17 December 2017

Birding Cozumel

It's safe to say that 2017 has been a busy one for me.  I've probably seen more species this year than I have in any other year (after all, this was my first full calendar year of guiding full-time).  Along with that comes a lot of new birding locations, naturally.  One such new location came just last month when I co-lead a tour to Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.  Although I had ventured south to Mexico in February this year, that tour was to Oaxaca.  Different place, different habitats, and mostly different birds.  Anyway, this post is devoted to just the first couple of days of our tour, the time we spent on the island of Cozumel.

If you're not familiar with where Cozumel is, here's a screen-cap with a pin on the island of Cozumel:
Once on the ground and birding, new birds came pretty quickly.  In fact, at one point in the first day I realized that two of my newest lifers had the word "Yucatan" in them, two more had the word "Caribbean" in them, and another two had the word "Cozumel".  Yep, all hints to where I was.

Perhaps the easiest-to-see Yucatan specialty on Cozumel is the BLACK CATBIRD and it so happens that this was one of my most-wanted.  Why?  I have no clue... just the thought of a glossy, black catbird... I love it, it's not something we have in the States.  Here are two pics of this regional specialty:
Being down in the tropics, it's no major surprise that BANANAQUITS were common as well.  Here's one from our first day:
You'll notice above that these BANANAQUITS have bright white throats.  It turns out that the subspecies present on Cozumel (Coereba flaveola caboti) is essentially endemic to the island (meaning it's not found anywhere else).  Here's another shot of one showing the white throat:
That theme, actually, is fairly common on this 184-square-mile island; it hosts subspecies (and species for that matter) that are found nowhere else.

Another example is with this bird, the YUCATAN WOODPECKER:
On the surface, it looks like all the other YUCATAN WOODPECKERS (and all of those kind of look like a Red-bellied/Golden-fronted type).  However, the subspecies found on Cozumel has darker upperparts and a darker face.  Here's another shot of this regional specialty:
Sometimes it's not just the subspecies that's endemic, sometimes it's the actual species.  Birders that travel to Cozumel are probably even more keen to see those!  One such endemic species is the COZUMEL VIREO, a gorgeously-colored skulker.  Here's one that poked its head out into the sunlight a bit:
This next vireo isn't endemic to Cozumel (or Mexico for that matter) but I was still happy to spend time with them.  This large-billed brute is a YUCATAN VIREO:
You can see it's more of the Red-eyed/Yellow-green ilk.  Here's another shot of the same species (but different bird):
The forests on Cozumel host a variety of flycatchers too including NORTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULETS, a tiny species with a name longer than the bird.  Here's one:
Another fairly common player in the island birding scene is this somewhat-drab flycatcher:
It's a CARIBBEAN ELAENIA.  I doubt it was anyone's favorite bird from the island, though.  Just a hunch.

In truth, there aren't many species of hummingbirds on Cozumel.  BUT, there is one pretty important species.  It's the COZUMEL EMERALD, an island-endemic species:
Actually, it wasn't split off from the mainland counterpart (Canivet's Emerald) THAT long ago... they're very similar.  Either way, I'll take it.  It's a nice-looking bird too.  Here's another view of a male with that forked tail and red bill:
One of my favorite bird sightings from Cozumel came in the form of this beauty:
It's a male WESTERN SPINDALIS.  This species is mostly Caribbean but it has colonized Cozumel (and has probably been there for quite a while).  You see, it's another one of these species with an island-endemic subspecies.  In this case, it's Spindalis zena benedicti.  If you're into subspecies, this is one to get!

Ooh, another major goal of mine was to see this Piranga tanager.  I think there are about 9 species in this genus and, so far, I haven't met a Piranga I haven't liked.  Here it is, the ROSE-THROATED TANAGER:
Ok, well, this is a female so it's rather lacking in the rosy throat department!  This species IS endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula though so it was an awesome bird to see.

The island was actually pretty productive for wintering warblers.  We managed 18 species in the two days there.  One of my favorite encounters was when this PRAIRIE WARBLER came down to take a closer look:
Even back at the hotel, the "warblering" was rather productive.  The YELLOW-THROATED WARBLERS were rather tame; they would come down and land on the chairs in the courtyard.  Here's one that perched momentarily:
Maybe one of the most-encountered species of warbler for us was MAGNOLIA WARBLER.  Here's one at our hotel:
Then there were warblers that weren't common.  Here's a CAPE MAY WARBLER that I photographed from my hotel bathroom window (yes, yes, odd mental image):
The courtyard was full of warblers, catbirds, doves, grackles, etc.  Also included were several BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS.  Take a look:
You might notice how dark that bird is compared to other BGGNs.  Again, it turns out that the resident subspecies of BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER is endemic to Cozumel.  It's Polioptila caerulea cozumelae, to be exact.  The word Cozumel is even in the name.

The hotel was cool though; MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS soared overhead, YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUITS poked around in the grass, YUCATAN WOODPECKERS and RUDDY GROUND-DOVES flew through from time to time, and twittering swarms of VAUX'S SWIFTS curled overhead.  If you walked across the street, you'd have this view:
Offshore were BROWN PELICANS, LAUGHING GULLS, and a few SANDWICH TERNS.  Poking through the beachside rocks and veg, GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES were commonplace:
We birded the north end of the island one morning which got us into some different habitats (and therefore different species).  For one, we saw the PYGMY RACCOONS!
That's right, the critter that's sitting next to some trash.  In terms of mammals though, this was pretty cool to see.  This species is critically endangered and some experts estimate that there are fewer than 250 of these left on earth.  Yes, they're endemic to Cozumel as well... you won't see them anywhere else.  Oh, and no, they're not wary!
We saw more trip birds up north too including "GOLDEN" YELLOW WARBLERS, RUDDY CRAKE, and this GREAT KISKADEE:
Cozumel, I should mention, is a pretty popular tourist destination.  The scuba offshore is supposed to be top notch and the beaches are lovely.  Here's our group at one of our beachside lunch spots:
And the sunsets weren't bad either.. except when clouds kinda got in the way!
But before long, it was time to pack up and head towards the ferry that would take us over to mainland.  Roll roll roll your bag... gently down the street!
Our ride to the mainland?  This:
It was a 45 minute ride over and, no, I didn't get sick.  :-)  I thought about it though.

We arrived in the city of Playa del Carmen on the mainland.  Not a bad place to be at work.  :-)
... and then... well, to be continued!