The Birds of the Yucatan Wetlands – Celestún and Rio Lagartos

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20 Dec 2016. We’ve just pulled away from shore and are heading under a low bridge when I see this young snowy egret hiding beneath it.

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The boat captain slows down for me to photograph it, and then we are on our way speeding across the waters of the estuary. We are near the town of Celestún on the north-west coast of the Yucatan Peninsula facing the Gulf of Mexico and we’re going to see the flamingoes. Birds fly along side the boat, travelling at the same speed.

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We see small groups of the distinctive pink and red flamingoes far off near the shore,

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but we are headed for a larger group feeding in the shallows.

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As you can see from Don’s video, there are hundreds of them, squawking like ducks, tangling with each other, dipping their heads over and over into the water to feed on the minute red shrimp that colour their entire bodies and all their feathers except the black wing tips.

We see dozens more flying in to join the flock.

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I’m excited. I can’t remember when I was last so excited. And happy. I’m trying to take it all in, and of course in looking in one direction I’m missing what’s going on in another. There are six of us in the boat and we alert each other as more birds arrive or depart. These three, looking as if they’re running across the water, are about to land.

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The Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestún (Celestún Estuary Biosphere Reserve) is a large coastal wetland reserve and wildlife refuge covering 146,000 acres. It is a unique eco-system created by the combination of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico and fresh water from the estuary. This combination makes it a perfect habitat for flamingoes and waterfowl. It is home to over three hundred species of birds.

After watching the flamingoes we slowly cruise the shore for a while spotting cormorants, ibis, herons, egrets, and pelicans.

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We turn into the mangrove swamps where it is possible to see the red colouration in the water from the shrimp,

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and we stop briefly at a natural spring deeper in the tangled mangroves.

All too soon it is over and we’re headed back to Celestún where we are delivered to a beach restaurant. We are told we have two and a half hours for lunch and the beach. Don and I are disappointed. We had been promised two hours or more on the water exploring the mangrove swamps and watching the flamingoes and other birds. We’ve just come from six weeks at the beach so don’t feel in need of extra beach time. It is what it is. We walk along this beach on the Gulf of Mexico, so different from the white sand beaches of the Mayan Riviera on the Caribbean side of the Yucatan Peninsula. This beach has rougher waves, and is thick with shells.

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Huge red starfish are washed in on the waves. They are the same starfish we’ve seen in great numbers off the coast of Cozumel, the same ones that feel like hard plastic. There’s a man on the beach gutting a couple of them. He cuts a star shape out of the underside and cleans out the interior. As best I can understand they are then used as wall decorations.

We eat lunch. Afterwards, we spread the sarong under a couple of young palm trees and surrender to the moment. Magnificent frigates fly overhead. Magnificent is their official name. It is also an apt descriptor.

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28 Dec 2016. We take a bus from Valladolid to Tizimin, then a taxi from Tizimin to Rio Lagartos, arriving mid afternoon.

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Our room is not ready so we sit on the balcony of the restaurant watching the fishing boats on the water and the humming birds at the feeders hanging close by. They are tiny jewels and defiant warriors, fiercely guarding their territory.

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Later, after checking into our room, we walk down by the water at sunset

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and watch the pelicans catching dinner. In great contrast to the delicate hummingbirds, pelicans are large and ungainly. They can be quite majestic in flight, but when diving for fish, filling their gullets, fighting the waves, they can be graceless and comical. The brazen seagulls constantly land on the pelicans hoping for a free meal.

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Rio Lagartos means Alligator River and was named by the Spanish who mistook an estuary for a river, and crocodiles for alligators. The town of Rio Lagartos is actually situated on Ria Lagartos, the Lagartos Estuary.

Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos (Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve) is about three hundred kilometres east of Celestún along the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The reserve covers 150,000 acres of forest, dunes, mangroves, estuary, and beaches. Within the reserve 395 species of resident and migratory birds have been identified, along with over 250 species of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. There are four small towns within the reserve: El Cuyo, Las Coloradas, San Felipe, and Rio Lagartos.

The Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve is the home of more than 43,000 flamingoes. They collect there in the summer for breeding and nesting and then spread out along the coast to Celestún and elsewhere during the winter. As with the estuary at Celestún, in the Lagartos estuary there is a mix of salt and fresh water creating the perfect habitat for the brine shrimp that the flamingoes feed on.

It is from the town Rio Lagartos that we have the kind of experience we’d been hoping for in Celestún.

We’re up at six, and by half past have had a cup of tea and are waiting on the dock for Francisco who is to be our guide for the day. He soon arrives and by 6.45 we are underway. We don’t need to go far. A short distance away we see a group of flamingoes and Francisco heads towards them. It is barely past sunrise and the world is honeyed with golden light. And there they are in front of us, not more than twenty feet away, thirty or forty flamingoes feeding in the shallows.

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There is a pale young one. The older they get, the more they eat, the redder they become.

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There is no rush, there is time to revel in the experience, but eventually Francisco fires up the engine and we head slowly in the other direction, back past the dock, past a convention of pelicans,

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past a young frigate,

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and on deeper into the estuary. Francisco is expert a spotting wildlife. He maneuvers gently up to the shallows where the birds are feeding,

Night Heron

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Black-necked Stilt

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and slowly drifts by ibises, their long beaks plunged into the water. We see a raccoon scurrying by in the tangle of mangroves, and we sidle quietly up to a sand bar and watch white pelicans from Canada, and great flocks of royal terns and laughing gulls. We see many cormorants, several species of herons, and an iguana clinging to a mangrove root bathing in the early morning sun. We cruise slowly by a double-crested cormorant,

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a black hawk eating a fish breakfast high up on a dead branch,

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a great blue heron,

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and a pelican out on a limb.

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There are a couple of dozen pelicans all in a row on a log, more flamingoes,

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and in shallow water a crocodile.

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Francisco is always on the look out, and misses nothing. At least twice we are moving at speed and suddenly, unexpectedly, the boat slows, he reverses and points out a green heron, barely visible in the undergrowth,

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and later a stork feeding in the shallows of a backwater, barely visible behind the false shore. But our guide catches it, reverses the boat and slows almost to a stop at the entrance to the backwater so we can see it. Although a different species we recognize its similarity to the Jabiru, a stork native to Australasia.

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And then we are moving fast for several minutes, heading further along the broad estuary towards Las Coloradas. Las Colorados is a village on the estuary about twenty kilometres from Rio Lagartos. More importantly Las Coloradas is salt ponds, huge ponds of pink water that go on into the distance as far as we can see. We clamber out of the boat and walk along the berm that forms the wall of the nearest pond. The water, rippling softly in the breeze is pink from the brine shrimp.

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In the distance in some of the ponds, flamingoes are feeding, and some of the young males are practicing their mating dance. They stretch their long necks into the air as high as possible, flap their wings and turn their heads from side to side, all the while squawking and strutting about.

Salt has been extracted from Las Coloradas since the days of the Maya, and is now a major production. Since the ponds contain water with a high salt content the brine shrimp live there turning the water pink. On the other side of the berm, deep in the estuary and far from the sea, there is little salt in the water. The difference in colour is remarkable.

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One more shot of flamingoes, because – flamingoes.

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After three and a half hours, saturated with all we have seen, we arrive back in Rio Lagartos and eat a big breakfast at the restaurant above our room, sitting at a table overlooking the water. We are content right to our bones.



Next post: the city of Valladolid – pastel streets, crowds, blaring music, and some memorable meals.



Our tour of Ria Lagartos was with Ria Lagartos Adventures.



I’ve added an underwater video of our snorkelling trip to the Cozumel post.





All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.