Birdies flocking together

Cara-caras in Elias Calles
Cara-caras in Elias Calles

We drove down here with a 5 pound bag of bird food. Burt was feeling tolerant of my whims. Usually he says, “Too much. Buy it there.” I only bought it because I was afraid I would forget to buy some here. As soon as we were situated I put out some seed. It was a cheap bag of food and nobody came. I tried a couple of locations. Nothing. All the other bird features were busy but sugar water only attracts a subset of feeder birds and I wanted to see more varieties. I despaired. Maybe my food was spoiled or just not to their tastes?

Last week our friend Bobbi asked us to come to her place and help her identify her birds. It was on our way to her house that we spotted the pair of cara-caras sitting in the dead palm. As we sat there on her porch and watched a veritable flock of birds dining ten feet away I realized my mistake. It wasn’t the food. It was the location and type of feeder. The bowls were too exposed and the table was too close to our trailer. I made one small change. I placed the food in a piece of driftwood and hung the driftwood on the fence. The feeding station is two feet further away from our trailer and higher off the ground. The next day there was a seed eater on it. A very shy cardinal flitted in and out taking a seed at a time. The day after that four new species of birds were in the yard: Black headed grosbeak, house finch, phainopepla, pyrrhuloxia.  Yippee skippy!

Moral of this story, same as all the rest: Don’t give up.

Cara-caras in Elias Calles
Female Cardinal
IMG_1524
Cardinal at take-off
IMG_1518
Cardinal and black headed grosbeak
IMG_1509
House finch and orange crowned warbler taking a bath together. I wonder what the missus will say?
IMG_1502
House finch, hooded oriole, and orange crowned warbler. The bath is very popular.
IMG_1501
Pyrrhuloxia
IMG_1493
Northern mockingbird and a hooded oriole squabble over who’s turn.
IMG_1488
Scott’s oriole, hooded oriole, house finch in line.
New feeder with cardinal
New feeder with cardinal

 

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Gobble, Gobble, Gobbled

Pavos
Pavos or turkeys

Yesterday our friend and guide Esteban took us up to his sister’s ranch. The rustic farm is about an hour from El Pescadero and located on the edge of an arroyo. This trip materialized the way so many things happen here. Esteban stopped by to say hi. Burt said let’s take a trip to the mountains. We think Esteban said, “Do you want to see my sister’s ranch?” I think we said yes. We are not entirely sure if he asked or if we asked or how we wound up agreeing. Turkeys were mentioned. We made a date for an excursion.

Yesterday we arrived at Esteban’s house a few minutes late. He was surprised. We were very punctual according to him. This was after we called to say we would arrive an hour late and we arrived an hour and ten minutes later than originally agreed. Oops. We try so hard not to be prompt and we always fail. We are continuously arriving before our hosts expect us all over the world. This fashionably late thing is beyond our skill set. We couldn’t even start our show fifteen minutes late as all musicians are expected to do.

The journey to the rancho was full of words for trees and birds we happened to pass. Esteban used to be the forest ranger in the Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve. He knows all the local beings. What we could not understand was where we were going. Eventually we wound up at a very nice, brand new country getaway. There were two workers watering the plants. The yard was nicely landscaped. I pondered how a walk in the woods brought us to some rich person’s cabin in the mountains. I have no idea what transpired but the conclusion was that we were free to visit this spot and camp anytime we liked. I conclude Esteban was introducing us to the locals. I could be wrong. It was a very nice spot. Elvis peed on everything. When I said is Spanish that he had to mark everywhere we go the men all laughed. We piled back into the Exploder and headed back out to the highway. WTF. Are we going home already? Was that our trip? During all our visits Esteban and Burt and I have a three way dialogue that meanders and is very amorphous. I am never certain if we are going or coming, leaving or staying. His manner of guiding is similar. He takes us to a trail and says, “I’ll see you later.” We walk away wondering where we are going. We always get there, turn around and walk back. Esteban is where he left us. Everybody is happy.

At the highway we headed away from town and took another ranch road towards the mountains. At the end of this road we arrived at a ranch filled with animals. Cows, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys…The local lady of the house was working her butt of making cheese and doing laundry. The men were sitting and talking. I headed to the kitchen and chatted with another visiting female while we watched Lupita do her chores. Burt hung with us. There were wild birds in cages singing in the kitchen. I could hardly stand to look at the starling, grosbeak, sparrow and orioles but they are well loved by this quiet woman with few visitors. The woman was Esteban’s sister. She is also very comfortable in the wilderness and trapped all the birds herself. Now I know the whole family shares our love of birds.

Eventually Esteban takes us to a trail and say, “I’ll see you later. There’s water up there.” Burt and I and the Olvis walked until we found water. It was 4:00 PM. I could have spent the night there on the sandy bank with palm trees swaying and water trickling by. There were heaps of birds but we forgot our binoculars. Both of us. We returned to the ranch. There was Esteban waiting. I asked if we could buy a turkey. How much? $400 pesos. Muy caro, I thought but worth it to reward Lupita for all her hard work, so we agreed. They asked if we want it alive or dead. I envisioned carrying a live turkey back to town with Elvis and Olive and decided dead is best. One of the men caught the turkey while Esteban filled an enormous pot with water to boil. The unlucky dinner is caught, its feet bound, and it is hung upside down. Burt cut its throat. The bird was then plunged into boiling water and plucked and gutted. Both Burt and I have done this many times but it made us nervous doing it with a cross cultural audience but some things are the same no matter what language you use. Lupita gave me some much less expensive eggs. Finally we headed home.

Zalate or fig tree
Zalate or fig tree
Presa or dam
Presa or dam
Borregos or sheep
Borregos or sheep
Wild birds in cages. Que triste.
Wild birds in cages. Que triste.
Haciendo queso. Lupita is making cow's milk cheese.
Haciendo queso. Lupita is making cow’s milk cheese.
Pavo sin suerte. The unlucky turkey.
Pavo sin suerte. The unlucky turkey.
Insertion into boiling water loosens the feathers.
Insertion into boiling water loosens the feathers.
Hanging fowl upside down calms them.
Hanging fowl upside down calms them.
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What was I saying?

Biosfera Reserva sign
Biosfera Reserva sign

I’ve been doing this everyday thing for so long now I just logged in to blog and had no idea why. I have nothing new. Huh.

Yesterday’s post about the swimming hole went a little crazy on Facebook. I should say the photos attracted a lot of attention. There was no information on the whereabouts. Now everyone within ten miles of us wants to know how to find that spot. If they had a map and read this blog they could figure it out for themselves. That’s as far as I’m willing to go. As my buddy Harlow says, they hang people for giving away that kind of information.

Time to practice. Or eat. Or nap.

 

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Exploratory Drive

It was so inviting even I went in.
It was so inviting even I went in.

Burt pulled out the map and said, “There’s gotta be an easier place to hike in the mountains.” Well we got lost but found what he was looking for anyway. Burt’s original goal was the end of the road about 8 miles south of where we landed but we can’t complain. Rancho Santo Domingo is at the end of a different road and on a trail head into the Sierra de la Laguna. Chito is the current occupant and resident guide. He sent us on our way and we did a short exploratory walk. His dog, I called it bones, followed us. Bones’s love for Olive was unrequited. I guess she prefers men with more meat on their frame. Up the hill from the very old and well shaded ranch house we found a mature orchard with ripe toronjas (grapefruits) and flowering mango trees. The trail followed the arroyo up into the mountains. Birds were sparse because of the heat but this water hole was fantastic.

We turned back early. I am still tired from Sunday’s expedition and we had a music date with Tom.  We can visit this place again when we have more time and energy. On our way back down Burt spotted the Cape Robin! I missed it but I can trust Burt knows a robin when he sees one.

Burt's butt in a fine swimming hole.
Burt’s butt in a fine swimming hole.
Chito y Beto: soul mates?
Chito y Beto: soul mates?
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The tears fell

Yesterday I cried. I suffered physically and emotionally. I couldn’t walk up hill. My identity was in tatters as I wrestled with exactly what I was doing bushwacking through thorn forest on a forty five degree slope with ball bearings for footing. Why had I agreed to this? To please Burt? To prove something to myself? Because I wanted to see the birds? All of the above.

When do we give up what we could do and put youthful past times aside forever? I used to climb mountains. I ran marathons. I have a black belt in karate. None of that can be done by this body ever again. Could I even just walk up a hill? The exhaustion I feel as I try to walk up hill is all comsuming. My brain hardly can think. Blood leaves the brain first in endurance sports. I think that’s why we can keep pushing our limits but it also makes it a tightrope walk. Every step I wonder where I am going. My emotions get away from me. Why is Burt going so fast? Where are we? I’m going to hurt myself. I sit. Three times yesterday I sat without looking where my butt was aimed. Only one did I land on a cholla. Burt tried to help but he kept pushing the spines in deeper. I couldn’t see back there. I dealt with it. I rested. I ate. I tried again. It got easier.

But the wondering of when will be the last massive effort? When will I say, “Burt you have to go without me?” It makes me cry.

 

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The Annual Death March to Titi Mountain

Burt's aspirin a day makes even mild scratches dramatic.
Burt’s aspirin a day makes even mild scratches dramatic.

Burt’s finally had enough of our annual slog on the skirts of Titi Mountain. I think. We’ve made an annual trek up there every year for the last four year. This year I cried. Between losing the way, the heat, hunger, and the darn beta-blockers I had my work cut out for me. I knew I would be miserable on an uphill hike through the thorn forest and I tried to take it like a big person but the first 40 minutes were really discouraging. I almost quit.

The start of this marathon is a very poor ranch deep in the desert at the edge of an arroyo. In the past the house has been vacant but this year the owners were there with their three skeletal dogs. The burro that rubbed his head on our car all night long last year was not seen. The owners speak a version of Baja Spanish that I find impenetrable. We exchanged pleasantries where every other word was Mande? or Como? What? Hi? What? How are you? Say that again? Great? You? What? Painful. Then the man says, “You play violin.” I heard that. We played music once here 4 years ago and everyone within 10 square miles remembers. Does this make us famous. In a word, yes. At the time it seemed like we were torturing them. Maybe we were. Today he seemed to remember it fondly. He asked if I had brought my violin and seemed disappointed when I said no. Maybe he was just being polite.

This route is located in a spot our friends the deer hunters showed us four years ago. Angel and Ramon agreed to let us tag along while they hunted. That day we covered twice as much ground in the same amount of time. We were faster then but we also had a guide dragging us over and under and through vegetation. On our own we wallow a bit trying to figure out where to go. The area is very wild but also heavily grazed by cattle. There are microtrails everywhere created by cows stomping their way to every green shoot or puddle of water. Cows make trails that are too short for the average gringo. Tree limbs, vines and cactus hang about at the four foot level. Constantly we find ourselves trying to decide if we should climb over a log, pass under that nasty vine, or through the chest high weeds. All this obstacle course like maneuvering while headed uphill. It’s not an enjoyable walk; it is more like an expedition. About an hour in there is a native palm oasis. Things get more enjoyable there.

The thing that keeps us going, besides the annual grudge match, is that we hope to find some of Baja’s endemic birds that live at the higher elevations. Today we had our eyes and ears peeled for the cape robin, the Baird’s junco, and the isolated population of acorn woodpeckers. All of these birds are subspecies of birds found elsewhere but the ones here in Baja have been left isolated by the ocean and the desert. They don’t migrate. They all look slightly different from tehir more mobile colleagues.

At 2:30 and after 4 hours of trudging with ample and lengthy breaks we turned for home. My phone said we’d walked 3 miles. I believe it was closer to 2 but it felt more like 5. So three is a nice compromise. At the turnaround point we had not seen any of our birds. We did find a nice persimmon tree on the edge of the palm oasis and it was full of butter butts (yellow rumped warblers) and orange crowned warblers. The fruit tree is a relic of the sugar processing days. At the ridge there was a sugar cane processing plant. Local people hiked 6 miles every day to work it back in the late 1800s.  The workers planted fruit trees on their route. On our way back down, just before the persimmons, Burt spotted a woodpecker. I got my binoculars on it just as it flew and I was 90% certain it was our clown faced acorn woodpecker. Then Burt spotted another one and this next one held still and we both confirmed it was the bird we were looking for. Yippee. All tears were worth it.

Here is an easy stretch of the so-called trail. It's more like a route.
Here is an easy stretch of the so-called trail. It’s more like a route. Olive and Elvis appreciated that fetid water.
Here's what the trail typically looked like. Over or under or around?
Here’s what the trail typically looked like. Over or under or around?
Titi Mountain and another thing to walk around or over.
Titi Mountain and another thing to walk around or over.
The saddle there above Burt's head was our goal. After 4 hours of hiking we didn't make it. It was the closest we've come on our own.
The saddle there above Burt’s head was our goal. After 4 hours of hiking we didn’t make it. It was the closest we’ve come on our own. Just on the other side are the sugar cane processing mills ruins.
The house roof visible below the tree branch is where we started.
The house roof visible below the tree branch is where we started. The start was a 1 hour and 45 minute drive from our place. The locals are very remote.
Resting in the oasis.
Resting in the oasis.
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TuVu Study

A vortex or kettle
A vortex or kettle

I have found turkey vultures surprisingly difficult to approach. I always presumed they are so large and safe up on that cardon or neck deep in a carcass that I could snap some nice pictures. I was wrong. They do not tolerate proximity. Perhaps because they are so ungainly and slow to get off the ground they choose to leave as soon as someone makes eye contact with them. I wonder who preys on them. TuVus eat things that offend the olfactory system of most other creatures so just who is eating them?

It turns out other large birds of prey such as great horned owls and both golden and bald eagles don’t mind dining on turkey vultures. Great horned owls are known to like skunks, too, so I’m guessing they have unique tastes. Eagles are also famous carrion eaters so they just don’t mind the smell of death. The turkey vulture has large perforated nostrils that allow a large volume of air to pass through its sinus cavities. Their keen senses of smell and sight allow them to find freshly dead animals. They’re sniffing for the first gasses of decay. Turkey vultures prefer fresh meat and will not eat things that are putrefied. I did not know that until now. This explains all the dead highway animals that the buzzards didn’t find in time.

Vultures have a defense tactic I’ve mentioned before. They can projectile vomit their skin burning acid laced stomach contents. This smelly bomb lightens their load allowing for quicker take-off and deters animals trying to get too close. I was rock climbing once at Sunset Rocks in Chattanooga, Tennessee and I popped over a rock roof to find myself face to face with a vulture on a nest. Both of us got a good scare and I miraculously was spared the rotting gut bomb. I continued on my way up as quickly as I could manage. Since then I’ve been charmed by these under appreciated cleaners of the world.

TuVu coming in to catch up on the gossip.
TuVu coming in to catch up on the gossip.
Check out the sky through the nose hole.
Check out the sky through the nose hole. I’ll bet the size also allows for easy cleaning.
We're getting too close.
We’re getting too close.
TuVu leaving.
TuVu leaving.
Turkey vulture leaving.
Turkey vulture leaving.
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Commitment

Me
Me

Woweeee, we made it. Day 31 of the 31 day Art Journaling/Blogging Challenge by Zoë Dearborn. Wow. Just wow. Years past this would have been very difficult due to data limitations. I feel compelled to thank Verizon for including roaming in Mexico in my data package. Thanks to you, dear readers, for following along. Several of you have mentioned you’ll miss the daily posts. I can’t thank you enough. I’m not sure how long I’ll continue the streak. Help me out by sending in your questions and ideas if you have something you want to know. It can be about the natural world or my inner life or anything else. All ideas considered.

Today’s subject is commitment. This month has found us neck deep in commitments. I like it this way. We’ve got each other and the Olvis and Mimi. We’ve got tennis and music and Spanish. The neighborhood kids. We count on them and they are counting on us. As I search for something to say to sum up the writing and thinking and feeling of this month I come up with that aphorism of a few days ago, “Just show up.” My commitment is to continue showing up. Here on the interwebz, at my classes, for the kids, on the fretboard of life. And I commit to putting out oranges for the birds. I hate chores but I’ll commit to slicing open and putting out oranges even though it makes my hands feel sticky and I’m scared of the knife. It’s a really big knife. The rewards are worth the discomfort and risk. It’s  an analogy for writing and life.

This practice has shown me how much I enjoy thinking and writing. It’s renewed my interest in what I can learn by taking the time and working deeply even for just a short time a day. As I tell all beginning music students that ask our advice, “The secret is ten minutes a day, every day. An hour once a week will not get the job done.” Thank you, Zoë for prodding and feeding back and inspiring.

the kids in the neighborhood.
the kids in the neighborhood.
Our place in the world
Our place in the world
Orange
Orange
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In Summary

Sunset at Roc's place
Sunset at Roc’s place

On January 1st we had just arrived in Pescadero, Mexico and I was wondering if I would lose my mind to the ant invasion. A month later I am on the cusp of completing a thirty-one day marathon of writing every day. It’s a first in the seven year history of this blog. I didn’t see that coming. Recently I’ve felt like I had nothing to say. I just needed a little motivation and some fresh ideas. Many thanks to Zoë for her stupendous work pushing us along. A long time ago I thought I’d love to be a newspaper or magazine columnist. Celestine Sibley of the Atlanta papers reeled me in with her clarity and down to earth observations of a regular life. Her writing made the mundane spiritual. When I started this blog I thought of it as my chance to be my own columnist. I could write about whatever caught my fingers as Burt and I wandered the country working and playing. Over the years I wished I had some things Celestine had that I lack: an editor feeding me ideas and creating a deadline, a copy writer clearing up my grammatical challenges, a wider audience (for more ideas), and a salary. This writing project gave me a wider audience, a deadline, and new ideas. I didn’t see that coming.

Today’s assignment is to take stock of what we’ve accomplished. My first post of the year exhorted us to be nice. I believed we are going to need a lot of nice. I still believe it. But I also believe we are going to need some backbone and deep reflection on our core values. It’s a time of action. I hope you all are doing what you can to make your concerns heard. Know that I am.

This month we achieved transition into our Mexican lives. We are playing tennis, teaching music, losing and learning at bridge, studying Spanish, eating well, staying cool and warm, visiting friends, doing yoga and writing. We have lost some sleep over our health insurance. We have grave concerns about the choices we will have to make if we lose coverage. We are grateful we have choices we can make. We can stay in Mexico where health care is affordable. We can move to a state that has a good public health system. We can try to get jobs with health insurance that doesn’t exclude pre-existing conditions. We shall see. We shall stay vigilant and try to make a rational decision if the system changes.

Two nights ago Burt and I went birding. Our friend Roc had texted about a flock of dark birds roosting outside his home every night. A raucous bunch of dark things coming in just at dusk. Burt and I thought, let’s go and figure this out as if we could do something a perfectly capable guy like Roc couldn’t do. Ha! We arrived at 5:30. Roc owns an organic farm halfway between town and the beach. His home is nestled in some palms and carrizal. The birds like the thick, bambooish carrizal. Burt and I quietly sat in two different spots. Burt on the roof overlooking Roc’s fields and me on the steps with Capi, Roc’s assistant. Roc was texting for updates from Cabo. Capi assured me the birds come every night. WE sat still. A Xanthu’s, an oriole, a white-winged dove. Nothing more for 25 minutes. Quiet. Darkness falling. Slowly darkness descends but them suddenly it is too dark to see. Right at that moment the tiny birds started darting from I-don’t-know-where and landing in the hedge not ten feet away. They were loudly singing and chattering. I could imagine them saying, “How was your day?” “Meh, some seeds, some bugs…the usual.” We couldn’t see anything but small black silhouettes. I tried to find the call on iBird. I made a recording of their nightly debriefing and emailed it from the scene to two friends in Portal, Arizona.  I felt like a naturalist using my skills at observation and problem solving. We realized there was no hope of a visual spot. The birds all disappeared deep into the bushes. We went home.

I listened to my recording and compared it to the ones on my phone. I narrowed the bird down to a sparrow. It sort of made me feel better. I can hardly identify sparrows during the day. A night ID would be impossible. The next morning the word came back from Portal that indeed it was a flock of sparrows. White-crowned sparrows. Oddly, coincidentally, ironically? White-crowned sparrows are one of the few I can identify in sufficient light.

Here’s the obituary for Celestine Sibley. She had quite a career.

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Darling, Al, this is for you ya darned lurker.

Rock discussion. I don't like geology.
Rock discussion. I don’t like geology.

So it comes to my attention this morning that there are some lurkers reading these daily writings and liking it. I never would have guessed but here’s what I heard from Al, my Irish emigree to Canada and Mexico friend, “So you’re 17/31 of the way through this project. How long are you going to keep writing everyday?” I expressed a stunned surprise that Al, a man I see about twice a year, was up to the minute up to date on my blog and a slight need for a break. He responded with, “Oh no! It makes getting up easier in the morning.” Or something to that effect. Wow, what a compliment. And perhaps a slightly Irish backhanded one but I’m gonna take it at face value. I said,”If you want me to keep writing you should make a comment.”  My faithful readers motivate me (thanks Pat, Melissa, Becky, Burt…). So here I am trying to get Al out in the open, too. Even if he stays in the shadows I now have him in mind as I write into the ether. I miss seeing him more regularly on the tennis court. Once we beat Burt and Leslie. Those were the day.

So today’s assignment is to consider the source of your creativity. Harumph. There’s some loaded stuff for me. I do not see myself as creative. I see myself as a doer, observer, recorder. The vocabulary of science and engineering populate my mind. I do not write songs. I do not create art. I can’t even arrange a song. I don’t even cook anymore. I play music in a trained monkey sort of way. Other people are ‘real’ musicians and artists. So if I can’t see myself as creative how do I address the creative force? I have to leave the box of what art is and focus on creation. If I look at the totality of my life I see it, my life, as a work of terrible and beautiful art. I have used that drive to create to build a life that is far outside the norms of what society dictates for the likes of me. My inspiration has been to leave behind known and secure. Secure and safe have always let me down in the long run. The sketchy choices have lead to more interesting places physically and emotionally. I see my power in the ability to solve problems. I can find resources and determine limits and comply with the laws of natures and work within all that to create a life that is uniquely mine. This is how I left behind two marriages that were suffocating, a job with no joy but lots of money, a house I loved, and a community of nice enough folks that were too judgemental of me. In return I got  to live a life where I work when I need to but mostly want to and to live in places I love surrounded by people from all walks of life that take me as I am. And just like any art it takes constant effort and practice to figure it all out.

There. That should motivate you, Al. I would like to admit I have a keen eye for proportion and color. I use it when working as a carpenter or taking photos.

It's the size of the fight in the dog...
It’s the size of the fight in the dog…
Brincar, saltar or jump
Brincar, saltar or jump
More jumping
More jumping
Bus to English and music class
Bus to English and music class
Carved darkling beetle.
Carved darkling beetle.
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