Did you say birdathon?

Birdathon_300pxThe word birdathon, according to this source, was first used in 1976 “to describe a fundraising event, in which participants solicited pledges for the number of bird species they would count during the duration of the event”. Birdathons are organized by pro-bird organizations all over the world, both to raise funds and to spread bird culture. In the Yucatan Peninsula we have our very own birdathon, the Xoc ch’ich’, part of the Toh Bird Festival. In Maya xoc means count, and ch’ich’ means bird. The territory for this competition is the State of Yucatan. Last year we participated for the first time with the Sihunchen Team, and published a full report. This year’s finish line was the Mayaland hotel, literally a stone’s throw from Chichen Itza’s Observatory.


Birders don’t run during birdathons, birds would be flushed away.  Granted, you may see some birders running through a parking lot, rushing back to their cars after a quick bite, ready to continue birding. But the birding itself, this they will do very carefully, walking together as quietly as possible, stopping when needed, using their binoculars, scopes and field guides as they make their way through different ecosystems, never dwelling in any one place.

With a little luck, reasonable weather and a smart route with some “plan B” options, they will see many birds this way. And that is precisely the purpose of a birdathon. When time is up, teams compile final lists of species and submit them for the jury’s consideration. The team with the most number of confirmed species wins.

Birdathons are meant to be fun, not overly competitive. Most important is to have a good time, discover new locations for future birding, meet other birders, and learn new things. Participants also do a bit of citizen science, helping raise money for bird conservation and taking part in what really is a census of species, as data gathered is kept on record for future reference.

Black-bellied Whistiling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis). Photographed at Merida’s CRIT (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

The honor system

Essential to a good birdathon is the voluntary enforcement of the honor system. Birders are expected to practice ethical birding, and to be 100% honest with their lists. Without such commitment to truth, data gathered loses all validity and the competition loses all charm. The list must be a faithful transcript of what was really seen, heard and identified, beyond all reasonable doubt. Captains are specially called on to abide by these rules and explain them to less experienced birders. No “optimistic listing” should be allowed: when in doubt, the bird stays off the list. Same goes for that common bird that is always around, but was nowhere to be seen on birdathon day: doesn’t make the list.

The Pronatura Team, hard at work! (Photos © Ivan Gabaldon)

The Xoc ch’ich’ 2012 Birdathon: Pronatura Team delivers the goods!

This year I was lucky to be added, at the very last minute, to the Pronatura Team (sincere thanks to Ana Raymundo, Marigel Campos and Jacqueline Aldana). We started birding Saturday (Nov 24) before sunrise at Merida’s CRIT and continued all day, moving towards the Gulf, pausing only for a quick lunch break, then driving back South to reach our final destination for the night, Hotel Mayaland. The following day, again before dawn, we left the hotel on foot for a pleasant and fruitful walk along nearby trails. We focused on water species during the first day, forest species during the second.

Our final list: 160 species, 5 of them endemics. Surprisingly, we failed to see some common species, like the ubiquitous Chachalacas, and didn’t see any kites, although we did see Roadside and Great Black Hakws. For a while it seemed like a very common endemic, the Yucatan Jay (Cyanocorax yucatanicus), would be a no-show, but we finally spotted a couple of them. Not a single species in our list was questioned by the jury!

Birdathon participants, judges and members of the organizing committee, during the closing ceremony. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

Winning was the icing on the cake!

After the great time we had, we were happy to learn that the Pronatura Team and The Last, but not the Least Bitter(ns), both teams with 160 species, were tied in First Place of the Classic Xoc ch’ich’ Birdathon!

A Special Prize was awarded to The Last, but not the Least Bitter(ns), for having completely outdone the Pronatura Team in number of endemic species, with a count of 11 against 5. The Last, but not the Least Bitter(ns) are: Guilmer (guide), Rosana Gonzales, James Bibo and Cherie Pitillo. Hurrah!

In the birdathon’s “light” category, the Jats’uts ch’iich’oóh team, formed by students of Universidad de Oriente and Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Valladolid, won first place with 196 birds, including 11 endemics. Team guide was Mario Alejandro Marín Ucan, members were Gilda Caamal, Nidia Arjona, Ivette Colli, Blanca Flor Oy, Jose Alfredo Cocom, Noemi Cupul and Willebaldo Canul. Congratulations!

To see names and pictures of all the winners, visit the birdathon’s FaceBook album.

Congratulation to all participants! See you again next year.

Special thanks to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, to the Toh Festival’s organizing committee, and to all sponsors!

The Pronatura Team. Back row, left to right: Fausto Lugo, Maria Andrade, Ezequiel Cauich Cauich, Melanie Ingalls, Michael Blust, Evangelina Novero Blust; front row: Gonzalo Domínguez and Victor Marín. In the background, Chichen Itza’s Observatory. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

Presenting the Pronatura Team

Sound of trumpets, please, as I introduce my great team mates:

– From the U.S. we had Michael and Evangelina Blust, and Melanie Ingalls, Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Hidalgo who came to the Peninsula specially for the birdathon. Mike, an entomology professor from Vermont, declared himself “a beginner birder as far as Yucatan birds go”, but proved to be a highly qualified team member. His wife Evangelina, a sociology professor, is also a birder and an enthusiastic fan of Flamingos. “I mostly follow Mike”, she joked at one point, ”he’s been competing with his brother since they were kids”. Melanie Ingalls is an accomplished birder in her own right, whose previous experience includes working with local Audubon in Los Angeles. She has a knack for accurately describing brief glimpses of birds, and used her own code to write “the list”, breaking bird names down into initials (as in LBH, for Little Blue Heron, but that’s an easy one).

– From the City of Merida we had Maria Andrade, General Director of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan. Maria seemed to know much more about birds than she would let on. She shared her good humor and great knowledge of the Yucatan Peninsula. She also shared tasty treats! Maria was always busy working with her DSLR, photographing birds and documenting the team’s progress. Even if one wouldn’t notice, she was also getting reports from the rest of the Toh Festival’s production crew, this being the third year in a row PPY acts as chief festival organizer.

– Also from Merida and at work with his camera, we had Gonzalo Dominguez, a good friend from previous birding encounters. Gonzalo discovered birding three years ago and hasn’t looked back since. He’s a dedicated photographer, in fact Gonzalo won 2nd Place in the General Public Category of the 2012 Toh Festival Photography contest. Congratulations! Like Maria and myself, he was trying to make the most out of short windows of opportunity, and was always on the lookout for the one bird the group hadn’t seen, hidden high among the branches.

– From Campeche we had a vital team player, Ezequiel Cauich Cauich, certified nature guide and honey producer. Ezequiel has taken advantage of Pronatura’s initiatives and studied to become a bird guide, learning to speak English as well. A gentle chap, he spotted several species for the team. It was also interesting to hear about his apiculture operation. He’s based in the small village 20 de Noviembre, in Campeche. His highly recommended guide services may be arranged by writing to ezequielcauich@hotmail.com or better yet (since he has limited internet access), by calling his cell at 983 836 6467.

–  Our great team captain was master bird guide Victor Marín. I remain in awe of his knowledge, he was quick as lightning to identify birds seen and heard, both things often happening at once. He led us in a race against time, always in a good mood, sharing his knowledge generously. Victor consistently urged us to identify birds before he did. “What would be the point if I just identify all of them?”, he rightfully asked. He also brought along a scope on a tripod. Birders looking for an excellent guide can contact Victor through his FaceBook page or reach him at his cell, 999 908 3551. Based in Celestun, a prime birding area, he’s fluent in Spanish, English and French, and truly versed on the birds of the Yucatan Peninsula.

– We were taken safely from one destination to the next by our van’s captain, Mr. Fausto Lugo, also an archaeological guide. Thank you Fausto!


A photographer’s point of view

Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa). Photographed at Merida’s CRIT, 6:30 a.m. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Seeing a bird is one thing, making a decent picture of it quite a different one: this has become our mantra here at RIDE INTO BIRDLAND. A team of birders in a birdathon will advance as quickly as possible, getting the most out of each location, moving on when no birds are around, spotting several species in just a few minutes, then moving on again.

A photographer, with his camera and long lens, will strive not to lag behind. Unable to wait for the perfect moment of light, he may find himself thinking, “if I could only  walk to the other side of the lagoon to put the sun on my back…”. But there won’t be time for that. He’ll try to make the most out of each window of opportunity, at times succeeding, often failing miserably. He’ll discover that some of his images, even if they aren’t “keepers”, can be useful for the team, serving as hard proof of sightings and aiding in field identification of tricky species by zooming into the camera’s LCD screen.

For me it was lots of fun and a learning experience: new birds, new places, new guides, new people. No one in our team seemed obsessed with “winning”, which made us all winners as we enjoyed the day, the company, and the many birds we saw. Birds did their magic thing, making new friends out of recent strangers.

Was I able to photograph the 160 species in our list? Of course not, it’s an absurd number for a photographer. In fact, were it not for my great team mates, I would have even missed seeing many of them. Working alone is better for a photographer, but taking part in a birdathon is a unique experience, and learning so much from others is priceless.

I share here a few images, all made within those 29 hours of birdathon frenzy. Look at these birds, behold their beauty, and ponder this thought:  Xoc Ch’ich’ Birdathon? I’ll do it in 2013! 

Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavpipes). (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Mangrove Warbler (Setophaga erithacorides). Photo © Ivan Gabaldon.

Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens). Photo © Ivan Gabaldon.

Play the Gull ID game: I can spot the Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger). Can you name the one landing? (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Black-headed Trogon (Trogon melanocephalus) (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Not just any black bird with its distinctive bill, the Groove-billed Ani. (Crotophaga sulcirostris). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

A female Mexican Sheartail (Doricha eliza), spotted in the dunes close to the Gulf’s shoreline. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Masked Tityra (Tytira semifasciata) (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Squirrel Cuckoo (Piaya cayana). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

We had already presented our list at the judges’ table when this Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra), a repetitive migrational visitor to MayaLand, decided to show up. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).


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2 Responses to Did you say birdathon?

  1. Cherie Pi says:

    Your description and insight of the Toh Festival Birdathon should be required reading for anyone interested in participating
    in this great endeavor. Also, I especially like the piece about you as a photographer to describe how difficult it is to obtain great images
    in a few seconds…or less. The Reddish Egret in flight is stunning! Plus how often does anyone photograph both a Squirrel Cuckoo
    and Black-headed Trogon in 29 hours or less! Congratulations!

    Also our team is honored to share first place with your amazing team! Thanks for including us in your write-up!

  2. Thank you so much Cherie.
    Congratulations to you and your team.
    You’re completely right, a Squirrel Cuckoo and Black-headed Trogon, very close to each other. Wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula. 🙂

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