It’s been a long, dry winter in Puerto Vallarta. I’ve been sick with gripe, flu. We’ve moved across town to a much quieter place—except for this rooster.
Pesky Rooster at Dawn
He’s a really little guy and has a harem of just one little hen, but he’s extremely vocal. He starts his quiquiriquí, crowing, at 4:30 am, then again at 5:30, 6:30 and finally signs off around 7:30 as daylight breaks.
My landlord tells me he is una mascota, a pet, of our next-door neighbor. He told me to get a slingshot and pelt the little strutter.
I’d be afraid to hit him with a rock as I might badly injure or kill him. So, I’ve decided to embrace this particular noise and the soul currently inhabiting this little rooster body. And I determined to learn to live with him.
Except—I woke up a couple of days ago in the grip of the gripe, fuzzy-headed and cross. It was 7:30am and the little rascal was rocking out with his screechy crowing. I couldn’t take it.
God, he’s on the terrace just outside my window—trespassing! I’ll teach him.
I staggered out of the bedroom and onto the terrace, flushing him and his concubine to the adjacent rooftop. Quickly, I grabbed the garden hose, turned the water on full blast, and shot him. Well, maybe not shot. The water pressure here is not all that good and the distance was such that I had to lob the water in a lazy arch. But I hit him dead square!
Instead of fleeing the area, the rooster began to dance—alternately twirling, shaking and adjusting his position to get the optimum shower. And his girlfriend immediately joined him. For as long as I held the water in their direction, they followed and luxuriated under it.
Yep, it has been a dry winter. And I guess I really do like this little rooster.
“The term Jumbo Shrimp has always amazed me. What is a Jumbo Shrimp? I mean, it’s like Military Intelligence – the words don’t go together, man.” George Carlin
Driving east from Papantla, we first hit the Gulf of Mexico at the Veracruz beach town of Tecolutla. It was an early summertime Friday and it seemed as if everyone in eastern Mexico had the same idea—let’s go to the beach. We found a small hotel and quickly joined the crowds cooling themselves in the soft breezes and inviting waters.
The following day we wanted to see more of the seaside village. So we walked over to the riverfront where the mouth of the Rio Tecolutla enters the Gulf and defines the southeast corner of the town. There we found boats offering sightseeing trips to the nearby estuary to view exotic birds, crocodiles, turtles and more.
We hired a boat with a young guide named Hector, and we were off. We headed south toward a wide swamp crisscrossed by creeks.
While slowly motoring across the main channel I noticed men in boats drifting swiftly with the current toward the river’s mouth. They were throwing very large round cast nets. I asked the guide to save time to get a close look at them on our return to the dock.
“No hay problema.”
In the estuary the water was slow-moving and calm. It was quiet with only bird sounds interrupting. A motionless ten-foot crocodile basked in the sun and where downed trees tipped into the water, long rows of turtles communally enjoyed the warm day. And there were lots of birds—kingfishers, ospreys, white ibis, wood storks, reddish egrets, black skimmers and more.
On our return, I reminded Hector I wanted to get an up-close look at the cast-netters. He obliged and motored about a hundred feet from another boat and then cut the motor. We drifted along beside two men working and watched. The man on the bow of the panga threw the net while the other man kept their boat aimed at the correct angle to the current as they swept toward the Gulf.
It surprised me that the net was so big—more than twenty feet in diameter. It had been elaborately prepared for casting with cigar-shaped lead weights attached in about one-foot intervals around the circumference. So the rig must have been very heavy with that many weights on a wet net.
The bowman cast his net twenty-five feet in front of the fast-moving boat. A perfect circle hit the water ahead and he paid out line to drop the net to the bottom—I guessed about thirty feet. He very slowly retrieved the handline to the net as his partner in the stern back-paddled to hold their position. I wasn’t sure why until he had completely pulled in the net, then I realized these nets do not pull into a bag like the cast nets or purse nets more commonly used in the US. Rather, they depend entirely upon trapping the creatures in the mesh itself. A slow retrieve does not shake them loose.
He brought the net to the side of the boat and we could see there were dozens of very large shrimp, camarones gigantes, entangled in it. The man in the rear of the boat quickly moved forward to help bring the net aboard and the two men carefully removed maybe forty to fifty shrimp. We pulled next to their boat for a closer look at their catch—some were so big that one of them would fill your hand. And, many of the shrimp appeared gravid—orange clusters of eggs hung from their bellies.
We bought two dozen kicking shrimp and immediately pitched the ones with the obvious large egg clusters back into the water. The rest we boiled in beer and ate for lunch. YUM
Angels in a Mayan pyramid? Surely not Christian angels as we think of angels in a church or pictured in an illustrated Bible with pseudo-Renaissance prints…
No. Although they do look a lot like the kind of angels we think of seeing in a Christian context, I prefer to understand these angels as naturalistic people dressed up like birds.
The Mayan archaeological site of Ek’Balam, Black Jaguar, in north central Yucatán is not only home to angels, but also to a monster.
It has a huge mouth ringed by fierce white teeth and its throat opens into a tunnel leading to the underworld.
Teeth of the Monster Mouth
Returning from a road trip to Rio Lagartos, we noted a sign for the Ek’Balam archaeological site. We turned into the parking area, and a short walk from the car put us in the middle of it.
Motmots in the Ruins
The first thing we noticed were Motmots. These birds, Blue-crowned Motmots, seemed as plentiful here as at Uxmal.
Ascending the steep stairs of the main Pyramid
The view to the Gulf of Mexico from atop the main Pyramid
And there is more to see at this beautiful site, a ball court, tunnels, bats, iguanas and the incredible view from the main pyramid of the forest canopy stretching to the Gulf of Mexico.
Connecting portions of the site are sacbé roads, elevated white, stone pathways. On these you can walk in the steps of the Mayas.
In 1989 while working on a business venture in Belize, I took several days to look for wildlife around the Coxcomb Reserve.
I am interested in birds and was lucky to see Scarlet Macaws near the village of Red Bank. One dark night on a mountain trail I saw a small wild cat, a Margay, exposed by the headlights of our jeep. Also I saw some huge snakes, boa constrictors—locally called Wolas, and one aggressive venomous Fer de Lance—a serpent Belizeans call a Tommygoff.
One bird I was particularly interested in seeing was the Motmot. These birds have long ‘paddle tails’ and electric coloring. They are easy to identify. For me however, finding the Motmot in the wild proved elusive. After spending a good part of three days looking around the edges of the Coxcomb Reserve and adjacent banana plantations, I gave up and decided that Motmots were just not destined to make my list.
When Alice and I were driving around Mexico looking for a place to settle, we spent six weeks in Mérida—trying the city on for size.
After a couple of weeks, we discovered there was a bus that left from near our apartment and traveled daily to several archeological sites—including Uxmal. I have to admit Uxmal was not on my radar, but I can say now it is one of the “don’t miss” places in Mexico.
Because we were traveling with an old beloved dog, suffering from the summer heat, Alice and I decided to take the bus to Uxmal on different days while the other stayed in Mérida dog sitting.
Alice went first and came home bubbling with happiness about her day at what she thought was a most impressive site—and, she was effusive about the amazing birds.
“They are emerald and blue and have incredible long tails with just a bare quill in the middle.”
Couldn’t be Motmots, they are too elusive to hang around a tourist site.
The following day, I had my turn. I decided to hire an English-speaking guide as Alice felt the history and significance of the site weren’t easily understood from the few informational placards in English scattered throughout the grounds.
I talked to a couple of bored looking “old hand” guides at the entrance, and balked at hiring any of them. Then, a very small man, who I at first took to be a kid, approached me.
“Hola, my name is Puc.”
It turned out that this tiny Mayan man was twenty-nine and had three kids. He had attended a University in Mérida where he majored in Mayan Studies.
Pyramid of the Magician
Puc and I entered and came first to a most unusual pyramid. It is smooth-sided and elliptical at the base—the Pyramid of the Magician, El Adivino.
Puc told me a story of how a dwarf, el enano del Uxmal who hatched from an iguana egg, had built the structure in a single night.
Then he looked me in the eye and told me that the Mayas transmitted much of their wisdom through allegory and metaphor. He said Uxmal’s huge libraries of codices, the folding hieroglyphic books, attested to the Mayan quest for knowledge. Then he told me the site had been a university, a center of great learning.
“Where are all these books now?” I asked.
View of the courtyard of the Nunnery Quadrangle at Uxmal
“Many volumes were kept in what is today known as The Nunnery Quadrangle, el quádrangle de las monjas. There the Spanish threw most of them into the middle of the courtyard and burned them—somehow believing they were saving the indigenous people by this horrible act.”
We turned to walk toward the structure named by the Spanish as House of the Doves, In the first small grove of trees we walked through, I saw them—the Motmots. Seeing my attention shift, Puc smiled.
“Blue-crowned Motmots—they love the grounds here at Uxmal. The Mayan people revere them. They believe Motmots are the most beautiful birds in their world. But, they also believe these birds are self-aware and arrogant.
Mayan lore tells of time when a great hurricane headed to the Yucatán. All the animals could feel it. They knew it was coming and all sought shelter. Except the proud Motmots, who disregarded the signs.
Terrible winds buffeted the Motmots and they lost parts of their tail feathers, leaving a partially naked quill with its distinctive paddle shape at the tip. The Motmots were humiliated and to this day are secretive and hide from view.
But here on the grounds of Uxmal, they are proud and open for all to see.”
Motmots in the Trees at Uxmal
Ria Lagartos/Rio Lagartos
You don’t pass through the little fishing village of Rio Lagartos, Alligator River, going anywhere. Unless you intend it as a destination, you will never come upon it. The village is remote—at the end of a road in the middle of the northern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. However, it is a place rich in wildlife and natural beauty, the home of Mexico’s Reserva de la Biospera Ria Lagartos.
Alice and I drove from Merida to Rio Lagartos. Once there, we hired a guide to take us on a birding adventure. We wanted to see some of the hundreds of species of birds living in or migrating through this reserve. We understood very large numbers of Flamingos were the main attraction, and we were not disappointed.
Our guide, Roman Fernandez, was a gifted naturalist well versed in the life histories and habits of the creatures we saw—birds and others. He told us Flamingos weigh 2.5 kilos for females, 5.5 kilos for males. They may live for 20 years, have few if any predators, lay and incubate one white or green egg per year and mate for life.
With Roman, we stood on the dikes of a huge salt works bordering the reserve and looked into the very salty water. It was pink-colored from thousands of tiny brine shrimp and other small carotene-loaded organisms. Roman, scooped a handful to show us the pink-orange squiggles thrashing about in the water.
“This,” he said, “is what makes the Flamingos pink!”
When you see the huge population of wild Flamingos there, sometimes as many as 40,000 in the reserve, they appear little changed from their earliest appearance on this earth. Gawky looking with their upside-down bill, yet graceful, they glide across the vast flats.
Roman also told us, 56 to 34 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch, the dawn of mammals, Flamingos were wading about here. They are gregarious birds in the genus Phoenicopterus and family Phoenicopteridae. Worldwide there are six different species. One of these, the American Flamingo, lives in the Caribbean Islands, Caribbean Mexico, Belize and the Galapagos Islands, with the greatest numbers in Mexico frequenting the Ria Lagartos area.
Although we had traveled to Rio Lagartos to see the Flamingos, they were just a part of the great show we experienced. Among the birds we saw were:
American Flamingo / Flamenco Comun
Great Blue Heron / La Gran Garza de Azule o Garzon Cenizo
Great Egret / Garzon Blanco
Boat-billed Heron / Garza Cucharon
Snowy Egret / Garzita Nivea
Great Black-hawk / Aguililla Negra
Osprey / Gavilan Pescador
Wood Stork / Ciguena
Roseate Spoonbill /Espatula
White Ibis / Ibis Blanco
Magnificent Frigate Bird / Fragata
Brown Pelican / Alcatraz Pardo
White Pelican / Alcatraz Blanco
Neotropical Cormorant / Corvejon
Anhinga / Huizote
Ruddy Ground Dove / Tortilita Rojiza
Scaled Pigeon / Paloma Escamosa
Yucatan Parrot / Loro Yucateco
And many, many other birds.
We also saw:
Crocodiles / Cocodrilos
BIG Croc hiding in mangroves
We saw several. One was huge, and we saw it up close!! Roman said it was nesting. I later read nesting crocodiles are the most dangerous!
The once-numerous crocodiles gave the town its name as the Spanish mistook them for alligators, el lagartos—the big lizards.
It is interesting to note the name of the village is Rio Lagartos while the reserve is Ria Lagartos. Roman explained that Ria is used to describe an estuary where salt and freshwater meet and mix. Spanish explorers mistook the narrowing of the estuary, ria, for a river, rio, and the crocodiles for alligators.
The Maya knew the place as Holkobén and used it as a rest stop on their way to Las Coloradas, a part of the vast estuary stretching east almost to the border of Quintana Roo. There they extracted precious salt from the waters, a process that continues on a large scale today.
Less than 1km east of town, on the edge of the estuary, is a beautiful natural freshwater spring, ojo de agua dulce. The locals called it a cenote, although it didn’t look at all like the cenotes we saw farther inland. There was no cave or lake, instead, the spring bubbled water up to sea level where it mixed with the salty water of the estuary. It is the town swimming hole.
A Tell is what is demonstrated when a poker player, grifter or salesman—some person who wants to know something about his subject’s future—discovers a clue that enables him to predict whether a person is sincere or not—lying or being truthful.
Sometimes, A Tell may be delivered by a third party. For instance, in an old I Love Lucy episode, Lucy sees Desi’s poker hand and her big facial exclamations telegraph to the other players his great hand. Of course, the other players fold leaving Desi disappointed.
In January, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is an almost perfect place to be. Christmas is over and the weather is sunny with a fresh light breeze blowing every day from the ocean. Humpback whales cruise around the protected waters of Bahia Banderas, Mexico’s largest bay. They are busy with mating and birthing their calves. And, the city is full of grateful refugees from the frozen north.
One day while walking from our apartment on Calle Ecuador down the steep Calle Panama, I looked up from my feet as the cobbles levelled out and caught a glimpse off to my left of a bright colored bird in an alcove. The bird’s perch was a young man’s shoulder. He was working on cleanup of the demolition of a small building. I turned in and asked the man if I could take a picture of his bird, as I had never before seen a parrot like this one. The red blaze across the bird’s forehead distinguished it from other parrots I’d seen around Puerto Vallarta.
“Si, por supuesto!” he said flashing a huge open-faced smile.
I took several pictures as we spoke.
“You have a beautiful bird. What kind is it?”
“Did you raise it?” I asked as I took another picture.
I understand it is illegal here in Mexico to possess wild birds. Yet, I’ve seen many for sale.
“Ah no, lo encontré en el bosque,” I found it in the forest. “Se había caído de su nido,” It had fallen out of its nest.
I do know most parrots live and raise their young from tree hollows, huecos en los árboles, no en nidos.
As the words exited the man’s mouth, the bird made a deft move toward his ear and bit it.
After a quick examination of the red trickle exiting his wound, he calmed and in English asked me, “You like to have a perico like this? I can get you one.”
I’ve since compared my photo of the bird to various illustrations and texts I found online as well as my own bird identification books, and I believe this bird is a Lilac-Crowned Parrot, Loro Occidental or Cotorra Frente Roja. In 2006, Birdlife International classified this species as Vulnerable. In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature uplisted this species to Endangered.
These birds are very intelligent. They are often taught to speak and they know how to Tell.
Picture a busy business executive dressed in a tuxedo while grabbing a bite in a sandwich shop at the beach. There’s no reason to wear dull clothing even when eating a mundane meal.
Yelapa, a small coastal village accessible by boat on Mexico’s Bahia de Banderas, is where we first found Black-necked Stilts. Then living in Guanajuato, we had fled a cold snap. After taking a bus to Puerto Vallarta, we traveled by shuttle boat across the bay to Yelapa. Our room overlooked the lagoon formed where a river, Rio Tuito, meets the ocean waters. This was our week to warm up.
On our first morning, as I prepared breakfast while looking out over the lagoon, I was delighted to spot a group of unfamiliar shorebirds. They appeared to be similar to the American Avocets we’d often seen in coastal North Carolina—both with a slight upturns to their thin bills. Watching them forage along the alluvial banks, we noted a most striking difference. These birds were wearing full formal attire.
Now living in Puerto Vallarta, we have discovered these fancy-dressed Black-necked Stilts are frequent visitors to the mouth of the Rio Cuale, the small river running through the south end of the city. There they parade about the shallows showing off to walkers crossing the river’s footbridge along the malecón, the pedestrian causeway along the bay’s edge. Their graceful motion on long thin red legs is an elegant slow dance. Among birds, only flamingos have legs longer in proportion to their bodies.
Their scientific name, Himantopus mexicanus, points out their home turf. In the morning before the noise level of Puerto Vallarta is too high, you may hear them. They are quite vocal—making sharp yapping calls. Sometimes they make soft cheeps, with deeper contented-sounding intermittent gargles.
While Black-necked Stilt populations appear stable throughout Mexico, the US Fish & Wildlife Service lists their near identical cousins, the Hawaiian Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus knudseni, also known as Ae‘o, “One Standing Tall”, as an endangered species.
Stilts are wetland birds and vulnerable to pollution from pesticide runoff.
These dignified shorebirds often work the waters together in groups of up to twenty, going about the business of their daily lives—corralling tiny minnows. They also eat bugs, shrimp, tadpoles and some seeds and plants making the Rio Cuale a perfect habitat.
And they are formally dressed for all their meals.
How is it possible for these birds to fly into such tangles of spikes and thorns unscathed?
Handsome with intimidating fierce yellow eyes, the Curve-billed Thrasher, Cuitlacoche, is high on my list of favorite Mexican birds. Calling with high-pitched, trilling chirps, they draw your attention while ripping apart ripe tunas on a nopal cactus with their powerful down-curved bills.
Red nopal tuna fruits, ripe for a meal
Curve-bills are as comfortable around thorn brushes, cactus spines and scrub as Brer Rabbit was in the briar patch. Their diet of insects, seeds and berries, draws these birds into improbable places. It is quite a show to watch these fearless birds land in spiny, well-guarded spots. Their careful landings often appear to be downright miraculous.
I once observed a Curve-bill fly into its nest in a Cholla cactus, a true snarl of sharp points.
Although these birds are common throughout Mexico, loss of habitat to urban development and agriculture continues to cause their population to decline.
Every day from the vantage of our roof terrace in Puerto Vallarta, I see a shiny purple-black male zanate lord over his kingdom of a great mango tree. That tree—more than sixty-feet tall—is the largest in our neighborhood. It towers over all the houses around and anyone looking toward the tree can likely see the big bird strut about the topmost branches. This puffed up garrulous creature points his head up, gapes his mouth, cocks back his wings and squeals his wild songs. His sounds surpass the mimicry of any mockingbird.
Cars drive by on the street below blaring mariachi music and the bird adds trills to the ends of trumpet accents. Other cars play US rap music and the bird attaches wild scats between pauses. This mastersinger comments on almost any stray sound—from raucous to melodic.
In México, the bird commonly called a Zanate is what I supposed to be the Boat-tail Grackle, a handsome bird found in my former home on the salty coast of North Carolina.
I find I was wrong. The Zanate, is a different species of grackle. It is the Great-tailed Grackle, Zanate Méxicano. They are the largest of the grackles and they often hold their tails fanned in flight—magnifying their apparent size. Other distinguishing characteristics are big bills, flat heads, long keel-shaped tails and an amazingly huge repertoire of songs.
One day I had carried laundry up to the roof and after washing, pinned it on the clotheslines. The zanate was busying himself, tending the sizeable harem of brown to bronze ladies he manages in the big mango tree. The bird gave an unusual whistle and I reacted with a whistle—attempting to imitate the bird.
With the bed sheets hanging the zanate could not see me. My re-creation was clumsy but he immediately offered a correction. I tried again—a better copy yet still unacceptable to the bird who returned the original phrase once again. On the third attempt, my offering was apparently satisfactory as the zanate offered a new sound. This time it was guttural—not a whistle. My response was laughable and he replied with a wild multi-sound song—too complex for me even to consider trying to imitate. Instead, I constructed my own complicated reply. I produced a high-pitched whistle transitioning into a low dove-like trill followed by a voiced gargle.
No reply. Then, a shadow passed over me. The bird had flown around to my side of the drying sheets. There only ten feet above me, I saw the hovering zanate’s blazing yellow eyes looking to see just who or what was messing with him.
I read a Mexican legend that told of the zanate’s greatest talents, his songs. Those songs are said to be of the seven passions—love, hate, fear, courage, joy, sadness, and anger.
The songs of this bird are awesome, however, I now understand there is another important trait of the zanate—curiosity.