The door of the guest house where I have just spent the night leads directly unto a garden. I open it, hoist my backpack and monopod, then step outside. It’s 4:45 a.m. in mid-March and the sky still shows no hint of dawn. I close the door behind me and walk across the garden towards the main house. The lights in the dining room are already on, so I open the metal-frame door, step inside and follow a scent of freshly made coffee that leads me directly into the kitchen.
A good cup of coffee is precisely what I need and one is quickly placed in my hands by my generous host as morning greetings are exchanged. I’m in the home of Joann Andrews, eminent conservationist, founder of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, and a woman so knowledgeable and passionate about life, nature and the Yucatan Peninsula, that any encounter with her is bound to be a memorable experience. Standing in her kitchen and drinking the hot brew, I can’t help but think that I’m one lucky bird photographer: we still have a full day of birding together ahead of us.
Soon we are joined by her son, David Andrews. I’ve met David briefly the previous night, talking over tacos about bird photography, and he immediately struck me as a friendly, down-to-earth guy. Back in 2012, when I first interviewed Joann for Ride Into Birdland, she told me the story of how years before David had entered with her the swampy and mosquito-infected akalches, on a mission to gather photographic evidence she would later use to show the world a magical landscape of orchids that had remained, until then, mostly unnoticed in the Yucatan Peninsula. That interview became a three-part reportage about the life and work of Joann Andrews, a fascinating story worth reading that starts here.
Then, last December, Joann suggested I might come along to do some bird observation and photography with her and David during his next visit from Houston, and I was more than happy to oblige. David is an accomplished bird photographer with years of experience, and he has come equipped with a current-model 600mm Canon lens, a 2x Canon Teleconverter, a Canon D1 body, and a Gitzo tripod with cammo-leggings and Wimberley head. Which in plain English simply means: top-shelf, mouth-watering bird photography gear!
In her gentle, non imposing way, Joann proposes the route we might take. David and myself are quick to agree and off we go, me in the driver’s seat, David as copilot, Joann in the back seat with her binoculars and field guide always at the ready. The music of Miles Davis and Philip Glass sets the tone for what turns out to be a rewarding day of conversation, birds and photography. A long day it will be as well, for we shall not make it back to our Merida headquarters until way past eight that night.
Our route will takes us North of Merida on the periférico to Cancun, then we’ll turn off to Tizimin, left for Baca, on to Dzimul and off to Xcambo. The first leg of our journey finds us crossing wetlands as the sun rises like a big ball of red fire, and by 6:35 a.m we’re parked by the side of the road and I’ve snapped my first frame of the day. Very few people on cars and motorcycles drive past us, but I’m sure several of them can notice the big smiles on our faces as the day begins to unfold while we enjoy a banquet of bird activity and dramatic photographic opportunities.
Almost two hours later we continue towards the archaeological site at Xcambo, where we are greeted first by a Roadside Hawk (Buteo magnirostris), then by a lone and friendly guardsman. We have the place entirely to ourselves but it’s not Mayan structures we’ve come here to see today: we’re in a single-minded pursuit of birds. We walk into Xcambo together but soon I separate from Joann and David, following my instincts towards a forested area behind the main site. I walk under the tall trees until the grave voices of what I believe at first to be monkeys stop me dead on my tracks. I look up to discover a group of twenty or so Boat-billed Herons (Cochlearius cochlearius) and manage to grab a couple of frames before they quickly retreat farther into the woods.
Rainwater has collected on the ground at this spot, and soon I notice several Kingfishers perching and diving for prey with characteristic ability. I stay for a while and shoot many frames, then walk back to find Joann and David, who are quick to follow me into this amazing spot we decide to dub “Kingfisher Central”. We spend some time here together, again making photographs and enjoying the abundance of such beautiful birds, with occasional visits from other species, among them a Clay-colored Thrush (Turdus grayi), a Black-vented oriole (Icterus wagleri) and a Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis).
As we leave Xcambo I realize we’ve already had an excellent day as far as bird photography goes. We now continue driving towards the shore of the Gulf of Mexico for a delicious lunch of ceviche and shrimp at El Fortin Juan, a seafront restaurant in the coastal town of Dzilam de Bravo. Conversation is non-stop and always interesting, with the most unexpected anecdotes coming from Joann as she recalls the days back in the 50s when she worked for a while as a media buyer in the advertising industry’s mecca, New York City. She tells us of a day when, sitting in Manhattan’s trendy bar of choice amidst handsome and sharply dressed advertising execs, she had an epiphany: “What am I doing here?”. The rest, as they say, is history, for her choice not to stay within the world of advertising would eventually lead her to the Yucatan Peninsula and her precious environmental work here.
The food at El Fortin Juan is good and abundant. We’re in no rush and actually stretch time over coffee, waiting for the sun to go lower before hitting the road again, our energies now recharged for a second set of bird photography and observation. Soon after leaving Dzilam de Bravo our first stop puts us within sight of a small group of Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), and as we try to walk closer the swampy terrain swallows David waist-deep with one big gulp and no warning. I’m close behind him but before I can do anything to help he has already climbed out of the pit, never dropping his heavy camera gear, nor his sense of humor. Not too far from where we are a large crocodile lazily sleeps the afternoon away, but it never seems to notice us.
By the time we cross the wetlands again on our final approach to Merida the landscape is bathed by dramatic golden light for the second time that day, now coming from the west courtesy of a glorious sunset. Again we revel in the wonderful scenery displayed by Mother Nature in front of our eyes and lenses, and also for the second time that day I cannot help but think: what a lucky bird photographer I am, traveling in such great company, feasting on the birds and wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula.