Planes Boats And Automobiles Make For Fun Birding In Mexico The Biggest Twitch

One of the early star birds of our Mexican adventure - Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Today's bird blog takes a look back at our first birding adventures in Mexico during The Biggest Twitch back in January 2008, Ruth picks up the tale...

I looked at my watch one more time. Where was he? The airline staff watched us with frustration. We’d been standing there for twenty minutes, why didn’t we just board the plane? At last, we shrugged and gave up the wait. It looked as though Michael wasn’t going to make it, we’d just have to try birding the Yucatan Peninsula on our own.

Boarding the plane, we were greeted by a smiling stewardess and turned to make the long walk down the aisle to our economy seats at the rear of the plane. And there he was. Michael Retter, as large as life, was sitting in the front row of the first class section, grinning broadly. “I was worried you guys had missed the flight,” he said as he relaxed back into his seat. No time to point out we’d been standing waiting for him outside the plane while he’d been sitting in comfort, as we were ushered back to our seats in cattle class, the last two passengers to board. Forty rows of eyes glared at us for having held them up.

Michael Retter works as a bird guide for Tropical Birding and knows Mexico, and especially the Yucatan Peninsula, like the back of his hand, so we knew we were in for a bird-filled time over the next few days. What a relief to see him, birding on our own for the first time in this area would have been tough. Reunited at Cancun baggage reclaim, Michael was at pains to point out that he had been upgraded as a result of being such a frequent traveller on that airline and that he wouldn’t be abandoning us again. In true Michael style, he would be there for us every step of the way, but when it comes to being upgraded, it’s every man for himself. It was going to take a lot more than bird guide camaraderie for him to come to the back and volunteer to eat stale turkey wraps with us.

Alan’s and my bags appeared first on the carousel and we loaded them onto a trolley. Then Michael’s luggage started to arrive: not one, not two, but three huge black bags were piled high onto a separate trolley. And we thought we were travelling with too much kit! What did he have in there? A dead body? The last remains perhaps of a birder who just couldn’t get onto the bird? No, nothing so dramatic, Michael was running two tours back-to-back in Mexico so he needed plenty of gear, and showed us how, Russian Doll-style, he’d loaded his field guides into a coolbox inside a black holdall. But over the next few days, boy did we curse the six pieces of check-in baggage, three day-sacks and two telescopes we hauled around.

First stop was the hire car desk, and here began the first of many painful relationships with hire car companies worldwide. At first, the computer said no. There was no booking in our name but luckily for us, Michael can speak fluent Spanish and wasn’t being fobbed off with this excuse. After much muttering and glaring at the computer they did produce a vehicle. To call it a car would be to over-state it. Our luggage and the three of us already filled the office to bursting point, so there was no way that we could compress ourselves into the toy car they were offering and we refused to budge. Even more muttering and stabbing at the keyboard followed until finally, a slightly larger vehicle was offered: a Dodge Attitude. Great name, we’ll take it! Next we had to try packing it, and as none of us was a Tetris expert, it took three attempts before we managed to fit in all the bags, three people and close all the doors, but eventually we managed it, and Michael headed out into the Cancun traffic. We thought our hire car problems were over.

Our first destination was the ferry terminal at Playa del Carmen, a few hours’ drive away. This was the jumping off point for the island of Cozumel, our final destination for the day. Having reached the town in the early evening, our first priority was to securely park the car where we could leave it for a day. Luckily as an old Mexico hand, Michael wasn’t at all fazed by the traffic and it didn’t take him long to track down a walled courtyard serving as a car park. Within minutes we’d paid the security guard and were staggering with our luggage along the busy streets towards the local ferry port. We joined the end of a long queue for the catamaran to San Miguel on Cozumel Island and settled down to wait.

Up until now, the weather hadn’t really brought itself to our attention, but standing waiting in line, we had plenty of time to study it. The sun was sinking below the horizon, making the heavy purple clouds seem particularly eerie and sinister. The wind was blowing sharply, whipping the waves up into rows of white crests. These hurled themselves against the wooden jetty and periodically, one would completely douse the pier in cold salty spray. Kitted out for birding, we wore fleeces and outdoor trousers so we didn’t find it cold, though the sun-kissed holidaymakers around us in shorts and strappy sandals began to shiver. Alan, a bad sailor who can feel queasy just watching ocean footage on the television, began to fidget nervously in anticipation of a rough crossing ahead. Complete darkness fell, and beyond the glare of the harbour buildings, we could only see the lurching lights of ships moored out to sea. At least we couldn’t see the rough waves any more but we could still hear the rising pitch of the wind. One set of lights detached itself and the outline of a large catamaran hove into view. Deckhands rushed out to catch the mooring ropes. It manoeuvred gingerly towards the jetty, lurching and swaying on the swelling waves but at the last minute the waves caught the boat off-balance and pushed it back out to sea. The dance began again and after several near misses the catamaran was finally pinioned tightly against the jetty, though it continued to buck against its moorings. The doors opened and the passengers burst out onto dry land gulping in the fresh air. Without exception, they all looked rough: haggard and green with seasickness as if they’d just got off the funfair ride from hell.

Then it was our turn and Alan’s stomach sank as we braced ourselves to leap across the gap onto the heaving catamaran. Below decks, the air was hot and stuffy and the distinctive acrid smell of vomit made it clear just how much the previous passengers had suffered. Keen to make up time, the crew quickly had us in our seats and closed the doors. Sick bags were handed out to every passenger and a cheery video of the sights on Cozumel Island started to play, though few passengers paid attention. Alan held my hand hard, curled up against me, his head on my shoulder, and closed his eyes to shut out the world. This was to become a familiar routine whenever we went to sea.

Anyone who has birded with Alan knows that he and boats do not get on. Whether he’s sailing over to the Scilly Isles off the south coast of Cornwall, or bouncing over the waves to Bardsey Island off the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, Alan will be seasick. It’s not a question of if, but when. For many years he has suffered crippling seasickness on even the shortest of boat rides until he discovered the miracle of ear patches. Peeled open and stuck on the skin behind the ear, these patches release chemicals into the bloodstream which counteract the imbalance caused by the sea’s motion. The result for Alan: no seasickness at all, even on a week-long birding trip around the Galapagos Islands.

But this time he’d not expected a boat trip, so no patches. Instead he had to hunker down and endure it as for an hour, the catamaran fought its way through the waves. Complete darkness and constant spray against the windows meant we had no idea which way the vessel would lurch next as we were tilted violently to the left and right, everybody’s head swaying in time to a silent tune. But even the longest hour does pass, and eventually Alan’s torture was over – he’d survived the crossing without being sick, a major achievement - and we were let loose on Cozumel Island.

We really didn’t fit in here. All around us trendy bars like Monsieur Frog’s were offering cocktail happy hours and holidaymakers were wearing new suntans and ethnic jewellery. We clomped past them in our walking boots, outdoor clothing and fleeces. Where on earth had Michael brought us?

Our first priority was to pick up another hire car but once again this was hard work. We’d booked it weeks earlier and had arrived well within business hours, but the hire car office was closed and in total darkness. Clearly there was nothing doing here. While we pondered plan B, a short Mexican complete with drooping moustache sidled up to us. ‘You want car?’ he murmered out of the side of his mouth, turning his head from side to side to scan the street. We explained our predicament – no car meant no hotel for the night and no birding the next morning. We were on a tight schedule here and delays meant missing out on birds. He told us to wait. ‘I find car for you!’ We hung around on the street corner, after all, what was there to lose? Just as we were about to give up on him, he reappeared slightly out of breath with his exertions. ‘You like VW?’ A VW would do just fine so we followed him as he led us on a crazy route across town, down dark alleyways, across empty car parks until he finally brought us out onto a narrow but busy street, lined with parked cars all the way.

Michael, Alan and Ruth with the "Pink Peril" thankfully not a lot of traffic on the island.

“There!” he said proudly, opening his arms wide to display our transport for the next two days. It was a VW all right, but not as we knew it. A Beetle: well past retirement age, a torn black soft top, no locks on the doors, no windows on either side, and as we were to find out, no brakes, and it was pink. Bright, girlie pink. Think Barbie and you have the right idea! Not exactly the ideal bird-mobile, but beggars can’t be choosers, so after filling in the paperwork, we piled our gear into the Pink Peril and chugged our way very cautiously out into the San Miguel traffic, Alan at the wheel.

Finding our backstreet hotel in the maze of one-way roads was one challenge. Stopping the car once we’d located it was another. In fact, the only way to come to a complete halt was to run the wheels into the kerb, so we did just that. The day had been quite long enough and we were ready to collapse into our very comfortable beds at the welcoming Hacienda San Miguel.

The next day began abruptly with loud hammering on the door to our room. “Wake up!” shouted Michael from the other side. Light was slipping in around the edges of the doorframe, it must be morning. What had happened? We jumped out of bed and threw our clothes on. Opening our bedroom door we looked onto the sunny courtyard of the hotel. Michael stood there grinning, his bins slung around his neck. “Did you decide to have a lie-in today?” he asked cheekily. We checked our watches: 5.30am. No, according to Michael, and the rest of San Miguel it was 6.30am! Why hadn’t he told us about the different time zones across Mexico?! OK, so we got caught out this time, but for the rest of the year no matter how many different time zones we crossed in a day, we never once had our watches set wrong again!

Now, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make. I’m not very good at getting up in the morning. In fact, let’s be honest here, that’s an understatement. I am appalling at getting up in the morning. My idea of morning starts about 7ish, preferably with a steaming cup of tea brought to me in bed, and ideally with a half-hour or so to come to slowly, maybe reading a book or something. Anything before 7am isn’t morning, it’s part of the night before, so I was already struggling with the new regime, seeing parts of the day I hadn’t realised existed. For the rest of the year, the alarm went off at 5am, 4am, 3am, even once at 2.30am, and I would stumble about like a zombie trying to get ready. I soon learned to lay out everything the night before to minimise the need for thinking pre-dawn, but still I’d find myself with T-shirts on back-to-front, my feet in Alan’s socks, and as for trying to put in my contact lenses, you could open the vaults at the Bank of England easier than I could prise open my eyelids at those ungodly hours. Oh, the sleep we sacrificed for our birds!

Alan, on the other hand, enjoys getting up early in the morning. The second the alarm goes off, he’s wide awake and irritatingly chirpy, and he stays that way all day. Or at least he does if there are birds to go for. He sees a 4am alarm call to go birding as no problem at all, but a 4am alarm call to catch a plane is a different matter. I can’t see the difference myself. As far as I’m concerned, 4am is still ‘oh my god o’clock’ whatever you’re going to be doing. So at the end of the year, if you were to ask me what I found the hardest thing about The Biggest Twitch, it wasn’t being away from home for so long, it wasn’t even trying to remember the names of so many new birds, for me it was having to get up at what my body thought was the middle of the night, every night, for 366 nights!

Oh, and while we’re in the confessional, there’s another difference between Alan and me which was to become even more apparent as the year progressed: how we pack and unpack. Now I’m the first to admit I became quite anal about where we packed things, particularly small crucial things like the memory cards for the camera, the pen drive for the computer, or the house keys for the end of the year. As far as I was concerned, everything had its place and I’d worry if things weren’t just so. I must have driven Alan mad as I pedantically tried to put everything back exactly where it had last been, so that I knew where it was and could lay my hands on it instantly. And similarly, I couldn’t cope with his much more laissez-faire attitude that if it wasn’t still lying around on the hotel room floor, then it must by default be in our luggage somewhere, which was all that mattered. So as the year progressed, we ditched more and more unnecessary kit, and slimmed things down to just two bags, one for each of us, so we could pack in a systematic way in a few minutes, or stuff things in randomly in only a few seconds, just as we each preferred – and still remain on speaking terms!

The birding started right in the hotel garden, just as well it was a late start!

But back to the birding! As it happened, the loss of time that morning didn’t matter, as there was some great birding right in the courtyard itself. Surrounded on three sides by terracotta coloured rooms, the pretty courtyard had raised flowerbeds, pools of water and full size palm trees which warblers were taking full advantage of. While we tucked into hot coffee, tea and croissants, we enjoyed close up views of Yellow-throated Warblers, a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers and a fidgety gang of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers flicked their way through the branches. Then the star bird, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler showed off for us: a black face and throat, rich blue head and mantle and a shockingly bright white wing patch. If this was the standard of Mexican birding, we were in for a real treat!

The reason for our excursion across to the island was to add the Cozumel endemics to our list, and Michael knew just the place to look for them. We only had half a day to tick them though, so breakfast and courtyard birding over, we jumped into the Pink Peril and headed out of town. Luckily for a car with no brakes, Cozumel is mostly flat, and by trundling along in a low gear we managed to avoid most of the tourists who stepped out in front of us. Driving along the seafront we dodged pedestrians and added our first Ruddy Turnstone to the list. Then we were through the built up area and out onto the open road. Alan risked changing up into second gear and the wind through the open windows ruffled our hair. After a short drive we came to a turning.

“Left here!” instructed Michael from the back seat.

Just as Alan indicated and started to turn the wheel, a honking blast burst from behind and a huge lorry thundered round us just inches away from his wing mirror, and tore off down the road. “Oops, sorry,” said Michael. “I forgot to warn you about that! If you want to you turn left in Mexico, you pull off to the right first and then cross over when the road is empty. Indicating left here means please overtake me!” Another piece of information that would have been useful to know! Still, no harm done, and we crossed over safely and drove down the side road.

This was a bizarre location to bird. The road was straight and perfectly tarmac-ed, and had a raised pavement on both sides. Street lamps stood to attention at regular intervals and side roads branched off at a perfect right-angle. It looked like the grid pattern of a housing development, and in fact it was, the only thing missing was the housing. Instead of buildings and gardens was a riot of unrestrained natural growth: thick bushes and shrubs and lush trees spread on both sides of the road, and the occasional creeper extended tendrils out over the pavement. It looked as if someone had once had grand plans to develop an estate here but had lost interest or run out of money after putting in the most basic infrastructure. Only a couple of houses had been built, guarded by noisy dogs which ran out barking manically as we approached. Apart from that, it made the perfect place to bird as the roads led us deep into the vegetation.

We were no sooner out of the car than we heard our first endemic singing, Cozumel Vireo. Even with much patience and some tape playback, the bird remained obstinately hidden from view, so we continued on our way. Some other interesting clucks and squeaks in the bushes turned into a Black Catbird, and a Cozumel Bananaquit showed off in a spindly tree – a nice bird but as a sub-species, we couldn’t count it towards The Biggest Twitch, unless it is split in the future. The next call rang out and again Michael played his tape. Obligingly the bird flew in and the next endemic, Cozumel Wren added itself to the list, the only wren on the island so no mistaking this one! White-crowned Pigeons and Yucatan Woodpecker shared a dead snag, and a pair of Caribbean Doves shot low across the road in front of us. We came across a house in the middle of the undergrowth, a man working on the decking and his noisy dog rushing out to challenge us. Coming over to quieten his dog, the man started up a conversation. He probably didn’t get many passers-by in his remote corner of Cozumel and was interested to check out three strangers. He asked if we’d seen any hummingbirds. Who was he, a builder and a birder too? We hadn’t so far and he described the two best places to try. First we followed a trail off into the bushes and while we didn’t find a hummingbird, we did find a Caribbean Elaenia. His second location was a massed bank of bushes bearing red flowers. This looked more promising. We staked the spot out for a good ten minutes and our patience was rewarded as a smart male Cozumel Emerald flew in and buzzed the red flowers. With a green body, darker wings, a red bill and striking deeply-forked tail: this bird was handsome indeed.

Time was rushing by and we had to get back to the mainland so we returned to the Pink Peril. One last try to call in the Cozumel Vireo, and we held our breath as Michael played the tape again. This time the bird replied, and came in closer. Who was this intruder on his territory? He was well worth the effort, wearing a different colour-scheme to most vireos, with a deep coloured rufous-orange back and clean white underparts. With all the Cozumel endemics now under our belt, we puttered our way back to the town and bounced the Pink Peril into the kerb outside the hire shop. We’re not saying it looked abandoned, but as we passed it again only five minutes later with our luggage, someone had already started throwing their litter into it!

A wonderful introduction to birding in Mexico and there was lots more to come! You can read the full account of our crazy birding adventure, The Biggest Twitch, in the book of the same title. Like a copy? Just drop us a line here and we can arrange a copy to be sent to you...

If you would like information on our trips please check out our "Tours" pages or drop us a line and we can put together a perfect custom trip just for you to destinations and on dates ideal for you!

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