Yucatan Jays, Calakmul
“…cutting across my consciousness came the raucous cries of parakeets in the trees along the river. It was precisely at that moment that I fully realized for the first time that we were really in Mexico.” Wild America Chapter 18, “South of the Border”
Birders are obsessed with the tropics. Dazzling tanagers, bizarre antbirds, and a confusing array of olive/yellow flycatchers inspire the mind of the birder who has exhausted their supply of new North American birds. Peruse the archives of any serious birdblog, and you’ll eventually hit a multi-post, breathless, and generally uninteresting-except-for-the-photos account of a trip to Somewhere South.
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Felipe Carillo Puerto
I’ve wanted to bird south of the border for as long as I can remember; this dream’s conception I know not. Perhaps it was my young exposure to The Life of Birds, narrated by the ever-classy David Attenborough. Later, when I was perhaps twelve, I swooned over the Mexico chapter of Wild America. Fisher and Peterson, those two great gentlemen naturalists, wrote of guzzling Coca-Cola while chasing tropical butterflies and marveling over dozens of new bird species.
I could do nothing but wait. My family was not the type to take ziplining vacations in Costa Rica. In high school, I switched to Spanish from German for the express purpose of traveling Latin America. Via blogs and Facebook I watched my peers venture to the tropics for the first time and felt no small amount of jealousy.
Spider Monkey, Calakmul
I finally made my first trip. For the past couple years, my friend Joel Betts and I have periodically dreamed about traveling together to Latin America. Joel wouldn’t really describe himself as a birder, but he’s a biologist with strong interests in tropical ecosystems. I gave him my battered Sibley guide a couple years ago, and he recently acquired his own binoculars, so I would say that he is well along the way to becoming an avian addict.
Rather than bore you with a day-by-day account listing each bird we found at each antswarm, I’ll share ten lessons I learned from my first expedition to the tropics. And photos, of course, since that’s probably all you will look at anyway.
Pale-billed Woodpecker, Calakmul
1. Learn the calls.
Birds are hard to see. Now, imagine that you are standing on a dirt road through a tropical forest, peering into an impenetrable wall of vines, trying to spot that something rustling in the shadows. Now—imagine that this unseen bird sings—a beautiful cascading whistle, a song that is surely diagnostic…but, you don’t know vocalizations, so you’ll never know what it is. Bummer dude.
That was me in Mexico. I knew it was important to study up on vocalizations before the trip. And I did—a little. But it would be well worth spending hours on Xeno-Canto ahead of time. That way, you can say, “Hey! That was a Stub-tailed Spadebill! Let’s find it!” instead of “Hmm, don’t know that one either…it sounds interesting though…”
Mottled Owls, Calakmul
2. Bring your scope.
The scope and tripod, wonderful innovations. Scopes mock distance and dismiss doubt—and, perhaps best of all, transform mediocre views into great ones. Foolishly I left my scope standing lonely in my bedroom in an effort to lighten my pack.
I regretted it. Several taxonomic groups—pigeons and parrots, especially—killed us. Accoutered only with binoculars, it’s hard to identify a Scaly Pigeon when it’s sitting on a snag a quarter-mile away. And, heck—a Keel-billed Toucan is unmistakable, but imagine a view of one at 45x at 200 feet.
View from Estructura II, Calakmul
3. You don’t have to spend lots of money!
Travel is a luxury and costs money—and quite a bit of it! But, fortunately, travel is cheaper if one foregoes the dine-on-the-beach resorts. Indeed, food and accommodation is much cheaper in Mexico than in the States. Joel and I partook of few luxuries and spent less than $900 on the trip (including airfare).
Summer Tanager, Isla Cozumel
4. If you wear glasses, get Lasik.
It’s humid and rainy. Those flycatchers of varying shades of olive and yellow will coalesce even more as your glasses smudge. Camping doesn’t help, either…
Eye-ringed Flatbill, Felipe Carillo Puerto
5. Learn more Spanish.
I started taking Spanish in high school. In college, I studied in Spain and even freakin’ graduated with a B.A. in Spanish. I still felt lost a lot of the time. The more Spanish you know, the better. It will help you decipher road signs, ask locals about birding locations, and help you understand why those policemen with automatic rifles are rifling through your trunk…
Black-headed Trogon, Felipe Carillo Puerto
6. Keep a journal.
Yes, take pictures and enter eBird lists. But keep a journal, too. Write down the ridiculous things your travel buddy says. You’ll thank yourself.
7. Be careful what you eat and drink…but not too careful!
Joel and I are both strong-stomached, so we dined in a more cavalier fashion than is perhaps advisable. But don’t be afraid patronize hole-in-the-wall restaurants or street vendors, as long as everything looks fresh! Our only dietary indiscretion occurred when we ate some long-expired canned vegetables from a sleepy corner store.
Barred Forest-Falcon, Calakmul
Tap water is not safe. Drink bottled water or bottled drinks. (Following in the footsteps of Peterson and Fisher, we enjoyed many a Coca-Cola). For water, we eventually secured a 5-gallon garrafon, which, once empty, can be exchanged for a full at any convenience store for a couple bucks.
Lesser Roadrunner, Rio Lagartos
8. Prepare to barter.
Here in America, I am accustomed to paying a set price for goods or services. Want a latte? $3.99, no questions asked. But, in Mexico, the guy selling avocados on the side of the road wants to maximize his profits, so he’ll tell some gringos that three avocados cost 50 pesos when they could be bought for half the price elsewhere.
Royal Tern, Rio Lagartos
9. Don’t forget about Neotropical migrants.
If I got a dollar for every Magnolia Warbler I saw in Mexico, I would have been able to fully fund the trip without dipping into my savings. At times, it felt like we were birding back in Michigan: “Joel! There’s a Northern Parula! Next to the Black-throated Green—whoops, it dropped down near the redstart—oh! Just heard a Great Crested Flycatcher!”
Common Black-Hawk, Rio Lagartos
It was super cool to see these old friends on their winter haunts—and fun to wonder if some of those warblers were the same individuals that we’d seen in migration or on their breeding grounds up North. If you’re feeling a bit rusty on your warblers, be sure to study!
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (and sea turtle), Las Colorados
10. Have a good attitude.
Deep in the jungle, a van, and gathered around it, a gaggle of white people! “Must be birders…tour group I bet,” I said. Joel, blissfully unaware of the dark side of birding culture, eagerly pulled off to the side of the road so we could engage them in conversation. I winced, knowing that the exchange would be awkward at best.
“Hi, anything good?” I hailed.
A chorus of unenthusiastic hellos. “Well, ah, it’s been really slow, actually,” said the leader. “A Rose-throated Tanager down the road. Couple Yucatan Flycatchers. But slow.”
“Ah, bummer,” I responded. “We’ve pretty much just had the usuals, too.”
We waited alongside them for a few awkward minutes while they tried to call in a Green-backed Sparrow. Then they left.
“Wow, they were grumpy!” Joel said.
“Yeah, man, gotta keep up that cool birder façade,” I said.
“The usuals?!” he exclaimed. “We’ve seen dozens of new birds today.”
“I play the game too...but yeah, you’re right.”
On any birding trip, but especially your first foray to the tropics, enjoy the birds you see! Don’t fret over the Violaceous Trogon that you missed. You’ll never see every single species in a week.
American Flamingos, Rio Lagartos