So Burt and I are getting into the swing of things. We’ve just plunged right in. Spanish, yoga, surfing, birding, kid’s classes, Bridge. Our schedules are packed full of fun and meaningful interactions so it’s not like we were looking for anything to do. The annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is coming is these next three weeks. Birders all over the world work together to get an annual census. There are rigorous scientific protocols everyone agrees to follow. These protocols have given us 118 years of priceless data on birds. Todos Santos has had its own CBC for only 3 years. We’ve got some catching up to do. I noticed last week that I did not know when our CBC was planned so I contacted the organizers. There were a few emails back and forth where in summary I politely informed them that the answers they were giving me did not follow Audubon’s protocols. They very kindly said, “Will you take over for us?” I said, “Yes.” That old adage of no good deed goes unpunished comes to mind.
Now I am a scrambling to learn the formalities of running a circle and finding enough birders to cover our area. Luckily we know a bunch of the best and so far they are eager to get this thing underway with the new management. And by best I mean waaay wayyyy better than us best. So buh-bye. I’ve got a lot of work to do.
Yesterday we thought we were going birding with a group of first year college students from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur and we did go birding but first Bon Jovi. I’m not a Bon Jovi fan but I am familiar with the band and it’s front man Jon Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi could be heard everywhere in my youth. We grew up at the same time in the same area of New Jersey in Italian American families. I can agree Bon Jovi is a big deal even if I have no interest in his body of work. My mother had a little Bon Jovi fever back in the late nineties. She and Jon’s mother lived in the same neighborhood. Mom once went to a Tupperware party with Jon’s mother so Jon and me, we’re practically related. Now we’ve had our photos taken on the same street in the same town in Baja. It’s become a tradition for Profe Emer to take his student groups to this spot and have their group photo taken. Bon Jovi was playing on the car stereo while we posed. I’m not sure if Bon Jovi is big in Mexico. The band is big with Emer. The Bon Jovi photo is the cover to the band’s album These Days. After yesterday’s big moment where we all stood in the street and smiled for the photo I looked it up. I wanted to know why Bon Jovi was in the remote town in Baja on a side street next to the grocery store. I found no answer. We were there because this small town is on the way to the day’s birding spot. Here’s a Mexican fan’s analysis. He’s irritated Bon Jovi makes no mention of the cover location or explains why. Me, too. If you know someone in the band find out for us.
After that diversion we headed into the hills. We were almost two hours behind schedule due to car trouble. So our adventure started late in the day. Our group consisted of five students, two teachers, and the Gypsy Carpenters. Gerardo Marron was our amazing guide. He was very skilled and a great instructor. He never laughed at our struggles. My loss of vision has undermined my confidence. I’m trying to power through but there’s a lot of awkward work as I try to see fine details through binoculars. I felt like an idiot most of the day. We spent hours on our feet looking at bugs and spiders and lizards and birds. The class was still going at 7:20 PM when Burt and I headed home to feed the dogs. We’d hoped to spend the night and camp with everyone but we could not find dog care. If you wanna make some money build a kennel in Todos Santos. Today I am so tired I think the dogs saved us from looking really, really old. I’m not sure I could have stayed up half the night looking for bats and owls and then started all over again the next morning.
You can see why I’m whining below. Aside from the glorious bruise on my upper thigh all is well. We saw the green flash last night from cliffs above the boundless Pacific. On our way to the perch there was a spider in the wind and a fruiting cactus wedged in a crack of rock.
We’re getting into the swing of our normal routine. I’ve returned to Spanish classes and yoga. Burt has been out surfing. We’ve played Bridge. Team Mittelstadt tied for first place yesterday. My dad will be here in about 10 days. Tennis will resume then or sooner. We’re meeting with the neighborhood kids in a week for the first class of the season. Tomorrow we’re off on a birding expedition with the UABCS (Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur) ornithology students.
Tomorrow we’ll have been here our first full week. The big chores are almost done. Burt’s got the shade up all around the gNash and I think it’s the most effective and attractive job to date. The bodega is organized. The truck is empty. Our gang of kids were on us from day one for something to do. I met their harassment with my Grandma’s old trick, “If your bored you can help me clean.” Three kiddos showed up and took broom and rags in hand. They were competent sweepers and dusters and they provided me with entertainment so we got a big ugly job done together. I paid them each 20p for an hour of work. Yay, Big Grandma!
Ants moved in to the trailer withing 24 hours of our arrival. This invasion was colonization. I can tolerate an ant here or there. I really hate killing them with the whole bug crisis in the natural world going on but my home in MY home. Internet searching suggested Splenda or Borax. Splenda is easier to find so I went that route after a furious several hours emptying and cleaning all our cabinetry. Splenda and/or the cleaning reduced the overall numbers but there were still ants in bed and on the computer screen at night. That’s too many. Mayra had some Borax so she gave me a bit and today I sprinkled that in key ant locations. I mixed the Borax with real sugar. The ants take both home and feed the Queen. Internet lore says once the Queen dies the colony dies. We shall see.
In other news it was back to birding. Next week we plan to camp with the university group on a field trip in the mountains. This summer I won a grant from Optics for the Tropics on behalf of the Baja California Sur University birding program. The Optics for the Tropics folks gave us 10 pairs of binoculars for the program’s public education activities. Last week I delivered them to Emer Garcia, the program director. It was a relief to get them out of here. I was worried about a customs inspection finding them. I was worried about getting robbed. And they took up a lot of space in my closet. They are not my problem now and they will be a big help for the work we are doing promoting birding with the kids of the area.
Lastly, I played Bridge with the Bridge Beauties yesterday. And I fell down onto a concrete floor from about a 20″ drop. I landed right on the top knob on the thigh. Broken hip country. Here’s to having a well padded ass! The fall knocked the stuffing out of me but nothing broke. The ladies came a running and I was so embarrassed to have interrupted the play. What a faux pas. After a long time on the ground I got up and went back to the game. Janna and I won. Nothing like pain to focus the mind. That evening I was overcome with anxiety as the adrenaline dissipated. It felt like a near death experience. I’ve had some really big falls but this was the scariest. Today I feel like I was in a car accident. I ache everywhere but my femur and hip are fully functioning.
There you have it. All the news that’s fit to print.
It’s August. In Montana we’re expecting to break 100 this week. The birds are quiet. They’re resting up after the hectic breeding season and they are molting in new feathers for the long migration next month. It’s not an easy time to bird. I kind of want to rest up myself. All year I’ve been participating in eBird’s citizen science challenges trying to earn myself a free pair of binoculars or a spot in an online bird course. So far no luck. August’s challenge is to provide eBird with fifty photos or recordings of birds. I am not enjoying this challenge. I find it bothersome. The birds are hiding, I am hot, I can barely take a descent photo when I’m not trying to count birds and fifty is just a lot of birds. On the upside it doesn’t have to be fifty different birds. So I came up with a plan to make this as productive as possible. I take photos at the bird feeding station every few days.
There’s a very special bird visiting Helena right now. While common in much of the US, Mexico and Central America the green heron is a rare visitor to this part of the country. This is the same species (or not) of bird found in the Galapagos Islands. Out on the remote islands it can be seen in two distinct plumages and is called the lava heron or striated heron or green heron. Depending on your predilection. Burt and I saw many many many green herons on our two trips to the Galapagos. Today we will not discuss if we should lump or split this lovely bird and it’s kith and kin. We shall marvel at the fact that this individual said, “I’m gonna check out a new place.” My ebird research reveals the closest record was from 2016 up in Cascade.
How we found this bird is a testament to doing science every day and the motto of “every bird counts, count every bird.” The book Lab Girl certainly has been on my mind as I consider all the work volunteers around the world are doing to count birds. Almost every list is mundane. Robins, house finches, starlings, Eurasian collared doves…blah bland blah. But the science is found in the mundane. Data is boring but must be collected so we can see the meaning in the big picture. Each individuals list is meaningless but together something is learned. Our lone green heron is a blip. He’s meaningless to science but he’s a juicy reward for us.
Burt and I had both had long busy days. He worked on the remodel job. I walked 4 1/2 miles to town and then spent two more hours cleaning an older friend’s home. At lunchtime Burt and I met for Bridge. The unit game started with a free lunch and a commotion. The director and her minions were out of sorts. There was yelling, a kerfuffle over the wrong movement. Boards were seen by the wrong people. More yelling. I kept my head down and mouth shut but I was rattled. Then I had a long sequence of missed heartbeats or palpatations. I became confused and couldn’t remember what I was doing and ruined a couple of hands from complete brain fog. My mood was dour and my head and chest ached. Burt wanted to leave. I told him I’d rather die playing Bridge than go through another endless round of tests in the ER. He let me stay. It is clear that emotional stress with a mix of physical exhaustion is my main trigger. With my new meds just getting underway I want to just wait a bit before heading to the doctor again. Bridge wrapped up with us not in last place. That is the best we can hope for on a good day. Considering I couldn’t remember if aces were out in any suit of any hand it was a great day.
Afterwards we had an hour and a half to pass before meeting friends for an early birthday celebration. I suggested we take the dogs to the new Ten Mile Creek Park. Elvis and Olive could enjoy the new off-leash area and we could see some birdies. And that’s how we came to spot a rare visitor in the jungles of Helena. Burt said, “I see some kind of heron over there.” I peeked and thought, “It seems very familiar. It reminds me of the striated heron in the Galapagos.” Well, that’s because it was the same species of bird (if you’re a lumper). A quick look in iBirdPro revealed that we had found a green heron in an unusual location. What an improvement over bridge. Calm brain on a gentle walk. I felt like I was firing on all cylinders again.
Here’s a fact about the green heron that I should have known but didn’t: Green herons are tool users. They use bits of leaves or bread or other fishies to lure in fish to eat. They are bait fishermen. No wonder we like them.
Global Big Day 2018 is still happening but we are done. For months I’ve been trying to figure out where to bird for the annual global census. I knew we wouldn’t be in Baja and it made me sad. For three years we’ve done our best to get the Baja birds and our neighborhoods represented on the annual event. This year it just wasn’t meant to be. For the last week Burt and I looked at maps and did some side excursions and as we steadily headed to our job in Montana. It’s intimidating trying to bird a new area. New species, unfamiliar terrain, logistics with the trailer were all conspiring against us.
Two days ago we were at the Nelson Morley Birds of Prey National Wildlife Refuge in central Idaho. This seemed like a good spot. After birding it Thursday evening we realized it was just too difficult to sort out the raptors and we felt hemmed in by the canyon walls and the narrow riparian area. I looked at the map and decided we should bail and head for the Camas National Wildlife Refuge. Camas NWR is famous for its waterfowl and waterfowl are pretty easy to key out if you come across a mysterious bird. Despite this feeling of inadequacy at the Nelson Morley NWR we landed 6 new life birds. Or at least eBird says they were new birds. Since I’ve only been listing for a few years it’s still easy to land a new bird that I might have seen many times in the past.
We arrived at Camas yesterday around 4:30 PM. I was hoping there would be signs of life and some kind of official participation in the Global Big Day. No and no. A sad state of affairs for one of birding’s most important citizen science events. The place was empty and there was no camping allowed. Burt and I did an afternoon reconnaissance of the birds and liked what we saw. There was a lot going on. Owls and kestrels and blackbirds everywhere. Since we were happy to spend the day at Camas NWR and likely would be the only people officially birding it was worth a short drive off to a rest area to spend the night. I was relieved to know we’d finally found a place to spend the day.
It all worked out just great. We saw 52 species of birds and did 12 checklists over 5 hours. Camas NWR is a sprawling wetland and every time we got in the car we had to start a new list. That’s how it goes doing science. Delightful short-eared owls kept popping up out of the reeds while northern harriers did sky acrobatics. The waterfowl were not so many that we couldn’t count but diverse enough that we had to study the water surfaces each time we left the car. We found a pair of great horned owls and a bald eagle nest with two fledglings. Burt’s favorite bird today was the harrier. I likes the owls. And the porcupine.
Now we are resting in a rest area. Tomorrow it’s time to work.
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?