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Maine professor follows his flock to Yucatan for some winter bird watching

83 species spotted in a single morning at Rio Lagartos

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A college professor and his wife escaped Maine’s polar vortex in January to meet old friends on the Yucatan Peninsula.

“Our friends were feathered,” explains Herb Wilson, who teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College.

He recalled the trip in an essay published in the Portland Press Herald.

The pair went to Rio Lagartos, “a well-known birding hotspot” and fishing village best known for its flamingos.

They hired a guide, Diego Nunez, the proprietor of Rio Lagartos Birding Adventures as well as a restaurant and a small lodge.

The restaurant has 15 hummingbird feeders, where they spotted a ruby-throated hummingbird — the same species that summers in Maine. Over the next hour, they also encountered cinnamon hummingbirds, canivet’s emerald, white-breasted emerald and Mexican sheartails. “The sheartails were particularly striking with large orange spots on their tail feathers,” Wilson writes.

“As we watched the hummers, our backs were to the Rio Lagartos river. Imagine our delight when we turned and saw about 100 American flamingos across the river, settling into shallow water for the night. Spectacular,” Wilson recalls.

The next morning they began a five-hour bird excursion.

The first birds they found were wintering migrants: a pair of indigo buntings, a rose-breasted grosbeak, yellow warblers and common yellowthroats. Several vultures were flying overhead with their wings held in a shallow V. “No, not turkey vultures, which are easy to find in Maine these days, but lesser yellow-headed vultures, a new species for my wife as well as myself,” Wilson writes.

At a small pond, more feathered friends were spotted. Twenty blue-winged teal, 10 least sandpipers and two common gallinules. A sora called from the surrounding marsh but remained hidden. “But a larger rail, the russet-naped wood-rail, did give us superb views. Several long-toed northern jacanas were delightful,” he continues.

“A trip through a small farming community produced a couple of turquoise-browed motmots with electric green plumage and racket-shaped tail feathers. We definitely knew we weren’t in Maine,” Wilson writes. “Bronzed cowbirds and scrub euphonias, a type of finch, appeared as well. At one point five species of orioles were present at one site, a riot of yellow and orange.”

Birds endemic to the peninsula included Yucatan woodpecker, Yucatan flycatcher and Yucatan wren.

Nunez saved the best stops for last. At a couple of small embayments, they had views of flamingos and black-necked stilts from no more than 50 feet. A second stop along a mangrove stand held numerous roosting birds, including snowy egrets, great egrets, roseate spoonbills and a black-crowned night heron. The highlight was two boat-billed herons, similar to the black-crowned but with a massive bill, Wilson recalls.

“It was a great end to a truly satisfying morning of birding,” Wilson concludes, tallying 83 species in one morning trip.

And they will see some of them again when summertime returns to Maine.

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at whwilson@colby.edu. The entire article appears in the Portland Press Herald.

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