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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Amazing birds of Yucatán, from the adorable to the thieves

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

(Part 5 in a series. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 here.)

Birding in Yucatán is great all year round, but during these rainy summers things really come to life.

The rains the Peninsula has been experiencing over the past several weeks have brought out all sorts of birds. Last week after a heavy downpour, I counted 50 Yucatán jays frolicking around puddles in groups of five or so during my run in Fracc. Las Americás and those were just the ones I could see. Orioles, flycatchers, and tho’s were all out getting in on the action too. 

Male Yucatán jays can be differentiated from females by their distinctive yellow beak and eye rings, both being completely black in females of the species. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Unless you are dealing with a particularly nasty storm system, rain in Yucatán tends to pour down during the afternoon, which is perfect since by the time they calm down the temperature usually drops considerably, making going out for walks much more comfortable. So next time it starts to drizzle, get your binoculars or camera ready and prepare to set out.

Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to eight more Amazing birds of Yucatán, from the relatively rare but oh-so colorful orange-breasted bunting to the thieving magnificent frigatebird.

Orange-breasted bunting or colorín pecho naranja

Orange-breasted buntings can often be seen feeding on roadside grasses. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This beautiful small bunting of the lowland and foothills of Mexico can be found on weedy fields and open grassy areas. Males are unmistakable with electric turquoise blue and green above. Their chest is a bright yellow with hints of orange. They also have a bright yellow ring around their eyes. Females are much duller and tend to be greenish above and yellow below with a bluish tail. Adults of both sexes tend to be around 12 centimeters long. They are not very common on the Yucatán Peninsula, so if you do spot one of these colorful birds make sure to snap several photos. 

Black-necked stilt or cigueñuela cuello negro

Black-neck stilts can be spotted fairly easily along the entire coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in groups ranging from around five to twenty birds. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This shorebird is abundant along the coasts of much of the Gulf of Mexico but can be found as far south as Costa Rica. They are easily identified by their extremely long pink legs and thin black bill. The tail is white with gray bands. The “black-necked” part of their name comes from a continuous dark area extending from the head, all the way to the tip of their tails and virtually the entire wing. Both sexes are fairly similar, but immature specimens have black speckles on their backs. They are foragers and feed mostly on aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, and mollusks, as well as insects and their larvae.

Yellow grosbeak or picogrueso amarillo

Although many birds are cataloged as grosbeaks, most are of different species and are not closely related. Grosbeaks can be observed in members of the cardinal family, as well as finches, tanagers, and weavers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

A member of the cardinal family, this medium-sized seed-eating bird has a range from western Mexico to Guatemala. I myself have only spotted them on a handful of occasions, all of which have been in southern Quintana Roo. They are sometimes mistaken for orioles, but upon closer inspection can be easily differentiated since orioles have much narrower bills. Males have bright yellow bodies and black wings accented with white markings. Females and immature males are similar but less bright in color and with streaked olive underparts. 

Reddish egret or garceta rojiza

Although you may think that the reddish egret would always be red in color, white and dark color variants, or morphs, are extremely common. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This reddish egret can be seen along the Gulf coasts of the United States, Mexico, as well as much of Central America. Because of its distinctive red feathers, this species has been heavily hunted and is now considered threatened. Being up to 82 centimeters in length and with a wingspan of 125 cm, it is larger than most other egrets but considerably smaller than the great egret. They are extremely active and can often be seen on the move, stalking their prey visually in shallow water. It feeds mostly on fish, frogs, crustaceans, and insects. 

Yellow-winged tanager or tangara aliamarilla

The yellow-winged tanager often forms flocks of 50 or more members. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This chirping tanager is most easily identified by the yellow patches on its blackish wings or lavender gray head. They can be found across the Yucatán Peninsula, Chiapas, and as far south as Nicaragua. Their habitat consists mostly of humid forests and jungles but is also often seen in orchards and plantations. It feeds on fruit, insects, and nectar and has a high and sibilant call.

Mangrove swallow or golondrina de manglar

When not in flight the mangrove swallow can often be seen perching on branches protruding from mangroves or shallow waters. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This non-migratory bird can be found on the coasts of Mexico, all the way down south to Peru. On average they tend to be around 13 centimeters long and weigh 14 grams. They have small black beaks, white torsos and are dark on most of their upper body, wings, and most of their tail. Females are similar but a little duller, while immature specimens have more of a brownish hint to them. They feed mostly on insects such as bees and dragonflies. When hunting they tend to fly low, near the water’s surface.

Black-bellied whistling duck, suirirí piquirrojo or pijije

As the name implies, the black-bellied whistling duck’s call is a clear whistling waa-chooo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Known in Yucatán as the pijije, the black-bellied whistling duck can be found from the southern United States to south-central South America. This mid-sized waterfowl species averages in length between 47 to 56 centimeters and has a wingspan of up to nearly a meter. As its name in Spanish suggests, it has a long red bill. They also have a pale gray head with a chestnut brown neck and cap. Their wings are white, but this is only really obvious when seen in flight. Males and females look very much alike, but juveniles have a gray bill and a less contrasting belly. The black-bellied whistling duck is quite tame, even in the wild.

Magnificent frigatebird, man o’ war or fragata real

The magnificent frigatebird sometimes forces food away from other birds in a practice known as kleptoparasitism. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This seabird is the largest species of the frigatebird family has a length of up to 1.4 meters and a massive wingspan of up to 2.4 meters. It can be found between northern Mexico and South America. Populations have also been identified on the Galápagos Islands in the Pacific and the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic. It has brownish-black plumage, long narrow wings, and a deeply forked tail that is easy to spot, especially when in flight. The male has a striking red gular sac which he inflates to attract a mate. The female is slightly larger than the male and has a white breast and belly. They feed mostly on fish taken in flight from the ocean’s surface. They are also known to occasionally swipe food from other birds.

Previously: For more amazing birds of Yucatán, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this special series.

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