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.
They say you can get your kicks on Route 66. I did not know they meant literally. Every fall a gang of wild burros descend on the town of Oatman for free handouts. Tourists show up to oblige them. These burros are descendants of burros used by prospectors in days gone by. Burros are wild animals but they are not native and have, in not just my opinion, achieved a level of success that threatens the livelihood of nature’s local creatures. And they get free food in town just when supplies are disappearing in the desert. I came, I saw, I was disgusted. We did not get out of the truck. Passing by and peering out from the safety of the cab was enough for me.
I know I’m a party pooper. I love horses and burros and I wish they were not running amok in certain fragile ecosystems. I think they should be eradicated. Just like the audad in Texas. The desert creatures need their habitat. There are plenty of horses and burros in the world. I also don;t want to get kicked by an irritated mule in a traffic jam. Been there, done that, time to move on.
We finally got out of Tucson with plans to head north and see Burt’s dad Jack. Jack will be 90 this January. Our dog Elvis has caught up to Jack in relative age. They both limp and can’t hear so well but have their faculties. We try to handle both with care and respect. The leaving of Tucson was a bit drawn out because we had a leaky trailer tire and we could’t find a place that could fit us or fix us. Eventually we landed at a tire shop on the north end of town. I walked a nearby shopping center for most of the two hour wait. When we finally cut loose we headed to a place called Kaiser Canyon in search of another hot spring. We made it through rush hour Phoenix traffic and made it to a rest area just south of Wickenberg for the night.
Kaiser Canyon is northwest of Phoenix between there and Las Vegas. It has a nice campground and we were relieved to find it after the trials of the day before. We arrived early enough in the day to park and then head out on the hike and look for the hot spring. If you haven’t noticed, Burt’s been on a bit of a hot springs mania this fall. Our route to Jack had a bunch of promising spots to keep the drive entertaining. Kaiser Hot Springs was spot number one on the list of potentials.
While the hot spring was only mildly interesting it was not a slimy, gross, smelly, trashed spot. So I’ll give it a thumbs up even though I did not bother to go in. Burt suggested it might be a long time to my next shower and even then I didn’t bother. The water was luke warm and, after a breach of the walls by Elvis, shallow. I did not feel like wallowing in 18″ of tepid water. The sand was gritty and besides my heroic reconstruction efforts were the only thing keeping any water behind the walls so Burt could enjoy himself. I shoveled. He soaked.
I enjoyed the scenic hike and fun birds enough to be able to say the hike alone was worth the stop. There was a mine and some wild burro sign and hooded mergansers and a nice oasis. The water was attracting a lot of wildlife.
Early the next day we discovered our propane regulator had died. After ten years of service the regulator called it quits. We first noticed a problem the day before when the refrigerator was on FAIL. We hoped it was just because we hit a big bump in the road because it restarted without difficulty. The next day the fridge went down again and then the stove flame dropped to a flicker. The propane tanks were full so we deduced the regulator. Regulators are projected to last ten years and ours had read the rules and bailed as predicted. For the last couple of years we’ve been saying, “We should pick up a spare regulator.” Did we? No. So there we were without cooling or heating and hungry. It was a Sunday but I was able to google a RV repair shop open on Sunday in Kingman so off we went.
Cordova RV repair was out of town and when we pulled up it seemed like we might get shot easier than finding a repair guy. As I dialed the number Eric Cordova ran out and assured us we were in teh right place and he was happy to help. “I charge, you know,” he said to seal the deal. Well, I hope so. The weather had shifted towards winter and I stayed in the truck while Burt dealt with our hyper repair man. The dogs and I played with the internet and Burt supervised the regulator repair. The bill came to $91 for labor and materials. It was worth it but it was also another example that Burt and I need to diversify into RV repair. The regulator was easily replaced. I could have done it had I had the spare regulator we’d talked about for two years. The Gypsy RV Repair coming soon.
So here we were off the beaten track and more hours of winter daylight lost to repair. Our trek to Jack was slow to launch. Three days in and we hadn’t left Arizona. Instead of hitting the highway we took a back road over to see the wild burros of Oatman, Arizona. Route 66 you own us.
It seems a long time ago when we finished up our float down the Rio Grande. The four of us arrived at the Heath Canyon take-out across from the defunct mining town of La Linda two weeks ago. It was a very smooth trip full of unexpected delights and a generally relaxed ambiance. You can read about it in the posts below if you haven’t already. As soon as we landed things went a little south for me.
Recent flooding wiped out the road to the shore of the Rio Grande so you either hump your gear a quarter mile or you pay some dude an unspecified tip to carry gear to wear the van and trailer can park. At least that was the rumor. Everything on the Rio Grande was shrouded in an air of uncertainty.
We arrived at the take-out a day before the shuttle was due because desirable camp sites were scarce near the take-out and the shuttle company charged $75 an hour so we did not want to arrive late. Better to pack up the night before and enjoy the wait the next morning. As storm cloud formed on the horizon we deconstructed our water crafts and did the best we could to wash away excess mud. Hardened mud was everywhere. It was in the seams of Stells’s tubes, under the decking, mashed into the cam straps. If there was a hollow spot there was mud. We threw water with our bucket and used sponges found abandoned on the gravel. It was heavy work but satisfying. After nine days with no hope of being clean we were finally heading in the right direction.
As soon as Stella was cleaned my back went out. I was reaching for sponge to hand it to M. I’d felt twinges of irritation all week so it wasn’t a complete surprise but I had hoped to make it off the river and get a rest to avoid the drama. Suddenly I could not stand up. I was stuck bent over for about 10 minutes. The gravel and mud prevented a collapse to the ground. I just hung there in terrible pain. My legs began to quake as I tried to keep from causing more damage. Eventually I pushed myself upright. From that point on I was in the position of having to tell Burt what I wanted done instead of doing it myself. I hate ordering Burt around. He was receptive given the emergency but it was very awkward for me. Burt rolled up Stella and then moved everything to higher ground because the storm clouds concerned me that a flash flood might be headed our way. With the chore done I paced the beach and hoped for relief.
What should have been a lovely evening of storm watching was for me just a sort of fizzle out of a great trip. Pffft. We retired to bed. The next morning a team of characters met us and offered tehir services to shuttle our gear up to the road. Rumors of the tipped based intermediary shuttle turned out to be true. These dudes were at the end of the road in more ways than one. Wives had abandoned them because Walmart was too far away. They wondered if we hand any marijuana we could spare. They could not stop talking. Me, grateful for any excuse, said, “I need a walk” and I disappeared for an hour of road walking. I saw a coyote. My back was killing me but I adhere to the keep moving or die school of back care. I walked.
Without more than some hugs and a see you next year, we bid farewell to our companions. I had the Olvis in mind. I wanted a shower and my dogs. As I lay in the Van Horn, TX cheapo hotel bed post shower I noticed a really big cockroach running across my bed. Huh. There’s another one. I looked for the black bug. I even swatted at it. I felt like I was hallucinating. I kept seeing a bug run by behind my computer as I wrote. I got up and looked for it. I was very calm. That was when I realized to bug was following me everywhere I looked. It wasn’t a bug it was a really big floater in my field of vision. Hmmmm. Seems like a bad thing.
I googled sudden eye floater and read not to worry unless there were flashes of light. I mentioned it to Burt and decided not to worry. There were no flashes of light. If there were flashes of light the interwebz said get to a doctor ASAP. Flashes of light combined with a new floater might be a medical emergency. Twenty-four hours later we were doing laundry in Portal, AZ and trying to decide our agenda for the next few days. I lay in bed and noticed a flash of light. Oh, shit. We were three hours from medical attention. I immediately went into a panic attack. Burt called my doctor. He agreed it was an emergency. We called Portalites. We tried to decide how to best get medical care for an eye emergency on a weekend in a city where we have no eye doctor. After many plans and phone calls we decided to head to an emergency room the next morning in Tucson. Burt would get up early and pack everything and we’d head out as soon as possible. So that’s what we did. I spent a night watching the cockroach scurry as flashes of lightening lit him up. I wondered if I should try LSD. It might have made me feel better. Medical emergencies when you are a transient in a remote location don’t come with straightforward solutions. More later.