Birding Basics

Fledged but not flying mourning dove.
Fledged but not flying mourning dove.

The walking is great here from Chez Gopher. Laura and I have a daily 3.6 mile loop we do every morning at 8 AM. It’s an effective addition to my Galapagos training program. Waking up on a schedule is as important as the exercise. Today the weather was noticeably cooler and there were overcast skies. I wore long pants and a long sleeved shirt for the first time since arriving here. Laura wants to learn more about birding so I’ve been bringing my binoculars but until this morning there hadn’t been much to see. I don’t know why today was different. We had reversed our normal route so was it because we were headed downhill instead of uphill so it was easier to stop and look around? Was it the cloudy sky? The cooler temperatures. Is migration underway and so the birds are lfocking up, making them easier to see? Because we had reversed direction we arrived at the birdier area earlier, Were the birds more active earlier? It’s impossible to know the reasons why today but it is not impossible to know if we keep studying the area and doing the same loop over time. We can make a habit of observing the birds through the month, season, year in the same place at the same time of day and someday we might be able to reach some conclusions. This brings me to today’s climate change blurb.

Climate change fact of the day: Warming temps have changed bird behavior. Birders have kept meticulous records for long lengths of time over large geographic areas. This makes for great data. We can see discernible trends in the last thirty years. A quick summary:

Birds are nesting earlier, birds are migrating north earlier and heading south later, and some birds aren’t migrating at all anymore. Birds are arriving in habitat that no longer meets their survival needs. Birds are in trouble.

So today I taught Laura the basics. We saw or heard juncos, titmice, towhees, jays, doves, hawks, robins, turkeys, quail, crows, and more. There were a couple we couldn’t ID. So annoying but it is what keeps the brain firing on all cylinders. Accepting the mystery is good for the mind and soul. Even the most mundane of birds can tell us what is happening in the world around us. There is no need in being an expert. Learning and recording your regular neighbors over time will help us (and you) develop a deeper understanding and connection to the natural world. Join me in learning your local birds and recording data. Be part of a worldwide team. Visit ebird.org and submit your feathered friends to the census.

Atascadero City Hall
Atascadero City Hall
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Work and walk

Perching rock
Perching rock

Climate Change factoid of the day: Warmer air holds more moisture than cooler air. I’ll spare you the why. The results are more downpours and less drizzle. Obviously this hurts the brain a bit when you think ‘but droughts are worse.’ Indeed they are. The change is in the how much and where the rain is falling. Bridges, storm sewers, roads need to be designed to handle large rain events. Agriculture has it’s own problems.

By downpour we mean a lot of precipitation in a short period of time.

Life on the rancho in Templeton is sweet. Nice walking abounds. The internet works fine. The clients feed and walk us. I finished my first week’s course work in a day. The presenters estimated 3-4 hours of reading and video watching per week and I got it done. I passed all my quizzes, too. After that I dealt with the IRS.

Our mail came (thanks, Sue). It was full of dog treats and dog drugs left over after Sue and Jay’s dog Scotty flew to the other side. Scotty lasted a long time and he was ready to see what lay beyond the rainbow bridge. Elvis will benefit from Scotty’s pain pills and anxiety meds. I’d like to believe Elvis is going to last a long time but he hates pain. Maybe the pills will convince him to stick around. Also in the mail was a hilarious letter from the IRS. If you’ve been following along you might remember I couldn’t file our taxes electronically because the IRS could not identify our identity. After much email searching and some lengthy holds and calls with the TurboTax and IRS I finally submitted our taxes in paper. I felt so old and wasteful. Retro. This month the IRS’s suspicions were raised by our paper submission. I had to call them to prove it was really me that filed the taxes. Really.

I don’t know what to think. I spent 25 minutes on hold and then another 20 minutes proving I was who I said I was to the IRS. Eventually my service technician said she was as perplexed as I was. I mean who would be impersonating me by filing taxes? Next year I’d like to pay someone to impersonate me and do my taxes. It did occur to me that this was some kind of IRS investigation into my taxes. Like, maybe, they want me to say I did it cause I did it wrong. Well, if that’s true, I did do it but I did my best to do it right. If I accidentally did it wrong we’ll just have to deal with that but first you’ll have to prove it was me being me and not some other person pretending to be me here and on the phone. Got that?

The other day we took a walk to the Harmony Headlands. This path to the ocean was littered with regurgitated pellets. I must have seen over 100. The number was impressive but so was the location. Normally pellets accumulate under a birds perch. An owl will catch and eat a mouse and then fly off to digest. A while later the owl belches up the nasty bits. Pellets can be fun to investigate. The pellets we found were sitting in the open on a path with no perches above. Meanwhile rodents and lagomorphs were everywhere. Rabbits peered out from the bushes. Gopher holes dotted the landscape. Fat and I presume happy birds of prey soared over hear. I saw a golden eagle on the drive in and the northern harriers put on a spectacular flight show. The area looked barren but it was surging with life in a circle of eat or be eaten.

Imitation rabbit.
Imitation rabbit.
Regurgitated pellet full of rodent bones.
Regurgitated pellet full of rodent bones. Birds of prey regurgitate the indigestible fur and bones.
A triad at the Harmony Headlands.
A triad at the Harmony Headlands.
Gopher mummy.
Gopher mummy.
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Puerto Viejo visit

The view east from the Pacific to the Sierra de la Laguna.
The view east from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra de la Laguna.

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.

Burt and Elvis admire the view.
Burt and Elvis admire the view.

The cliffs above Puerto Viejo. The headlands are bwtween las Palmas, San Pedrito, and Cerritos beaches.

Abel the jeweler of Todos Santos.
Abel the jeweler of Todos Santos.
Abel resized my rings.
Abel resized my rings.
Anahomy and her landscape of the rocky end of the Baja Peninsula.
Anahomy and her landscape of the rocky end of the Baja Peninsula.
A change in local politics has us locked out of our classroom. Somebody didn't get the memo.
A change in local politics has us locked out of our classroom. Somebody didn’t get the memo.
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Olive is disgusting

Olive in the smelly mud.
Olive in the smelly mud. The skull is just in front of her nose.

Swamp water and mud has a mighty aroma.  Smells like love to a dog. Yesterday we took the dogs to Playa Las Palmas and did a bird stroll. I’m prepping to take out a pair of paying clients next week so I thought I’d tour the local bird hot spots and see what I could see. Most of the water is gone from our local oasis and a bunch of deep dark mud remains. Olive and Elvis plunged into the reeds and found some fetid, foul water and happy danced among the green. Swampy water reminds me of the back of a forgotten gym locker or a particular closet in my grandma’s house. Stale, anaerobic, moist, decay. The decay turned out to be actual rather than imaginary when Olive dug up the skull of a raccoon from her wallow. Mmmmmmm, good!

From the swamp we headed to the beach. My dogs took off at a run and left me trying to decided if I was seeing Common or Belding’s Yellowthroats. I counted 8 house finches and decided it was a Common Yellowthroat. When I finally looked up to find the dogs I saw them about 100 yards away rolling in a dead sea lion. Great Googly Woogly. This was a banner day to be a dog. Not such a great day to be a canine companion. Sara Gay and dad had mentioned seeing this poor dreature the day before and I had forgotten. My poor excuse for a nose could not detect the rotting flesh but it was obvious the dogs smelled it from a long way back. I saw the dogs see me and hear me and they got in one last roll when they decided I was too far away to exact a punishment. As I approached they ran off and kept a safe distance from me. They knew the fun was over.  I looked over the carcass and decided it was too disgusting to snatch the skull. The smell was overwhelming up close. The turkey vultures hovered nearby waiting to get back to their feast. I remembered reading vultures don’t like putrefaction and pondered how far along flesh can be before it is too gross for a TuVu. Maybe a sea lion is just too tasty to pass by even with maggots.

You wanted Olive, come and get her.

Maggots: perfect rolling substrate after mud bath.
Maggots: perfect rolling substrate after mud bath.
Maggot home: sea lion carcass
Maggot home: sea lion carcass
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Took a kid outside

Evely took a bunch of pictures of me.
Evely took a bunch of pictures of me.
Evely says the water is cold
Evely says the water is cold

I did something I’ve never done before. I took a kid in the woods. A real kid. By myself. Sure I’ve been in the woods with bunches of children and their parents. I’ve skied and boated and hiked with kids but there was always a real caretaker nearby. Then there’s the twenty-somethings. I’ve been out with a few of them.

Evely is one of our regular students in the art and music and English classes. She has always been kind and polite. She helps the younger kids. She never acts bored or too cool to participate. In last year’s class we had another girl her age and she was disruptive because she thought she was too old for the activities. Evely understands the younger girls follow her lead and she is all in and eager to learn. Watching 13 year old Evely show up and work hard, always with a smile on her face, gave me the idea that maybe she was ready for a side trip all her own. I decided to invite her birding with Burt and me. I told her we’d look at nature and look for birds. She said she’d like to go. I told her to get permission from her parents. It was all arranged.

Today was the day. Burt woke up sick. Enter massive anxiety for me. I have to take a child on a trip by myself? What if she gets hurt or hates it or can’t carry the stuff? Who was going to take care of us? Who would drive? Burt wouldn’t listen. He insisted I was ready. Ack ack ack. So I went alone. Me and my anxiety.

I’ll admit there wasn’t much small talk. Evely is a quiet girl and me, well, you know, I don’t have much to say most days. The car ride was very quiet. Evely texted. I fretted. Maybe she just wanted to get away from her parents and play with her phone? Once we arrived at Las Palmas I realized I had picked the right kid. I showed her how to use the binoculars. We found some lesser goldfinches and practiced looking for them as they flitted in and out of a bush. Evely described the birds to me. We found a lizard. We focised on things near and far. The phone was gone and the binos were glued to her eyes. It was time to explore.

Right away we spotted a sweet Verdin. These yellow faced birds are the definition of darling. With binos to eyes Evely exclaimed, “Que hermoso pajaro!” I asked if she wanted to take a picture and gave her complete control of my telephoto equipped real life camera. And that was the end of my worrying about entertaining my companion. The next two hours she took photos while we found birds and horses and a dead raccoon. The dead raccoon sealed the deal. Without saying a word she started photographing while I put its head back together. As is typical, the lower jam was found apart from the head. She was not disgusted one bit as I ripped away the tattered mass of fur. My kinda girl!

After it was all over I thanked her for her fine companionship and told her we’d head out again soon. I believe, almost as much as I believe anything, that if people don’t appreciate the natural world our planet is doomed. I have hope.

Me by Evly Cota
Me by Evly Cota
Calavera Mapache by Evely Cota
Calavera Mapache by Evely Cota
Horses by Evely Cota
Horses by Evely Cota
Verdin by Evely Cota
Verdin by Evely Cota
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Burrowing Owl

Santo Domingo hike
Santo Domingo hike. Salty and Elvis.

We went for a late afternoon walk in the hills with our Montana buddies Aldo and Bequia yesterday. Huge discovery of two burrowing owls on the road as we drove home. The owls were very patient and allowed us all a good look through the binoculars while Burt shined a flashlight. Burrowing owls live underground and prefer to stay close to the ground. They have long legs for walking. Here in baja this species is easy to identify because the other owls are either much bigger or much smaller or have long ears. The squatty head is also a clue to who it is. I played the iBird call but didn’t receive a response. I guess they weren’t fooled.

Burt heads into the mountains on a guided hike Wednesday AM. I’ll be holding down the fort around here alone. I just landed a paying gig as a backup singer so I’ll also be doing that while he’s gone. Side work is a good thing.

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Burrowing owl outside its burrow. Those long legs are for walking.
Bequia on the hike.
Bequia on the hike. That skinny dog at her feet lives on the rancho. He could use some more food but he’s in good health.
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Audacity and Despair

Sad ending to a brave bird.
Sad ending to a brave bird.

When people said we were brave for taking on this bird I didn’t understand. Now that my heart is broken I realize they meant brave for leaping into the chasm of doomed love.  We could have left him to his fate that cool night a week ago. It wouldn’t have been the wrong thing to do. It would have been easier to walk away and let nature take its course but we didn’t. We dared to care, we tried to help and now we suffer for his loss. I am always shocked by how the death of an animal can feel so sharp. Someone provided comfort by explaining that love is what motivated us. A short lived but powerful love.

BH’s wound was simply too serious and the resources for repair do not exist here. He would have died without our help and he did die with our help. I wonder if our arrogance caused him more pain or I wonder if humans all over are better because we simply try. That we all collectively care is important. We need to hang on to our desire to help people and animals.

It is sad but also we learned some things. Maybe next time we will leave an injured animal to its fate but maybe not. Maybe we will seek medical care sooner. Maybe we will apply our new knowledge. Maybe we will succeed.

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Stress

 

Blooming fish hook cactus.
Blooming fish hook cactus.

The dude continues to eat despite yesterday’s attempts to ‘help’. After much reading and consulting with various experienced persons we decided to sling the kestrel’s broken wing. First step was a sock on the head. That is instantly calming or, perhaps, so terrifying that the bird is catatonic. With a sock on the head Bad Hombre freezes and curls up his toes. If he happens to be gripping your finger at the time of cloaking you might need help removing him from your finger. I know I did. Burt had to peel BH’s mighty talons from my thumb. I was uninjured but only because his claws hadn’t pinched loose skin. I can now sympathize with how helpless a lizard or bird must feel if caught in this deadly grip. Here I was a mere 1,000 times larger and I needed help to get free.

Once calm and unattached to me we explored the bird’s wing. Sadly, we found an open wound. The wound was healing but there was a little pus. I would guess another bird of prey got a shot at this guy. I cleaned the wound and applied antibiotic ointment. Before treating him I used my iPhone to quickly see if bids were allergic to antibiotic ointment. Some antibiotics kill birds of prey. I knew this because a cow medicine is killing vultures. The internet said ointment is okay. I gooshed a bunch in the hole. Then we wrapped an X-bandage of self sticking tape around the wing and then wrapped another bandage around the wing and the bird’s body to stabilize things. One of the more alarming aspects of caring for the bird is if he freaks out and tried to fly he gets his bad wing all tangled and it is a horrifying sight. I cannot imagine it feels good. The bandages we used are the stuff that sticks to itself but not the skin or, in this case, feathers.

Withing seconds BH was tangled in the bandage around his body. Those crazy strong talons got up inside and tried to pull it off even with the hood on. I re-attached it with more determination and slightly tighter. Same problem. I gave up on it after a second fiasco of wings, bandage, and talon knot. This was looking dangerous for all of us. So we put BH back in the kennel and he slumped over in his post-human contact coma. The X-bandage was in place, the wound was treated, and he was still breathing. Burt and I left for Bridge.

Big surprise. We played horribly at Bridge. I was in a funk. The wound. The bandage failure. Long term care issues. Crazy cards. Really good players. Bleh. We came home and found BH roosting, ready for dinner, bandage off. I told him he was on his own. I was not going to try again. We fed his some grouse heart and other yummy bits and said good night. I feel my funk lifting as I share all this drama with you.

This cardon is doing something so beautiful that we humans could never intentionally replicate. Wabi sabi. Gorgeous decay.
This cardon is doing something so beautiful that we humans could never intentionally replicate. Wabi sabi. Gorgeous decay.
Check out the chamfer corner on the dry set wall.
Check out the chamfer corner on the dry set wall.
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One Bad Hombre

American Kestrel now known as Bad Hombre.
American Kestrel now known as Bad Hombre.

I started cooking this morning. I have a new recipe. It’s called Kestrel’s Favorite Soup. Canned cat food, chicken puree baby food, electrolyte drink, and sugar water are all mixed in equal parts. Heat it up until warm and take it with a dropper. Burt found this injured male Kestrel last night while we were birding. It was dragging a wing and ran itself into a dead end where Burt was able to capture him. Now we have a bird of prey living with us. He’s staying in the dog kennel. So far he hates us. He’s paralyzed with fear. The prognosis is unknown. On the plus side: he survived the night. On the negative side: he is a wild creature and all systems are pegged at red, he is injured, he is susceptible to infection. We now he would have died if left alone. Kestrels are estimated to die at a rate of 65% per year. How’s that for a short life? With us he has one last chance to heal and fly away. If he heals and can’t fly we know a guy that will care for him. Burt and I will try to get this ferocious bird and insect eating dude back on his wings. Since these birds are commonly used in falconry there is a lot of information on the internet on how to care for them. Several people have already told me how they succeeded in rehabbing other individuals. If there were a raptor center nearby I would take him there but as far as I know the closest one is in Tucson.

Night in the Desert. Common Poorwill.
Night in the Desert. Common Poorwill.
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Birdies flocking together

Cara-caras in Elias Calles
Cara-caras in Elias Calles

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.

Cara-caras in Elias Calles
Female Cardinal
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Cardinal at take-off
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Cardinal and black headed grosbeak
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House finch and orange crowned warbler taking a bath together. I wonder what the missus will say?
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House finch, hooded oriole, and orange crowned warbler. The bath is very popular.
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Pyrrhuloxia
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Northern mockingbird and a hooded oriole squabble over who’s turn.
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Scott’s oriole, hooded oriole, house finch in line.
New feeder with cardinal
New feeder with cardinal

 

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