Monday, December 31, 2007

Ah, Mexico

Well I’m going to have to write fast, because as luck would have it my computer’s battery charger has decided to cease functioning at the most inopportune moment. So what little I can say will have to be said while the battery meter still shows life.

Here we are again in Mexico although while sunny, it’s not terribly hot. Cool even considering the time of year. A little windy but plenty sunny and as always, a great place to be for the holidays.

We spent our first day marveling at the continuing building boom. New houses and condominiums everywhere. I suspect it’s the knock-on effect of the housing market in the US – just slightly out of phase. Will be interesting to see if it too comes to a screeching halt in the next year. Bird habitat continues to disappear for this reason, and I can see a time when our annual Christmas Count dwindles to the point of disinterest.

Nacapule Canyon

Not dissuaded by progress, we decided to visit Nacapule Canyon, a traditional place for a hike and some boulder scrambling. These days, it’s marked by signs that make the once arcane trip far easier. And the price of that are people.

It used to be an empty place, out in the desert, a canyon craved into the side of a large dike of volcanic rocks. Now it’s a destination with a parking lot and garbage cans overflowing with trash. Nice to have the cans though it would be even better if someone drove a garbage truck out there and collected it. But such is Mexico, where the first step is always easy and often in the right direction. The second step never comes.

We headed in and marveled at the fine collection of pictographs decorating the rocks. Unfortunately, they were not pre-Columbian, rather far more current and perhaps heralding the rich gang life of Nuevo Guaymas. Undeterred, we forged on, passing small bands of Mexicans out for a morning hike. We reached one of the spur canyons and headed up, thinking we would recreate one of the hikes from the family lore, up the canyon and over the top, coming down to a ranch below. Now I sometimes doubt these historic recollections, things change like paths and fences and such but I supported the team and continued up and up to the point where we had climbed over so many boulders and shimmied through so many water-carved rock chutes that there was no turning back. This despite two hours of daylight remaining.

The climb alternated between dry waterfalls and palm frond littered valley floors. We found a child’s sweatshirt tied to a tree and figured it was worth carrying out. I joked that we’d read about the skeletal remains of a family discovered many months from now, starved due to being lost, their trail markers carelessly removed. But we were so high up we never saw another soul. The sweater eventually came in handy has a means to tie together two water jugs and a Coke bottle left below one of the rock falls. If the original user wouldn’t carry it out, at least we could do our part.

Eventually though we found our way up to the saddle and miraculously discovered the gate through the cattle fence that gave passage to a path that scrambled down the other side of the mountain. And so we went to the welcome of a barking ranch dog, a few bleating goats and one lowing cow. Across their pens and under the barbed wire at the bottom of a wash and we were on the road to our car.

Google Earth Adventure

A few months ago I was wandering around Google Earth looking at the general Guaymas area. I do this to see if there are any potential birding sites worth investigation on the ground. The link between G-Earth and Panoramio offers the opportunity for people to post photos of places with a spot on G-Earth and associated GPS coordinates. I found some interesting pictures – big open ponds just off the bay in the city. Figuring I would print out some maps before I came down, I filed away the idea and then promptly forgot it until we arrived.

Trusting my infallible sense of direction and incredibly detailed memory, I decided to head out and find the place, without the benefit of modern technology. We headed into town and braved the Saturday traffic. Policemen were directing traffic at each major intersection in a manner that suggested the stop lights would be more effective. We finally cleared the downtown area and headed out along the bay, past the childhood home of one of our friends and in the direction of my Google Earth memory image.

As predicted by my mind's eye, we passed a soccer stadium and some open athletic fields, much to the shock of My (semi-incredulous) Lovely Wife. She knows deep down inside that I am a Master Geographer but I think she if often reluctant to admit it, lest my head swell too much,

Passing the fields the dirt road I expected came into view and we took it up into a small colonia. Off to the left I saw some large dump trucks heading up a gravel road through a cut in a ridge and decided that was the place to go so I headed down the rutted dirt residential streets and found my way up to the cut. Over the top and spread out below in a green canyon were three large saltwater ponds, dotting the path down to the ocean through a gap between two headlands. Three Ring-billed Gulls danced over the water near what seemed to be some sort of inflow. A small flock of Black-necked Stilts huddled in the corner of the closest pond. And then it hit us – the unmistakable smell of raw sewage. We’d found the municipal sewage ponds. The Gulls were delicately dancing over the burbling inflow pipe. The Stilts were bewildered at their poor choice of a place to spend the day. And the person who’d posted these shots on Google Earth was sitting in his casita chuckling at the small cosmic joke he’d played on the rest of the world.

It took several blocks with the windows rolled full down to replace the sewage odor with the more friendly aroma of bus exhaust.

Air to Air Missile

Yesterday I decided to take the kayak out in the estuary to scope for some birds. The tide heading out and so my paddling trip turned into a hike as much as a float but it was nice, dozens of egrets and herons huddled in the mangroves, a sole Roseate Spoonbill graced my vision from the top of a snag and hundreds of ducks – Buffleheads, Scaup, Pintail – allowed me to approach before blasting up into the sky and across the open water. As I rounded a bend my idyll was further enhanced by the sound of Latin American Techno blasting across the wave tops from three pick-up trucks parked on the far shore. I had it all, a cool breeze, a rising sun, hundreds of birds and a soundtrack consisting of thump-thump-thump-thump.

Leaving the music behind, I headed out into the back bay. Stopping occasionally to look at the ducks I discovered that the quickest route to sea-sickness is looking through a pair of 10x binoculars with your boat positioned with the wind across the beam. I carried on from there watching a large flock of White Pelicans work a school of fish that they’d driven into the back of the bay.

Off to my left I noticed an oddball standing on a sandbar, all puffed up like a banty chicken – a Peregrine Falcon. An amazing bird in the air, standing on the ground they look like a Chief Petty Officer just off the boat looking for a beer and a good fistfight. I took a couple of quick photos before he decided to cruise the duck flocks for breakfast.

I went on my way for a bit, seeing him and wondering if in fact I was seeing a pair. That supposition was confirmed as I struggled back into the wind to head out of the bay. A large flotilla of Scaup and Buffleheads was off to my left and as I turned back to my paddling, a gray missile shot straight across the bow of my boat with speed that was frankly stunning. He was making a pass at the ducks that, upon realizing what was coming their way burst into flight in a wild chaos of wings. So many in all directions that the falcon couldn’t choose and thus he veered off to gain altitude. But grabbing one wasn’t his plan. I looked up and saw his mate, lazily circling above trying to pick out the lame or the slow or the tired. One bird scatters; one drops like a rock and gathers the meal. Very smart and very efficient.

And so that’s it so far. A few more days, a few more meals of machaca and hopefully some interesting birds. My computer’s power wanes and so does my access. You’ll simply have to imagine the rest.

This being the last day of the year, a Happy New Year’s to one and all. I’ve tacked a few photos below just to give you a sense of what we’re seeing. (as always, click on the image for a bigger view)


Monday, December 10, 2007


Well I haven’t been out on the road for a while, at least not a road that merits a blog entry. But I thought this trip had a few moments worth capturing. That and some nice fall pictures of Oregon.

Southwest has a new boarding process for those that have not been to the airport for a bit. You can learn about it from their web site where they have kindly created a section called “Boarding School”. I wonder who came up with that clever moniker?

Now you might think that it their old system of boarding was just fine for what it was. Socialism that rewarded those that were willing to come early and stand for a long time. Of course the lines eventually devolved into a line of suitcases, as the weak staked their claim but retired to local chairs when the standing got tough. What could anyone do to improve on that? Well, you asked.

They installed 6 steel poles in the boarding area leading up to the gate. Each pole is labeled: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc. Up to 26-30. The flip side takes the numbers up to 60. We now have two boarding groups, A and B, each with 60 members. The plan is simple – line up between the poles that match the boarding pass number that you can obtain 24 hours in advance. Really pretty simple, and because you are guaranteed a place, +/- 5, there is no point to claiming your spot in the line early. Honestly? I like it. What’s especially cool though is the palpable pressure in the boarding area to remain seated. Southwest patrons are so trained, that everyone now sits there on the edge of their chair, trying their hardest to display a complete lack of caring as to fixing their place in the queue. Of course, there are always a few that buck that trend and stand up early anyway, even though it buys them nothing. Their body language is slightly different, they’re trying to say, “Oh, I prefer to stand and so I may as well just stand here.” The difference now though is that the first lemming does not precipitate a mass dive off the cliff.

The second element of Southwest’s revival is “Business Select”, a class that allows early boarding for the mere cost of paying twice the ticket price. What you get is a guaranteed spot in the first 20 boarding slots. And judging from the number of people standing in places 1-20, I’d say it’s not a smashing hit. If you refuse to pay, you’ll find yourself with a number greater than 21. If you take that and get in line, you’ll find that they may as well have given you #1, because there is no one in front of you. That’s happened to me 3 times now. So save your pennies unless you’re booking within 24 hours of the departure. In that situation, a coupla hundred moves you right to the front.

Oregon – what can I say? One of my favorite places. Just beautiful, if not freezing this time of year. I got in late and then braved the incredibly confusing drive from the airport to Hillsboro. It’s been 4 years since I was here last and although things have changed, the route remains the same. One of the most interesting things about traveling here is getting out of PDX and making your way down the dark slick highways, across town, across the bridges, up the loop, through the tunnel and out to the farmlands. It’s a tough haul after a long day, but who doesn’t love a challenge?

Missed the hotel on two passes as it is located down at the end of an unmarked street across from Orenco Station. Finally found it and checked in. The elevator is apparently used as a meat locker overnight, because for some reason it was well below freezing. Room was nice but sparse on blankets which required me to leave the heat running all night long, against my better judgment. And I had to unplug my clock radio because for some reason was channeling my Blackberry every time it did a send/receive.

The day started dreary, but by the time I was done with my meetings, the sun came out and the sky cleared up. Just gorgeous but pretty chilly. So got into my grubbies and headed out Highway 6 towards the coastal range to see if I could get a non-standard picture of the day. Many opportunities added below. I love driving in the pine forests here; it’s just so different than driving at home.

It was getting dark so I did a u-turn and headed back to the plains. As I came off of 6 and onto 26, there was a sight which eludes me just about every time I’m up here – Mt. Hood, blazing pink in the setting sun. Against all better judgment and multiple Oregon traffic laws I pulled onto the shoulder and squeezed off a couple of shots. Wrong camera and bad location, but better than nothing. At least now I have some evidence that I actually saw it.

From there, the day winds down. The last adventure of the day involved filling the rental car. No self-service gas stations? What’s up with that? I pulled into a slot behind a car that wouldn’t pull up to the second pump. I realized that the forward pump was broken. I got frustrated and turned around and headed out. But the traffic was so voluminous that I couldn’t get out of the station. So I did a u-turn and saw an open pump. And pulled in. Only to discover it was broken too. So I backed up and as I was about to just drive out through the shrubberies, saw another open pump. I pulled in and waited. The attendants all gave me weird looks, figuring I was going to a pain of a customer but when they finally showed up I handed the my card with a “please” and a “thank-you” and just sat there putting my gas station experience into the bucket of “adversity makes me a better person.” They pumped, I paid and that was that.

That’s it for this trip, next month it’s off to Mexico and early in the New Year I’ll be heading back to China for a winter-time visit. Check back then for the next round of journeys across the sea.