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.
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.
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.
The gig at On Broadway is done. I only wiped out on two too fast tunes. Nobody notices when I bail out when there’s a fiddle and accordion playing, too. Despite the rough spots it was a lot of fun and reignited our desire to perform. Expect to hear us near you soon.
We are back up in Kalispell and working pro bono for Burt’s daughter and her boyfriend. These guys have a little cabin in the hills above Kila. We’re helping them add on a bedroom. Burt’s dad Jack is in town visiting as well. Not much new to report. Bridge, birding, walks. I’ve been on the beta blocker a month. I’m doing okay but I’m less energetic than usual. Hard to imagine. On the upside I don’t really care. The positive side of an mellowing drug. I think I’m adapting. We’re going to give it another month.
This morning while Burt and Robin worked and Jack supervised I walked off into the trail-less edge of the Smith Lake Wildlife Management Area. Deep hummocky grasslands guard the water’s edge and I could not get through to the water fowl. I set course for a cottonwood tree I could see over the grass seed head. The grassland was pretty vast and I used the tree as my north star to reach my destination. Near the tree I found the footers of what I came to learn was a log hook in the middle of the lake. Rather than continue on through head high grass with thoughts of hidden moose or grizzlies I climbed up and took a seat and watched for birds from there. From my perch I could see a variety of vegetation and hopefully different bird habitats. Back in the day timber was flushed down Ashley creek and every spring they would blow out the log jams and the logs would accumulate in Smith Lake. The hook would be used to pull the logs from the water and place them on the dikes. Now the lake is heavily protected by reeds and marsh but you can still see the dikes and other remains of the timber industry. My wait was rewarded with a new bird ID. I scored the willow flycatcher.
After lunch and this post I am driving around the lake and going to sit under some ancient aspen right on the water’s edge. We’ll see what I find.
Saturday, May 14th, was Global Big Day. Birders of a certain style have goals of big days, big years, big trips…The goal is to find as many species of birds as you can in a certain time limit. There’s a funny-ish movie about the phenomenon called The Big Year. People make great personal, physical, and financial sacrifices for a big year. Tapping into this idea bird conservation organizations, specifically, Audubon and Cornell University, organized a Global Big Day to get people the world over out and counting birds. With global coverage we get a snapshot of where birds are on that particular day. You can check out the results HERE. Data is still streaming in, but it looks like a lot of people did a lot of work. Burt and I are not extreme birders keeping meticulous track of our observations but we saw a hole in the data and aimed to fill it. Last year only one person birded the entire state of Baja California Sur. That’s one person in over 28,000 square miles. That area figure doesn’t account for the vast surrounding bodies of water, either. Back in Portal, Arizona last year there were scores of people covering a few hundered square miles. At the very least we thought we could increase the coverage. Maybe, we could find a bird or two that would only be found in our area.
For a while when telling friends of our plans I was calling this Big Bird Day. Finally, Aldo and Burt pointed out that Big Bird lives on Sesame Street and isn’t really a bird. But I like that big yellow guy so in my heart I’m still saying Big Bird Day while my mouth says Big Day. So Burt came up with a plan and I signed off. His idea was to go high up in the mountains the night before and camp out so we could make a dawn start at the upper elevations. Past trips into the backcountry we had seen some of birds harder to find in our regular lower elevation neighborhoods. Acorn woodpeckers, yellow-eyed juncos, and the San Lucas robin were the goals. So Friday night team Mittelstadt (Burt, Susan, Elvis, and Olive) headed up the mountains. Our campsite was a vacated rancho at the end of the road. Vacated by humans that is. A burro, two dogs, and a flock of chickens still lived there. It was hard to tell if somebody swung in to feed regularly. One dog looked pretty good but the other was scraggly. A newish car was parked nearby. Perhaps this was a bad idea? Perhaps the owners would come home and be upset to find us in their driveway? Could we sleep worrying about the dogs getting into it with our dogs? Would the burro stop rubbing its head on the Exploder? Burt wondered if we should leave. I was ambivalent. I told Burt I’d expected discomfort both mental and physical. We’d driven an hour and a half and I knew we were coming to an empty rancho. Starving animals and weird scenes are an everyday occurrence in Mexico. Should we stay or should we go? My metal ambivalence prevailed. The ranch dogs disappeared into the bushes even after we fed them a package of tortillas. Many Baja dogs are wary of humans. These two were happy enough to meet us and then go off away from us.
So the four of us piled into the back of the Exploder. For a few minutes Elvis and Olive lolled about in the sleeping bags and pads and made out like they were going to share the space with us. It was a no-go. Wheel well in the small of the back and Olive at the nape of the neck and Elvis behind the knees was not going to work. They got the boot to the luxurious empty front seats. I still had a wheel well in my back but it was better. We passed the night. Not much sleep was found. The car listed a little and Burt was uphill of me. It was cramped and warm. For obvious reasons we were fully attired.
The alarm sounded at 5:30 AM. It was still dark. Elf owls hooted. First bird of the day. We ate some bananas and cereal. The milk was sour so only two bites of cereal. No sign of the dogs. The roosters crowed. The mule was still rubbing its head on the car. As light broke we headed uphill. Burt had the dogs on leashes and a backpack with food and water and binoculars. I had the phone and the iBird app, my notebook, and new binoculars. Orioles, towhees, gnatcatchers….
The Sierra de la Laguna mountains are not supremely tall but they are lung crushingly steep. Covered in thick thorn forest and loose ground these mountains demand serious exertion to traverse. The place is riddled with cow paths. A person might think cows could clear ample passage for a human to easily follow. It’s a reasonable conclusion. After much study I can say if the cows were organized and used the same path over and over again they might eventually make a nice route from point A to point B. Cow paths are short in height and full of loose gravel and sand. They meander with no rhyme or reason. They are unsuitable for humans but it was all we had. We clawed and stumbled up for a couple of hours. We got to a palm oasis high in the mountain’s skirts with water. Cactus wrens, Xantu’s hummingbirds, Cassin’s vireo, Cedar waxwing…Eventually it was clear I could not continue to go up if I expected to get down. It was simply too steep and demanding. Two hours up was enough. Burt went a little further hoping to find the acorn woodpecker. I sat and counted birds from a ridge top. It was glorious.
Our mountain birds did not materialize but we did hit the Xantu’s hummingbird and that’s only found in Baja California Sur. As it would turn out this was the only time we’d see them the rest of the day. All winter these birds are regular visitors to feeders in our yard. As soon as the native flowers bloom they fly and away and live in the mountains. Burt returned and we headed downhill. We arrived at the car at 10:30 AM and drove to the coast. We stopped twice to bird. Road runner, red tailed hawk, western scrub jay… Our plans were to bird Elias Calles, Pescadero, the Las Palmas beach oasis, and Pescadero’s La Poza (the freshwater artesian spring in town). We quickly birded Elia Calles and picked up a white crowned sparrow among others. Hooded orioles and white-winged doves were becoming major annoyances. They are noisy and show up everywhere.
At 2:00 PM we had come birria tacos. Birria is a kind of marinated, sauteed, brisket. Then we went home for a nap. At 4:30 we headed into our very own Pescadero and birded the beejesus out of it. Towns are very good birding. Our twon is specifically good because agricultural fields bump up against home and mango trees and palms. There is a lot of diverse habitat. California quail, great egret, mockingbird, house sparrow, house finch, ruddy ground dove (new for us), grey thrasher. The grey thrasher is another bird only found in Baja California. Go team Mittelstadt! The ruddy ground doves were hilarious. I’d been mumbling about them for months. My research indicated they should be all around yet we had never seen them. Over the winter and this particular day we’d spotted the common ground dove, the mourning dove, the Eurasian collared dove, and the white-winged dove. Finally, here in our town we found ourselves staring at doves we couldn’t identify. One good thing about birding this time of year is most of the harder to identify birds have migrated north. The reason Burt and I can competently participate is the really confusing warblers and vireos and what not are gone. Or at least hiding from us. So far that day only the Cassin’s vireo required research to identify. The cedar waxwing took research to verify that they are found here. That one caught me by surprise but I had a clear sight of it. It’s a distinct bird. The doves were a hilarious annoyance. You’d of thought we’d have seen it before and made the ID before the stress of the Big (bird) Day. Scapular marks confirmed it as the ruddy ground dove I had been trying to find. Our only excuse for not noticing it sooner: Doves are easy to ignore. This will prove to be a great lesson later in the day.
After Pesy-town was done we headed out to the Oasis Las Palmas. This is my favorite local place to bird. Freshwater and salt, desert and palms. Lost of diversity. We’d done two intense evening efforts previously so we knew what to look for. This time my goal was the critically endangered Belding’s yellowthroat. This bird is only found in wetlands and only in Baja California Sur. Like the world over, wetlands are rapidly disappearing and so is this sweet little bird. The males are very flashy. Check it out HERE. My Portal friend Narca Craig-Moore had written about finding this bird in the Estero San Jose. Because of her blog I knew what to look for. I had high hopes. So far this winter this bird had evaded us. It seemed like a remote chance but a girl’s gotta have hope. So we hiked some more. It was wearying work. Look, take notes, watch your step. More orioles and white-winged doves. I was so tired of looking down and making a hashmark for every white-winged dove we saw. Burt brow beat me to keep at it. He scanned the trees. More doves, more orioles, more doves. Then the big payoff. I believe one of the most important aspects of birding is that it enhances your powers of ‘seeing’. Force yourself to pay attention and keep a list and you will learn so much more than just the names of birds. You’ll see things you’d never see by only taking a walk. This seeing is hard work. The brain is engaged. You can’t move fast. Your feet hurt.
Burt spotted a baby Great Horned Owl. It was so freaking adorable. A fluffy mass of down with enormous eyes gazed at us from high in a palm tree. All because he didn’t stop looking for the doves. What a great spot, Burt!! We watched for a while. I tried the app to call in the parent but it didn’t work. It was getting late. We were very tired and hungry. Burt suggested I hit the estuary and he’d cover the desert to the ocean. He told me to go find my little bird.
I crept quietly over the mud flats down a horse trail (horses make passable trails). I saw a common galinulle. I stood about. My feet hurt. I was in full sun. I listened. I peered around a corner. I scanned the reeds with my new binoculars. I heard a sharp and regular cheep from deep in the reeds. I couldn’t remember what the Beldings’ yellowthroat sounded like. I figured it was near impossible to see this mysterious cheeping bird. Then I remembered Narca’s blog and the picture of this bird in exactly this type of vegetation. Other birders had seen this rare species at this location. I decided to make the generic push push pushing sound that my friend Peg employs. It’s a kind of generic bird noise used to draw birds closer. It works well for certain species. Would it work on Belding’s yellowthroat? I tried. My push push pushing isn’t as good as my friend Peg’s but I had been having success this winter. This time I hit the jackpot. My Belding’s yellowthroat came right to the edge of the reeds and looked me in the eye. OMG OMG OMG. There. That’s a good day.
I watched this masked marvel for a few minutes and went to get Burt. We couldn’t draw it out again. Sad faces. At 7 PM we gave up and went to dinner. We abandoned our plans to bird Pescadero’s poza because we’d seen the bird we hoped to find there. At dinner at Hierba Buena we spotted the common poorwill and the lesser nighthawk.
That’s a big day. Burt and I found 46 species of birds in 11 locations over 14 hours and 70 miles. We hiked 8 miles.
I am so grateful to all our Portal birding friends that took as out and showed us how last spring, summer, and fall. Peg, Pat, Rolf, Bonnie, Rose Ann, Richard, Dave….We were blessed to be able to hang with some of the best in the business.
Our symptoms remain unabated. Throbbing heads, laryngitis, mucous, coughing, body aches, fever. It’s the flu. We are just miserable. To pass the time we spent $1000 pesos on a bunch of TV shows on DVD. Game of Thrones, Network…I can’t remember and I’m too drained to look. Instead of dwelling on our discomfort I present you with some pictures of a trip from a couple of days ago.
As part of our effort to bird the heck out of the area we visited a spot behind the dunes that sometimes holds water. I presume it’s brackish given the puddles proximity to the ocean but it fulls with mostly rainwater. I tried to count sand pipers and plovers but my dog and my binoculars failed me. Olive was too tempted by the shallow water and gooey mud. She tore the place up. Meanwhile my binoculars are broken. The center part that hold the two optical tubes together partially detached. The lenses are cockeyed. Looking through is instant vertigo. The only way I can use my formerly fantastic binoculars is if I close one eye and use them like a telescope. Spotting the birds is much more difficult with one eye. Just a big bummer. In summary: I counted a couple of birds with one eye and then Olive chased them away.
Meanwhile Burt was on the beach having a drastically bad time with Elvis. A poor sea lion had beached herself and appeared to be grievously injured and dying. Of course Elvis was onto the situation before Burt. With Burt screaming himself hoarse Elvis chased the weakened animal into the ocean. Elvis went into the waves with it and made some kind of effort to herd the thing back onto the sand. Burt said Elvis took quite a beating in the shore break before he heeded Burt’s commands to leave it. With Elvis back under control the sea lion crawled back onto shore. It was moving poorly. A sad scene indeed. The only thing that could of cheered us up was if a great white shark came out and gave the lobo marino instant death. But then what fun would swimming be after seeing something like that?
March is more than half over and I have about 8 more new spots I have to visit to get enough bird checklists into eBird for the binocular contest. eBird, an online, international bird census group, gives away a free pair of binoculars every month. All you have to do is complete the monthly assignment and you are entered into the drawing. I’m not sure I can get the job done. My driver and co-spotter is down with ‘la gripa’. Burt blames the singing kids (notorious disease vectors) for laying him low. It’s a bummer to see him finally succumb after his defenses protected him when I was sick.
Biridng, like everything, is easier the more you do it. These first forays on our own are a little bit intimidating. There are so many birds that are difficult to identify. Here in our own yard I have been plagued by a sprightly yellow bird that flits in and out of our aloe. At first I thought it was a yellow warbler, then I thought maybe a female common yellow throat. The more I looked and the more I birded the more I realized I wasn’t quite right. But the darn thing kept flitting by. I never got a solid look. Yesterday while I was stalking some fantastic male mating displays by the local cactus wrens the unknown small yellowish thing came into view. I missed the shots of the cactus wrens showing off but finally got some of the yellow bird. I blew up my pictures and lamented. WTH is this innocuous yellow thing? I was ready to call it a canary. Before I burst into tears I remembered the internet. Lots of opinions out there in Facebook and I have some very skilled birding friends. Why not ask them?
Within minutes of tagging my friends on the photo a local helpful type responded with: It might be a warbler, or a pine siskin,or a sparrow. This is why people run from the internet screaming. What can you do when a cheery but ill informed somebody suggests three totally unrelated and not nearly specific enough ideas. Two of which are just flat out impossible. Warbler was correct but there’s only twenty or more yellowish warblers in North America. I tried to say thank you but managed to not be as nice as I could have been. This person was trying to help but in way over their heads. And since they paired it with sparrow and pine siskin I’m guessing they just got lucky. And further proves I am not as nice a person as I wish I was.
Lucky for me other people with more knowledge than me felt sympathy and weighed in rapidly with the correct ID. It was unanimous that we had an orange crowned warbler. This particular bird was in my thoughts but since I never saw an orange crown I kept ruling it out. It took more experienced people to assure me that the orange crown is rarely seen. I was assured it’s a hard ID to make unless you know what to look for. The bright yellow under the tail end is what distinguishes this bird from its lookalike cousins. I’m feeling better about the struggle and realize that the fight to learn is what makes something memorable. Just like those balls I hit into the net in tennis or the bad bids Burt is going to make in Bridge. The struggle is the process.
The Gypsy Carpenters are booked to play a house party this week and we’re trying to get tidified. I have a real, professional haircut scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. Burt met the buzzers last night. His top of the head hair is now so short we had to pluck his ear hairs. It’s a sad day when ear hairs are longer and thicker than head hairs. I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating. The loss of near vision as we grow older is a gift of nature. Grooming becomes more difficult but we also can’t see much of the damage done as time progresses. Today my friend Myra asked if I had any grey hair. Ha. Bad lighting in the yoga studio and my naturally low-contrasting light brown have prevented her from seeing I am sporting an abundance of canas (gray hair in Spanish). I’m sure even Burt can’t see it unless he dons his readers.
This week we also had our vehicles groomed. For $100 pesos (about $6 US) the car gets vacuumed, washed, and wiped out. While the vehicles get their long overdue spa treatments we eat ceviche and fish tacos and watch. It’s one of the many wonderful things in our life right now. Typically we tip these guys 40% because our vehicles are disgusting. Elvis drool accumulates in the arm rests then layers of Elvis hair and road dust and sawdust form a ceramic layer of gross. So gross I avert my eyes.
Last night we went birding. Again. I’m trying to get to 15 new spots this month. If I do I’ll be enrolled in ebird.org’s contest to win a new pair of binoculars. Our trip last night was to the defunct marble mine just outside of town. We saw a few things but our hopes to call in another owl were unsatisfied. On the other hand, we did call in a common poorwill with the iBirdPro app on my phone. Dogs barked in the distance as the phone sang out with the poorwill’s piercing and lamenting voice. We immediately heard a call back. The sad sound provides a satisfying soundtrack to walk in an abandoned mine with eerie cacti shadows at twilight. The common poorwill is a member of the nightjar family and is the only bird known to hibernate in winter. Hear it HERE.
If you happen to like birding you should check out eBird.org. This is a fine example of citizen science. Bird researchers from all over the world can tap into the data of regular birders and determine all kinds of things about the lives of birds, climate change, disease, habitat loss, etc. Since there aren’t many contributors in Baja, I’ve decided to do what I can to increase the data points. Burt is a big help.
On last night’s excursion we also positively identified the Dog Poop Bush. With seed pods that resemble logs of canine excrement this shrubby tree or treeish bush is aptly named. It does not smell bad. The seeds can be roasted and ground and added to coffee or chocolate. Sounds in-tree-ging. We may have to collect some more wild edibles. Dog Poop Tree chocolate bars, anyone?
Finally, finally, finally. You’d think we were trying to get to the moon for how many times we’ve tried to get to San Vicente to see the pottery. After 5 years and and least 5 misses we succeeded in finding San Vicente and the pottery. Burt and I and the Olvis canine team made a day of it. We decided to do a birding adventure. That way if we missed the pottery again we’d still accomplish something. Team Clay Bird left the Pescadero area at 10:30. The odometer was checked and the time noted on our bird list. First stop, the Pescadero presa. The presa is a small earthen dam just below our house. There’s a large puddle of water behind it. At the start of our tour we found coots, gadwells, ruddy ducks and assorted songbirds, most notably the friendly blue-gray gnatcathcher. We also detected a faint stench of decay.
Back on the highway we saw the usual flotilla of Turkey Vultures. I presume they were trying to pinpoint the stanch at the dam. we stopped at a couple of shady spots and added the cara cara above and some kestrels and more gnatcatchers. The cara cara was grooming. These dramatically plumed birds of prey appreciate carrion. I assume they must have to adhere to strict grooming protocols to keep tidy. Some say the signature cara cara toupee is the bird version of Donald Trump’s coif. I’m not so sure about the resemblance to the Donald but I do like the looks of the cara cara.
After two and a half hours we made it to San Vicente. The road had recently been graded so the going was fairly smooth. San Vicente is way up high in the Sierra de la Laguna. From up there we could see the fog layer far out over the Pacific Ocean. Our years of wandering have paid off and we finally recognize catcus cues and important road forks. Signage is faded and hard to find. The map is just wrong. Now saying we arrived in San Vicente might lead a reader to believe we found a town. We found a horse, a mini-church (seating for 20), a school, and one home. That home had a potter with pottery. Rumors of ostriches remain unsubstantiated.
Ramona, the potter, works in her home. Currently she says it’s too cold to work (its over 80 degrees). When it warms up and if God is willing (her words) she will start back at it. Ramona appears to be approaching retirement. I picked out a bowl and Burt bought a coffee cup. I wouldn’t be surprised if arthritis is slowing her down. From Ramona’s place we continued a short way towards the back road we had looked for a couple for weeks ago. Ramona’s husband Marcos told us the road no longer goes through to San Jacinto. Getting lost two week ago spared us hours in the dark on a road that would have eventually dead-ended. At an arroyo about a half mile past Ramona’s we turned around.
Our return route took us to Candelaria. The road to Candelaria is smooth and two laned dirt. It was a freaky Baja superhighway. No traffic. Below us were palm oases and a lush arroyo. We stopped and counted some more birds. I saw an unidentifiable sandpiper. Darn shorebirds. What PITAs. Eventually we found Candelaria. Imagine or surprise to find paved roads and street lights and fresh paint and a tidy community. There was a real church, school, government buildings…There was more pavement and sidewalks than in our own town yet this town was in the middle of nowhere. Home of a bigwig politician? A cartel strong hold? With no answers Burt and I tried to find our way off the pavement and back onto the dirt for our adventure home. This was harder than it sounds. The pavement had a way of degrading all the dirt roads into town. Nothing looked like a viable road except the main route we used to come into town. Trial and error found us heading downhill towards the Pacific. In a few miles we entered the El Migriño arroyo. This arroyo is famous for offroading and dune buggy adventures. We also no now there are no roads where dune buggies and quads play. We had a ten mile deep sand tour in the Exploder. Frequent comments were: Does it look better over there? No. Yes, yes, no, go, go, go…don’t STOP…Over there over there…no here…no….Oh F*#K…It just doesn’t matter. It’s all bad. It was all bad but it was also all good enough. Burt surfed the Exploder through washboard covered sand dunes and we made it out. The key was to maintain speed but not drive so fast that you wrecked. One time I heard the engine bouncing on a separate cycle than the chassis of the vehicle. I think it might have detached from the frame. Olive and Elvis are in therapy.
Seven hours and seventy one miles resulted in 21 bird species found and the purchase of a bowl and coffee cup. Afterwards we found out that the ostriches and the ‘famous’ potter lived just a little further beyond where we turned around. Add that to things we didn’t need to know. Some people might say we still failed to find the pottery of San Vicente. I’m perfectly satisfied and also willing to go back for another trip. Mostly so I can add ostriches to our bird list.
Here’s a throwback Thursday to last week. Before our grand back country road trip we did a short evening scout up to San Jacinto. The goal was to find some owls. Burt and I had never gone owling. Owling is night birding. Generally owls are nocturnal. I never saw many owls most of my life. I can only recall one sighting with certainty at Stone Mountain in North Carolina when I was probably 20 years old. Then I took up bird hunting. While crawling through scrubby coulees and checking out abandoned farmsteads looking for pheasants and grouse it was not unusual to flush a resting owl. One such adventure was on faithful reader Melissa’s family farm in Oregon. I flushed 5 owls from one tree while looking for a pheasant. I never even saw a pheasant that day but the dramatic flight of owls from four feet over my head will always be with me.
Burt and I have this new goal to better understand the natural history of this area. Portal has shown us we have a natural affinity for the people that love the natural world. And, of course, we love the natural world. We haven’t found too many people with similar interests so we are taking the classic advice given to single people looking for compatible partners. Do what you love and you will meet people that love the same things you do. We didn’t meet anybody out looking for owls but we did garner some unusual looks from people when we told them we went owling. So far no luck on finding birding friends that actually go birding here in Baja. We did manage to find an owl. This being the main goal the night was obviously a success. It was also a gorgeous evening. a sliver of a moon smiled down on us from above the palm trees. The water in the arroyo gleamed. Pitaya and cardon cacti made magical and mythical shapes on the skyline.
I, not being a very experienced birder, only know two ways to find an owl. One is you accidentally cross paths. You either see or hear the owl and there you are. Hearing an owl is a good way to find it. Usually they are much closer than the sound. I learned this when I went out one evening with Rose Ann and Richard, a pair of world renowned birders I have no business tagging along with. During our dark walk we heard an owl. I thought there was no chance of finding it. The hoot hoot hoot sounded as though it were coming from far away. In fact the bird was in a tree on a limb 10′ over our heads. Rose Ann told me they throw their voices and she took her flashlight and shined it right on the bird. I learned that lesson quick. The second technique is to go to a likely owl habitat and play an owl call. Owls are territorial and also it’s the season for love. A recorded owl call can bring an owl to you.
Last week we stopped at three locations to listen for owls. We tried the arroyo with its palm and mango trees and water, a jungly ravine full of thorn forest, and a more open dessert plateau with large cacti. When we heard none (but saw some nighthawks and passing doves) I’d run through the 6 calls on my iPhone for southern Baja owls. One time, well after dark and headed homeward, we were sitting in the car amid giant cacti and torote trees and I had my phone out the window playing the wispy call of an elf owl. Through the open window I thought I caught the faint sound of a response. Burt agreed. We exited the vehicle and walked a bit towards where we thought the sound originated. Trouble was we had different opinions. Burt went behind the car and I went in front. This was a sign that the owl was nearby. So we stopped, stood still, and played the recording. There was definitely a response. We stood there and quietly leaned this way and that trying to get a location. The call sounded like it had a regional accent. The bird grew annoyed and flew to us. It flew right between our heads. Three times. Funny thing is even though we saw the bird all we saw was a very fast shadow flying between our heads. It was a colorless form with very quiet wing beats. The elf owl is one of the smallest owls in the world. It’s smaller than a house finch. In the dark all we could see was dark movement. We tried to follow the elf owl to it’s roost but failed to locate it with our flashlights. Ah well. Tecolote enano (Spanish) or elf owl (English) or Micrathene whinteyi (scientific). Add that to the list. Verbal ID is all you need to claim the spotting.
You can see and hear an elf owl in this Elf Owl. You can read more HERE. I learned through this adventure and blog research that elf owls are highly migratory and the owls of southern Arizona travel to Mexico every year to enjoy the warm winter and abundant insects. Elf owls are almost entirely into eating insects. So they migrate. But. Big, BUT. The species here on the southern end of Baja is a non-migratory sub-species. It is Micrathene whitneyi sanfordi. While I was pondering the migration of such a wee owl it brought to mind my first elf owl interaction. The hopeless romantic in me was pondering the chances of this being the owl I met two years ago when it was tossed from the nest. A hapless baby tossed out of its nest and rescued by other naturalists. The night it was rescued I was allowed to feed the fluff ball a grasshopper I had caught and gutted myself. Baby owls prefer the insides of things. There I was feeding grasshoper brains to a tiny flying carnivore. I never would of thunk. Those birds were successfully raised by their parents and they fledged despite the fall from home. Anyway, no, the bird that bombed our heads was not a bird from Portal. The second link above shows how isolation of the Baja population. That’s why they have an accent. Animals are just like humans. They develop regional accents. If you Google Micrathene whitneyi sanfordi you can find a recording by Richard Webster. That’s the guy I mentioned above that first took me owling.
So if you are interested in the natural world and here in Southern Baja, let’s get together and gook out.