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Monday, December 5, 2022

Yucatán’s amazing birds and where to find them

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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.

Birding in Yucatán is wonderful all year, but especially during the rainy season, and it shows! The heavy rains of the past few days have been wonderful for our feathered friends who are now out in force strutting their stuff. So dust off your binoculars or camera and get out there to enjoy these magnificent creatures.

The mot mot or pajaro t’ho

Multi colored t’ho (mot mot) taking shade under a tree in the city that gave it its name. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The mot mot or t’ho is without a doubt one of the region’s most beloved birds. They are in fact best known by Mérida’s ancient Maya name, Ichcansihó, or t’ho for short. They are usually seen in the countryside but can be spotted within city limits, especially in areas with plentiful vegetation. However, their favorite spots are near the mouths of caves and cenotes. Unlike most bird species in which only males have elaborate traits, the t’ho has a gorgeous long racketed tail in both sexes.


The best way to see flamingos in large numbers is to take a boat tour around the mangroves of Yucatán’s coast. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Well, this one should come as no surprise. Along with the noble t’ho, flamingos are Yucatán’s most beloved bird. They can be seen in Celestún, Sisal, and Río Lagartos in great numbers, but smaller groups can also be seen around Progreso and Telchac. You may have heard that flamingos get their bright pink color from eating a small variety of shrimp. In reality that is not exactly the case. Flamingos and shrimp both get their color from eating algae that contain carotenoid pigments. Because they have not yet absorbed the pigmentation, flamingos are born white.

Keel-billed toucan

In the wild, toucans eat a variety of foods including fruits, berries, lizards, 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. 

Scarlet macaw or Guacamaya bandera

The wingspan of the scarlet macaw is about 3 feet and a grand sight to behold. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Scarlet macaws are a red, yellow, and blue parrot found in Central and South America, as well as in several Mexican states including Campeche, Chiapas, and Tabasco. They are quite large, averaging 81 centimeters, and have a pointed, graduated tail. Their plumage is mostly scarlet, but the rump and tail covers are a light blue. The undersides of the wing and tail feathers are a dark red, though some individuals may have green in the wings also. They have bare white skin around their eyes which are light yellow in adults and dark in juveniles. They are prized for their great beauty, which also makes them a target for poachers. All species of Macaw are monogamous and extremely long-lived, with some specimens making it well into their 70s.

Parrots or pericos

These green parrots belonging to the Amazonia family are usually seen in groups of three to five, but sometimes travel in larger flocks of up to 12. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Parrots are native to the Yucatán Peninsula but were rarely seen in Mérida until a couple of decades ago. The generally accepted explanation for their return to the city is that a small group of them broke free from captivity during a series of hurricanes. Since then, these birds — recognizable for their green bodies, yellow beaks, and loud squawking — have delighted residents of neighborhoods such as García Ginerés and Pensiones. Want to see partos in your Mérida yard? Lure them in with fruit trees. They are especially keen on mangos. 

Flycatchers or x’takay

Because of the black stripe that runs across their head, many people refer to social flycatchers, bandidos, or bandits. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There are several species of flycatchers in Yucatán including the great crested and yellow-bellied varieties, but perhaps the most beautiful is the social flycatcher. As their name suggests, they feed primarily on insects but also enjoy munching on fruit. Their bellies are bright yellow and males have a black crown with a strong white eye stripe. They can often be spotted in the city, especially during the wee hours of the morning.

Yucatán woodpecker

Because of all that pecking, woodpeckers have reinforced skulls structured to spread the impact force. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There are 11 species of woodpeckers in Yucatán, but the most common is called Melanerpes aurifrons. Like their cousins around the world, woodpeckers in Yucatán belong to a family called picidaw that also includes piculets and sapsuckers. They are known for having strong beaks which they use to forage for insect prey on the trunks of branches and trees. They communicate by drumming with their beak and creating a quick-paced knocking sound that can be heard across long distances. The Yucatán woodpecker has a white-and-black striped back and of course, a red crown. 

Herons/egrets or garzas

Herons and egrets are among the most graceful birds in Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

These elegant birds can be found mostly along the coast at or near large bodies of water such as Río Lagartos, Celestún or even in Mérida at the city’s aquaparque in the Vergel neighborhood. Species found in Yucatán include the snowy variety, the great blue, the red, and much rarer tiger heron. Though herons and egrets can look similar, the difference between them is their size. Most often the egrets are smaller birds in comparison to herons. But there are also a few breeds of egrets that are larger than the herons.

Toucanetes or tucanetos

If you want to see toucanets in Yucatán, your best bet is to spend the night on the outskirts of Valladolid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Despite what many believe, toucanets are not baby toucans, though they are related. Sadly, they do not really venture into cities and can be hard to spot unless you live deep in the countryside. They are shy but are likely to stay around for a while if your property happens to have their favorite treat, wild papaya. Yucatán has two species, the turquoise and multi-colored toucanet — which is a reddish-brown. 

Yucatán jay or chara yucateca

Yucatán jays have bright yellow beaks for the first year of their lives, but then turn to black once they have matured. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like crows and other jays, the Yucatán jay belongs to the Corvidae family. They are abundant on the peninsula and can be easily spotted because of their bright blue plumage, even from quite a distance. They have black heads and yellow circles around their eyes. They can be seen in the city, but rarely venture too deep into town as they prefer wooded areas. Along with mot mots, they are the best part of my early morning runs in Fraccionamiento las Américas. 

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

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. 

Red-winged blackbird or tordo sargento

Male red-winged blackbirds tend to be stocky and broad. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

I had always associated the red-winged blackbird with southern Ontario and Canada’s maritime provinces, where they are commonly known as robbins. Then not too long ago I spotted one near my home in northern Mérida and was sure my mind was playing tricks on me. I snapped a few photos, went home, and confirmed that yes, much like I do, this bird calls both Canada and Yucatán home. The bird’s name is taken from the male’s black plumage, which is accented by a red spot on the wing, bordered by a yellow band. Females of the species look much different and are blackish-brown, paler below, and much smaller than their male counterparts. 

Northern Jacana or jacana centroamericana

Because it sometimes appears to be walking on water, the Northern Jacana is sometimes nicknamed the Jesus bird. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This slender bird can be found on marshes and has extremely long toes for walking on floating plants. They feed mostly on mollusks, small fish, insects, and aquatic seeds. The northern jacana has a dark brown body with a black head and neck. In addition, its bill has yellow patches and its forehead has a yellow wattle. Females of the species are around twice the size of males and average 145 grams. Chicks tend to be covered with paters of orange, brown, black, and some white. 

Montezuma Oropendola or zacua mayor

The Montezuma Oropendola is omnivorous, feeding primarily on arthropods and small vertebrates, but also consuming fruits and seeds. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This wonderful bird borrows its name from Aztec royalty and can be found in the thick jungles of southern Campeche and Quintana Roo, as well as Belize and Guatemala. It has a yellow and black tail, chestnut black wings, a bicolored bill, and pale cheek patches. This species is known for building large and elaborate hanging nests that can be up to 180 centimeters long. The nests are made from woven fibers, sticks and are padded on the inside with moss or other soft organic materials.

Northern cardinal or cardenal rojo

If you want to attract cardinals to your garden, try putting out sunflower seeds in your bird feeder. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This bright red bird can be spotted all the way from Canada down to Guatemala and has recently been introduced to the Caribbean and Hawaii. Its habitat includes woodlands, shrublands, and wetlands, but is no stranger to gardens. Male cardinals are closely associated with the color red, but also have a distinctive black mask and perky crest. The male sings in a loud, clear whistle from the top of a tree or another high location to defend his territory. Females are a reddish olive color. Both sexes have a beak that is cone-shaped and strong. Cardinals are prized as pets in some regions, but their sale as caged birds was banned in the United States in the early 20th century. 

Squirrel cuckoo or cuco yardilla 

The squirrel cuckoo is plentiful in most of its range and is quite tolerant of human disturbance, as long as wooded land remains. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The squirrel cuckoo is a large species of cuckoo found in wooded habitats from northern Mexico to some areas of South America. This species gets its name from its habit of running along branches and leaping like a squirrel. It normally flies only short distances. There are a number of subspecies with plumage variations, the specimen in the photo here was photographed in Calakmul in southern Campeche. They have extremely long tails and feed on large insects such as cicadas, wasps. spiders and caterpillars — as well as the occasional small lizard. 

Muscovy duck or pato criollo

Muscovy ducks have been bred since pre-Columbian times and are heavier and less able to fly long distances than the wild subspecies. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Muscovy is a large duck native to the Americas. Larger males can be up to 76 centimeters long and weigh up to 7 kilograms, while females tend to be a good deal smaller. Muscovy ducks have long claws and a wide flat tail. The true Muscovy duck — from which domestic varieties originate — is black with white wing patches. They also have pronounced caruncles at the base of the bill and a low erectile crest of feathers. As for why exactly they are named after the Russian capital, there are several theories, but no one is quite sure. 

Snail kite or gavilán caracolero

Snail kites are often misidentified as eagles and are plentiful in the area surrounding Bacalar Lagoon in the southeast of Quintana Roo, near the Belize border. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The snail kite is a bird of prey and member of the Accipitridae family, which also includes eagles, hawks, and vultures. Females tend to be slightly larger than males, but both have a dark, deeply hooked beak which evolved to facilitate its eating of snails. Adult males have dark-gray plumage with darker flight feathers. Females have dark brown underparts and heavily streak pale underparts.

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.

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