Our planned second conquest of Mexico didn't start too well, as we arrived at Manchester Airport to discover that a nano-metre of snow had resulted in the delay of our flight to Cancun for FIVE hours on Feb 22nd (and they say Mexicans are disorganised).
On the downside, this meant we had to hastily rearrange car hire, contact our first hotel stop in Felippe Carillo Puerto (hereafter referred to as FCP), and reconcile ourselves to the fact that we'd miss an hour or two of light when we eventually landed in the great and promised land - I bet Hernan Cortes never had these problems....
On the upside, it meant we got to drink lots more Stella and Guinness than anticipated before we boarded the 11 hour flight west.
We landed in darkness, picked up a stonking Nissan X-trail from American Car Hire, and with Tropical at the wheel barrelled off into the steamy Mexican darkness, with FCP a mere three and a half hours away.
The night was heady with potential as the fortnight lay ahead of us - What adventures would we have? What would we see? What would we get up to...
...100 metres later we were stopped by an armed police checkpoint - the first of many military and police stops we encountered...these chaps it had to be said were in the main quite surly, but when you're holding a big gun, I suppose it's down to you to decide the mood you're gonna be in, not a carload of tired birders with infant school Spanish...
They let us through fast (Most of 'em did over the fortnight, once they heard "Miramos los pajaros" and caught a whiff of fajitas, cervesas and other things best left unmentioned emanating from the X-trail) and Tropical pressed south through Tulum and down the 307 to reach FCP at midnight, by which time we were fully acquainted with the quaint Mexican tradition of vehicle death by tope.
We booked into El Faisan Y El Venado for two nights, and after a taco or two at a roadside stand, hit the hay, with the sounds of roosting Cattle Egrets and Great Tailed Grackles in our ears.
FCP was a great, chaotic wee town to spend two nights, and it boasts a fine line in cockerels and Mexican karaoke at 4am.
It also has the advantage of being right on the doorstep of the Vigia Chica Road - a fairly straight and easy track that leads right through 30 clicks of secondary forest growth, clearings, pools and scrub.
Plenty of trails leading off into the undergrowth to explore, some leading to pools, others to dark and scary places in the woods, where bogles lurked.
We hit it at 5.30am each morning for the next two days, and the birds starting coming one after the other - magnificent....
We flushed two Pauraques on the first morning as we drove on before dawn, then it was flycatchers, wintering New World warblers, toucans, parrots, raptors, herons, vireos etc all the way.
Bat Falcons and Grey Hawks (above) perched up in the grey, humid dawn, American Redstart, Hooded Warbler, Black Throated Green Warbler, Parula etc etc flitted about the high branches, and parrots - Yucatan and Yellow Lored - plus Aztec Parakeets squawked and flapped like crazy as they woke from their roosts.
Bewildering hummingbirds zipped about, and a grumpy looking Bare Throated Tiger Heron scowled from the opposite side of a cenote one morning, while at another pool, Ruddy Crake emerged from the reeds glowing red and tiny in the dawn before scooting back into cover, leaving us to be feasted on by belligerent mozzies.
On our first morning we were lucky enough to hit a minor ant swarm about 5km down the track from the school - gold dust in neotropical birding, as they drawn in loadsa birds.
The birds aren't after the ants, rather the other insects that the ants scare up.
Frustratingly for a digiscoper, the birds rarely sit still, but when Grey Throated Chat, Hooded Warbler and Ruddy Woodcreeper are flitting around in front of you, with Black Catbird, Yellow Rumped Attila and Spot Breasted Wren, it's hard to care too much about the quality of the shots. Even close to the bustle of the little town, there were birds to get blown away by - Keel Billed Toucans, Blue Grosbeak and Blue Grey Tanager were all happily living cheek by jowl with the rest of the population.
After about 9.30am, the humid early mornings turned seriously hot, seriously quick, but the Vigia Chica still had birds to offer, even if many species had quietened down - 12.5km down the track, the tangle of trees and strangler figs, ferns and sawgrass peters out for a while on the right. Here, plenty of New World Warblers - stunning Yellow Throateds, Parulas, Magnolias etc fed in the palms alongside several oriole species, and the local Black Vulture population hung out, warming up on branches before a day of circling and scavenging - well someone's gotta clear the dead dogs off the road. With them were two superb King Vultures.
Even when it got hot in the afternoon the VIgia Chica was worth a look, while FCP itself had Cinnamon Hummer nesting (found by Trops and Er, Neill) by the roadside, and Black Crowned Tityras sat up in the trees.
The sheer variety and elusiveness of the forest birds could be quite intimidating at times, but it was exhilarating birding as we tried to get our heads round the Mexican avifauna.
Luckily Bazzo's obsession with flycatchers, Trops uncontained enthusiasm for the unknown, and Er Neill's cool-headed approach to hummingbirds stood us in good stead.
More hot jungle tales to follow (and a full FCP list when I get round to it).
Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies...
FELIPPE CARILLO PUERTO LIST:
(All km marks are from the school at the top of the Vigia Chica road as a starting point, and the birds are in the order we first encountered them - I really can't be bothered sorting 'em into families!)
KM 0.2: Pauraque, Yucatan Woodpecker, Brown Jay, Green Breasted Mango, Great Tailed Grackle, Cattle Egret, Greyish Saltator, Tropical Mockingbird, Pale Vented Pigeon, Yucatan Parrot, Ruddy Ground Dove, Aztec Parakeet, Red Billed Pigeon, Great Egret, White Eyed Vireo, White Winged Dove, Social Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Couch's Kingbird, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Yellow Throated Vireo, Linneated Woodpecker, Yellow Crowned Parrot, Grey Hawk, Golden Olive Woodpecker, Ladder Backed Woodpecker, Yellow Faced Grassquit, Altamira Oriole, Plain Chachalaca.
KM 1.2: Least Flycatcher, Green Jay, Bat Falcon, American Redstart.
KM 2: Rufous Browed Peppershrike, Rose Throated Becard, Black Headed Saltator, Blue Grey Tanager, Yellow Bellied Elaenia, Rose Breasted Grosbeak.
KM 2.4: White Tipped Dove, Hooded Oriole, Black Crowned Tityra, Pale Billed Woodpecker.
KM 3.5: Yucatan Flycatcher, Canivet's Emerald.
KM 3.9: Roadside Hawk.
KM 4.7 (pool on right): Bare Throated Tiger Heron, Turkey Vulture, Magnolia Warbler, Tropical Peewee, Blue Grey Gnatcatcher, Southern House Wren, Northern Bentbill, Squirrel Cuckoo.
KM 5: Black and White Warbler, Rose Throated Tanager, Red Throated Ant Tanager, Blue Bunting, Bright Rumped Attila, Grey Throated Chat, Black Catbird, Hooded Warbler, Mangrove Vireo, Summer Tanager, Spot Breasted Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Scrub Euphonia, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Wedge Tailed Sabrewing.
KM 5 (pool on left): Ruddy Crake, Limpkin, Grey Crowned Yellowthroat.
KM 6.2: Black Throated Green Warbler, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Orange Oriole.
KM 11.8: Golden Fronted Woodpecker.
KM 12.1: Wood Thrush.
KM 12.5: Great Kiskadee, King Vulture, Prairie Warbler, Melodious Blackbird, Groove Billed Ani, Yellow Throated Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula, Nashville Warbler, Northern Rough Winged Swallow, Black Cowled Oriole, Sharp Shinned Hawk.
Around the town of FCP: Keel Billed Toucan, Blue Grosbeak, Purple Martin, Cinnamon Hummingbird.