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Saturday, July 31, 2021

More amazing birds in Yucatán, from pheasants to the American robin’s southern cousin

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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 3 of a continuing series. See Part 1, and Part 2.

Every time you go outside in Yucatán, it’s an opportunity for birdwatching.

Whether you find yourself driving down the coast to Telchac or riding your bike on Paseo de Montejo, these feathered pals are all around us.

Or, sometimes you don’t have to be outside at all. I have lost count of how many species I have seen from my window while working at my computer.

Getting into birding can be a little daunting. Learning to tell the difference between somewhat similar species can be tricky, and even the most seasoned veterans often make mistakes. But don’t let that stop you. Keep an eye out for details such as beak type, eye color, plumage, and wingspan to help you get started. 

This week we kick things off with one of Yucatán’s most emblematic species.

Great curassow or hocofaisán

The great curassow is widely known in rural Yucatán by its Mayan name, kambul. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This species of pheasant is roughly the size of a small turkey and males can be easily identified by a bulbous yellow knob above their beak. They also have curly crests and yellow beaks. Females come in three color morphs, barred, black and rufous. They feed on fruit, insects, and small animals such as rodents. Great curassows are known for being monogamous, excellent forgers, and for nesting in trees. Pheasants were once so plentiful in Yucatán that the state became known as “the land of pheasants and deer.” Sadly, due to habitat loss and overhunting, just like deer, pheasant sightings in the wilds of Yucatán have become quite rare. 

Crested guan or pava/chachalaca crestada

The crested guan chachalaca is a social bird and generally lives in groups of up to 12. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like the great curassow, the crested guan is a game bird and a member of the Cracidae family. Both sexes are fairly similar in appearance with dark brown plumage accented by white spotting, as well as an area of bare skin around the eye, a bushy chest, and a long broad tail. They feed mainly on fruit and usually lay two eggs at a time which are incubated by the female. They are often confused for west Mexican chachalacas but can be differentiated by their larger bright red wattles — fleshy caruncle hanging from the neck — and white spotting. 

Blue gray tanager or tangara azuleja

Across Mexico, Central, and South America there are 14 recognized subspecies of blue-gray tanagers, differing according to color and hue of blue. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This beautiful little songbird can be seen in northern Yucatán and is easily recognizable by its blue-gray plumage. Both sexes are fairly similar, but immature specimens are of a much fuller color. Their song is a distinct restless squeaky twittering. The blue-gray tanager lives mainly on fruit, but will also take some nectar and insects. They are usually found in pairs but sometimes travel in larger groups. Fortunately for us, they thrive around human habitation and often hang out in gardens. If you would like to attract them it may be a good idea to cultivate their favorite fruit, papaya.

Black and white owl or búho carinegro

Lucky for us, the black and white owl is not afraid of living near human habitations and even in cities, if it can find a proper dwelling. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This species of owl is nocturnal but is most easily spotted sleeping high up on trees. They are medium-sized owls and measure 35-40 centimeters in length. As is the case for most owl species, females are usually slightly larger than males. Both sexes have a striped black and white breast, belly, and vent.  They are sooty black from their crowns all the way down to their tails. They have a yellow-orange beak and reddish-brown eyes, which you of course can’t see if they are sleeping. Chicks have white faces with brown upper parts and a white-barred black underside. 

Yucatán brown jay or chara papán

Brown jays are what you could call indiscriminate feeders: they will eat just about anything. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

These jays closely resemble magpies but are slightly smaller with shorter tails and larger bills. Immature birds have yellow bare parts including yellow eye-rings. They voice a loud but low-pitched pee-ah, which is often modified to suit its situation or mood. They feed on a wide range of invertebrates, but will also eat lizards, nectar, and fruit. 

Rose-breasted grosbeak or candelo tricolor

The rose-breasted grosbeak is likely to pay you a visit in your garden in northern Yucatán if you set up a couple of bird feeders. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Colloquially called “cut-throat” due to its color pattern around its neck, this grosbeak in the cardinal family feeds mostly on seeds. Males and females exhibit marked differences or sexual dimorphism. Males have blackheads, wings, backs, and tails with a bright red colored patch over a white breast. Females have a white stripe that runs behind their eyes and plumage made up of differing shades of brown and white.

Wood thrush or zorzalito maculado

There are several species of thrush in Noth America, but you will have to look closely to make out their differences as they are fairly similar. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The wood thrush is closely related to the American robin and can be found across North, Central, and South America. This prolific medium-sized thrush is omnivorous and feeds on worms, larvae, and fruit. It is solitary most of the time but can sometimes form mixed-species flocks. The wood thrush is famous for having one of the most beautiful songs of North American birds. The American naturalist, poet, philosopher, and essayist Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.”

Trogons or trogónidos

Many male species of the trogon family superficially resemble female quetzals. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like the famous Quetzal, trogons belong to the Trogonidae family. The most common species of trogon in Yucatán include citreoline and violaceus species. Trogons on the Yucatán Peninsula tend to be more plentiful in woodland habitats in the state of Quintana Roo. Trogons can sometimes also be spotted near the mouths of caves or cenotes. They build nests in trees and their nesting technique provides a critical role in creating necessary cavities for many organisms in tropical forests. Both species have white bands running across their body, separating their darker-colored heads and upper chests from their lower body. They have fairly long tails decorated with black bands of varying designs depending on species and sex. 

More birds of Yucatán: Check out Part 1, and Part 2 of this special series.

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