Blog 3 : Birding

Blog 3   Birding with Diego Núñez                                                    29 November 2012


For birding, Diego Núñez is the best in the business. At least so said the dozens of testimonies that a web search turned up under “birding” and “Río Lagartos Biosphere Reserve.” The reserve, established by the Mexican government in 1979, comprises 150,000 acres along the Yucatan Peninsula’s north coast. At its heart are a long string of large, shallow, coastal lagoons, fringed by mangroves, with beach to the north and scrub forest to the south. The habitats for birds, reptiles, predator mammals, birders, sport fishermen, photographers, and Discovery and Nature Channel producers, could not be more ideal. And if you’re looking for a 60-kilometer long stretch of Caribbean beach with nobody on it but you, this is your place.

Despite all this Río Lagartos, named for the crocodiles that are at the top of the Reserve’s natural food chain, is only just beginning to be developed for tourism. The village lies at the end of the only paved road to reach this part of the coast. The local population, a couple of thousand at most, fish for their living from small open lanchas. A handful of restaurants along the beach wall where the skiffs tie up offer reasonable grub (including

the tenderest and tastiest octopus sautéed in garlic that I have ever eaten). There are a couple of scruffy hotels, the nicest of which, Villa de Pescadores, is run by a laid back city businessman

who thought it would be a good retirement project. From its balcony we could watch the white and brown pelicans, frigate birds, gulls and terns patrolling the lagoon edge for minnows and tasty crustaceans.

The other source of income here is tourists, though there don’t seem to be many. During our three-day stay we saw only two others: a tall back-packer whose focus seemed to be drinking beer and working on his Spanish non-stop with some of the local fishermen (me, 50 years ago?), and a German fellow who, judging from the length of the lens to which his camera was attached, came here to take pictures. For the locals a tourist, if they can catch one, is more lucrative than fishing, so it stood to reason that as we drove into town we were trolled by men on bicycles offering lancha tours to see crocodiles and birds. We swam past most of the bait, but nibbled at a couple of phone numbers, figuring that if were unsuccessful in hooking up with Diego Núñez, we’d have to settle for second tier. But we were in luck, and by phone, as Diego was in Mérida tending to his ailing grandmother, we agreed to meet at his wife’s restaurant, La Torreja, conveniently right next door to our hotel, Monday morning at 6:00 AM.

After fortifying ourselves with a quick breakfast of hot coffee and ham sandwiches, we set off in Diego’s lancha, Linda and I up front in the bucket seats, Diego twelve feet behind us tending the outboard motor, two rows of benches in between.

“We took the heavy lancha this morning. Steadier in the water.” Diego raised imaginary binoculars to his eyes and mimed the tremulo that choppy water might indu

ce. At the moment, though, the water was like glass. I gave a thumbs up to show that I’d understood.

 The sun was just cresting over the mangroves on the east side of the lagoon. Frigate birds, the males’ red breeding pouches not yet catching the morning light, roosted on the gunwales of some of the lanchas bobbing at anchor. As Diego pointed his boat toward a pink smudge far across the lagoon, and we began to talk about our mutual interests and experiences, we learned how he came to be the scion of Río Lagartos naturalists.

Back around 1980, when Diego was still a teenager, an agent of the ministry in charge of the nascent biosphere reserve system came to Río Lagartos offering to teach the rudiments of bird identification to local fishermen who were interested in becoming guides. There

would be short courses in several regions of the country, the apprentices would be given written resources, and they would have access to an expert support network. In Río Lagartos the only taker was Diego. His fishermen colleagues laughed at him. “Tourists? There are no tourists. How is this going to help you catch fish? A colossal waste of time.”

Diego went away to the short courses. He came back with a set of binoculars and began to patrol the edges of the village along the shore and the mangrove swamps, learning how to match the critters in the air with the critters on the page. Local folk suspected he was peeping at women through open doors and windows. Either that or he had gone crazy. But, Diego told us, before long they began to see that sometimes he was squiring important looking foreign people around the town, and he was taking them into the lagoons and the mangroves in his lancha. It was soon clear to everybody that Diego was making money, as much money, no, more than that, than they were making by fishing. He wasn’t peeping at girls with his binoculars, the girls were looking at him. And one of them, Matilde Marfil Marrufo, who runs La Torreja, the restaurant that Diego uses as his office, caught him.


 “Three. Teenagers, 15 to 19. The oldest boy is learning the business with me.”

“How is your son’s English?” From the few English phrases

Diego at used with us, usually to explain some technical matter or give the equivalent name for some bird whose Spanish name had drawn a quizzical expression from Linda or me, I could tell that Diego’s English grammar, and his accent, were pretty good.

“They get it in school, but you have to have an ear, and practice. I never studied it, not formally anyway, but when I started looking at bird books I found that they were all in English. I had to figure it out little by little. And then my clients, most of them are from other places, the US, Holland, Germany, France. Most of them speak more English than they do Spanish, so I listen to them, and eventually the words stick in my head.”

By now we were nearing the far side of the lagoon, and the pink smudge had resolved into a long line of flamingos, feeding for tiny crabs in the shallows. The few juveniles among them were pale in color, but the adults glowed Disney-pink. Diego cut the engine and we drifted close. Most of the flamingos seemed unperturbed, but a few of the males rose up on their tiptoes, spread their wings, and flapped at us, hoping to scare us off by looking big and dangerous and threatening. Scary? Not so much. But impressive, definitely.

We shot photos for a while. Then Diego poled the boat a calming distance away, fired up the motor, and headed toward some sandbars in another part of the lagoon. He told us that he had recently spent a couple of weeks filming with some people from the Discovery Chanel who were interested in flamingos and frigate birds.

“Because they are so showy?” I hazarded a guess. TV always goes for the flashy.

“You’d think. But it’s really because they know so much about hurricanes.”

“How’s that again?”

“Somehow flamingos seem to be able to sense the change in pressure of an approaching hurricane. If it’s going to be more than 60, 80 kilometers per hour of wind, they all leave and look for more sheltered, inland lagoons to hide in. When we see the flamingos leave, we start putting away anything that’s loose and can blow around.”

“And the frigates?”

“Frigates are fast. The second fastest birds there are. 80 kilometers of wind doesn’t even bother them. They just hang there, motionless, as the wind flows around them. But if they sense it’s going to blow harder than that, then they disappear too. And when the frigates go, we pull up and leave too. Then we know it’s going to be a bad one.”

The sandbars were packed with terns, Sandwich, Caspian, and royal. Laughing gulls. Willets and marbled godwits. Black skimmers. Wilsons and semi-palmated plovers, and an assortment of peeps. Inlets into the mangroves were crowded with herons and egrets of a half dozen varieties, roseate spoonbills, wood storks, and white ibises. On the bare snags that protruded from the mangroves perched belted kingfishers, great and common black hawks, and ospreys. Overhead the black buzzards and zone tailed hawks cruised for carrion.

The find of the day—both for us and for Diego—came when Die

go poled the lancha through a tiny alley that connected the main lagoon with a much smaller pond entirely enclosed by mangroves. The vegetation was so close on both sides that instead of using the pole Diego pulled us along by grabbing onto branches. Suddenly he stopped, raised a finger to his lips for silence, and pointed into a hollow in the mangroves no more than three meters from the side of the lancha. It was a grey-necked wood rail, nearly 40 centimeters high, standing still as a statue, watching us warily through its yellow-rimmed red eyes. The copper colored feathers on its back gleamed like satin; its neck was grey silk, its beak, half again as long as its head, a bright yellow shaft. Diego pulled his camera from his rucksack, leaned so far over the gunwale that we thought he would fall into the water, and fired off at least thirty pictures, as the rail thought about the exotic creatures that it would describe to the young’uns when it got back to the nest that night.


David & Linda