Host: David Bacab
When: Any time.
Length of tour: One day or two, depending your interests
Fee charged: The usual fee is US $80/day for guide, plus expenses for any meals, transportation, hotels, tips, etc. However, the final prices will vary, depending on what you want. But we will be in contact via e-mail, so all this can be worked out once we are communicating.
WHERE TO FIND BIRDS IN CELESTUN,
By David Bacab
Not all that far from the U.S., along the north-south migratory bird route, is a rich
mangrove wetland with a rich tropical avian fauna, which is attracting knowledgeable
birdwatchers from both North America and Europe. Located on the west coast of Mexico's
Yucatan Peninsula, the fishing village of Celestun, home to approximately 300 bird
species, is found within the Celestun Wildlife Refuge.
The Reserve is the most important wintering site on the Gulf of Mexico for birds traveling
within the central migratory bird flyway. Straddling the states of Yucatan and
Campeche, Celestun is about an hour and a half ride from Merida, Yucatan´s capital. It is
less than two hours from the famous Maya archeological site of Uxmal.
The wildlife refuge covers an area of approxmately 146,000 acres,
composed of a rich variety of tropical habitats, including: coastal dune vegetation,
mangrove forest, low deciduous forest, savannas and harwood hummocks, (locally known as
petenes). The Celestun wildlife refuge was established by federal decree in 1979 in order
to protect the main feeding area for the non-breeding population of the American Flamingo
Colony, which nests along the north coast of the Peninsula. At the same time, the
protected area conserves important habitat for countless species of both migratory
land and water birds, along with locally endemic and endangered species.
According to the type of ecosystem that one wishes to visit within the reserve,different
modes of getting around are used. Some sites must be visited by boat, while others
are accessible by car. There are some that are reached only on foot. In general, the
three most accessible habitats are: the coastal dune vegetation, the mangroves
and the low deciduous forest. The reserve can be divided into three
major areas: north, south and east.
Sites reached on foot:
The easiest sites to visit on foot are adjacent to the town of Celestun. On the
north side of town, one can reach the coastal dune habitat. From the town´s central
plaza walk one block west and turn right a block before arriving at the beach. This is
calle 12 that runs parallel to the coast along the old road to Sisal. Continue in
this direction until you leave the town behind and you will begin to see plants that
characterize the coastal dunes, such as Seagrape, Starbell (Siricote),, Gumbo
Limbo (Chacah), and Poisonwood (Chechem) . A note of
caution with the last species mentioned: do not attempt to touch or rest beneath this tree
because it has properties similar to poison ivy in temperate regions of the world.
These are only a few of the plants that are typical of the area. Once you are on the
road, the most common birds that are present year-round include: Tropical
Mockingbird and Tropical Kingbird, which are found at each step
of the way. During the spring and summer, the Brown-crested Flycatcher
and White-winged Dove are also common . Other common species found here
are: Northern Cardinal, especially during the breeding season, the Golden-fronted
Woodpecker, Grove-billed Ani, Common and Ruddy Ground-Dove.
Of course, there are other species, some of which are not hard to find, such as the Hooded
Oriole, Altamira Oriole, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Social and Vermilion
Flycatcher, Rose-throated Becard, Plain Chachalaca, Mangrove Vireo, Canivet's Emerald,
Cinnamon Hummingbird, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
But do not think that these are the only sightings you will find along a one mile stretch.
Celestun is the best place in all of Yucatan to observe unique endemic birds of the
coastal dunes such as the Yucatan Wren, Yucatan Bobwhite and Mexican
Sheartail. The first of these is easy to locate during the nesting season
that begins in the spring and lasts into summer. It is very noisy, as is typical of the Campylorhynchus
The Bobwhite, like the Wren, is common during the
spring-early summer when we hear its typical call of "bob-white". The
female Mexican Sheartails are easily mistaken with the slightly smaller
female Canivet's Emerald and the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird,
the latter found only during the winter. The male Mexican Sheartail is harder to see exept
during spring, when it begins courting the female. This is a good opportunity to add it to
your list. The White-lored Gnatcatcher is another species that can be
found in this part of the reserve. It is a year-round resident and not difficult to spot.
More difficult to find is the Mangrove Cuckoo, which is quite secreative.
It is easy to mistake it with the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a local resident
Another place of easy access on foot is the beach. Walk in the same direction as mentioned
previously but continue past calle 12 to the beach. Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown
Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Laughing Gull, Royal and Sandwich
Terns are some of the species you may find circling overhead. From November
through April, it pays to carefully observe the flocks of gulls as familiar Herring
and Ring-Billed Gulls visit from the north temperate zone.
During the fall and spring migration, one has a good chance of seeing Franklin´s
and Bonaparte's Gull. Continue your walk another 200 yards toward
the south to the pier. During these seasons this is a good site to find: Common,
Forster´s and Black Tern. During the summer, some Gull-billed
Terns might be seen here. While the Least Tern are common during
this season along the coast. There's a chance that you may even find a species not
yet listed for the Reserve! Even Sabine´s Gull has been sighted at
Make the village park your point of departure and walk east on the principal thoroughfare
leading east towards the estuary. Once outside the village proper, you will note
that on either side of the road there are low depressions, often filled with water. When
these flood over during the rainy season, there is an even greater diversity of species.
This is a good place to observe herons and sandpipers. The Black-necked
Stilts are present almost all year, except in the summer, and Mangrove
Swallows are common all year, nesting in the hollows of dry trees. Be sure
to check out the first tower on the right side of the road. Bat Falcons have made this
their favorite perch for scouting out prey.
Early on in the fall migration, flocks of Least and Western
Sandpipers, along with Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs,
arrive, but not in flocks as large as other species. Stilt Sandpiper, Short-billed
Dowitcher, Pectoral Sandpiper, Wilson´s Phalarope, and American Avocet
can also be observed. White-rumped Sandpipers arrive with the
spring migration, and is rarely observed in the fall. Beginning in November and
extending through the month of April, Snowy and Great Egrets,
Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, and White Ibis,
are all common. Not as common, but also present, are Roseate Spoonbill, Wood
Stork, Blue-winged Teal, and Reddish Egret. Among the
remaining mangrove vegetation it is possible to find Mangrove Warbler, Green Jay,
Dusky-capped Flycatcher, and some of the migratory species, such as the Northern
Parula, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-White Warbler, and Yellow
Warbler. Of course one can also find the coastal dune species mixed
in along the way.
After walking for less than a mile, one arrives at the bridge which crosses the estuary.
If you cross it during low tide and carefully look about near the edge of the mangrove,
with some luck you might see Gray-necked or Roufus-necked
Wood-Rails. The best time to traverse this route is early in the morning or
at dusk. On the other side of the bridge, on the mainland, look into the mangroves for
other possibilities, such as the Mexican Bare-Throated Tiger-Heron, the
secretive Boat-billed Heron, and even for a Pygmy Kingfisher.
If you choose your car over a walk, drive slowly. The best time to find migratory birds
returning north in the spring is from the end of April into the beginning of May. Indigo
Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Painted Bunting, Summer Tanager, and Rose-breasted
Grosbeak, are found at the edge of the road. With lots of luck, you might even
spot an uncommon bird species, such as Dickcissel, Bobolink, Grasshopper, Lark
or Lincoln´s Sparrow.
If migratory birds are your purpose, you need not go that far from town as the village
park is an ideal site to find what you are looking for. From the end of September
through early October, the primary concentration of fall migratory birds can be found
here. In addition, to the previously mentioned, here is the best place to find Scarlet
Tanager, Baltimore and Orchard Oriole, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Kingbird,
Swainson´s and Wood Thrush. During the spring migration, at the
end of April and beginning of May, the warblers are the protagonists, including Blackpoll,
Blackburnian, Tennessee, Blue-winged, Bay-breasted, and Yellow-rumped,
whe they take over this park.
Places accessible by boat
To visit the south part of the Reserve you should arrange to go with a boatman, who are
easy to find, given that they themselves will seek you out with an offer of "a
ride to the flamingos." Most of the tourists who visit Celestun do so in order
to see these formidable birds. But dedicated birdwatchers enjoy seeing much more in the
Reserve, where more than 300 birds have been registered within the area. The boatmen are
friendly, and some speak some English, but none are experts in bird identification.
However, they know the route and will find you birds which most likely, you will have to
There are two groups of boatmen: those on the beach and those located at the tourist
center at the foot of the bridge. For this next route, make arrangements with
someone at the beach. (Establish the price beforehand, as well as the time of departure).
The best time for this outing is early morning. embarking at the beach, ask the
boatman to head south along the coast. After passing the dock and before arriving at the
entrance of a sheltered harbor, ask your boatman to steer the boat close to the edge and
move slowly, because, in addition to the birds that have been mentioned that are near the
dock, you will have the opportunity to observe Sanderling, Willet and Black-bellied
Plover. On the rocks at the entrance to the sheltered harbor, you should see Spotted
Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone. After passing the entrance to the
harbor, continue to scan the water´s edge and the skyline. Turkey and Black
Vulture are common, but Yellow-headed Vulture and Zone-tailed
Hawk may be there too, and they are nice surprises.
The coast is good habitat in which to find the Crested Caracara,
American Oystercatcher (shown at the right), as well as Snowy
and Semipalmated Plover. Ask your boatman to stop in Nichili, which
they know as "Punta Pelicanos" or Pelican Point. This is an excellent spot from
which to observe numerous Black Skimmer, Caspian Tern, Wilson´s Plover,
and wintering White Pelican. Carefully observe the edge of this
small bay, especially if the tide is low. Sora and Clapper Rail
could be added to your list. also, with a great deal of luck, this is the only site in
entire Reserve where the Jabiru has been sighted. The variety of
shorebirds, aquatic and marine birds that can be found at Punta Pelicanos makes this
a must stop.
Continue your tour until you arrive at the "Petrified Forest". Merlin
and Peregrine Falcons have made this site their home away from home and
they are not hard to spot perched on the high branches of the dried trees, together with
the local and visiting Ospreys. Here you have another opportunity to spot
the Bare-Throated Tiger-Heron, Gray-necked and Rufous-Necked
Wood-Rail, in addition to a Pygmy Kingfisher in among the
mangroves. Be it at water´s edge or perched in the mangroves, you will find
resident Yellow-crowned and may be a visiting Black-crowned
Night-Heron, as well as seeing Anhinga and Neotropic
Cormorant, which also "hang out" on the north side of the
For another boat tour, go to the tourist center located by the estuary at
the foot of the bridge, and be sure you explain to the boatman that you want to see the flamingos
as well as other birds. Most people take this popular tour specifically to see the
During the winter months, beginning in November and continuing into February, this is the
best site and time of year to see an endless variety of aquatic birds, both resident and
migratory. In addition to the herons that are mentioned above, migratory ducks, such as,
the Northern Shovelers, American Wigeons, Northern Pintails, and Lesser
Scaups may be spotted. The Blue-winged Teals are the most
Ask your boatman to travel slowly, and once you are close to the mangroves, carefully look
among the branches of the vegetation for the Bare-Throated Tiger-Heron
you may have missed elsewhere. Here you will have another chance as well as to observe the
very secretive, nocturnal Boat-billed Heron. Not only look into the
mangroves but look up and more than likely you will find one of the most common hawks in
the reserve, the Common Black Hawk. There is also the possibility of
seeing, among others, the Crane Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk
perhaps even a White-tailed Hawk.
Continuing your tour, ask your boatman to take you to the Isla de Pajaros (Bird
Island), if the tide permits. This is a mangrove islet near the edge of the estuary.
Depending on the season, it is an ideal place to see nesting herons and Double-crested
Cormorants, as well as other species that use the islet as a roosting site. Early
in the morning and late afternoon are the best moments to visit. During the winter, Belted
Kingfisher is somewhat common within the mangrove canals throughout the estuary.
American Coots are abundant during the Winter and can be seen on the islet as well as the
rare white-phase of the Great-Blue Heron. Generally, the flamingos are found near the
islet and are first seen in the distance as a rose colored line.
After observing the flamingos, you will arrive at the Mangrove Tunnel. Ask the boatman
to turn off the motor so that you can move silently, without the distraction of the motor.
From your seat at eye level, look among the roots of the mangrove and there is an 80%
chance that you will see the Pygmy Kingfisher, to make your day.
If you continue looking among the thick mangrove roots, you will discover the Green
Heron. It is not an easy species to see, but they can be heard clucking in the
dense foliage. You may also hear the unmistakable call of the Ivory-billed
Woodcreeper, as well as the Rufous-browed Peppershrike. If
you are lucky, you might even see a Limpkin. If you know how to
imitate the call of the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, practice it and you will
see warblers and vireos appear out of the dark deepths of the mangrove.
Finally, you will arrive at Baldiosera, perhaps one of the most beautiful and best sites
in the entire reserve for observing birds. I recommend that you visit there early
before the majority of tourists visit the area. Baldiosera is a beautiful spring. During
low tide, and when the weather is not stormy, its waters are crystalline and transparent,
making a dip into them truly a refreshing experience. During the fall and part of winter,
don´t be surprised to see the estuary waters dark red. This is due to all the rain from
the summer season that washes out the tannins from the red mangroves.
This is the perfect site to find the Yellow-tailed, Yellow-backed and Black-cowled
Oriole, as well as Green and Pygmy Kingfisher.
Yellow-billed Cacique, Azte Parrakeet, Melodious Blackbird, Golden-olive
and Lineated Woodpecker might also all be found here, making an
appearance at any moment. These are just a few of the birds that can be seen at this
site. If the place is filled with tourists, ask the boatman to take you to Yax Ha,
the last stop on your tour. This is another spring, smaller, but of the same value in
terms of seeing bird species. Of course, continue seeking everywhere, remembering that the
birds are in constant movement and difficult to predict.
Before visiting the above mentioned sites, as previously mentioned, make your arrangements
with the boatman. Some speak enough English to explain the ecosystem to you.
Another site that is worth a visit is the Chan Banderas spring. It is
outside the usual circuit, but you can arrange with the boatman the time and cost for
taking you on this tour. Muscovy Duck, Boat-billed and Tiger-Heron
use this as their roosting site and perhaps even for nesting.
Sites Accessible by Car
East Side Merida-Celestun Highway
Once you are familiar with Celestun, you will realize that the streets of
the village are quite easy to navigate. The town is relatively small and
easy to orient oneself. The village park continues to be the point of departure, except
that now you will head east, as if headed for Merida. I recommend that
you begin this tour very early, given that it is the only highway connecting the Reserve
and as the day progresses traffic can become heavy. Once you have crossed the
bridge, slow down. The dominant vegetation along the road is button mangrove
interspersed on occasion with cattail reeds until you reach the second curve in the road.
Here is where you have a good chance at finding Common Tody-Flycatcher,
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Scrub and Yellow-throated Euphonias, Northern
Beardless Tyrannulet, and Kiskadee.
At the second curve, look for a place to park. Leave your car and as you study the
vegetation you will realize that the trees are much higher and the foliage much more dense
than closer to the coast. This is what is known as a "Peten", islands of
tropical trees that grow on the outcroppings within the mangroves. This is an ideal
site to find Squirrel Cuckoo, Black-headed Trogon, Barred Antshrike, Northern
Bentbill, Long-billed Gnatwren, Blue-crowned Motmot, Buff-bellied Hummingbird,
and Bright-rumped Attila. With a lot of luck you may possibly even
find one of the region's most endangered game birds - the Crested Guan.
Of course, this is not the only Peten, which is an ecosystem unique to the Yucatan
Peninsula, Florida and Cuba, but there are some very well preserved ones in the reserve.
When the highway was built, it traversed three of them. Continue driving east and
you will find two more Petens to explore along this stretch. The third one is the
largest. If you missed certain birds on your first Peten, here is another chance to
see them. Also, there is the possibility of finding Masked Tityra,
Clay-colored Robin, Grayish Saltator, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Green Jay, Yellow-backed,
Yellow-tailed and Black-cowled Oriole, Greenish Elaenia, and Pale-billed
As you proceed along your tour you will be aware of the changes in the vegetation. Once
outside the Reserve, the vegetation is less dense and more open. Always check standing
dead trees as they often serve as perches for Laughing Falcon, Gray and Roadside
Hawks. During the summer, when the rains predominate from June to August, one can
usually find Limpkins, Snail Kites, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Jacanas
in the flooded areas. Near the road you will also find some man-made lagoons. These
are excellent places to find Ruddy Crake, Gray-necked Wood Rail, Common Moorhen,
and Ringed Kinfisher. During the summer, Gray-breasted Martin
and Rigway´s Rough-winged Swallow may be seen in the area.
Once you have passed these lagoons, low thorn forest becomes the dominant vegetation.
During the dry season from November to April, the majority of the trees are leafless,
giving a very dry look to the landscape. This is a strategy to survive the
lack of water. However, during the rainy season everything turns an intense green as
the vegetation once more takes on a dense foliage.
During the spring, the Orange Oriole, a bird endemic to the Yucatan
Peninsula, is not difficult to see. The same can be said for the Zenaida Dove during
summer, and the Yucatan Jay, that is present all year, along with the
uncommon Yucatan Woodpecker and Yucatan Flycatcher.
Continue your tour until you reach the junction with the road that leads to the town of
Chunchucmil, (turn right while headed in the direction of Merida). There is good
vegetation for the first 6 kms. Along this road. This is a good place to be on the alert
for Lesser Roadrunner. More easily seen are the Blue-black
Grassquit, Yellow-faced Grassquit, White-collared Seedeater, Lesser Goldfinch,
Black-throated Saltator, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. The
habits of the White-bellied Emerald and Black Catbird are
not yet well known, but if they are to be found in October, this is the place. The
total tour covers about 25 kms.
Northside Coastal Dune Vegetation
If you have access to a car, I suggest that you follow the same route as mentioned in
Section A for the walking tour. Travel about 4 kms and turn right onto a road
that leads to the salt lagoons. Continue along this same road, passing two
small salt works until you reach the large salt works. Cross them and turn right until you
reach a spot at a junction and turn right again. Continue along the main road for a
kilometer and a half and turn left, and then right. Do not attempt to take a road
that does not look well traveled. After advancing two kilometers, turn left and then right
until you reach the principal avenue of town. Obviously you can stop every 300 meters or
so when it is appropriate to walk and check out the vegetation. When the salt works
are covered with water they are a good place to see shorebirds, especially in August and
October. The birds that are mentioned in section A are also found along this road, in
addition to other surprises.
Be on the lookout for a Great Black-Hawk, a forest species which has been
sighted in the other part of the salt works. Occassionally, flamingos
feed there. During the last kilometer look to your left and you will see that
the mangroves are tall and the dead branches are favored perches for the Bat
Falcon, Crested Caracara, Laughing Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, and the Lesser
South Side Coastal Dune Vegetation
This tour offers a second chance to see some of the species that could not be seen on the
North side, as well as some surprises. The dominant vegetation is typical of the
coastal dunes, but with a difference in the mix of trees and shrubs as compared with the
North side. Likewise, some birds are more common on one side than the another.
To follow this route, use the village park as your point of departure and drive east
towards Merida for 3 blocks before turning right stay on this road for a kilometer,
driving over the only speed bump and 50 meters further on turn left. Cross the avenue and
take the road that leads to the sheltered harbor. When you reach the junction, turn right
and then left, and drive another kilometer and a half to another junction. Turn right and
then left and drive 8 kms until you reach an area of dead palm trees of which only the
trunks remain. Find a parking place and walk to the beach at Punta Pelicanos.
Visit this site, preferably in the afternoon, to see any of the marine, aquatic and
shorebirds you might have missed when you passed in the boat in the morning.
Other species that have been sighted along this route include: Yellow-breasted
Chat, Painted Bunting, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. in the scrub
and pools of water look for Wilson´s Phalarope, Whimbrel, and Long-billed
Don't forget to look in the thickets for Upland Sandpiper, and especially
during spring, in early May, you will probably see Savannah and Grasshopper
Sparrow. Remember that all of these are migratory species, some transitory
and some winter visitors, which means they aren't found all year.
Although we all know that birds are not easily predictable, I hope that this small guide
will serve to familiarize you with the rich avifauna we have here in Celestun. We are
proud of our authentic, Mexican fishing port and our friendliness. all of us here want
very much to preserve the native charm of our village, while making people like you
welcome to watch birds with us. We have enough lodging facilities and wonderful
restaurants line the beach, while the boats linee up in the estuary to serve your needs.
Birdwatchers are especially welcomed!
- Appendix 1: Notes on Celestún Biosphere Reserve