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.
Burt pulled out the map and said, “There’s gotta be an easier place to hike in the mountains.” Well we got lost but found what he was looking for anyway. Burt’s original goal was the end of the road about 8 miles south of where we landed but we can’t complain. Rancho Santo Domingo is at the end of a different road and on a trail head into the Sierra de la Laguna. Chito is the current occupant and resident guide. He sent us on our way and we did a short exploratory walk. His dog, I called it bones, followed us. Bones’s love for Olive was unrequited. I guess she prefers men with more meat on their frame. Up the hill from the very old and well shaded ranch house we found a mature orchard with ripe toronjas (grapefruits) and flowering mango trees. The trail followed the arroyo up into the mountains. Birds were sparse because of the heat but this water hole was fantastic.
We turned back early. I am still tired from Sunday’s expedition and we had a music date with Tom. We can visit this place again when we have more time and energy. On our way back down Burt spotted the Cape Robin! I missed it but I can trust Burt knows a robin when he sees one.
Burt’s finally had enough of our annual slog on the skirts of Titi Mountain. I think. We’ve made an annual trek up there every year for the last four year. This year I cried. Between losing the way, the heat, hunger, and the darn beta-blockers I had my work cut out for me. I knew I would be miserable on an uphill hike through the thorn forest and I tried to take it like a big person but the first 40 minutes were really discouraging. I almost quit.
The start of this marathon is a very poor ranch deep in the desert at the edge of an arroyo. In the past the house has been vacant but this year the owners were there with their three skeletal dogs. The burro that rubbed his head on our car all night long last year was not seen. The owners speak a version of Baja Spanish that I find impenetrable. We exchanged pleasantries where every other word was Mande? or Como? What? Hi? What? How are you? Say that again? Great? You? What? Painful. Then the man says, “You play violin.” I heard that. We played music once here 4 years ago and everyone within 10 square miles remembers. Does this make us famous. In a word, yes. At the time it seemed like we were torturing them. Maybe we were. Today he seemed to remember it fondly. He asked if I had brought my violin and seemed disappointed when I said no. Maybe he was just being polite.
This route is located in a spot our friends the deer hunters showed us four years ago. Angel and Ramon agreed to let us tag along while they hunted. That day we covered twice as much ground in the same amount of time. We were faster then but we also had a guide dragging us over and under and through vegetation. On our own we wallow a bit trying to figure out where to go. The area is very wild but also heavily grazed by cattle. There are microtrails everywhere created by cows stomping their way to every green shoot or puddle of water. Cows make trails that are too short for the average gringo. Tree limbs, vines and cactus hang about at the four foot level. Constantly we find ourselves trying to decide if we should climb over a log, pass under that nasty vine, or through the chest high weeds. All this obstacle course like maneuvering while headed uphill. It’s not an enjoyable walk; it is more like an expedition. About an hour in there is a native palm oasis. Things get more enjoyable there.
The thing that keeps us going, besides the annual grudge match, is that we hope to find some of Baja’s endemic birds that live at the higher elevations. Today we had our eyes and ears peeled for the cape robin, the Baird’s junco, and the isolated population of acorn woodpeckers. All of these birds are subspecies of birds found elsewhere but the ones here in Baja have been left isolated by the ocean and the desert. They don’t migrate. They all look slightly different from tehir more mobile colleagues.
At 2:30 and after 4 hours of trudging with ample and lengthy breaks we turned for home. My phone said we’d walked 3 miles. I believe it was closer to 2 but it felt more like 5. So three is a nice compromise. At the turnaround point we had not seen any of our birds. We did find a nice persimmon tree on the edge of the palm oasis and it was full of butter butts (yellow rumped warblers) and orange crowned warblers. The fruit tree is a relic of the sugar processing days. At the ridge there was a sugar cane processing plant. Local people hiked 6 miles every day to work it back in the late 1800s. The workers planted fruit trees on their route. On our way back down, just before the persimmons, Burt spotted a woodpecker. I got my binoculars on it just as it flew and I was 90% certain it was our clown faced acorn woodpecker. Then Burt spotted another one and this next one held still and we both confirmed it was the bird we were looking for. Yippee. All tears were worth it.
Recently a friend/neighbor put out an all points bulletin requesting help processing chiles to make his notorious ‘black gold’. Generally I can ignore calls for kitchen help but Jessie is a well regarded cook around here and I love chiles so I volunteered. I’m spelling chilies the Spanish way. I had no idea what this ‘black gold’ might be but I was game. I informed Burt and he agreed to participate as well.
The day arrived warm and sunny. Our host/jefe had purchased some 100 pounds of chiles, half serrano and half jalapeño. He provided tools and protective gloves. I anticipated a team of choppers and seed cleaners but when I showed up at the appointed hour it was just me. Even our host wasn’t quite ready. I helped set the shade and clean some utensils. Then I set to chopping off the ends and slicing the chiles length-wise. If someone else showed up they could clean the seeds. Immediately I complained that I was hungry. Jessie was perplexed. I informed him that the host was required to fortify his team with food. Men can be so bad at these kinds of things but Jessie was amiable and he made me a cheese omelet and added a side of a previous batch of black gold. Meanwhile another processor showed: Mayra. Mayra is also a well regarded local chef. Her family originated in Cuba and she can cook anything. Mayra and I set about the task at hand. I chopped and she swept away the seeds with a custom made seed cleaner. Jessie invented the seed cleaning tool. He sharpened the curved end of a cotter pin and it fits into the half moon of chile pretty tidily. Soon Jessie served us a kick-ass omelet and the black gold salsa was so good it inspired further work. I had a stake in this now. If I cleaned enough peppers some of the black gold salsa would be mine. An hour or so later Burt showed up.
We three cleaned up the peppers and Jessie cooked batches of them in his cowboy wok. I don’t know what it was. Some auto part attached to a propane tank. The wok held about a gallon of cooking oil. Jessie poured a bucket of chiles into smoking hot oil and cooked the heck out of them. Cooked them until they were blackened shards of flavor. Every step of the processing was fraught with great risk of burns, both chemical and physical. Scrapping the seeds sprayed oils. Flying seeds landed in cleavage. Water glasses were too dangerous to use more than once. Nobody wanted to use the bathroom. We endured. It was a hot day all around.
So this salsa is kind of strange and wonderful. Basically it’s essence of burnt chile without too much heat. The intense deep frying burns away the volatile oils that cause damage to our mucous membranes leaving behind a charred flesh. If you, like me, enjoy the burnt bits best on your pizza or grilled cheese or roasted veggies, this salsa is for you. You can add a dab of burnt chile wherever you want it. After deep frying the chiles are drained and then pulverized in a powerful blender. Add some salt. Jessie then puts it in canning jars and cooks it at a boil for another 2 hours. I think that might be over the top but perhaps it adds to the alchemy. This processing greatly reduces the raw unprocessed volume. Gallons of raw whole chiles are required to make a quart of salsa. The result is a glistening black salsa the consistency and color of dirty motor oil.
After 3 hours of work our team had hardly dented the serrano chile bag. The jalapeños remained untouched. I inquired of Jessie about past amounts and past batches. Jessie informed me that a solo effort on 20 pounds had taken 9 hours. I sadly informed him that Industrial Engineering meant we had 45 hours of work ahead of us to finish the job. The three of us had done about 10 hours of work. Where was the rest of the team? Burt, Mayra, and I did not stick around to find out. I left after 4 hours. The last hour I just chatted. My hands and wrists and elbows hurt. No salsa, no matter how good, was worth tendonitis. Rumor was that two other workers showed up for an afternoon, cocktail hour shift.
For our burns and bodily aches we were rewarded with 5 pints of black gold salsa. It is heavenly on a grilled cheese sandwich.
Well, we are here. I can’t get any pictures to upload. The internet is too slow. I’ll keep trying. To answer Pat’s question, yes, I used my new phone for the photos in the previous post. The whale watching photos I am trying to upload were taken with my regular digital camera. The iPhone does not zoom well and since the whales were reported to be far away I brought my bigger lens.
Our transition into Pescadero is going smoothly. Since the yard was lovingly cleaned by our awesome gardeners, I focused on getting the gNash back to a livable state. Two months of winter weather and steady work had allowed for disastrously unhomey conditions to develop. There were so many layers of clothes and bedding and instruments that there was no room to clean. Think mold, dust, dampness, dog hair, detritus. Think smelly. Think hoarders living between piles of everything they own. Disgustingly smelly. I went after it with a broom, then mini-vac, and finally a vinegar soaked rag. It’s much shinier and fresh in here now. Life in a trailer is not for the faint of heart. On the upside there was no new sign of rodentia.
Today I had for main assignments: go to town and pay the property taxes, drop off laundry, change dollars to pesos, charge the internet stick. I managed to do them all, not in that order, and also schedule our first gig of the season. If you are a local and reading this, we’ll be at Mi Pueblito on February 12. These errands plus catch up sessions with Mayra and April took until 1 PM. I arrived home and applied my cleaning skills to the rumpus room and our bathroom. Burt has spent all his time getting the infrastructure functioning: water, electricity, storage. The beach might be doable tomorrow.
Here we and our fleas are back in the USA. First day here I was enjoying some basic pleasures I am denied in Mexico: drinking dark beer and doing my own laundry. Re-entry into the states also has a skin crawling tradition every year, the flea eradication program. Despite the application of all conventional and even some unconventional weaponry we cannot completely eliminate the fleas in Mexico. The fleas live all around and jump from dog to dog all day long. Olive’s brand of flea seems immune to all drops, dips, baths, sprays and mechanical devices. It’s not really that Olive has so many (which she does) it’s that she can’t stand the bite of a single flea and so chews herself raw unless we have complete control. Lucky for her we live in flea free zones in the US and we just have to kill the ones we have living in the gNash and on her and her companions. Another stroke of luck is that she doesn’t have allergic dermatitis (yet) but the lesser hypersensitivity to the bite. Elvis and Mimi are quite blase about their own populations of fleas. A little scratch here and there is all they do.
Every winter starts out with me faithfully applying flea repellant to the dogs and cat. Every winter it seems that the Advantix, Revolution, baths or combs or whatever else we try is working. And every winter a few months in the fleas start getting the upper hand. They find a nook to hide in or they evolve a resistance to the pesticide of choice. Or they just out number us. No amount of cleaning and laundry helps for more than a day or two. I think our sandy lot is harboring millions of fleas just waiting for a dog or cat to walk by. Around March I give up. I look at Olive and say, “Sorry, kid, you’re on your own.”
So we cross the border every April carrying a full load of gross and head to a laundromat and pet supply store and start over again. This year we’re using the new ‘miracle’ flea collars. For $41 plus tax each of our pets is sporting a new Seresto 8-month flea collar. All rugs and bedding have been washed on hot. New dog beds were purchased and the old beds sent to the landfill. I spent hours yesterday using a flea comb and mechanically removing the dead and dying fleas from their coats. I hope it’s enough. The only redeeming fact is that the fleas rarely come near me or Burt. They still prefer their natural hosts. In fact they probably are cat fleas and prefer cats. Combing Mimi revealed a greater density of fleas (despite less itching) than the dogs. I have this theory that the fleas are going to adapt to feeding on humans if we keep up the chemical assault. I hope I am wrong.
As for next year in Mexico I have some new ideas. First, I’m bringing down some beneficial nematodes to apply to our soil. These nematode-y things eat fleas and flea larva in soil. Second, I’m hoping the collars work as advertised. Third, no dogs in the trailer. Elvis has already volunteered to spend his nights outside so we just have to convince Olive it’s the place for her, too.
I have loyally and happily (mostly) attended Burt’s tournament tennis play for three years. I give pep talks and cheers. I analyze the opponents. I do a pretty good job of being wife and fan. This year’s tournament went pretty well for Burt but I lost my job as number one fan. This cutie pie on the left is Jasub, son of my Spanish teacher, and former music student of ours. One run of Go Burt, Go Burt, Go Burt! out of his five year old mouth and it was obvious I could not compete. Sadly despite the most vociferous cheering section Burt lost the game.
Tomorrow we hit the road. Sad to be going and happy that we are sad to be going is the mood around here. I’m glad we’re never feeling like it’s time to go. Mexico is our home and this year we made great progress towards a life of blended gringo and Mexican friends and activities. Plans are already brewing for next year’s projects.
The rumpus room and bodega are nearly sealed up. The gNash is cleaned and organized. This year we’ve hired some staff to keep watch on the place while we’re gone. It’s official, we have a gardener and family. For $50 a month he or his wife or father-in-law are going to water and check the property three time a month. That’s the plan anyway. You never know what will happen when the boss is away. Hurricanes and family disasters can ruin the most ambitious workers. I do know that our guy, German, is a nice young man with a nice family. We’ve helped them a lot and he and his wife, Vikki, are eager to help us if they can. Part of the plan is for them to weed and clear debris before our arrival next year to make settling in easier. I’m pretty optimistic we’ll be wondering why we hadn’t made arrangements like this in previous years.
We went to the beach. It was wet and sandy. The dogs chased clumps of sand and tennis balls. Burt swam. I took pictures. I’m not allowed in the water. I can blame menopause for more irritating things. Trust me you don’t want the details. Tomorrow I plan to go back in the water.
I had my last Spanish class today with Ivonne. We read a funny piece she had written about one of her first experiences in Baja. Just like English, Spanish is full of idoimatic expressions and these words and phrases vary depending on where you are. Ivonne grew up on the mainland of Mexico in Guanajuato. Choyeros (residents of southern Baja, so named because of the ever present cholla cactus) have a different way of speaking. And one might say they are a little more ‘red neck’ than citizens of the mainland. After this story you too might agree things are a little rough and tumble around here.
Over in Mexico (in Baja we call the mainland Mexico) you can buy a large bottle of beer. This large bottle of beer is about 2 1/2 regular beers. In Mexico they call it a caguama. A caguama is a sea turtle. In Baja they call the large bottle of beer a ballena or ‘whale.’ One fine day about six years ago Ivonne and her friends were picnicking on a remote beach in Baja when they realized they had forgotten the beer. Ivonne and a friend offered to drive off and find some beer. I think it might have been Ivonne who had forgotten to load the beer in the car. Six years ago roads around here were very rough and a five mile drive to the store could take an hour to get there and back but off they went.
After a short bit Ivonne saw two guys and a truck parked by the side of the road. They decided to stop and ask where they could by beer. After making the usual polite greetings Ivonne asked, “Where can I buy a caguama?” The guy looked funny and said, “A caguama?” “Sí, queremos dos o tres caguamas.” We want two or three turtles. The guy told her he’d call a friend and let her know. Ivonne thought it kind of weird that the guy didn’t know where to by beer, but okay. She watched the guy talk on his cell to a friend. The guy hung up and said I can get you two caguamas in about three hours. Now, Ivonne was wondering why would she wait three hours when she could drive to town and back in one. The guy was wondering why she thought she could get two turtles so quickly from some random guy on the side of the road. More words and no understanding. These turtles would come with their shells. Shells? What shells? Why do they have shells? Is that some Baja thing? They continued on in a “Who’s on first?” manner for a while. Eventually Ivonne asked how much the caguamas were going to cost. The answer shocked her. A caguama was $800 pesos or about $75 US. Now Ivonne realized something was really wrong and she asked him why she had to pay $800 pesos for a bottle of beer. The guy told her she asked for turtles and he was getting her turtles. “But we want beer!” Another phone call was made cancelling the turtle order and the men offered to sell Ivonne and her friend some beer they happened to have in a cooler. And Ivonne learned that a big bottle of beer was a whale and not a turtle.
Selling turtles is illegal in Mexico but apparently to little effect. According to our sources if you have the money you can dine on turtle soup any time you wish. I did not like learning this but the story was funny. It also is reassuring to remember that communication is difficult even when we think we are speaking the same language.
Happy Easter, everyone. The Easter bunny does not cross the border to deliver eggs and candy in Mexico. Easter here retains its strong ties to the traditions of Spain and the Roman Catholic Church. So there are bloody pageant plays in the streets and church services and family gatherings. But in Mexico it is also a time of massive family outings to the beach. Hordes of humanity flee their everyday life and pitch tents on beaches all over the country. Not much work gets done during Semana Santa.
In the Easter spirit I have posted a picture of the bird of peace. The common ground dove. This dove species makes daily excursions in our yard. The dogs ignore it entirely as it wanders around grazing on ants and seeds. The doves also ignore the dogs and amble quite closely to both Olive and Elvis. Meanwhile I cannot be in the yard at the same time as these birds. The doves do not tolerate humans. These pictures were taken from the gNash using a telephoto lens. So there’s peace on earth between doves and dogs but not between humans and doves. Smart doves.
The cactus flower shot was captured from ground level looking up at a 20′ high cardon. This was also with telephoto. That’s why there is a very shallow depth of field. These flowers attract bats and bugs and birds but the activity is hard to see because it’s far overhead. There is not actual flower in the picture here. There are buds about to open and flowers turning into the fruit. I’ve got my eyes peeled and my telephoto on and I hope to capture some blooms soon.