Nestled among white-sand beaches and brightly colored resorts, the mangrove swamps along Mexico’s Yucatán coast are a paradise for birds and the people who enjoy watching them. The densely wooded swamps, located along a major avian migration route, offer safe haven to the millions of birds that make fraught intercontinental flights between the Americas each year.
My guide to this flyway rest stop, Luis Salinas-Peba, is a soft-spoken scientist at the local campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. A botanist by training, Salinas-Peba is also a master of bird identification who can name just about every species we see and hear packed among the mangroves. The mix of long-distance migrants and local species is dazzling: Blue-winged teals from Canada cross paths with endemic Yucatán wrens. Towering pink flamingos mingle with teacup-size hummingbirds.
The air pulsates with the guttural alarm cries of cormorants, which get louder and more insistent as our tiny boat glides closer to their nests. Several of the sleek black birds suddenly launch into the sky, pulling my gaze upward and my thoughts toward the past, when a visitor from space 66 million years ago turned a primeval paradise into a burning apocalypse.