For those of you following along I regret to inform you of a potential hitch in the home building process. Burt has a hernia. We’re exploring options. Surgical repair seems to be required as soon as possible if he is going to work this summer. Meanwhile I bring you the iguana. I hear they taste like chicken. I’d rather watch them and eat a chicken.
This month eBird is requiring photos on our checklists if we want a chance in the Leica binocular lottery. I wish someone would just buy me a pair of Leica binoculars and I could ease up on all this citizen sciencing. I don’t mind the 20 checklists but the additional effort for photos is a logistical nightmare for me. Yesterday, between doctor appointments in Cabo San Lucas, we popped out to the estuary and I saw 39 species of birds and a few reptiles. Burt went body surfing while I toted my phone (because they want a map and the GPS is in the app on my phone) and my binoculars and my camera and my purse. My bins strap attachment point broke a few weeks ago so carrying my bins is not hands free. There was a lot of straps and three things for my hands. It was a spastic scene of tech juggling. Not what birding brings to mind. Science! It’s fun! and it’s a nuisance. Any idea on how to rig a strap for the binoculars are welcome. My string solution is suboptimal. I really want to win the Leica.
On the upside I can say black cohosh seems to have knocked the night sweats down by half. I am sleeping better. On the downside, I threw out my back. Again. This must be the fourth time in two years. I’m getting demoralized. I had a nice adjustment yesterday that decreased the pain but was no miracle cure. I have to wonder if there is a more serious underlying injury.
Despite the constant pain, the kind of pain that makes me realize why we have an opioid epidemic, we went camping last Saturday. The four of us piled in the Exploder and drove a couple of hours into the wilds of Baja for a night on a vacant beach with a few hundred birds on a nearby water hole. Dolphins surfed the sunlit waves as grebes dove for dinner. Burt warned up rabbit stew on a drift wood fire. I wandered restlessly finding comfort nowhere except in distraction. At twilight scores of lesser nighthawks came to clear the air of mosquitoes. Their long narrow wings materialized out of nowhere and within ten minutes had disappeared again. A few hundred mourning doves flushed from nearby scrub while we walked to the water hole’s edge.
The next morning we watched avocet and frigates and coots and yellowlegs and all their buddies feed. The rainy summer and fall have provided lots of habitat for overwintering birds. This month we’ve spotted 101 species. That’s nearly half of all the species I’ve ever seen in the Baja. Quite a start to 2019 and a good distraction.
This year’s Todos Santos Christmas Bird count was an unprecedented success for our area. I hope in future years we’ll be able to look back and see it as the start of a new day for citizen science in our part of the world. Twenty people from three countries speaking at least two languages got together and split up over 170 square miles of terrain to count as many birds as they could in one day. The first three years of counting only uncovered 74, 66, 44 species respectively. We got 51 species with my team alone on CBC day. Our combined CBC circle teams tagged at least 109 species together. (An increase of 47% on the best year and 147% on the worst.) We don’t have the final numbers yet because only half our teams have submitted their completed tally sheets. Among those species seen were prized endemics found only in Baja California Sur: the San Lucas Robin, Xantu’s hummingbird, the Gray thrasher, Cassin’s (San Lucas) Vireo, the Vioscosa’s Band-tailed pigeon, and the Acorn woodpecker. Some people may quibble over endemic status for some of these but our Baja pride dictates we support the local UABCS scientists working so hard on the status of these birds. There were a couple other subspecies seen, too, but I can’t recall which right now.
I am eternally grateful to all the hard working bird professionals that came out to support the community effort. Staff and students of the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur gave up a day of their holidays to ensure our success. Burt and I are will continue to do what we can to help your programs succeed. Many thanks also to the expert guides and non-professionals who lent their eyes and ears. Your love of the birds is inspiring. And finally, to the newbies that were eager to learn and offered any support they had with driving, navigating, and feeding of teams. May you continue to learn and share all you have. Here’s who turned out: Emer Garcia, Gerardo Marrón, Victor Armando, Joaquin Corrales, Daniel Galindo, Andrea Quintaro, Kurt Radamaker, Cindy Radamaker, Bequia Martel, Damian Gonzáles, Pablo Gonzáles, Bobbi McElravey, Bill Levine, John Konovsky, Don Martin, Alejandra Yarely Barrios, Osiel A. Flores Rosas, Haidé Cruz, Burt Mittelstadt and me.
The week before the count Burt and I drove a lot of miles to make sure we knew the most productive areas and the best routes through the mountains. The results show our prep work proved worthwhile. Many people were surprised the mountain endemics were in our circle but we knew where to find them and those sweet birds showed up on the big day. What a relief. Thank you woodpeckers and robins.
My own personal day was spent slogging through my home turf of downtown Pescadero. But before that I had to get everyone else split into teams and out in the field. That night my fitbit said I slept 3 hours. Adrenaline was pumping as soon as my head hit the pillow. Thoughts kept popping up: Did I have enough maps, cars, snacks? Will they find the snipe at the dam? What about those Harris’s hawks? Do I need to bring sunscreen and bug juice? What if nobody helps me in Pescadero? When was the last time I saw a gray thrasher? What if nobody shows up? The alarm went off at 5 AM and I was in Todos Santos at our meeting point at 6:45. Burt arrived 15 minutes later in a spare vehicle. By 7:15 it was obvious we had enough experts and support to cover all the areas I had hoped to reach. I showed the teams my suggestions and we split up the people into teams of experts and support. There was a mild squirmish over the mountain areas. Our main coastal oases were so familiar to the best birders that they hoped for a day in the new terrain. Burt wound up in a car with 5 people, all of them with strong local skills and two of them at the expert level. That A team headed to the mountains. We had six teams. Three coastal oasis and town with agricuture and desert, and three in the desert to the edge of the mountains with some agriculture.
As for me, I had two amiable and kind helpers the first three hours but the slogging through sewage ponds and desert thorns under an unrelenting sun burned my guys out by lunch time. after a quick count at my feeder and some lunch I finished the lonely afternoon chasing sparrows and birds of prey in our agricultural fields. Around 3 PM Emer called in to say his team was done and back in Todos Santos. They had done the Santa Inez dam and its environs. We agreed to regroup and have a snack with the teams that were in from the field in Todos Santos. I did a rough run through of total species seen. Aside from the endemics we added 12 species that weren’t even expected to be seen in our count during the CBC. I’ve got my work cut out for me explaining all the new birds.
After the snack groups went home to Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, and La Paz. Kurt’s team was unaccounted for until 5 PM. They finally retired and headed to their hotel and Gerardo, Burt and I headed out to try and pick up some missing species and the night birds. Finally at 8 PM we showed Gerardo our guest bed and crashed. You might think the next day we would give it a rest but I had one of Baja’s best birders in my guest room and he was willing to bird my backyard and see what Pescadero had to offer so no, there was no rest for us. Burt and I took Gerardo to our local black water effluent and Gerardo got to work. He confirmed my find of the endangered Belding’s Yellowthroat in our local cesspool, but where I was lucky to see one, he found six. This bird is a difficult ID. It is easy to wishfully call a common yellow throat a Belding’s so I was eager to confirm I wasn’t seeing things. I am very relieved. Gerardo is our local eBird reviewer and the only person ahead of me for number of checklists submitted to eBird in 2018. I tease him because if I was here full-time we’d have a real competition. And so we spent another day birding in the company of the amiable and productive Gerardo. We went to Elias Calles and La Poza, too. At 3:00 we parted because Burt and I had a tennis match with my dad and Sara Gay. After that I collapsed.
A special shout out to Jackie Lewis and Bonnie Bowen for encouraging me and Todos Santos EcoAdventures for passing the baton.
Did you know in the late 1800s there was a Christmas tradition of the Christmas side hunt? Parties would divide up and head into the wood in a competition to see who could kill more things, feathered or furred. Charming. If you think we’ve evolved since then remember we still do this with coyotes and rattlesnakes and other ‘vermin’, just not as a Christmas tradition. In 1900 ornithologist Frank M. Chapman came up with a new idea. Frank said, “Hey, it’s getting kind hard to find all those animals. Maybe we should count them and see how many are left.” No, not really. What is true is that Chapman was justifiably concerned about the birds and he proposed the switch from killing to counting. That first count had 27 counters in 25 locations. They found 89 species. You can see the results HERE. I’ll bet a librarian deserves credit for us knowing those very first results. Conservation was a new idea and what is now known as the CBC or Christmas Bird Count is still going strong. Here’s a link to what the North American coverage looked like in 2014.
The CBC has grown and overtime developed standard protocols. The result is a powerful data set fueled by citizen scientists over the course of more than a century. The cumulative years of methodically counting have netted priceless scientific insight. Many conservation advances of teh past can be credited to the sound scientific conclusions from this long view of nature. Sadly, there’s a lot more work to be done. The rapid pace of climate change is outpacing nature’s ability to adapt. Using this data we can see population shifts in real time. Many species will not make it as food and precipitation cycles gyrate wildly. The NY Times just published a story on one special spot on our globe. You can read it HERE. We can relate to this anecdotal story of boobies and penguins and iguanas but the truth is this is a global disaster and it’s happening all around.
Despite the horrifying news we chose to move forward in hope and continue to collect data. It might only be an exercise in respect and acknowledgement as we consciously observe the destruction we have wrought but perhaps it will help provide answers on how to move forward. I don’t know but I’m going to go out and count.
So tomorrow is our big day. Birders from all over the area are coming here to lend a hand. Novices and experts will work together to take stock of our treasured birds. We meet at 7 AM at the Todos Santos Bus Station. I have maps and snacks. Bring your sunscreen, bug spray, binoculars, and hats.
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.