Tuesday 27 June 2023

Yucatan - Day 3 - Becan to Buenavista - Hormiguero and Kohunlich

The trip list stood at exactly 100 after two days of birding interspersed with driving - we had already covered half the distance that we had planned, and thus the return, spread over three days, could be a little more relaxed. We started the day at another Mayan site, Hormiguero. This is just south of Xpujil, and the entrance road has pretty good birding. As you approach there is a small pond on your left hand side, and a bit of time here added a Solitary Sandpiper on the margins, a group of five Blue Ground Dove, some Blue-winged Teal, an American Moorhen and a Great Blue Heron and a Belted Kingfisher amongst other things. Only a short distance away a more open area just before the ruins started proved extremely birdy - a group of eight Collared Aracari suprised us by flying over the road, White-throated Parrots too, and overhead a Vaux's Swift cruised around. A pair of Blue Buntings were feeding in the weedy margins, a world lifer, just like that.

Bat Falcon. A shame I missed the Toucan!

The ruins themselves were excellent, and we were the only visitors (there is no entrance fee). A Masked Tityra was near the car park, as well as two Clay-coloured Thrush. A distant Parrot at the top of the tree proved on closer inspection to be a White-Crowned Parrot, and close to the largest structure a Keel-Billed Toucan flew over a perched Bat Falcon - pretty monster! There were at least four Black-headed Trogon's and generally this was just a really productive little site.

Roadside Hawk, Hormiguero

We drove the access road out very slowly, stopping where we saw or heard activity. One of these stops flushed eight Singing Quail from the verge, and there were a couple of Yellow-billed Cacique knocking around. Once again American Wood Warblers were numerous - Black-and-White Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Northern Parula, American Redstart. Where the entrace track meets the proper road there is a small amount of agriculture, and around these fields we found Wood Thrush, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Blue-black Grassquit, and both Black-headed and Cinnamon-bellied Saltator. Two huge and distant raptors resolved themselves into King Vultures and a flock of 15 Olive-throated Parakeet flew over and landed briefly to feed. All this and it was only just past 9am.

Olive-throated Parakeet

Yellow-throated Euphonia

Back towards Xupjil we noticed some shallow pans we had missed on the way down - Least Sandpiper, three Killdeer, five Cattle Egret, a Pied-billed Grebe and two more Solitary Sandpiper. We were on fire! Back in Xupjil we elected to try a spot we had seen on eBird, the Maya Balam Hotel. This is a non-descript building on a residential street, but there were a number of fruiting and flowering trees which held a selection of good birds. I cannot remember now what drew us to this hotel - whatever it was we did not see it - but the birds we did see were terrific! Four species of Oriole (Black-cowled, Orchard, Hooded and Baltimore), three Yellow-winged Tanager, Blue-grey Tanager, and five Yellow-throated Euphonia made for some great birding. We checked the Laguna which had a handful of hirundines and a Little Blue Heron before reluctantly heading east and back towards Chetamul.

Snail Kite

Grey Hawk

We stopped frequently where the habitat looked good, often where there was a little water. In this way we added Northern Jacana, Wilson's Snipe, a Grey Hawk, Rose-throated Becard and Morelet's Seedeater at what were basically 'nothing' spots by the side of the main road. A larger water body 4km to the west of Nicolas Bravo was even more productive, with Limpkin, Green Heron, a Snail Kite, and multiple commoner birds. 


We were in no particular hurry, but as ever we were not making as much progress east as we had planned and so didn't arrive at the Kohunlich ruins until 2.30pm. These are some more impressive and extensive ruins - requiring a ticket - and more manicured than Calakmul. There was even a guided tour in progress, but this proved no impediment to good birding even though it was quiet in the middle of the day. One particular flowering tree held a good number of Yellow-throated Euphonia, and also a pair or Red-capped Manakin. Pale-billed Woodpecker was a new one for the trip, good views in a huge tree. The highlight from my persepective was a Royal Flycatcher along a shady path, a bird Mick had glimpsed along the Camino Vigia Chico but that I had missed. Loads more American Warblers here - the Yucatan is essentially crawling with them at this time of year. We spent the rest of the afternoon around this area before driving east and then north to Buenavista, where I had booked a hotel for the night. It had been a great day of fairly relaxed birding, and the trip list now stood at 141 after three days.
Royal Flycatcher

Monday 26 June 2023

Yucatan - Day 2 - Calakmul

A slight hiccup before we had even started, the main gate to exit the hotel was locked. We found where the owner lived and unfortunately had to wake her up at something like 5am. Felt a bit bad but what can you do - apparently buried in the small print somewhere was a sentence about this. She was understandably a little grumpy so early, but she seemed to have cheered up again by the evening when we returned. On the plus side we also ticked Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl which was calling from inside the compound.

The entrance to Calakmul was about half an hour distant, continuing west, and we made it just before 7am, so a little later than planned. We were still basically the first people there, and paid our fee (cant remember how much but not expensive) and were let through the gate. Barring a couple of trucks of workers heading to the site the road was ours! Tempting as it was to start birding immediately we headed a little deeper in. The habitat was not dissimilar to the Camino Vigia Chico, but perhaps being larger there were fewer birds as we did not see anywhere near as many species. That said, there was a lot more driving I suppose. The main target here was Ocellated Turkey, a spectacular and enormous bird, and a near endemic, present only here and in Guatemala and Belize. If you want to guarantee seeing one in Mexico, this is where you need to come. We also found our first Yucatan Jay, another endemic target, as well as Groove-billed Ani and various other birds. In all the drive down to the ruins took about two hours, whereas a better option is probably just to drive down there as quickly as you can and get into the ruins absolutely first thing. It's basically impossible though, just too exciting, and I have no regrets at all!

Ocellated Turkey

At the end of the road you park the car and enter the actual ruins, which requires a ticket as the earlier fee is just for the road. The site is vast, and even though it was nearly 9am by this point we started seeing birds immediately. The best bird within the site was probably the Mayan Ant-Thrush, not a species I had held out much hope of seeing, but it showed spectacularly underneath a small tree as it fed with a number of other birds including
Red-throated Ant-Tanager. Grey-throated Chat was pretty easy, and we saw quite a few Woodcreepers - Tawny-winged, Ruddy, Northern Barred and Ivory-billed. Once again there were loads of American Wood Warblers around. We also saw our only Blue Ground Doves of the trip here, and Great Curassow and Crested Guan. Finally Wedge-tailed Sabrewing was seen between one of the structures, but generally Hummingbirds were in short supply. There are too many eBird checklists to reference, but at the end of this trip report I'll post the list in tabular form with site information. Basically there were a number of species that we saw here and nowhere else, so it was definitely worth the effort. 

Black-throated Green Warbler

Mayan Ant-Thrush

Unknown snake. Quite small, but we decided to keep our distance!

We walked around the site twice, with a break for lunch, and I also climbed one of the structures to admire the view, which is basically uninterrupted jungle for as far as the eye can see. These temples are much steeper than they seem, so take care! The ruins are almost unbelievable when you think about it, and there are hundreds of sites across the peninsula. Calakmul is probably one of the most impressive, and was all the better for having very few visitors due to the distance involved in getting there. We left the site mid-afternoon and birded our way back up the entrance road, adding new species all the way

We got to the Zotz Bat Cave at about 5.30pm. This is back east towards Xupjil from the Calakmul turning, and once again paid a small fee to park the car before walking up a small track to the rim. We were not the only people there! A few bats were skimming around but the main spectacle had yet to begin. We were here for the birds of course - the presence of so many bats also attracts raptors who have become adept at picking off single bats as they leave the cave at dusk. We watched a Collared Forest-Falcon do exactly that, whilst an eponymous Bat Falcon cruised overhead. Gradually the bats increase in number until they are spiralling out in an immense vortex so dense that you can barely see through it. Millions and millions of them pour out and head off to feed above the canopy. If you like bats this place is for you, quite extraordinary. We ate dinner at the hotel and made our reparations with the owner, who became quite cheerful and even gave us some tips for birding sites on our way back east. 

Collared Forest-Falcon. My 400mm lens does not have IS and it was nearly dark.....that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!

Sunday 25 June 2023

Yucatan - Day 1 - Tulum to Becan

It had taken a fair bit of time to get out of Cancun airport and collect the car, and then the drive south was also quite slow which meant we had reached Tulum after dark. The bird list I think stood at four, all seen at the Avis depot - Tropical Kingbird, Tropical Mockingbird, Great-tailed Grackle and Grey-breasted Martin. It was time to get started properly!

Ideally I had wanted to stay in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, but had decided - correctly - that it would be too much of a drive that first evening. As a result this meant an early start to get to the bottom of the Camino Vigia Chico which starts on the town's eastern edge. It was very easy to find, all of a sudden a wide urban street just stops, narrows, and then a single lane track heads into the forest. Fantastic! It had just got light, and we were in prime habitat. Our progress down the road was glacial as you might expect, stopping every time we heard calls, or saw movement. There were birds everywhere, but it was nonetheless extremely hard work to pin them down and get positive identification. In five hours we did not even reach 50 species, although we likely saw way more than that we were being quite strict, it was after all only day one and there was plenty of time. 

A Cenote at dawn. Full of frogs and no birds!

Before we left I had printed off a number of eBird checklists for the main sites we were planning on birding, and actually we managed to find a lot of the good stuff that I had been hoping for, including Black CatbirdYucatan Woodpecker, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Orange Oriole and Rose-throated Tanager. There were also good numbers of American Wood Warblers, I am not if they were wintering here on already on their way back and the Yucatan was just a stop-over. It lent a bit of familarity to the proceedings at any rate. The full checklist is here for those interested. I am not entirely how far we got down the track, certainly only a small amount, but the habitat seems very uniform so driving the whole thing seemed unnecessary. In any event we had a very long way to go that day, so even by staying here all morning we were probably already behind schedule. I should also mention that this was a birding trip first and foremost, with photography a distant second, as is almost always the case when visiting an area for the first time. The really big lenses had been left behind and I used what I affectionately call my toy camera to try and photography birds for identification purposes. This is why they are terrible.

Roadside Hawk, a very common raptor

Rose-throated Tanager, a Yucatan endemic

Gartered Trogon

We stopped briefly at Laguna Noh-Bec, but this was vast, and in the middle of the day, very quiet, so we decided to get a few miles behind us until it cooled down. This took us to the Santa Elena border crossing to Belize at Subteniente Lopez, where we hoped to be able to walk across and get a country tick. No dice. There are two bridges and we were turned back at the first as this was apparently one-way, for people crossing into Mexico from Belize. Instead we were directed to the larger bridge but this was for vehicle traffic only and we couldn't take our hire car across. What you can do if you have the time is do it via taxi, but that was too much of a hassle. I made sure to tick a few birds that were definitely on the far side of the Hondo river, and we left it at that and went birding along the shore at Chetamul instead where we added things like Brown Jay, Grey Plover, Magnificent Frigatebird, Neotropic Cormorant and Great Blue Heron. As we left the town just before dark for the final leg of our journey a Ringed Kingfisher flew over the car, our 62nd and final bird of the day. The drive to Rio Bec Dreams at Becan was uneventful and we ate somewhere along the way at another truck stop. Straight to bed as we needed another early start to make the access road to Calakmul first thing.

Roadside tacos

Rio Bec Dreams hotel in Becan

Thursday 22 June 2023

Mexico - The South-eastern Yucatan - Logistics and itinerary

South-eastern Yucatan Peninsula, 25th February - 2nd March 2023
Fancy a bit of winter sunshine and some easy neotropical birding? Mexico has the answer. Fly to Cancun and then get it in your rear view mirror as soon as you possibly can. Frankly Cancun and its vast "strip", extending for over 100km without a break, Playa this and Playa that, is the kind of place I absolutely detest. However it's enduring popularity with the all-inclusive zero taste brigade means that there are frequent and inexpensive flights as well as cheap car hire. Provided you are prepared to drive for a bit you can largely avoid this excess. Sign me up.

I planned this trip myself, Mick as ever my birding buddy. I booked a holiday package with a car, and then developed an itinerary with Calakmul as the furthest point south. Much of the Yucutan is a concrete jungle or behind high walls, the rest is impenetrable. Mayan Ruins are the key to getting into the prime habitat as they often have access roads penetrating deep into the jungle. Calakmul is extremely remote, the access road is some 60km long and gets you pretty close to the Guatemala border, and the very fact that it is such a trek (>8 hours from Cancun) means that few people visit. We took a day to get down there, spent a day at the ruins, and then took two days to get back, birding all the way. 

Had we had an extra day I would have been tempted to return to Cancun via Merida in order to visit different habitat in the west and the north of the Yucatan, but it just felt like too much driving in the time we had. A good excuse to go back and head west to Rio Lagartos and Chichen-Itza, and possibly spend a day on Cozumel for the endemics on the way back.

It was a great trip, we saw over 150 species including most of the available endemics like Ocellated Turkey and Yucatan Jay. Most of the time we were birding completely alone, and we experienced no hassles whatsoever. Great weather, nice food, easy access to birding sites and good accomodation, what's not to like? 

  • A five day trip in late February
  • Flights: from Gatwick to Cancun on British Airways.
  • Covid logistics: Like many countries, Mexico had removed all restrictions at the time of travel.
  • Car Hire: Avis as part of a package. Can't remember the model, but a regular car rather than a 4x4, which is not necessary.
  • Driving: No hassle, for the most part decent roads and we were cautious with speed limits and did not fall foul of any of the well-documented petrol station scams around the major settlements.
  • Accommodation: All booked in advance, there are tons of options south of Cancun, but beyond Tulum it becomes a little scarcer.
  • Food: Very straightforward. Cheap and mostly good, we mainly ate at truck stops outside the towns. Don't eat from the chicken guy opposite Muyil....
  • Literature: The Birds of Mexico and Adjacent Areas, 3rd Edition, E P Edwards & E M Butler (Corrie Herring Books),  eBird. 

Day 0: Arrived in Cancun late afternoon and drove south to a hotel in Tulum, about 2 hours / 130km. No birding.
Day 1: Early start to Felipe Carrillo Puerte to bird the famous Camino Vigia Chico that cuts diagonally NE into the Sian Ka'an Bisosphere. Afternoon drive to Xpujil via Chetamul for a failed attempt at Belize. Overnight just west of Xpujil at Becan.
Day 2: Early start to get to Calakmul as it opened. All day birding the ruins and the lengthy access road. Dusk stop at the famous Zotz (Murcielagos) Bat Cave. Overnight Becan again.
Day 3: Early morning at Hormiguero Ruins, south of Xpujil. Birding the main road east to Kohunlich, some time around those ruins, and then up to Buenavista where we stopped overnight.
Day 4: Morning at Buenavista and Bacalar, afternoon along the Camino Vigia Chico again. Overnight at Tulum.
Day 5: Morning at Muyil ruins south of Tulum, then slowly birded north back to Cancun attempting to access the coast whenever we could (very hard!). Early evening flight back to London.

Monday 19 June 2023


I have been reading lots of reports of a general dearth of birds. Low breeding numbers, low passage numbers, a precipitous decline in inverts. I exepect the story to be similar here, the numbers telling a familiar tale. I'll leave that to others - our local eBird statistican James can run a variety of fancy stats based on our collective records, and the breeding bird survey organised by Tim is nearing completion. My sense is that on both fronts we have been struggling though, and although migration seemed to be delayed the dog days of summer seemed to arrive early. A squeeze on all sides. 

What I can reveal at this particular juncture is that my local patch yearlist is bang on average at 98. That is data going back to 2009 - by the end of June my average list is 98. Last year I reached 99, and although there are still a couple of weeks left I'd need a dozen more birds to shift that average. So business as usual really and 2021, the second year of COVID, was truly an exception. 

It is a familiar tale. Since my last update, nearly five weeks ago (remember, blogging is dead), I've added just five new birds. Oystercatcher was a jammy midnight bird heard as I staggered home from an evening out. I was fully planning on leaving it off until the following day Bob told us all he'd recorded it overnight. Despite my wayward staggering I had managed to submit an eBird checklist for Tawny Owl that I had heard quite clearly, and shortly before or after that I fancied I'd heard an Oyc - the time on that was a few minutes past midnight. When, pray tell, had Bob's microphone picked it up? A few minutes past midnight, in fact within two minutes of what my phone had said it was. Too good to be true? Some local competitors may very well think so. Me? I added it immediately!

This level of jam has continued in a muted kind of way. An uninspiring early morning vizmig session on the Flats the following morning produced almost no migrants but a Shelduck flew over as we were seeing nothing. This is at best an annual bird for most of us, and many years I don't get one at all. The best was yet to come though - two weekends ago Nick found a Corn Bunting at the Vizmig point which I very nearly missed. I had been pruning a tree that had been excessivly shading my greenhouse and had left my phone at ground level and missed all his messages. Exhausted after many hours of toil I had just collapsed into a chair with a beverage when a final one came through from Tony that the Corn Bunting was still present? CORN BUNTING?!!! Whaaaaaaat? I dashed over to get it flying around and briefly perched before it took off once again and this time disappeared into the distance. I missed a Corn Bunting by very fine margins a few years ago, so what a relief this was to claw back. But good grief it was a close run thing. Imagine how gutted I would have been! I might have gone home and felled the entire tree... Common Tern, an increasingly reliable summer visitor, got added the following weekend and then the weekend just gone I finally managed to bag a Kingfisher - a resident bird that somehow I had not really put the effort into up until now. 

And then finally I have added a supressed bird from March to get to 98. Some readers will perhaps remember that a couple of years ago a Black-necked Grebe arrived to general astonishment on Wanstead Flats. The first since the early 1980s, it stunned us all by staying for months. The following year it came back again, also for months, and then on the 29th March this year it came back yet again, only this time it brought a friend. Wanstead Flats is of course manifestly unsuited to breeding Black-necked Grebes, but we thought we had best give them the best possible chance and so a news blackout ensued. Sorry about that. For a while they both seemed happy enough, feeding together, the odd bit of display, and we wondered whether against the odds something might occur? Sadly it was not to be as one day Mrs Grebe disappeared. We heard frequent plaintive noises coming from the carr, roughly translated from Grebish as "Why hast thou forsaken me?", and then one day in about mid-May the male disappeared too, perhaps to Walthamstow as a bird appeared there at roughly the same time. It returned after a while but this was short-lived. At the end of the month Jim found it on the bank looking beaten up, and although a rescue was performed the bird died at the shelter overnight. I think we can safely say that a fourth year isn't on the cards.

A sad ending

Anyway that's my local upate for the last few weeks, and I doubt that you'll be hearing much more from me on it for at least another month now. That will take us to mid July, which is when return wader passage kicks off. That is always fun, especially if you try and stay awake all night and hear nothing, and then the following night you don't bother and your nocmig gear hits it out of the park. So instead of local news I have grand plans to catch up on a few trips I've been on. Whether I actually put pen to paper remains to be seen, but at least I'm considering it.

Friday 2 June 2023

A new medium

Among my many middle-aged interests like gardening and birds you will also find wine. This sits well with my carefully cultured image as a down-with-the-kids cool as they come dude. Oh yes. 


What can I say? It has many of the things that the other hobbies have - lists and collecting, and the opportunity to be hugely boring. But also to write. Now although I know a fair bit, largely gained from, err, first hand experience, I am by no means expert enough to be a wine critic. But the beauty of the internet is that anyone can have a go, and so for the last few years I have. I do take it quite seriously, in fact increasingly so, and every bottle I open is opened for a reason, more often than not to pair with a meal (though sometimes the weather is a consideration). Every sip taken is considered and I frequently take notes, less so at home but definitely when I am at a formal tasting or dinner. Yep, I do that too I'm afraid. In other words my typical all or nothing OTT approach to any hobby. And like many of my hobbies there is a way to make sense of it all online.... 

Much like there is eBird for birds, there is citizen-led app for wine. It is called CellarTracker. Ostensibly it was created so as to do exactly what it is called, to allow wine enthusiasts to keep track of what is in their cellars. I know this sounds odd, as I expect many people have a small wine rack on their kitchen counter that holds perhaps six bottles, but a wine buff - which I am proud to be - will likely have a few more than this. I've been buying wine since the mid 1990s, some of which I still have, and keeping track of approaching 30 years of ins and outs is a complicated business. It isn't all on the counter. Like all my endeavours it started with a spreadsheet of my own making, but just like the one for birds it ended up being far too ambitious, and so I found myself using CellarTracker. When you buy a bottle of wine, or indeed a case, you enter it onto this website which is basically an enourmous database with a friendly interface. Once listed you can keep track of what you have and where it is stored, what you paid for it versus what it is now worth, as well as the ideal drinking dates. And best of all you can read what other people who have the same bottle as you thought of it when they drank it. Was it ready? Was it past its best? Was it amazing, or was it abominable? All palates differ, but there are hundreds of thousands of users and it is likely that a concensus will emerge. And the best part? You too can contribute. And I do.


When you drink a bottle, or even just taste a glass from a bottle, you have the ability to let the world know what you thought of it - the amateur armchair critic is let loose into the wine drinking world. Well you know how much I like drinking writing. Oh boy. To date I have written some 750 tasting notes, probably starting in earnest in around when lockdown kicked in. The format is whatever you want it to be, but it is essential that your language be floral and over the top, that you talk about minerality and acidity, and that you sprinkle your paragraphs with words like "citrus", "verve", "round" and so on. You can see why I like this. And do you know what? People read this stuff! I wrote a one line review of a bottle of Champagne that went:

"Did I waste this on Kir Royales? Yes, yes I did. Delicious."

To be fair this is an atypical review that does not really cut the mustard in terms of imparting descriptive wisdom and instead is merely flippant, a style I do well, but nonetheless 6000 people read it. 6000! Here is a more typical one regarding a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape:

"Medium dark red, some translucency. Initial funk needed to blow off, thereafter wonderful nose of fruit such as black cherry, and that je ne sais quoi smell unique to wines of the south. Sunshine I think, extremely inviting. A round feel in the mouth, rolling fruit, swish of menthol, much garrigue, a very typical chateauneuf, even I could blind taste this and get it right. Lip-smackingly moreish. Excellent balance, tannic structure perfectly in tune with fruit still in 2021, smooth and lasting. Can go on. Decanted 2 hours."

Some 1600 people read this. To put this into context, most blog posts I write garner around 100-200 hits. The most "successful" see perhaps 1000 clicks, but there are not many of those, under ten in all the years that I have been doing it. And of course writing a blog post is a time-consuming exercise. Whilst it is true that some can be bashed out in a matter of minutes, the vasy majority take far longer than that. I cannot recall ever spending more than five minutes writing up some tasting notes for a bottle of wine. In terms of connecting with people for almost zero effort there is simply no contest.

I suppose it is like all written media at the moment. Short and snappy is the name of the game, long and windy is history. I am expecting the call from Decanter any day now, but in the event that doesn't happen I am quite content to keep bashing out these small paragraphs for free.