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Birding in Yucatan (Mexico) and Tikal (Guatemala), January/February 2019

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Old Wednesday 20th February 2019, 22:18   #1
Swissboy
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Birding in Yucatan (Mexico) and Tikal (Guatemala), January/February 2019

I had the opportunity to go on a 11-day birding tour to the Yucatan peninsula with emphasis on the local endemics. Thus, the island of Cozumel was part of the tour as well. This was not a commercial tour. Rather, we had Bev Scott, a Canadian friend of one of our Swiss friends (who also happens to live in Canada) as the actual leader. Bev tends to spend the major part of the winter in Yucatan and she is thus familiar with the avifauna and most voices as well. We were a party of five (including Bev), so had a conveniently small group. Except for my wife Doris, we all had some experience with Central American birds, but I was clearly the least experienced one. We had a rental van that was driven by two of us, thus no additional driver. The goal had always been to combine birding with some time for the Mayan ruins, and we mostly managed to combine this excellently.

We started out on 20 January in Cancun, and returned to Cancun on 30 January. First, we took the car ferry to Cozumel and birded there for one and a half days, returning to the mainland in the late afternoon of the second day. This left sufficient time to get most of the Cozumel (and already some of the Yucatan) specialties:
Caribbean Dove, Cozumel Emerald, Caribbean Elaenia, Rufous-browed Peppershrike Cozumel form, Yucatan Vireo, Cozumel Vireo, Yucatan Jay, Cozumel House Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Cozumel form, Yellow Warbler Cozumel Golden form, Bananaquit Cozumel form,. We mostly, but not exclusively, searched the areas mentioned in Howell's Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico.

The photo shows a Golden Warbler with its red cap and heavy streaking on the breast.

(To be continued)
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Last edited by Swissboy : Wednesday 20th February 2019 at 22:23.
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Old Thursday 21st February 2019, 09:44   #2
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…………... returning to the mainland in the late afternoon of the second day. …………..
We then had a longer drive to Felipe Carrillo Puerto (often conveniently shortened to FCP) with just a dinner stop on the way, plus getting some food supplies at Tulum as the next days looked like we might have less opportunities for a decent selection. I will not usually mention hotels we stayed at, as there tends to be a good choice that can be found in the internet. FCP is a bit different in this respect, it has very few hotels, and they can't easily be found on booking platforms to compare. We stayed at Hotel Esquivel “La Casona”, Calle 63, No. E at 66 which was simple but convenient and clean. There was only coffee to be had, but combined with what we had bought at Tulum, we had a fine breakfast at the tables provided near the hotel's parking facilities. We then spent most of the day birding along Vigia Chico road. That is a one-lane road going NE from FCP towards the coast at Sian Ka'an. There is a locked gate, however, after about 10 or so kilometers. We only got as far as about km 6, anyway. We had lunch (using our supplies from Tulum) at one of the cenotes (water holes, lakes) a bit off (N) the road. It was the only place we saw a King Vulture. On Vigia Chico road we had our first encounter with raiding ants and the ensuing accumulation of interesting birds, such as Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper (our only sighting on this tour), Tawny- winged and Ruddy Woodcreeper. As is customary, many of the birds were extremely confiding while around the ants. Thus we had the Ruddy Woodcreeper at less than a meter distance. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me then.
Long-billed Gnatwren was another species we only had on that road. Never got to see it, though. It always called from within some dense thickets. Black Catbird had been rather common on Cozumel and we had it on day 3 as well. But further into the peninsula and going west and north, we did hardly encounter it any more. Later in the afternoon, we drove to Bacalar to spend the night. A Snail Kite and a Cooper's Hawk were the most interesting birds we had in the Bacalar area that evening.

Day 4 was mostly spent at the Kohunlich site for the Mayan pyramids. A Collared Forest-Falcon was the best bird observed before we got there. Kohunlich provided among many migrants our only certain Worm-eating Warbler of the tour. And we got the first good looks at a Bat Falcon. There was also a small group of Howler Monkeys. As we had some spare time, our friends wanted to visit another nearby ruins site (Dzibanch้), but my wife and I were a bit tired and thus decided to take a rest lying on the ground at the parking area. A very unfortunate decision as we caught a fair number of chigger bites that then bothered us for the next 3+ weeks. They are about as bad as the bites of bed bugs we got in a Hawaii hotel the year before. And the anti-itch medication we needed was also the same. In addition, we missed the Black-crowned Tityra the rest of the group saw. At least, we got that species later on day 9.

Day 5 started out with a long (4-hour) drive from Bacalar to the Uxmal area. It was meant to be a drive without any special birding places. However, there was a fine wetlands place along the road that made for a good interruption of the drive. Once at Uxmal, we birded the area around the site, not going into the ruins area until the next day. There are some paved and unpaved roads going south from the main road that we explored. Among the species observed was a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that showed itself for a long time after we had briefly played a recording. Also there was a parrot roost, but we were unable to get views of the birds, thus leaving it uncertain as to which species there were, the Yellow-lored being the species we actually wanted.

After dinner, we did some night birding from behind our hotel, but with only a Common Pauraque it was not very rewarding.

Day 6: we birded and looked at the impressive ruins of Uxmal. But except for one corner, birding was not great. The one area provided the best we had comparing Golden-fronted and the smaller Yucatan Woodpeckers. There was also a Lineated Woodpecker plus a Ivory-billed Woodcreeper. Our next night was spent in the center of Merida.

On day 7, we drove to Chichen Itza, birding along the way in areas Bev knew. Thus, we had another fine encounter with raiding ants and their complement of accompanying birds. It was impressive to witness the efficiency of the ants when a prey did not flee right away. One large spider first jumped away twice, but then missed its chances and it was covered in a ball of ants within less than a second! Wedge-tailed Sabrewing and Canivet's Emerald as well as Golden-olive Woodpecker, Yucatan and Brown-crested Flycatcher and Gray-collared Becard were among the most notable birds. Once at Chichen Itza, we birded on the hotel grounds, not just of our own hotel. Apparently that is no problem at all. We did not go to the optionally offered "Sound and Light Show" that night. There was just no need for an additional distraction.

Fotos: wetlands on the main road from Bacalar to Uxmal, and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl on a Uxmal side road

(to be continued as time permits)
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--PS: That's a Sooty Falcon on the avatar, photo taken near Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. My highest priority raptor at the time.
What's your species on the avatar? I often have no clue
!

Last edited by Swissboy : Thursday 21st February 2019 at 22:02.
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Old Monday 25th February 2019, 15:39   #3
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….
(to be continued as time permits)
On day 8, we started out birding before breakfast in the extended hotel grounds area. That included getting into a fenced off part that provided less groomed vegetation. Both Lesson's Motmot and Turquoise-browed Motmot as well as Bright-rumped Attila were among the species observed. The Chichen Itza ruins were both impressive as well as to some extent an annoyance due to the crowds of visitors and the fact that stands of dealers were so prevalent on much of the grounds. Nevertheless, a beautiful pair of Bat Falcons sat in a tall tree near the ball grounds, and they did not seem to mind the people. On the way out, there was a Black Hawk-Eagle flying overhead. We then drove to Valladolid where we spent the next two nights. For the evening, Bev had organized a guide to go night-birding in the Xocen area. But again, it was not very productive. It had been raining locally so that the roads were mostly wet. Thus no good conditions for caprimulgids that should have used the road for hunting. And the several calling Mottled Owls remained hidden in the dense vegetation.

Day 9: We started out with an early morning drive to the Xocen area and spent much of the rest of the day birding with the same guide in the extended surroundings. Crested Caracara was new, and most importantly for my brother who was with us on this tour we had excellent looks at Yellow-lored Parrots. The distinguishing details that allow easy separation from the more common White-fronted Parrots could finally be observed without any doubts. We did not want to just rely on the voice. We also visited some subsistence farmers of the local tribe, where we got good comparative looks of Yucatan Flycatcher, Dusky-capped and Great Crested Flycatcher. Other species on this day were Barred Antshrike, Bright-rumped Attila, Couch's Kingbird, Masked and Black-crowned Tityra and both Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonia.

Photos: Bat Falcons Chichen Itza, Turquoise-browed Motmot

(to be continued)
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--PS: That's a Sooty Falcon on the avatar, photo taken near Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. My highest priority raptor at the time.
What's your species on the avatar? I often have no clue
!

Last edited by Swissboy : Monday 25th February 2019 at 15:54.
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Old Thursday 28th February 2019, 19:35   #4
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…….(to be continued)
Days 10 and 11 were in many respects the ones I cherish the most in hindsight, but let's do them one at the time.

Day 10: From Valladolid, we first drove to Ek Balam, a ruins' site that is not all that much visited. Right away, I very much liked the setting, reminding me somewhat of Tikal in Guatemala (see future posts). There is forest all around, and the taller ruins are also rising above the canopy. But then, the forest is by far less tall, and we did not see all that many birds. We then headed for the coast in the area of Rio Lagartos where we spent the night and birded both along the coast line and in the dry scrub landscape inland. If it had not been clear before, I realized once again that I'm not really a forest birder. Open country and water/wetlands are what appeals much more to me. So just seeing all the not really rare shorebirds was great. Often, there were just small numbers, but having Ruddy Turnstones and others on the street walk and jetty was nice simply because they were so close. East of Rio Lagartos are large salt works with many salt pans rich with birds. Among them the American Flamingos stood out with their extremely red color. We had seen a few single birds earlier that were very much paler, so there are obvious differences, probably also due to where they forage. The salt pans also had numbers of both Wilson's and Red-necked Phalaropes, plus a variety of other shore birds. Patrolling one of the promising back roads was not all that rewarding on the first day, though we did get decent looks at the endemic Black-throated Bobwhite and we also saw Yucatan Wren. A nice surprise was Russet-naped Wood-Rail parading briefly in the open, and we finally had very good looks at Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures. A place near a camp ground provided the long searched for Green-backed Sparrow after we had the Olive Sparrow some time earlier along the road.

Photos: Ek Balam view from the top, Ceiba tree with its typical spines on top of the branches, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and American Flamingos of the most colorful variety.

(I need to stop here as the number of photos one can attach is almost exhausted, thus day 11 will follow in a separate post.)
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--PS: That's a Sooty Falcon on the avatar, photo taken near Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. My highest priority raptor at the time.
What's your species on the avatar? I often have no clue
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Old Friday 1st March 2019, 22:26   #5
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........ day 11 will follow in a separate post.)
Day 11: We had originally planned to do a boat tour from Rio Lagartos on either of our last days. It turned out that the boat tour looked less promising for the missing species than doing essentially what we had done the previous day. Some nice waterbird activity was right along the Rio Lagartos coastline. That's also where we had the only Yellow-crowned Night-Heron of this trip. Our hotel supposedly "always" had at least one hummingbird feeder up, we were told. It turned out they had not been tended well for some time. Essentially, that was supposed to be the place to see Mexican Sheartail. What a bummer! Fortunately, there was a restaurant outside of town, a bit more than a kilometer east along the shore that had a well filled feeder up. So we got that species there, together with Cinnamon Hummingbird. We then concentrated on the same back road as on the previous day, and for a while, things were not much different either. Essentially, there were two main target species left that we were after and that we had been searching previously: Zenaida Dove and Lesser Roadrunner. We had basically come back to the beginning of the road again, there was a promising patch that we had explored from the road the previous evening. Only this time, there was a lone "pigeon", foraging there on the ground. And sure enough, it was the Zenaida Dove we were after. We got very fine looks and the specific purple patch on the back of the neck was clearly there (see photo). So we were truly excited and happy. As it had been difficult to get good looks from inside the van (the windows could only be opened up front), I had opened the sliding door to get both better looks and be able to take pictures of the dove. And then, something happened that one would think only happens in dreams or movies. Suddenly there was a rustle on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, and some very quick movement. Fortunately, the creature stopped still in sight. And it was that enigmatic Lesser Roadrunner that that stopped for a while eyeing us just like we looked at him. And thanks to the already open door, we all had good looks on the rear seats and I was able to take a few photos. The bird became my instant favorite of the tour! Particularly so, as it flashed its bright blue patch on the side of the head, reminding me of the Couas we had observed on our Madagascar trip in 2015. (A photo I had posted on Facebook can be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?f...type=3&theater) Couas are said to be closely related to cuckoos, but I had no idea that the Lesser Roadrunner had a comparable patch on the head. Sure, FGs show some blue and red behind the eye, but here, this was all blue and as large as on the couas (but only behind the eye). On the photos I took, the blue looks considerably paler that when the light catches it just right. I had thus to work a little on the photo to provide the true impression.
Well, the rest of the time was spent at the saltworks, but the light was less favorable for the flamingos' red color. Here too, one needs to get it just right. It was perfect the previous day as shown in the photo there. We finally saw a Laughing Falcon that we had heard quite often before, but never managed to see. Also, there was an Osprey with an almost white head. According to the FG by Howell and Webb, it must have been the local ridgwayi form.

With a drive back to Cancun, our joint tour then came to an end. And with the new species seen on this last day, it's hard to imagine a much better "finale". My wife and I still had an extension coming up, so it was not finished for the two of us yet. I'll post that separately but in this same thread.

I'd like to add some points that I have not gone into so far:

For one, as a FG we used the compact book by Fagan and Komar "Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America. Bev, our guide, had the color plates of the bulky Howell and Webb FG bound separately. So they were readily available for the few endemics not pictured in our FG. The text part of the book was in the car as well, but it was rarely needed.

I have not given a full species list, but I would like to emphasize the high diversity of orioles we saw. There were eight possible species, including the North American migrants, and we got to see them all, mostly on days 3, 7 and 8. I must admit that I did not manage to identify them all by myself, and I personally missed the one Orchard Oriole that was seen. Beautiful but bewildering for an "old world" birder. And it did not help that at least two species had their name changed since my days in North America in the early 70s. Altamira Oriole was then Lichtenstein's. The other name change (Audubon's was Black-headed) was of no relevance for this trip.

Photos: Zenaida Dove, Lesser Roadrunner, Brown Pelican ad, Ridgwayi form of Osprey, Laughing Falcon
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--PS: That's a Sooty Falcon on the avatar, photo taken near Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. My highest priority raptor at the time.
What's your species on the avatar? I often have no clue
!

Last edited by Swissboy : Friday 1st March 2019 at 22:43.
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Old Sunday 3rd March 2019, 00:14   #6
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Though it has been ten years since my last visit to the Yucatan, I enjoyed reading about places set forever in my memory. For instance, though somewhat quiet for birding, I do recollect Ek Balam has having some of the most ornate carvings and reliefs of all the ruins we visited. Thanks for the report, Robert!

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Old Sunday 3rd March 2019, 19:30   #7
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Though it has been ten years since my last visit to the Yucatan, I enjoyed reading about places set forever in my memory. For instance, though somewhat quiet for birding, I do recollect Ek Balam has having some of the most ornate carvings and reliefs of all the ruins we visited. Thanks for the report, Robert!

Steve
Thanks Steve. Yes they are still working of the reliefs at Ek Balam. The drawback (not only at that site) is that there are partial roofs in those places and these give a not very realistic impression of the site. But I guess there is simply no ideal way to do it. One would have to find some material that would be completely weather proof once dry. Pretty much impossible!

Attached are two photos illustrating the present situation. Some (presumably) Yucatan Swallows (formerly Northern Rough-wings, Ridgway form) seemed to like the roofing.
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--PS: That's a Sooty Falcon on the avatar, photo taken near Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. My highest priority raptor at the time.
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Old Sunday 3rd March 2019, 21:41   #8
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………. My wife and I still had an extension coming up, so it was not finished for the two of us yet. I'll post that separately but in this same thread.

……..
I have just accidentally thrown out my Tikal report that I had been working on for the last hour. What a bummer

I'll need to find my motivation again first, hopefully tomorrow. But I do want to post some of the photos I was going to post when I did the wrong motion.

Photos: Pale-billed Woodpecker, Black-throated Shrike-Tanager female, Ocellated Turkey male, Orange-breasted Falcon female, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper
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Old Sunday 3rd March 2019, 22:38   #9
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Sounds like a hugely enjoyable trip. We didn't see much at Tikal, had to catch up with Orange-breasted Falcon elsewhere, but it was worth the visit just for the Turkeys!



(ps - in answer to your request my avatar is a Strange-tailed Tyrant, photo taken in North East Argentina)
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Old Monday 4th March 2019, 08:47   #10
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A very nice report. Love the Motmot shot!

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Old Monday 4th March 2019, 20:14   #11
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Tikal extension

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………., hopefully tomorrow......….
Our extension to Tikal was for just two full days, February 1st and 2nd.

So here is the report I re-wrote after yesterday's mishap:

While we were planning our Yucatan tour, I could not help myself thinking that we would actually miss the very best Mayan ruins. I had had the chance in the early 1970s to briefly visit Tikal on a day-tour. I had always wanted to come back for a somewhat extended stay, and to show the place to my wife. We had originally planned to visit Tikal in 2011. But we then found out that the Swiss government had a travel warning out for Guatemala and Pet้n in particular. So we cancelled that part. The warning is actually still on the website, but as then, it is basically for individual tourists, not groups. So I tried to find a version this time to do the trip individually, but with guides. In hindsight now, I would say we could very well have done the tour on our own as far as safety is concerned. We would, however, have missed a great many exciting bird species!
As our flight from Switzerland was to and from Cancun, I had to find a way to get from Cancun to Tikal and back. The option of land travel with an overnight bus transfer was definitely out of the question. We did not want to do that, both for time reasons and because it would have been too much of a strain for our old backs. So while searching around in the internet for possible flights etc., I somehow got on to an attractive looking web site of a Guatemalan organization named Tikalpark: http://www.tikalpark.com/. Upon contacting them, my very good impression was confirmed. Carla Molina, President & Marketing Director, not only was very easy to correspond with thanks to her excellent English. She was also great in answering all my many questions, and in the end she proposed a custom-made package for our tour. I did want three nights at Tikal in order to get two full days in the park. Also, I did want to stay in the park for the nights in order to have the most of it. Of course, all this added to the costs, but we knew that this was going to be our only chance, so we felt we’d better grab it. It turned out that we could not have made a better decision.
For getting from Cancun to Tikal, the best way was by doing a detour via Mexico City. That was just fine for us as our plans included a second trip extension to Mexico City. So we simply combined the two parts. We had to leave Cancun very early to make it to Flores and then Tikal on the same day. There are very few connections, and in our case, the trip included a layover of almost five hours in Guatemala City. I booked all our flights myself, but Carla Molina organized everything from our arrival at Flores to the very early transfer back to Flores on our departure day. Upon our arrival, we got vouchers and all the special tickets needed to stay in the park outside of the official opening hours. These are needed for sunrise and sunset tours. We had booked four tours, starting with a general non-private tour in the morning. That tour was a bit lengthy, but interesting. We then had a sunset tour the first evening and a sunrise tour the next morning, followed by a specific birding tour in the afternoon of day two. We were lucky to have Cesar Moran as our guide for both the sunset and the sunrise tour as Cesar showed us a good number of very exciting birds, to the extent that it might have been a bit difficult for our bird tour guide, Miguel Marin, to still be able to show us some good birds. Well, it turned out that was no problem in the end.

I had clear expectations regarding the "minimum" species I hoped to see at Tikal: Orange-breasted Falcon and Ocellated Turkey. It turned out both of these were no challenge at all, but they were nevertheless great to have! For the rest, however, we very much relied on our guides. Cesar managed to show us a group of four Great Curassows. They were very close but in dense thickets that precluded decent photos. Nevertheless, the most spectacular one of the unexpected species. Finally, after having missed it on the Yucatan tour, we had several Keel-billed Toucans. Not really new to me, but always a great sight. There were several interesting Woodpeckers that we had not seen before: Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Pale-billed Woodpecker, and on the birding tour with Miguel Marin Smoky-brown Woodpecker, thus nicely filling some gaps on my Life list. Not a lifer, but great to see it again, and very close at that was Northern Schiffornis which Cesar only knew by an older name: "Thrush-like Manakin". It is one of those species that must have gone through over half a dozen names over the years. All in the name of science, but at the expense of birders keeping the overview. During our general tour, I discovered a Black-throated Shrike-Tanager. Another species we had missed on the Yucatan tour was Montezuma Oropendola, nothing rare but always spectacular.

So for the specific birding tour, the selection of good species had really become small. I had Tody Motmot high on my list, so we searched for that species along the former air strip. But no luck on that species. Miguel first showed us a Black-and-white Owl in its day roost. But the best bird on that tour was a displaying Pheasant Cuckoo that we were able to observe very well. This was another very unexpected species, in fact I not even had it on my wish list as I had considered it to be "out of reach" for us. Definitely more than just a substitute for the missing Tody Motmot. There was also a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, another one of those species we missed on the Yucatan tour.

To sum it all up, Tikal was superb regarding the birds I had hoped for plus many more. But visiting Tikal just for the birds would not do it justice. Tikal is simply a magic place! This is best experienced from high up on one of the pyramids for the sunset and the sunrise. One has this fabulous view over the canopy, with the feeling that there is more out there. And we felt one does not even need good weather to actually see the sun. The changing light conditions, parrots, toucans and monkeys that either go to sleep or prepare for the day, all this adds to the magic.

Having already posted some bird pictures above, here are some of the sunset/sunrise tours.
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What's your species on the avatar? I often have no clue
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Old Monday 4th March 2019, 20:59   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JWN Andrewes View Post
…….. was worth the visit just for the Turkeys!

(ps - in answer to your request my avatar is a Strange-tailed Tyrant, photo taken in North East Argentina)
On that brief visit I had in 1973, we did not even see the Turkeys! Apparently they are hiding out during parts of the year.

Thanks for letting me know about the avatar species!
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Old Monday 4th March 2019, 21:10   #13
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Some very evocative views of Yarvin IV there!
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Old Monday 4th March 2019, 22:16   #14
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Mexico City extension and close-up of trip

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………... our plans included a second trip extension to Mexico City. …………..
To conclude, the remainder of our extension was strictly for sightseeing. Guatemala's volcanos were fascinating from the air, with Volcan Fuego showing its ongoing activity. We spent four nights in Mexico City, one day was reserved for the impressive pyramids area of Teotihuacan. A second day was reserved for the absolutely fascinating Anthropological Museum. I had visited both places in the early 1970s, and just like Tikal, felt I wanted to see them again and sharing them with my wife. Birds were mostly seen in stony fashions , plus there was an impressive old headdress made of Quetzal feathers displayed at the museum. We used public transport to get around. I had decided to do it that way as we stayed in the safe areas and did not care for booking tours that want to herd you into stores instead of allowing enough time at the locations. Being able to speak some Spanish was just adding to feeling more at ease.

Back at Cancun, we had two days at the beach before our plane was due. Some Brown Pelicans and Tropicbirds were impressive companions, but they were definitely not our priority at the time.

Photos: Some Guatemalan volcanos sticking out over the clouds, with Volcan Fuego showing some slight activity. Teotihuacan with Pyramid of the Sun. Restored palace at Teotihuacan with fine carvings of birds. Huge Olmec head at the Anthropological Museum. And finally, my wife of 51 years in front of the Quetzal headdress at the Museum. Looks like she might have made a great Aztec queen.
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--PS: That's a Sooty Falcon on the avatar, photo taken near Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. My highest priority raptor at the time.
What's your species on the avatar? I often have no clue
!

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Old Monday 4th March 2019, 22:31   #15
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Originally Posted by JWN Andrewes View Post
Some very evocative views of Yarvin IV there!
I had no idea! Had to let Google tell me what it's all about. Fortunately, all of that was gone. Except for the MAGIC, of course.
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