Sunday morning walk with our neighborhood acrophobic was nearly cut short. Burt and I had forgotten our friend was afraid of high, cliffy spaces and nearly ruined his day. Burt and he turned around for a safe beach walk and I went up the hill with Olive. The TuVus came to say hello to us. Olive reeks of fetid mud so maybe they wanted to make sure we weren’t dead.I’m still a few checklists away from 15 with photos so I grabbed these shots for the eBird competition.
I think the birds are starting to talk to me. Yesterday a roadrunner met me in the exact same spot he met me last week. Yesterady, as I walked along the edge of a dry playa I pish pish pished to see who was in scrub. Pishing causes some birds to move about and lets you see where they are. A roadrunner leapt up and landed on a solitary cardon cactus and sang to me. There was a roardrunner on this very same cactus a week ago. I’d never heard a roadrunner speak before yesterday. Immediately I knew why the roadrunner is in the cuckoo family. We made a date for next Saturday.
I am continuing on with my attempts to win high end binoculars from eBird.org by entering their monthly birding challenges. In the name of citizen science eBird has a challenge every month and also for the. This year’s contest requires at least one complete bird list for every day of the year. I don’t have to bird every day but I have to submit at least 365 lists during the year. I am at well over 100 and it’s only March so that shouldn’t be a problem. There’s also a drawing for binoculars for people that complete every monthly challenge of the year. And there’s a pair of binoculars given away every month for the monthly contest. Last month’s contest was easy shmeezy. The contest was designed to get people birding and reporting to eBird so I had to share at least 15 checklists. Burt was my main companion and recipient of the shared checklists. Even with both of us completing the challenge we still did not win.
This month’s contest is a real pain. I have to submit at least 15 checklists with media attached. That means I have to include photos or sound recordings of the actual birds on that day’s list. Not all the birds but at least one from the list. No historic photos allowed. That day, that list. Since I usually bird by phone using the eBird app I considered just submitting a bunch of terrible phone shots of birds in shrubs and palm trees. You have to rate your photos so I would just rate them all poor. But then I started thinking it would be my kind of luck to win the drawing with a bunch of shoddy photos. How embarrassing would that be? Fuzzy photos of feathery blobs from too far away. I couldn’t do it. Instead I’m birding from bed. It’s a lot easier than heading out with phone, binoculars, and camera with telephoto lens.
Our feeding station is just outside our window. I can sit in bed and make a list and take some photos without breaking a sweat or dropping my tools. If I win I’m still going to be embarrassed but at least my pictures are pretty good quality. Today a turkey vulture (feeling sorry for me) flew by in the little triangle of sky I can see. The bird on bird action has been hot and heavy these last few days. Longer light and warmer weather have cued up the hormones of desire and the doves are jumping each other. They are so quick I can’t get a picture.That’s kind of embarrassing for them and me.
Yesterday I tried to buy bird food but our local tienda only had chicken scratch. It’s not very popular with the birds. They spend a lot of time kicking it out of the feeders looking for their favorite morsels. I could be in trouble.
So here’s a little something you might never have heard of, the oil bird. When I think oil bird I always think of oiled birds, those black creatures accidentally trapped in spilled oil. Happily, oil birds are not oiled birds though the origins of their name are just as grim. Oil birds are a nocturnal, fruit eating bird of South America. They are the only bird in their family. That means there are no other birds like the oil bird. These unique avians live together in large groups inside of caves or cave-like formations. The oil birds use echolocation and smell to find fruit in the dark. They can fly nearly 120 miles away from their cave each night in search of food.
Burt and I heard about the oil bird cave in Ecuador and despite it being an hour drive from where we were I told him we had to go. I knew just enough to know that you must pilgrimage to the oil bird roost. We’d never see one just wandering around. Their nocturnal lifestyle and jungle habitat make them very hard to see. Burt had never heard of this creature. I told him I’d spotted some posts about it from friends that had been to Trinidad and seen them there. So off we went to visit La Cueva de los Tayos.
If you google cueva de los tayos you’ll find a bunch of stories about a famous cave, aliens, astronauts, Native Americans, and expeditions. That’s a different cave. If I ever go there, I’ll share that story. Here”s ours.
We found the Cueve de los Tayos well signed on the side of the highway 45, northeast of Baeza. Already that morning we’d hiked to a waterfall in the rain and we were thoroughly wet. We pulled into the roadside parking area and found a pair of city visitors and a guide. Our guide advised us that we were about to embark on a steep, muddy walk with a thigh deep river crossing. We were going to get wet. I replied we were already wet so let’s go. Our guide did not lie. It was a steep and muddy descent into the upper elevations of the Amazonian jungle. As we carefully made our way down slippery stones and mushy logs I pondered my lack of knowledge on the Amazon. Here I was in the actual jungle, in the Amazon watershed for the first time in my life and I was completely uninformed. Were there army ants? poisonous frogs? venomous snakes? I felt a slight taste of panic rising. Would I return home covered in leeches? Tropical diseases I hadn’t prepared for began to run through my head. Yellow fever, cholera, malaria. Wow. This was a fun way to pass a hike where the biggest risk was probably breaking my ankle. I talked myself off the ledge and reasoned that we were still too high for any tropical nightmares. But were we?
Eventually we reached the river. Going down is hard work because the body is fighting gravity and trying to use it at the same time. It’s much easier to fall while trying to stay in balance. Climbing is easier mechanically but much harder on the cardiac and respiratory systems. I was concerned I would not be up to the up hill climb. I put all these worries aside and followed my guide across the river. The thigh deep water was only to our knees. Burt’s and my knees. The guide and our Ecuadoran companions were nearly hip deep in the flow. This was a serious mini-expedition. I asked the guide if there was an easier way in and he said no. If you want to see these birds you’ve got to suck it up and do the work.
We followed the river up stream just a few hundred more feet. The greenery covered walls of the canyon closed together over our heads and we entered the nave of a natural cathedral. This wasn’t an actual cave but a tight spot in the canyon where light couldn’t reach. It was more like a tunnel. Light peaked in from the far side. Our guide urged us to keep quiet as we walked deeper into the darkened enclosure. Just over head a pair of big eyed birds gazed down. One at a time we each went in and stood. Birds called in a cat-like scream from all around and flew back and forth from shelf to shelf. It was magic. There was a lot of action and the birds were very loud. Nocturnal doesn’t mean they are all asleep all day long. They eat at night but they do other birdy things during the day. These birds seemed to be gossiping.
Eventually we turned back and made our way up and out. It was a nice slow pace and not difficult. I think it took about 30 minutes to go bottom to top. On our way up I asked about snakes and our guide said they aren’t found at that elevation. I can also report I contracted no tropical diseases and did not find any leeches.
Oil birds got their name because oil birds feed their chicks so much that they become super fat and eventually weigh more than the parent birds. These chicks were a rich source of food and easy to catch. These plump chickies were eaten and also boiled up for oil. Check out THIS funny write up on the oil bird.
Burt’s been battening down the hatches around here as we make ready to fly off to the Galapagos. Yesterday we made a run to our local dump. I went along because birding is always interesting and, well, it’s the dump. When I was young a run to the garbage heap of our area was an adventure. My brothers and I always wanted to take home enormous globs of glass we would find there. Bowling ball sized hunks of glass in shades of pale blue and green or clear. I still don’t know where that glass came from. When I moved to Montana in 1992 you could still prowl our local landfill for discarded treasures. Burt knows a guy that found a 150 year old Irish flute made of rosewood and silver. In the garbage. That all ended when the transfer station was built. I shudder to think of the many things I have discarded that I could put to use now.
The area dump is located between the towns of Pescadero and Todos Santos. The ‘relleno sanitario’ services ten thousand or so people and no industries. This is home garbage. Pretty regularly the place catches fire. I wish I knew why. In the US our dumps would burn regularly too, before strict regulations. In Montana we still fielded burning dump complaints after the turn of the millennium. Sometimes incompatible items spontaneously ignite. Other times heavy equipment throws a spark. Most often though people light them on fire under misguided ideas of fun or trash management. When this dump catches fire the wind almost always takes the noxious and unhealthy smoke towards populated areas. We live upwind. There’s a lot of yelling on social media on burning dump days. I’m sure I’d get up in arms if the smoke headed my way but it doesn’t so I don’t spend too much time wondering about it. I did that enough for a living.
Yesterday was two days after the dump burned and sent billowing smoke into Todos Santos. Burt and I figured the fire was out because we couldn’t see any smoke. On the drive in we passed a flock of over 100 lark sparrows with a bunch of butter butts and other warblers mixed in. Birds love the free garbage meals. It was so exciting Burt parked the car and we walked around counting birds. There are a few homestead places near the dump. These are places where people make a residence out of things they’ve gleaned from the garbage. Our walk took us to an abandoned camp where we found some high end goods. I made a thorough perusal of the camp to be certain we weren’t stealing instead of up-cycling. There was no sign of occupancy. No food, no clothes, no bedding, no water. Burt and I gleaned 4 chairs and a long and heavy workbench/saw horse from the place. It was a kind of high grading of the high grading experience.
After forty-five minutes of birding and scavenging we finally delivered our own garbage to the spot where you throw it out. During past visits to the dump we’ve been met by several men and a pack of dogs looking for tips and handouts. These men recycle and glean for a living. Yesterday there was only one guy and no dogs. There were scores of yellow-rumped warblers flitting about in the still smoldering ashes. I presume the fire drove off the usual residents and attracted the warblers. Even birds disagree on the treasure versus junk question.
Here are a couple of pictures from our hike to Puerto Viejo or Old Port. When this area produced commercial amounts of sugar cane the shipments left via rowboat at this port. Large shipping vessels anchored off shore. There are bits of old infrastructure to admire such as the stone quay and dry set rock fences and roads and even the remnants of a turtle cannery but I am always blinded by the dramatic landscape. Here the last vestiges of the mountains crash into the sea. Sea lions blubber about on the rocks below while verdin, black throated sparrow, and a cactus wren sing courtship songs. Sometimes the wind carries the sea lion’s grunts and groan all the way up to our perch. The cardon cactii stand watch like lighthouses on cliff edges. The palo verde, nipped by the harsh salt wind, grows close to the ground with octopus like tentacles.
Traditionally visitors approached this area from the north but a recent hotel development has caused confusion (putting it mildly) and animosity about access. Guards and scary looking dogs patrol the area now and a massive amount of vital mangrove habitat was destroyed, threatening the endangered Belding’s Yellowthroat. Best to steer clear even if the road is open. We decided to see what the walk was like from the south and found it to be easy and rather more pleasant because we could avoid all views of the unsightly hotel and its environmental destruction. Yes, our heads are firmly in the sand. From where we parked and walked there was very little evidence of the massive development all around. The area remains a very wild pocket, one of the last, between Todos Santos and Cabo San Lucas. Scat all around and game trails onto sheer cliff faces indicated coyotes and/or bobcats make regular excursions into the deep canyons. I hope the area stays protected.
Recently I took my rings in to a guy to be resized. Abel works in an 8′ by 8′ space behind a rack of shoes in Todos Santos. I showed him my rings and asked if he could resize them. He wondered why since they appeared to fit fine and I explained that when I exercise my fingers swell and recently they were swelling so much the rings hurt my hands. I was worried he wouldn’t be able to resize them because one is white gold and the other is palladium but it was easy. Right then and there he put them on a thingy and beat them with a hammer. Beat, check, beat, check. Twenty minutes later they were cleaned polished and just a little but bigger. Thank you, Abel.
Yesterday was warm and sunny and the whole fam-dam-ily took a road trip up to the remote ranchos in the mountains to look for pottery. Dad and friend in one car and Burt, Jen, and Robin in another. I bounced back and forth. I’m not sure dad enjoyed himself. He seemed a little subdued. It might have been an upset stomach or just the really rough roads through very remote desert.
Our first stop was to see Ramona. At 70 Ramona doesn’t produce much these days but her pieces are more whimsical than other local artists. There are pigs, cows, turtles, chickens and other local species transformed into jars and bowls and serving vessels. She explained to us that she was hoping for a new oven because her current one was too big for her to fill these days. She wanted to be able to fire smaller loads. Ramona uses pitaya cactus wood as her main fuel. It doesn’t take much time to form a simple cup but the finishing takes a lot of rubbing with a smooth stone over many days. She does a little bit every day until the piece is smooth and dried just right for firing. If she does too much work one day the piece will dry too quickly and crack. Ramona learned how to do this from her great-grandmother.
Next we went to the locally famous guy’s house but he wasn’t home. Marcos makes bigger and more finely crafted casseroles and bowls. You can drop a substantial amount of pesos at his house. I figured it was our lucky day to not be tempted. Our last visit was to our friends at the end of the road. We don’t even know their names but they call us friend and we’ve been many times. The main man in the photo below has never smiled for us. Until now. The ladies were all unpacking a bunch of cups and bowls for us to look over and I wondered why the man of the house wasn’t showing us his wares. This guy embodies strong, silent type. I knew he wove lariats and riatas and horse accoutrements. Last year I bought a key chain from him. The hand of the car I call it. So this year I gathered my gumption and asked him, “And where is your work?” I got a flicker of a smile for remembering. He quickly tried to conceal it and he headed off to get his stuff for me. This year I bought a bull’s head made of pig teeth. He makes this stuff to sell down in Cabo San Lucas.
The women asked how our walk (recall the death march to Titi Mountain?) went earlier in the spring. I told them how far we made it and that we were looking for birds. I always say we are scientists studying birds because it’s easier to understand. This brought a piece or unsolicited news. The older woman and the youngest kids had seen a new bird in the area. A blue bird with a crest. I showed a picture of the very common California Scrub Jay and they said, “Noooo, not that one. That one doesn’t have a crest.” I searched for jays on my phone app and found a mainland bird, the Stellar’s Jay, dark blue with a prominent crest. I showed them this picture and they said, “Yes, that one has been here for a couple of years. It’s new here.” Hmmmmm. We could be real scientists after all on the brink of a new discovery. I have no doubt they know what they see. These people are living straight off the land. They pay attention. Burt and I hope to head back up in a few weeks and see for ourselves.
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.
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.
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.
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.