Barbara MacKinnon: birding pioneer of the Yucatan Peninsula

Barbara_POST_THUMBNAIL“Look, hummingbird!”, says Barbara, directing our attention to the branches above. And there it is, feathers like emerald sparks, darting from flower to flower. Hummingbirds are the smallest of all birds but one shouldn’t be fooled by their modest size, they pack unbelievable energy and can reach top flight speeds of almost 100 km/h. Their wings move in a figure-8 pattern that allows them to hover and puts them in a class all their own, for they can also fly sideways, backwards and even upside down!

These winged jewels always make challenging photographic subjects and the White-bellied Emerald we’re looking at is no exception. Fast as lightning, done with one flower and on to the next, the hummingbird follows a precise route mapped in three dimensions and computed, somehow, within its tiny brain. My eyes track the bird’s movements as I take side steps, trying to find a better “window” through the foliage. Finally I do and start shooting.

Finding a clear view is only the beginning of the challenge when photographing hummingbirds! (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Leaves and branches made the camera’s auto-focus useless while trying to photograph this White-bellied Emerald (Amazilia candida). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Moments later, sure enough, the bird flies off to some distant tree and I’m left in the dust to do a quick review of the images on the camera’s LCD. One frame gets my immediate attention: frozen in flight with its bill wide open, the hummingbird can be seen in hot pursuit of an airborne insect. It’s known that hummingbirds complement their diet of nectar with insects, but I had never photographed this behavior before, so I’m thrilled. Besides, this is not just any birding trip: today we’re out on private land near Dzilam de Bravo with Barbara MacKinnon, a bona-fide expert on the birds of the Yucatan Peninsula. As we all return to the vehicle I show the image to Barbara. “Ahá!” she says, “goes to show they eat insects too!”.


A White-bellied Emerald (Amazilia candida) in so-called “hawking” mode. David Sibley writes: “When prey is spotted, the perched hummingbird sallies out and engulfs the unsuspecting insect”. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Ever since I first started RIDE INTO BIRDLAND, back in 2011, I’d wanted to interview Barbara MacKinnon. References to her work kept popping up whenever I queried Google about “birding in the Yucatan Peninsula”. Most useful to me among those early references was a link to Barbara’s list of species and an article written by her on the birds of Yucatan, valuable information without which I couldn’t have begun to make sense of the birds I was photographing. (The website that hosted those files no longer exists, but Barbara has a new site in the making, so these resources could be available again).

No time could be better to finally sit down with Barbara MacKinnon than now, closing what has been a year of accomplishments for her. Ink is still fresh on the first edition of Sal a Pajarear Yucatán, a field guide bearing her signature that is quickly making its way into the pockets of birders all over the peninsula. Written for children but quickly embraced by people of all ages, this field guide in Spanish covers 408 bird species and is part of a beautiful project to bring birding culture –and possibly birding economics– to Mexican children and their communities.

The book has been cause for much celebration, placing the spotlight on its author and opening the gates to a wave of public recognition for Barbara’s work of many years. It’s been a collective realization of sorts, a common agreement upon a single fact: there would be no birding culture in the Yucatan Peninsula, as we know it today, without the work of Barbara MacKinnon.

Barbara’s book “Sal a pajarear Yucatán” was published as a joint effort with Claudia Madrazo, owner of publishing house “La vaca independiente” and creator of “Transformación Arte y Cultura”, a foundation that supports the “Sal a Pajarear” project in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Barbara’s journey in connection with birds started with a captive parakeet and ended up taking her into the realms of ecological awareness and socially meaningful work. She made it her self-appointed mission to create birding culture in the Yucatan Peninsula, working to implement programs that aim to empower members of rural communities by training them as bird guides, thus qualifying them to provide potentially profitable services to the eco-tourism market and creating conservation ethics in the process.

The success of these efforts can be witnessed today when one talks to qualified bird guides in the peninsula, among them former fishermen and farmers who discovered birding as an alternative life path and regard Barbara as teacher and mentor. For many of them meeting Barbara MacKinnon and learning about birds was a life changing experience, and several are now in turn teaching younger generations of guides.

A few days before our field outing Barbara welcomed us into her Merida home for an interview. Our conversation took place in her studio, where she generously accepted all our questions. Her replies were often punctuated with laughter, her smart, fiery eyes shining with enthusiasm for birds and life.

Today RIDE INTO BIRDLAND is honored to give you Barbara MacKinnon, true pioneer and creator of birding culture in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Barbara MacKinnon in her Merida home. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Barbara MacKinnon in her Merida home. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

I.G. Hello, Barbara. Allow me to start at the beginning. How did you become interested in birds in general, and particularly in the birds of the Yucatan Peninsula?

B.M. I met my husband on the beach in Puerto Vallarta, we were married there and lived for almost a year in a fishing village called Yelapa, the last bay in Bahia de Banderas on the west coast of Jalisco. No electricity, 250 people, we had the only house with indoor plumbing. My husband was managing a little ecological hotel on the water and we had a speed-boat. I’d go out with tourists at the hotel to this village up in the mountains, a 4 hour horse or donkey trip up 3,000 feet, very steep, completely different climate. One day we stopped at a house for water, and some children were feeding these little parakeets with no feathers. I ended up buying them for 50 pesos and carrying them down on the horse.

Two years later I was in Mexico City and my favorite one died. I was devastated, I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, the culture was completely new, I’d never been married before… the whole experience was tremendous. These were my friends and I could teach them English. So my mother started sending me bird books and just before we left Mexico City for Sonora she sent the first black-and-white bird guide by Emmet Reid Blake, whom I met as “Bob” years later at The Field Museum, he was curator of birds there, fantastic person. So we got to Sonora and stayed there for about six months, there was a large community of Americans with trailers. One of them was going back to the States and I asked him to buy me a pair of binoculars, so I did start going out to look for birds for a month or two in Sonora, in the desert.

My husband was from Yucatan so we came to live here and I wanted to learn more about birds. There were two things that happened: first, a cousin in Mexico City who was my mentor – a researcher in UNAM in aesthetics and archaeology– said there must be a course on birds, a correspondence course, because by then we’d ended up living in the southern end of Isla Mujeres. So in 1975 I took Cornell University’s course, which they had developed in ’70 or ’71. By that time the first Peterson book on Mexico came out with the color plates, before that it was black-and-white but with very good descriptions. And so that’s where I got into it.

There were very few hotels in Cancun at that time. My husband had a boating business and was offering the services to one of the hotels, when they said they really would like to develop some tours. I wrote my mother to contact a friend of hers, who happened to be on the board of National Audubon, saying that if there’s any birders coming this way I would be the local guide, set it up, rent the rooms in the hotel and all this.

Then I got a letter from a man, he was an outside consultant to National Audubon who helped organize their tours, saying I was highly recommended –only because of people knowing each other– and he sent me the itinerary from the year before of this horrible tour they took. They were on the bus all the time in central Mexico, it was nothing to enjoy, just reading it was horrible! So he wrote “this didn’t work out”, and asked me if I could send him an itinerary. I turned to my husband and said, “What am I going to do, I’ve never been on a tour in my life?”. And he said, “They don’t know that”. So I did a two-week itinerary for 25 people for the Yucatan Peninsula and Palenque, Maya culture and its birds. It worked beautifully for three years without a change, that’s when I really learned birds. But it all started with this parakeet that died.

With a captive bird.

A captive bird, yeah. But it wasn’t that captive, we had to keep the windows rolled up, so it was free in the apartment we had in Cancun to fly around some.

That Cornell University correspondence course you took, how significant was that experience? Was it really useful? Would you recommend it?

It was fantastic! I would get each chapter and in one day I was re-mailing it with the answers. I’d read it all and sent it back, and then I had to wait one month, it took two weeks to get there and two weeks to get the next part. Pretty much what happens today! (Laughs). Later they came out with this very difficult one, but now they’re re-doing it again. And they’re still using me as promotion for their donations, to show what happens to someone who takes their course!

You did a lot of birding in the Cancun area, which was not as we know it today.

Yes, it was forest, it was beautiful.

IHow did witnessing such a terrible transformation make you feel? And how do you see the ongoing struggle between conservation and development here in the Yucatan Peninsula?

Man and nature! It got to the point where I felt I knew what it was like to have been a woman in the gold-rush states, in California. The dust was flying, you know. Then it would settle and things would get green for a while, until the dust would go again, the heavy machinery. I have a lot of slides that I took and labeled “Cancun ugly”, because that’s how it was to me, that change. Eventually I had to move out. In the island of Cancun –which nobody recognizes as an island– from where the Sheraton was, after the first stage of development I had a permit to go into the rest of the island, there was only Don Herlindo there, caretaker at the ruins, and a couple of coconut grove workmen. That’s where I did all my birding, five days a week. I’d also get up at 2:30 in the morning and drive to Cobá, because I had to get there before dawn, and if I stayed on the road before between Tulum and Coba it was incredible, the forest was really high, and the birds! You’d see flocks of 78 parrots down on the ground eating fallen fruit. I had to go back many times!

Isla Contoy, off the coast of Quintana Roo. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon - Aerial support by for Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatán).

Isla Contoy, off the Quintana Roo coast. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support by for Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatán).

Now, about the conflict, this is ongoing and will continue, this sharing of natural resources between man and nature. The more we’re killing them, the less that goes into nature’s system. Take for instance Isla Contoy, one of my favorite places, we used to go in the 70s before they put the visitors center. There the fishermen rely on the sardines and other small fish precisely in the spring, when the majority of the marine birds are nesting there, so it’s a competition. We have the regulations on the non-fishing periods and all of this, so that species can reproduce for the benefit of men as well, but this hoarding of the resources, not respecting the dates to allow species to recover with reproduction… it so happens that man does not make a decision what to do, or even to do something, until after the fact, that’s the saddest thing.

Serious conservationists are not just activists, they’re visionaries in the extent that they can see ahead what’s coming, what’s going to happen. You try and give a warning, it’s not like Doomsday!, but you try to give a warning to take action. They’ll accuse you of being an activist and making a big fuss, until there’s a depletion completely of a species that’s of economic value to the human being. We’re self-destructive.

The trapping of live birds is a pervasive practice in the Yucatan Peninsula. Northern Cardinals are preferred victims and as a result they're populations are dwindling and sightings are less frequent. (Photo © Iván Gabaldon)

Men on motorcycles carry trap-cages during an early morning raid to capture Northern Cardinals and other in-demand birds. Many of these birds die before even reaching their intended market. This pervasive practice remains unchecked in The Yucatan Peninsula and is seriously affecting bird populations. (Photo © Iván Gabaldon)

ILet’s talk about your new book, “Sal a Pajarear Yucatán”. Please tell us about the work that went into this project and the type of reader it’s meant for.

The book in itself was something that I realized in training bird-guides that was very necessary. For years one of the objectives that I’ve had with different conservation programs has been to create a bird culture. It does not exist in Mexico. The culture that exists is capturing birds out of curiosity or killing them for food, this is very ancient. The thing is, if you don’t have the tool in the language of the people, it’s very difficult to make much progress. I wanted to do the bird book after years of this frustration of not having one book in the local language.

I learned that there was no interest by an editorial company to invest in a regional bird guide, so the money would have to come from a donor who was already into three years of a project that I had helped her with in Jalisco, in which they were teaching children about birds in educational form in ten communities around an exclusive resort. These are very poor areas and they did it based on training volunteers, no one gets paid, it could be a teacher, or a biologist. She wanted to do the same thing here, so when I suggested the book she was very happy because it would be the tool to do this other conservation project in the peninsula, similar to what they did in a very small area in Jalisco, something a little bit more difficult logistically to do because we’ve included the three states.

Barbara scans the trees for birds during our outing together. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Barbara scans the trees for birds during our outing together. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

The book also was an opportunity for me to put in a lot of information that is not published anywhere. All the nesting data that I collected in the late 70s, when I was birding every single day and I was only doing some tours living in Cancun, helped me tremendously to be able to put dates on nesting. Steve Howell in his fantastic book on the birds of Mexico also has some dates, but not a whole lot. There’s very little published on nesting dates in the Petén of Guatemala, and the only place where they really have a lot is Costa Rica in their guidebook, but that’s a different time period with the dry season and the wet season, which dictates a lot of when a bird will nest. So most of that information in my book has never been published before.

Steve Howell did include quite a bit of general information of when certain species visit in the wintertime in the peninsula, coming through but not specific to the peninsula. For a number of years in the late 70s I kept track of migration data –first seen, most seen, next to last seen, last seen– for Doctor Alan Phillips, who was the authority of birds in Mexico. I had all of that data and can tell you pretty much within a six week period of when a transient bird will come through here. So I included that data and where I did not have data or it was incomplete, I either leave it out or there’s a question mark, and I hope someone will tell me what the correct information is. I’ve invited people to share their information, but until you get everything out there no one is going to say anything to you, everyone will keep their information in a drawer because they have nowhere to comment on it. So I’m hoping that everyone will key into those two, the dating of nesting and of the presence in the peninsula for migrant birds.

For the maps that I included in the “200 birds of the Yucatan Penisula”, a two-CD interactive ROM we did, I obtained the use of maps for the entire distribution of birds and was able to update about 30 of those. That was a bit complicated, because we have species here in the peninsula that are residents and are also migratory, so of course if you’re doing it from the perspective of a North American north of Mexico, the migrants for there will have a blue color, not a green color for a resident, and you can’t put both colors in one map. With the information that I get from other projects that I work on as a volunteer, like doing four reports a year for North American Birds or reviewing the E-bird for the area, I have access to a lot of information. I was able to update about 160 maps that Steve had done, he didn’t have the information at the time, there just wasn’t that much done. More people out in the field, more information, if they’re reporting it. That’s the most difficult chore, getting people to report what they’re seeing, but it’s part of the process.

I decided it was more important to do distribution maps only for the peninsula for a couple of reasons: one, people are coming to the peninsula or they live here, and they want to see their birds or the birds that are here, or they would have gone elsewhere to see them. So with the book they can see easily what part of the peninsula they have to be at in order to have a chance at finding those species. This also gives an opportunity to increase tourism in an area that I just love, the base of the peninsula which has some beautiful forests, still untouched, still in the hands of the campesino, it gives more value to that part of the peninsula and so many species that we have in the peninsula are related to Central America. Hopefully conservation-minded birdwatchers will go and leave an income to those people so that they will continue to save their forests, they’re basically forest ejidos but they manage forest and are interested in eco-tourism.

Barbara listens attentively as children talk about their experiences as participants of the

During the book’s presentation at Museo Casa Montejo in Mérida (Casa Cultura Banamex), Barbara listens attentively as children talk about their experiences with the “Sal a Pajarear” project. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

It’s interesting to hear about all this new data in the book, specially since it’s a very accessible book for “beginners”. What kind of reader did you have in mind?

Well, I had to write for children of 9 to 11 years. I also had to defend why I was putting some species in. I knew I wasn’t going to do another book, this was an opportunity to put all of my knowledge into one book, there was a lot of discussion on this. I looked around, there’s a lot of books, in English or Spanish but not well done, they all have 120, maybe 160 species. A child is going to learn the basic 120 birds, going out at least twice a month, in a year. So what are they going to use after that? I’m thinking also of my bird guides, they’ve learned the English names but hardly ever know the Spanish names, there’s so much information they don’t have because they don’t read and they don’t read in English. I wanted them to be able to benefit from this as well. And I wanted to keep the language simple throughout, I’m not a technician or a biologist.

I had some help revising the first section from someone who works in environmental education with children, who changed a few words around, softened it, and it fit fine. Then Dr. Hector Gómez de Selva, one of the top ornithologists in Mexico, did the first revision of the text, I wanted someone who knew the subject matter, not just the grammar. He changed a few words, for instance I would use selva secundaria in Spanish, secondary forest, he changed it to rejuvenated forest, words that a child would better understand. So everyone was astute as to what the objective was, it had to be easy to read. What I did not expect was that adults would think it’s fantastic precisely because it was written for children and everybody can understand it. I thought they’d skip over, just read the instructions so they’d understand the book and go to the species, but they’re reading all of it.

A Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia). (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) are winter residents in the Yucatan Peninsula. In her field guide, Barbara writes about this bird’s hunting technique: “Instead of jumping from branch to branch among the leaves, it climbs up trunks and branches. To enable it to move like this, the back-pointing finger in each foot is extra long”. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

You used photographs instead of drawings, which is the more traditional choice for field guides. Why did you make this decision and how did you select photographs for the book?

B.M. First of all, to do drawings you’re automatically putting a two-year date out there. I have worked with artists that don’t know birds, and I know birds but at that point on my life I didn’t know enough to say no. It’s very frustrating, it doesn’t come out just right, the detail, the measurements. The best bird artists are birders, but I was always working with someone who could copy whatever, and it just would never work out. There was also a time element and photographs exist, it’s a matter of having access to them when you don’t have a budget. If you have a budget there’s absolutely no problem, you can put a book together almost overnight. So there was no consideration whatsoever not to use photography. I was lucky to have a total of 19 contributors, sometimes with one or two photos but photos that were very difficult to get. The two main principal photographers, Alexander Dzib and Alejandro Pacheco, both sent me about 600 to 700 photos, which finally got pared down to about 170 for one and 130 for the other.

When your objective is to teach someone to identify a bird, it has to be photographed at a certain angle, it has to show the primary identification points. You’re not going be able to identify a bird if you’re looking at the bill straight on, you won’t see the superciliary line, the line through the eye if there is one, whether it has an eye-ring or not, whether it has bars on the wings, what the shape of the tail is. So a three-quarters is good, but it depends on what the bird is and what the points of identification are, specially if there’s another one similar, you have got to show those differences. I didn’t succeed 100 percent, because I didn’t have all the photos in the world, but that was my basis of selection, not on beauty whatsoever.

 It was just starting to drizzle near the end of our outing with Barbara when this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) showed up. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

It was just starting to drizzle near the end of our outing with Barbara when this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) showed up. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

You’ve dedicated years of field work to the compilation of a list of species for the Yucatan Peninsula, the latest version of which is included in your new book. This list is always being updated, birds are added, deleted, or observed outside their known range. What does such constant change tells us about birds in general and about the Yucatan Peninsula in particular?

The Yucatan Peninsula is a finger sticking out between two very distinct seas. Birds have wings, there are winds, so anything can show up, and we have had almost anything show up. Birds that normally won’t go pass Tamaulipas, a strong northern wind will carry them down, birds get lost. So we can add species. Many times you don’t know, because not everyone is reporting what they’re seeing or know what they’re looking at to report it, whether it’s the first, the second, or the fifth time it’s been here, or how often it gets here. I saw some species in Isla Cancún that no one else has seen on the peninsula, and we shouldn’t expect them either, but they can show up.

There are also changes in numbers coming. Take the Lesser Black-backed Gull, for example. Gulls have a tendency to expand if your garbage dumps are expanding, they’re scavengers. It used to be you’d see three in one area on the coast and now you can see a lot in maybe ten different areas along the coast. Herring Gulls, you’d always see a few off the Progreso pier, one or two maybe on the Quintana Roo coast, but we had a flock of 35 in the water in Las Coloradas a few years ago, so that shows a population increase. Ducks is another thing, it’s occurred with climate change, with the amount of water or the temperatures off the northeast coast. The Atlantic coast got warmer a couple of years ago, so the ducks came down south from Georgia to our area on the Gulf and found more food. I did a bibliography of the ornithology of the Yucatan Peninsula back in ’93, and I found a lot of old records of Red-heads in it, but all of a sudden we got a couple of thousand of them in Celestun and they haven’t been reported for 20 or 30 years, so that’s a change.

Birds will go where there’s food. If you find a lot of birds in one place it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing. It means something may be happening someplace else that’s causing them to move to your area. Like the Razor-bills two winters ago in Florida, a North Atlantic bird but there are pictures on the internet of these birds flying past palm trees. They kept going until they found food, and fortunately they found food in Florida because they would have ended up in the Caribbean and starved to death. They had never been seen there before and it doesn’t mean they’re going to stay there, it’s just that season, those circumstances. If you get climatic change that is repeated with water temperature changes, which will also affect food sources and it’s continual every winter, then you’re going to have these phenomena repeating themselves.

The Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) has become in recent years a much more frequent sight in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

The Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) has become in recent years a much more frequent sight in the Yucatan Peninsula. Photographed in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Quintana Roo. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

It seems the human mind would like to put things neatly into boxes, but nature is always changing and adapting. Have you seen a lot of change since you’ve been birding here?

It’s hard to say. I’ve seen a lot of changes of habitat, and habitat is going to change bird species. The thing is, when I was starting out in the mid to late 70s in Quintana Roo no one else was looking at birds in all of Quintana Roo, so you can’t compare. There were only three scientific expeditions since the 1930s to Quintana Roo. In relation to changes of the bird names each year, I thank Steve Howell for sending me an article he and others published a couple of years ago, recommending how to order the birds because of the taxonomic changes each year, families change position and then within the families, like birds that are no longer tanagers, they’re grosbeaks.

All thanks to DNA testing.

Right, and that is only to increase. So the recommendation is you put the families in order of similarities. What they have not yet done is to order the species within the families in the same order. They still have to do that, everyone has to agree and we’re talking about the birds in all of the Americas. What I did was to put in the families in the order they suggested, then use the taxonomic order that everyone’s been using but with the latest updates. So when you look at the book’s content, this is how people can look at the similarities of species. A lot of people have attempted this, not exactly like this but there’s a tendency, hopefully many more books will adopt the same. Because you pick up a book and you feel like an idiot, any book you pick up is not going to be in the same order as the other one, it depends on what year it was published and all that. This approach makes it easier for everyone, even scientists who want to show something or find it.

Although its name has not yet been changed, the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) has been moved from the Tanager family (Thraupidae) into the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae). (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Although its name has not yet been changed, DNA testing has resulted in the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)  being moved from the Tanager family (Thraupidae) into the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae). (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

How does it feel to spot a new bird and add it to the list? Can you tell us the story behind one of those additions that you’ve done?

I don’t recall that big a thrill… perhaps it would have more thrilling today, after years of looking now all of a sudden there’s a brand new bird! Friends of mine have found new birds recently, in the garbage dump outside of the town of Oxkutzcab and then at the Progreso ex-garbage dump, they had two birds never registered. One of those birds I had on a hypothetical list, but he took videos and Steve Howell identified them, Song Sparrow and Western Flycatcher. Who knows if they were here before, I remember years ago seeing a bird with a big spot on its breast, I was sure it was a Song Sparrow but it wasn’t supposed to be here and I didn’t know enough to go about proving it.

I also had a chance to do some traveling and once in a volcano in Hawaii I knew that I was looking at a bird, its bill curved around, that for sure was going to be extinct in a couple of decades. It made me think. But then it became more important to me to find a migrant warbler a week earlier on the peninsula than I had found before, and that’s when I knew that I wanted to focus in a specific area that I know, it was just much more interesting intellectually than to gratify a list. Then I lost the list I was keeping! I was with Steve Howell and Sophie, we stopped, he went to check a nest, my book got left on the top of the van on the road to Vigia Chico, in Carrillo Puerto. I had all of my notes and dates of what I had seen. Ever since then I’ve never kept a list, it just wasn’t important.

I have a clipping here about your report of a Spotted Rail, a first for the peninsula.

Yes, but actually after we published this someone came out, they had seen it in the same location but no one saw their publication before. As it turns out the Spotted Rail is very local, it’s still nesting in Cobá, some years you see it, some you don’t. Since then I’ve had other reports, probably migrants, under a car in Carrillo Puerto, things like that. I also had a wheatear, which was the second report for the peninsula, wheatears come from the European Artic area so that was even more surprising. A medical doctor on vacation, a client of mine, found it on a golf course in Cancun and said “you gotta see this“. Other friends of mine, an English couple who lived in Ticul, had found one ten years earlier. These are birds coming from the Arctic.


They got wings, there are winds. They can show up. I found an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) in Cancun, it had never been recorded as far south in Mexico, there’s about 3 or 4 records for all of Mexico.

The stunning Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata), endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula. This specimen was photographed in the Calakmul archaeological zone, Campeche. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

The stunning Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata), endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula. This specimen was photographed in the Calakmul archaeological zone, Campeche. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

I have a copy of a book you published in 2005, the bilingual “Birds & Reserves of the Yucatan Peninsula”. I really like it, it’s like a road map of the Peninsula’s best nature reserves, it can be used to make a travel plan. Would these be the basis for birding routes in the Yucatan Peninsula?

That’s it, yes. That’s a long story. For years, when I was coordinating the bird festival, I’d met Ted Eubanks, he’s done the birding trails in the U.S. and all over. Fermata Inc. is his company.

Birding trails or routes are used to promote birding in local areas, right?

And bring tourism to communities, spread it out away from cities, make use of the local hotels, restaurants, etc. So I got him to come down from Texas, paid for his trip with conservation money. We did a presentation for the Secretary of Tourism at the time, she didn’t understand that, said yes but it was a no. Anyway, in the booklets that I did for the Toh Bird Festival I wrote what I would put down as circuits in the different areas they could go, to cover different areas for different birds, out of my own experience. But we pushed on this for years, trying to get these birding trails going.

It’s the only project I haven’t accomplished, but what I’m going to do with my next project, which has already been approved, is to create a web page for birds of the Yucatan Peninsula and one of the sections will be the routes. You put it on a web site, add a couple of pictures of what’s there, information about available services, the bird list. I mean, it can be done, the Caribbean group is doing it already and they’re working with Ted. So islands can do it, that’s nothing easy logistically, and I have the dream of doing it on the peninsula, specially in the coastal area because it’s really under threat.

A narrow, vegetation lined road typical of the Yucatan Peninsula, near Dzilam de Bravo. Opportunities for spotting birds abound! (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

A narrow inner road flanked by vegetation, near Dzilam de Bravo. Opportunities for spotting birds are plentiful! (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Speaking of threats to the coastal areas, I know you’re one of several people who have objected to the project for a wind farm in Dzilam de Bravo. Isn’t wind power an ecological solution to energy needs?

We are not against it, we advised them to move it back from the coast, because of the endemics in the coastal area and the migration of birds. They didn’t do any studies, they just did not do the hydrology, etc. And we know there’s a whole line of international companies that want to come in and put them up. Recently it was announced that the State Government, SEDUMA and the Secretary of Environment, have changed the rules for the coastal reserve. So the area where they want to put in –and probably will put in– the wind farm was an area designated for conservation, not general industry. So they’ve changed a lot, it affects the entire coast wherever there’s a project, whether it’s tourism or a building that’s going to go up above the level that’s been permitted. It’s the same situation behind Progreso, Telchac, etc., just so that wind farms can go in.

We’re coming out, all of the researchers who originally wrote the program and have not been consulted, which by law we should have been consulted. It’s a legal point of how they went about making this change. We will publish it and hopefully we’ll have the names of doctors, researchers, serious people, although they still call us all “ecologistas”. SEDUMA did send an invitation to one of our group to be part of the State Committee on wind farms but we’re also convoking a meeting –the government hasn’t answered us– about having a public hearing, where the company explains a lot of the doubts, because the study was so badly done, and where scientists have the opportunity to talk and give their position so that the public knows.

Is it the biggest fear, from the point of view of birds, that this wind-farm would be right in the migratory route?

Migratory route is one thing, and the other are the endemic species. I’ve spent a couple of days communicating with a consultant in Texas, and he says, “Why can’t they just develop or rejuvenate an area for these endemics?” Well, because of the soil situation, it’s not even soil, it’s rock. They only go 5 kilometers inland, that’s where you have all your cactus and a lot of endemic species, plants as well as reptiles, in that particular zone. So you can’t reproduce that. And your water level is surface to three meters, and then you have a deeper one, but the surface one… Interrupting that with the bases for the towers, they did not indicate what the maximum depth would be, only the minimum of 1.5 mts, and they could go 4 meters. Would that interrupt the salinity in the coastal lagoon system, which will affect the feeding of the Flamingoes? They didn’t do any studies.

And for all practical purposes, moving the wind farm inland…

It would help, yes, because it wouldn’t be on that area, so you would protect your endemics and migratory birds would have a chance coming in. But not if it’s a whole wall of towers, because unfortunately we don’t have mountains so birds don’t come in in one specific area. I have them documented coming in from the west coast all the way down to Banco Chinchorro, first arrivals, they’ll come into the coastal area at any point when they’re exhausted. As an example we should look at, there’s a complete catastrophe, economically, socially and ecologically, taking place in the Istmo de Tehuantepec, it’s horrible and it’s even affecting the fish populations.

I translated an article into Spanish about a new study in the U.S. demonstrating, with scientific information that they had available, that the higher the tower, the higher the mortality. Companies protect themselves with an exclusivity clause and don’t have to send out their information to anyone, but that’s been proven. And they’re just now, after years, seeing the negative impact. They’re putting in the high towers here, really, it’s critical. People don’t think, where do your trees come from, you know? It’s life!

A female Mexican Shear-tail (Doricha eliza), an endemic species whose survival depends on the preservation of habitat in the coastal areas of the Yucatan Peninsula (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

A female Mexican Shear-tail (Doricha eliza), an endemic species whose survival depends on the preservation of habitat in the coastal areas of the Yucatan Peninsula (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Something very positive that you’ve done has been training and educating bird guides. You’ve developed a methodology and wrote a manual, available on the internet, that focuses on young guides from local communities. What can you tell us about this?

I didn’t have a methodology, I have a lot of common sense. I wrote the manual after I had learned so much, and this is something that I need to share. And as it turned out, no one else in the world has written one, because they’ve asked me from Russia and they’re using it, and China and Kenya and South America. And it’s just because no one else had done it. They all have eco-tourism projects and they can adapt it to whatever their needs are.

I learned so much working with the communities. Overall they were adults, and I had numerous participants that had never passed 6th grade, and some couldn’t read or write, and they would bring their young son from grade school to take notes and to read for them and all of that, and they became very good birders. Most were fishermen, I focused in the communities within the reserves in Yucatan and Quintana Roo because they were already developing eco-tourism. I never went where eco-tourism was not identified as a need for them, I don’t believe in that because you’re raising the expectations of the community but it won’t be ongoing and you can’t promote it, the government has to promote it or someone who has an economic interest. So to me it was something I would only do where it was conceivable and where there was tourism development and promotion.

Cover of Barbara's manual for training of bird guides, published by Amigos de Sian Ka'an.

Barbara’s manual for developing and training  bird guides, published by Amigos de Sian Ka’an, has been used in the Yucatan Peninsula and also in places as diverse as China, Kenya, South America and Russia.

What have been some of the challenges of this project? Some young guides I’ve spoken with have told me it was hard for them be accepted by their community once they became bird guides, but people turned around when they realized a good living could be made from this activity?

For me it got to the point when I was in maybe five communities at the same time, I could pretty much predict what would happen in the organization as to the number of cooperatives that would be, the competition, all of this. But also there was another thing that happened: I had to go back to all the communities because once key people who really learned –because not everybody learned but in any case you’re creating conservation ethics– but those who really learned, their egos just went up and I had to go back and pull them down again. So they became disliked in their villages because they showed off, they’ll never tell you that, they’ll say “I was treated like this”. They couldn’t help but be proud of what they had done and there were some that thought they knew it all, so you had to go back and put them into real life.

Amigos de Sian Ka’an with Pronatura and RARE organized three month training of naturalist guides, RARE had done this in Costa Rica with great success, then they went to Baja and then they came to the Yucatan Peninsula. I was president of Amigos at the time, we organized it, it cost 3,000 dollars that we had to raise for each participant. We selected people, interviewed, all English. But these guys, when they went back to their villages, they were the ones whose egos went up… In the last 3-month training there were a couple of volunteers, English teachers who were birders, and so these guides really learned birds form them, they went out every single morning. I used those guides that had been trained as naturalist guides as helpers in my training, because then they had to share what they knew. When you put them in that position, it changes them, it makes them really good guides, because they know how to share their information.

The Turquoise-browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa), an unforgettable bird that can be seen year-round in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

The Turquoise-browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa), an unforgettable bird that can be seen year-round in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

In some cases the communities have not consolidated behind the activity. It’s not going to fly, they’re off the beaten track. In communities like Ria Lagartos and Punta Allen, for instance, I can compare those two: they’ve got tourism, there were four cooperatives, they could never get all together and they were very competitive against each other, tell lies about the other to get the client and all of that. At the same time I was doing training in San Felipe and Xcalak, where they had one cooperative, everybody together, it was small, they were just starting out, it was lovely. But it has to do with the flow of tourism. And as soon as you get a lot of tourism they start dividing it up, and it’s “I know more than this guy so I’m gonna make my own thing and I’m going to make more money”, so competition starts.

There’s also a community in which I did not participate. Ismael Navarro from Ria Lagartos –whom I had trained as a volunteer– went to Ek Balam to teach, so there’s a couple of guides there that are fabulous, I’ve seen their interviews. But they aren’t getting tourism. And they’ve got to eat, they’re really poor. So this is what I say: to choose where you’re going to do this you really need to take into consideration your ongoing traffic of tourism, what the conditions are. And of course I chose the communities within reserves, just because those reserves where chosen as reserves because they’re really important for their natural resources.

We've always felt reasonably safe while traveling in the Yucatan Peninsula, even by motorcycle! (Photo © Roselys oropeza).

We’ve always felt reasonably safe while traveling in the Yucatan Peninsula, even by motorcycle! (Photo © Roselys Oropeza).

I’ve seen information reporting 450 million dollars per year of birding-related income in Costa Rica, whereas information about the Yucatan Peninsula points to 2-3 million dollars per year. It seems we’re still way below our potential and much more needs to be done to show the world how wonderful this place is. We have rich ecosystems, specialized guides, hotels of all price levels, wonderful food, Mayan and colonial culture, good roads. It’s a safe place to travel independently by renting a car, but again we come upon the need to establish birding trails and routes. This is a requirement of utmost importance, wouldn’t you agree?

The only way to do the birding trails, and Ted Eubanks would tell you this based on the successful projects that he’s had –where they flow and he can do it and they’re several years in the making– you have to do it with the Governor, he has to give the OK and you go from there. Politically it hasn’t happened here, but that’s where it has to come from if it’s going to work, because of what’s involved. You have to get the SCT (Secretary of Communications and Transport), they have to put up the signs, there’s so many government agencies that have to be involved for this to work. So it’s not just the local conservationists and the good-doers and all of that, there’s a lot of money involved in this.

When he was here, Ted even told the Secretary of Tourism at the time that he would charge less than half of what he usually charges, because we could do the inventory locally, we’re well advanced enough to do all of that. Tourism that goes to Costa Rica is North American basically, they’re going to leave the U.S. so they’ve to get on a plane, whether they’re going to Costa Rica, somewhere else in Central America or the Yucatan Peninsula. So if I have to get on a plane, where am I going to go? It’s not just where the birds are. I’ve been to Costa Rica many times, I’ve been in Guanacaste and I’ve seen every single bird that I see here. But there are other aspects: security, English-speaking people, etc. I know from the years that I sold time-shares in Cancún that people would do anything to avoid coming through Mexico City because they speak Spanish there. So getting a direct flight to Cancun was important for them. Those kinds of decisions influence and that’s why Costa Rica gets more, you have more flights.

Costa Rica has been advertising for many, many years, but what they don’t say is that they’ve devastated their park system precisely because of tourism, so benefit on one hand, and eroding on the other. We have all the potential, but you have Mexico with all the narcos and everything. Where do you separate it, when people outside of Mexico don’t know their geography? We live here very normal lives, in fact I think this is one of the safest places to be in the whole world, without volcanoes and earthquakes, or people killing each other in schools and all of that. It takes an overall effort with government agencies focused on this, and at different times people have been interested, but overall your politicians and people in so-called “public service” positions don’t understand birding. They see the numbers and they think millions of people are going to come because that’s what the statistics show, but because people have to get on a plane and spend the same amount of money, maybe even a couple of hundred dollars less to go to Costa Rica, and because so many others have gone there –it’s a very small country with probably more visitors than natives– you have to deal with people’s perceptions.

A Bare-throated Tiger Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum) stands still for a portrait in the coast of Quintana Roo, one of the amazing bird species that can be seen in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

A Bare-throated Tiger Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum), one of the most striking birds that can be seen in the Yucatan Peninsula, stands still for a portrait near Akumal, Quintana Roo. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

What about the downside of eco-tourism, as you just pointed out in relation to Costa Rica? What’s the potential for negative consequences and how can these be prevented? Is it a question of regulating more once you have the flow of eco-tourists?

Education is best. I’ll give you a positive example, in Muyil. The Maya in Quintana Roo are very independent. There’s an Italian travel agency in Playa del Carmen, they have the jeeps and move a lot of people. They always try to down your price, they’ll give you volume but they pay less per person. So they went to Ismael Camales, his father worked with Amigos since 1986 so I’ve known him since he was a child, he took a RARE course and became a fantastic birder. A number of years ago they went to him and said, instead of six people on a boat to go out we’ll have eight, and we’ll pay you this, and you’ll have more volume. Well, they never entered there. That’s an attitude that happened in Africa, where they limited the number of visitors to the gorillas but they upped the price, so that’s what he was doing without thinking about it, he knew he didn’t want massive tourism there spoiling it. But that’s also because they’re very independent, that doesn’t happen often, it’s exceptional. It would be great if it did happen, but unfortunately we’re humans.

Regulation, yes, but I really feel it’s education. And you have to be sure that people are getting a fair price to begin with and benefiting from the activity so that they don’t sell out. Unfortunately the scale of human population goes against the economics of “higher price fewer people”. I can’t be quite as optimistic, but I’ll tell you, I was interviewed in Sian Ka’an years ago by someone from the UN who evaluated projects throughout the world, and I told him how when we started out with Amigos de Sian Ka’an I thought we didn’t have time for environmental education, we had to get into the nitty-gritty and just didn’t have the time. But now years later I believe education is the only answer, because you just can’t change mentalities that have already been formed, so you have to start with younger generations. And he said he’d come to the same conclusion, after 20 years of doing evaluations for UN all over the world.

One final question, let’s say we run into a person who asks: Why should I go birding in the Yucatan Peninsula?

I’d say, why shouldn’t you?! You have birds that are unique to the region, you have wonderful bird guides, we have in the area beautiful experiences that they won’t find someplace else. I mean, most people get absolutely stunned, even if they’ve been birding all over, when they see 10,000 flamingos, it’s just an incredible sight. But also I think it’s the people, there’s incredible social communication and the people are lovely, particularly in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Flamingoes (Phoenicpterus ruber) at the end of the day, near Progreso. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Flamingoes (Phoenicpterus ruber) at the end of the day, near Progreso. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).



“Sal a Pajarear Yucatan”, by Barbara MacKinnon, is available through the following sources:

Casa de Cultutra Banamex in Casa de Montejo, Merida.

Gandhi bookstores in Mérida and Cancún

– The store at Quinta Montes Molina on Paseo de Montejo, Mérida

Amigos de Sian Ka’an

– Dra. Griselda Escalona in Ecosur-Campeche.



Sal a Pajarear Yucatan, por Barbara MacKinnon. Published by La Vaca Independiente, México.

The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, by David Allen Sibley. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York.



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8 Responses to Barbara MacKinnon: birding pioneer of the Yucatan Peninsula

  1. Cherie Pittillo says:

    Thank you for interviewing Barbara MacKinnon. She is indeed the “Jane Goodall of birding of the Yucatan Peninsula”. Her work as President of Amigos de Sian Ka’an to conserve 1.3 million acres in Quintana Roo resulted in the creation of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. She’s trained over 250 bird guides and received the top national environmental award of Mexico. Her passion, vibrancy, and expertise to create a birding culture in this peninsula to benefit the various ecosystems and their inhabitants, the people here and those who visit have never wavered. With her new project of a website creation, she can link the many birding clubs that now exist and provide birding information, especially birding trails and routes in one central location. Since the 1970’s Barbara’s life has been dedicated to a higher purpose. Never let it be said that one person cannot make a difference.

  2. Cherie,
    It’s always a luxury, having you among our readers. 🙂
    I can’t thank you enough for your valuable contribution to this post!
    You said it so well in just a few words. Thanks for mentioning Barbara’s work with Amigos de Sian Ka’an, something very significant we did not cover in the interview. I suscribe your words, one person can make a big difference. Specially by motivating and influencing other people, like Barbara has.

  3. Maru Illescas says:

    Gracias por entrevistar a mi tía Bárbara. Yo he empezado a aprender de pájaros y de la variedad y belleza que tienen gracias a ella. Es una apasionada de lo que hace, es altruista, es simpática, es interesante, es responsable, y tantas cosas más que no hay forma de evitar ir aprendiendo y disfrutar de saber cuando se cruza un ave en nuestro camino. Y he aprendido a cuidarlas, escucharlas, ver qué colores tiene. Ya no son, para mí, cualquier animal que vuela, pajaros iguales sin importancia. No soy aficionada constante pero ya hasta me cuido de no decir la frase “Matar dos pájaros de un tiro” que indica -hacer dos cosas al mismo tiempo aprovechando la oportunidad que brinda una para la otra- porque matar pájaros no debe usarse como referente bueno.
    La quiero mucho y me da orgullo que se le rinda homenaje por todo lo que ha hecho por Yucatán y por la gente que acá vive. Aparte que me encanta que sea Orgullosa Mexicana, habiendo nacido en Estados Unidos.
    Felicidades tía Bárbara y Gracias

    • Muchas gracias Maru por tu excelente comentario, describes a Bárbara como solo puede hacerlo alguien que la conoce y valora la verdadera dimensión de su trabajo. Para nosotros ha sido un honor conocerla y un lujo poder entrevistarla para RIDE INTO BIRDLAND. Su trabajo ha sensibilizado a mucha gente, como tu misma refieres, sobre el valor y la importancia de las aves, y con seguridad continuará influenciando a más personas en el futuro. Te invito a compartir esta entrevista con tus amistades y conocidos y a estar pendiente de la próxima aparición de la versión en Español. Gracias!!!

  4. linda de Kort says:

    Thank you for an inspirational story. We are coming to the Yucatan and hope to be guided by a person mentored by Ms. McKinnon. Are there materials that we might bring with us to help with the bird programs.

    • IVAN GABALDON says:

      Thank you so much Linda, both for reading our story and for your interest in birding in the Yucatan Peninsula.
      There are quite a few guides who have been taught and mentored by Ms. McKinnon, as well as others who have learned in workshops provided by Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan. Guides are a vital human resource for the continuing development of birding culture here, and it is precisely visitors like yourself who, by hiring their services, complete this virtuous circle.
      There’s a list of selected guides (with contact information) in the website of the Toh Bird Festival. They’re all good and I would personally recommend David Salas of “Fronteras de Ecoturismo” for tours with transportation starting from Merida, Ismael Arellano of the Yucatan Jays for outings in Valladolid and surrounding areas, Victor Marin for expert guiding in the Celestun area, and Ezequiel Cahuich or Luis Jimenez if your adventure takes you as far inland as Calakmul, in the state of Campeche.
      As for your generous inclination to contribute some materials to Barbara’s program, I think it’s great and would assume that basic binoculars will always be useful, specially to introduce children to birding in rural communities, and perhaps also field guides to the birds of North America, such as Sibley’s or National Geographic’s, to reinforce their English-language skills and to complement the information available in Barbara’s own book (which by the way has recently come out in a second, updated edition). Having said that, it would probably be best if you reach out to Barbara directly via her project’s FaceBook page, “Sal a Pajarear Yucatán”.
      I hope you have a wonderful experience here, it’s a great time of the year for birding: not too hot, not too many mosquitos, migratory species still around. Please don’t hesitate to write again if we can be of further assistance. Happy birding!

  5. Robert Boyd says:

    Very interesting. I first met Barbara in Cancun MANY years ago before it was overrun by tourists and hotels. I am now living in Merida and trying to find a way to contact Barbara. I heard she recently had a seminar at the Merida English Library but I was out of town and missed it. Would love to make contact once again.

    • IVAN GABALDON says:

      Hello Robert, thanks so much for visiting our blog and leaving your comment. I’m not authorized to give out Barbara’s personal contact info, but may I suggest you reach out to her via the FaceBook page of “Sal a Pajarear Yucatan”? She’s the leader of this program, aimed at making birding culture accessible to children from rural communities in the state of Yucatan. Here’s the link:

      Please don’t hesitate to write again if I can be of further assistance.

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