The Black Bandit of Yucatan Birds

By Dave McBride

Whenever one travels in the Riviera Maya, one will inevitably meet a native whose mission is to (with guile and aggression) turn a tourist encounter to personal profit. Sometimes the light-fingered grifter is a time-share agent. Sometimes it is a Great-tailed Grackle.

3a

The Great-tailed Grackle (aka Mexican Grackle) is the larger cousin of the gang of Boat-tailed Grackles in my Florida backyard, who flock together to put on a morning zoo show just before dawn, talking over each other with more raucous chatter than a Fox News expert panel.

The Mayan natives call the grackle X’kau, or the Mexican Crow, although it is not a member of the crow family. These onyx opportunists disperse at dawn to commute to work either as lone bandits or in an organized gang of marauders. Native to wetlands and forests, in recent years they have discovered the tourist towns and resorts of the Yucatan far easier places to make a living, swooping and swiping the tater tot right off the breakfast tray on your hotel balcony.

3b

One will fix its steely yellow eyes on the remains of your taco till your attention is distracted and its amigos strike. You know the stare the raptors in the Jurassic movies focus on their victims? That’s the grackle stare. Their predation is why resorts seldom set up buffets outdoors. But their commitment to the pack-hunting brotherhood is falsehearted and fleeting because of the grackle’s fundamental selfishness. A gang member will fly to the brother who scored a prize as if intending to share a chest bump, and instead snatch the tortilla fragment out of the sucker’s mouth. Their memories are so short both return to being BFFs planning a new raid within thirty seconds.

A Mexican fable alleges that in the creation the Zanate (another name for the grackle) had no voice. So it stole sevens songs from the sea turtle, expressing the passions of love and hate, fear and courage, joy and sadness and anger. It is said all of these emotions can be heard in the chorus of grackle noise when they gather to gossip like tweens at an American-Girl-themed sleepover.

Many consider them bothersome pests and plain, compared to their colorful avian amigos. But the males reflect a satiny purple and green iridescence in their inky-black feathers and they demonstrate an engaging cunning and cleverness. It’s my observation they cackle cheerfully at the audacity of their own escapades and high five their cohorts with congratulatory whistles and snickers. I like this bird and enjoy its fellowship despite its annoying supremacy in any battle of wits.

3c

Veteran Newsman Dave McBride is an award-winning news radio reporter, anchor and program director and creator of fan-favorite Dave’s Raves. Dave has received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Writing for Radio/Large Market and the 2010 and 2011 Murrow for continuing news coverage. He was awarded the New York Festivals World Gold Medal for Best Writing for Radio. In his first year in Florida he received the Florida AP award for Best Long Light Feature in both first and second place. Dave is currently based in South Florida.

2 Stalking Birds with a Camera in Mayan Muyil

2a

Serious birders don’t expect to get good photos of birds. They perpetually hope for a great picture, but know from experience a meeting with the new bird on one’s life list can be a glimpse and a blur in bad lighting in a dark forest. Google delivers terrific bird photos any time. The birder on the hunt only seeks the thrill of checking off a new name. It’s all on the honor system; the bird-watching scorecard.

2b

But we all make the effort of attempting the shot.

My camera is a no-brain Nikon Coolpix P90 with a 24X zoom. Point and shoot. I do admire the serious hunter shouldering the thirteen thousand-dollar 800mm lens as long as an orangutan’s arm, wrapped in forest green-camo neoprene on a three thousand dollar camera body mounted on a four hundred dollar monopod. He can capture the iris in the gaze of a Blue-crowned Motmot at a distance of four football fields. But that bird better be standing still for the eternity it takes to set up. A lot of birding with super-long lenses requires remaining immobile till shrimps learn to whistle as time passes with interminable languor. My technique is: “There it is!” “Click!” “We’ll see if I got it when we get back to the bar.”

We arranged for a bird tour through Apple Vacations and were picked up by Eco-Tours at 5:15am sharp at the Now Jade resort.

2c

The guide, Alberto, and his driver, Lugo, drove us south on route 307 along the Yucatan coast on a 75-mile, hour and a half journey to their favorite hunting ground in Muyil, a village at the edge of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve; a huge nature preserve south of the famous Mayan ruins of Tulum.

Fellow travelers included a Danish dad and daughter. Dorte works in tourism in Cancun, and her dad Svend was desirous of making the acquaintance of birds unknown in the skies of Denmark.

2d

The trip was timed to arrive just after sunup, when birds are most active on the hunt for bugs. And be mindful the bugs are on the hunt, too, and that mosquito repellent is as useful on a jungle bird hike as binoculars.

Approaching the village, as Lugo gingerly nudged our tour van over an imposing speed bump, Alberto proclaimed it the highest point in the Yucatan Peninsula. Muyil was one of the oldest and longest-inhabited Mayan sites, dating to 350 BCE when Plato and Aristotle were still philosophizing. Now the people who live there in rustic jungle homes often constructed from recycled ancient stones number a couple of hundred.

2e

We walked from the main highway down rural roads of dirt and stone and onto jungle paths, arousing the curiosity of skinny dogs and fat hens and roosters on properties brightened by native bougainvillea and lantana and bright yellow torch Mexican sunflowers decorated with butterflies.

2f

Among the species numbering nearly twenty added to our lists: Orange oriole (pictured), Great kiskade, Yellow warbler, Roadside hawk, Melodious blackbird, Thick-billed kingbird, Red-banded woodpecker, Northern mockingbird (pictured) and Black-headed trogon. And we viewed a quartet of chatty Yucatan parrots passing overhead.

2g

2h

You have my permission to log any small bird that is unidentifiable in a photo as a flycatcher, as there are dozens of different kinds, some of which look so much alike (I am told) that they can only be definitively ID’d by their calls.

2i

Bonus tip: Shortcuts between rural roadways can be ancient stone footpaths through viney underbrush which can conceal poison ivy. Socks and long pants are good choices even in tropical heat. Anita and I wore shorts and are still applying Benadryl cream to the rash.

Veteran Newsman Dave McBride is an award-winning news radio reporter, anchor and program director and creator of fan-favorite Dave’s Raves. Dave has received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Writing for Radio/Large Market and the 2010 and 2011 Murrow for continuing news coverage. He was awarded the New York Festivals World Gold Medal for Best Writing for Radio. In his first year in Florida he received the Florida AP award for Best Long Light Feature in both first and second place. Dave is currently based in South Florida.

The Top Family Vacation Spots For 2016

Summer vacation is right around the corner. Your kids are ready. Are you? Give yourself and your family a much needed break this year: no lunches to prepare, dishes to watch, clothes to clean, or beds to make. Just fun in the sun with your spouse and children. (P.S. These resorts have kid’s clubs so you can enjoy some alone time with your husband or wife).

 

Riviera Maya     Jamaica     Punta Cana     Bahamas


Riviera Maya, Mexico

Riviera Maya beach

South of Riviera Cancun, Riviera Maya is home to many of Mexico’s best hotels and all-inclusive resorts. Stretching 100 miles, the area offers endless white sand beaches, lush jungles and ancient Mayan cities.

Where To Stay

Grand Sunset Princess All Suite Resort

Grand Sunset Princess All Suite Resort

Complemented by natural surroundings of fascinating beauty, this impressive resort is located along a pristine white sand beach in Playa del Carmen and offers an unforgettable 24-hour all-inclusive vacation experience. The resort offers 7 a la carte restaurants including Mexican, Italian, Asian, and seafood. There are 12 pools including eight main pools and four kids’ pools. Kids also have their very own mini-club, and the teen club provides fun from 4pm until 11pm.

What To Do

Xcaret

Xcaret Park is an expansive eco-complex situated just off the gorgeous Caribbean Sea. Swim in underground rivers, snorkel in protected inlets, observe exotic animals in natural habitats and visit a cool coral reef aquarium in this fabulous park!

 

Runaway Bay, Jamaica

Boats in Jamaica

Nothing is a problem on this island paradise, where the sounds of soft reggae harmonize with the lapping waves on soft shores. The theme of every vacation, regardless of which corner of the island, is relaxation to the max.

Where To Stay

Grand Bahia Principe Jamaica

Grand Bahia Principe Jamaica

bahia logo

This spectacular Victorian-style resort is located on the beachfront in Runaway Bay. Both adults and children alike will enjoy the three interconnecting lake-style pools that surround the main building that includes two children’s sections and three Jacuzzis. Also included are free non-motorized watersports and a Mini-Club for kids 4-12.

What To Do

Dunn’s River Falls

The setting is truly breathtaking, and the incredible cascading falls challenge, refresh and delight visitors of all ages. Enjoy everyone’s favorite activity, which is climbing up the falls. This is relatively easy. But if you prefer, you can take a swim or walk alongside the river all the way to the top and appreciate the beauty of the tropical vegetation.

 

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Punta Cana

Known best for its endless stretches of white sand beaches, Punta Cana is often referred to as the Coconut Coast. No resort in Punta Cana is higher than the highest palm tree, and there is no shortage of palms on the 40 miles of white sand beaches.

Where To Stay

Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe

Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe

At Barceló Bavaro Palace Deluxe, family is always first, with a full day’s activities awaiting your crew. Take the kids to the Barcy’s Kids’ Club where they will take part in games, movies, arts and crafts, and more. Come and practice your swing on the 18-hole miniature golf course, enjoy 4 swimming pools for all types of entertainment, and watch your children play on castles, water slides, and waterfalls at Barcy Water Park!

What To Do

Marinarium Tour

Set off in a glass bottom boat to the Marinarium Marine Park for a Punta Cana snorkeling adventure. After some time exploring the reef and underwater marine life of the Caribbean Sea, you’ll be given the opportunity to swim with nurse sharks and stingrays. But don’t worry! This shark and stingray excursion is completely safe!

 

Paradise Island, Bahamas

Bahamas

By far, sparkling turquoise waters and white sandy beaches stretching for miles have always been one of the most alluring features of The Bahamas. The ocean ranges from absolutely clear and colorless turquoise to all imaginable shades of blues.

Where To Stay

Atlantis

The Atlantis

Unleash a world of magic and wonder as you discover Atlantis, Paradise Island. World-class restaurants, luxury shopping, the Caribbean’s largest casino, fantastic water sports, thrilling slides and rides, Dolphin Cay, hundreds of species of sea animals at the Marine Habitat, and so much more, all ready to discover, right at your fingertips.

What To Do

Aquaventure at Atlantis

Atlantis Paradise Island’s water park is a one-of-a-kind 141-acre waterscape. This non-stop aquatic thrill ride features over twenty million gallons of water, incredible Atlantean-themed towers, thrilling high-speed water slides, a mile-long river ride with rolling rapids and wave surges, 20 swimming areas, a spectacular kids water-play fort and 11 unique and refreshing swimming pools.

 

Snorkeling adventure at Maui’s Molokini Crater and Turtle Town

We asked Instagrammer michaeldizon to take us along as he and his wife Niki and kids Jake and Liam explored the Hawaiian Islands in December. Here’s their trip report:

Snorkeling is one of those activities that everyone in our family could do. With two kids in tow (one 8 and the other 11), it was a great way to kick off our stay in Maui. Quicksilver was easy to find in the Harbor. After signing a waiver form, we boarded their boat and enjoyed a continental breakfast while receiving instructions from the crew about safety and how to put on the equipment.

IMG_0001

Our first stop was Molokini Crater, which was roughly a 20-minute boat ride from the harbor. The water was cool and clear – perfect conditions for snorkeling. Donning the snorkel mask and fins make you superhuman; not only can you breathe underwater, but you get more power out of your kicks when you swim. To make it easier, we put on flotation devices around our waists, which made our one-hour stay at the crater less strenuous.

IMG_0004

And one hour was the perfect amount of time for us. At that point we boarded the boat and were ready to go to our second location, Turtle Town. En route, the crew served a buffet-style lunch of pulled-pork sandwiches, potato salad and drinks. Afterward, a crew member passed out home-baked chocolate chip cookies, which was a nice treat and gave us the energy we needed for our last stop.

Turtle Town was less deep than Molokini Crater, and that allowed us to get closer to the coral and see the underwater life. Like its name suggests, it’s a popular spot for turtles, but we weren’t so lucky that day and didn’t encounter any. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful spot where the world underwater is just as colorful and vibrant as it is above the surface.

IMG_0005

Jungle Valley Adventure with Princeville Ranch Adventures Part II: Zipping through the air with the greatest of ease

We asked Instagrammer michaeldizon to take us along as he and his wife Niki and kids Jake and Liam explored the Hawaiian Islands in December. Here’s their trip report:

One of the most popular activities offered in tropical destinations is ziplining. In theory, it sounds insane: Strap yourself into a harness, connect that harness to a wire strung high between two trees, and jump, hoping that wire and that harness will get you safely to the next platform.

In reality, ziplining is … awesome. It’s safe, fun, requires just about zero athletic ability, and makes you sound cool to friends and family alike. And anyone can do it, from my 8- and 11-year-old sons to my 70-something parents.

During our trip to Kauai, my family signed up for Princeville Ranch Adventure’s Jungle Valley Tour, which combined ziplining through the rainforest with more mild-mannered adventuring such as kayaking, hiking, and swimming. This was the part of the tour my sons were most excited about, and it did not disappoint.

Our guides, experts in the flora and fauna of Kauai, also turned out to be experts in ziplining. They cleverly didn’t tell us we were hiking up to the lines until there we were, 60 feet above the rainforest without even realizing it. They helped us into our harnesses, secured us with two lines for safety, and eased our fears. After one guide zipped across to wait for us on the next platform, it was our turn. IMG_0013

My kids, who had never ziplined, jumped up to the front of the line and whooped and hollered their way across the rainforest. Then it was my turn. Do I step off? Jump? Ease my way down? Finally, after the guide jokingly said he would push me after the next question, I jumped – and suddenly was whizzing high above the trees, feeling free and exhilarated.

IMG_0012

At the next platform, we did it all over again, this time with everyone – including me – eager to go first!

The 5 things I LOVED about Dreams Puerto Aventuras

Tulum, Mexico

As told by Liz Bondelid, Apple Vacations E-Commerce Merchandising Coordinator

When March rolls around, it seems like it’s time for the brutal cold to start letting up. Philadelphia had other plans, with snow days and wind chills in the first week of March this year. Leaving my coat behind as I left for the airport, I wondered what it felt like to be warm again. By the end of the day, I had sand in my toes, saltwater in my hair, and a margarita in hand.

From beginning to end, I was blown away by everything I encountered at Dreams Puerto Aventuras – and no, I never mentioned to anyone that I work for Apple! If I have to narrow it down, let me give you a taste of my favorite things there.

Continue reading

Puerto Vallarta – Enhance the Experience

Puerto Vallarta has become a hugely popular international vacation destination.  Somehow, it magically combines all that is wonderful about Mexico; its people, its diverse cultures and architecture, its sheer beauty and its food and drink! From the bustling old village to the plush resorts of Riviera Nayarit, Puerto Vallarta has so much to offer. So when I visited last September, I knew I was going to have a lot of “MUST- DO” activities.  Without question I knew I was going to the Malecon. I wanted to take a walk on the cobblestone streets and visit the iconic Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe that is on nearly every post card from Puerto Vallarta.  I made a promise to myself that I would really embrace this destination and get out of the resort. I usually opt for the infinity pool or nice spot on the beach under a palapa. Not this time – I booked 3 excursions during my 4 day trip. (Plus a spa treatment at Pevonia while I was at Secrets Vallarta Bay).

Small Fishing town

Sayulita – Small Fishing & Surf town

My first excursion was to a fishing town on the coast of Puerto Vallarta/Riviera Nayarit/Nuevo Vallarta. We drove alongside the Banderas Bay, the Sierra Madre Mountains and arrived in Sayulita. It’s a laidback seaside surfer town. While walking around I saw tortillas being made from scratch for fresh fish tacos, visited a shop with some majorly cool Day of the Dead gear and had a piña colada on the beach while I watched blue-green waves crash in front of me.  Excursion #1, success!

 

Turtle Release

Turtle Release in Puerto Vallarta

It’s not just tourists that like the beaches in Puerto Vallarta. Sea turtles love them, too. I couldn’t wait to check out the Turtle Release at Dreams Villamagna Resort & Spa – Here’s how it worked…. A staff member explained how to handle the turtles with care. Everyone lined up parallel to the ocean and was instructed to walk 3 feet toward the water. Everyone was to release their turtle and step back to watch. It was hard not to smile as everyone observed these tiny turtles make their landmark journey to the sea. Excursion #2, success!

 

For my last excursion, I really got out of my comfort zone! I swallowed my fears and tried to brace myself for what I just agreed to with the Canopy Tour – Ziplining!  I could handle riding a mule back up the hill, it was getting down the hill on a metal wire that was freaking me out! O.M.G. I was so nervous, excited and filled with adrenaline at the same time.

Puerto Vallarta Ziplining

Puerto Vallarta Ziplining

“fly through a thrilling series of zip-lines, rappel down waterfalls, traverse jungle bridges and finally splash through streams and natural river pools. With some of Mexico’s highest and longest zip-lines, at almost 1,000 ft long and 250 ft high, it’s no wonder we call it one the greatest adventures on earth.” -Amstardmc.com

I still can’t believe I actually went through with it! But I have proof. Excursion #3, success!

Needless to say – I LOVE PUERTO VALLARTA. I highly recommend going and I can’t wait to go back. But please take my advice; get out of the resort and experience all of what this destination has to offer!