Trip Report: Amazing Campeche! Part III

AmazingCampecheIII_300pxThose of you who have been following our “Amazing Campeche” trip report will remember that, at the end of our second day, we were poised to discover an unexpected place. Feeling very hungry after a day of birding and eager to explore options different from the small menu offered at our lodgings, we decided to drive around the sandy streets of Isla Arena looking for suggestions. Locals seemed rather amused, even bewildered by our questions, for this is a very small community with no restaurants, yet it wasn’t long before we were directed to Wotich Aayin, the “House of Crocodiles”. Food was our main concern but we were also about to find something else.

As soon as we pulled into the small parking lot at Wotich Aayin, the doors of the main house flung open and we were warmly welcomed by Mr. Carlos Rivero León. Yes, they did have food and would be happy to serve us, he informed us, but wouldn’t we care to learn about their crocodile farming project as well?

Thus our visit turned out to be not only a tasty experience, as we enjoyed a meal of delicious shrimp, but also an interesting opportunity to walk through the mangrove forest and learn about a crocodile breeding project that, after many years of hard work by an industrious group of close-knit family members, has blossomed into a noteworthy and growing success.

Mr. Rivero was full of passion as he conveyed interesting information about the inner workings of the mangrove ecosystem and its importance both for the environment and for human populations. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

We followed Mr. Rivero down the interpretative trail, enjoying as we had in El Remate the opportunity to be immersed in the mangrove forest. As we reached the end of the walkway we were rewarded by a wonderful vista of the waters we had traveled by boat a few hours earlier. A small dock with wooden benches offered us a place to sit. The area was very calm and constantly caressed by a gentle, cool breeze.

“Can you feel it?”, Mr. Rivero asked. “This is a place to relax, meditate and be energized by the force of nature”. And indeed, that’s precisely how it felt. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

As the afternoon gave way to dusk, our group of birders would not be denied the final find of the day. Not too far from the dock we spotted a bird that would soon be identified with characteristic ability by Cherie and her field guide: it was a Sora (Porzaba carolina). Howell and Webb’s Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America provides the following information: “Widespread winter visitor. (…) Ages differ, sexes similar. (…) Habitats: Freshwater and brackish marshes, especially with reeds, flooded pastures, mangroves. Less skulking than most crakes, often feeds in open situations at marsh edge (…).” A perfect description of the location and behavior of the bird, just as we saw it.

The Howell and Webb guide provides detailed information that helps identify this Sora (Porzaba carolina) as a juvenile specimen: instead of the reddish eyes and orange-yellow bill of adults, it sports brown eyes and a greenish yellow bill. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

After walking back through the mangrove forest we were treated to an interesting explanation by Mr. Rivero about the ins and outs of the Wotoch Aayin crocodile farm. The species of choice for this project is Morelet’s Crocodile (Crocodylus moreleti), more manageable, smaller and somewhat less aggressive than the larger American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), also found in the Yucatan Peninsula. The project has achieved a remarkably successful reproduction rate and Mr. Rivero has become quite a crocodile wrangler, an ability he demonstrated by quickly handling a juvenile specimen so that we could all take turns holding it for a moment. He made sure to first put a noose on the croc’s mandibles, since even at such a young age these reptiles have a very powerful bite and can easily chop off two or three human fingers in the wink of an eye.

Holding this smiling croc (Crocodylus moreleti) was an unusual experience, although not an unpleasant one as Jacqueline’s grin seems to prove. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Up close, it’s easy to see tiny black points on the crocodile’s scales, both in the upper and lower parts of its body. These are receptors that provide the animal with information about its surroundings, including the movements and location of possible prey. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Handholding this baby, that’s a totally different proposition. Even if it looks particularly well fed, as this one does. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Back at the restaurant we met Ms. Rumualda Gómez Gómez, President of the Wotoch Aayin group, a lively woman who charmed us with her friendly conversation. We decided this would be the ideal place to have breakfast before getting back on the road the next day, and even though it meant the restaurant would have to open its doors before the usual time on Sundays, they readily agreed to do so. What more could we ask for? If you’re planning to visit Isla Arena, do not miss this interesting spot. You can learn more about Wotoch Aayin by visiting their FaceBook page, here.

I can almost hear some of our fiercest hardcore birders out there grumbling, “…enough with these crocodiles already! What about the birds?!”. However, before we move on to the birds we saw in the last leg of our trip, do keep in mind that all birds are evolutionary descendants from ancient reptiles, so these crocodiles are at the very least distant cousins to our feathered friends. “It goes back to evolution in terms of crocodiles appearing to be the closest existing relatives of the birds, and the birds being modern dinosaurs, basically”, says Dr. Carl Schmidt of the University of Delaware in a report by Adam Thomas that you’ll find here.

And so it was that, after a good night’s sleep, we made it out at dawn the following day. We split the morning in two halves, starting at the bridge that crosses into Isla Arena and exploring several miles of the main road with Peten ecosystem on both sides of it, then backtracking towards La Casa del Cocodrilo for delicious mid-morning shrimp omelettes. Thus energized, we checked-out of our cabañas and got on the road again, with Merida as our final destination but stopping frequently to see and photograph more birds along the way,  including a final experience at El Remate. As we left Isla Arena behind, thoughts about a second visit were already on my mind.  I’ll let the photos and captions tell the story:

6:22 a.m. The power lines that bridge the gap between Isla Arena and the main land function as a veritable hotel for Cormorants. Most guests were still reluctant to start the day’s activities. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

A few minutes later, the sun’s first golden rays reward us as we peek through an opening in the vegetation that flanks the road to discover a Great Egret (Ardeas alba). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Another furtive peek into the marshes revealed a small dot of fiery red: a Vermillion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). According to the National Geographic guide, this bird is “fairly common and approachable”. It was a first sighting for me, and try as I might to approach it, my feet quickly sank in the mud advising me to desist. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Look up! A squadron of American White Pelicans! (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

This is the unusual Petén landscape we saw from the road. The Yucatan Peninsula is notoriously flat, and the “hills” in the background are actually vegetation that grows taller in areas where underground water springs up. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Note the impressive wingspan on this Wood Stork (Mycteria americana). At a distance, it can be confused with a Pelican or a King Vulture, as it shares the vulture’s fondness to use thermal currents when it soars up into the skies. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Looking up close at the Wood Stork (Mycteria americana), there’s something definitely pre-historic about the look of these birds. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

As the sun shines brighter and hits this Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) at the right angle, an iridescent green hue appears on its wingtips. None of the field guides I have for the birds of North America mention this in their descriptions of this bird, although the effect can be seen in one of the small “in flight” drawings in the Sibley guide. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

I was lucky to witness a scene of predation, as this White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) successfully captured a snake. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

For this White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), taking off does not mean relinquishing its prey. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

The Howell and Webb guide to the Birds of Mexico describes the White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) juvenile as follows: “Head and neck whitish, streaked dusky, upperparts dark brown with white rump and uppertail coverts usually only noticeable in flight; tail dark brown”. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Another juvenile White Ibis, this time in flight. (PHOTO © Ivan Gabaldon).

As they return to the spot they had vacated minutes earlier, these trio of adult White Ibises (Mycteria americana) demonstrate how the black tips of their primary feathers as they are clearly visible from the back. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

A flock of White Ibis (Mycteria americana) , adults and juveniles flying together. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Follow the dotted line! An unexpected sight, this group of Flamingoes (Phoenicopterus ruber) flying in neat formation. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

As we cross the bridge back to Isla Arena, the power lines hold a new sight for me: a first stage immature Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregatta magnificens), recognizable by its mostly white head and underparts. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Yet another distant cousin: we spotted several immature crocs by the side of the road. Without our crocodile expert nearby, I could assume this one is also a Crocodylus moreleti, but I couldn’t be certain. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

I had walked up the road, ahead of the group, when my teammates summoned me back with hand gestures: a beautiful Pigmy Kingfisher (Chloroceryle aenea) was perched within arm’s reach. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

How narrow did I say the road was? Here, see for yourself. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Try as he might, this caterpillar is unable to resist the pull of a hungry Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotila varia). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

As substantial as that caterpillar looked, this Black-and-white Warbler isn’t quite satisfied yet: the hunt goes on. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Partially hidden by the foliage, this Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas) is quite a good looking bird, and a fitting one to close our first visit to the fantastic birds of Campeche. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

SPECIAL THANKS: to Maria Andrade, Cherie Pitillo and Jacqueline Aldana, for being such great travel companions. Also, to Maria for making arrangements for this trip; to Cherie, for carrying and sharing her field guide and expertise; and to Jacqueline, for being our expert driver!

I.G.H.

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10 Responses to Trip Report: Amazing Campeche! Part III

  1. Jacqueline says:

    !Increíble aventura! Fascinante narración y excelentes fotografías, me encantan! Wow todo lo que se descubre…y todavía me digo a mi misma: !oye, pero si tu estuviste ahí!

    Felicidades Iván, mucho éxito en tus próximas aventuras!

  2. ¡Muchas gracias Jacqueline!

  3. Sandra Balam. says:

    ¡Las fotos estan impactantes! y ni que decir de la aventura, esperemos que nos sigas compartiendo mas de ellas, en hora buena y mucho éxito!

  4. Maria Andrade H. says:

    Hola Iván;

    El don que tienes para escribir y tu arte plasmado en la fotografia seguramente serán fuente inspiradora para a motivar a más
    gente a conocer y valorar la riqueza natural con la que contamos en la península de Yucatán. Gracias por compartir tu tiempo
    y talento, fue una exelente experiencia ser parte de esta aventura. Un abrazo, Ma.

  5. Cherie Pi says:

    What are the chances someone would photograph a Black and White Warbler pulling out a black and white caterpillar! One in a few billion? Amazing! Also, I don’t recall the green of the Wood Stork. Also amazing image. Early morning colors of the Great Egret are gorgeous. Whether it’s people, birds, or crocodiles, your images are breathtaking. Incredible post, Ivan, incredible. When will you have a coffee table book available?

    • Hello Cherie! I’ll admit I was thrilled to find such color coordination between the warbler and its prey. It almost makes one wonder if a diet of black-and-white caterpillars gives the Black-and-white Warbler its coloration. 😉 Thank you so much for your enthusiastic comment, it was a pleasure to go on this birding adventure with you. Coffee table book? Hmmm, something to start thinking about perhaps? Cheers! IGH

  6. Joaquin Pacheco says:

    Excelente!!!… GRACIAS, por compartir esas experiencias, las fotos y el sentir personal.

    Bendiciones y que sigas con esa sensibilidad tan a flor de piel.

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