Welcome back to Popoyote Lagoon at Playa Linda in Ixtapa, Mexico! This is my ninth year posting from Ixtapa, primarily about the crocodile preserve, or "crocodilarium" as it is sometimes referred to, and I rather like that name. I go as part of an annual family vacation graciously funded by my in-laws, and we stay at the same place, Hotel Azul, just a few minutes walk from the pier at Playa Linda (where water taxis take you to Ixtapa Island) and this lovely lagoon. Originally started to protect the thousands of American crocodiles in the area, it has become a haven for many bird species, and I've watched the bird population grow over the years I've been visiting -- I think that's partially why it's so dear to me as I monitor the changes every year. I started visiting in the early mornings this year rather than the afternoons and greatly enjoyed the solitude, as I was usually the only person there until about 9:00 a.m. I received a very toothy welcome on this morning:
Highlights for this year in Ixtapa include reuniting with our friend who runs a delicious food stall at the marketplace on Playa Linda. Last year he and his wife took us out for the day showing us the locals attractions and revealing and explaining so much about the area we would have no idea about as regular tourists. If you find yourself at the pier in Playa Linda, find our friend Noel Sanchez, second one back from being closest to the crocodile preserve (Popoyote Lagoon) on the beach, with a pink-painted kitchen. 2019 was a rough year financially for him and his wife, so hopefully he will be able to remain in business.
Secondly, I had an uncommonly awesome experience at Ixtapa Island. We go there every year to snorkel on the far side of the island (and my nieces and nephews love to play in the soft sand where the water taxis land). For years, as in decades, I have not been able to find a snorkel mask that fits my face properly, so my snorkel experience is always 50% looking in the water and 50% emptying my mask of water and trying to open my eyes always stinging from the salt water. It's so unpleasant that I have to take an anti-anxiety pill before getting in the water. You may be asking why I bother to snorkel, then. Well, the answer is pretty simple ... for the 50% of the time I can look at the fish and coral, it's divine, it's fascinating and it's worth the struggle. (Just like African safari is worth flying in economy class for 18 hours with arthritic knees, a futsy back and ankles that swell like the Goodyear Blimp.) Well this year my mask broke and I asked to borrow my nephew's. Guess what ... it was a perfect fit. I floated in the water in a state of absolute serenity. It was so awesome, when I went back a second day with that mask (I bought it off of him!) I didn't even take an anti-anxiety pill. Both days I only came back in to shore because I got so cold in the water that I couldn't stop shaking.
The lowlight for this year was the difficulty in photographing the wildlife in the lagoon. Two things worked against me. One was Mother Nature herself by growing and flourishing her flora so that it blocks most of the previously open spaces where I could see the roseate spoonbills. This was particularly frustrating because there was an explosion in the population ... it has been steadily increasing every year and this year you couldn't fling a cat without hitting a roseate. Not that I would fling a cat. Au contraire ... I gleefully photograph them while missing my own darling kitties waiting for me at home! They patrol the food stalls and I usually find one or two brave ones inside the fence with the crocodiles, like this friendly fellow.
But the spoonbills were of course tucked away in the branches (as always) and only a couple slim lookout points remain where I used to be able to see them flying across a spot in the lagoon -- it's almost completely covered by tree branches. I couldn't catch them quickly enough with my camera flying across the small visible space, but fortunately the space I could see was one of the favorite spots for them to catch the first sunbeams of the morning.
One nice thing in spite of the limited space was that it was mating season and so there was a lot of activity between the birds, which is always the most interesting thing to watch. I don't generally know whether the interactions are between males and males or between males and females. (or for that matter between females and females!) There is no different plumage between the different sexes.
However, the only time I really see this head-biting behavior below (ouch!!) is when the one doing the biting eventually mounts the one having her head crunched and mates with her. So I'm presuming there is some imminent romantic action, though they flew away somewhere else after this scene:
But most often, shots like these below were the best I could muster. I actually waited a long time for each one of this pair to ever-so-briefly dip into the light as they worked on building their nest deep in the branches.
An obliging spoonbill perfectly situated in the open, in the sunlight.
The only fighting chance I had at being able to focus on them in time to capture them in flight was when they flew directly overhead in the wide blue sky. Last year I got a lot of flight pics, though.
The second hindrance was humans building for some unfathomable reason a second chain link fence directly behind the previously existing one. So I was already having to shoot a lot of times through a chain link fence, finagling my lens to focus perfectly through a small diamond-shaped hole. Now the second fence does not line up with the first, so any space I might be able to see through is half the size it was before. This was really disappointing and erased almost all photographing possibilities except at the three open spots, which are now either overgrown or again ruined by humans who built a big berm at the end of the lagoon where it meets the ocean beach so I can't see all the crocodiles behind it, this is where I've always seen the largest numbers together and this used to be the best spot to watch crocs and birds hanging out together and to get nice reflections in the water. Foiled!
So the lead photo of this post was probably the best one I got of the crocodiles and I had to work for it physically with my body and camera to look over the fence, over the low spot in the berm. There was one place where the fencing was still just one layer thick in a corner behind some food stalls and crocs like to hang out there a lot, so here are a few shots I got through the fence.
Did you notice in the photo above that the crocodile is resting his chin on top of a turtle? I often see the crocs giving rides to turtles on their backs, so I guess this is fair repayment to be a pillow of sorts. Look out for the guy below, coming for you! I missed a big kerfuffle and only caught the last bit of it in this shot -- the other crocodiles had swum away or dove underwater.
At one of the slim openings without fencing, I caught this male crocodile, the one in back, doing a mating display -- with his tail up out of the water like that and mouth open, throat inflated. I don't know if the croc in front is an interested female or another male trying to show him up or somebody who just wanted to snuggle. In any case, an awful lot of teeth on display there.
I thought this was kind of fun, looking down from the now-largely-overgrown elevated viewing platform, a crocodile and his turtle pal both just peeking the tips of their heads out of the water.
Photographing opportunities were dismal for the turtles and most birds who spend their time hunting their meals in the water because of the 2-layered fencing. But I did manage this cute little turtle on a stump.
The only real opportunity I got with birds and their reflections in the water was outside the fence of the preserve, spoonbills and an egret poking, regrettably, through beachside trash.
But after chillin' for awhile each day, the critters cheered me up even if I couldn't photograph many of them or any of them very easily. One of the best things I discovered about the early morning was the cacophony of bird calls and large flapping wings and clacking bird beaks, sometimes it was nearly deafening. Something I hadn't heard before was some kind of bird -- even though there were clearly groups of them in the trees, the foliage is so dense I could not see any of them! There was one group directly in front of me, hidden by the overgrowth in front of the elevated platform, one group beside me, and one group across the road behind me (where the mangrove swamp continues). One whole group would start gack-gack-gack-gack-gacking then stop. A few seconds later another group would pick up the same gack-gack-gack and then stop abruptly. Then the next group. Around and around it went. I don't know if they were in a competition with each other trying raise the loudest noise or if they were communicating something to one another or if the sound of one group simply inspired another group to take up gack-gacking. It was pretty cool to stand in the middle of.
I saw several green herons in the water but could not photograph them because of the new fencing. But then this guy flew into a tree. I saw him land from across the lagoon in the area where the spoonbills liked to sun themselves. So I quickly walked around to the other side hoping he would still be there. I've only seen them a couple times in trees. What amazes me about them is their feathers ring very different colors depending on the lighting. This is the first time I've been underneath one spreading its wings, and they look red. But from on top they usually look some shade of blue or turquoise or even green, like their name.
From a little further away when his body was hidden in the leaves, with his neck craned up it was hard to distinguish him from another branch. This is zoomed in to the 200mm max of my lens.
Because there were so many spoonbills and migrating wood storks in such a small area, I could hear the sound of large wings flapping near me all the time as the birds flitted from tree to tree -- it seems so improbable that such generously sized birds are zooming around and building their nests in such tight spaces, but indeed they were. I watched wood storks flying in and out with sticks for their nests.
When I first started hearing the sharp clacking sound, I didn't know what it was, but after a very short period of investigation, I discovered it was wood storks slapping their bills against each other's. I took a guess that this was a mating behavior given all the nest-building going on. So I Googled it, and sure enough, it's called "copulation clattering," haha, perfectly descriptive. I think this is easier on the female wood stork than the poor spoonbill lady who has her head squeezed by the male's bill.
I can't even imagine what it will be like in a month (?) or so, however long it takes for the bird eggs to incubate. There will be baby birds literally EVERYwhere (not that I'd be able to photograph many). I don't know if the spoonbills and wood storks would hatch at the same time or not. I'd actually like to figure out when they all will hatch and zip back down there to witness it! I must have seen at least 40 spoonbills (so maybe 20 nesting pairs) and I'm sure there were plenty I didn't see, and probably nearly as many wood storks. It seemed particularly picturesque to me when both species occupied the same tree. Every morning before the sun crested the horizon of the lagoon, the tree right above me at the elevated viewing platform had them both flying in and out.
I didn't see as many iguanas this year, I imagine because being there in the early morning the reptiles were still warming up. The ones I did see were all in the trees climbing toward the rising sun.
My last morning there, I thought I would nip over to the pier and see if there were any pelicans around to photograph, but I decided to bail at the last minute and instead started walking down the beach back to the hotel. Actually I also did this the day before, haha, but this last day a sporting pelican kindly came to me along the beach so I could get a few shots. I think these birds are so prehistoric-looking and kind of fascinating to watch.
Okay. So I arrived back home from Mexico late Saturday night and I'm posting this early Monday evening. It's a quick job, but couldn't help myself from sharing some of this year's wildlife encounters.