Many, many miles have passed under our truck this last week. We pulled out of Jack’s driveway on Monday and headed east towards Logan, Utah. We stopped and visited Great Basin National Park before landing in the yard of Burt’s friends from the year he experimented with college. But first the poop-tastrophe of 2019.
Longtime friends and readers know I have had many involuntary and surprising contacts with poop. Literal shit storms have followed me around since I was a wastewater treatment plant technician in 1984. All previous shit shows are now relegated to second tier events. That time to groover exploded and coated my chest with a brown air-brushed patina of feces? Not worth mentioning. The time the other groover exploded at the car wash when I was trying to illegally flush the contents? Ho hum. Olive rolling in human feces? Which time? Never mind. The shit coated bathroom behind the bus stop? The emergency evacuations in bushes, buckets, pants? The porno movie in Ecuador playing while I held the ‘door’ to the toilet shut and dumped? I could write a book and all would pale in comparison to the latest event. And yet it was so fast and stunning it’s hardly worth telling.
One great advantage to traveling with your home attached to your truck is there is always a bathroom when you need it, assuming you can pull over. Last week I had a sudden need for the bathroom. Burt dutifully pulled over at the top of the pass coming out of California. Nevada spread below and a icy alpine lake was by our side. The elevation was substantially greater than where we had just spent the last three nights. We were five to six thousand feet higher that we had been at Burt’s dad’s house. It was gorgeous. I grabbed the key and dashed to the gNash. It wasn’t your normal urgent situation. It was a passing that required time and relaxation. I must have gotten dehydrated and, remember, I have that devious redundant and twisted colon. Think ungulates. Burt popped by to check on me and reported he’d seen a mountain quail. Dammit. A lifer bird and I was sitting on the throne. What could be worse?
Finally my work was done. RV life requires a degree of sanitary involvement that most of us would rather avoid. Since the toilet uses very little water you must turn and face your masterpiece and make sure it reaches its final destination. You depress the flush pedal firmly and quickly to try and induce a vacuum effect. If the poop is stalled extra effort is required. Some people use a pot of water to try and flush. A brave few grab a wad of TP and give it a nudge. The less brave or more health conscious use a tool we have named The Poop Stick. Poop sticks are disposable. when your poop is stuck you go get a stick, use it as needed, and discard. The result is that while it is very convenient to have a toilet with you at all times it comes with a price.
So there I was…Finally relieved of my burden. I turned and watched. Foot to lever. Firm and quick and BOOM. Instead of going down, or at least politely remaining stuck, it all exploded and flew skyward and hit me square in the face. Urine gravy with poop meatballs. My mouth was open. The word surprised is meaningless. I felt assaulted in the strangest way. Shock. Terror. Disgust. I heard a sound come out of me that I had never heard before. I was wailing and laughing and yelling. Burt came running WITH the dogs. Chava very helpfully ate the meatballs. I screamed at Burt to leave as I wailed that I needed help. Floor, ceiling, walls, and me were dripping in urine and a week’s worth of festering septage on top of what I had placed in the bowl. I started spitting and stripping while I kept wailing and chuckling. Burt left with the dogs. I mopped and cried and laughed. There was shit and pee in my hair. My glasses had saved my eyeballs. A long while later I came out of the gNash in fresh clothes but carried the knowledge that I was not clean. I could not wash hair without a shower. On the up side, the dogs were eager to hang out with me as we drove down into Nevada. Eau de Poo is a canine favorite. Urine has a lingering taste, too.
All day long I felt if I was slipping into some kind of dis-associative state. I veered between maniacal laughing and angry mutterings regarding the closest shower. I ate and drank but still imagined pee. We shopped at Trader Joe’s and Costco and I passed an entire day in a bipolar state of panic and hilarity. The shock of the blast was so profound that I found myself wondering how people emotionally survive bombings and other sudden violence. Something so minor as a toilet malfunction was bringing deep thoughts.
Of course we presumed the disaster was caused by the rapid change in elevation but we were wrong. The toilet is vented and had never exploded before. The real cause was a blocked vent. This became clear when the toilet exploded several more times over the next two days. Subsequent explosions were far less catastrophic because we had learned to gingerly press the flush pedal to let the tank off-gas. Still pee was on our seat and I took some mean hearted comfort in Burt getting hit. The persistent problem created a new sense of panic. I was ready to scrap the whole house but we hatched a plan on how to clear the vent. It was a muti-step and iterative plan but luck was on our side. The vent cleared as mysteriously as it clogged.
All’s well, for now. This could happen again. Despite my day or two of PTSD I’m already back staring at my shit and slamming the flusher as hard as I can hoping it goes down instead of up. Hope does not rise in this situation.
El Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir is named for the guy gate keeping in heaven. For a long time (until just this minute) I thought it was some guy with a last name Mártir. Wrong. That’s just a tag on Saint Peter (rock of the church) reminding us he was martyred. Another big oops there. I might have known once but had forgotten he was killed for his beliefs. And this lack of knowledge strikes me as very, very odd. I was just in this guy’s basilica inside the Vatican. My research today, quick and dirty, revealed the church believes St. Peter was crucified head down on the every spot of the basilica’s altar. But details are sketchy and it sounds like early church politics played a role in Peter’s unseemly demise. I guess the church, like so many other things, chooses not to tell the stories that cast it in a bad light. Things like the stories that demonstrate these guys couldn’t agree even in the time of Christ on what Christ was teaching. Nothing has changed. We do know that early Dominican padres founded a mission at the south end of the mountain range and the mountain range and park take their names from that mission.
The park was formed in 1947. It’s home to Picacho del Diablo (the devil is always around) the highest peak in Baja at 10,157′. Numerous large avian species take advantage of the remote and rugged terrain. Both bald and golden eagles are known to frequent the area but most important are the California Condors. The condor reintroduction program has increased the total number of these mighty birds from 22 in 1982 to nearly 500 worldwide today. About half the birds remain in captivity for breeding purposes. Wild populations are not yet stable. This spot in Mexico has had less habitat loss and environmental degradation than US release locations. Consumption of both micro trash and lead ammunition are the greatest threat to individual survival. The birds in Mexico have successfully reproduced on their own.
Burt and I have seen these birds at three of their release sites and this was our second time spotting one in the Parque Nacional. Eight years ago we saw two. One flew over head on the ridge that divides the Baja peninsula, one side waters head to the Pacific Ocean and on the other they reach the Bay of California. The second bird was in the road trying to eat a red yogurt cap. I got out of the car and retrieved the cap. Think of that bird and those whales and fishes and sea life and pick up that micro-trash you see. It all flows downhill.
I blame the lack of posts on my lack of energy but it might be a more deep seated ambivalence. I don’t have much to say. There’s been a lot happening but most of it I’ve written about extensively so it’s not inspiring me to write more. A few weeks ago we participated in the Global Big Day. So I’ll share a little about that.
The folks at UABCS (wah-bes) or the Universidad Autonimo Baja California Sur organized a community event for Global Big Day, May 4, 2019. Normally, Burt and I spend this day intensively birding our home range trying to see the endemic species of Baja California Sur so I wasn’t much interested in a community event that would interfere with my personal birding. Emer and Joaquin convinced it was a good idea to bring the community together on this special day to raise awareness. They also asked the Gypsy Carpenters to play music. So I caved. Burt was unconscious and having his hernia repaired. I had a fever of 102. My ability to resist was compromised. Three weeks later Burt and I drag our lame butts out of bed at 4:15 AM so we can get to the estero in San Jose del Cabo for the 7:00 meet-up to bird the estuary. Neither of us was in good shape. Burt sat in a chair on the estero’s edge with the newly acquire Chava and rested his hernia repair. I birder for two hours with a group of 8 experienced birders. A second group of nearly 20 first timers went off with Emer as their guide. That was a great thing. Afterwards we played music under a tent at a display table as the university students met with the public and shared their knowledge. I can’t really say if it went well or not. I was simply too tired to care. In the weeks before grand ideas of a mad rush to get to the mountains and bird the late afternoon were bandied about. By 11:00 AM Burt and I were done. We headed home with no plans to do anything but rest.
A few hours later we were semi-conscious in out gNash living the good life. Nowhere to go and nothing to do. I was a little bummed at the lamest bird list in years for Big Day but I was happy to be under my covers half asleep. Then I got a text. Lupillo, the best birder I know in Baja, was trying to decide how to finish his Big Day. He was already at over 70 species. (I had 30ish). He was debating the mountains or the Todos Santos area. Hint, hint. Lupillo has no car. If he came to Todos Santos he would need a driver. He didn’t come right out and say, “hey, will you drive me around so I can bird?” It was a subtle, “hey, what are you doing?” So I said, “If you come here, I’ll pick you up and drive you around and you can spend the night with us.” And so Lupillo got on a bus and arrived in Todos Santos at 4:30 PM and I picked him up for phase two of Big Day. I was not excited. That’s how hard this recovery has been.
And so began a mad cap three hours of incredible discoveries. Our first stop was on the north side of La Poza where a drunk man threatened us with bodily harm for looking at his house. Dude, we were just walking by with binoculars. Chill out. Immediately on arriving at the water’s edge I saw an unfamiliar bird, Lupillo got very excited. Lupillo does not get excited. It was a red phalarope. What a cool little bird. It was running around in circles feeding on the shoreline uninterested in our approach. Five minutes into this unexpected excursion and I had a life bird. I was feeling a little perkier. Adrenaline from the drunk helped, too.
Right after that I got Lupillo his first blue grosbeak in breeding plumage. Then we saw some baby killdeer. I’m almost over being embarrassed by my bad IDs in front of experts so you can laugh when I thought they were plovers. Google them. Baby killdeer sort of look like plovers if you don’t notice that the parents are right there guarding them and their plumage is super fluffy. On our way back to the car we found a Wlison’s phalarope. Another lifer for me. The drunk guy had gone inside his house so we reached the car unmolested.
Lupillo and I hit a couple of other spots. Mostly drive bys. I did not want to walk. We got the barn owl in town because we know where it lives. We searched for some rock pigeons and found none. After dark we drove out a dirt road near our place in Pescadero and got the elf owl, a whiskered screech owl, and a common poorwill. At 8:00 I waved a flag of surrender and told Lupillo we had to stop. I was at 67 species for the day and we’d helped push Baja California Sure to over 100 but I was wasted. We headed to the hill we call home. I put Lupillo in the rumpus room with some food and collapsed.
The next morning we did a few car tours and bagged another lifer, the purple martin. It flew overhead while we were looking at a Harris’s hawk. I went from total surrender under my blankets to bagging three lifers in my home territory in under 24 hours. I teased Lupillo that I would still be trying to identify the phalarope if he hadn’t been there but really I never would have seen it because I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed.
The reptile above looks like it might be looking for a bird meal but that’s not their normal food choice. The spiny tailed iguana generally eats fruits and flowers, occasionally an insect or small animal. Eggs are a popular choice, too. That being said, the birds were having none of it. They stayed a safe distance away from this creature while it made a through inspection of our feeding station. I suspect it came by for the oranges. Our compost is just over the fence and so that might also be an attractant.
Energy levels remain low all around the gNash. Burt is not his usual chipper or energetic self. That’s to be expected after somebody opens a hole in your gut and leaves behind a foreign object. The doctor said all is healing as expected but still 5 more weeks without full exertion. The mesh is stiffening up nicely with scar tissue to plug the “rodent’s” hole. Burt is cleared to drive the automatic and in two weeks he can drive the Dodge.
My friend Pat would have said a prayer for us but now she’s dead and I am left wrestling with my complicated emotions. The last two weeks haven’t been too difficult, no worse than anybody’s share of life’s burdens and much lighter than many, but they were enervating. I knew the financial shock of our taxes would pass quickly and it did. Burt’s hernia required some effort to find a doctor but we did and the surgery was affordable and quickly done. But before he had his surgery I popped out a rib while rolling over in bed and he came down with the flu. I was blinded by the rib pain. I mean literally blind. I could not see. Burt was in bed with a fever and I was pacing the gNash like I’ve seen dying animals pace. I could find no rest. I thought I knew pain. I hope I never know pain like this again. That morning we headed to the ER and I got pain pills. The next day Amir (thank you, Amir) popped my rib back in. Then I got the flu. Then Burt had his surgery and somewhere in here Pat died. And now 8 days post surgery I can almost manage to think clearly enough to share my emotional pain.
For those of you that have been here these last 9 years you may remember Pat as our steadiest comment provider. Until Trump ran for president Pat and I were able to overcome all political and religious differences and meet on the vast common ground of our love of service to others, nature, dessert, and travel. Pat was funny and silly and not-worldly. She wrote letters to prison convicts and made me teeth cleaning appointments when I was in her area. She made lemon bars for Portal Irish Music Week (until Trump). She gathered clothes for my kids. She kept up and she sought out ways to help me and a lot of other people. She loved her lord and Jesus and she showed it in her service to others. She was suspicious of gays, deeply afraid of the border issues (she lived there so I’ll not dispute her), loved going to Mexico to shop at the Pink Store, and said some crazy things that I would alway stry to gently share a different perspective about. In our 7 years of near daily contact we never had a direct disagreement over politics. I knew she was conservative and, well, you know me. There was no reason to talk about things like that. She and I were people of action. Actions speak louder than words.
Pat loved the Gypsy Carpenters. She designated herself our roadie/groupie and made herself a t-shirt. She used to come to all our shows. We played a party at her house once. She needed cheap dental care and I took her to Mexico. It was a good relationship based on common good. Where the fuck did it all go wrong? I wish I knew. I feel like if I could figure this out we could solve the bigger problems.
My first inkling there was a problem was when Pat one day didn’t show up to comment and one day turned into ten days. I had recently written a rare political piece about how grateful I was that the ACA (Obamacare) worked for me. It shows you how regular she was. I noticed in a day that she wasn’t reading my work. I wrote and asked if she was okay. She said yes, but she hated Obama and couldn’t stand to read my blog. I gently told her she was my friend and I though we could still be friends despite not agreeing on politics. Just like always. She came back. For a little while.
Somewhere in here I learned from a friend (also now deceased) that Pat was a committed Trump supporter. I found it hard to believe but remember this was before the elections. I didn’t realize Trump’s sway with evangelicals yet. I decided to ignore the information. I also decided if I felt like saying something political on my blog I would. Pat stopped writing and I didn’t reach out again. Trump was elected and I was so angry I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to her again. Portal Irish Music Week came and went two more times. One time she slyly delivered lemon bars through a mutual friend. The last time there was nothing.
Occasionally our paths would cross, we shared some hikes, we had mutual friends, but he bond was broken. We’d been polarized by external circumstances and neither of us knew how to reach across. Here’s where I am not sure about what is right and what is wrong. What I do know is Pat withdrew from all aspects of the life I knew. Many friends said she changed or no longer participated in the community. Because our relationship was largely virtual I had no way of knowing this. I wonder why? Did she feel mocked, belittled, defensive?
Is it now impossible for me to be friends with people that support Trump? I still think yes, but I wonder if I owe those friends a check in? An I love you? An our past matters to me? Or, as I feel is the case here, I did reach out and she turned away from me so do I make my peace and move on?
I do know this. Pat Owens you were a good friend to me and I will never forget you. I could have used your prayers this week even though you know I don’t believe. I never resented them.
For those of you following along I regret to inform you of a potential hitch in the home building process. Burt has a hernia. We’re exploring options. Surgical repair seems to be required as soon as possible if he is going to work this summer. Meanwhile I bring you the iguana. I hear they taste like chicken. I’d rather watch them and eat a chicken.
This month eBird is requiring photos on our checklists if we want a chance in the Leica binocular lottery. I wish someone would just buy me a pair of Leica binoculars and I could ease up on all this citizen sciencing. I don’t mind the 20 checklists but the additional effort for photos is a logistical nightmare for me. Yesterday, between doctor appointments in Cabo San Lucas, we popped out to the estuary and I saw 39 species of birds and a few reptiles. Burt went body surfing while I toted my phone (because they want a map and the GPS is in the app on my phone) and my binoculars and my camera and my purse. My bins strap attachment point broke a few weeks ago so carrying my bins is not hands free. There was a lot of straps and three things for my hands. It was a spastic scene of tech juggling. Not what birding brings to mind. Science! It’s fun! and it’s a nuisance. Any idea on how to rig a strap for the binoculars are welcome. My string solution is suboptimal. I really want to win the Leica.
There are crazy, rich people doing bad things all through history. It helps sometimes to remember now is no different than any other time. Right now might be closer to home for some of us but corruption and exploitation are a continuous part of human history. From the bible’s first stories (allegory, mind you) to current day news, from the current situation in the U.S. to the Galapagos Islands you can find people lining their own pockets at the expense of others everywhere.
At Egas Port on Santiago Island in the Galápagos there are the remains of a salt production facility. Internet research reveals only a tamed down version of this story our guides told us. In the 1960s Hector Egas was granted a salt monopoly in Ecuador by his buddy the president. There was no shortage of cheap salt available in Ecuador and it made no sense to mine salt on an island over 600 miles from the mainland and ship it to consumers but the monopoly made that a money making situation. An additional economic plus came from Egas promising his workers land in exchange for work. Out in the islands with nothing to do after work, the workers even made block in their spare time. For free. Because that block was going to be used to build a hotel (where they might work) and their future homes. Meanwhile they mined salt and lived in rough circumstances and received very low pay. They bunked in a barracks. Oh, there was a soccer field. This lasted about two and a half years.
But surprise, surprise. New elections came and Egas’ buddy lost. Egas also lost his salt monopoly and the workers learned that Santiago Island was a national park and there was no land for them. They were out of work, out of luck and they had to go. Today everyone is gone. Only some pilings from the barracks, a commemorative sign and scattered remnants remain. Current day ship workers still use the soccer field, the salt lagoon is a safe home to breeding birds, including flamingos, and there are still blocks visible along the trail. Visitors are not allowed to visit the lagoon but can take a very scenic walk along rocky cliff and grottoes. Notable for our trip were the fur seals and a wee oystercatcher hatchling. Darwin himself spent several weeks on this island while the HMS Beagle sailed off to restock with water. Darwin was constantly afflicted with sea sickness so he leapt at the chance to stay on land for a few weeks. There’s a feature of surging, roiling water seaside named Darwin’s toilet. No proof on whether or not Darwin found relief there.
Moral of the story: the regular people got screwed, the villain’s family is still prominent, and elections happen. And it’s hard to get to the truth of the history. Googling only came up with superficial stories. Nothing on the exploitation and heartbreak the workers must have felt after spending years working towards a dream of their own home.
Galapagos February 2019 Naturalist Journeys, LLC trip with hosts Susan and Burt Mittelstadt. More photos daily as data limits allow.
Guests: Mariel, Roy, Jill, Maggie, Baird, Janis, Chuck, Mary, Peggy, Bobbie, Julia and Janet.
Before flying to the Galápagos our group of fourteen travelers took an excursion to Antisana National Park to see creatures of the high Andes. Rain was predicted for the afternoon so we got an early start despite some late night arrivals. Despite the predictions it was as clear a day as one could hope in the mountains. Manuel was our knowledgeable guide and Jonaton our expert driver. Our goal was the Andean Condor. At the first pullout it was clear we weren’t at sea level. Despite pounding hearts and fuzzy heads (the elevation all morning was near or over 13,000’) we were all thrilled with instant success. Andean condors were spotted by Maggie at rest on cliffs across the deep canyon. Manuel set up his spotting scope and showed us how to take great photos with our phones and the scope.
The day continued to amaze. Condors were spotted at a total of three locations with one very close flyby. Lunch was a delicious Andean feast. The rain started to come down just as we puled away to head for our hotel. Here’s what else we found that day:
Day One: Arrival in San Cristobal
We were met at the airport by the brother and sister team of guides, Ivan (I-love) and Karina and four more passengers of our ship the Eric. These two very experienced guides got us to the Eric for lunch and a safety drill and then we were back in out pangas for a visit to the Galapaguera, a tortoise breeding facility on the Island of San Cristobal. At the port we found our first creatures of the Galápagos. There were sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, blue-footed boobies and a green heron. In Galapaguera we saw our first of Darwin’s finches and learned about efforts to restore the archipelago’s land tortoise populations. The highlight bird was our first of two woodpecker finches. We also were introduced to the poison apple tree. The rainy season was well underway and the island was lush with greenery and the air heavy with humidity. Our winter escapees had found a warm refuge. That evening we met the crew and toasted to our great luck to all come together on the fantastic final voyage of the Eric. Our evening meal was the first of many tasty meals. Sleepyheads one and all we hit the racks and motored all night towards Genovesa.
Striated heron (Galápagos)
San Cristobal Mockingbird
Galápagos sea lion
Sally Lightfoot crab
Day Two: Genovesa, Darwin’s Cove and Prince Philip’s steps.
First activity of the day was a walk at Darwin Bay. Immediately we were met by the archipelago’s famously accessible wildlife. Birds and lizards and fish all seemed to welcome our observations and photographs. Our first marine iguanas were here. After our short walk and talk we donned our gear and hit the water. This group was a happy bunch of snorkelers. Ivan even had a Ring-of-Happiness and individual support for our less experienced participants. After the hour long swim we headed back on ship for snacks and lunch and sea kayaking and paddle boarding. Late that afternoon, after music and a siesta we did a deep water snorkel. Hammerhead sharks and many of their sea companions joined us, including a baleful purple octopus. Back on board to change and then back in the pangas. We climbed the Prince Philip steps to see the vast population of birds that make this remote isle famous. Target bird was the short-eared owl. Bobbies, gulls, frigates, doves, mockingbirds, there were a lot of birds, both species and numbers. As we walked we learned about the Nazca boobies practice of NAV (non-parental visitor aggression) and we watched a juvenile spar with an NAV. The short eared owl has developed a daylight hunting strategy to avoid the Galápagos hawk. It can take birds much bigger than itself and on Genovesa it frequently waits in cracks to ambush incoming storm petrels. We spotted four of these interesting birds on our afternoon walk. One gave quite a show looking as though he might have a pellet to expel. Nothing materialized despite a solid ten minutes of what appeared to be owl expectoration. Then it was back to the Eric for more food and libations. The very active day sent us to bed right after dinner.
Band-rumped storm petrel
Wedge-Rumped storm petrel
Large cactus finch
Spotted eagle ray
Blue chinned parrot fish
White sea urchin
Pencil spend sea urchin
Yellowtail surgeon fish
Gold rimmed surgeon fish
Manta ray (sp)
White-tipped reef shark
Giant damsel fish
Panama sergeant major
Large banded blenny
Calico lizard fish
Guinea fowl puffer
Baby jack (sp)
Day Three: Santa Cruz Island, Black Turtle Cove, Baltra, Dragon Hill
After a sound sleep and another long night crossing we headed out early into Black Turtle Cove on the pangas. Here we learned about the mangroves and saw an abundance of penguins, turtles, and nursery sharks. A pair of Pacific green turtles obliged us with their mating practices. The penguins swam by in formation. It seemed like they were seeking handouts. The next activity was another snorkel. The snorkels were so full of saline that further lists only contain notable animals. Midday was occupied by refueling at Baltra. The Gypsy Carpenters helped pass the time with a singalong
in the lounge. That afternoon we snorkeled (again :)) and took a hike up Dragon Hill in search of land iguanas and giant tortoises. Of course we saw both. This group had magic.
Great blue heron
Pacific green sea turtles
Chocolate chip seastar
Pencil sea urchin
Day Four: Fernandina Island, Punta Espinoza, Bahia Urvina
By day four we are really into the rhythm of our daily activities. Getting in and out of our wetsuits, eating great food, napping, singing. every day is action packed. This day we arrived at the western most part of our trip. Fernandina is the youngest island in the archipelago. Our landing on the dock brought us nose to nose with marine iguanas and sea lions. Overhead we found three Galágos hawks. Underfoot there were lava lizards sunning onto of sea iguanas. We saw the rarely seen flower of the lava cactus and flightless cormorants. Our afternoon hike on the edge of Isabela Island was filled with enormous marine iguanas, giant tortoises and more cormorants.The day’s snorkels were excellent again but it was hard to imagine better, but more was waiting.That night we had a special concert by the Eric’s crew. I-Love led the group in high energy songs but Segundo moved us with his traditional ballads. Those guys could really jam. There were songs and dancing and Maria led is in the limbo. Then collapse into our beds with smiles again.
Striated heron (lava)
Darwin’s finch (sp)
Day Five: Isabela Island, Elizabeth Bay, Tagus Cove, Darwin’s Crater:
After another fortifying breakfast we took a panga ride along the coast of this marvelous island. The surprise was seeing the largely vegetarian Pacific green sea turtle with it’s jaws firmly locked on an half eaten fish. A large half eaten fish. Somebody was craving protein. A concentric pufferfish was dining on a moth. The damp season had brought a lot of insects and the birds and fish were taking advantage. Spiders (argiope sp) in beautiful webs were also seen everywhere. The morning snorkel was laden with sea life. Penguins, cormorants, turtles and iguanas in a parade amongst the permanent creatures of the deep. we learned that an animal is a land creature if it eats on land and a marine creature if it eats in the sea. One irritable flightless cormorant took a nip at Bobbie’s right calf leaving a small red dot. Another first for our group. Really, the visual wonders of the sea made it hard to end every snorkel. Our guides frequently had to chase some of us back into the boat. That afternoon we hiked to Darwin’s Crater for magnificent views of the mysterious salty water body and the vast lava field making up the north of the island. Mockingbirds and finches entertained us with their feather fanning mating displays. Heaps of Monarch butterflies raised questions of migration and food sources. They do not migrate and there is milkweed on the islands. How the Monarch got to the Galapagos is a mystery.
Golden eagle ray
spotted eagle ray
Sea (Tree) lion
Pacific green sea turtle
So many fish. We got tired of trying to sort them all out. Heads were exploding.
Day Six: Puerto Egas of Santiago, Rabida Island
At Puerto Egas we learned about a short lived era of human habitation that left behind a few ruins. It was the eternal story of corruption and exploitation that we hear all over the world. People were promised land that the promiser did not own. A change in government ended it all and everybody left. Today the island teems with wildlife. A group of fur seals were frolicking in the grottos near Darwin’s toilet. We could see the different facial features between the sea lion and fur seals, even thought this fur seal is not a true seal. The dominant male greeted our group with a large bellow. Along the edges of a tidal pool was an American Oystercatcher with its wee down covered hatchling no larger than an egg on legs. Sally Lightfoot crabs added dots of red and gold on the dark sculpted rocks. Zig zag spiders decorated trailside trees. On our morning snorkel we spotted a huge stone scorpionfish and a school of salema I would have said numbered over 100,000 individuals. The afternoon snorkel had a spotted tiger eel snake and toothy moray eel. Late in the day we hiked the red soil of Rabida. Before we even had our shoes changed Burt yelled, “Flamingo” and Karina ran to see if he was kidding. He was not. For the first time in years and only the second time ever in her 20+ year career there was a flamingo in the brackish water at Rabida. Oddly, it was the second time in 18 months for Burt and Susan to see a flamingo here. Their amazing good luck continued. We got an eyeful of that calm and showy bird. It was spectacular. We all watched as it swung its improbable bill back and forth in the water filtering out crustaceans and preened its bright pink feathers.
White-cheeked pintail (Galápagos)
Moray eel (sp)
Tiger eel snake
Day Seven: Highlands of Santa Cruz Island and the Darwin Center
Our tour was coming to an end and there was a kind of gentle sadness infecting us. Not only would we have to say good-bye to new friends but all of us, crew and passengers, had to bid farewell to the Eric. After nearly three decades of service the Eric was being replaced by a new ship. We all loved this hard working craft and nobody wants dot see it retired. Still we had fun and more things to see and more songs to sing. That morning we visited the Darwin Center and Karina delighted us with a passionate presentation of the land tortoise restoration program. She explained how island by island rats were being eradicated. It was a complex process but slowly they were notching up success. Land tortoises are breeding in the wild for the first time in 100 years in some locations. Then we took an hour to explore the town and stock up on gifts for home. After lunch we took a bus ride to the highlands and visited the Gemelos, twin sink holes. Green warbler-finches sang for us and a woodpecker finch sped on past. At the working ranch we observed the tortoises in mid-migration across a working farm. We also walked through a dark and damp lava tube. Karina explained how these tubes form when the lava cools at different rates. A cooler and harder exterior can contain a warmer flowing interior, like a straw and soda. That night we played music and gathered ourselves for the parting.
White-cheeked pintail (Galápagos)
Day Eight: Interpretive Center at San Cristobal, Departure
The final day was spent touring the exhibits at the San Cristobal Interpretive Center or hiking up Tijeretas Hill followed by a snack and wi-fi in town as we waited for our flight to Quito. The hill hike rewarded us with a breeze and expansive views of Puerto Ayora and the Pacific. Our group arrived in Quito and had one last dinner together and then it was off on ur own journeys. Some headed home, others to Mindo for more birds, and others for a more expansive tour through Ecuador. It was a privilege to be in your company. We were lucky to have a group of warm and interesting companions, guides that wanted to share their home with us, and a crew that saw to our every need.
Great blue heron
San Cristobal mockingbird
On the upside I can say black cohosh seems to have knocked the night sweats down by half. I am sleeping better. On the downside, I threw out my back. Again. This must be the fourth time in two years. I’m getting demoralized. I had a nice adjustment yesterday that decreased the pain but was no miracle cure. I have to wonder if there is a more serious underlying injury.
Despite the constant pain, the kind of pain that makes me realize why we have an opioid epidemic, we went camping last Saturday. The four of us piled in the Exploder and drove a couple of hours into the wilds of Baja for a night on a vacant beach with a few hundred birds on a nearby water hole. Dolphins surfed the sunlit waves as grebes dove for dinner. Burt warned up rabbit stew on a drift wood fire. I wandered restlessly finding comfort nowhere except in distraction. At twilight scores of lesser nighthawks came to clear the air of mosquitoes. Their long narrow wings materialized out of nowhere and within ten minutes had disappeared again. A few hundred mourning doves flushed from nearby scrub while we walked to the water hole’s edge.
The next morning we watched avocet and frigates and coots and yellowlegs and all their buddies feed. The rainy summer and fall have provided lots of habitat for overwintering birds. This month we’ve spotted 101 species. That’s nearly half of all the species I’ve ever seen in the Baja. Quite a start to 2019 and a good distraction.
This year’s Todos Santos Christmas Bird count was an unprecedented success for our area. I hope in future years we’ll be able to look back and see it as the start of a new day for citizen science in our part of the world. Twenty people from three countries speaking at least two languages got together and split up over 170 square miles of terrain to count as many birds as they could in one day. The first three years of counting only uncovered 74, 66, 44 species respectively. We got 51 species with my team alone on CBC day. Our combined CBC circle teams tagged at least 109 species together. (An increase of 47% on the best year and 147% on the worst.) We don’t have the final numbers yet because only half our teams have submitted their completed tally sheets. Among those species seen were prized endemics found only in Baja California Sur: the San Lucas Robin, Xantu’s hummingbird, the Gray thrasher, Cassin’s (San Lucas) Vireo, the Vioscosa’s Band-tailed pigeon, and the Acorn woodpecker. Some people may quibble over endemic status for some of these but our Baja pride dictates we support the local UABCS scientists working so hard on the status of these birds. There were a couple other subspecies seen, too, but I can’t recall which right now.
I am eternally grateful to all the hard working bird professionals that came out to support the community effort. Staff and students of the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur gave up a day of their holidays to ensure our success. Burt and I are will continue to do what we can to help your programs succeed. Many thanks also to the expert guides and non-professionals who lent their eyes and ears. Your love of the birds is inspiring. And finally, to the newbies that were eager to learn and offered any support they had with driving, navigating, and feeding of teams. May you continue to learn and share all you have. Here’s who turned out: Emer Garcia, Gerardo Marrón, Victor Armando, Joaquin Corrales, Daniel Galindo, Andrea Quintaro, Kurt Radamaker, Cindy Radamaker, Bequia Martel, Damian Gonzáles, Pablo Gonzáles, Bobbi McElravey, Bill Levine, John Konovsky, Don Martin, Alejandra Yarely Barrios, Osiel A. Flores Rosas, Haidé Cruz, Burt Mittelstadt and me.
The week before the count Burt and I drove a lot of miles to make sure we knew the most productive areas and the best routes through the mountains. The results show our prep work proved worthwhile. Many people were surprised the mountain endemics were in our circle but we knew where to find them and those sweet birds showed up on the big day. What a relief. Thank you woodpeckers and robins.
My own personal day was spent slogging through my home turf of downtown Pescadero. But before that I had to get everyone else split into teams and out in the field. That night my fitbit said I slept 3 hours. Adrenaline was pumping as soon as my head hit the pillow. Thoughts kept popping up: Did I have enough maps, cars, snacks? Will they find the snipe at the dam? What about those Harris’s hawks? Do I need to bring sunscreen and bug juice? What if nobody helps me in Pescadero? When was the last time I saw a gray thrasher? What if nobody shows up? The alarm went off at 5 AM and I was in Todos Santos at our meeting point at 6:45. Burt arrived 15 minutes later in a spare vehicle. By 7:15 it was obvious we had enough experts and support to cover all the areas I had hoped to reach. I showed the teams my suggestions and we split up the people into teams of experts and support. There was a mild squirmish over the mountain areas. Our main coastal oases were so familiar to the best birders that they hoped for a day in the new terrain. Burt wound up in a car with 5 people, all of them with strong local skills and two of them at the expert level. That A team headed to the mountains. We had six teams. Three coastal oasis and town with agricuture and desert, and three in the desert to the edge of the mountains with some agriculture.
As for me, I had two amiable and kind helpers the first three hours but the slogging through sewage ponds and desert thorns under an unrelenting sun burned my guys out by lunch time. after a quick count at my feeder and some lunch I finished the lonely afternoon chasing sparrows and birds of prey in our agricultural fields. Around 3 PM Emer called in to say his team was done and back in Todos Santos. They had done the Santa Inez dam and its environs. We agreed to regroup and have a snack with the teams that were in from the field in Todos Santos. I did a rough run through of total species seen. Aside from the endemics we added 12 species that weren’t even expected to be seen in our count during the CBC. I’ve got my work cut out for me explaining all the new birds.
After the snack groups went home to Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, and La Paz. Kurt’s team was unaccounted for until 5 PM. They finally retired and headed to their hotel and Gerardo, Burt and I headed out to try and pick up some missing species and the night birds. Finally at 8 PM we showed Gerardo our guest bed and crashed. You might think the next day we would give it a rest but I had one of Baja’s best birders in my guest room and he was willing to bird my backyard and see what Pescadero had to offer so no, there was no rest for us. Burt and I took Gerardo to our local black water effluent and Gerardo got to work. He confirmed my find of the endangered Belding’s Yellowthroat in our local cesspool, but where I was lucky to see one, he found six. This bird is a difficult ID. It is easy to wishfully call a common yellow throat a Belding’s so I was eager to confirm I wasn’t seeing things. I am very relieved. Gerardo is our local eBird reviewer and the only person ahead of me for number of checklists submitted to eBird in 2018. I tease him because if I was here full-time we’d have a real competition. And so we spent another day birding in the company of the amiable and productive Gerardo. We went to Elias Calles and La Poza, too. At 3:00 we parted because Burt and I had a tennis match with my dad and Sara Gay. After that I collapsed.
A special shout out to Jackie Lewis and Bonnie Bowen for encouraging me and Todos Santos EcoAdventures for passing the baton.