To Merida and beyond: a day in the life of a lucky photographer

ToMerida&Beyond_300pxThe door of the guest house where I have just spent the night leads directly unto a garden. I open it, hoist my backpack and monopod, then step outside. It’s 4:45 a.m. in mid-March and the sky still shows no hint of dawn. I close the door behind me and walk across the garden towards the main house. The lights in the dining room are already on, so I open the metal-frame door, step inside and follow a scent of freshly made coffee that leads me directly into the kitchen.

A good cup of coffee is precisely what I need and one is quickly placed in my hands by my generous host as morning greetings are exchanged. I’m in the home of Joann Andrews, eminent conservationist, founder of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, and a woman so knowledgeable and passionate about life, nature and the Yucatan Peninsula, that any encounter with her is bound to be a memorable experience. Standing in her kitchen and drinking the hot brew, I can’t help but think that I’m one lucky bird photographer: we still have a full day of birding together ahead of us.

Soon we are joined by her son, David Andrews. I’ve met David briefly the previous night, talking over tacos about bird photography, and he immediately struck me as a friendly, down-to-earth guy. Back in 2012, when I first interviewed Joann for Ride Into Birdland, she told me the story of how years before David had entered with her the swampy and mosquito-infected akalches, on a mission to gather photographic evidence she would later use to show the world a magical landscape of orchids that had remained, until then, mostly unnoticed in the Yucatan Peninsula. That interview became a three-part reportage about the life and work of Joann Andrews, a fascinating story worth reading that starts here.

Then, last December, Joann suggested I might come along to do some bird observation and photography with her and David during his next visit from Houston, and I was more than happy to oblige. David is an accomplished bird photographer with years of experience, and he has come equipped with a current-model 600mm Canon lens, a 2x Canon Teleconverter, a Canon D1 body, and a Gitzo tripod with cammo-leggings and Wimberley head. Which in plain English simply means: top-shelf, mouth-watering bird photography gear!

In her gentle, non imposing way, Joann proposes the route we might take. David and myself are quick to agree and off we go, me in the driver’s seat, David as copilot, Joann in the back seat with her binoculars and field guide always at the ready. The music of Miles Davis and Philip Glass sets the tone for what turns out to be a rewarding day of conversation, birds and photography. A long day it will be as well, for we shall not make it back to our Merida headquarters until way past eight that night.

Our route will takes us North of Merida on the periférico to Cancun, then we’ll turn off to Tizimin, left for Baca, on to Dzimul and off to Xcambo. The first leg of our journey finds us crossing wetlands as the sun rises like a big ball of red fire, and by 6:35 a.m we’re parked by the side of the road and I’ve snapped my first frame of the day. Very few people on cars and motorcycles drive past us, but I’m sure  several of them can notice the big smiles on our faces as the day begins to unfold while we enjoy a banquet of bird activity and dramatic photographic opportunities.

Cormorants, egrets, herons and ducks warm up in a pool of golden light as the day begins. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

A reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens), frozen in time by a fast shutter speed. (Photo Ivan Gabaldon).

Having reached its chosen spot, the Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) displays its wings. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

David Andrews shooting into the wetlands. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

The sun rises and so does the light’s color temperature, enabling this Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) to show its true colors. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

I was fortunate to capture this interaction between two Mangrove Swallows (Tachycineta albilinea). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Almost two hours later we continue towards the archaeological site at Xcambo, where we are greeted first by a Roadside Hawk (Buteo magnirostris), then by a lone and friendly guardsman. We have the place entirely to ourselves but it’s not Mayan structures we’ve come here to see today: we’re in a single-minded pursuit of birds. We walk into Xcambo together but soon I separate from Joann and David, following my instincts towards a forested area behind the main site. I walk under the tall trees until the grave voices of what I believe at first to be monkeys stop me dead on my tracks. I look up to discover a group of twenty or so Boat-billed Herons (Cochlearius cochlearius) and manage to grab a couple of frames before they quickly retreat farther into the woods.

A Roadside Hawk (Buteo magnirostris), honoring its name by standing at the side of the road near the entrance to Xcambo. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

A Boat-billed Heron (Cochlearius cochlearius), one of a group of 20 that surprised me by making deep, monkey-like sounds. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

Rainwater has collected on the ground at this spot, and soon I notice several Kingfishers perching and diving for prey with characteristic ability. I stay for a while and shoot many frames, then walk back to find Joann and David, who are quick to follow me into this amazing spot we decide to dub “Kingfisher Central”. We spend some time here together, again making photographs and enjoying the abundance of such beautiful birds, with occasional visits from other species, among them a Clay-colored Thrush (Turdus grayi), a Black-vented oriole (Icterus wagleri) and a Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis).

A female Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana), which the National Geographic guide lists as “uncommon and often hard to see”. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Not far from the female, perched between dives, stood a male Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Another inhabitant of “Kingfisher Central” and a favourite of ours, the Pigmy Kingfisher (Chloroceryle aenea). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

The spot also regaled me with my first sighting of a Clay-colored Thrush (Turdus grayi). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

A Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis), taking advantge of a built-to-scale natural bridge. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

A clearing in the forest revealed a Black-cowled Oriole (Icterus prosthemelas) against the clear blue sky. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

As we leave Xcambo I realize we’ve already had an excellent day as far as bird photography goes. We now continue driving towards the shore of the Gulf of Mexico for a delicious lunch of ceviche and shrimp at El Fortin Juan, a seafront restaurant in the coastal town of Dzilam de Bravo. Conversation is non-stop and always interesting, with the most unexpected anecdotes coming from Joann as she recalls the days back in the 50s when she worked for a while as a media buyer in the advertising industry’s mecca, New York City. She tells us of a day when, sitting in Manhattan’s trendy bar of choice amidst handsome and sharply dressed advertising execs, she had an epiphany: “What am I doing here?”. The rest, as they say, is history, for her choice not to stay within the world of advertising would eventually lead her to the Yucatan Peninsula and her precious environmental work here.

The food at El Fortin Juan is good and abundant. We’re in no rush and actually stretch time over coffee, waiting for the sun to go lower before hitting the road again, our energies now recharged for a second set of bird photography and observation. Soon after leaving Dzilam de Bravo our first stop puts us within sight of a small group of Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), and as we try to walk closer the swampy terrain swallows David waist-deep with one big gulp and no warning. I’m close behind him but before I can do anything to help he has already climbed out of the pit, never dropping his heavy camera gear, nor his sense of humor. Not too far from where we are a large crocodile lazily sleeps the afternoon away, but it never seems to notice us.

A Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) strikes a fancy pose. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Another Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), showing in detail its impressive wings. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

It’s hard to miss the bright color of Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) as they fly overhead! (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Not far from where we are, a large crocodile warms its top and cools its bottom, completely oblivious to our presence. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

By the time we cross the wetlands again on our final approach to Merida the landscape is bathed by dramatic golden light for the second time that day, now coming from the west courtesy of a glorious sunset. Again we revel in the wonderful scenery displayed by Mother Nature in front of our eyes and lenses, and also for the second time that day I cannot help but think: what a lucky bird photographer I am, traveling in such great company, feasting on the birds and wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Identifying these shorebirds from a single photograph is a gamble, as zoologist Cherie Pitillo rightfully pointed out when I asked for help. Ornithologist Paul Wood ventured his best guess: mostly Semi-palmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla), the two in the middle most likely migrating birds, the one on the left a juvenile. The bird up and to the right could also be a Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), since the legs look like they might be yellowish. Thank you, Cherie and Paul! (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) eat with their heads underwater… (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

…then move on in group to their next chosen spot. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Hard to tell from a distance what type of herons these are, although judging by their size I would have to say Great Blue Herons (Ardeas herodias). Nevertheless it’s a fitting closing shot for  this trip report. After all, who could argue with the amazing beauty of the Yucatan Peninsula? (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).


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13 Responses to To Merida and beyond: a day in the life of a lucky photographer

  1. Sandra Balam says:

    siempre es un gusto leer tus artículos!

  2. Maria Andrade H. says:

    Hola Iván.
    La narrativa de tus artículos tienen la virtud de “mantenernos en vilo” desde el inicio hasta el final de la historia. Además nos da la oportunidad de disfrutar de la belleza y los colores de la naturaleza de la península de Yucatán. Esperaremos el siguiente, felicidades.

    • ¡Muchas gracias María!

      Me honra saber que, en el atareado planeta en el que vivimos, donde nunca alcanza el tiempo para todo lo que hay que hacer, logras detenerte para leer estas pequeñas historias aquí en RIDE INTO BIRDLAND.

      Pronto viene otro reporte de viaje, aunque no diré sobre qué para no eliminar el factor sorpresa. 😉

      Gran abrazo,


  3. Silvia Can says:

    Hola Ivan

    No puedo decir nada más que excelente!!

    Esperaré ansiosa el siguiente artículo.

  4. Alvaro Cervera says:

    Excelente artículo acompañado como siempre de magníficas imágenes Iván! Cherie Pitillo y tu tienen esa habilidad de hacer sentir al lector que están junto a ustedes en el medio de éstas maravillosas aventuras gráficas! Saludos!

    • Alvaro, es un gusto poder compartir estas pequeñas historias, especialmente con personas como tú que también conoces de primera mano la belleza de esta increíble península y su potencial fotográfico. Muchas gracias por leernos y por tu comentario. En cuanto a Cherie, ¿que puedo decir? SOY FAN DE SU COLUMNA. 🙂
      Un abrazo,

  5. Rafa Bessanova says:

    Muchas felicidades por el nuevo reporte, es una aventura que se vive a la leer el reporte. Gracias por éstas bellas imágenes, cuando estés de nuevo por Mérida me encantaría acompañarte a alguno de tus viajes. Saludos

    • Muchas gracias Rafael por seguir nuestras historias y por tu comentario tan positivo. Estaré pendiente de ver si podemos hacer alguna salida en mi próxima visita a Mérida, aún sin fecha. Saludos y adelante con la fotografía.

  6. Cherie Pittillo says:

    Although you, David, and Joann had a jam-packed day, the emotion of your incredible experience seeped through every cell of my brain. To see and photograph ONE Green Kingfisher is amazing, but to capture a pair , and then to photograph another species. Holey Moley!
    Excellent, stunning imagery accompanied by equally excellent eloquent words. Thank you!

  7. Also, HUGE THANKS to Cherie Pitillo for helping me fix an incorrect identification in this post, as I had originally labeled the Oriole pictured above as a Black-vented Oriole (Icterus wagleri), which would be out of range in the Yucatan Peninsula. The correct species, as is now indicated in the photo’s caption, is Black-cowled Oriole (Icterus prosthemelas). This kind of help is HIGHLY APPRECIATED! 🙂

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