The wait is over: the Toh Bird Festival 2015 is on!

Thumbnail_Toh_2015Today we have great news for all birders in the Yucatan Peninsula: the Toh Bird Festival 2015 has officially started!

RIDE INTO BIRDLAND was present at the opening ceremony, which was held this past Thursday (March 12) at the Universidad Marista de Mérida. We were happy to be part of what is always a positive encounter with many people who share a common passion for birds, nature and the environment.

We were also specially pleased to note the presence of many journalists from print and electronic media, who surrounded Maria Andrade (Executive Director of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, NGO which has led the festival’s organizing committee for five consecutive years) and besieged her with many questions she was happy to field. This participation by the media is of utmost importance, as the festival’s main objective is to spread love for birds as well as key conservationist values. We want to express our gratitude to all media outlets who graced this event with their invaluable contribution towards these goals.

María Andrade, Executive Director of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, shares her enthusiasm for the Toh Bird Festival 2015 with members of the media. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Conceived during a night of brain-storming at the legendary library of Joann Andrews (founder of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan), the Toh Bird Festival now reaches its 14th year in existence. That newborn idea has grown steadily thanks to contributions made by many individuals, organizations and sponsors, all of which share merit for having the vision and determination to overcome many obstacles over almost a decade and a half. It’s been an arduous learning process and the challenges continue to appear with every new edition, but the achievements and rewards have also been plentiful.

Joann Andrews, founder of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan and responsible for the festival’s inception, leads our group with characteristic energy during the 2014 Birdathon. To her right, expert bird guide and team captain Víctor Marín. Behind, with the camera, Maria Andrade, Director of PPY, and Joann’s sister Keys, also an enthusiastic participant. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Today we can say without a doubt that the Toh Bird Festival is the epicenter of bird observation in the Yucatan Peninsula, for it’s been the motivating spark for a sizable growing community of birders that now travel year round through this wonderful peninsula armed with good energy, field guides, binoculars and cameras.

Encounter with the team “Los Correcaminos” during the 2014 birdathon. Left to right: Martín Mogel, Loren Jim, Carlos Ricalde, Jitza Luque and Enrique Gamboa. (Photo © Roselys Oropeza).

Bird observation is like a bite from a contagious but benevolent little worm, and so it is that the Toh Bird Festival has provided inspiration for the creation of other festivals, among them the “Wings of Yucatan Festival” in Sisal, the “Cozumel Bird Festival” and the “Campeche Bird Tourism Festival”. We wish long life and endurance to all these events, for all of them can be powerful engines for the promotion of widespread enjoyment of nature, important conservation values and successful development of socially responsible ecotourism.

Members of “Yucatan Jays Mayan Birding”, pioneers of birding in Valladolid and one of the winning teams in the 2013 birdathon, compile their list of species minutes before the event’s closing deadline. (Photo © Roselys Oropeza).

RIDE INTO BIRDLAND first participated in the Toh Bird Festival back in 2011. I can attest to the fact that our experiences then and in each subsequent edition, including the many people we’ve met, have weighed decisively on the steps that brought us to where we are today. On that occasion we departed from Quintana Roo, spurred by news of awards bestowed upon our images by jurors of the “United for Birds” photo contest. On the morning following the awards ceremony, which took place in Merida, and without knowing all too well what we were getting into, we rode our motorcycle to Eco-Parque Sihunchen, where park owner Alberto Mezquita welcomed us as last-minute additions to his team for the Xoc ch’chic Birdathon. Alberto is one of those people who have long supported the festival, so we take this opportunity to extend him our gratitude and recognition.

Our noble BMW F650, minutes after our arrival at Eco-Parque Sihunchen during our first participation in the 2011 Toh Bird Festival. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

That first birdathon turned out to be a fascinating and educational experience for us, as has been the case in all subsequent editions in which we’ve continued to participate. Beyond the competitive framework of this type of event (not the most important aspect in our opinion), we always recommend this experience to anyone yearning for an introduction to the realm of birds in the Yucatan Peninsula. You need not be an expert birder to participate, as there are categories for novel and advanced birders and we have plenty of available guides in the peninsula whose services can be retained to happily lead your group acting as captains and mentors. You may ask the Toh Bird Festival for referrals.

On the left, Cherie Pitillo, whose magnificent images and columns have done much to help the growth of birding culture in the Yucatan Peninsula. On the mike, expert guide Guilmer Tun. On the right, sporting a beard, Alberto Mezquita of Eco-Parque Sihunchen, long-time member of the festival’s organizing committee. Picture taken during the closing ceremony of the 2012 edition. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Among the many activities offered each year by the Toh Bird Festival we must highlight the valuable and formative Learning Bird Observation workshops, truly stimulating experiences for those getting started in birding. These free workshops fill up quickly so sign up without delay, for they provide an ideal opportunity to learn the basics of bird observation: use of binoculars and field guides, keys for identification of the over 500 bird species that can be observed in the peninsula, and ethical guidelines for the enjoyment of birding in a manner that is respectful of nature. These weekend workshops include classroom sessions and field outings, all of which are conducted in a friendly atmosphere that helps dispel notions of mystery that often shroud bird observation in the minds of prospective birders. I invite you to read the reports of our experiences as we participated in the Level 1 and Level 2 workshops. Needless to say, if you’re considering taking part in the birdathon, taking the basic workshop first will ensure a much more fulfilling experience.

That’s me on the left, taking advantage of the “Learning Bird Observation” workshop during the 2012 Toh Bird Festival. Second from right to left is our instructor, biologist and expert birder Ana Raymundo. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

We cannot fail to mention our very own Bird Photography Workshop, which I’ll be proud to lead in 2015 for the third year in a row (April 24, 24 and 26, Merida). My pledge to all participants of this weekend workshop, which is open to photographers of all levels of experience, is to constantly give my best to help them grasp photo technique as it applies to bird and nature photography. This workshop includes classroom sessions and field outings, which are always guided by ethical principles of nature photography, starting with a respectful attitude towards our photo subjects and their natural environment. The workshop has a cost of 1,500 Mexican pesos and is limited to 12 participants, so do sign up early by contacting the festival’s FaceBook page.

Martín Mogel, one of the winners of the “United for Birds 2014” photography contest, during his participation in our “Bird Photography Workshop” earlier that year. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldón).

I will also be leading two additional field outings as part of the 2015 Toh Bird Festival, conceived as on-site “photographic coaching” to help photographers reinforce photo technique using their personal equipment configuration. The first outing will take us to a wetlands ecosystem, where we’ll practice auto-focus with birds-in-flight and exposure adjustments for back-light situations (May 16, 2015). The second experience will take us to a forest ecosystem, where we’ll face the challenge of finding clear views through the foliage, using manual focus techniques and exposure compensation to achieve successful images of smaller, fast-moving birds (June 13, 2015). Contact Marigel Campos through the festival’s web-site to enroll and don’t delay, as availability is strictly limited.

Ilya Miranda, a young, talented bird photographer and winner of awards in the “United for Birds” 2013 and 2014 photo contests, shares a bird with fellow participants during one of our field outings near Progreso. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Sharing knowledge in these workshops and outings has proven to be a satisfying and stimulating experience for me, as it propels my own process of constant learning and enriches me with new friendships. It also grants me the joy of seeing how, after sharing essential concepts with workshop participants, their potential soars as they continue their own photographic journeys, creating powerful images that help spread a growing love and admiration for birds and nature. For all these reasons I extend my sincere gratitude and admiration to all of them.

Huddled together to check images during one of our photography workshops, on location at Eco-Parque Sihunchen. (Photo © Roselys Oropeza).

For the festival’s complete calendar of activities go without delay to its official web-site. You may also keep abreast of last minute information and help spread the word by befriending the festival’s FaceBook page. Both pages will allow you to contact Festival Coordinator Marigel Campos directly in order to request additional information or enroll in the many workshops, field outings, activities for children, conferences and photo and drawing contests. Visit also the website of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, where you’ll learn about their many ongoing conservation programs.

Happy birding everyone, and much success to the 2015 Toh Bird Festival!


The Turquoise-browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa), known in Maya as “Toh”, lends its name to the festival and is a permanent resident in the Yucatan Peninsula. We’ll never grow tired of seeing this unforgettable bird!. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).


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