Changing Planet

Fly Into Birdland

Guest post from Iván Gabaldón of Ride Into Birdland for Pronatural Peninsula de Yucatan.

The sun is just beginning to rise but I feel none of its warmth as I walk towards the vintage Cessna on the wet tarmac of Merida’s airport. I’m about to embark on my first aerial photography mission for Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, a thrilling prospect for sure, but the gloomy weather is taking some of the joy out of the idea of going airborne in a single engine plane. No one says anything but I can sense I’m not the only team member wondering if this is really the best day to fly.

Our unspoken worries notwithstanding, it takes Captain Lawrence “Bud” Sittig one long stare at the horizon to forecast our immediate future. “I can see a window there“, he says with a confident smile after detecting a small parting of clouds to the north. “We’ll be all right, but first we need to take the door off this plane“.

Captain Bud, as we call him, is a volunteer pilot with LightHawk, an organization that donates flight time for NGOs committed to conservation. Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan has benefited from this cooperation for several years and now it is my privilege to have been asked to participate in two flights. Our mission will be to photograph natural conditions in forested areas as well human activities related to agriculture and cattle ranching in the state of Yucatan. We’re also tasked to photograph any forest fires we may encounter and, with any luck, once we reach the sea we’ll be able to document the presence of whale sharks and sea turtles in their migratory routes off the coast of Quintana Roo.

Captain Lawrence “Bud” Sittig, a volunteer pilot with Lighthawk.org, is a true veteran of the skies who has flown everything from gliders to fighter jets to big airliners. We couldn’t have asked for a better pilot!. image: © Iván Gabaldón/LightHawk
Captain Lawrence “Bud” Sittig, a volunteer pilot with Lighthawk.org, is a true veteran of the skies who has flown everything from gliders to fighter jets to big airliners. We couldn’t have asked for a better pilot!. image: © Iván Gabaldón/LightHawk

The photographer in me can’t help but wish for a sunnier day. That thought, however, soon becomes irrelevant: we’re now flying and I have the best seat in the plane, secured with a harness next to the open space where the right side door would normally be. I can point my camera out and straight down at the mesmerizing landscape that’s being revealed before my eyes. Any foreboding feelings I might have harbored quickly disappear and within minutes I realize I’ve become instantly hooked on aerial photography.

From my privileged point of view I can see how, as has been explained to me by Ornithologist Paul Wood, trees in the Yucatan Peninsula bloom asynchronously to avoid competing at the same time for the attention of pollinators. Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by LightHawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan
From my privileged point of view I can see how, as has been explained to me by Ornithologist Paul Wood, trees in the Yucatan Peninsula bloom asynchronously to avoid competing at the same time for the attention of pollinators. Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by LightHawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan
The hand of man is obvious when a landscape is crossed by a perfectly straight line, such as this road. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
The hand of man is obvious when a landscape is crossed by a perfectly straight line, such as this road. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
Human activity carves out geometric patches of forest. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
Human activity carves out geometric patches of forest. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
A mechanized irrigation system draws a distinct pattern that can only be man made. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
A mechanized irrigation system draws a distinct pattern that can only be man made. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
A perfect example of man’s non-disruptive alliance with nature: beehives used to harvest organic honey have no negative impact on the environment and benefit the local economy. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
A perfect example of man’s non-disruptive alliance with nature: beehives used to harvest organic honey have no negative impact on the environment and benefit the local economy. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
Another straight line across the landscape, this time drawn by power lines. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
Another straight line across the landscape, this time drawn by power lines. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
This water feature is a vital component of the natural system in Pronatura’s private reserve “El Zapotal”, so it was important that we document its condition. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
This water feature is a vital component of the natural system in Pronatura’s private reserve “El Zapotal”, so it was important that we document its condition. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).
A surprising finding: a flower drawn in the landscape! (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

As our flight progresses, and then again on the following day, I make hundreds of images using a trio of lenses: a 300mm, a 50mm and a 10,5mm fisheye lens. It is our good fortune to come into visual contact with the coveted whale sharks and sea turtles, as well as impressive looking manta rays, so the mission can formally be declared a success.

Read the next installment of this guest blog… “On the night of our second day I get together with Captain “Bud” to learn more about his experience as an aviator and the work he does with LightHawk.

After spending a year and four days in the extreme cold and white of Antarctica, I came back to the world a changed person. My passion is to share stories of people doing extraordinary things and I've done that since 2008 as the chief storyteller for LightHawk.LightHawk is a unique non-profit that grants flights to conservation groups through a network of volunteer pilots. Nearly everyday LightHawk donates educational, scientific and photography flights covering the U.S., Mexico, Central America and parts of Canada. LightHawk volunteer pilots, aircraft and resources help to tip the balance toward sustainability for every major environmental issue within our targeted areas of focus.My favorite part of flying at 1,000 feet in a small aircraft is seeing how that perspective changes how people see their communities and empowers them to take positive action on behalf of conservation. Taking off is pretty cool too.

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