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?
The walking is great here from Chez Gopher. Laura and I have a daily 3.6 mile loop we do every morning at 8 AM. It’s an effective addition to my Galapagos training program. Waking up on a schedule is as important as the exercise. Today the weather was noticeably cooler and there were overcast skies. I wore long pants and a long sleeved shirt for the first time since arriving here. Laura wants to learn more about birding so I’ve been bringing my binoculars but until this morning there hadn’t been much to see. I don’t know why today was different. We had reversed our normal route so was it because we were headed downhill instead of uphill so it was easier to stop and look around? Was it the cloudy sky? The cooler temperatures. Is migration underway and so the birds are lfocking up, making them easier to see? Because we had reversed direction we arrived at the birdier area earlier, Were the birds more active earlier? It’s impossible to know the reasons why today but it is not impossible to know if we keep studying the area and doing the same loop over time. We can make a habit of observing the birds through the month, season, year in the same place at the same time of day and someday we might be able to reach some conclusions. This brings me to today’s climate change blurb.
Climate change fact of the day: Warming temps have changed bird behavior. Birders have kept meticulous records for long lengths of time over large geographic areas. This makes for great data. We can see discernible trends in the last thirty years. A quick summary:
Birds are nesting earlier, birds are migrating north earlier and heading south later, and some birds aren’t migrating at all anymore. Birds are arriving in habitat that no longer meets their survival needs. Birds are in trouble.
So today I taught Laura the basics. We saw or heard juncos, titmice, towhees, jays, doves, hawks, robins, turkeys, quail, crows, and more. There were a couple we couldn’t ID. So annoying but it is what keeps the brain firing on all cylinders. Accepting the mystery is good for the mind and soul. Even the most mundane of birds can tell us what is happening in the world around us. There is no need in being an expert. Learning and recording your regular neighbors over time will help us (and you) develop a deeper understanding and connection to the natural world. Join me in learning your local birds and recording data. Be part of a worldwide team. Visit ebird.org and submit your feathered friends to the census.
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.
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.
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.