Saturday, 25 April 2015

Book Review: The Young T. E. Lawrence by Anthony Sattin

Cover of the North-American edition
The impression you get of the young Thomas Edward Lawrence in the opening scenes of David Lean's superb bio-pic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is that of an inexperienced, delicate and feckless young man - an individual, it seems, completely unfit for military life. Well, that view works dramatically; it establishes a contrasting image of the man at the beginning of the film - a view that will change decisively, as he adjusts himself to the rigours of life in the desert. But the reality was far different than that. Lawrence was a man already well-primed for the campaign to come - steeled, both physically and mentally, by five years of experience in the Arabian desert. 

 And this is what this recent biography is all about. The Young T. E. Lawrence (published by W.W. Norton & Co., 2014) documents the man's pre-war life in the Middle East as traveler, researcher, adventurer, and archaeologist. It shows how Lawrence was quickly seduced by the exotic culture he was thrust into - how he came to admire and champion the Arabs, Kurds and Turks that he encountered in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. The book gives us, in other words, the back-story - to use modern parlance - that helps to explain why Lawrence became, so quickly, such an effective leader of the Arab Revolt.

T. E. Lawrence was born in Tremadog, Wales in 1888. He was Thomas on his birth certificate. Outsiders called him Edward. Some of his friends called him "T. E."; but to his family he was simply "Ned". His Arab companions dubbed him "El Aurens". And after his war exploits in the Middle East brought him fame, he was known publically as "Lawrence of Arabia" - a term that is fixed forever, now, thanks to David Lean's epic film.

Lawrence (at far left) and his brothers

When he was seven years old, the Lawrence family moved to Oxford. As a young boy Lawrence was fascinated with the medieval world. He was especially interested in Crusader knights; and he took up the hobby - along with his friend Cyril Beeson - of travelling around the Oxford area doing brass rubbings of their tomb images. His interest in history attracted him to the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University. He became a regular visitor there, and worked for them as a volunteer during his teenage years. On one noteworthy occasion, he took the initiative to search ground that had been exposed by the demolition of some buildings in the city. He managed to salvage some significant artifacts and donated them to the Museum.

Lawrence had a yearning for independence; he felt unhappy amongst the constraints of his family. Part of the problem was the mystery surrounding his family background (he and another brother were born illegitimately); part of it was because of the behaviour of his domineering mother, who held his father - in Lawrence's phrase - as her "trophy of power". Lawrence came to have a horror of families and of sexual relationships. He seems, in fact, to have found the very idea of sexual relations with a woman as repellant - although, strangely, he later proposed marriage to a woman in 1910. There has been a perennial debate about the nature of Lawrence's sexuality. Some believe he was a homosexual with sadomasochistic tendencies - a view reflected by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, who wrote the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia. Anthony Sattin weighs the evidence in this book and argues that Lawrence was probably "asexual".

In 1907, at the age of nineteen, Lawrence entered Jesus College, Oxford, to study modern history. He was an erratic student - extremely bright, but only worked really hard when he found the subject matter of interest. He chose to do a thesis on medieval military history.

In an early example of the young man's determination and physical stamina, Lawrence did an epic cycling tour of France between July and September, 1908, in order to study a series of medieval castles and churches. In his seven weeks of cycling all over France, he covered 2,400 miles - averaging 50 miles per day, every day. He seemed to relish any physical challenge. And he enjoyed being away from England - free of familiar people and places.

Map showing Lawrence's walking tour route of 1909
The following year Lawrence spent six months planning an even-more grueling trip. He intended to do a walking tour of areas of Palestine, Libya and Syria - as far south as Nazareth, and as far north as Urfa in Syria. He wanted to visit, sketch and photograph a series of Crusader castles as important research for the thesis he intended to write as the culminating task of his B.A. degree. As part of his preparations for the trip east, he wrote to "the expert on Arabia", Charles Doughty, detailing his ambitious plans. Doughty's response was unambiguous: "Long daily marches on foot a prudent man, who knows the country, would I think consider out of the question." Lawrence rejected the advice and continued with his plans. In the summer of 1909 he spent almost three months in the Middle East - mostly in Ottoman-controlled Syria. He walked a total of 1,000 miles (1,600 km), averaging about 22 miles (35 km) per day. He was a conspicuous sight - walking in his bespoke tailored-suit, with a backpack, tripod and camera.

All of his firsthand research in France and the Middle East paid off. His thesis, entitled The influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture - to the end of the 12th century, earned him a degree with first-class honours. He was awarded a postgraduate scholarship (called a Senior Demyship) at Magdalen College, Oxford, in order to do research in medieval pottery. It looked like his future lay in academia. But one of his tutors at Oxford recalled Lawrence in these words: "He liked the curious; he studied and did curious things. He had no taste for organized life and its conventions and institutions; it was his instinct to be against them, and he readily indulged his instinct." He certainly did. And that instinct led him away from the academic life; his path was leading him inexorably towards a life of action.

The eminent British scholar and archaeologist David Hogarth (D. G. Hogarth) had been appointed as the new Director ("Keeper") of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford - a second home for Lawrence during his mid-teenage years. Hogarth became a sort of father-figure to the younger man. Lawrence later described him as "our father confessor and advisor ... our referee, and our untiring historian." Hogarth had succeeded in financing, through several grants and donations, an archaeological dig at the Hittite ruins of Carchemish, in Syria. He had been given a two-year permit in 1910 by the authorities in Constantinople (Istanbul). Carchemish was located on the Euphrates River, near Jerablus. The ruins were buried under a huge tell - an artificial mound created by the accumulated remains of ancient settlements at that site. 

Lawrence had been looking for possible archaeological work during the summer of 1910 - before he took up his scholarship at Oxford. He made inquiries at the Ashmolean Museum and found out about Hogarth's project at Carchemish. Lawrence, of course, was intrigued at the prospect of a dig happening in an area of Syria he had been in the previous summer. He applied to join the team; and Hogarth took him on immediately, because of the young man's historical interests, his experience in the region, and his ability to thrive in difficult environments. Lawrence became an integral part of the Carchemish dig. After his first season of summer work there, he gave up his postgraduate work at Oxford and committed himself fully to archaeology. The work at Carchemish was extended several times, and Lawrence spent nearly all of four years unearthing the Hittite settlement. He summarized his time at Carchemish in a letter to B. H. Liddell Hart in 1931: "We dug hard for six months and I used to travel for the rest of the year. We were there for four years and it was the best life I ever lived ...".

Lawrence (left) in blazer and shorts; Leonard Wooley (right): at the Carchemish dig

The most important practical thing Lawrence learned in Carchemish was how to be a leader of men. He became the foreman of the 150, or so, locals who were hired to dig, scrape and haul. Lawrence learned Arabic, including significant amounts of the local dialects. His workers were primarily Arabs, Kurds and Turks. He came to admire these people and had little of the usual British sense of superiority over so-called "inferior peoples". Lawrence came to believe that civilisation "is the power of appreciating the character and achievements of peoples in a different stage from ourselves."

"The foreigners come out here to teach, whereas they had much better learn, for in everything but wits and knowledge the Arab is the better man of the two."

In everything that Lawrence wrote during this pre-war period, it is clear that he was filled with an exhilarating sense of freedom. When he was spending time exploring other areas of Syria, he relished the pleasures of the open road. He felt nothing but the thrill of unending possibilities. He had a clear sense of purpose. He loved the feeling of having left all the complications and worries of life back home; he felt at ease with his surroundings, and - more importantly - he felt at ease with himself. He developed incredible willpower and that trained him to survive the intense physical and mental demands imposed by the climate and the way of life.

In front of the house Lawrence built at Carchemish - his close friend Dahoum at left

At Carchemish Lawrence achieved great success as a leader of men, and an agent of the British interests he served. He admired the local men; and they liked him in return. He began to share their lives. He began to imitate some of their ways, and - in a significant and symbolic move - he even began to adopt their dress. There is a photograph of Lawrence with a huge grin on his face as he tries on the get-up of his close friend Dahoum. In the summer of 1912, Dahoum visited England with Lawrence; he explained to one of Lawrence's close associates there why he felt such devotion for his English friend:

"He is our brother, our friend and leader. He is one of us, there is nothing we do that he cannot do; and then he excels us in doing it. He takes such an interest in us and cares for our welfare. We respect him and greatly admire his courage and bravery. We love him because he loves us."

A rare grin from Lawrence - in native dress for first time

Remember, this is four years before he got involved with the Arab Revolt. At the outbreak of WW1 Lawrence was concluding work on antiquities found in the Sinai. In October he joined the geographical staff of the General Staff (GSGS) as a civilian - working on detailed maps of the Middle East. He soon enlisted. Lawrence was posted to the Intelligence department in Cairo in December, 1914. In March 1915, he wrote Syria: the Raw Material for the Intelligence Office. It was a perceptive analysis of Syria - which then included Transjordan and Palestine, based on his studies - but  also, of course, on his first-hand experiences in the region.

The Arab Revolt against the Turks began in June 1916 under the leadership of Sherif Hussein. From mid-October to mid-November, 1916, Lawrence was sent as a liaison officer by the Arab Bureau in Cairo, in order to investigate the relative failure - so far - of the Revolt. He was instructed to meet with, and assess, Hussein's four sons: Ali, Feisal, Abdullah, and Zeid. This trip into the desert is described later in Lawrence's book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. As he explains in his book, it became evident to him that only Feisal seemed to be a "leader with the necessary fire". Lawrence served with the Arab Revolt from April 1917 until October, 1918 when he asked leave from General Allenby in Damascus to return to England.

Prince Feisal in foreground; Lawrence in Arab headgear, second from right in the middle

Much of the military activity Lawrence participated in involved attacks on the Hejaz railway. He also led the celebrated attack on Akaba in early July, 1917 - the depiction of this audacious campaign is a highlight of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia

But, as Anthony Sattin's book makes abundantly clear, all of the physical and mental resources that Lawrence brought to his WW1 exploits in the desert  were developed long before 1916-1918 - the period dramatised in Lean's film. He had been seduced by the desert and its people as far back as his walking tour of 1909. More importantly, perhaps, "he was liberated by being out from his own place and away from his own people". At home he was an outsider, tormented by a life from which he was desperate to escape. Amongst the Arabs of Syria he felt at home. He was free to be himself. He was ready to serve and lead the people he loved.

The Young T. E. Lawrence (published in the U.K. as Young Lawrence: A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man) includes 266 pages of text, three maps, 16 pages of photographs, 21 pages of end-notes, a six-page bibliography, and a sixteen-page index.

Anthony Sattin is an award-winning British journalist and the author of six books. Most of his books deal with history and travel. Sattin's main area of interest is the Middle East and Africa - particularly Egypt. He has lived and traveled in these regions for more than two decades.

A Hittite stone relief unearthed at the Carchemish archaeological dig

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Photo Essay: Birds of Cozumel, Mexico

Royal Tern on the flagpole at the Iberostar pier head

Well, it was that time of year again, the middle of March - time to flee the frigid cold of southern Ontario and head south for the sun and heat of the tropics. This year Barb and I left the kids behind (their choice!) and spent the March Break (15th-22nd) in Cozumel, Mexico. This was our first visit to Mexico. Cozumel - its Spanish name is Isla de Cozumel - is a relatively small island (about 650 km²) located at the western edge of the Caribbean Sea. It's off the north-east coast of  the Yucatan Peninsula - just 19 km from the mainland.

Cozumel is a very flat island - the highest point is just 14 metres above sea level. The land is set on limestone, which results in typical karst topography - the rock is dissolved and pitted by the erosional effects of water on calcium carbonate. One special feature of this effect in the Yucatan is the proliferation of sinkholes - known as cenotes - that occur where the already-eroded limestone collapses above an underground water pool.

Cozumel is just inside the tropical zone - three degrees south of the Tropic of Cancer. At this time of the year it is hot and rather humid; during our 7-day stay the daytime temperature was 29° C or 30° C, and at night it dropped to about 20° C. It's classified as a tropical savanna climate. An amazing change for us, after we had endured an entire month of sub-zero temperatures in February (day and night!).
One of the key reasons we vacationed in Cozumel is the quality of the deep-sea diving. Barb is a keen diver, and she did four separate dives around the coral reef that lies just off the coast near our resort. The main interest for me, as usual, was taking lots of time to find, and photograph, the birdlife on the island. This was the third March Break in a row when I was determined to put good use to my fairly new 70-300 mm telephoto zoom lens. Previous projects had resulted in blog posts featuring the avian life of Florida (in 2013) and Cuba (in 2013 and 2014). The photographs in this post were all shot in Cozumel using a Nikon D7000 in tandem with either my Nikkor 18-105 zoom lens, or the afore-mentioned Nikkor telephoto zoom lens. 

Cozumel is an island off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula

Cozumel is located in the state of Quintana Roo, on the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula. The name of the island comes from the Mayan phrase Ah Cuzamil Peten (Isla de las Golondrinas in Spanish), which means the island of swallows. There are 1070 species of birds in all of Mexico. According to Avibase - a Canadian website database managed by Denis Lepage and hosted by Bird Studies Canada, which contains comprehensive birdlists of places all over the world - 252 species of birds are found in Cozumel. About half-a-dozen of those species are endemic to the island. The two largest groups of birds are the warblers (parulidae) and flycatchers (tyrannidae).  

Much of the birdlife in the Yucatan is sedentary, unlike Canada and the United Sates, where most species migrate. The number of species in the peninsula drops as you move north, from the rain forest in the south to the arid scrub land of the northern coast. The mainland is dominated by the tropical species of humid evergreen forest. On Cozumel you will find species (the Cape May Warbler and the Prairie Warbler, for example) that are migrating north at the end of the winter. The low-lying coasts of the island feature long sandy beaches, but there are only small populations there of shorebirds, gulls and terns - most of those resident during the winter months.

The Iberostar resort is on the south-west coast of Cozumel, near the El Cedral ruins

The all-inclusive resort we stayed at is called Iberostar Cozumel. It is on the south-west coast, about 20 km south of the airport in San Miguel. It takes about 25 minutes to get there by taxi. The resort contains about 300 guestrooms in 43 "bungalows" (they are actually two-storey buildings). The property is quite small - about 150 metres wide and 700 metres long, so you can get around very easily on foot. It is beautifully landscaped - crammed full of trees, shrubs and plants.

The birds found at Iberostar are mostly perching birds (passerines). We saw lots of warblers and flycatchers, but there were surprisingly few woodpeckers, doves, icterids, swallows, thrushes and tanagers. The resident perching birds are not easily seen - they are small (about 5-6 inches in length) and tend to like the upper branches of the trees. But the resort has "employed" a crew of domesticated avian life, which adds a lot to the general ambience of the place.

India Peacock climbing up to our room's balcony.

Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus)
There are a handful of peafowl moving freely around the resort - a couple of peacocks and five or six peahens. The species is known either as the Indian Peafowl, or the Blue Peafowl (because of the male's dominant blue colour). This species of bird originated in India and Sri Lanka, but has spread around the world as an ornamental bird. Its loud, plaintive cry is a familiar feature of British television programmes (like Downton Abbey) set at stately homes or country mansions, which are surrounded by extensive lawns.
The peafowl at Iberostar certainly get around. They are not shy at all - especially the males. A few times during our stay we had a peacock climb up the stairs on the outside of our building leading to our balcony. And we often saw them gazing in at the sliding glass doors of guest rooms - probably mesmerized by their own reflections. In the photo of the peacock standing at the top of our stairs, you can see the metatarsal spur, or "thorn", on the bird's left leg. They use these in territorial fights with other males of the species.
Indian peacock perched on the thatched roof of a resort "bungalow"

On a couple of mornings we even found that a peacock had climbed up the two storeys of a guest house and was sitting on the top of the thatched roof. Once in a while, too, one of the peacocks will spread wide its incredible eye-spotted tail. This dramatic fan display is thought to be part of the male's mating ritual - designed to attract a peahen.

Indian peahen (female) on the left; Indian peacock (right) displays its tail!

American Flamingo (Phoenicopturus ruber)
After you check in at the resort, you leave from the lobby area via a wooden bridge which takes you over a small pond containing nine flamingoes. The flamingoes are captured birds - permanent residents, because their wings have been clipped. They get fed at the pond each morning.
There are six species of flamingo world-wide - found primarily in the Caribbean, South America, Africa, north-west India and south-west Asia. The American Flamingo is one of the larger species. It's the only flamingo found in North America (Caribbean Mexico). Before the arrival of Europeans, the Flamingo was widespread in Florida, but it has now been pretty much extirpated from there. 

American Flamingo
The American Flamingo measures from 47 to 58 inches in height. Most of this flamingo's plumage is pink; but its primary and secondary flight feathers are black, which you only see when it spreads its wings. The bill is white and pink, with a large black tip.

American Flamingo sleeping

Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)

Scarlet Macaw

The Iberostar resort also has several captive parrots. The most impressive is the Scarlet Macaw. This is a South American parrot whose range extends up into south-eastern Mexico. It is a big bird, about 32 inches long, although more than half of that length is made up of its pointed tail. Its plumage is mostly scarlet, but it also has substantial amounts of blue and yellow feathers. The Scarlet Macaw can live from 40-75 years in captivity.

On most days, the Scarlet Macaw is brought by its handler from its nearby cage, and it spends several hours in the trees near the main lobby. It can make one hell of a racket: its vocalizations consisting of various loud, high-pitched, throaty squawks, squeals and screams. It seems to enjoy pivoting and turning upside-down in the trees, like a trapeze artist. Fun to watch and listen to.

Scarlet Macaw

Yellow-Naped Amazon

Yellow-naped Parrot, or Yellow-naped Amazon (Amazona auropalliata)

This is a fairly small parrot, about 15 inches long from head to tail. It is found in Mexico only along a narrow coastal band on the Pacific Ocean side, which runs south from Isthmus to the Guatemalan border. It is bright green overall, with a bright yellow nape. It also often has a slight yellow patch on its forehead. The individual featured in this photograph is domesticated - its wings have been clipped. Barb became a good friend of this parrot (named "Pepe"); she spent quite a bit of time with it on two separate days, stroking its feathers, scratching it gently around its head. Pepe seemed friendlier with females and young people.

Great-Tailed Grackle (male)

Great-Tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)

This bird reminds me of our trip to Florida. The very first new bird we saw there was when Colin and I were at the Kennedy Space Centre. We saw what looked these two species of aggressive and loud birds next to the snack bar at the LC-39 observation gantry. They turned out to be the male and female Boat-Tailed Grackle - a classic example of dimorphism (meaning two different appearances for the male and female of a species). The male Boat-Tailed Grackle is a large black bird with a royal-blue iridescent sheen; the female is much smaller, with a yellow and brown plumage and no iridescence. 

Great-Tailed Grackle (female)

The first wild bird we became aware at the Iberostar resort - apart from the domesticated birds featured already - was ubiquitous. It identified itself immediately as a grackle - the familiar dominating behaviour in its habitat - loud, assertive, and aggressive at times when competing for food scraps. And there was the same dramatic dimorphism.

Great-Tailed Grackle (male)
The male of this species - the Great-Tailed Grackle - measures from 14"-19". It has a very long, keel-shaped tail. Its colour is blue-black, with a purplish iridescent sheen. The female is 11"-13". Her head and upperparts are dark brown; her throat and underparts are cinnamon to tawny-brown - the throat being a bit paler. Both genders are noisy birds - throughout the day you can hear them loudly shriek, clack, whistle and chatter. This grackle tends to prefer open, or semi-open, habitats. But it is a gregarious and opportunistic bird, so the rather tight, dense surroundings of the resort did not put it off. It was interesting to see that the female seemed to like the beach more than the male.

Great-Tailed Grackle (female)

As usual, I spent a fair bit of time walking along the beach front - there's a better chance to observe sea-based birds, and birds that fly high in the sky (like hawks and vultures). The next section of this post features five species of birds I saw along the beach - either flying low over the shoreline, soaring or whirling high up, or perched in low trees at the back of the beach.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

This is a familiar bird to us now. We've seen it on each of our four trips to Cuba; and we also saw it several times in Florida. It's relatively easy to photograph, whether stationary or in flight, because it is large and slow-moving. It's very impressive when it's flying. Barb invariably describes it as looking like a pterodactyl. Certainly, it's not what you would call an attractive bird, but it has a grand presence, and an imposing flight profile. Sometimes - usually when it's alone - it will fly low to the water; but when it's in a flock of four or five, it will fly higher.

Brown Pelicans

This small flock of Brown Pelicans flew over our ferry, when we were docked at Playa del Carmen waiting to make our voyage back to Cozumel from the Yucatan Peninsula. We also saw an individual pelican perched on top of a building at the docking area in Cozumel's main town, San Miguel. I'm always happy to see pelicans go by.

Brown Pelican

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture (Carthartes aura)

You see plenty of Turkey Vultures in Cozumel, but they are not nearly as ubiquitous and populous as they are in Cuba. On one memorable walk south along the beach we saw both the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture soar and wheel above us, and then come in low to land on the upper branches of a tree at the back of the beach - joining another Black Vulture already ensconced there.

Turkey Vulture - note the familiar dihedral wing pattern (a shallow V shape)

The Turkey Vulture measures between 26" and 32". Overhead the wings are two-toned: the primary feathers look black (in contrast with the bright sky); the secondaries look grey. When you see it close-up, stood on the ground, or perched on a stump, you see that it's actually chocolate-brown in colour. As it soars, the Turkey Vulture holds its wings in a dihedral position - a shallow V shape. It's a distinctive piece of behaviour - identifying it immediately. The Turkey Vulture is a scavenger - its head is completely denuded of feathers, because it is constantly sticking it inside the carcasses of dead animals. The head is a red colour, which explains the name of the bird - but you have to be careful, because immature specimens have a dark-greyish head, similar to the Black Vulture.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)

This vulture is three-to-five inches smaller than the Turkey Vulture. There is a contrast between the primary and secondary feathers of the Black Vulture - similar to the Turkey Vulture - when you look up at it soaring above you, but its secondaries are considerably darker, and there is a distinctive white patch towards each wing tip. The Black Vulture's tail is shorter than the Turkey Vulture. Its legs are longer and its feet are light grey, unlike the yellow feet of the Turkey Vulture. In flight, the Black Vulture flaps its wings less and soars more. And it doesn't hold its wings in a dihedral, but keeps them flat. We had seen this bird a couple of times before, in Cuba, but it was exciting this time to see it up close and get a really good look at its dark-grey bill and black feathers.

Black Vulture

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia)

This sandpiper is common throughout much of North America. It is also widespread in Mexico. We saw one specimen on our stay at the Iberostar resort. But there were not many secluded spots along the shore where I walked; if I had gone out early in the morning, perhaps, I might have seen it more often. It is skittish and doesn't allow you to get too close.

The Spotted Sandpiper is a medium sized sandpiper. It is one of the easier pipers to identify. It bobs its tail a lot. It tends to stand with its body in a horizontal position - fairly parallel to the ground. It has a dusky smudge, enclosing a white patch, near its shoulder. It has a white line over the eye. And in the non-breeding season, it has a prominent white eye-ring, which you can see clearly in my photograph. In the fall and winter it is white below, with no spots. In the summer breeding season, it has round spots on the breast. The Spotted Sandpiper's flight pattern is distinctive, too; the wings beat rapidly in a shallow arc, giving it a stiff, bowed appearance in flight. An attractive bird.

Tropical Mockingbird
Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus)

This mockingbird is almost identical to the Northern Mockingbird found in Ontario. It has the same greyish upperparts, whitish underparts, long tail, and pale yellowish eye. The bill and legs are blackish. Its vocalizings are also so similar to the Northern Mockingbird that it is not safe to use them as way to distinguish between the two species (although the Northern Mockingbird is rare in the Yucatan). The mockingbird is a mimic thrush. The Northern and Tropical Mockingbird repeat each element of their long sequence of notes and phrases three or more times. This species is found pretty much all over the Mexican region south and east of the Isthmus, including the central and northern areas of the Yucatan Peninsula. I found it on the ground, at the back of the beach, or perched high in a dead stump. If left undisturbed, it will remain perched and still for quite a period - making it relatively easy to photograph.

Tropical Mockingbird

Surprisingly, the family of birds of which I saw the largest number of different species at Iberostar Cozumel was the wood warblers (Parulidae). These are amongst the smallest birds; the Peterson guides refer to them as "birdlets". They are smaller than sparrows - generally about 5" long. Warblers are usually very colourful. They are dimorphic - which means the male and female look different. The dimorphism amongst warblers can be quite subtle. These birds have a thin, needle-pointed bill. Most warblers are found in trees - some low down, some high up. They are very difficult to photograph because most of them flit about constantly and the light in amongst tree branches is often insufficient to provide a fast enough shutter speed. Tricky! Most of the warblers I found were in several specimens of the same tree species - in bloom with yellow flowers.

Cape May Warbler (male)

Cape May Warbler (male)
Cape May Warbler (Dendroica tigrina)

This was the warbler I saw and photographed the most at the Iberostar resort. It is also common here in southern Ontario during the spring migration. This species breeds in Canada in the boreal forest. Its preferred food is the spruce budworm. In Mexico, the Cape May Warbler is found only in winter along the coastal areas of the eastern Yucatan and on some of the Caribbean islands. The distinctive feature which helps identify this species of warbler is the chestnut cheek patch on the male, which contrasts nicely with its bright yellow neck. The female's head and back is olive-grey, and its neck, throat and breast are pale yellow - with some streaking on the breast. The name of this species refers to Cape May in New Jersey, where George Ord collected - in the early nineteenth-century - the specimen later described by Alexander Wilson. Ironically, however (given its name), this species was not recorded again at Cape May for another 100 years! Cape May is recognized as a top birding location during the migration season.  

Cape May Warbler (female)

Northern Parula

Northern Parula Warbler (Parula americana)

This small warbler breeds in eastern North America from southern Canada down to Florida. It likes to nest in the upper canopy of the forest. In Mexico it is found in most of eastern and southern Mexico during the winter. Its hood and upperparts are blue-grey in colour, and its throat and breast are yellow. This warbler can be identified by two key features: it has a suffused green patch on its back; and the male has a dark and reddish band across the upper breast. The Northern Parula also has white crescents above and below the eye - and these are very evident in my photograph.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum)

Unlike most warblers, which generally like to be in the trees, the Palm Warbler prefers life on the ground. You'll see it hopping around, searching for food amidst the grass, dirt, mulch and leaf litter. To escape danger it might fly up into a bush, or perch in the lower branches of a nearby tree. There are two key features that will help identify this warbler. First, you'll notice the constant tail-bobbing; then check its head, because it has a distinctive chestnut-coloured cap. The Palm Warbler is found in Mexico during the winter on the eastern and northern edges of the Yucatan, and on some of the Caribbean islands.

American Redstart (male)

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)

Both the male and female forms of this warbler are attractive and easy to identify. The male is mostly black overall, with bright orange patches on the wings and tail. The patches are on the outside of the tail, but they are easy to see because the Redstart spreads its tail a lot. The female is a subtle olive-brown colour overall, with yellow flash-patches in the same positions on the wings and tail as the male. A handsome pair. The Redstart is widespread in Mexico in winter along the lowlands of the Pacific coast and south and east of the Isthmus.

American Redstart (female)

Black-and-White Warbler
Black-and-White Warbler (Mniotilta varia)

We saw this warbler not at the Iberostar resort but at the Mayan ruins of San Gervasio - on the northern side of Cozumel island. It is found all over Mexico in the winter, except in the northern regions close to the U.S. border. The Black-and-White Warbler is often seen on the trunk of a tree, rather than in the branches; it likes to forage along the tree-bark - up, down and around - like a creeper or a nuthatch, probing for insects with its slightly down-curved bill. It has a black-and-white striped crown, and the rest of its body is also boldly striped in black-and-white. 

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler (Mniotilta varia)

This was a pleasant surprise. Barb and I have seen this warbler 7 or 8 times over the years - mostly at Rondeau Park down on Lake Erie. It is usually found low in wooded swamps - in very wet areas surrounded by trees. The Prothonotary Warbler captured in this photograph was fairly high in a tree (about 8') in a dry area. The entire head and breast of the male is a deep golden yellow. The wings and rump are blue-grey, and the back is olive. As this photo shows very well, the Prothonotary Warbler has white undertail coverts. In Mexico you'll find this bird along the eastern edge of the country during the spring migration - including all of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina)

We've only seen this warbler a few times - at Point Pelee and Rondeau, on Lake Erie, during the spring migration. Southern Ontario is the northern tip of its breeding range. Its habitat is found in eastern hardwood forests. In Mexico, the Hooded Warbler winters in the east and south, including pretty much all of the Yucatan Peninsula. The male of this species is easy to identify - its yellow face and forehead is completely surrounded by a black hood (or cowl). This photograph was saved by photoshoping. The original photo was shot in a rather dense and gloomy area of the resort - lots of trees and low-lying shrubs. It was difficult to get a sharp image. This was the best picture I got of it - improved immensely by the tricks of digital editing.

Yellow-Throated Warbler

Yellow-Throated Warbler (Dendroica dominica)

Here's another warbler we saw outside the Iberostar resort. This one was at the southern tip of Cozumel - in an ecological reserve called Punta Sur. At the very end of the road that runs south, and then west, inside the reserve, there is a beach with a small snack bar and a facility for renting snorkeling equipment and plastic kayaks. Under a protective roof, there were a about a dozen hammocks set up. On one of the ropes holding up a hammock, I noticed a Yellow-Throated Warbler. It was perched there for a couple of minutes, and I captured a few good photos. Some of its distinguishing features: a black patch around the eye, a white eyebrow stripe, a white crescent under the eye, and a yellow bib under its beak. The Yellow-Throated warbler is found in eastern and southern Mexico, and all around the coastal edges of the Yucatan.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

 Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea)

This bird is not a warbler; it belongs to the Sylviidae family - birds that are even smaller than warblers. The Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher grows to about 4 ½" in length. It is blue-gray above and whitish underneath. It has a narrow, white eye-ring and a long black-and-white tail which is often cocked like a wren's tail. It flips its tail about a lot. This gnatcatcher is widespread throughout Mexico. If you wanted to describe a bird as "cute" - this is it. It is tiny; and its song is a thin, wheezy, nasally, mewing kind of thing.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher


Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola)

This bird is also not a warbler. It's actually a species of uncertain relation (incertae sedis - "of uncertain placement"). It has been placed in its own subfamily - Coerebinae - although it is also often considered a kind of honeycreeper (nectarivores), or tanager. Regardless, this is an attractive bird - with its grey throat, white vent, and yellow chest, belly and rump. It has a prominent white eye stripe, a black bill, and a red gape. The bill is slender and curved - designed for extracting nectar from flowers. The Bananaquit is found in some areas of eastern and southern Mexico and along a thin coastal strip on the eastern edge of the Yucatan.



Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) or Couch's Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii)

In southern Ontario the two large flycatchers we are familiar with are the Great Crested Flycatcher and the Eastern Kingbird. You see them perched upright for minutes at a time - and then they do a quick loop out and around and back, right in front of their perch, snapping up all available insects. They are handsome birds. The Cozumel equivalent is equally attractive. The head is grey with a darker mask through the eye. It has a flame-coloured crown patch - but that is usually concealed. The throat is whitish, and the underparts are yellow, although the breast has a rather dusky wash on top of the yellow. This Kingbird's tail is long and slightly forked, with a pale cinnamon colour around the tail-edges. Both the Tropical Kingbird and the Couch's Kingbird are found throughout the south and east of Mexico. But here's the thing: it is very difficult to tell these two almost-identical species apart. The bill of the Couch's Kingbird is slightly smaller than its cousin, but the key identifying difference is in their vocalizations - which, of course, they don't often provide.


Yucatan (Red-Vented) Woodpecker
Yucatan (Red-Vented) Woodpecker (Centurus pygmaeus)

Unlike the Jibicoa Cameleon resort (our usual destination in Cuba) - which is teeming with woodpeckers - the Iberostar resort in Cozumel hosts only the occasional woodpecker. Over seven days I saw a woodpecker only twice, but I managed to get a pretty good photograph each time - sufficient to show the distinguishing features required for identification. It's a matter of checking any similar species in the guide book and distinguishing between them - based on range maps, habitat, and differences in appearance cause by gender and stage of maturity.

The Yucatan Woodpecker (as it names suggests) is endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula. Its back is barred heavily with narrow and horizontal black-and-white stripes - as with many other species of woodpecker. The Yucatan Woodpecker's head and underparts are pale greyish. It has yellow nasal tufts (with yellow usually encircling the base of the bill). The male has a red crown and nape; the female has red on the nape only - which identifies the specimen in my photo as a female. The lower abdomen is covered in red (which gives the species its other common name - the Red-Vented Woodpecker). Two species similar to this woodpecker in Mexico are the Golden-Cheeked Woodpecker and the Golden-Fronted Woodpecker: our Yucatan Woodpecker can be distinguished from the former by the lack of a gold-coloured nape and by its location (the Golden-Cheeked is found only on the Pacific coast of Mexico); and it can be separated from the latter by its yellow nasal tufts (the Golden-Fronted's nasal tufts are red).

White-Crowned Pigeon

White-Crowned Pigeon (Columba leucocephala)

We saw only two species belonging to the pigeon and dove family (Columbidae) in Cozumel - the Zenaida Dove and the White-Crowned Pigeon. I didn't get a decent shot of the Zenaida Dove, but the photograph of the pigeon came out well. We had seen the White-Crowned Pigeon several times before in Cuba, but it prefers to perch high-up in the fairly-dense canopies of trees. This makes it more difficult to get a good picture. But at the Iberostar resort, all of the trees were short or medium-size - giving me the opportunity to nab a useful photo. The White-Crowned Pigeon is found in Mexico along the eastern edge of the Yucatan and in some of its Caribbean islands. It's easy to identify: it is big; it has a dark, slaty, blue-grey colour overall; it has pale yellow eyes; and it has a distinctive bright white crown. 

Observation Tower at Punta Sur
And now we move off the Iberostar resort. Barb and I travelled by rented scooter south to Punta Sur ("South Point"). We got there in about 20 minutes. Punta Sur is Cozumel's largest ecological reserve. It contains an impressive sand beach (from where you can go snorkeling or lie in a sun-sheltered hammock, next to a snack bar), an historic lighthouse (Faro Celarain), an observation tower (from where you can see crocodiles and large wading birds), and the Colombia lagoon (which you can explore in a small or medium-sized boat - a park guide will take you around to the birding hot-spots, of which more shortly). After you've paid your entrance fee ($14.00 USD each), you drive about 2 km to get to the observation tower. We stopped there for about 25 minutes to check out the fauna. The most obvious things to see there are crocodiles - we saw several of them in very shallow water next to the tower (enjoying the shade, perhaps, on an intensely sunny day). From the top of the tower, we scanned the lagoon for sightings of large wading birds - with immediate success.

Barbara checks out the waterbirds from observation tower

White Ibis

White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)

Ibises and Spoonbills belong to the Threskiornithidae family. These are heron-like wading birds. The white Ibis is predominantly white; but note the red face and scarlet legs. It also has black wing tips, but they are only evident when the bird is in flight. When it is flying, the White Ibis keeps its neck outstretched. In Mexico the White Ibis is found mainly along the coasts, on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides.

White Ibis

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja)

This is a pink and white wading bird. Its head and bill are greenish grey. The neck, upper back and breast are whitish; the belly, wings and legs are shell pink - although there is a blood-red "drip" at its shoulders. The bill is flat and shaped like a spoon ("spatulate") - which is very distinctive, but local people often refer to the spoonbill as a flamingo. The red eyes are very noticeable. In flight - similar to the Ibis - it keeps its neck outstretched. As with the Ibis, the Spoonbill is located all along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Roseate Spoonbill


Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

The Ibis and Spoonbill were wading in the lagoon. The Osprey, when its not in flight searching for fish, perches in leafless spots on the top of medium-sized trees. We noticed the specimen in the photograph perched near the tower. 


Ospreys are likely to be seen in the same environments as eagles and buzzard hawks (buteos). It is smaller than an eagle, and about the same size as most buteos, but it can be distinguished from them by its longer, narrower wings - which it usually holds at an angle (a crook, or "kink") in flight. It flaps its wings more, flies closer to the ground, and is not as skittish of people as hawks and eagles. It's one of the more interesting raptors to watch and photograph.


From the observation tower we moved on another 2 km to the lighthouse (Faro Celarain). We stopped to look around. The beach was interesting - some old, exposed corral lashed by the fairly rough waters at this southernmost tip of the island. Inside the lighthouse there is a small museum - with displays about the island's marine history and the families who manned the lighthouse, when it was actually in use. There is a snack bar here and a small souvenir shop. The workers keep a few interesting pets - including a Coati and a Pygmy (or Dwarf) Raccoon. The coati is a small raccoon-like mammal. Both very cute. There was a thatched roof protecting the snack bar and souvenir shop; for a while three Black Vultures were perched on its peak. 

Black Vultures

We now drove on by scooter for another 4-5 km to the end of the road. We parked at the snack bar located at the back of the beach and enjoyed some lunch. Off the shore a raft had been tethered; perhaps it serves as  a destination for snorkelers, who can rent equipment at the beach, but while we were there it seemed like a semi-permanent home for a flock of Royal Terns and Sandwich Terns. 

Royal Tern (Sterna m. maxima)

Terns are similar in appearance and behaviour to gulls, but they are generally much smaller and, in flight, they are more streamlined and graceful. The Royal Tern, however, is one of the largest individual species in its family (Sterninae). It can be as big as 21" in length - almost as big as a Herring Gull. Some distinguishing features to look for: a large orange bill, a deeply-forked tail (evident in flight), and - in early summer - a solid black cap that includes a crest at the back of the head. At other times of the year, there is a large whitish patch over the forehead. The Royal Tern is found all along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Mexico. A handsome bird.

Royal Terns (back) and Sandwich Terns (front)

Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis)

This tern can be 4"-5" smaller than the Royal Tern. In other elements of its appearance it is similar to the Royal Tern. It has the same black cap and crest in the early summer, which acquires a whitish forehead patch as the breeding season progresses. It also shows a deeply forked tail. The Sanfwich Tern's bill, however, is black, with a small yellow tip. The Sandwich Tern is prevalent all along the Atlantic coast of Mexico.

Great Blue Heron

After lunch we walked inland from the beach area along a short path until we came to a small dock on the edge of the Colombia Lagoon. We climbed into the smaller of two boats  - a low, flat-bottomed boat made of aluminum and powered by an outboard motor - and our guide took us out for a 45 minute trip around the lagoon. Our mission was to find as many interesting water birds as we could. 

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

The Great Blue Heron (or "GBH", as it is affectionately known by north American birders) is a very common sight in freshwater wetlands throughout southern Ontario. It is the largest heron in its family (Ardeidae). It is rather easy to identify in flight, because of the very slow flap of its large wings. Note how it flies with its neck bent, rather than outstretched. This heron is widespread throughout Mexico.

Tricoloured Heron

Tricoloured Heron (Egretta tricolor)

We first saw this heron at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, near Ft. Myers in Florida. It is a bit bigger than the Little Blue Heron, and slighly smaller than the Reddish Egret. In my photograph you see only two of its dominant colours - the blue-grey of the head, neck and upperparts, and the white on most of the underparts. Some specimens also sport white plumes off the back of the head. The third colour is not visible from this angle - rufous flecking that runs down the middle of a white stripe on the throat and neck. This heron is located on the coast throughout Mexico, but it is also found all over The Yucatan.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret (Dichromanassa rufescens

We saw the Reddish Egret in the lagoon near the observation tower, and then again from the boat in the Colombia Lagoon. The Genus name indicates that it comes in two colour phases: some birds are all white, with a yellow bill and blue legs; the phase shown in this photo has a grey body and a rusty-red head and neck. Its bill is flesh-coloured, with a black tip. It is loose-feathered and its neck often appears shaggy. It is found in Mexico on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Reddish Egret - note the shaggy neck

Boat-Tailed Heron

Boat-Billed Heron (Cochlearius cochlearius)

The guide in our boat, who was operating the outboard motor, was very keen to find some Boat-Billed Herons for us. He was obviously aware that this was the species most birdwatching visitors were looking for. Indeed, we had not seen this species before either. 

Boat-Tailed Heron

He took us around to several places that they were known to frequent - but with no luck. Finally, he pulled the motor up out of the water, so that he could punt the boat around a very shallow area of the lagoon - navigating the vessel around clumps of mangrove and other shrubbery. After about ten minutes of this, we finally discovered what we were after - a small colony of half-a-dozen, or so, Boat-Billed Herons. At the first flush, two or three flew off. I managed to get some interesting shots of them in flight. 

Boat-Tailed Heron

And then I was able to get some wonderful close-up shots: some photos showing just the head and upper neck of the bird hiding behind some vegetation; and then five or six photos of one specimen - the entire bird displayed beautifully on its perch. These shots were quite special, so I've included a fair number here! We were very grateful that our guide took so much trouble - and with such great results. 

Boat-Tailed Heron

The Boat-Billed Heron is a stocky and nocturnal heron - as such, it is related to both the Black-Crowned Night Heron (which is common in southern Ontario) and the Yellow-Crowned Night Heron (which is not found in our area, but we have seen a couple of times in Cuba). The Boat-Billed Heron has a very broad and heavy bill, which is generally dark, but yellow on the base of the lower mandible. Its legs are greenish-yellow. It has huge-looking black eyes (it's a nocturnal bird)  and a jet-black crown - with a bit of a crest coming off the crown (although some individuals sport very long, black plumes off the back of their head). The upperparts and flight feathers are pale grey, and the underparts are a light rufous colour. 

Boat-Tailed Heron

It's a quirky-looking thing - dramatic when you first see it. The Boat-Billed Heron likes mangrove swamps, freshwater marshes, and riverside trees. It roosts in small colonies in quite dense vegetation. It is found along the Pacific coast and in south and eastern Mexico - including all of the Yucatan. This was the most interesting bird we saw on our trip to Cozumel - a new species to add to our Life List.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)

Finally, after our visit to Punta Sur, we took the scooter north, along the rugged eastern coast of Cozumel. The water is rougher on this side of the island. You could taste the salt of the sea-spray on your lips now and then. Just before we got to the right-angled bend that takes you west along the road to San Gervasio (on the Carretera transversal road), we saw a small group of Magnificent Frigatebirds circling very low over the road. We pulled up immediately and I grabbed my camera. We had seen this species a couple of times in Cuba flying along the coast past of resort, but never this low.

Magnificent Frigatebird

These are large, highly aerial seabirds that fly all over the place between the tropics. The Magnificent Frigatebird is common and widespread along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Mexico. They belong to the Fregatidae family. They have very long and narrow wings and long, deeply-forked tails. In flight, the wings are held in a crook, or "kink", shape, like the Osprey. Their bills are long and hooked. The male Magnificent Frigatebird is lustrous black all over; the female is black all over, except for a broad white chest-band; and the juvenile has a white head, in addition to the white chestband. So the photographs here show juveniles. The male bird also has a highly distensible bright-red gular sac, used as a mating display. Usually, the sac is deflated, and it then appears as a narrow reddish throat patch. This deflated sac shows in the photograph I posted in the first of my two blog posts about the birds of Cuba. 

Magnificent Frigatebird

My List of Birds Sighted in Cozumel (March 15-22, 2015)
Brown Pelican
Magnificent Frigatebird
Spotted Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Turkey Vulture
Black Vulture
Belted Kingfisher
Tropical Mockingbird
Kingbird (Tropical or Couch's)
Melodious Blackbird
Great-Tailed Grackle
Gray Catbird
Zenaida Dove
White-Crowned Pigeon
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
Cape May Warbler
Northern Parula
Palm Warbler
Black-and-White Warbler
Hooded Warbler
American Redstart
Great Blue Heron
Green-Backed Heron
Tricoloured Heron
Reddish Egret
Boat-Billed Heron
Snowy Egret
Roseate Spoonbill
White Ibis

Indian Peafowl
American Flamingo
Scarlet Macaw
Yellow-Naped Amazon Parrot

The contents of this photo essay (text & photographs) are copyright
© Clive W. Baugh, 2015

Photographs taken with a Nikon D7000 
using a Nikkor 18-105 mm zoom and (mostly) a Nikkor 70-300 mm zoom

A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America
by Steve N.G. Howell and Sophie Webb, Oxford University Press, 1995

Peterson Field Guide: Eastern Birds
by Roger Tory Peterson, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980

Some more blog posts of mine featuring birds:

Boat-Tailed Heron