I finally saw my first wild parrot. This has to be a Great Moment in the life of any temperate-zone birder. I have seen parrots all my life--locked in cages, shut up in houses. I have known budgerigars that were taught to drink martinis and tended to run into the wall whenever they tried to fly. I have heard cockatoos cuss like marines and seen macaws roll over and play dead.
But never before have I seen actual wild parrots, parrots that were just trying to make a living the way their granddaddies did before them. We used to have a parrot here in the north, the Carolina parakeet, but it went extinct before the turn of the century. It was as if northern people couldn't tolerate these seductively tropical birds in the cool forests.
I was on my second annual all-purpose winter trip to the Yucatan--to be precise, it was the 12th day of the second trip, when I finally nailed down the identity of two psittacines. Parrots tend to fly over high and fast, and if you're under the trees, the parrot experience is usually a loud, raucous screeching followed by fleeting glimpses of green-and-red birds flying fast.
The two parrots common in the Yucatan differ only in that one of them has some yellow over the beak and the other one doesn't, so fleeting glimpses are not enough to separate them.
I finally got the look I needed on an early morning walk along the beach at Playa del Carmen. With the sun climbing out of the Caribbean behind me, I stood and watched and waited for about 20 minutes while two birds moved around in the tops of the scrubby trees just in back of the beach. Were they yellow-lored or white-fronted? After several good looks, I could say white-fronted for certain, and I had my first parrot.
Many birders are collectors, people for whom a parrot on the list is its own reward, a kick equal to acquiring a Montgolfier Brothers airmail stamp or a Mario Mendoza baseball card. I have enough of that lust to keep my lists up to date, but for me, the fascination of birds has always been their ability to reveal what is going on. They are clues to order and meaning.
My first all-purpose Yucatan tour was last year. My journeys to the tropics are more like Chevy Chase's trip to Wally World than Charles Darwin's voyage on the Beagle. The founder of modern biology had people around who were paid tiny sums of money to schlepp his luggage. And he didn't have to wait for second-class buses, and endless processions of trucks didn't drive past his hotel room all night, and he probably never got stuck in a restaurant where the only beer they had was Corona.
Other styles of travel are available, of course. For birders, a growing number of specialized travel guides provide the sort of trip that Charles Darwin would have taken if he had had the money. Experienced guides handle all the grubby details of food, transportation, and lodging, and they also provide the trained eyes the traveler needs to record 400 life birds, 16 of them new to science.
I like to think that my own less focused travels--a bit of beach time, a bit of ruins, some time in the sidewalk cafes around the zocalo, 45 minutes in the bus station, and then a stroll through the trees to count the great-tailed grackles--give a clearer look at what is happening.
I want to see patterns. I want to walk over and over again through seemingly identical scrubby woods and find out what I see every time I go and what I see at least half the times and what I see only once. I want to see what disappears when the first building gets erected in the woods and what comes in with the second building.
The end point of human activity all over the world is pigeons. Put up more buildings, build them higher and closer together, and eventually you will create an environment in which pigeons are the only possible birds. In Merida, the capital of Yucatan state, a few small areas have achieved that level of urbanization. Most of the city is great-tailed grackle land. The great-tailed grackle looks a lot like our common grackle, except that it has this really great tail that is at least as long as the rest of the bird. The tail seems to require careful positioning, as if a careless flick could pitch the whole bird over on its back.
Great-tailed grackles handle the starling and sparrow realm in the cities of the Yucatan. When you get into parks where a Chicagoan would expect robins, the Altamira oriole and the social flycatcher become common.
Altamira orioles are like larger versions of our northern orioles. Social flycatchers do hang out in flocks and they are very noisy. They have black-and-white striped heads and bright yellow breasts. Both of these birds are perfect emblems of the Neotropics. Orioles, along with grackles, blackbirds, meadowlarks, and oropendolas, belong to a family called the Icteridae, which are found only in the New World. Social flycatchers belong to a family called the Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae), also New World, with 365 species, most in the Neotropics.
For the geographers of birds, the Neotropics start in northern Mexico. The boundary runs approximately from Tampico on the east coast to Mazatlan on the Pacific, and the region extends from there south to Tierra del Fuego. New species are still being discovered in the Neotropics, and the estimates are that between 20 and 30 percent of the world's birds nest there. Eighty-six families are represented in the region, 31 of them found nowhere else in the world.
South America was isolated through most of its history, and a long and complex evolution occurred in its bird life. When the shifting of the continents united North and South America at Panama, South American families began to move north, hence our orioles, wood warblers, flycatchers, and wrens.
The flycatchers are songbirds belonging to a suborder that lacks a well-developed syrinx. The syrinx is the organ in a bird that does more or less what our vocal cords do for us, and real songbirds need their syringes to startle us with their melody. The suboscines, the birds without a true syrinx, are a minor part of the world's avifauna, except in the Neotropics, where hundreds of species belonging to several families make up a major part of the bird life. In the scrubby woods that cover most of the Yucatan, suboscines such as the masked tityra, the bright-rumped attila, and the boat-billed flycatcher are all common.
The Yucatan in winter is also a good place to see North American birds. I saw seven species of warblers that I will probably see again in May. I felt like striking up conversations with them. "Nice place. You come here every winter?" They are part of a system that operates across an entire continent.
My weirdest moment in Mexico came on a hot sunny afternoon on the highway south of the port of Progreso. The ladies were enjoying the beach and I was looking for birds in a mangrove swamp that extended east and west from the road. It was mid-afternoon, not the best time for birding, but I was seeing brown pelicans, great egrets, tricolored herons, little blue herons, green-backed herons, a good mix of water birds. But I was also seeing lots of huge trucks rumbling along on gravel roads built on causeways across the swamps. The long straight roads split the vast mangrove swamp into separate ponds cut off from each other. High-tension lines crossed the swamp. The rumbling trucks seemed to be part of a construction crew that was building something very large for Pemex, the Mexican oil monopoly. Here and there, suspicious-looking films clouded the water.
I had one of those moments of insight, a realization that sometimes you can't get away no matter how far you travel. "Lake Calumet," I said to myself. And it was. This Mexican mangrove swamp had the exact look and feel of the remnant marshes on the southeast side, exhausted nature hanging on in the face of dikes and landfills and petrochemical works. Even the egrets and tricolored herons, the willet wading in a pond, the green heron fishing at the water's edge were the same birds I would see at Lake Calumet. Birds help us see what things mean.