Our study-abroad students and I recently beheld one of Nature’s most thrilling sights: flocks of hundreds of American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in in the wild! There are only a few places you can get “up close and personal” with these magnificent birds, and the shallow coastal waters around the Yucatecan town of Celestun is one of those spots. This trip was one of the last things we do with our group, and it was as much a celebration of this place and our love of it, as it was a chance to watch birds.
After a couple hours’ drive west of Merida, we came upon El Puente del Rio, a bridge over the river, although honestly the alternate name locals use (La Laguna, the lagoon) is more accurate. Really, this narrow body of water is simply a shallow, protected inlet of saltwater; it is directly connected to the Gulf of Mexico. Mangrove trees border the water on all sides.
Near the bridge is a visitor’s center with restrooms and ticket office. Unlike olden days, the excursions to view the birds are now organized and efficient. Fine little boats await at a dock, and their skippers are knowledgeable and friendly, ready to take your ticket and begin your voyage. Hold onto your hats, because you’ll power over to the flock pretty quickly.
Guidebooks always caution readers against goading the guides into approaching the birds too closely, but I doubt it needs to be said. These folks appear to love the birds, and know full well that the flamingo’s well-being is more important than any particular visitor getting just the right photo or a closer look. All the questions I’ve asked the guides have been answered quite authoritatively, so they clearly understand the birds and the need to refrain from stressing them by getting too close. Moreover, the guides have been more than happy to point out other birds, too…and seem to have a really good eye for finding the various herons, osprey, cormorants, and more.
There surely are a LOT of birds, and other wildlife, to enjoy. Although the waterway appears uniform, it really isn’t. Note the patterns of upwelling and mixing occurring here and there, giving the water different colors and degrees of cloudiness/transparency. We should expect those differences will be important to the various small, planktonic organisms in the water, and therefore to all the organisms up the food chain, including ultimately those flamingos.
I’m told that much of the inlet has a similar depth (obviously suitable for long-legged wading birds), but shallower spots are found here and there—your boat’s skipper will need to tilt up the outboard motor to navigate them. After tooling around the broad, open area, it’s time to visit an entirely different ecosystem: El Ojo de Agua, the “Eye of The Water.”
We navigate a channel through the mangrove forest, and deep within we find inside yet another type of forest entirely, one with taller trees and a diverse community or plants and animals. It all surrounds a series of pools, upwelling springs of freshwater (agua dulce, “sweetwater”). The freshwater has traveled through the karst (limestone shelf) that underlays the Yucatan Peninsula, flowing from the south (all the way back to the Puuc Hills, perhaps) and spreading out here as it finally drains to the ocean, bubbling up within a salty coastal wetland!
Our boat pulls up to a dock, and we step out onto a boardwalk through the forest. Some visitors swim in the clear, fresh pool, but not me—I am working. On some trips, I’m lecturing to the students; other times we may collect data on salinity or other characteristics of the water. Today, I’m mostly observing birds. This is a great place to see almost anything: songbirds of the forest, raptors, waterfowl of the coast, or perhaps hummingbirds working the flowering vines climbing up the trees. I pause to enjoy a Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), a common visitor to northern wetlands. I wonder if I’ll see him again in a month or two, up in Iowa…?
In the meantime, I will enjoy my time here in the Yucatan. Please come back next week for more about Celestun, and this part of Mexico. Thanks for your visit.