It was the month of March, 2017, when I went to Lake Cuitzeo to check up on our migratory waterfowl and shorebirds one last time before they travelled north to breed. But that time, I was shocked to find that about half the birds I had expected were missing — along with half the lake.

Lake Cuitzeo is Mexico’s second largest lake, and its uniformly shallow waters make it a powerful magnet for dabbling ducks and shorebirds. But that same shallowness makes the lake extremely vulnerable to drought, and the shallower western half sometimes dries up completely in years with low rains. Back in 2017 I was shocked to find only 15 ducks over the course of the morning, when I had hoped to find hundreds, or even thousands.

I knew that the 2020-2021 winter would be worse for the lake than the 2016-2017 winter. But I had a little hope the western half of the lake might still have some water through the New Year. Such hope was unjustified; by late November, there was no water to be seen there.

This was once my lake.

Oddly enough, this time it was the very severity of the drought that made the lake continue to work as habitat for dabbling ducks. Back in 2017, the eastern half had managed to remain too deep for the dabbling ducks, even when the western half had completely disappeared. But here in 2020, the eastern half is also suffering the effects of drought — leaving it shallow enough to keep a fair number of Teals, Pintails, and Shovelers happy. We may not be talking about the thousands of ducks I could see in a good year, but it is certainly possible to still see hundreds.

Northerners might not expect to see Northern Pintails and White-faced Ibises together. But in Mexico you certainly can.
I saw more Cinnamon Teals than usual. Which is a good thing.

Shorebirds have taken more of a hit. I saw no Peeps (small Sandpipers), or Plovers of any size (except for many Killdeers). Normally abundant Long-billed Dowitchers and Black-necked Stilts were limited to a three small flocks flying by. But the American Avocets were more numerous than I had ever seen.

Just a few of the American Avocets I saw.

The best activity was to be found in the reedbeds along the non-tollroad lake crossing. There were large flocks of Brown-headed Cowbirds and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, with some Red-winged Blackbirds in the mix.

Just part of one flock
Up close, you could see mostly Yellow-headed Blackbirds, but with some Cowbirds mixed in.

Down among the reeds, smaller birds could be just as exciting.

This was my best photo of a Marsh Wren for the day.
But this one was more fun. Kind of shows how we have all felt in 2020, doesn’t it?

2020 has been a surprisingly great year for seeing our micro-endemic Black-polled Yellowthroat around Lake Cuitzeo. Apparently, they were there all along, but I didn’t know how to find them. I suspect the lake’s shrinking habitat options has forced them closer to the road.

This one is a male.
And here is a female.

So far, the eastern half of the lake still has enough water to hold on to its deeper-water denizens, including Clark’s Grebes and American Coots. A good Coot take-off can brighten up one’s day, so I’ll show those photos last.

This Clark’s Grebe is an immature.
And there goes the Coot!

Written by Paul Lewis
Paul Lewis moved from California to Mexico in 1983. He lived first in Mexicali, and now lives in the historic city of Morelia (about halfway between Guadalajara and Mexico City), where he and his wife pastor a small church. He is the author of an internationally distributed book in Spanish about family finances and has recorded four albums in Spanish of his own songs. But every Monday, he explores the wonderful habitats and birds found within an hour of his house, in sites which go from 3,000 to 10,000 feet of altitude. These habitats include freshwater wetlands, savannah grasslands, and pine, oak, pine/oak, pine/fir, cloud, and tropical scrub forests.