I recently have been exploring a tract of brushy land just below our pueblo’s rudimentary sewage treatment facility. Birds love flies and this overgrown thicket that receives the treated wastewater is full of them every morning after yoga. I haven’t yet remembered my binoculars so these expeditions are naked eye sightings. Even in my expired prescription lenses I routinely spot more than 15 species of birds in just a few minutes.
Today I wandered deeper into the thicket than usual. Burt’s out of town for the morning so my time was my own. I followed some trails and tried to figure out if there was any standing water. Last week there was a massive leak of raw sewage and I was also looking to see how far that toxic muck had reached. As I drew deeper into the thorny shrubbery I thought, ‘if I hurt myself I hope somebody knows to contact ebird and find out where I am.’ My eBird app tracks where I walk (if I ask it) and allows scientist to see more clearly where observers are finding birds.
The blue line in this photo is my ebird track from this morning. Today is Friday the 13th. The red star is where I turned around and found a man with a machete and pit bull following me. I’m not sure who was most frightened, the man or the dog. No, it was me. I had no idea they were there. Jason was in the Baja and eBird was not going to help. But then I saw the man had a strong family resemblance to a friend and decided I wasn’t going to be dismembered and left in the dried up sewage discharge lagoon after all. Jason wears a mask and this guy was clearly German’s brother. I bid him a good morning and got out of his way. He was there harvesting sticks of some sort. He probably made the trail I was following.
Yesterday Burt and I saw a new dentist and a new dermatologist. We needed regular checkups. Even though we are insured in the US it is cheaper and easier to schedule these things here in Mexico. On the downside teeth cleaning is not as rigorous or vigorous. If you read teeth cleaning research you might conclude it’s all overblown anyway. There are some scientists that say teeth cleaning (at least the frequency) is unproven as a preventative to gum disease. After poking around and spending about 15 minutes polishing my teeth the new dentist announce two of my crowns needed to be replaced. No x-rays, no inquiry about the history of these two crowns. I politely asked if I could wait until next season. We’re running low on time and cash and I wanted time to ask my dentist in the US if he thought it was time to replace them, too. At first the dentist was willing to wait. These crowns are 25 years old and have been a literal and figurative sore spot for most of those years. I work very diligently to keep the area free of food. My dentist (and several I’ve seen along the way) always took a wait and see approach. Many of the dentists and hygienists have commented that it’s the finest crown they’ve ever seen. Great crown in a bad situation. We got a quarter of a century with the wait and see attitude. I wanted time to consult and see if there were changes that dictated removal. I tried to make it clear that I didn’t doubt the dentist. We were speaking easily in English and Spanish. Sadly the dentist took umbrage. She became more rigid and tried to scare me when I reiterated that I would come back next season for her to take another look. I smiled, shrugged, and left.
Now I have to see another dentist. I’m going to make an appointment in the US with the clinic that installed this masterpiece of dentition. Maybe it is time. Maybe the dentist saw some scary changes. Too bad she felt the need to try and coerce me with fear rather than explain and listen. This could have happened anywhere.
Burt and I both loved the dermatologist. She took a lit magnifying glass to every dark spot on my skin. It was a long process. She declared them all fine for now. Then she suggested a minor tune up of my face. For $5 a piece she removed three funny skin changes on my face (clogged glands). Afterwards she declared Burt has perfect skin despite his utter failure to apply sunscreen. This could only happen in Mexico. We’ll be seeing her next year.
In between the dentist and the dermatologist we visited Baja California Sur’s second most prolific bird spot: The La Paz sewage treatment lagoons. Burt and I have a running joke about all the shit holes he takes me to visit. Usually they are fun places but ugly. I finally beat him at his own game. I took him to an actual shit hole. We saw many amazing birds including four new species. If we’d had time to sit we’d have seen even more. There were scads little birds flitting in the green bushes that we couldn’t quite get an eyeball on. We’ll be back here, too.
Laura and I have been walking the same loop every morning. Some days we walk clockwise and other days we walk counterclockwise. Today we were late. It was day seven of our 3.6 mile loop through oak savanna and vineyards. I was tired. The boys were going, too, and they are louder and faster. I let them go ahead and slept a few more minutes and then Laura and I went without them at 10:00 instead of 8:00. Was I tired or avoiding the men? Probably both.
Each day our vision grows keener. We see more birds and can pick out the different ones more easily. Yesterday I discovered a new species for me, the California thrasher. I love a thrasher. They carry big bills and aren’t afraid to use them. Today I spotted a gaudy Townsends warbler in a mixed flock of mostly chestnut backed chickadees, titmice, and dark eyed juncos. The Townsends was a bird I’d seen once before in Montana and the chickadees turned out to be a new bird. The chestnut backed variety has a limited range and where we are now is one of the places it does not overlap with the black capped chickadee so score a new bird while completely unawares.
The boys are hard at work turning this spread into Barry and Laura’s home. I am unemployed. Barry has supplanted me as walking companion and assistant carpenter. He does not play Bridge. Yet. Today the boys told me they are going to pour a concrete slab. I responded with, “Did you know that concrete production accounts for 5% of all global CO2 emissions?” Yes. A shocking figure. Concrete, my beloved building material, foundation of civilized life, is a major producer of green house gases. It pains me to think it but knowledge is power and we need to look head on and decide how to adjust. Here are some other figures: Electricity production is 29% (if you think your plug in car is helping, think again), transportation (trains, planes, automobiles) 27%, Industry 21%, agriculture 9%. I’m not sure if the agriculture number includes production only or both production and transportation to market.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed and think it’s hopeless. But then look at the room for small steps each of us can take to reduce these numbers. Share a ride. Walk to work once a week (live on the job site like we do?). Cut down on meat. Buy locally. You’ll be healthier and the gas savings is always nice on the budget. Try a solar oven. We love ours.
Last week we took a walk out the Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco. They have a display there that viscerally depicts where sea level will be in the next 80 years. Since 1880 sea level has risen 8″. It is predicted to rise an additional 1′ to 4′ in the lifetime of a child born today. The bridge above will be completely submerged. Do we build a bigger bridge?
The walking is great here from Chez Gopher. Laura and I have a daily 3.6 mile loop we do every morning at 8 AM. It’s an effective addition to my Galapagos training program. Waking up on a schedule is as important as the exercise. Today the weather was noticeably cooler and there were overcast skies. I wore long pants and a long sleeved shirt for the first time since arriving here. Laura wants to learn more about birding so I’ve been bringing my binoculars but until this morning there hadn’t been much to see. I don’t know why today was different. We had reversed our normal route so was it because we were headed downhill instead of uphill so it was easier to stop and look around? Was it the cloudy sky? The cooler temperatures. Is migration underway and so the birds are lfocking up, making them easier to see? Because we had reversed direction we arrived at the birdier area earlier, Were the birds more active earlier? It’s impossible to know the reasons why today but it is not impossible to know if we keep studying the area and doing the same loop over time. We can make a habit of observing the birds through the month, season, year in the same place at the same time of day and someday we might be able to reach some conclusions. This brings me to today’s climate change blurb.
Climate change fact of the day: Warming temps have changed bird behavior. Birders have kept meticulous records for long lengths of time over large geographic areas. This makes for great data. We can see discernible trends in the last thirty years. A quick summary:
Birds are nesting earlier, birds are migrating north earlier and heading south later, and some birds aren’t migrating at all anymore. Birds are arriving in habitat that no longer meets their survival needs. Birds are in trouble.
So today I taught Laura the basics. We saw or heard juncos, titmice, towhees, jays, doves, hawks, robins, turkeys, quail, crows, and more. There were a couple we couldn’t ID. So annoying but it is what keeps the brain firing on all cylinders. Accepting the mystery is good for the mind and soul. Even the most mundane of birds can tell us what is happening in the world around us. There is no need in being an expert. Learning and recording your regular neighbors over time will help us (and you) develop a deeper understanding and connection to the natural world. Join me in learning your local birds and recording data. Be part of a worldwide team. Visit ebird.org and submit your feathered friends to the census.
Time got away from me again. I ahead no idea it was over a week since I last put fingers to keyboard for a blog post. A week ago today Burt and I were out on our annual Global Big Day bird census. Every year birders around the world get out in the same day and take a snap shot of the birds. It’s a big deal. Burt and I submitted 11 checklists and covered about 40 miles, 6 of them on foot. Baja numbers were way down this year which is what it’s felt like all winter. Burt and I managed to see 41 species, down from 47 last year and far from my goal of 50. The results for Baja California Sur for 2017 were were 30% lower than the census after the Class 4 hurricane (Odile, 2015) and and barely half of what was seen last year. Now three years isn’t a trend and a lot depends on where our birders were able to go but it is still sobering. I conclude more attention is needed in this valuable and unique habitat.
Then Burt had his birthday. Say high to Social Security, Burt! Also up, he’s going to buy the $10 lifetime national park pass before that program goes the way of the Dodo. Not that I’m complaining about raising the pass to $85. $10 is a ridiculous small amount and can’t cover the cost of issuing the darn pass. But we’re going to get in there and get one anyway. Life on Social Security isn’t extravagant. Lucky for us we can still work.
Tuesday is our projected exit date from El Pescadero. Last week we rounded up the kids for one last class with us but it wasn’t really with us. The organization that brings the English teachers to town had a special event that coincided with class time so the kids got to do that instead. It was a science fair like party focused on how the body works. I saw some successful demos that were fun and instructional: Making a fake set of lungs with a plastic cup, straws, and balloons, and the electric stimulation of muscles, and the passage of food through the digestive tract. Building neurons with pipe cleaners, not such a hit. The kids were not really getting the neuron thing. On the upside they seem to like their pipe cleaner sculpture. I was sad we couldn’t have a special class to review all we’ve learned this season but the kids did like the workshop. Meanwhile English classes will continue with Yvonne and Ale. The kids will have to walk to get there. I hope they do.
Yesterday Burt and I went on the proverbial wild goose chase, or maybe it was a snipe hunt. A while back a ranch friend told me she had seen a new bird up at the cemetery of her remote village. She said it was a big blue bird with a crown. I took her report seriously. She is an older woman and has lived in the mountains her entire life. She lives off the land every day. I presume she knows her birds. I showed her some photos from iBird and she picked out a Stellar’s Jay. She was certain the Stellar’s Jay was now living near them. The Stellar’s Jay has never been reported in the Baja so this was exciting news. If we hadn’t been visiting with my dad, Sara Gay, Jen, and Robin, we might have gone out right then to see if we could find the bird. Instead we drove home. As we passed the cemetery I wondered if the story was true.
This week Burt and I tried to figure out what to do with our last free days. I mentioned the report of the big blue bird with a crown. Chances are it was a false report. Even if it was an accurate report birds are hard to find. See the groove-billed ani story of a while back. We decided to give it a go. There’s also reports of a golden eagle flying around the mountains. Maybe we’d see that. So instead of lounging around home and maybe paying some tunes or going for a swim we all piled into the Exploder for a head banging, hip and back aching two hour ride up into the mountains. Short story: no Stellar’s Jay or golden eagle. We did see a lot of nice birds. Several that weren’t on our Global Big Day list. The red-trailed hawks were everywhere. There were some Cassin’s vireos and scrub-jays mercilessly attacking a red-tailed hawk in a tree. The heavy onslaught had rumpled feathers and possibly injured the bird. There was another RTH eating a lizard that must have been twice its length. The tail alone was as long as the bird. Lizards are shoved in head first and eaten whole. The bird kind of gags it all down inch by inch. I couldn’t help wonder what it felt like to go head first into the gullet to meet up with the gizzard full of grinding rocks while still alive, acid burning your tough lizard skin as nose meets the grinder. Bad day.
A good day birding but no new discoveries. Yet. And the lesson was, we should get up high for the census to get some birds nobody else saw.
I am wrapping up 48 hours of alone time. After Dad’s visits and a concert and a massive trip to the beach and Jen and Robin it was time. Burt and Jen and Robin went surfing and camping for two days. I was invited but I decided to stay home and do as little as possible. I welcomed the girls back to their music and English classes on Tuesday. I went to my Spanish lesson. I watched TV and I slept. I hardly even ate. Bread and butter. Some cheese.
The big event of my alone time was taking the Olvis to the beach and birding for a few hours alone. Spring migration has emptied our wild spots. While I saw a lot of individual birds, I counted only 13 species. For the same spot the numbers are down from nearly forty in February and more than twenty two weeks ago. Just like the ex-pats that winter here the birds have headed north to more temperate weather. I hear from friends on facebook that they are seeing my orioles, orange-crowned warblers and common yellowthroats at their feeders this week. It makes me happy sad. Soon we will be headed north, too, and maybe we’ll see some of our feathered friends.
Today Burt and Jen and Robin will return from tehir adventure just in time to help me take all our kids to a live performance in Todos Santos. Instead of class we are going to see a play about the ocean performed by kids just like them. My friend Rocío Maceda wrote and produced the play. She has come to many of our Gypsy Carpenter’s shows so I am delighted to bring a huge audience to her event. Speaking of the Gypsy Carpenters, here are some pics from our house concert. If you look carefully you can see my dad in the audience. House concerts are a great way to share live music. Thanks, Lorna and Donna for having us.
I boldly secured my first professional bird guiding job and immediately came to have second thoughts. Firstly, do I know what I am doing? General anxiety about competence plagues many people. Me? Not so much. I’m usually thinking we’ll figure it out somehow. YouTube videos and the internet can help with almost any scenario. Identifying birds in the field with clients watching is high pressure. This was worse than joining a band and standing on stage for two hours and not knowing a single song. My next major concern was the condition of our vehicle. The Exploder has a skin condition, electric windows that require manual assists and a second helper, passenger doors that don’t open from the inside, and the dirt was two years thick. Last week my dad surmised that dirt might be the only thing holding it together. Thirdly was the mystery of the persons behind the email. Would they be world class amateurs looking to expand their list? Would they be aggressive, fit, sparrow-chasing maniacs? Would they ask what every call meant? Did they want a deep biological interpretation of bird behavior? Were they uptight, unfit, vegans? Blind, deaf, and argumentative? Boring? Turning a hobby into a paying gig…People dream of this but I know it is fraught with problems. Number one is the clients.
I prepared by looking up some troubling species and considering the most interesting birds to see. Swifts, swallows, warblers, flycatchers are all difficult. The verdin, woodpeckers, and yellowthroats are flashy and fun. Many raptors have migrated so that makes it easier. Then there’s shore birds. My client expressed an interest in this area and I truthfully told him we don’t have many in our immediate area. I left out the I suck at them bit. I also went out and birded my local patches to see who was still here and where they were. The pre-trip excursions got my brain and eyes warmed up. They are also fun. I also gave myself pep talks. I imagined Peg and Rose Ann telling me I could do it. I chose not to actually call them because I didn’t want them to have to lie. I figured I could just pretend to have their unmitigated support. It worked.
Then I had my man get the car washed. He was soooooo nice about this. I popped it on him with little warning and he got it done without complaint. Maybe not asking for a clean car once in all my years of marriage netted this result. Mostly I think it was because Burt is usually a wonderful man and likes to see me succeed.
Burt was a bit surprised at my chuzpah. For years he’s been facetiously claiming to be a professional birder and here I was turning into one right before his eyes. At first I had no intention of asking him along but the day arrived and he was free and I knew it would be more fun for everyone with Burt on the team so I hired him. I was right.
At 7:30 yesterday we picked up our Canadian clients and headed out. Right away we knew we’d hit the jackpot with John and Aleitha. They came to Todos Santos from Yellow Knife, in the Northwest Territories. That’s some 30 hours of driving north of Montana. People from those extreme parts of the world are not phased by a shabby car with amenity problems. These particular people were funny and light hearted and very good natured. Our day began with a positive sign. On the highway to bird spot number one we saw a Cara-Cara. Life bird in prominent display. And a huge, charismatic carrion eater to boot. You can’t ask for a better start. Burt pulled a quick u-turn and assisted with the mega lens and I knew it was going to be okay.
We did the bird loop at Las Palmas and hit downtown Pescadero. We ate lunch. Split for a siesta. Laughed a lot. The clients asked us how many trips we did a week. Burt was evasive. I presumed they meant personal trips so I said 2 or 3. Later I realized I might of accidentally lied. Or was it on purpose? The brain and my intentions are mysterious. We regrouped at 5. Birded the dam. Uh oh. Shorebirds. Swallows. A freaking vireo. Things got sorted out with the help of iBirdPro. Darkness came. We called in a handful of elf owls. They even flew near us. If we’d had a flashlight we might have seen them. We always have a solar powered flashlight in our car but guess what? Cleaning the car has its downsides. The flashlight was still on the kitchen table. We forgot to return it to the car.
At our 9:30 PM pizza dinner in a mood of post-birding delight I confessed (after being handed a baggy of bills) to our new friends that they were my first paying clients. John and Aleitha were surprised and delighted. Aleitha even said she was honored. Can you get any luckier than this?
I learned a couple of things. A laser pointer would be nice to have. A flashlight, duh. Some snacks are good. And I do know enough about the birds here to lead a productive and pleasant tour. I am no bird expert but I know my patch. And we made two new friends. And life is always better with Burt.
Swamp water and mud has a mighty aroma. Smells like love to a dog. Yesterday we took the dogs to Playa Las Palmas and did a bird stroll. I’m prepping to take out a pair of paying clients next week so I thought I’d tour the local bird hot spots and see what I could see. Most of the water is gone from our local oasis and a bunch of deep dark mud remains. Olive and Elvis plunged into the reeds and found some fetid, foul water and happy danced among the green. Swampy water reminds me of the back of a forgotten gym locker or a particular closet in my grandma’s house. Stale, anaerobic, moist, decay. The decay turned out to be actual rather than imaginary when Olive dug up the skull of a raccoon from her wallow. Mmmmmmm, good!
From the swamp we headed to the beach. My dogs took off at a run and left me trying to decided if I was seeing Common or Belding’s Yellowthroats. I counted 8 house finches and decided it was a Common Yellowthroat. When I finally looked up to find the dogs I saw them about 100 yards away rolling in a dead sea lion. Great Googly Woogly. This was a banner day to be a dog. Not such a great day to be a canine companion. Sara Gay and dad had mentioned seeing this poor dreature the day before and I had forgotten. My poor excuse for a nose could not detect the rotting flesh but it was obvious the dogs smelled it from a long way back. I saw the dogs see me and hear me and they got in one last roll when they decided I was too far away to exact a punishment. As I approached they ran off and kept a safe distance from me. They knew the fun was over. I looked over the carcass and decided it was too disgusting to snatch the skull. The smell was overwhelming up close. The turkey vultures hovered nearby waiting to get back to their feast. I remembered reading vultures don’t like putrefaction and pondered how far along flesh can be before it is too gross for a TuVu. Maybe a sea lion is just too tasty to pass by even with maggots.
Last night I woke up feeling so awful I thought maybe it was the end. The kind of dread filled awful that fills a person when the blankets hurt to touch your skin, joints were burning, the body was hot and then cold. I thrashed and could not sleep. Burt and I had a big day planned and there I was with hands too painful to move and a gut that seemed paralyzed.
My Dad arrives this Tuesday. We picked today (Thursday) as our day to head to Cabo San Lucas and pick up comfort foods for him at Coscto. Potato chips, peanuts, chocolate, wine, parmesan cheese. Things that will help ease his transition into our rustic life in Pescadero Heights. To entice us to make the run Burt decided to load up our Sea King rowboat onto the truck and we’d float out on the San Jose estuary and do so killer birding before we went shopping. All night long I obsessed about our plans falling apart. I Decided I would go no matter how bad I felt. And that is what I did. I figured I could lie in the boat while boat rowed us around. I pondered the inevitability of my gut starting to move again and figured I might have to explode from one end or the other over the gunnels of the vessel. Burt could handle it.
We made it to the Laguna San Juan in record time thanks to the newish toll roads by-passing all of the Cabo hotels and urban areas. At 8:30 we pulled into the lagoon parking and re-read the signs that we just then remembered telling us no boats are allowed on the lagoon. Oops. Funny how we both remembered we knew this fact just as we were reading signs reminding us of the fact. So here I was on an adventure that now required self locomotion. I gathered my wits and slowly trudged about. We checked out the new birding platforms. Be forewarned the steps were designed to give a degree of excitement not typically found while bird watching. The predicted gut explosion came right after I exited the scary bird tower and just as 40 some school children headed our way. Lovely timing body. Thus relieved I suggested we drive to another spot and see what we could see. Time to get some distance between me and my scat.
At the new area just a 100′ away from the previous area (water in between) we got the best look yet at the endangered and endemic Belding’s Yellowthroat. I captured a picture for my eBird records. Soon it was time to address our shopping chores. I gathered my strength and resisted the wheel chair cart at Costco. No actual parmesan cheese was found so we bought the green canned cheese-stuff to tide us over. Dad can have the remaining imported Parmesan and Burt and I will eat the salty, white, sawdust. My legs gave out for Soriana’s and Home Depot. We made it home with an hour and a half to rest before music class. Five new species were added to our Mexico list.
So here are the possible causes of my -lips-hurt-so-much-I-can’t- talk disease: Too much pickleball yesterday? Sunburn? I even tried to convince Burt I must have an invisible sunburn because my skin hurts so intensely. Dengue fever? Food-born illness? I looked up Dengue Fever and I really hope I don’t have it. They call it bone break fever because of the debilitating body pain. Let’s all hope this is just a little food borne illness or too much pickleball.
We heard through e-bird a group of groove-billed anis were spotted in the La Ribera area about a week ago and thought we’d go take a look. La Ribera is about 30 miles away if you could fly over the mountains. It takes two and a half or more hours to drive there because you have to drive around the peninsula. There is no usable road through the corrugated Sierra de la Laguna Mountains. There is a dirt track that some consider driveable but it takes 4 times as much time and an infinite amount more in discomfort. Yesterday after Spanish class, Burt and I and the Olvis hit the pavement. It was an easy afternoon drive.
We found the spot using GPS and it was a nearly empty beach with a small lagoon and a palm oasis. It was great diverse edge to edge micro-habitats. The birding was exciting and netted us a bunch of new species for our Mexico list but we did not see the ani. Anis are described as large black birds of a disheveled appearance. Their wings droop and their feathers are ruffled. Their beaks are very heavy and distinct. Hard to miss a messy giant black bird but four birds in miles of scrub have a lot of cover. They did not come out to the water’s edge while we were looking. Maybe they’ll fly over and visit us.
It was good to go wander a bit. Camping can be an effective cure for hitch itch. The need to wander is abated by sleeping on the ground, missing showers, and eating cold food. But sometimes hitch itch is inflamed by seeing beautiful new spots and doing fun activities. I think I came out about the same as I went in.