Cozumel thrasher

« Special guest article by nature writer, Greg Munson »  I was about halfway across the island when I caught it out of the corner of my eye. I saw only the back of its reddish-brown body as it disappeared into the jungle a short distance away.

The thing that struck me most was that—color-wise—it was not a bird I recalled seeing on the island before.

As I continued down the road I pondered what it might be, and soon began thinking … could it be a Cozumel thrasher? Cozumel thrashers are one of about a dozen endemic species, or sub-species, of birds found only on Cozumel Island. And the thrasher is the most endangered, with many folks believing it is now extinct.

With little traffic and no hills to pedal, it was easy for my mind to wander and think about the possibility of getting a glimpse, and maybe a picture. Matter of fact, I was getting downright excited. While I am not an expert birder by any means, I do know one way of narrowing down identification is to eliminate what it isn't. And I knew this was a bird I hadn't seen on Cozumel before.

The last confirmed sighting of the Cozumel thrasher was by a research team from Villonova University in 2004. Some believe strong hurricanes over the past 30 years may have contributed to its demise. Many scientists dispute that claim, since hurricanes have always been a part of Cozumel history.

Cozumel birds

As my mind wandered further, my pedaling pace picked up as I fantasized contacting a National Geographic team to film the thrasher. I was anxious to get to my computer to see what this bird looked like. And the pictures definitely showed it has some reddish brown coloration.

I emailed birding friends in Rochester, as well as the young biologist I had befriended in Cozumel. I also connected with a Villanova researcher whom I had met a few years earlier. I hoped go back the next day and search for the bird I had seen.

The next morning I headed out again on the cross-island road. I finally found the location where the bird had flown into the jungle. I heard a bird calling, but I didn't know what sounds the thrasher made. And I wasn't able to get a clear look at my suspect bird since it was on private property enclosed with barbed wire.

When I left a couple hours later, I stopped at a nearby curio stand. I showed a young local man working there a picture of the thrasher I had downloaded on my cell phone. I explained how rare it was and he agreed to meet me the next morning at 6 a.m., indicating he could get us onto the private land.

Cozumel bird tours

Heading out in the dark the next morning, I met Manuel and we walked into the jungle as the sun was rising. After a couple hours, we hadn't seen anything resembling the thrasher. But I did see one brown ground dove that had a similar color to the bird I had seen two days earlier. It appeared smaller, but it could have been what I had hoped to be the rare thrasher.

Although I was somewhat disappointed, the hike had been worthwhile as I had made a friend and learned a handful of things he shared with me. I was most intrigued with the holes in the ground he showed me, made by scavenging armadillos.

Manuel also pointed out that it was perhaps the release of a few boa constrictors from a movie filmed on the Island a half century ago that may have done in the thrasher. They have since multiplied by the thousands, hidden away in the jungle, where they undoubtedly feed upon thrasher young, as well as many other birds.

Although I hope to look again next year, more than likely the Cozumel thrasher is extinct. Most humans may not consider that to be a problem. But even though we have success stories like the bald eagle, we are contributing to the most massive extinction in the history of the Earth. And, as pieces of this web of life which also supports us continue to be removed, we are undoubtedly hastening our own extinction.

Greg Munson is a volunteer naturalist and freelance writer. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Post-Bulletin newspaper in Minnesota, USA.

If you are interested in learning more about birds in Cozumel why not try our Private Cozumel Bird Watching Tour.

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Private Cozumel Bird Watching Tour