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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The amazing birds of Yucatán’s lush jungle habitats

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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.

The Yucatán Peninsula is a truly wonderful place for birdwatching. The variety on display includes all kinds of sea birds, exotic parrots, raptors, and a solid dose of migratory species to keep things international. No, and I don’t mean those other snowbirds from New Jersey or Quebec.

Previously: Read more stories on Yucatán wildlife, including additional installments on this series

Sorry for the cheesy dad joke, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. 

In last week’s installment, we admired and learned about some of Yucatán’s most beautiful birds, including flamingos, toucanets, and the majestic pajaro t’ho or mot mot. This week we kick things off with a species you are not likely to see every day unless of course, you live deep in the jungle.

Keel-billed toucan

In the wild, toucans eat a variety of foods including fruits, berries, lizands, rodents, and even small birds. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

These beautiful birds are immediately recognizable for their multi-color bills, bright yellow chests, and piercing eyes. Years ago, upon spotting one, a relative visiting from Canada exclaimed “My goddess, those are real? I thought they only existed on Fruit Loops boxes.” Toucans are fairly private and like to nest high up in tall trees, which can make them a bit difficult to spot unless you are really paying attention. Due to habitat loss and because they are extremely valuable on the black market, the keel-billed Toucan of southeastern Mexico is considered an endangered species. If you get very lucky they can be spotted in the jungles surrounding Valladolid. But your best bet is to take a trip to Calakmul national park, in the south of the Peninsula. 

Hummingbirds, or colibrís

To attract hummingbirds offer them a source of water, hang red feeders and plant brightly colored flowers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Hummingbirds are small, with most species measuring 7.5 – 13 cm in length. They are known for having the ability to fly in place by flapping their wings at a speed great enough to create vortices that allow them to remain airborne without forward momentum. They can be seen buzzing from flower to flower in gardens in the city, as well as in the wilds of the countryside. If you live in Mérida or anywhere else in the north of the Yucatán Peninsula, the species you are likely the best acquainted with is the Mexican sheartail.

Cormorants or cormoranes

A wet cormorant spreads its wing in order to dry faster in Celestún. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This prolific bird is found along the entire Gulf and Caribbean coasts of Mexico. Their diet consists mainly of fish, but will also eat tadpoles, frogs, and aquatic insects. They are great at fishing and are capable of gulping an entire good-sized fish at a time despite not being that large themselves. It is fascinating to observe but quite gruesome. They build their nests with sticks and grass a few meters above the ground or water. They are particularly easy to spot in Sisal, Celestun, and Telchac.

Barred forrest falcon or halcón montés

This particular forest falcon was relaxed enough to pose for photos and even allowed me to walk around him to get a few different angles. It was most considerate of him. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There are several species of falcons on the Yucatán peninsula, but one of the most striking is the barred forest falcon. Males have dark grey above with stripped tails and narrow bars. Their underwing coverts are white and barred with black and dark grey. Unlike most of their northern cousins, forest falcons do not build nests, but rather lay their eggs in tree cavities. They feed mostly on small birds and rodents. Their range in Mexico is limited to the south of the Yucatán Peninsula and coastal Veracruz.

Orioles or icterids

Orange oriole perched on a branch at Chichén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Most orioles in Yucatán are migratory species that visit Yucatán during the winter from the United States and Canada. For the most part, both sexes have either yellow or orange plumage, but the colors are much more vibrant in males of the species. They can be seen both in the city and countryside, but tend to stick close to sources of water and fruit trees. 

Ocellated turkey or pavo de monte

Ocellated turkeys may not look that scary, but don’t get too close or you may get a nasty surprise. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

These large birds live only on the Yucatán Peninsula and have feathers that are a mix of bronze, blue and iridescent green. Tail feathers of both sexes are bluish-grey with an eye-shaped, blue-bronze spot near the end with a bright gold tip. Their spots, or ocelli, for which they are named, cover the entirety of their blue head and neck. Although they do not look threatening you should really avoid sneaking up on an ocellated turkey, as their rear talons are quite dangerous and are more than capable of causing serious injury. 

Pelicans or pelicanos

A pelican skillfully dives for his lunch in Progreso, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

These large water birds make up the Pelecanidae family and are easily recognizable for their long beak and large throat pouch used for catching fish and draining saltwater. Pelicans travel in flocks and frequent inland and coastal waters, where they feed principally on fish, catching them at or near the water surface. Despite relying mostly on diving to catch their prey, pelicans are actually very strong swimmers thanks to their strong legs and webbed feet.  

Summer tanager or piranga rubra

If you find an injured bird, such as this summer tanager, carefully put it in a cardboard box with a lid or a towel over the top, and place in a cool, quiet and safe place. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

These migratory birds belong to the cardinal family, although sometimes they are grouped in with thraupidaes. Adults usually measure between 17 and 20 cm long. While males are completely red, females of the species are a shade of yellow-brown. They tend to stick to tropical jungles but do sometimes venture into town. Last year, during a storm the summer tanager in the photograph above was slammed into my girlfriend’s apartment in Cancun by a strong gust of wind. We took care of her, and fortunately, before too long she took flight once again. 

If you have not checked out last week’s entry, you can do so right here. Join us again next week for more amazing birds of Yucatán.

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