Birds in Río Lagartos Mexico

Last Updated on June 21, 2024 by Nancie

Black-necked Stilt in the Mangrove Roots at Río Lagartos
(Black-necked Stilt in the Mangrove Roots at Río Lagartos)

Birds in Río Lagartos Mexico: Last November we took a three-hour birding tour in Río Lagartos, on the northeast coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. It was in a word, AWESOME. We saw an incredible number of new-to-us birds and loved every second of it. Here are photographs of just SOME of the birds we saw.

Estimated reading time: 21 minutes

Magnificent Frigatebirds Soaring Over the Water at Río Lagartos
(Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring over the water at Río Lagartos)

Where We’ve Seen Birds in the Yucatan

Our son and his family are currently in Mexico, so Jim and I have ventured out of our homebody comfort zone several times to visit them. The purpose of our trips has been family rather than birding but we’ve still seen some cool birds while there. After all, even their routine birds are often exotic to us. I’ve shared our previous “birding around the edges” Mexico experiences in two previous posts: “Birds Seen in Mexico” and “More Birds of Mexico”. We found those birds in Cancun, Tulum and Mérida in the Yucatan. But this past November, our wonderful daughter-in-law set up a three-hour guided boat tour of Río Lagartos birds for us. Jim and our son and I went on this adventure early one morning and we loved it.

Our local naturalist guide was William Canto. You can find him on TripAdvisor under “Guia Naturalista William Canto” or on William’s Facebook page. I can’t recommend William enough! He really knows his stuff and is fluent in both Spanish and English, so our poor level of conversational Spanish didn’t make any difference. William knows both the birds’ English and Spanish common names, as well as their official scientific names. He is also a super nice guy, a biologist who had interesting things to tell us about the lagoon and mangroves, as well as the birds and other creatures (like crocodiles.) We saw 55 bird species, the majority of which were new to us. He knew that our focus was birds so that is what he took us to see and he took us to all the best spots.

(Note: We got photos of most, but not all of the birds we saw. Where I’ve already posted about a bird in past blog posts, I’ve usually linked to them instead of showing them again here.)

View Of Rio Lagartos Docks
(View of Río Lagartos docks)

Finding Birds in Río Lagartos

Río Lagartos is a very small fishing town on the Yucatan peninsula’s northern coast. (Cancun and Tulum, areas better known and catering to international tourists, are way over on the far eastern coast of the peninsula.) Zoom in on a map and you’ll see that the town is roughly centered on the southern edge of a wide coastal lagoon. This lagoon, other linked lagoons and estuaries, plus land around it is part of a protected wetlands biosphere “Reserva de la Biósfera Ría Lagartos.” Separated from the Gulf of Mexico by mangrove and narrow strips of land, the water is fairly shallow, home to small commercial fishing boats, crocodiles, turtles and tons of birds.

Birds Sitting and Flying Around Boats in the Lagoon
(Birds sitting and flying around anchored boats in the lagoon)

Practically speaking, bird tours in Río Lagartos are done mostly by boat. You will see birds hanging out on anchored fishing boats, wading in or flying over the waters of the lagoon, sitting on the seawall and poking around along the beaches, on the mangroves and farther inside the strips of barrier land on the north side.

William picked us in his boat early in the morning at our hotel’s dock. Heading out over the shallow waters of the lagoon, we started seeing birds immediately. The feathered wonders were all around for every minute of the tour.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Male Magnificient Frigatebird Flying over lagoon at Río Lagartos
(Male Magnificent Frigatebird flying over lagoon at Río Lagartos)

When you arrive at the water’s edge at Río Lagartos you are very likely to see huge Magnificent Frigatebirds flying overhead. They have a wingspan of seven or eight feet and so are hard to miss! The females are blackish brown and white, while the smaller males are black with a bright red gular sac at their neck that they can inflate to impress the ladies during courtship. As well as flying over the lagoon, we saw these birds sitting on anchored fishing boats near the dock area as we headed out as well as settled on a seawall out towards the gulf.

Male and Female Magnificient Frigatebirds Sitting on Seawall Fence in Río Lagartos
(Male and female Magnificent Frigatebirds)

Neotropic Cormorant and Double-Crested Cormorant

Neotropic Cormorants in the Mangroves
(Neotropic Cormorants in the mangroves)

Both Neotropic and Double-Crested Cormorants were well represented around the lagoon. You could see them roosting on anchored boats as well as perched in the mangroves.

Double-Crested Cormorant on a Branch Over the Water
(Double-Crested Cormorant on a branch over the water)

American Flamingo

American Flamingos Wading in the Río Lagartos Lagoon
(American Flamingos wading in the lagoon)

Probably the biggest draw in Río Lagartos is the American Flamingos. Sure, you’ve probably seen them in captivity, but it is very cool to see large groups of them freely moving around in their own setting. While many tourists go to westward to Celeste to see them in large numbers, flamingos can be found near Río Lagartos as well. We went in November so didn’t see huge numbers but there were still quite a few wading in the waters of the lagoon, feeding by straining the brackish water through their bills. They were out in the open and easy to see from the boat.

American Flamingo wading in the lagoon
(American Flamingo at Rio Lagartos)

Brown Pelicans and American White Pelicans

American White Pelican Floating in the Lagoon
(American White Pelican floating in the lagoon)

Two other larger birds that make their home here are American White Pelicans and Brown Pelicans. We saw several American White Pelicans floating in the lagoon soon after we got underway. They spend their winters along southern US coasts and Mexico but then migrate north to breed. Brown Pelicans on the other hand can be found permanently here and along many coastlines in both north and South America.

We also briefly saw two Wood Storks flying over the lagoon, although I didn’t get a photo of them.

Brown Pelicans on Seawall in Río Lagartos
(Brown Pelicans hanging out with gulls and terns on a seawall in Río Lagartos)

Great Blue Heron and Little Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron Flying Over Lagoon
(Great Blue Heron flying over lagoon)

Many of the birds in Río Lagartos are wading birds. We saw quite a few Great Blue Herons wading in the water, flying over the lagoon or sitting on the mangroves. Great Blue Herons are very common in the US where I live but it was cool to see them in a different setting.

Little Blue Herons have some interesting twists to their coloring. First year immature birds are all white, while the adults are shades of slate blue. It would be easy to confuse the immature birds with something completely different. We saw both, including some that seemed to be transitioning in between.

Little Blue Heron Wading in the Lagoon
(Adult Little Blue Heron wading in the lagoon)
Immature Little Blue Heron with White Ibis Behind
(Immature Little Blue Heron with a White Ibis sitting a little lower and behind)
Green Heron Stretching His Neck Way Up!
(Green Heron stretching his neck way up!)

We also saw a Tricolored Heron and a Green Heron along the mangroves. This Green Heron was up in the tops of the mangroves checking things out with a surprisingly long neck. I didn’t get good pictures of the Tricolored Heron.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-Crowned Night-Herons Flying Away
(Black-Crowned Night-Herons flying away with other birds)

Yet another heron found in Río Lagartos is the Black-Crowned Night-Heron. We saw a bunch of these birds toward the end of our tour down a side channel. They were in the mangroves and flew over the water away from the boat.

White Ibis

White Ibis Sitting on a Snag
(White Ibis sitting on a snag)

Another large wading bird that we saw several times was White Ibis. These seemingly all white birds have an impressive brightly colored down-turned bill. When not wading in the lagoon, they could be seen sitting up on snags near the water. When they flying you can see their black wing tips.

White Ibis Flying Away From Snag
(White Ibis flying away from snag)

Reddish Egret and Snowy Egret

Reddish Egret
(Reddish Egret)

We also watched egrets in several areas, including Reddish Egrets, Snowy Egrets and the larger Great Egrets. The Reddish Egrets were dark morphs wading in shallow waters near the mangroves. Interestingly, there is also a white morph version that is completely white and “pied” dark morphs with some white feathers. The dark morphs we saw looked very similar to Tricolor Herons and Little Blue Herons.

Snowy Egrets poked around in the mangrove roots and also sat up high in the trees. Great Egrets flew over the lagoon.

Snowy Egret in Mangroves
(Snowy Egret in mangrove roots)

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill Flying Over Mangroves of Río Lagartos
(Roseate Spoonbill flying over mangroves)

As if that weren’t enough large wading birds, we also saw a large colorful Roseate Spoonbill flying over the mangroves. The name is apt, with feathers in lovely pinks and oranges and a bill that does look like a spoon shape.

Black-Necked Stilt, Willet and Marbled Godwit

Black-Necked Stilt in the Mangroves
(Black-Necked Stilt in the mangroves)

There were also quite a few comparatively smaller long-legged shorebirds walking around in the mangrove shallows. The Black-Necked Stilts were my favorite birds of the trip. Aren’t they beautiful? William told us that their common name in Mexico is “Monjita Americana”. Monijita means “little nun,” an apt description I think.

Willet in a Mangrove Tree
(Willet in a mangrove tree)

A medium-size species of shorebird, you usually see Willets walking along the shore or wading in shallow water (and we did), but this one decided to be a bit contrary and perched up high in a mangrove tree over the water, creating a perfect pose for a portrait.

Black-bellied Plover (L), Marbled Godwit (R) with Willet walking in front
(Black-bellied Plover (L), Marbled Godwit (R) with Willet walking in front)

As you can see in this picture of a mix of shorebirds, Marbled Godwits are quite a bit larger than Willets. Godwits breed way up north in the northern US and southern Canada but spend their winters along the coasts of the US and Mexico.

Río Lagartos Small Shorebirds: Plovers, Sandpipers and More

Semipalmated Plover
(Semipalmated Plover)

Río Lagartos is full of shorebirds of all shapes and sizes. William took us to a little spit of rough seaweed covered land near one of the spots where waters of the reserve open to the gulf. Here was an abundance of smaller shorebirds poking around in the seaweed. We also saw some along the seawall and other sandy areas near the water.

Ruddy Turnstone on Seawall
(Ruddy Turnstone on seawall)
Spotted Sandpiper at Water's Edge
(Spotted Sandpiper at water’s edge)

Small shorebirds we saw on our Río Lagartos tour included Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers, Snowy Plovers, Spotted Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, a Least Sandpiper and a Semipalmated Sandpiper. (See the Godwit picture above for the Black-Bellied Plover.) It was November so they were in their non-breeding feathers.

Sanderling on the Seawall
(Sanderling on the seawall)

Río Lagartos Gulls, Terns and Skimmers

Black Skimmer, Herring Gull, Laughing Gull and Sandwich Tern
(Black Skimmer, Herring Gull, Laughing Gull and Sandwich Tern)

Being so close to the Gulf of Mexico, it is not surprising that Rio Lagartos also has its share of sea gulls, terns and skimmers. On our early morning tour, we especially found them congregating on anchored fishing boats and hanging out on the seawall with the frigate birds and cormorants as well as on the same seaweed covered area where the smaller shorebirds were hanging out. In all, we saw a couple of Herring Gulls, quite a lot of Laughing Gulls, a couple Royal Terns and a bunch of Black Skimmers and Sandwich Terns.

Royal Tern with Bright Orange Beak and Sandwich Terns with Yellow-tipped Black Beaks
(Orange-beaked Royal Tern and Sandwich Terns with yellow-tipped black beaks)

We didn’t stay in the boat for the entire tour. We got out to see the small shorebirds on the seaweed spit and then returned to the boat for a short time, then stopped again to beach the boat and take a walk. The narrow strips of land that divide the lagoon from the Gulf of Mexico is dry sandy scrub land here. Rough paths lead to yet more birds, some just here for the winter, some permanent residents and some that are endemic to this area and found nowhere else.

Groove-billed Ani and Squirrel Cuckoo

Grove-billed Ani
(Grove-billed Ani)

We had never seen a Grove-billed Ani before. Reading about these blackbirds later in Birds of the World (subscription site), I learned that they have a really interesting breeding pattern. Groups of one to five pairs of birds share a communal nest, with all the females laying eggs in the nest and all members of the group (male and female) incubating the eggs, brooding and feeding the young.

Squirrel Cuckoo
(Squirrel Cuckoo)

Squirrel Cuckoos are permanent residents of many areas from portions of Mexico down deep into South America. These handsome birds hop around in trees and shrubs looking for insects, gliding from tree to tree. This movement and color led to their common English name of “Squirrel Cuckoo”.

Mexican Sheartail and Cinnamon Hummingbird

Male Mexican Sheartail copyright Jim Waterman 2024
(Male Mexican Sheartail – Photo courtesy Jim Waterman)

One of the most special birds of the trip was the Mexican Sheartail. We saw a male and a female. These lovely little hummingbirds were zipping around in the scrubby area. They are endemic to only the very northern coastal strip of the Yucatan and a small area of Veracruz. You won’t see them anywhere else.

Cinnamon Hummingbird
(Cinnamon Hummingbird)

We found Cinnamon Hummingbird in the same general area. It has a green back and cinnamon underparts and a deeper reddish/brown tail. In Mexico you find this bird along coastal strips in western Mexico and the Yucatan. We’ve seen it in the backyard of a house in Mérida in the past as well as in the reserve.


Least Flycatcher
(Least Flycatcher)

Walking in the scrub area we got good looks at a Least Flycatcher and a Dusky-capped Flycatcher. We also saw two Tropical Kingbirds and a Great Kiskadee, two birds we’ve seen previously in places like Tulum and Mérida.

Warblers and Vireos

Northern Parula
(Northern Parula)

Our visit was in November so some of the warblers that we seek out during spring and fall migration in the US were enjoying a warm southern sojourn here. One was this Northern Parula as well as an American Redstart. We also saw a Mangrove Vireo, although didn’t get a picture.

Yellow Warbler
(Yellow Warbler)

Two Yellow Warblers were also found along this trail. These warblers are fairly common during migration in the US, but one of these was a bit different. It was a Mangrove Warbler subspecies with a the typical yellow body of a Yellow Warbler but with a red head.

Yellow Warbler: Mangrove subspecies with yellow body and red head
(Yellow Warbler: Mangrove subspecies with yellow body and red head)

Olive-throated Parakeet, Orange Oriole and Painted Bunting

Olive-throated Parakeet
(Olive-throated Parakeet)
Immature Orange Oriole copyright Jim Waterman 2024
(Immature Orange Oriole – Photo courtesy of Jim Waterman)
Painted Bunting copyright Jim Waterman 2024
(Painted Bunting – Photo courtesy of Jim Waterman)

Quite a few of the birds were quite colorful, including a lovely pair of Olive-throated Parakeets looking down at us from a tree, an immature Orange Oriole and a wildly colorful Painted Bunting. The Orange Oriole is pretty much endemic to the Yucatan so you’ll need to go there to see it. The one we saw was immature, without the black mask on his face, but it did have a white shoulder patch, with identifies him as male. Painted Buntings breed up in the US but in winter hang out from Mexico down to about Nicaragua. The bright colors on this bird identify him as male too.

Other birds we saw during the tour included a Clapper Rail, three Belted Kingfishers, a Peregrine Falcon, a Tropical Mockingbird and a Golden-fronted Woodpecker. It’s always a little surprising to see a bird common at home in a place so far away, but of all the birds to pop up: a Northern Cardinal!

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
(Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture)

Even after the tour was over, there were still birds to see. Looking out from our second floor hotel balcony, we watched a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture soar at almost our eye level. This vulture is similar to the Turkey Vulture we are familiar with and with the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture. But the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture doesn’t tend to soar high up like those birds, instead looking for its meal closer to the ground.

A Wonderful Tour of Birds in Río Lagartos

This three hour tour was one of my favorite birding experiences. The birds you might see on a different day and/or a different time of year would obviously vary, but year-round, it is a great place to see a huge number of birds!


Learn More About Birds in Mexico

Birdseed and Binoculars: Birds Seen in Mexico

Birdseed and Binoculars: More Birds of Mexico

Cornell Lab’s Birds of the World (subscription)

Learn More About Visiting Río Lagartos

Visit My Mexico: Exploring the Rio Lagartos Biosphere

Atlas & Boots Blog Post: How to Visit Rio Lagartos

The Haphazard Traveler Blog Post: Rio Lagartos Flamingos and Los Coloradas Pink Lakes

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6 thoughts on “Birds in Río Lagartos Mexico

  1. Very cool trip (way to go Cynthia!), and really great photos! Funny, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Oriole in Maryland.

    1. Hi Alice,
      Thanks! It was such a fun trip.

      The only oriole I’ve ever seen in our yard was an immature Baltimore Oriole that overstayed into winter and really should have flown south. We’ve seen adults at Centennial Lake in Howard County and also at Patuxent Research Refuge North Tract though. They are supposed to come to feeders with jelly or oranges but I never got one to visit that way, so don’t put those out anymore.


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