Since a major part of the Yucatán Peninsula is still undeveloped and covered with trees and brush, it isn’t surprising to find exotic, rarely seen birds all across the landscape. The Mexican government is beginning to realize the great value in this natural treasure and is making efforts to protect nesting grounds.
In addition to the growing number of nature reserves, some of the best bird-watching locales are the archaeological zones. At dawn and dusk, when most of the visitors are absent, the trees that surround the ancient structures come alive with birdsong. Of all the ruins, Cobá—with its marshy-rimmed lakes, nearby cornfields, and relatively tall, humid forest—is a particularly good site for bird-watching.
One of the more impressive birds to look for here is the keel-billed toucan, often seen perched high on a bare limb in the early hours of the morning. Others include chachalacas (held in reverence by the Mayas), screeching parrots, and, occasionally, the ocellated turkey.
The wetlands along the Yucatán’s northern coast are shallow and murky, and bordered in many places by thick mangrove forests. The water content is unusually high in salt and other minerals—the ancient Maya gathered salt here, and several salt factories still operate.
A formidable habitat for most creatures, it’s ideal for Phoenicopterus ruber ruber—the American flamingo, the largest and pinkest of the world’s five flamingo species. Nearly 30,000 of the peculiar birds nest here, feeding on algae and other tiny organisms that thrive in the salty water. Flamingos are actually born white, but they turn pink from the carotene in the algae that they eat.
For years, flamingos nested only near Río Lagartos, near the peninsula’s northeastern tip. But in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert destroyed their nesting grounds—not to mention the town of Río Lagartos—and forced the birds to relocate. They are now found all along the north coast, including on Isla Holbox.
The best way to observe flamingos is on a boat tour at sunrise, when the birds are most active, turning their heads upside down and dragging their beaks along the bottom of the shallow water to suck in the mud that contains their food. (In the morning, you should see dozens of other birds, too, such as storks, herons, kingfishers, and eagles.) If you go in the spring, you may see the male flamingos performing their strange mating dance, craning their necks, clucking loudly, and generally strutting their stuff.
No matter when you go, make as little noise as possible and ask your guide to keep his distance. Flamingos are nervous and easily spooked into flying away en masse. While the exodus may be an impressive sight, it may cause the birds to abandon the site altogether.
Though the ancient Maya made abundant use of the dazzling quetzal feathers for ceremonial costumes and headdresses, they hunted other fowl for food; nevertheless, the quetzal is the only known bird from the pre-Columbian era and is now almost extinct. Today, they are still found (though rarely) in the high cloud forests of Chiapas and Central America, where they thrive on the constant moisture.
The Yucatán’s countless estuaries—also referred to as rías—play host to hundreds of bird species; a boat ride into one of them will give you an opportunity to see American flamingos, a variety of wintering ducks from North America, blue-winged teals, northern shovelers, and lesser scaups. You’ll also see a variety of wading birds feeding in the shallow waters, including numerous types of heron, snowy egret, and, in the summer, white ibis.
There are 14 species of birds endemic to the Yucatán Peninsula, including the ocellated turkey, Yucatán whippoorwill, Yucatán flycatcher, orange oriole, black catbird, and the yellow-lored parrot. Río Lagartos and Celestún are the best-known and most-visited estuaries, but those in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Isla Holbox, and Xcalak are also vibrant and reasonably accessible.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition