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.
Did you know in the late 1800s there was a Christmas tradition of the Christmas side hunt? Parties would divide up and head into the wood in a competition to see who could kill more things, feathered or furred. Charming. If you think we’ve evolved since then remember we still do this with coyotes and rattlesnakes and other ‘vermin’, just not as a Christmas tradition. In 1900 ornithologist Frank M. Chapman came up with a new idea. Frank said, “Hey, it’s getting kind hard to find all those animals. Maybe we should count them and see how many are left.” No, not really. What is true is that Chapman was justifiably concerned about the birds and he proposed the switch from killing to counting. That first count had 27 counters in 25 locations. They found 89 species. You can see the results HERE. I’ll bet a librarian deserves credit for us knowing those very first results. Conservation was a new idea and what is now known as the CBC or Christmas Bird Count is still going strong. Here’s a link to what the North American coverage looked like in 2014.
The CBC has grown and overtime developed standard protocols. The result is a powerful data set fueled by citizen scientists over the course of more than a century. The cumulative years of methodically counting have netted priceless scientific insight. Many conservation advances of teh past can be credited to the sound scientific conclusions from this long view of nature. Sadly, there’s a lot more work to be done. The rapid pace of climate change is outpacing nature’s ability to adapt. Using this data we can see population shifts in real time. Many species will not make it as food and precipitation cycles gyrate wildly. The NY Times just published a story on one special spot on our globe. You can read it HERE. We can relate to this anecdotal story of boobies and penguins and iguanas but the truth is this is a global disaster and it’s happening all around.
Despite the horrifying news we chose to move forward in hope and continue to collect data. It might only be an exercise in respect and acknowledgement as we consciously observe the destruction we have wrought but perhaps it will help provide answers on how to move forward. I don’t know but I’m going to go out and count.
So tomorrow is our big day. Birders from all over the area are coming here to lend a hand. Novices and experts will work together to take stock of our treasured birds. We meet at 7 AM at the Todos Santos Bus Station. I have maps and snacks. Bring your sunscreen, bug spray, binoculars, and hats.
Christmas Bird Count season is upon us. That’s something to celebrate. This is the 119th anniversary of the largest citizen science project in the world. It’s successful because humans all over agree to go out and focus their birding efforts in a tight circle on a scheduled date. The collective CBC circles cover an area and span of time to have produced the most important bird trend data in the world. Burt and I were lucky to have participated in a Portal, AZ count a few years ago. We followed our friend Peg Abbott of Naturalist Journeys as she birded her way up a mountain road over the course of a day. Peg explained the science of the CBC and shared her incredible bird identification skills while we spotted and kept count for her. We are hooked on birding in large part because people like Peg have generously spent time helping us learn the birds.
Yesterday Burt and I went to La Paz to help count in their amazingly diverse circle. They’ve got desert and agriculture and miles of shoreline and the open water of La Paz bay. Daniel Galindo-Espinosa is the compiler for La Paz and he welcomed our participation and has agreed to come to Todos Santos and help me out this week when we do ours. We were assigned to help our buddy Emer Garcia of the UABCS birding program at the city’s wastewater treatment plants. This might seem like a loser spot but it is actually one of the most important habitats in the Baja Sur region. I kind of hoped for a new area and new birds but I was relieved for two reasons. Emer is a pro and Burt and I had birded the area the day before so we knew what to expect. Still it was also kind of overwhelming. The volume of birds on the treatment lagoons can make you crazy when you’re desert rats like us. We are used to spotting birds as individuals. Counting entire flocks and picking out unique individuals inside of heavy flocks is tiring work. It takes practice. Our team of 5 set to it with Emer keeping us under control and we think we did a pretty good job. Our search revealed 59 species and over 1000 individuals. There was nearly 100 white-faced ibis alone. And the ducks. Holy quakery, Bat Man, there were a lot of ducks.
Meanwhile Burt and I have been driving roads to make sure we can get people out to the areas we want birded this Thursday. Today we are taking one last excursion to the border of the Sierra de la Laguna. I saw something I’m hesitant to report just yet so we’re going to try and find it again and also check out some other spots.
Join us Thursday at 7AM (12/20) if you’d like to participate in the Todos Santos Christmas Bird Count.
So Burt and I are getting into the swing of things. We’ve just plunged right in. Spanish, yoga, surfing, birding, kid’s classes, Bridge. Our schedules are packed full of fun and meaningful interactions so it’s not like we were looking for anything to do. The annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is coming is these next three weeks. Birders all over the world work together to get an annual census. There are rigorous scientific protocols everyone agrees to follow. These protocols have given us 118 years of priceless data on birds. Todos Santos has had its own CBC for only 3 years. We’ve got some catching up to do. I noticed last week that I did not know when our CBC was planned so I contacted the organizers. There were a few emails back and forth where in summary I politely informed them that the answers they were giving me did not follow Audubon’s protocols. They very kindly said, “Will you take over for us?” I said, “Yes.” That old adage of no good deed goes unpunished comes to mind.
Now I am a scrambling to learn the formalities of running a circle and finding enough birders to cover our area. Luckily we know a bunch of the best and so far they are eager to get this thing underway with the new management. And by best I mean waaay wayyyy better than us best. So buh-bye. I’ve got a lot of work to do.
Yesterday we thought we were going birding with a group of first year college students from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur and we did go birding but first Bon Jovi. I’m not a Bon Jovi fan but I am familiar with the band and it’s front man Jon Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi could be heard everywhere in my youth. We grew up at the same time in the same area of New Jersey in Italian American families. I can agree Bon Jovi is a big deal even if I have no interest in his body of work. My mother had a little Bon Jovi fever back in the late nineties. She and Jon’s mother lived in the same neighborhood. Mom once went to a Tupperware party with Jon’s mother so Jon and me, we’re practically related. Now we’ve had our photos taken on the same street in the same town in Baja. It’s become a tradition for Profe Emer to take his student groups to this spot and have their group photo taken. Bon Jovi was playing on the car stereo while we posed. I’m not sure if Bon Jovi is big in Mexico. The band is big with Emer. The Bon Jovi photo is the cover to the band’s album These Days. After yesterday’s big moment where we all stood in the street and smiled for the photo I looked it up. I wanted to know why Bon Jovi was in the remote town in Baja on a side street next to the grocery store. I found no answer. We were there because this small town is on the way to the day’s birding spot. Here’s a Mexican fan’s analysis. He’s irritated Bon Jovi makes no mention of the cover location or explains why. Me, too. If you know someone in the band find out for us.
After that diversion we headed into the hills. We were almost two hours behind schedule due to car trouble. So our adventure started late in the day. Our group consisted of five students, two teachers, and the Gypsy Carpenters. Gerardo Marron was our amazing guide. He was very skilled and a great instructor. He never laughed at our struggles. My loss of vision has undermined my confidence. I’m trying to power through but there’s a lot of awkward work as I try to see fine details through binoculars. I felt like an idiot most of the day. We spent hours on our feet looking at bugs and spiders and lizards and birds. The class was still going at 7:20 PM when Burt and I headed home to feed the dogs. We’d hoped to spend the night and camp with everyone but we could not find dog care. If you wanna make some money build a kennel in Todos Santos. Today I am so tired I think the dogs saved us from looking really, really old. I’m not sure I could have stayed up half the night looking for bats and owls and then started all over again the next morning.
You can see why I’m whining below. Aside from the glorious bruise on my upper thigh all is well. We saw the green flash last night from cliffs above the boundless Pacific. On our way to the perch there was a spider in the wind and a fruiting cactus wedged in a crack of rock.
We’re getting into the swing of our normal routine. I’ve returned to Spanish classes and yoga. Burt has been out surfing. We’ve played Bridge. Team Mittelstadt tied for first place yesterday. My dad will be here in about 10 days. Tennis will resume then or sooner. We’re meeting with the neighborhood kids in a week for the first class of the season. Tomorrow we’re off on a birding expedition with the UABCS (Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur) ornithology students.
Tomorrow we’ll have been here our first full week. The big chores are almost done. Burt’s got the shade up all around the gNash and I think it’s the most effective and attractive job to date. The bodega is organized. The truck is empty. Our gang of kids were on us from day one for something to do. I met their harassment with my Grandma’s old trick, “If your bored you can help me clean.” Three kiddos showed up and took broom and rags in hand. They were competent sweepers and dusters and they provided me with entertainment so we got a big ugly job done together. I paid them each 20p for an hour of work. Yay, Big Grandma!
Ants moved in to the trailer withing 24 hours of our arrival. This invasion was colonization. I can tolerate an ant here or there. I really hate killing them with the whole bug crisis in the natural world going on but my home in MY home. Internet searching suggested Splenda or Borax. Splenda is easier to find so I went that route after a furious several hours emptying and cleaning all our cabinetry. Splenda and/or the cleaning reduced the overall numbers but there were still ants in bed and on the computer screen at night. That’s too many. Mayra had some Borax so she gave me a bit and today I sprinkled that in key ant locations. I mixed the Borax with real sugar. The ants take both home and feed the Queen. Internet lore says once the Queen dies the colony dies. We shall see.
In other news it was back to birding. Next week we plan to camp with the university group on a field trip in the mountains. This summer I won a grant from Optics for the Tropics on behalf of the Baja California Sur University birding program. The Optics for the Tropics folks gave us 10 pairs of binoculars for the program’s public education activities. Last week I delivered them to Emer Garcia, the program director. It was a relief to get them out of here. I was worried about a customs inspection finding them. I was worried about getting robbed. And they took up a lot of space in my closet. They are not my problem now and they will be a big help for the work we are doing promoting birding with the kids of the area.
Lastly, I played Bridge with the Bridge Beauties yesterday. And I fell down onto a concrete floor from about a 20″ drop. I landed right on the top knob on the thigh. Broken hip country. Here’s to having a well padded ass! The fall knocked the stuffing out of me but nothing broke. The ladies came a running and I was so embarrassed to have interrupted the play. What a faux pas. After a long time on the ground I got up and went back to the game. Janna and I won. Nothing like pain to focus the mind. That evening I was overcome with anxiety as the adrenaline dissipated. It felt like a near death experience. I’ve had some really big falls but this was the scariest. Today I feel like I was in a car accident. I ache everywhere but my femur and hip are fully functioning.
There you have it. All the news that’s fit to print.
Thanksgiving is tomorrow and Burt and I are at Portrero County Park just this side of the Mexican border. Tomorrow we will cross at Tecate and start the clock on the bureaucratic process of securing our temporary resident visas. We will need some patience and determination to see the process through, I think. The internet is rife with rumors of how to do it and they all vary. We either have two week or a month to see immigration authorities in La Paz. After that it could be done that day or it might take as many as three more visits. It all depends. Some say we’ll need a lawyer. Others say it’s easy. Only the Shadow knows.
Meanwhile we finally made it to Jack’s house where we spent three days cooking food and playing cards. Stella is and all her associated boating equipment is stored under Jack’s porch. The California fires were on all our minds. Jack lives on the end of a dead end road crowded with trees, brush, sheds, and wood piles. The homes are tight. This isn’t your 5 acre ranchette style community. It’s a subdivision in the woods. I don’t think a single home has heard of the Fire Wise standards that minimize the home ignition zone. Trees hang over all the houses and stacked wood is stored against foundations. One neighbor has a brush pile ten feet in diameter. It looks like he’s planning a bonfire. There’s hardly a metal roof in the neighborhood. So as the fires burned north and south of us and the numbers of dead and missing climbed I sat there and wondered if we could get out in a similar situation. It seemed unlikely.
I asked Burt if we had a plan to drag Jack out if there was a fire. Jack is a former LA county fireman and despite the fact that he turns 90 in January I believe he would rather stay and face the fire with his house than flee. Burt and I agreed to pick him up and haul him out without giving him the time to think it over. Since Jack is very thin and a bit rickety we could just shove him in the truck and run. Burt also agreed to leave Jack if he somehow proved more than we could handle. He’s a wiley one, that Jack. But that seems impossible to contemplate. Maybe if we stole his dog he’d follow us willingly. A little carrot and stick.
Burt and I have driven two-thirds the length of California these last two weeks and she’s a barren land of over grazed fields and smokey skies right now. Everything is as dry as we’ve seen it. My eyes have itched and sinuses ached. I fear we are only in for more of this. The new normal as they say. The urban interface will continue to burn. Towns like Paradise are all over the Sierra and they are full of lots of people of limited means living like Jack and his neighbors. They are cheek to jowl in poorly built homes at the end of shoddy dead end roads. There isn’t a fire hydrant for miles. Even if they wanted to clean up the ignition zone around their homes many of them are no longer physically or financially able to do the work.
The Gypsy Carpenters drove north up the Owens Valley of California on our way to Jack’s house. Burt had a an idea or two about where we might stop. We headed off the beaten trail and found ourselves late in the afternoon at a place with no room for our rig. Benton Hot Springs is a fine looking hot spring getaway. It’s developed but you get your own tub at your campsite. If you can pull in. We couldn’t. You’d think that would be in the guide book but it wasn’t so let me say it here. RVs do not fit at Benson Hot Springs.
So there we were on thin ribbon of road at 8000′ in the Sierras. Four years ago at this exact time of year we were trapped in the Sierras by a fall snow storm. We drove through the gathering dusk and finally landed at a pull out near Mono Mill just above Mono Lake near Lee Vining, California. My last bit of internet said we could expect 13 degrees F that night. Uffdah. No snow on the horizon but that’s some serious cold. Our new Mr. Heater and CO2 monitor were put to work. .It was an uncomfortable night but everyone and our pipes survived.
In the morning we visited Mono Lake. I had not stopped to visit Mono Lake since a 1985 visit to Yosemite. Burt, California native, had never stopped. So we each wandered our own way for an hour. Burt and I habitually walk apart but within sight of each other. I think we see more stuff that way. It’s quieter and we cover more ground. I found a hot spring. Bathing is forbidden at the Navy Beach hot spring so it was perfect. No pressure for me to get in. I also found a salt covered dead bird that looked as though it died mid under arm preening.
The Mono Lake visitor center was already closed for the season so we did not get to learn much about the area. Mono is pronounced Moh-no. It’s famous for its tufa outcrops which I mistakenly thought were pillars of salt. These white piles are actually stone deposits from thousands of years ago. The tufa pillars were formed when the water was much deeper way back when. In the big scheme Mona Lake’s water is very low now but recently it was much lower. Most of the incoming water was diverted for the coastal cities but in the 70s they realized birds really needed Mono Lake and they started putting the water back in. The current surface is about 40′ lower than before they started diverting but much higher than its lowest amount.
We did not spend much time. We were within a few hours of Jack’s house and we wanted to arrive before dark. There was one more hot spring between us and him. We went. It had no room for RVs unless we paid for a campsite. This place had private showers and a public soaking pool but we did not want a camp site. Burt famously said, “Are you sure you don’t want a shower?” I famously said, “No, I’ll take one at your dad’s.” So we ate lunch on teh side of the road and then continued on our way.
That afternoon we arrived at Jack’s with an hour of sunlight to spare. We were only 2 days later than we expected and earlier than we’d planned when we got off the Rio Grande. The eyeball emergency had given our schedule a big boost forward.