The reptile above looks like it might be looking for a bird meal but that’s not their normal food choice. The spiny tailed iguana generally eats fruits and flowers, occasionally an insect or small animal. Eggs are a popular choice, too. That being said, the birds were having none of it. They stayed a safe distance away from this creature while it made a through inspection of our feeding station. I suspect it came by for the oranges. Our compost is just over the fence and so that might also be an attractant.
Energy levels remain low all around the gNash. Burt is not his usual chipper or energetic self. That’s to be expected after somebody opens a hole in your gut and leaves behind a foreign object. The doctor said all is healing as expected but still 5 more weeks without full exertion. The mesh is stiffening up nicely with scar tissue to plug the “rodent’s” hole. Burt is cleared to drive the automatic and in two weeks he can drive the Dodge.
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.
Thanksgiving is tomorrow and Burt and I are at Portrero County Park just this side of the Mexican border. Tomorrow we will cross at Tecate and start the clock on the bureaucratic process of securing our temporary resident visas. We will need some patience and determination to see the process through, I think. The internet is rife with rumors of how to do it and they all vary. We either have two week or a month to see immigration authorities in La Paz. After that it could be done that day or it might take as many as three more visits. It all depends. Some say we’ll need a lawyer. Others say it’s easy. Only the Shadow knows.
Meanwhile we finally made it to Jack’s house where we spent three days cooking food and playing cards. Stella is and all her associated boating equipment is stored under Jack’s porch. The California fires were on all our minds. Jack lives on the end of a dead end road crowded with trees, brush, sheds, and wood piles. The homes are tight. This isn’t your 5 acre ranchette style community. It’s a subdivision in the woods. I don’t think a single home has heard of the Fire Wise standards that minimize the home ignition zone. Trees hang over all the houses and stacked wood is stored against foundations. One neighbor has a brush pile ten feet in diameter. It looks like he’s planning a bonfire. There’s hardly a metal roof in the neighborhood. So as the fires burned north and south of us and the numbers of dead and missing climbed I sat there and wondered if we could get out in a similar situation. It seemed unlikely.
I asked Burt if we had a plan to drag Jack out if there was a fire. Jack is a former LA county fireman and despite the fact that he turns 90 in January I believe he would rather stay and face the fire with his house than flee. Burt and I agreed to pick him up and haul him out without giving him the time to think it over. Since Jack is very thin and a bit rickety we could just shove him in the truck and run. Burt also agreed to leave Jack if he somehow proved more than we could handle. He’s a wiley one, that Jack. But that seems impossible to contemplate. Maybe if we stole his dog he’d follow us willingly. A little carrot and stick.
Burt and I have driven two-thirds the length of California these last two weeks and she’s a barren land of over grazed fields and smokey skies right now. Everything is as dry as we’ve seen it. My eyes have itched and sinuses ached. I fear we are only in for more of this. The new normal as they say. The urban interface will continue to burn. Towns like Paradise are all over the Sierra and they are full of lots of people of limited means living like Jack and his neighbors. They are cheek to jowl in poorly built homes at the end of shoddy dead end roads. There isn’t a fire hydrant for miles. Even if they wanted to clean up the ignition zone around their homes many of them are no longer physically or financially able to do the work.
They say you can get your kicks on Route 66. I did not know they meant literally. Every fall a gang of wild burros descend on the town of Oatman for free handouts. Tourists show up to oblige them. These burros are descendants of burros used by prospectors in days gone by. Burros are wild animals but they are not native and have, in not just my opinion, achieved a level of success that threatens the livelihood of nature’s local creatures. And they get free food in town just when supplies are disappearing in the desert. I came, I saw, I was disgusted. We did not get out of the truck. Passing by and peering out from the safety of the cab was enough for me.
I know I’m a party pooper. I love horses and burros and I wish they were not running amok in certain fragile ecosystems. I think they should be eradicated. Just like the audad in Texas. The desert creatures need their habitat. There are plenty of horses and burros in the world. I also don;t want to get kicked by an irritated mule in a traffic jam. Been there, done that, time to move on.
We finally got out of Tucson with plans to head north and see Burt’s dad Jack. Jack will be 90 this January. Our dog Elvis has caught up to Jack in relative age. They both limp and can’t hear so well but have their faculties. We try to handle both with care and respect. The leaving of Tucson was a bit drawn out because we had a leaky trailer tire and we could’t find a place that could fit us or fix us. Eventually we landed at a tire shop on the north end of town. I walked a nearby shopping center for most of the two hour wait. When we finally cut loose we headed to a place called Kaiser Canyon in search of another hot spring. We made it through rush hour Phoenix traffic and made it to a rest area just south of Wickenberg for the night.
Kaiser Canyon is northwest of Phoenix between there and Las Vegas. It has a nice campground and we were relieved to find it after the trials of the day before. We arrived early enough in the day to park and then head out on the hike and look for the hot spring. If you haven’t noticed, Burt’s been on a bit of a hot springs mania this fall. Our route to Jack had a bunch of promising spots to keep the drive entertaining. Kaiser Hot Springs was spot number one on the list of potentials.
While the hot spring was only mildly interesting it was not a slimy, gross, smelly, trashed spot. So I’ll give it a thumbs up even though I did not bother to go in. Burt suggested it might be a long time to my next shower and even then I didn’t bother. The water was luke warm and, after a breach of the walls by Elvis, shallow. I did not feel like wallowing in 18″ of tepid water. The sand was gritty and besides my heroic reconstruction efforts were the only thing keeping any water behind the walls so Burt could enjoy himself. I shoveled. He soaked.
I enjoyed the scenic hike and fun birds enough to be able to say the hike alone was worth the stop. There was a mine and some wild burro sign and hooded mergansers and a nice oasis. The water was attracting a lot of wildlife.
Early the next day we discovered our propane regulator had died. After ten years of service the regulator called it quits. We first noticed a problem the day before when the refrigerator was on FAIL. We hoped it was just because we hit a big bump in the road because it restarted without difficulty. The next day the fridge went down again and then the stove flame dropped to a flicker. The propane tanks were full so we deduced the regulator. Regulators are projected to last ten years and ours had read the rules and bailed as predicted. For the last couple of years we’ve been saying, “We should pick up a spare regulator.” Did we? No. So there we were without cooling or heating and hungry. It was a Sunday but I was able to google a RV repair shop open on Sunday in Kingman so off we went.
Cordova RV repair was out of town and when we pulled up it seemed like we might get shot easier than finding a repair guy. As I dialed the number Eric Cordova ran out and assured us we were in teh right place and he was happy to help. “I charge, you know,” he said to seal the deal. Well, I hope so. The weather had shifted towards winter and I stayed in the truck while Burt dealt with our hyper repair man. The dogs and I played with the internet and Burt supervised the regulator repair. The bill came to $91 for labor and materials. It was worth it but it was also another example that Burt and I need to diversify into RV repair. The regulator was easily replaced. I could have done it had I had the spare regulator we’d talked about for two years. The Gypsy RV Repair coming soon.
So here we were off the beaten track and more hours of winter daylight lost to repair. Our trek to Jack was slow to launch. Three days in and we hadn’t left Arizona. Instead of hitting the highway we took a back road over to see the wild burros of Oatman, Arizona. Route 66 you own us.
It was a long day getting into Boquillas Canyon. There’s a ten or twelve mile stretch of park where floaters are not supposed to camp. The Mexican side is available but it’s populated and we chose to avoid those areas. When we finally reached the canyon it was late afternoon and time to decide where to spend the night. This was never an easy decision. The Rio Grande does not offer wide sandy beaches with trees and plentiful tent sites. We juggled the various shortcomings and amenities. There were mud landings, no moorings, steep banks, hummocks. On the plus side were views, hiking, grass, shade. Ideally we wanted a flattish spot with a cobble landing and a tree somewhere within 100′. No mud. Well, no mud was impossible but we could dream. Access to a walk was nice, too.
Our second night in Boquillas was the penultimate night of the trip. We had in a mind a spot vaguely described and near a feature called the rabbit ears. Early on we had hoped to lay over and explore this canyon but we never were able to make more than 15 miles a day and did not store up enough milage to allow a rest day. Late in the afternoon we thought we had found the rumored canyon but there was no landing area. We decided to stop at the next hospitable bend. This was as magnificent failure to achieve a goal as I have ever experienced.
The camping area was merely meh. Two spots for tents and room for a kitchen. We’d arrived with enough daylight to explore the side canyon heading off into Mexico. On the beach we noticed some very small cat tracks and lots of twisted scat. If you’ve cleaned a litter box it was the same size as a house cat. One upside to the shellacking of mud was we could see tracks everywhere we went. Once the area dries out the tracks will all blow away with the wind. We headed up the canyon in the creek bed which required some boldering and thorn wrestling. We were rewarded with waist high blanket flowers and desert marigolds. Wet spots in the canyon walls featured mysterious flowers with lush leaves and scores of stamens. Flowers in fall would normally be all it takes for an satisfying hike but this canyon had even more to offer. The walls were packed with crystals. Literally packed. There were crystals of all shapes and many hues everywhere we looked. I’d never seen such a thing. I like a pretty rock as much as anyone but this was mind blowing. A site like this would be world famous on any of the western U.S.’s popular rivers. Here in Big Bend it was up to us to find it on our own.
I was tired. This was the first multi-day backcountry trip I had taken since before my heart troubles started more than four years ago. I had resigned myself to never doing an arduous trip again but my recent change in medication changed my mind. I figured I’d try and see how it went. This trip went well but by day 7 I was tired. So while Margaret scrambled up a pile of rocks I sat and gazed off into the canyon. My eyes were unfocused. I sat and looked without looking. I had the unfocused gaze of a hunter that sees nothing but catches movement in a wide field. Suddenly I saw something slipping between the rocks and cacti above us. I yelped, “It’s a mammal, it’s an otter, it’s an I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS! It’s black, it’s moving! Look! Look! Look!” Burt had his binocluars and he spotted it as I pointed and continued to describe what I was seeing. “It has a long tail, its face is flat, the ears are rounded, it looks like a squirrel, a really huge squirrel, its legs are short, it’s a squiotter!” Each of us took a turn with the binoculars before it disappeared behind a ridge only a couple hundred feet away. Nobody had an idea what we had just seen. All we could say was a short legged, long tailed, flat faced mammal that moved like an otter or cat.
M and M contiuned up canyon in the direction our mystery animal had headed. Burt and I returned to camp. The animal sighting was filed away for later research. I figured there must be a massive Coahuilan squirrel we’d never heard about. Maybe neotropical otters were in the area.
Our first evening was spent counting stick bugs (phasmatodea) is the shrubbery. Bug sticks, walking sticks, whatever you call them, stick bugs are herbivorous and generally adorable. The recent rains appeared to have ignited a bug bloom of the most auspicious kind. There were beetles and mantids and spiders and butterflies but nearly no mosquitoes or biting flies. The bug wonderment continued all week and I’ll have a separate bugs only post. As dark descended Margaret fed us a bacon laced spaghetti and Burt and I played some tunes. The water continued to rise and we presumed more easy sailing for the rest of the trip. Everyone sang. We were on a new river and we had it all to ourselves.
The next morning we woke to find a big increase in flow and the news that Mark had saved our boats when a 4AM ramble revealed a messy situation. I can’t recall the details. The Rio Grande flows from northern New Mexico through Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. It is fully dewatered in a couple of sections so flow isn’t really the correct word. If you wanted to traverse the entire Rio Grande you’d need to hike a few hundred miles of dry stream bed. Upstream of us the river flows from El Paso to the gulf with one intervening dam below our location. The river is one of the most polluted I have ever floated since the industrial effluent and domestic wastes of Juarez and El Paso are added daily. The high flows we saw were bringing with it a parade of plastic and styrofoam containers. While plastic trash is unsightly it is the unseen contaminants pose a greater danger. The park service strongly advises against submersion in the river’s noxious water to avoid contracting some waterborne disease. This and the mud were why we carried our own water.
The stream side is a nearly impenetrable wall of cane and mesquite and tamarisk but just beyond the banks lies the glorious Chihuahuan desert. It’s a wilderness on both sides of the border. The river is a part of the border between the United States and Mexico. Building a wall here seems fantastically ridiculous, terrifying, and stupid. The first few days of our journey took us through thick cane on a sluggish brown river. Our scope of vision was very narrow. Rarely we could see a bird. More frequently we spotted turtles on the banks. We’d camp when we found a gravel or grass lined opening in the wall of cane. We’d pop up and see the horizon above the tunnel and remember we were traveling through a massive landscape of open space. Shore line mud threatened us bodily and spiritually. I imagined how death by quick sand really worked. All you need is two feet of mud and 6″ of water and a slip. You could drown just trying to regain your feet.
The weather predictions were accurate. The rain stopped and the flow dropped and with the drop in flow our pace slowed. The mud did not go away. As the water receded from the bank wide tracts of saturated silt yawned between us and dry land. Even when we found a spot where we could land the mud wars were not over. Campsites that appeared dry in the evening would become saturated with dew overnight and we’d be in mud again. Resistance was futile.
We all went through the seven stages of grief. Acceptance would come and flare back into anger. Laughter mixed it up, too. Denial, as ever, got us nothing but muddy asses and wrecked zippers. It was as though everything was so wonderful we had to have this bit of hell to remind us we were still humans on earth.
We ate well and marveled at the beauty and every morning the worst part of our day was putting on out cold muddy shoes.
There’s this saying about notoriously muddy rivers: Too thick to drink, too thin to plow. And here’s the only thing I had the energy to write during our trip down the Rio Grande: No water in sight. We float a ribbon of mud. There’s no keeping anything clean. Energy spent avoiding mud is energy wasted.
That was Day 3. On Day 1, put-in day, it was drizzling and the river was muddy from a storm the previous few days. The previous day’s stormwater had washed out the usual put-in road and we could not use its boat ramp. Instead we went to a place called Cottonwood and our gear was dropped off 100 yards from the river. Between the trailer and the shore was a gauntlet of cane and mesquite and a tube of shin deep mud. The weather was predicted to clear and we hoped the mud would dry out as we floated downstream but meanwhile we carried our boats and supplies over a slippery thorny landscape and got to work rigging it all together.
Our intrepid and muddy crew was comprised of Margaret, Mark, Burt and me. M and M drove a 13′ raft of an unknown but elderly age. The Gypsy Carpenters managed a 15′ cataraft born in the late 80s. Both boats and crew had seen many river miles. It had been ten years since I had rigged my dear Stella for a lengthy expedition but I’d done it so often it wasn’t too difficult to put her back in working order, rigged to flip. Burt and I only had a few skirmishes over rigging protocols. The captain is always right (me) even when she’s wrong. It’s part of my plan to over throw the patriarchy. I’m starting with my boat. Do as I say even when it’s stupid. My mantra of recent weeks is, “I am done seeking equality. I want domination and retribution.” Burt humors me on the boat.
We rejoiced at noonish that the boats were built and loaded and no ankles were twisted or backs misaligned. We had 10 days of food, 40+ gallons of water, spare oars, a kitchen, tents, camping gear, a bathroom system and beer on ice all stowed.
A bathroom system? What’s that? On most wilderness rivers in the US you are required to pack it in/pack it out. That means poop, too. So boaters have to carry a receptacle to carry the poop. We call it the groover. The groover is so named because typically you poop into an ammo can and when you sit on it it leaves grooves in your back end. The old days were much rougher than now. These days, and for as long as I have been boating, people are smart enough to put a toilet seat on the ammo can and add comfort while eliminating grooves. Yet the name and its lore stick. The word has stuck so well that grooving is now code for making a bowel movement in most circles of boaters. I have to groove. Did you groove, yet? The groover rode on my boat. I almost always take the groover. It’s the best response I have if someone complains that my boat is too light. I non-chalantly say, “But I have the groover.” No response. Nobody wants to risk a trade. Works every time.
And so we set off onto a ribbon of dirt. The silt was so fine you could eat it and not grind your teeth. It was so fine you couldn’t claim you were exfoliating. It was so fine your private parts were unmolested when you sat in it. It was as soft as flour and made just as effective a glue.
We had 100 miles ahead of us and 9 days to get it done. The river was up and we floated along without effort. Our guess was we were making 5 miles per hour. After the arduous put-in and drives down we made an early day and hit camp around 3.
Thursday morning the Portal Rodeo Hiking club met just as it has for several decades. The proposed hike was up on the Crest Trail high above our meeting place at the Silver Peak Trailhead. At 8:00 AM Arizona time the prospects looked wet. The recent cold wet weather meant the Crest Trail on the Chiricahuas might be full of snow or wet and cold. The group pondered some lower hikes considering. I was hoping to go high regardless but kept my mouth shut since I was just passing through. I figured the regulars should decide where they wanted to hike. Luckily, Al said let’s go up. It could be great up there. I and a couple others said, “Yes!” and the momentum shifted to taking our chances up high. We piled back into cars and headed up the mountain road.
I was in the lead vehicle with Rolf and Carol and we saw a flock of turkeys cross the road as we neared Rustler Park. I love seeing a big band of turkeys running through the trees. They are the dinosaurs of today. Up top all was well. The sun was shining and the clouds below added drama to the landscape. The warming air brought out all the critters looking for a spot of sun. We saw spiny and bunchgrass lizards, a tarantula, and a twin spotted rattlesnake. It’s breeding season for the spiny lizards so they were showing off their finest push-ups. Also seen were five Border Patrol Agents on foot looking for a rumored someone.
Our group bagged Fly Peak and had lunch as the wind shifted and socked us in. We’d gotten all the blue skies we were going to get that day. You can see the wall of fog behind us in the photo above. Moments later we were in the mists. It was time to head down. On a personal note this was a big day. My new medicine allowed me to hike 7 miles above 9,000′. I struggled a bit going up hill but I made it. Flats and downhill were easy. I was wearing my brand new fit bit and it was very pleased with my efforts.
My friend and former colleague, Betsy, invited me out to fish the newly rehabilitated stretch of Prickly Pear Creek as it passes through the former Asarco lead smelter in East Helena. Last year Betsy took me on a tour and showed my the stream work in progress. This year it’s already coming back to life. Fish! Birds! Vegetation!
This was a weepy moment for me. Way back in 1997 Asarco entered into a consent decree with the U.S. EPA that was the result of a multi-year and multi-state investigation requiring the cleanup of this plant and many other things including cold, hard cash. That investigation was successful because EPA and the Department of Justice had a team of young, driven, and excellent investigators and lawyers. I just happened to be the investigator that discovered the original violations that got the whole ball rolling. It was not an easy push. I had to convince many people that our long culture of giving the mineral processing industry a pass on waste management was a misinterpretation of our laws. Unbelievable to me today was that I succeeded. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say neither the State or the Feds were in the habit of asking lead smelters to do anything to manage their hazardous wastes. It was because they were misinterpreting something called the Bevill Amendment in our Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Or at least, that’s what I thought. From my remote outpost in the Montana Office of the 1990s I was able to convince or cajole management to let me try. Through the course of the work I found other like minded people and together we changed the face of the mineral processing industry.
Many further developments have happened. That first Consent Decree started a cleanup process that twenty years later is showing real results both above and under ground. Teams of contractors and EPA staff (Looking at you Chuck and Betsy) have wrangled the site into a pocket of beautiful habitat. All of us feel lucky to have seen this from start to success. Soon the general public will be able to access the area and catch their own fishes. This is the good that government does.