Yesterday was warm and sunny and the whole fam-dam-ily took a road trip up to the remote ranchos in the mountains to look for pottery. Dad and friend in one car and Burt, Jen, and Robin in another. I bounced back and forth. I’m not sure dad enjoyed himself. He seemed a little subdued. It might have been an upset stomach or just the really rough roads through very remote desert.
Our first stop was to see Ramona. At 70 Ramona doesn’t produce much these days but her pieces are more whimsical than other local artists. There are pigs, cows, turtles, chickens and other local species transformed into jars and bowls and serving vessels. She explained to us that she was hoping for a new oven because her current one was too big for her to fill these days. She wanted to be able to fire smaller loads. Ramona uses pitaya cactus wood as her main fuel. It doesn’t take much time to form a simple cup but the finishing takes a lot of rubbing with a smooth stone over many days. She does a little bit every day until the piece is smooth and dried just right for firing. If she does too much work one day the piece will dry too quickly and crack. Ramona learned how to do this from her great-grandmother.
Next we went to the locally famous guy’s house but he wasn’t home. Marcos makes bigger and more finely crafted casseroles and bowls. You can drop a substantial amount of pesos at his house. I figured it was our lucky day to not be tempted. Our last visit was to our friends at the end of the road. We don’t even know their names but they call us friend and we’ve been many times. The main man in the photo below has never smiled for us. Until now. The ladies were all unpacking a bunch of cups and bowls for us to look over and I wondered why the man of the house wasn’t showing us his wares. This guy embodies strong, silent type. I knew he wove lariats and riatas and horse accoutrements. Last year I bought a key chain from him. The hand of the car I call it. So this year I gathered my gumption and asked him, “And where is your work?” I got a flicker of a smile for remembering. He quickly tried to conceal it and he headed off to get his stuff for me. This year I bought a bull’s head made of pig teeth. He makes this stuff to sell down in Cabo San Lucas.
The women asked how our walk (recall the death march to Titi Mountain?) went earlier in the spring. I told them how far we made it and that we were looking for birds. I always say we are scientists studying birds because it’s easier to understand. This brought a piece or unsolicited news. The older woman and the youngest kids had seen a new bird in the area. A blue bird with a crest. I showed a picture of the very common California Scrub Jay and they said, “Noooo, not that one. That one doesn’t have a crest.” I searched for jays on my phone app and found a mainland bird, the Stellar’s Jay, dark blue with a prominent crest. I showed them this picture and they said, “Yes, that one has been here for a couple of years. It’s new here.” Hmmmmm. We could be real scientists after all on the brink of a new discovery. I have no doubt they know what they see. These people are living straight off the land. They pay attention. Burt and I hope to head back up in a few weeks and see for ourselves.
We heard through e-bird a group of groove-billed anis were spotted in the La Ribera area about a week ago and thought we’d go take a look. La Ribera is about 30 miles away if you could fly over the mountains. It takes two and a half or more hours to drive there because you have to drive around the peninsula. There is no usable road through the corrugated Sierra de la Laguna Mountains. There is a dirt track that some consider driveable but it takes 4 times as much time and an infinite amount more in discomfort. Yesterday after Spanish class, Burt and I and the Olvis hit the pavement. It was an easy afternoon drive.
We found the spot using GPS and it was a nearly empty beach with a small lagoon and a palm oasis. It was great diverse edge to edge micro-habitats. The birding was exciting and netted us a bunch of new species for our Mexico list but we did not see the ani. Anis are described as large black birds of a disheveled appearance. Their wings droop and their feathers are ruffled. Their beaks are very heavy and distinct. Hard to miss a messy giant black bird but four birds in miles of scrub have a lot of cover. They did not come out to the water’s edge while we were looking. Maybe they’ll fly over and visit us.
It was good to go wander a bit. Camping can be an effective cure for hitch itch. The need to wander is abated by sleeping on the ground, missing showers, and eating cold food. But sometimes hitch itch is inflamed by seeing beautiful new spots and doing fun activities. I think I came out about the same as I went in.
We drove down here with a 5 pound bag of bird food. Burt was feeling tolerant of my whims. Usually he says, “Too much. Buy it there.” I only bought it because I was afraid I would forget to buy some here. As soon as we were situated I put out some seed. It was a cheap bag of food and nobody came. I tried a couple of locations. Nothing. All the other bird features were busy but sugar water only attracts a subset of feeder birds and I wanted to see more varieties. I despaired. Maybe my food was spoiled or just not to their tastes?
Last week our friend Bobbi asked us to come to her place and help her identify her birds. It was on our way to her house that we spotted the pair of cara-caras sitting in the dead palm. As we sat there on her porch and watched a veritable flock of birds dining ten feet away I realized my mistake. It wasn’t the food. It was the location and type of feeder. The bowls were too exposed and the table was too close to our trailer. I made one small change. I placed the food in a piece of driftwood and hung the driftwood on the fence. The feeding station is two feet further away from our trailer and higher off the ground. The next day there was a seed eater on it. A very shy cardinal flitted in and out taking a seed at a time. The day after that four new species of birds were in the yard: Black headed grosbeak, house finch, phainopepla, pyrrhuloxia. Yippee skippy!
Moral of this story, same as all the rest: Don’t give up.
Burt pulled out the map and said, “There’s gotta be an easier place to hike in the mountains.” Well we got lost but found what he was looking for anyway. Burt’s original goal was the end of the road about 8 miles south of where we landed but we can’t complain. Rancho Santo Domingo is at the end of a different road and on a trail head into the Sierra de la Laguna. Chito is the current occupant and resident guide. He sent us on our way and we did a short exploratory walk. His dog, I called it bones, followed us. Bones’s love for Olive was unrequited. I guess she prefers men with more meat on their frame. Up the hill from the very old and well shaded ranch house we found a mature orchard with ripe toronjas (grapefruits) and flowering mango trees. The trail followed the arroyo up into the mountains. Birds were sparse because of the heat but this water hole was fantastic.
We turned back early. I am still tired from Sunday’s expedition and we had a music date with Tom. We can visit this place again when we have more time and energy. On our way back down Burt spotted the Cape Robin! I missed it but I can trust Burt knows a robin when he sees one.
I have found turkey vultures surprisingly difficult to approach. I always presumed they are so large and safe up on that cardon or neck deep in a carcass that I could snap some nice pictures. I was wrong. They do not tolerate proximity. Perhaps because they are so ungainly and slow to get off the ground they choose to leave as soon as someone makes eye contact with them. I wonder who preys on them. TuVus eat things that offend the olfactory system of most other creatures so just who is eating them?
It turns out other large birds of prey such as great horned owls and both golden and bald eagles don’t mind dining on turkey vultures. Great horned owls are known to like skunks, too, so I’m guessing they have unique tastes. Eagles are also famous carrion eaters so they just don’t mind the smell of death. The turkey vulture has large perforated nostrils that allow a large volume of air to pass through its sinus cavities. Their keen senses of smell and sight allow them to find freshly dead animals. They’re sniffing for the first gasses of decay. Turkey vultures prefer fresh meat and will not eat things that are putrefied. I did not know that until now. This explains all the dead highway animals that the buzzards didn’t find in time.
Vultures have a defense tactic I’ve mentioned before. They can projectile vomit their skin burning acid laced stomach contents. This smelly bomb lightens their load allowing for quicker take-off and deters animals trying to get too close. I was rock climbing once at Sunset Rocks in Chattanooga, Tennessee and I popped over a rock roof to find myself face to face with a vulture on a nest. Both of us got a good scare and I miraculously was spared the rotting gut bomb. I continued on my way up as quickly as I could manage. Since then I’ve been charmed by these under appreciated cleaners of the world.
Today’s writing task: tune in to nature. That’s nearly a full time habit around these parts. The Monday Bridge game precluded a jaunt into the wilds but did offer the usual mysterious peak into the human condition. I’ll save thoughts about Bridge induced psychosis for another day. There is a lot of human nature on display in games we play for ‘fun’.
This morning I put out some new orange slices in a our yard bird feeding station. Within ten minutes there were four species of birds on the slices, all at the same time. Since this same group was here yesterday and then later today, I am guessing they are a mixed species flock. Some birds gang up and do not adhere to the ‘birds of a feather flock together’ motto. Meanwhile the hummers were in attendance, too. This morning it was very nice to see the size varieties from the hummingbird to verdin to warbler to mockingbird and oriole. Getting a feel for a bird’s general size and shape is critical to making ID’s with only a quick peek. They call this general feeling of a bird its jizz.
Today Burt had a volcanic spontaneous utterance lamenting all the things we are trying to learn: Bridge, tennis, birding, music, language. All the rules, rules, rules. It’s terrifically terrifying how incompetent we remain at all these things we want to master. We suck. It’s wonderful.
Saturday, May 14th, was Global Big Day. Birders of a certain style have goals of big days, big years, big trips…The goal is to find as many species of birds as you can in a certain time limit. There’s a funny-ish movie about the phenomenon called The Big Year. People make great personal, physical, and financial sacrifices for a big year. Tapping into this idea bird conservation organizations, specifically, Audubon and Cornell University, organized a Global Big Day to get people the world over out and counting birds. With global coverage we get a snapshot of where birds are on that particular day. You can check out the results HERE. Data is still streaming in, but it looks like a lot of people did a lot of work. Burt and I are not extreme birders keeping meticulous track of our observations but we saw a hole in the data and aimed to fill it. Last year only one person birded the entire state of Baja California Sur. That’s one person in over 28,000 square miles. That area figure doesn’t account for the vast surrounding bodies of water, either. Back in Portal, Arizona last year there were scores of people covering a few hundered square miles. At the very least we thought we could increase the coverage. Maybe, we could find a bird or two that would only be found in our area.
For a while when telling friends of our plans I was calling this Big Bird Day. Finally, Aldo and Burt pointed out that Big Bird lives on Sesame Street and isn’t really a bird. But I like that big yellow guy so in my heart I’m still saying Big Bird Day while my mouth says Big Day. So Burt came up with a plan and I signed off. His idea was to go high up in the mountains the night before and camp out so we could make a dawn start at the upper elevations. Past trips into the backcountry we had seen some of birds harder to find in our regular lower elevation neighborhoods. Acorn woodpeckers, yellow-eyed juncos, and the San Lucas robin were the goals. So Friday night team Mittelstadt (Burt, Susan, Elvis, and Olive) headed up the mountains. Our campsite was a vacated rancho at the end of the road. Vacated by humans that is. A burro, two dogs, and a flock of chickens still lived there. It was hard to tell if somebody swung in to feed regularly. One dog looked pretty good but the other was scraggly. A newish car was parked nearby. Perhaps this was a bad idea? Perhaps the owners would come home and be upset to find us in their driveway? Could we sleep worrying about the dogs getting into it with our dogs? Would the burro stop rubbing its head on the Exploder? Burt wondered if we should leave. I was ambivalent. I told Burt I’d expected discomfort both mental and physical. We’d driven an hour and a half and I knew we were coming to an empty rancho. Starving animals and weird scenes are an everyday occurrence in Mexico. Should we stay or should we go? My metal ambivalence prevailed. The ranch dogs disappeared into the bushes even after we fed them a package of tortillas. Many Baja dogs are wary of humans. These two were happy enough to meet us and then go off away from us.
So the four of us piled into the back of the Exploder. For a few minutes Elvis and Olive lolled about in the sleeping bags and pads and made out like they were going to share the space with us. It was a no-go. Wheel well in the small of the back and Olive at the nape of the neck and Elvis behind the knees was not going to work. They got the boot to the luxurious empty front seats. I still had a wheel well in my back but it was better. We passed the night. Not much sleep was found. The car listed a little and Burt was uphill of me. It was cramped and warm. For obvious reasons we were fully attired.
The alarm sounded at 5:30 AM. It was still dark. Elf owls hooted. First bird of the day. We ate some bananas and cereal. The milk was sour so only two bites of cereal. No sign of the dogs. The roosters crowed. The mule was still rubbing its head on the car. As light broke we headed uphill. Burt had the dogs on leashes and a backpack with food and water and binoculars. I had the phone and the iBird app, my notebook, and new binoculars. Orioles, towhees, gnatcatchers….
The Sierra de la Laguna mountains are not supremely tall but they are lung crushingly steep. Covered in thick thorn forest and loose ground these mountains demand serious exertion to traverse. The place is riddled with cow paths. A person might think cows could clear ample passage for a human to easily follow. It’s a reasonable conclusion. After much study I can say if the cows were organized and used the same path over and over again they might eventually make a nice route from point A to point B. Cow paths are short in height and full of loose gravel and sand. They meander with no rhyme or reason. They are unsuitable for humans but it was all we had. We clawed and stumbled up for a couple of hours. We got to a palm oasis high in the mountain’s skirts with water. Cactus wrens, Xantu’s hummingbirds, Cassin’s vireo, Cedar waxwing…Eventually it was clear I could not continue to go up if I expected to get down. It was simply too steep and demanding. Two hours up was enough. Burt went a little further hoping to find the acorn woodpecker. I sat and counted birds from a ridge top. It was glorious.
Our mountain birds did not materialize but we did hit the Xantu’s hummingbird and that’s only found in Baja California Sur. As it would turn out this was the only time we’d see them the rest of the day. All winter these birds are regular visitors to feeders in our yard. As soon as the native flowers bloom they fly and away and live in the mountains. Burt returned and we headed downhill. We arrived at the car at 10:30 AM and drove to the coast. We stopped twice to bird. Road runner, red tailed hawk, western scrub jay… Our plans were to bird Elias Calles, Pescadero, the Las Palmas beach oasis, and Pescadero’s La Poza (the freshwater artesian spring in town). We quickly birded Elia Calles and picked up a white crowned sparrow among others. Hooded orioles and white-winged doves were becoming major annoyances. They are noisy and show up everywhere.
At 2:00 PM we had come birria tacos. Birria is a kind of marinated, sauteed, brisket. Then we went home for a nap. At 4:30 we headed into our very own Pescadero and birded the beejesus out of it. Towns are very good birding. Our twon is specifically good because agricultural fields bump up against home and mango trees and palms. There is a lot of diverse habitat. California quail, great egret, mockingbird, house sparrow, house finch, ruddy ground dove (new for us), grey thrasher. The grey thrasher is another bird only found in Baja California. Go team Mittelstadt! The ruddy ground doves were hilarious. I’d been mumbling about them for months. My research indicated they should be all around yet we had never seen them. Over the winter and this particular day we’d spotted the common ground dove, the mourning dove, the Eurasian collared dove, and the white-winged dove. Finally, here in our town we found ourselves staring at doves we couldn’t identify. One good thing about birding this time of year is most of the harder to identify birds have migrated north. The reason Burt and I can competently participate is the really confusing warblers and vireos and what not are gone. Or at least hiding from us. So far that day only the Cassin’s vireo required research to identify. The cedar waxwing took research to verify that they are found here. That one caught me by surprise but I had a clear sight of it. It’s a distinct bird. The doves were a hilarious annoyance. You’d of thought we’d have seen it before and made the ID before the stress of the Big (bird) Day. Scapular marks confirmed it as the ruddy ground dove I had been trying to find. Our only excuse for not noticing it sooner: Doves are easy to ignore. This will prove to be a great lesson later in the day.
After Pesy-town was done we headed out to the Oasis Las Palmas. This is my favorite local place to bird. Freshwater and salt, desert and palms. Lost of diversity. We’d done two intense evening efforts previously so we knew what to look for. This time my goal was the critically endangered Belding’s yellowthroat. This bird is only found in wetlands and only in Baja California Sur. Like the world over, wetlands are rapidly disappearing and so is this sweet little bird. The males are very flashy. Check it out HERE. My Portal friend Narca Craig-Moore had written about finding this bird in the Estero San Jose. Because of her blog I knew what to look for. I had high hopes. So far this winter this bird had evaded us. It seemed like a remote chance but a girl’s gotta have hope. So we hiked some more. It was wearying work. Look, take notes, watch your step. More orioles and white-winged doves. I was so tired of looking down and making a hashmark for every white-winged dove we saw. Burt brow beat me to keep at it. He scanned the trees. More doves, more orioles, more doves. Then the big payoff. I believe one of the most important aspects of birding is that it enhances your powers of ‘seeing’. Force yourself to pay attention and keep a list and you will learn so much more than just the names of birds. You’ll see things you’d never see by only taking a walk. This seeing is hard work. The brain is engaged. You can’t move fast. Your feet hurt.
Burt spotted a baby Great Horned Owl. It was so freaking adorable. A fluffy mass of down with enormous eyes gazed at us from high in a palm tree. All because he didn’t stop looking for the doves. What a great spot, Burt!! We watched for a while. I tried the app to call in the parent but it didn’t work. It was getting late. We were very tired and hungry. Burt suggested I hit the estuary and he’d cover the desert to the ocean. He told me to go find my little bird.
I crept quietly over the mud flats down a horse trail (horses make passable trails). I saw a common galinulle. I stood about. My feet hurt. I was in full sun. I listened. I peered around a corner. I scanned the reeds with my new binoculars. I heard a sharp and regular cheep from deep in the reeds. I couldn’t remember what the Beldings’ yellowthroat sounded like. I figured it was near impossible to see this mysterious cheeping bird. Then I remembered Narca’s blog and the picture of this bird in exactly this type of vegetation. Other birders had seen this rare species at this location. I decided to make the generic push push pushing sound that my friend Peg employs. It’s a kind of generic bird noise used to draw birds closer. It works well for certain species. Would it work on Belding’s yellowthroat? I tried. My push push pushing isn’t as good as my friend Peg’s but I had been having success this winter. This time I hit the jackpot. My Belding’s yellowthroat came right to the edge of the reeds and looked me in the eye. OMG OMG OMG. There. That’s a good day.
I watched this masked marvel for a few minutes and went to get Burt. We couldn’t draw it out again. Sad faces. At 7 PM we gave up and went to dinner. We abandoned our plans to bird Pescadero’s poza because we’d seen the bird we hoped to find there. At dinner at Hierba Buena we spotted the common poorwill and the lesser nighthawk.
That’s a big day. Burt and I found 46 species of birds in 11 locations over 14 hours and 70 miles. We hiked 8 miles.
I am so grateful to all our Portal birding friends that took as out and showed us how last spring, summer, and fall. Peg, Pat, Rolf, Bonnie, Rose Ann, Richard, Dave….We were blessed to be able to hang with some of the best in the business.
Spring has sprung. My mom used to say that. Flowers are blooming. Lizards are doing pushups. Baby birds are cheeping in our palapa column. Burt’s daughter and her boyfriend (Jen and Robin) are here catching rays and waves. I thought I had something to write about but I’m tapped out for the moment. Ideas welcome. Let us know if you have any questions.
Migration is upon us. Birds that don’t live in the area are moving from the north to the south and they pass by here. Vast swaths of dry desert makes watering spots very attractive. Currently we have a lovely Scissor-tailed Flycatcher visiting a nearby pond. My favorite feature on this bird isn’t its long tail, but the peachy patches of feathers in its underarms that can only be seen in flight. Check out this first picture. The bird looks like it has orange epaulets. The next photo shows it sitting demurely. No epaulets. A little mystery for the ladies? It;s no surprise that this bird has a dramatic aerial display when seeking a mate. The Scissor-tailed flycatcher has so serious physical attributes to show off.
Bird watching is a great excuse to get outside and just look around. We saw an osprey fly over head. Ospreys are fish eating birds and don’t spend much time in the desert so it was kind of startling to see one pass by even though it is migration. But a birds gotta move when a birds gotta move. Burt and I recently watched a 5 hour mini-series on the origin of humans called First Peoples. It was produced by PBS. In it they talk about the innate human drive to look over the next hill and across the pond. Our drive to explore filled the globe. Given our current climate change and habitat destruction issues it seems to me the animals that will survive are the ones that can adapt and also have the ability to explore and push the boundaries of their territories to more pleasant locales. These ‘off-track’ wanderers might be the gypsies of their clans looking for a better place to live. I can hear that osprey returning to it’s partner and saying, “No fish there but I saw a crazy scissor-tailed flycatcher sitting by a pond.” Flycatchers like grasshoppers and there are plenty of them around. We also spotted an unidentified raptor (I’m tired of trying to ID these vexing birds) and an unidentified song bird. I’m waiting for Steve to send me a picture of the song bird and I will try to figure out what that was.
While I ponder the mysteries of rare bird sightings Burt is out installing more sheet rock. I helped with the heavy lifting for a couple of days. I think he’s tired of me. I was sent away today.
There is so much of the wild world we can’t understand if we don’t go out as a group of humans and try and take stock. Take counting birds. Try and count something that is hard to see and moves in and out of the leaves and branches. You need to know how to identify the birds and you need to try and get a feel for how many you are seeing. Burt and I are not experienced birders but we are observant and we can lend a hand and use our abilities. Yesterday morning was the annual Elegant Trogon count in the Chiricahua Mountains. Birds are an important indicator of how our world is doing. Way back in the 60s Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring brought to light the terrible things we were doing to our natural environment with pesticides. Birds are counted all over the world on particular days and this data is examined over time to see if there are discernible population trends. These counts are almost completely staffed by a worldwide network of volunteers.
There is a trend of Don’t Look, Don’t Tell amongst some factions of our government. Wyoming recently passed a law trying to limit the citizenry from collecting data on public lands. Pictures, samples, wildlife censuses…these are data. You can read about it HERE. For me this is intensely important and personal. I spent a long career looking at environmental data and trying to understand what was going on in our world. The fact is if we don’t dare to look and collect and consider, we will never understand. Attempts to shut down the process because we are not in agreement with possible conclusions is ignorant and dangerous. This goes for both sides of any scientific debate.
Trogons are an indicator species in southeastern Arizona. The relative health of their population might reveal to us many things. Have the recent intense forest fires pushed the birds away? Has climate change expanded their range? What about human development? Drought? We can’t know if we don’t look.
The Trogon’s nest in Island ranges here in Arizona. Since their habitats are dispersed and seperated by inhospitable open desert they can be counted and reveal fairly accurate numbers. Once the Trogons have arrived and settled in for the season they are not (generally) traveling from range to range. Over the last two weekends teams of birders covered the known and unknown territory of the Trogon to see what we could see. The count on Sunday morning in the Chiricahuas was the last area.
Saturday night there was a pre-Meeting at the Forest Service’s Visitor Center. FORTY people were there to help count the birds. We were shown pictures and we heard three distinct calls of the birds. Trogons are big and the males are brightly colored. They sound like frogs. It’s hard to make a mistake. Spotters were assigned limited territories. At 6AM the next morning we would be in position in the middle of our territory and start recording data every 5 minutes for 3 hours. Calls up or down canyon, type of call, and any visual spots were to be entered into a worksheet. Every 5 minutes for 3 hours. Meanwhile, if you could, you could make note of any and all other species of birds you might see. After 3 hours you were free to wander your territory and see what you could see.
Burt and I, being late to the game and amateurs, received an area where Trogons had been seen on occasion but only rarely. I was not sad. I know no sightings are as important as sightings so that we could delineate the range. We arrived at our spot a few hundred yards from our home and set up. What a gift three hours of sitting still and watching can be. We saw many things. A man wandered out of his guest cabin (We were assigned an area encompassing a guest ranch) in his underwear several times. I cast my binoculared gaze in another direction when this happened. Burt sat nearby. We both had our bird books and we did our best to identify the many visitors flying by. After 3 hours we had about 27 species of birds in our one spot. Some passing lizards, moths, and butterflies, too.
Our 2 hour wander took us to the guest ranch’s feeding station where we logged a few more species. Dave Jasper, pro-birder and the Gypsy Carpenter’s Trogon hunt sponsor, met us here and took us on an hour long pro-tour for the last bit. We logged in about 10 more species. These were mostly the little grey or brown jobbers that all look the same. Brown Crested Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Dusky Capped Flycatcher…Dave was funny and very informative. We were thrilled with another pro tour by yet another Portal professional.
Afterwards we submitted our data sheets. We had seen no Trogons. We had done our job. Now the scientists will aggregate the data and let us know what they think. Rumors are the birds are making a comeback after the big 2011 fires. But it’s too soon to make any conclusions.