Global Big Day

Hiding roadrunner
Hiding roadrunner

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.

Sunsetting. Time for owls?
Sunsetting. Time for owls?
This year's sunflower. Creepy smile.
This year’s sunflower. Creepy smile.
Last class with us.
Last class with us.
remote controlled muscles.
remote controlled muscles.
Cemetery gate. Looking for the scrub jay.
Cemetery gate. Looking for the scrub jay.
Blue flowers
Blue flowers
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Time Alone

Our newest student
Our newest student

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.

The doo wop gals.
The doo wop gals.
Half the room
Half the room
This baby kept the business end my way.
This baby kept the business end my way. He lives at the beach where I regularly bird.
Getting ready for the show.
Getting ready for the show.
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Going Pro

Size matters
Size matters

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.

Don't do this.
Don’t do this.
Bald headed baby doll bird. Best sight of the day.
Bald headed baby doll bird. Best sight of the day.
Bi-pod Burt
Bi-pod Burt
Size can be a problem.
Size can be a problem.
La Presa Santa Ines
La Presa Santa Ines
Elf owling looks like this when you forget the flashlight.
Elf owling looks like this when you forget the flashlight.
Where's the flashlight?
Where’s the flashlight?
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Olive is disgusting

Olive in the smelly mud.
Olive in the smelly mud. The skull is just in front of her nose.

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.

You wanted Olive, come and get her.

Maggots: perfect rolling substrate after mud bath.
Maggots: perfect rolling substrate after mud bath.
Maggot home: sea lion carcass
Maggot home: sea lion carcass
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What is wrong with me?

Common Gallinule. Some crazy facial features on these birds.
Common Gallinule. Some crazy facial features on these birds.

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.

Belding's Yellowthroat
Belding’s Yellowthroat

 

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Mini-road Trip

Kingfisher
Kingfisher

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.

Spawning beds
Spawning beds
The lagoon
The lagoon
Sea of Cortez or Golfo de California
Sea of Cortez or Golfo de California
Spawning fish
Spawning fish
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Burrowing Owl

Santo Domingo hike
Santo Domingo hike. Salty and Elvis.

We went for a late afternoon walk in the hills with our Montana buddies Aldo and Bequia yesterday. Huge discovery of two burrowing owls on the road as we drove home. The owls were very patient and allowed us all a good look through the binoculars while Burt shined a flashlight. Burrowing owls live underground and prefer to stay close to the ground. They have long legs for walking. Here in baja this species is easy to identify because the other owls are either much bigger or much smaller or have long ears. The squatty head is also a clue to who it is. I played the iBird call but didn’t receive a response. I guess they weren’t fooled.

Burt heads into the mountains on a guided hike Wednesday AM. I’ll be holding down the fort around here alone. I just landed a paying gig as a backup singer so I’ll also be doing that while he’s gone. Side work is a good thing.

IMG_6485
Burrowing owl outside its burrow. Those long legs are for walking.
Bequia on the hike.
Bequia on the hike. That skinny dog at her feet lives on the rancho. He could use some more food but he’s in good health.
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In Summary

Sunset at Roc's place
Sunset at Roc’s place

On January 1st we had just arrived in Pescadero, Mexico and I was wondering if I would lose my mind to the ant invasion. A month later I am on the cusp of completing a thirty-one day marathon of writing every day. It’s a first in the seven year history of this blog. I didn’t see that coming. Recently I’ve felt like I had nothing to say. I just needed a little motivation and some fresh ideas. Many thanks to Zoë for her stupendous work pushing us along. A long time ago I thought I’d love to be a newspaper or magazine columnist. Celestine Sibley of the Atlanta papers reeled me in with her clarity and down to earth observations of a regular life. Her writing made the mundane spiritual. When I started this blog I thought of it as my chance to be my own columnist. I could write about whatever caught my fingers as Burt and I wandered the country working and playing. Over the years I wished I had some things Celestine had that I lack: an editor feeding me ideas and creating a deadline, a copy writer clearing up my grammatical challenges, a wider audience (for more ideas), and a salary. This writing project gave me a wider audience, a deadline, and new ideas. I didn’t see that coming.

Today’s assignment is to take stock of what we’ve accomplished. My first post of the year exhorted us to be nice. I believed we are going to need a lot of nice. I still believe it. But I also believe we are going to need some backbone and deep reflection on our core values. It’s a time of action. I hope you all are doing what you can to make your concerns heard. Know that I am.

This month we achieved transition into our Mexican lives. We are playing tennis, teaching music, losing and learning at bridge, studying Spanish, eating well, staying cool and warm, visiting friends, doing yoga and writing. We have lost some sleep over our health insurance. We have grave concerns about the choices we will have to make if we lose coverage. We are grateful we have choices we can make. We can stay in Mexico where health care is affordable. We can move to a state that has a good public health system. We can try to get jobs with health insurance that doesn’t exclude pre-existing conditions. We shall see. We shall stay vigilant and try to make a rational decision if the system changes.

Two nights ago Burt and I went birding. Our friend Roc had texted about a flock of dark birds roosting outside his home every night. A raucous bunch of dark things coming in just at dusk. Burt and I thought, let’s go and figure this out as if we could do something a perfectly capable guy like Roc couldn’t do. Ha! We arrived at 5:30. Roc owns an organic farm halfway between town and the beach. His home is nestled in some palms and carrizal. The birds like the thick, bambooish carrizal. Burt and I quietly sat in two different spots. Burt on the roof overlooking Roc’s fields and me on the steps with Capi, Roc’s assistant. Roc was texting for updates from Cabo. Capi assured me the birds come every night. WE sat still. A Xanthu’s, an oriole, a white-winged dove. Nothing more for 25 minutes. Quiet. Darkness falling. Slowly darkness descends but them suddenly it is too dark to see. Right at that moment the tiny birds started darting from I-don’t-know-where and landing in the hedge not ten feet away. They were loudly singing and chattering. I could imagine them saying, “How was your day?” “Meh, some seeds, some bugs…the usual.” We couldn’t see anything but small black silhouettes. I tried to find the call on iBird. I made a recording of their nightly debriefing and emailed it from the scene to two friends in Portal, Arizona.  I felt like a naturalist using my skills at observation and problem solving. We realized there was no hope of a visual spot. The birds all disappeared deep into the bushes. We went home.

I listened to my recording and compared it to the ones on my phone. I narrowed the bird down to a sparrow. It sort of made me feel better. I can hardly identify sparrows during the day. A night ID would be impossible. The next morning the word came back from Portal that indeed it was a flock of sparrows. White-crowned sparrows. Oddly, coincidentally, ironically? White-crowned sparrows are one of the few I can identify in sufficient light.

Here’s the obituary for Celestine Sibley. She had quite a career.

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Make a List

Bird List
Bird List

The writing project continues. Today’s assignment is to list writing goals, get juicy. I have juice to squeeze but no energy to confront it today. The list of hot topics is in my head. Safe. They’ve been verbalized but not written. I’ll leave those scary memories and feelings in the ether instead of memorialized. For now.
Here’s some other writing goals. I’d like to do more through and nuanced work on living as an ex-pat in Mexico. I’d like to do some more mini-naturalist/science stuff. I’d lie to write the freaking novel I have a first chapter for and nothing else. Perhaps it’s a short story. I’d like to create a bunch more bird lists.

Above is the list of birds from the pre-dawn excursion we took this morning. Burt, RR, Ed and I met a little after 6 AM and headed over to Las Palmas. It was chilly. We actually wished for gloves. We had, this is hard to believe, cold hands. The birds were so cold that we wondered why we got up so early. After the sun rose and the air warmed things picked up. It was a fun morning. Afterwards I played Bridge. I’m in bed at 5:30 with no plans to get up until tomorrow. Love.

Playing Bridge
Playing Bridge
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Pyrrhuloxia and Cardinals

Phyrruloxia and Cardinals mixing it up
Pyrrhuloxia and Cardinals mixing it up

Here’s a fun Christmas-y scene. Pretty red birds of two species mixing it up at a nearby feeder. On the far left with the orangey washed breast and orange bill is a female Cardinal. Next bird to the right in gray and red is a male Pyrrhuloxia. There’s a second male Pyrrhuloxia on the right of the feeder. The female Cardinal and the male Pyrrhuloxia can be hard to tell apart when they are on the move. Sandwiched between the two Pyrrhuloxias is a male Cardinal dressed in red head to toe. These two species are known to ‘mix it up’ and interbreed adding to the overall identification confusion.

Another bunch of birds that can be hard to tell apart are the many different Orioles. Orioles are part of the blackbird family. Most of them are dramatically painted with yellow. Lucky for us we had the inside poop and knew a Streak-backed Oriole was in town. The Streak-backed Oriole is very similar to the Baja homies known as Hooded Orioles. We could not have made this ID without the expert help of friends. Stumbling on this bird alone we would have thought it a Hooded Oriole. Now we know the difference. You have to look for the distinct stripes (streaking) on the back between the wings. There are more subtle difference, too, but I’ll never remember them. The Streak-backed Oriole only occasionally leave the mainland of Mexico to winter up here. While winter is a strange time to leave Mexico this solo wanderer has found bird heaven at the Rodriguez’s famous feeding station. It’s likely he won’t be leaving soon.

Streak-backed Oriole
Streak-backed Oriole
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