El Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir is named for the guy gate keeping in heaven. For a long time (until just this minute) I thought it was some guy with a last name Mártir. Wrong. That’s just a tag on Saint Peter (rock of the church) reminding us he was martyred. Another big oops there. I might have known once but had forgotten he was killed for his beliefs. And this lack of knowledge strikes me as very, very odd. I was just in this guy’s basilica inside the Vatican. My research today, quick and dirty, revealed the church believes St. Peter was crucified head down on the every spot of the basilica’s altar. But details are sketchy and it sounds like early church politics played a role in Peter’s unseemly demise. I guess the church, like so many other things, chooses not to tell the stories that cast it in a bad light. Things like the stories that demonstrate these guys couldn’t agree even in the time of Christ on what Christ was teaching. Nothing has changed. We do know that early Dominican padres founded a mission at the south end of the mountain range and the mountain range and park take their names from that mission.
The park was formed in 1947. It’s home to Picacho del Diablo (the devil is always around) the highest peak in Baja at 10,157′. Numerous large avian species take advantage of the remote and rugged terrain. Both bald and golden eagles are known to frequent the area but most important are the California Condors. The condor reintroduction program has increased the total number of these mighty birds from 22 in 1982 to nearly 500 worldwide today. About half the birds remain in captivity for breeding purposes. Wild populations are not yet stable. This spot in Mexico has had less habitat loss and environmental degradation than US release locations. Consumption of both micro trash and lead ammunition are the greatest threat to individual survival. The birds in Mexico have successfully reproduced on their own.
Burt and I have seen these birds at three of their release sites and this was our second time spotting one in the Parque Nacional. Eight years ago we saw two. One flew over head on the ridge that divides the Baja peninsula, one side waters head to the Pacific Ocean and on the other they reach the Bay of California. The second bird was in the road trying to eat a red yogurt cap. I got out of the car and retrieved the cap. Think of that bird and those whales and fishes and sea life and pick up that micro-trash you see. It all flows downhill.
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.
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.
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.
Burt and I mean to leave this place pretty quickly. Too bad we’re both so sick that we haven’t packed. End of season social obligations have sucked all the energy out of us. Here’s what we’ve done instead of secured our property and stowed our gear.
Thursday we took my dad and SaraGay and 11 other kids and five more adults to the San Jacinto waterfall. It was a mob scene. Nobody died. Everyone is home. If you weren’t sick before the waterfall you probably are now or will be soon. Three people slipped and fell. One dead fox was found. A lot of fruit and veggies were eaten.
The next day I accompanied my fried Lorna to the cardiologist in La Paz. La Paz is an easy hour drive from here but 79 year old Lorna had a stress test scheduled and the Bridge ladies decided she shouldn’t go alone. I went. I needed to meet the cardiologist anyway and there’s good birding in La Paz and I adore Lorna, but everybody does so that’s not special. I have also had two stress tests and I knew exactly how it would go. She’d be fine and get pushed to the point of puking or she wouldn’t be fine and would have bad news for the ride home. Neither situation a good one to be alone. It turned out to be the later. That’s Lorna’s story so I’ll end it here. Lorna and I moved on and got her new meds and went to lunch and visited the wastewater treatment plant. I spotted two new birds. One was the black bellied whistling duck, a very funny looking creature. The other was an avocet. I’d seen the avocet many times but never in Mexico.
By that evening it’s obvious I’ve finally caught Burt’s cold. I don’t have time for this. I woke up at 4 AM and puzzled out how to get everything done until it was time to get up. After breakfast I ran chairs and blankets over to Mayra’s yoga studio. Our first birding class was scheduled for Saturday evening. We needed blankets to cover the windows and chairs for all our (hopefully) guests. Then we went to Bridge. Lorna and I played together and we kicked butt. It was a 66% game for us. Hence the we-fie above.
After Bridge Burt headed to round up the kids and I finished setting up the room and projector for Joaquin’s presentation. We’d planned an introduction to birding for children. Joaquin hit a homerun. He was personable and made quick and entertaining work of the subject for our audience. Everyone seemed enthused. Afterwards we went to dinner with dad, SaraGay, Joaquin, and Selene. We were home by 8:30. Joaquin and Selene stayed in the rumpus room.
This morning we were up and birding by 7:30. Burt and I wanted to go to bed but we aso wanted to share our bird spots with our guests. So we hit three places and walked several miles by 11:30. My recent spottings of the endangered Belding’s Yellowthroat at odd locations around town were confirmed by Joaquin. Yay, me. This means these birds are desperately clinging to life in tiny patches of water wherever they can find it. Hopefully we can use the information to build a network of small wetlands that will bridge the larger habitats.
Now I am in bed. While Burt and I were running around a neighbor was in the yard repairing our trailer’s suspension. We’d hoped to be closing things today and pulling out Tuesday. It looks like we might be a day later.
I baked two loaves of jalapeño cheese bread this week. One lasted long enough to make it to Ladies Bridge yesterday. That’s two weeks in a row where I made food instead of purchasing something. It’s a record for me. Despite this admirable streak of DIY cookery I maintain a healthy disdain for all things domestic. Burt’s role as chief feeder is no threatened.
Despite the domestic exhaustion I managed a spontaneous outing with five of the kids. We took a hike to the arroyo called Agua Para Los Cochis. The water for the pigs arroyo is up and over a ridge just south of Pescadero. Several notable things happened on the hike. The kids were quite alarmed we were driving on rough roads and hiking without Burt. They seemed to be under the impression that this was a man’s job. That gave me a giggle. Burt was resting from his first match in the three day Aprils Fools Tennis Tournament. I played good wife and spectated. The match was enjoyable but not much exercise so I scheduled the walk with the kids. Let’s have a huzzah for an inadvertent blow to gender roles.
Elvis and Olive accompanied us on the walk, too. Now for you or me dogs on a hike is normal. In Mexico most dogs never leave the yard. Many spend their lives chained to a tree and act as biological security alarms. The kids were stunned into silence when the dogs came with us. They know our dogs but were quite alarmed to find them in the car. Despite months of exposure they remain unconvinced that Elvis doesn’t plan to eat them. Of course, I never even considered this a cultural exchange moment until it was underway. By the end of our two hour hike the kids were keeping their eyes on the pooches and calling to them. They all wanted to whistle like me. I have a good sharp dog calling whistle. I tried to teach them how to do it but it was a failure. On the car ride back the kids were willing to share their seat with Elvis. Elvis, though silent, clearly adores the children. Olive hates them.
Then there was the hiking itself which was exactly like hiking with seven year-olds anywhere. Feet hurt, teeth came loose, someone fell, there was water and mud to complain about…There was: how far is it? Have we reached the top? and I ran out of waters. And then there were the rocks. I mean to tell you I never knew rocks could be so interesting. Before the hike started I handed out ball caps to protect the kids from the sun. The ball caps became rock bags as soon as we arrived. Half an hour in I was being begged to take the rocks. What luck that I did not have a bag or a pocket to spare. I suggested placing the rocks in a pile for later. The kids slavishly carried 10 pounds of rocks around until their arms gave out. Then they would drop the pile and start over again. Every arm load ended with them begging me to help carry the rocks. I held firm. There are rocks near the car, I said. There are rocks in the road, I said. There are rocks at home, I said.
When we were on our last march uphill and headed to the car, Janexi yelled from far behind, “I can’t do it. It’s too hard.” She was carrying 8 rocks. I yelled, “Drop the rocks, kid.” She dropped the rocks and caught up. Happily no tears were shed. I held her hand the last stretch. After 4 miles and two hours of walking we landed safely back at the car. The kids demanded the promised rocks at the car. I found out I was a liar. The rocks sucked where we parked the car. I did what I could to dig up a few to salve the betrayed rock hounds but I felt like a bad girl for promising rocks where there were none.
We’re planning another walk this week. I will not have a bag. If I had had a bag I would have had 60 pounds of rocks to carry and then the commotion of sorting out who’s rock was who’s.
Burt proceeded to win all his tennis matches. Today, after his last match, we headed north into the countryside. The desert is full of birds in the uninhabited areas. Migration is in full force. Large flocks of sparrows would get up and fly away whenever we stopped. Burt and I reached a new wetland called Boca Carrizal. There we found some snowy plovers, a willet, and a great blue heron. On the way we saw thirty more species of birds. It was a good day.
People are down on Facebook these days. I get it. They used our data and let people manipulate us. It’s bad. It’s also pretty easy to control things and limit who sees what. I have everything public but I also restrict who and what posts in my feed. No meme generators. No extreme partisan groups. I block or delete racists, sexists, hateful people. I use Facebook to find my people. It works pretty well. Last week I met a group of young birders just learning the feathers of our winged friends in Cabo San Lucas. College kids studying eco-tourism or ornithology were just a few clicks away and Facebook hooked us up. This week we went out twice together. I hope for many more trips.
Our first gathering was an urban park in downtown Cabo. I found the announcement of the trip on my Facebook feed. It was just an easy 40 minute drive from our house. Burt and I arrived and we met the students and tehir professor. We split up and practiced a scientific census of birds in a restricted area during a limited time. Everyone seemed pleased that a pair of gringos showed up to help. Afterwards we went out for beers and ceviche. Over beer we made plans for a more intensive trip. We pay for gas and food and the profe would take us out.
This Sunday, the professor, Emer Garcia, took us to one of his favorite Baja California Sur bird spots. Over the course of a few miles and a few hours we found forty species of birds, three of them lifers for us and several more were new for Baja. It was a big day. But more importantly we made like-minded friends that care about this place. Emer’s student Joaquin was great fun and will be a wonderful guide for anyone interested in the area. Juan, a local land owner was also easy to pass the time with and curious to learn about what we were doing. I’m optimistic we can help bring more people here and protect our environment. Stay tuned.