Passion for birding grows in the Yucatan Peninsula and we announce new Bird Photography Workshops

New_workshopsFor many of us it’s no longer a secret: birding is growing by leaps and bounds in the Yucatan Peninsula. This is no happy accident or an overnight thing, but rather the result of years of passionate work by many organizations and individuals.

Take for instance the Toh Bird Festival, now in its 13th Edition. Conceived in 2002 during a brainstorming session in the library of eminent conservationist Joann Andrews, it has become the peninsula’s landmark birding event. With a calendar of bird related activities spanning most of the year and closing in big-finish style with the Xoc’xic Birdathon, it provides great opportunities to meet fellow birders and bird guides, learn more about birds and discover great birding locations in the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s also lots of fun and great promotion for the natural wonders of this blessed part of Planet Earth.

Click on this image to visit the website of the Bird Festival Toh 2014. (© Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

Click on this image to visit the website of the Bird Festival Toh 2014. (© Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

Consider as well the work of people like Barbara MacKinnon, a passionate birder if there’s ever been one. Barbara has devoted years of hard work to train numerous local bird guides, many of whom are now themselves teaching younger generations of bird enthusiasts. She keeps a constantly updated and authoritative list of bird species of the Yucatan Peninsula, based not only on the available literature and her own field observations but also on trustworthy reports from a network of experienced birders. She recently published a field guide covering 400 of the Peninsula’s species (Sal a Pajarear Yucatán), a much needed resource in Spanish that comes to fill an information vacuum, as most other available field guides are only published in English. For more information check out “Sal a Pajarear Yucatán” on FaceBook.

Barbara MacKinnon, engaged in bird observation. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Barbara MacKinnon, engaged in bird observation. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Add to that mix the entertaining and informative columns in Yucatan Today and The Yucatan Times penned by zoologist Cherie Pittillo. Her words and images have opened the eyes of many to a delightful fact: in this amazing peninsula, any backyard is potentially a great birding location. Seeing birds through Cherie’s eyes is seeing more than shape, feathers and field marks, as her keen awareness of bird behavior takes readers past an initial “look at that bird” frame of mind into much more interesting “see what that bird is doing” territory. Cherie’s columns have become vital resources for many resident and visiting birders eager to discover the wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Zoologist and photographer Cherie Pitillo scans the landscape for birds during an outing to Isla Arenas, Campeche. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Zoologist and photographer Cherie Pittillo scans the landscape for birds during an outing to Isla Arenas, Campeche. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Further evidence of this growing passion for birds in the Yucatan Peninsula can be found in the healthy number of very active birding clubs, several of which have now come together to form the Regional Bird Clubs of the Yucatan Peninsula. Each club is hosting a monthly birding trip where camaraderie is the general feeling and great opportunities for bird observation and photography can be found. At the head of this new trend are the Yucatan Birding Club, the Green Jay Mayan Birding Club, the Yucatan Jay Valladolid Birding Club  and the Brown Jay Mayan Birding Club. Kudos to all of them for making a great contribution to local birding culture!.

At the end of the 2013 Xoc-xic Birdathon, members of Yucatan Jay Mayan Birding pose with their awards, joined by Pronatura's founder Joann Andrews, Cherie Pitillo and Juan and Ceci from Cancun's Green Jays. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

At the end of the 2013 Xoc-xic Birdathon in Ría Lagartos, members of Yucatan Jay Mayan Birding pose with their trophies joined by Joann Andrews and Cherie Pittillo of the Yucatan Birding Club and Juan and Ceci Flores of Cancun’s Green Jay Mayan Birding Club. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Let us close this list (for now) with the name of Alberto Mezquita. From his home base in beautiful eco-park Sihunchen, Alberto has been spreading for years his passion for birds. A true Yucatecan and long-time member of the Toh Festival’s organizing committee, he’s also working to make birds the central theme for alternative travel and eco-tourism in the Yucatan, an idea that has been embraced by a diverse group of communities, organizations and private entrepreneurs that have come together in the COTACY (Consejo de Turismo Alternativo Comunitario de Yucatán). Their aim is to place birding at the center stage of a range of travel activities that include Maya culture and archaeology, astronomy, cenotes, zip-lines, mountain bikes, kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving (so many things-to-do in the Yucatan Peninsula!).

Alberto Mezquita, binoculars at the ready, during one of our 2013 Bird Photography Workshops in his eco-park Sihunchen. (Photo © Roselys Oropeza).

Alberto Mezquita, binoculars at the ready, during one of our 2013 Bird Photography Workshops in his eco-park Sihunchen. (Photo © Roselys Oropeza).

Many more people, including an ever growing cadre of great bird guides and bird enthusiasts, are due credit for the expansion and rising popularity of birding in the Yucatan Peninsula. We can’t thank everyone individually in this short column, but we do send our biggest THANKS to you all.

Our grain of sand: Bird Photography Workshops

As part of this growing movement I was asked last year by Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan to submit a proposal for a “Bird Photography Workshop”. The Toh Bird Festival holds the yearly United for the Birds Photography Contest, which has been steadily growing in quality and popularity, so the photo workshops were conceived as opportunities for photographers of all levels to improve their photographic skills, delve deeper into the fascinating world of bird photography, and gain confidence to participate with their images in the contest.

The first two workshops were held in the city of Merida in 2013, with much success I should say, as all available places were quickly filled and participants responded very positively to a final “quality control” survey. Further confirmation of these positive results is to be found in the continuing work of a healthy group of participants who seized the opportunity to improve their photographic skills and have continued photographing birds ever more frequently, with great results to boot. My hat goes off to all of them. The slideshow below shows some of our workshop participants during one of our field days in beautiful eco-park Sihunchen (all photos © Roselys Oropeza).


Now in 2014 we are again offering in alliance with Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan a new and updated edition of this Bird Photography Workshop. We have made adjustments based on our previous experience, most noticeably by scheduling the workshops to take place over two weekends instead of one, which will make for a more relaxed learning experience and give participants more time to process the information and to practice on their own between sessions. This year we’ll also be taking the workshop to Valladolid (due to logistics that will be an intensive one-weekend course), and for the first time we’ll be offering a workshop in English in the city of Merida for the great numbers of expats and visitors from the U.S. and Canada who share our passion for birds and photography.

The Bird Photography Workshop is open to all photographers with a DSLR camera (or an advanced 4/3 mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses) and an interest in nature and photography. We have not included photographers with point-and-shoot or “bridge” type cameras this time around, as we have learned from previous experience that this results in a disparity in equipment that is not conductive to the best group experience. Perhaps we can offer a future workshop specifically for photographers or bird guides with those types of cameras.

An Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) spreads its powerful wings just before take-off. Photographed in Isla Arenas, Campeche. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

The workshop has been conceived as an introductory course, so no previous level of expertise in birds or photography is required. Participants should be familiar with their cameras and are encouraged to keep their owner’s manual handy, as all camera models have different implementations of the same basic functions. Essential photo technique will be covered, including exposure, composition, color, focusing, lens types, camera support systems, digital formats (RAW vs JPG) and basic photo editing concepts. Beyond basic technique, we’ll discuss specific tips and experiences related to bird photography, including how to choose the best gear, what to wear, how to move and behave in the field, how to approach birds, good locations for bird photography in the Yucatan Peninsula and important ethical concepts we must keep in mind to make sure our pursuit of feathered friends is never detrimental to the birds themselves or to nature in general.

The 22-hour workshop includes four in-classroom sessions and two field outings. It will be conducted in a friendly, helpful atmosphere. I’m always open to questions and never mind going over concepts as many times as needed for everyone to get them. During field trips I will have my equipment with me to share information about my personal gear configuration, but I’ll do little photography myself as I’d rather be available at a previously agreed spot for further questions from participants and to help them with any specific issues they may have.

A Mexican sheartail (Doricha eliza), one of the distinctive bird species of the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

A female Mexican sheartail (Doricha eliza), one of the distinctive bird species of the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

A big question when it comes to bird photography is what type of lens to use. The most obvious consideration is the need for a long tele or zoom lens that will allow closing in on smaller birds and “filling up the frame”. Lens types will be discussed thoroughly in the workshop and as we shall see some of the best lenses for bird photography are very expensive and possibly out of reach for most bird photographers. This should not be a discouraging factor: a lot can be done with a “kit” 70-300 zoom lens and even participants without a zoom or tele lens can achieve great images if they realize habitat and landscape are worthy of inclusion in their photographic vision. We will also discuss what the best serious but affordable lens options are, so participants considering the future acquisition of a better lens will have more knowledge upon which to base their purchase decisions.

The closing deadline for the Toh Festival’s Bird Photography Contest is set for October 17, 2014. This means there will be plenty of time to take one of the workshops and then go out during the following weeks to make photographs for the contest, which has categories for “beginner” and “specialized” photographers. Each 22-hour Bird Photography Workshop has a cost of 2,000 pesos and capacity is limited to 12 participants, so hurry up and sign up now (there are still available places as I write this). To enroll please contact Pronatura’s Marigel Campos (in English or Spanish) at Marigel, herself a bird enthusiast and photographer, is also the Toh Festival’s main coordinator, so any other questions regarding festival activities can be addressed to her as well.

A positive “side effect” of these experiences is getting to meet and spend time with fellow birders. In the past we’ve had participants from all walks of life, among them biologists, doctors, educators, entrepreneurs, art and photography students, and bird guides. As the workshop comes to an end many will have made new friends with a common passion for birds and photography. I hope to see some of you in this year’s workshops, with your cameras, your passion for birds, and your personal way of looking at the world. Happy birding to you all!



In Merida, Yucatan – Workshop in Spanish.

Friday 05/16 – (16:00 to 20:00 hrs) – Theory session.

Saturday 05/17 – (16:00 to 20:00 hrs) – Theory session.

Sunday 05/18 – (06:00 to 10:00 hrs) – Field practice.

Saturday 05/24 – (16:00 to 20:00 hrs) – Theory session.

Sunday 05/25 – (06:00 to 14:00 hrs) – Field practice and last theory session.

In Merida, Yucatan – Workshop in English.

Friday 06/20 – (16:00 to 20:00 hrs) – Theory session.

Saturday 06/21 – (16:00 to 20:00 hrs) – Theory session.

Sunday 06/22 – (06:00 to 10:00 hrs) – Field practice.

Saturday 06/28 – (16:00 to 20:00 hrs) – Theory session.

Sunday 06/29 – (06:00 to 14:00 hrs) – Field practice and last theory session.

In Valladolid, Yucatan – Workshop in Spanish

Friday 08/08 – (16:00 a 20:00 hrs) – Theory session.

Saturday 08/09 – (06:00 to 10:00 hrs) – Field practice / (16:00 a 20:00) – Theory session.

Sunday 08/10 – (06:00 to 14:00 hrs) – Field practice and last theory session.

In San Francisco de Campeche, Campeche – Workshop in Spanish

September 19 – 21. Bookings:

For more information about this and other bird related activities please visit the Toh Bird Festival FaceBook page. You can also drop me a line via the comments section below, or by writing to


Coming up soon in RIDE INTO BIRDLAND:

Treasures of Campeche – Part III

Interview with Barbara MacKinnon

This entry was posted in Special Events. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Passion for birding grows in the Yucatan Peninsula and we announce new Bird Photography Workshops

  1. Cherie Pittillo says:

    Thanks for including me with such dedicated individuals. I’m honored to help others discover the amazing Yucatan Peninsula for birding and nature.

    I think everyone could benefit from your photography workshops and your incredible expertise with your easy communications skills. People would never feel intimidated by you. And no matter how much photography experience we have, we can always learn something new.

    Best of luck to you and all your future students!

  2. Cherie Pittillo says:

    Also, I’d like to thank Rose for her slide show of your photography workshop participants. I’ve not seen her photography and am equally impressed with her artistic endeavors.

  3. Thank you so much Cherie, on behalf of both Rose and myself. The role you’ve been playing as promoter of birding culture in the Yucatan Peninsula can hardly be summarized in the short paragraph included in this post. In addition to your own work, I can attest to your generous talent for making positive connections between people with a common love of nature. So again, thank you Cherie, and keep those columns coming!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *