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.
Sunday morning walk with our neighborhood acrophobic was nearly cut short. Burt and I had forgotten our friend was afraid of high, cliffy spaces and nearly ruined his day. Burt and he turned around for a safe beach walk and I went up the hill with Olive. The TuVus came to say hello to us. Olive reeks of fetid mud so maybe they wanted to make sure we weren’t dead.I’m still a few checklists away from 15 with photos so I grabbed these shots for the eBird competition.
I think the birds are starting to talk to me. Yesterday a roadrunner met me in the exact same spot he met me last week. Yesterady, as I walked along the edge of a dry playa I pish pish pished to see who was in scrub. Pishing causes some birds to move about and lets you see where they are. A roadrunner leapt up and landed on a solitary cardon cactus and sang to me. There was a roardrunner on this very same cactus a week ago. I’d never heard a roadrunner speak before yesterday. Immediately I knew why the roadrunner is in the cuckoo family. We made a date for next Saturday.
I am continuing on with my attempts to win high end binoculars from eBird.org by entering their monthly birding challenges. In the name of citizen science eBird has a challenge every month and also for the. This year’s contest requires at least one complete bird list for every day of the year. I don’t have to bird every day but I have to submit at least 365 lists during the year. I am at well over 100 and it’s only March so that shouldn’t be a problem. There’s also a drawing for binoculars for people that complete every monthly challenge of the year. And there’s a pair of binoculars given away every month for the monthly contest. Last month’s contest was easy shmeezy. The contest was designed to get people birding and reporting to eBird so I had to share at least 15 checklists. Burt was my main companion and recipient of the shared checklists. Even with both of us completing the challenge we still did not win.
This month’s contest is a real pain. I have to submit at least 15 checklists with media attached. That means I have to include photos or sound recordings of the actual birds on that day’s list. Not all the birds but at least one from the list. No historic photos allowed. That day, that list. Since I usually bird by phone using the eBird app I considered just submitting a bunch of terrible phone shots of birds in shrubs and palm trees. You have to rate your photos so I would just rate them all poor. But then I started thinking it would be my kind of luck to win the drawing with a bunch of shoddy photos. How embarrassing would that be? Fuzzy photos of feathery blobs from too far away. I couldn’t do it. Instead I’m birding from bed. It’s a lot easier than heading out with phone, binoculars, and camera with telephoto lens.
Our feeding station is just outside our window. I can sit in bed and make a list and take some photos without breaking a sweat or dropping my tools. If I win I’m still going to be embarrassed but at least my pictures are pretty good quality. Today a turkey vulture (feeling sorry for me) flew by in the little triangle of sky I can see. The bird on bird action has been hot and heavy these last few days. Longer light and warmer weather have cued up the hormones of desire and the doves are jumping each other. They are so quick I can’t get a picture.That’s kind of embarrassing for them and me.
Yesterday I tried to buy bird food but our local tienda only had chicken scratch. It’s not very popular with the birds. They spend a lot of time kicking it out of the feeders looking for their favorite morsels. I could be in trouble.
So here’s a little something you might never have heard of, the oil bird. When I think oil bird I always think of oiled birds, those black creatures accidentally trapped in spilled oil. Happily, oil birds are not oiled birds though the origins of their name are just as grim. Oil birds are a nocturnal, fruit eating bird of South America. They are the only bird in their family. That means there are no other birds like the oil bird. These unique avians live together in large groups inside of caves or cave-like formations. The oil birds use echolocation and smell to find fruit in the dark. They can fly nearly 120 miles away from their cave each night in search of food.
Burt and I heard about the oil bird cave in Ecuador and despite it being an hour drive from where we were I told him we had to go. I knew just enough to know that you must pilgrimage to the oil bird roost. We’d never see one just wandering around. Their nocturnal lifestyle and jungle habitat make them very hard to see. Burt had never heard of this creature. I told him I’d spotted some posts about it from friends that had been to Trinidad and seen them there. So off we went to visit La Cueva de los Tayos.
If you google cueva de los tayos you’ll find a bunch of stories about a famous cave, aliens, astronauts, Native Americans, and expeditions. That’s a different cave. If I ever go there, I’ll share that story. Here”s ours.
We found the Cueve de los Tayos well signed on the side of the highway 45, northeast of Baeza. Already that morning we’d hiked to a waterfall in the rain and we were thoroughly wet. We pulled into the roadside parking area and found a pair of city visitors and a guide. Our guide advised us that we were about to embark on a steep, muddy walk with a thigh deep river crossing. We were going to get wet. I replied we were already wet so let’s go. Our guide did not lie. It was a steep and muddy descent into the upper elevations of the Amazonian jungle. As we carefully made our way down slippery stones and mushy logs I pondered my lack of knowledge on the Amazon. Here I was in the actual jungle, in the Amazon watershed for the first time in my life and I was completely uninformed. Were there army ants? poisonous frogs? venomous snakes? I felt a slight taste of panic rising. Would I return home covered in leeches? Tropical diseases I hadn’t prepared for began to run through my head. Yellow fever, cholera, malaria. Wow. This was a fun way to pass a hike where the biggest risk was probably breaking my ankle. I talked myself off the ledge and reasoned that we were still too high for any tropical nightmares. But were we?
Eventually we reached the river. Going down is hard work because the body is fighting gravity and trying to use it at the same time. It’s much easier to fall while trying to stay in balance. Climbing is easier mechanically but much harder on the cardiac and respiratory systems. I was concerned I would not be up to the up hill climb. I put all these worries aside and followed my guide across the river. The thigh deep water was only to our knees. Burt’s and my knees. The guide and our Ecuadoran companions were nearly hip deep in the flow. This was a serious mini-expedition. I asked the guide if there was an easier way in and he said no. If you want to see these birds you’ve got to suck it up and do the work.
We followed the river up stream just a few hundred more feet. The greenery covered walls of the canyon closed together over our heads and we entered the nave of a natural cathedral. This wasn’t an actual cave but a tight spot in the canyon where light couldn’t reach. It was more like a tunnel. Light peaked in from the far side. Our guide urged us to keep quiet as we walked deeper into the darkened enclosure. Just over head a pair of big eyed birds gazed down. One at a time we each went in and stood. Birds called in a cat-like scream from all around and flew back and forth from shelf to shelf. It was magic. There was a lot of action and the birds were very loud. Nocturnal doesn’t mean they are all asleep all day long. They eat at night but they do other birdy things during the day. These birds seemed to be gossiping.
Eventually we turned back and made our way up and out. It was a nice slow pace and not difficult. I think it took about 30 minutes to go bottom to top. On our way up I asked about snakes and our guide said they aren’t found at that elevation. I can also report I contracted no tropical diseases and did not find any leeches.
Oil birds got their name because oil birds feed their chicks so much that they become super fat and eventually weigh more than the parent birds. These chicks were a rich source of food and easy to catch. These plump chickies were eaten and also boiled up for oil. Check out THIS funny write up on the oil bird.
Burt’s been battening down the hatches around here as we make ready to fly off to the Galapagos. Yesterday we made a run to our local dump. I went along because birding is always interesting and, well, it’s the dump. When I was young a run to the garbage heap of our area was an adventure. My brothers and I always wanted to take home enormous globs of glass we would find there. Bowling ball sized hunks of glass in shades of pale blue and green or clear. I still don’t know where that glass came from. When I moved to Montana in 1992 you could still prowl our local landfill for discarded treasures. Burt knows a guy that found a 150 year old Irish flute made of rosewood and silver. In the garbage. That all ended when the transfer station was built. I shudder to think of the many things I have discarded that I could put to use now.
The area dump is located between the towns of Pescadero and Todos Santos. The ‘relleno sanitario’ services ten thousand or so people and no industries. This is home garbage. Pretty regularly the place catches fire. I wish I knew why. In the US our dumps would burn regularly too, before strict regulations. In Montana we still fielded burning dump complaints after the turn of the millennium. Sometimes incompatible items spontaneously ignite. Other times heavy equipment throws a spark. Most often though people light them on fire under misguided ideas of fun or trash management. When this dump catches fire the wind almost always takes the noxious and unhealthy smoke towards populated areas. We live upwind. There’s a lot of yelling on social media on burning dump days. I’m sure I’d get up in arms if the smoke headed my way but it doesn’t so I don’t spend too much time wondering about it. I did that enough for a living.
Yesterday was two days after the dump burned and sent billowing smoke into Todos Santos. Burt and I figured the fire was out because we couldn’t see any smoke. On the drive in we passed a flock of over 100 lark sparrows with a bunch of butter butts and other warblers mixed in. Birds love the free garbage meals. It was so exciting Burt parked the car and we walked around counting birds. There are a few homestead places near the dump. These are places where people make a residence out of things they’ve gleaned from the garbage. Our walk took us to an abandoned camp where we found some high end goods. I made a thorough perusal of the camp to be certain we weren’t stealing instead of up-cycling. There was no sign of occupancy. No food, no clothes, no bedding, no water. Burt and I gleaned 4 chairs and a long and heavy workbench/saw horse from the place. It was a kind of high grading of the high grading experience.
After forty-five minutes of birding and scavenging we finally delivered our own garbage to the spot where you throw it out. During past visits to the dump we’ve been met by several men and a pack of dogs looking for tips and handouts. These men recycle and glean for a living. Yesterday there was only one guy and no dogs. There were scores of yellow-rumped warblers flitting about in the still smoldering ashes. I presume the fire drove off the usual residents and attracted the warblers. Even birds disagree on the treasure versus junk question.
Here are a couple of pictures from our hike to Puerto Viejo or Old Port. When this area produced commercial amounts of sugar cane the shipments left via rowboat at this port. Large shipping vessels anchored off shore. There are bits of old infrastructure to admire such as the stone quay and dry set rock fences and roads and even the remnants of a turtle cannery but I am always blinded by the dramatic landscape. Here the last vestiges of the mountains crash into the sea. Sea lions blubber about on the rocks below while verdin, black throated sparrow, and a cactus wren sing courtship songs. Sometimes the wind carries the sea lion’s grunts and groan all the way up to our perch. The cardon cactii stand watch like lighthouses on cliff edges. The palo verde, nipped by the harsh salt wind, grows close to the ground with octopus like tentacles.
Traditionally visitors approached this area from the north but a recent hotel development has caused confusion (putting it mildly) and animosity about access. Guards and scary looking dogs patrol the area now and a massive amount of vital mangrove habitat was destroyed, threatening the endangered Belding’s Yellowthroat. Best to steer clear even if the road is open. We decided to see what the walk was like from the south and found it to be easy and rather more pleasant because we could avoid all views of the unsightly hotel and its environmental destruction. Yes, our heads are firmly in the sand. From where we parked and walked there was very little evidence of the massive development all around. The area remains a very wild pocket, one of the last, between Todos Santos and Cabo San Lucas. Scat all around and game trails onto sheer cliff faces indicated coyotes and/or bobcats make regular excursions into the deep canyons. I hope the area stays protected.
Recently I took my rings in to a guy to be resized. Abel works in an 8′ by 8′ space behind a rack of shoes in Todos Santos. I showed him my rings and asked if he could resize them. He wondered why since they appeared to fit fine and I explained that when I exercise my fingers swell and recently they were swelling so much the rings hurt my hands. I was worried he wouldn’t be able to resize them because one is white gold and the other is palladium but it was easy. Right then and there he put them on a thingy and beat them with a hammer. Beat, check, beat, check. Twenty minutes later they were cleaned polished and just a little but bigger. Thank you, Abel.