Brown Pelican
Tropical Kingbird
Migrant Peregrine resting on the cell-phone tower in the middle of the town.
Male Ruddy Ground-Dove

White-winged Dove
Two very different looking Hooded Orioles...
I think the above bird is an immature male, and the lower is an adult male, both of the igneus race of Hooded Oriole, endemic to Yucatan.
These Iguana are everywhere!

Isla Mujeres - Laguna Makax and mangroves

Laguna Makax, and more particularly its surrounding mangroves, is the most interesting birding area on the island. During my visit the birds were dominated by migrants, particularly wood warblers which are obviously transient. The area should be productive at any time of year however, and is definitely worth visiting several times. Early mornings are particularly good, with the rattling calls of Mangrove Vireos coming from every direction. Yucatan Vireos were harder to catch up with, I didn't get a decent view until my last day. I was delighted to bump into a gorgeous Mangrove Cuckoo on my first visit, and then again three times thereafter! Cinnamon Hummingbirds seem fairly common here, with birds seen on every visit, as were Northern Roughwing Swallows. Black Catbird is also fairly common, though tricky to see. A very nice find was Mangrove Yellow Warbler, D. e. bryanti.

The most interesting birds though were the migrants, of which there were many. I particularly enjoyed the large variety of wood warblers; Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Palm Warbler and Prairie Warbler. Other migrants included a very skulky Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Brown-chested Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Eastern Kingbird and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

A very smart Mangrove Cuckoo
Cinnamon Hummingbird

Mangrove Vireo
A poor shot of a Yucatan Vireo

Prairie Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
female American Redstart
Western Palm Warbler, easily the commonest passerine on the island.
Black-and-white Warbler
'Mangrove' Yellow Warbler, D. e. bryanti.
Prothonotary Warbler. What a cracking little bird, at least two seen on 27th.
Indigo Bunting hiding in deep cover.

Brown-crested Flycatcher. Very vocal, it responded immediately to a recording.

Orchard Oriole

Northern Roughwing Swallow
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Isla Mujeres - Salina Grande

Salina Grande is the largest inland wetland on Isla Mujeres. It consists of a large body of water that appears practically lifeless at first glance. The two ends of the lake are very good however. The north end has a small reedbed, separated from the main body of the lake by a path. The water here is shallow and sheltered, and held several Black-necked Stilts and a couple of Common Moorhen. The star bird though was a male Least Bittern that showed itself on a couple of days. Presumably a passage migrant.

The south end of the lake has another sheltered area, this time behind a fence. It is possible to get into the area though by walking around the fence and into a small park. The small patch of wetland was excellent, with several heron species, including Tricolored Heron and Green Heron. A Sora Rail in the reeds was a great find. Several species of wader hung around for the whole week, including a Solitary Sandpiper that played hide-and-seek with me for a few days, before providing excellent views. Small flocks of both Short-billed Dowitcher and Least Sandpiper, and a single Spotted Sandpiper also present. Other waterbirds included several American Coot, Blue-winged Teal, Great White Egret, Great Blue Heron and a Ringed Kingfisher.

In the surrounding trees I had good views of Cinnamon Hummingbird and Great Kiskadee, as well as Northern Parula and Yellow Warbler.

Solitary Sandpiper.
Short-billed Dowitcher
Black-necked Stilt
Least Bittern
Great Blue Heron, with a Green Heron peering in...
White Ibis

Sora Rail
Blue-winged Teal
Female Ringed Kingfisher
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Great Kiskadee

Isla Mujeres - Salina Chica

Salina Chica is the second largest of the three inland wetland areas on Isla Mujeres. It is fenced off, and can only be reached by a hole in a chainlink fence in the southwest corner. This area is clearly used by some of the local people, so I didn't feel many qualms about popping in to see what was about. My first visit was on a quiet Sunday morning, and my expectations were low.  What I found
felt a little like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. It was fantastic! First birds up were large numbers of American Coot (250+), Blue-winged Teal, Neotropic Cormorant and Black-necked Stilt. There were herons of several sizes and shades, including Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Great White Egret, Snowy Egret and Tricolored Heron. Closer examination produced several gorgeous White Ibis, a Lesser Scaup amongst the coots, and a Ringed Kingfisher flying across the lake.

Tricolored Heron.
Little Blue Heron, white phase....
..and blue phase.
Neotropic Cormorant.
Lesser Scaup.

Isla Mujeres - 21 to 29 March

Isla Mujeres is a small tropical island off the Yucatan coast of Mexico, very close to Cancun. It is of course not a well-known birding destination, being much more holidaymaker oriented, but it is where we selected for our spring break. For those non-Americans reading this, spring break is the mad dash to the sun that all north Americans who can afford it make after the apparently endless winter.
It is another excellent American tradition, and one I plan to adopt for the duration.

Isla Mujeres is about 7km long, and is made of limestone. The west coast is the sheltered side of the island, and had lots of sandy beaches, shallow water and mangroves. Most of the beach resorts and all of the marinas are on this side, and there are many piers, jetties and pilings that provide perches for the thousands of Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, cormorants and terns that feed here. Also on the west side is a large lagoon, called Laguna Makax. This doesn't have much birdlife on the water itself, but is fringed by mangroves which were very productive.

The east coast faces out into the Caribbean, and therefore bears the brunt of most of the weather. In consequence it consists of low limestone cliffs, and not many birds. It is the side that will produce passing seabirds though, and it is worth checking regularly.

Inside the island itself there is a surprising amount of good wetland habitat. The two largest bodies of water are Salina Chica (left) and Salina Grande. Salina Chica is mostly closed off, though a small gap in a chainlink fence at the southwest corner will allow an adventurous birder to gain access to a marvelous spot. Presumably because it is closed off it holds large numbers of waterbirds.

Salina Grande is much larger, and at first glance seems devoid of birds. Both ends of the lake are much nicer though. In the north a small reedbed held a Least Bittern for a few days. In the south is a fenced off area which can be accessed through a public park. This was a very good area for waders and herons. Best birds here were Sora Rail, Solitary Sandpiper and Ringed Kingfisher.

Several species seem to be present everywhere, drawing the attention of even non-birders. On Isla Mujeres these include Great-tailed Grackle, European Collared Dove, White-winged Dove and Tropical Mockingbird. With care though, many other species can be found.

Yucatan endemics: Yucatan has a number of endemic species and subspecies, however few of these occur on Isla Mujeres. Those that I found were Yucatan Vireo, Black Catbird and the Yucatan race of Hooded Oriole. All three species were seen in the mangroves.

Seabirds: Like most tropical islands of my experience seabird diversity was low. The most obvious birds of any kind are the large numbers of Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring over the island all day. True masters of the air, they live up to their name. Less numerous, but still obvious to even non-birders are the Brown Pelicans. Gulls are represented almost exclusively by Laughing Gull, of which there are hundreds, though I did have one flyby American Herring Gull. Terns were more interesting. The southwest corner of the island had a fair sized flock of Sandwich Terns perched on the pilings outside one of the beach resorts (I counted 42 together on one day). There were a few scattered Royal Terns among them, and on Saturday 28th there was a flock of 8 Roseate Terns, apparently quite a rarity.

Herons & Ibis: The inland lakes of Salina Grande and Salina Chica held a remarkable variety of herons. The most interesting was a male Least Bittern seen at the north end of Salina Grande on 23rd & 26th. Also present at these two sites were Great White Egret, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron (both blue and white phase birds), Tricolored Heron and Green Heron. The mangroves had both Black-crowned Night Heron and Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and three Cattle Egrets were at various sites in the south on 28th. White Ibis were in small numbers at the wetlands on each visit, with a single bird feeding on the lawn of a beach lodge in the south on 28th.

Other waterbirds: American Coot and Blue-winged Teal were numerous and Common Moorhen was present in small numbers at both inland wetland sites. Best of all was a Sora Rail at Salina Grande on 23rd, though a Lesser Scaup at Salina Chica on 23rd & 24th was also nice. Flocks of Blue-winged Teal were visible offshore moving north on 28th and 29th. A few waders were present at all sites. The most numerous were the Black-necked Stilts at both the wetlands, and in the mangroves. Around the coast small groups of Ruddy Turnstone were quite common. A group of 3 Semi-palmated Plover were with them on 23rd. Salina Grande had the greatest variety, with a flock of up to 18 Least Sandpipers present all week. Also at that site were up to 10 Short-billed Dowitcher, a single Spotted Sandpiper, and best of all a Solitary Sandpiper 23rd to 27th. Neotropic Cormorants are on the wetlands, with Double-crested Cormorants mainly present in the marine areas. Ringed Kingfisher were present at both Salina Chica and Salina Grande.

Raptors: Poorly represented. The only birds I saw were singles of Turkey Vulture over Cancun on 21st, up to 3 Osprey around the mangroves (including one bird collecting nesting material), and a migrant Peregrine resting on the cell-phone tower at the north end of the island.

Doves & Cuckoos: One of the nicest surprises of the week was finding Mangrove Cuckoo on 4 different occasions. The common doves were European Collared Dove and White-winged Dove. Ruddy Ground Doves were also fairly easy to find, though I only found Mourning Doves once.

Flycatchers: An interesting collection of tropical flycatchers was scattered around the island, in all habitats. Most obvious in the early part of the week were the Tropical Kingbirds, they seemed to be all gone by about the 27th though, to be replaced almost immediately by Eastern Kingbirds on 28th. Two pairs of Great Kiskadee were also seen, one of which appeared to be nest-building on a transformer near the north end of Salina Chica. A Brown-crested Flycatcher on 27th turned into 2 on the 28th. A tricky identification challenge made somewhat easier when it responded to a recording of its call within seconds.

Vireos & Wood Warblers: The commonest small passerine on the island was Palm Warbler, which seemed to be present in every patch of scrub. Also common were Yellow Warbler. Warbler numbers built up during the week, reaching a peak on 27th. A total of 14 migrant wood warblers were seen, including; Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler and Prairie Warbler. In addition several of the distinctive Mangrove Yellow Warblers were also seen. Mangrove Vireos were very common in the right habitat.

Other birds: Great-tailed Grackle are ubiquitous on the island, being found basically everywhere. Bronzed Cowbird were faithful to one site in the south. The only hummingbird found was Cinnamon Hummingbird, which was in very small numbers at just about every site. Tropical Mockingbird are also widespread and common. On 27th the fall of migrants included both Orchard Oriole, and the Yucatan race of Hooded Oriole. Barn Swallows were present in small numbers on most days, and a small group of Northern Roughwing Swallows were in the mangroves on every visit. Grey Catbird are common in the mangroves.