Wondering if you should take a Basic Birding workshop? We’re glad we did. Here’s the complete report of our experience.
DAY 1. It’s still dark but we’re already on the road to Merida. Our mission: to reach the city in time for the start of a two-day Basic Birding Workshop, organized by Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan and offered to the public free of charge as part of a permanent drive to support birding culture in the Yucatan Peninsula. We do make it, just a tad late, and are welcome into a group of perhaps fifteen aficionados of varied ages and levels of birding experience, sitting together in a hot but cozy room at La 68 Casa de Cultura & Café Cinema El Cairo.
Our instructor, biologist Ana Raymundo, asks each of us for a short self-introduction, then delves right into our subject: birds. With contagious enthusiasm she leads the session starting with the very concept of “bird” and proceeding without haste to topics such as the ecological and cultural importance of birds, ethical considerations for birdwatching, and practical identification of bird species by shape, size, flight, plumage, song, range and behavior.
Class is held in Spanish but common bird names are also given in English, in part because, as Ms. Raymundo points out, common names in Spanish tend to change with every region or country, whereas English names are more consistent. Many of the good field guides are of course in English, published in the U.S., Canada or Britain. It is also true that, from the point of view of bird-related tourism, English names become essential for communication between local bird-guides and English-speaking birders visiting the area.
Our instructor next conveys to us the concepts of family and species, explaining basic taxonomy and directing us to our field guides in search of scientific names, with all their Greek and Latin roots and endings. Some of these names can be very descriptive, suggesting colors, shapes and behaviours, others are decidedly silly-sounding, some are unpronounceable. Some pay homage to a lady, a place, or the scientist that “discovered” the bird.
A common bird with a great name? I propose Quiscallus mexicanus.
We break for some juice at the cafeteria, then we resume with binoculars and field guides, which are handed out to us. Ana (we all call her Ana by now) explains how to choose them and use them. The subject of field guides sparks conversation: general agreement is that no single guide will suffice for a dedicated bider in the Peninsula, at least two will be needed to cover the North American Birds as well as the endemics and other birds not included in the U.S. guides.
Ana moves on to talk about correct field practice, including what to wear, what to carry, and how to walk and behave at the birding location. Look at the bird first, she entices us, note every detail, its shape, color, size. Use the time the bird gives you. And only then, after the bird is gone, reach for the field guide.
The friendly atmosphere encourages participation, an opportunity used to best effect by the youngest birder in the group, a well informed boy of about 10 who freely shares useful information with the rest of the class. Towards the end of the session Ana uses photographs to conduct a general rehearsal in bird identification. Grouped in teams of four, we use our field guides to identify birds in the pictures that are handed to us. It is basic practice for our field trip, planned for the following morning.
Class ends a little after 2:00 pm. We leave in anticipation of the next day.
DAY 2 – Even the ubiquitous zanates (Quiscalus mexicanus) know it’s still too early. We can see them trotting on the ground around us, and also higher up, standing guard on rooftops and satellite-TV dishes, jumping from one place to the next. A few flycatchers are active as well, but no birdsongs are heard yet. It’s mostly business as usual for the birds, one would guess, except for the presence of us birders, standing by our parked vehicles near the entrance of AcuaParque, restlessly anticipating sunrise. Finally the sun appears above the rooftops and Ana gives the signal to start the second day of our Basic Birding Workshop.
AcuaParque is a trail with natural landscaping around two man-made lagoons, with marshes to the south and visible bird activity everywhere. It is conveniently located in Vergel, a residential area within Merida city limits, and was named “Best Place to Walk in Merida” by the folks at yucatanliving.com. Apart from a few early runners and four teenage boys in the distance who have yet to reach their beds for the night, we have the place mostly to ourselves. We follow Ana Raymundo closely as she spots the first birds and identifies them for all of us to see: a Grayis saltator (Saltator coerulescens), a Blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), a couple of White-winged doves (Zenaida asiatica).
We then descend toward the lagoon. Descending, mind you, is not common in the flat topography of the Yucatan Peninsula, unless one is entering a cenote. One of the knowledgeable citizens of Merida in our group tells us the story of how the area was at one time excavated for the extraction of construction materials. The deepest depressions left behind were later flooded to make lagoons, transforming the affected area into a park.
As the morning progresses we break into smaller groups and I walk alone towards the marshes. Impossibly fast sparrows make acrobatic passes touching the water’s surface, too fast and distant for me to photograph successfully. A couple of cormorants fly in circles over the lagoon, performing amazing watery arrivals. Them I get.
I turn further south and catch a sequence of an Egret in flight that makes me smile. My lens then follows a Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor) that chooses to exit the marshes and perch on a tree. I move back to the main trail and bump into Ana’s group, just in time to join them in observation of a Limpkin (Aramus guarauna), an uncommon bird cherished by traveling birders. The bird is motionless and well camouflaged on his perch, the head turning left and right every now and then. It is the first time I see or photograph this species.
Minutes later I walk on the opposite side of the lagoon and run into a fellow workshop participant, also a bird photographer, busy photographing a Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis). I wait a few prudent minutes, then approach slowly and start making pictures. The bird is busy walking over floating plants in search of small fish and comes very close to us.
The main goal in a park like this, from a bird photographer’s perspective, is to achieve compositions that include the birds but leave out all man-made objects. Throughout the morning I have managed to shoot from several good positions and, as it turns out, our Basic Birding field trip to AcuaParque has given me some keeper images for my archive.
Good birding and good light for outdoor photography are naturally synchronized: by 10:00 a.m. bird activity is slowing down, the sun is racing up and beating on our heads, and the best light for photography is already in the past. It was a morning well spent. Ana rallies the group together and reviews the birds seen, urging everyone to ask any questions we may have. With that, the workshop is declared officially closed.
Just before we get back to the vehicles members of our group decide to stage a rescue operation for an exotic parakeet that had been spotted at the beginning of the day, most probably an escaped bird sadly out of range after leaving his cage. There he is still, water up to its shoulders, motionless, not dead yet but with grim odds of survival. To make a long story short: saving the bird meant getting wet, so hats go off to Nico Salinas, the workshop participant who performed this heroic rescue!
We exchange our goodbyes and leave knowing we will likely run into some of our fellow birders again, people who share a passion for birds in general and for the birds of the Yucatan Peninsula in particular.
Summing up: the experience was instructive and very enjoyable. The workshop is aimed at beginning birders and provides just the right amount of information and field practice for a first peek into the world of birding. It may also be enjoyed by more advanced birders, who may use the opportunity to ask the instructor more “advanced” questions and can also help by sharing their expertise with the newbies. For anyone planning to participate for the first time in the Toh Bird Festival, taking one of this workshops is a must. If you are far away from the Yucatan Peninsula, consider including a Basic Birding workshop in your travel plans to the area, or taking a birding workshop closer to home.
Additional information about upcoming workshops and activities:
Pronatura Península de Yucatán offers free Basic Birding workshops as part of the activities of the Toh Bird Festival, the epicenter of which is the Bird-A-Thon Xoc Ch’Ich’, a fun and competitive birding marathon for beginner and advanced birders alike that will kick off at 5 am on November 24, 2012. The 2-day Basic Birding Workshop we attended will again be available at “La 68 Casa de Cultura & Café Cinema El Cairo” in Mérida, on Sept 8-9, 2012. Capacity is limited, so sign up beforehand. To look into the possibility of arranging a Basic Birding Workshop for your community in the Yucatán Península, contact Karla Nájera at firstname.lastname@example.org
One-day Basic Birding Workshops organized by Pronatura will also be held at Parque Sihunchen on the following dates: July 29, October 7, November 4, 11, 18, all in the year 2012. The natural trails of Sihunchen are prime territory for birding and owner Alberto Mezquita is a long time collaborator of the Toh Festival. Alberto knows not only his birds, but also Yucatecan history, archeology, and astronomy. You may see our previous report on Sihunchen here.
The Toh Bird Festival also holds a Photography and Drawing competition, with categories for amateur and professional image-makers. Entries are admitted from August 1 thru October 31, 2012. Conferences, children activities and bird watching trips complete the Festival’s offerings, all worth looking into.
La 68 Casa de Cultura & Café Cinema El Cairo is a special place where fun, cultural things happen in Merida. It has a peculiar store where you may find some bird-inspired objects. It is also home to a film club that shows documentaries in an inner patio and boasts its own friendly cafeteria. (UPDATE: although its website is still on-line, this cultural center has ceased operations since this post was published).