Trip Report: Birding 102 Workshop in Merida, Yucatan.

Back in July we posted a Trip Report covering the experience of attending a Basic Birding Workshop, organized by Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan.  Our instructor, Biologist Ana Raymundo, has since put together a “Level 2” workshop, and we were happy to attend this past weekend. Read on to find out how it went.

DAY 1. First of all, an honest disclosure: we didn’t quite make it by 9:00 a.m. this time around. Having worked past 2:00 the previous night, we had no choice but to sleep a little more before heading out to Merida, Yucatan, for safety’s sake. It was 11:00 am by the time we reached the workshop’s new location at “La Casa de Retiros Padre Luis R. Páez Garza”, a beautiful place with an impressive 6 hectares garden. Class was in progress when we arrived and, as we later learned, we had just missed a practical demonstration by our instructor, biologist Ana Raymundo, on the use of “mist nets”. These are nets made with very fine nylon thread that, when deployed correctly, are practically invisible to birds. They are used by ornithologists to capture birds for hands-on examination, banding and other scientific data acquisition, after which birds are released. The use of these nets is considered safe for birds, with very low possibilities of injury for captured specimens. Mist nets are not meant to be used by birding aficionados, much less by illegal trappers, and both in the U.S. and Mexico official permits are required for their deployment in the field (in Mexico the proper authority for this is SEMARNAT). No live specimens where captured during Ana’s demonstration, but rather a dead specimen that had been found earlier on the grounds was used. You can read more about mist nets in Wikipedia.

Can you spot the mist-net in this picture? No? Well, neither can the birds, and that is precisely why these nests are so effectively used to capture live specimens. (Photo courtesy Marigel Campos)

Class resumed indoors with expanded information about subjects that had been covered in the Basic Birding Workshop, as well as new topics. Ana explained the architecture of wings, naming the different kinds of feathers that make up a bird’s wing and explaining their function. Bird coloration was also discussed, referring us for further reading to the interesting book “Bird Coloration” by Geoffrey E. Hill (full review coming up soon in RIDE INTO BIRDLAND). An Oriole nest was examined in class, so we could all see up-close what a magnificent work of engineering a nest is, and marvel at how Orioles use both natural and man-made materials to build theirs. Major bird groups were also covered, expanding on the information provided in the Level 1 workshop with more tips for species identification and special emphasis on shore-dwelling birds, in preparation for the field trip planned for the next day. A practical exercise in identification was performed using photographs, and Ana demonstrated how to mark our field guides with little colored stick-on labels (easily removable later), in order to aid their quick use when consulting them in the field. Other topics covered included bird migration, as we are in the midst of the migration season and many non-resident species can now be seen in the Yucatan Peninsula. Bird songs and their practical use for species identification was also discussed, and Ana played several audio files for us with pictures of the corresponding species.

Biologist Ana Raymundo talked about the amazing quality of work Orioles put into building their nests, sometimes even building a false entrance to outwit predators. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

Several interesting references were also brought to our attention. I think they are worth sharing with our readers:

– The PBS film “Magic in the air”, about those amazing creatures we call “hummingbirds”, their unique flying abilities and the supercharged metabolism that allows them, at great cost, to perform their stunning aerial acrobatics.

– The 2010 animated film “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole”. This film, as is usually the case movies with animated animals, is not by any means scientific and makes full use of “anthropomorphic” character development and animation techniques, but Ana praised its impressive depictions of owls and great entertainment value for children and adults alike. Most importantly, she recommended the documentary “True Guardians of the Earth“, which comes included as an extra feature in the DVD edition of the film. Directed by Eric Matthies, it explains why owls are useful to the earth’s ecosystem.

– The website of “Ducks Unlimited Mexico”, an organization that “develops direct actions that benefit migratory and resident waterfowl habitats”. It is directly associated with the U.S. organization “Ducks Unlimited”. Caveat emptor, sensible birders: this is a site and magazine for waterfowl hunters. It contains lots of interesting information and the organization has been widely recognized for advancing effective conservation programs for waterfowl. Founded in 1937 by North-American waterfowl hunters concerned with the destruction of wetlands and the resulting dwindling of bird populations, Ducks Unlimited defines its mission thus: “conserves, restores, and manages wetlands and associated habitats for North America’s waterfowl”. The affair between hunting and nature appreciation is a long-winded one, and responsible hunting is not necessarily at odds with conservation. The original “birders”, men like Audubon, were of course first and foremost hunters. RIDE INTO BIRDLAND is not endorsing nor panning “responsible hunting”, readers should be informed and make up their own minds about this sensitive topic.

Xenocanto, an awesome website dedicated to “sharing birdsongs from around the world”. An impressive total of 8258 species are covered, which amounts to 79% of the world’s total 10,479 known species. Clicking on the name of a species opens a page displaying a range map and several sound recordings, which can be played directly on-line. A very informative and entertaining resource!

– The great website All About Birds and its parent site by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. These are of course two of the best and most well known sites about birds, and they have already been included in our first list of bird related sites. They contain tons of great, frequently updated information, including reports on the latest scientific findings, photos, videos, a very useful search engine for bird species, and options for citizen participation in bird conservation programs. Do check them out and visit regularly.

– The CD “Bird Songs of Mexico”, produced by Fernando González-García and Antonio Celis-Murillo. It includes songs and calls of 77 species of resident and migratory birds, recorded in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. It sells for 185 pesos and can be bought on-line at the website “Aveoptica”, which also sell binoculars, scopes, field guides and other birding related products. Celis-Murillo also produces, along with Avian Ecologist Jill Deppe, the website “Birds of Mexico”, where they report on their on-going studies and also offer a new CD, this time with recent stereo recordings of 90 species of birds of the Yucatan Peninsula, including some of the region’s endemics. (UPDATE: The site “Birds of Mexico” is currently off-line. For more information we suggest going directly to the websites of Celis-Murillo and Deppe, linked above).

As the workshop’s first day came to an end our smart instructor, Ana Raymundo, closed session by asking all participants to provide in writing their observations and suggestions to improve the workshop’s content. We lingered in conversation with familiar and new faces, then left with high expectations for the following day’s field trip, everyone’s favorite part of every workshop.

DAY 2. Cinematographers use the expression “magic hour” to describe those fleeting moments, at the very beginning and very end of the day, when sky and landscape are covered in amazing hues of red, orange and gold. Part of the “magic” has to do with how elusive those moments are, and anyone hoping to capture them on camera must carefully prepare in advance. It was still dark when we set off from the city of Merida towards Progreso, and by the time our vehicles reached the road along the wetlands and marshes surrounding El Corchito natural park, our chosen destination for the day’s field trip, magic hour was at its best, the liquid landscape multiplying the gorgeous effect a thousandfold. Birds, including many Flamingoes, flew in flocks over a surreal mirror of golden light. A short fifteen minutes later, however, having parked our vehicles and prepared our camera gear, the magic was gone. If only we’d arrived half an hour earlier, I couldn’t help lamenting. A second visit to that location will have to be planned just to capture the amazing photo opportunities it offers at dawn.

Magic hour? We just missed it! (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

A hint of golden dawn light was still visible on the wings of these Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis), photographed just before we started our morning walk.  (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

Still, our field trip would prove to be a satisfying experience.  Ana’s plan for the day was to walk first along the road and engage in observation of the many shore and wading birds already active in the marshes on its North side. This we did, and even though our steps had to carefully dodge all kinds of human garbage strewn chaotically along both sides of the road, the sight of beautiful Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla), Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius), Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri), Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla), and Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus), as well as several species of herons, was more than enough to make the trip worthwhile. Checking my images of Black-necked Stilts in the camera’s LCD screen, I declared the outing a success even though we hadn’t even reached the mangrove areas of El Corchito, where we had hopes of finding, among other species, a member or two of the Kingfisher family.

The map on the left shows the distance we covered from Merida to Progreso. On the right, the red track shows how we walked along the road, then crossed water on a boat to continue birding in El Corchito (Maps by Google Earth)

The still water acted as a veritable mirror, multiplying the figures of these three Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus). Photo © Ivan Gabaldon.

There was very little traffic on the road so early in the morning, which allowed our group to photograph, observe and consult our field guides, mostly undisturbed. (Photo © Roselys Oropeza)

These two images of the same Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) were taken in sequence, but I edited them together to show in a single frame two stages of this bird’s flight. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

On the left, again the Black-necked Stilt (Hemantopus mexicanus). On the right, a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

A Willet (Tringa semipalmata). Note the wing pattern on the next picture, not visible when the bird is standing or walking. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

In flight, this Willet displays the species’ distinctive black and white wing pattern. (Photo Ivan © Ivan Gabaldon)

The metadata for my first image of the day tells me I started photographing at 6:06 am, and by 7:25 we had already walked back to the dock, where we waited for the boat that would take us on the brief water crossing to El Corchito. A group of White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhyncos) flew by in formation, reminding us that we are now in migrating season and therefore many visiting species from the North of the continent can be seen in the Peninsula. We have plenty of resident Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) but the white species, which does not dive to catch fish but rather scoops up its prey while swimming in groups, is a temporary visitor twice a year.  Pelicans, like geese, ducks, and other large migrating birds that cover great distances, fly in formation to make better use of the flock’s energy.

In her fascinating book “The migration of birds”, Dr. Janice M. Hughes explains this behavior: “As the wings move in flight, they produce swirling vortices of air turbulence trailing off their tips – the downwash being more inward and the upwash slightly to the outside. The upwash gives birds flying just off and behind the wingtips of others a bit of added lift. And extra lift saves energy. (…) American white pelicans flying in formation were found to have heart rates 11.4 to 14.5 percent lower than those flying alone under similar circumstances”. The advantage may be as high as 50 percent energy savings for large birds such as storks, the text explains, and airplane pilots have copied this strategy in order to save up to 15 percent in fuel consumption.

White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhyncos) can be seen during migration in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

After some negotiations, our group of twelve birders boarded the lancha and while the boatman carried us across the water to El Corchito we spotted a Yellow-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax violacea) flying in the opposite direction. This species is active mostly at night, so we celebrated seeing it, the second one of the day as we had already spotted one while walking along the marshes. As we approached the dock in El Corchito, we spotted another one, and we were destined to find one more specimen, a juvenile, once we reached land. These herons have large, distinctive red eyes, which prompted a member of our group to remark jokingly that they must have had a wild party the previous night, judging by their red eyes and the fact that several of them seemed to be slowly making the trip back to their places of rest.

Yet another Yellow-crowned Night heron (Nyctanassa violacea), this one a juvenile without the head plumes characteristic of the breeding adults. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

Biologist Ana Raymundo helps the younger members of our group with species identification. (Photo © Roselys Oropeza)

Being early visitors, we were mostly alone during our walk at El Corchito. I have included at the end of this post a full list of all species seen by our group throughout the day, 39 in total. As I have stated before in RIDE INTO BIRDLAND, seeing a bird and achieving a good picture of it are two very different things. The photographic highlights for me were the juvenile Nycticorax violacea, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) that was perched on a tree, and most of all, an American Pygmy Kingfisher (Chloroceryle aenea). Ana had expressed hopes that we might see one of these beautiful birds, as she had spotted several in previous visits to El Corchito, but most workshop participants were already heading back to the boat when Nico Salinas, a knowledgeable and generous birder we had met during the Level 1 workshop, called me by hissing discreetly and motioned me to approach him. A couple of meters from where he was, perched and hidden by many branches, was an American Pygmy Kingfisher (Chloroceryle aenea). The bird seemed to pose willingly for my lens for a full six minutes before flying away, which allowed me to change positions and look for angles without obstructions. This is the first Kingfisher in my photo archive, which must have been obvious by the huge smile on my face as we walked back to the boat. After a great day, it really was icing on the cake.

The American Pygmy Kingfisher (Chloroceryle aenea) as I first saw it, showing his back to the camera. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

They are called Kingfishers for a reason: they are fast and precise when they fly off their perch and dive into the water to catch fish. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

A typical pose for a Kingfisher, with its bill pointing up. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

Summing up: the combination of one day of classroom theory and one day of field practice in good company proved once again to be a worthwhile and enjoyable experience for us, and I dare say, for everyone involved. Dear Ana, I’m afraid a Level 3 workshop is now in order!

And finally, here it goes, the full list of species spotted by our group:

Blue-winged Teal/Cerceta ala azul/Anas discors

American Flamingo/Flamenco americano/Phoenicopterus ruber

Wood Stork/Cigüeña americana/Mycteria americana

Magnificent Frigatebird/Fragata magnífica/Fregata magnificens

American White Pelican/Pelícano blanco/Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Brown Pelican /Pelícano pardo/Pelecanus occidentalis

Great Egret/Garza blanca/Ardea alba

Snowy Egret/Garceta pie dorado/Egretta thula

Little Blue Heron/Garceta azul /Egretta caerulea

Tricolored Heron/Garceta tricolor/Egretta tricolor

Cattle Egret/Garza ganadera/Bubulcus ibis

Green Heron/Garceta verde/Butorides virescens

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron/Pedrete corona clara/Nyctanassa violacea

Roseate Spoonbill/Espátula rosada/Platalea ajaja

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture/Zopilote sabanero/Cathartes burrovianus

Killdeer/Chorlo tildío/Charadrius vociferous

Black-necked Stilt/Candelero americano/Himantopus mexicanus

Spotted Sandpiper/Playero alzacolita/Actitis macularius

Willet/Playero pihuiuí/Tringa semipalmata

Lesser Yellowlegs/Patamarilla menor/Tringa flavipes

Semipalmated Sandpiper/Playero semipalmeado/Calidris pusilla

Western Sandpiper/Playero occidental/Calidris mauri

Least Sandpiper/Playero chichicuilote/Calidris minutilla

Common Ground-Dove/Tórtola coquita/Columbina passerina

Groove-billed Ani/Garrapatero pijuy/Crotophaga sulcirostris

American Pygmy Kingfisher/Martín pescador enano/Chloroceryle aenea

Olive-throated Parakeet/Perico pecho sucio/Aratinga nana

Barred Antshrike/Batará barrado/Thamnophilus doliatus

Common Tody-Flycatcher/Espatulilla amarillo/Todirostrum cinereum

Tropical Kingbird/Tirano tropical/Tyrannus melancholicus

Mangrove Vireo/Vireo manglero/Vireo pallens

Swainson’s Thrush/Zorzal de Swainson/Catharus ustulatus

Northern Waterthrush/Chipe charquero/Parkesia noveboracensis

Black-and-white Warbler/Chipe trepador/Mniotilta varia

Common Yellowthroat/Mascarita común/Geothlypis trichas

American Redstart/Chipe flameante/Setophaga ruticilla

Northern Parula/Parula norteña/Setophaga americana

Yellow Warbler/Chipe amarillo/ Setophaga petechia

Mangrove Warbler/Chipe manglero/ Setophaga erithacorides

And so I bid you all farewell till my next post. Happy birding!

I.G.H.

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2 Responses to Trip Report: Birding 102 Workshop in Merida, Yucatan.

  1. Sara says:

    Qué bellas fotos! esos pajaritos multiplicados y reflejados en el agua quieta son un espectáculo!

  2. ¡Gracias Sara! A esos Candeleros americanos también les llaman “Monjitas”, por el traje que llevan. 🙂 ¡Saludos!
    I.G.H.

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