Sunday, December 27, 2009

In Jimena's Wake

The National Audubon Christmas Bird Count has been conducted year every since 1900 and we’ve been covering San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico without interruption since 1993. Our December vacation on the beach has always been loosely based on the count with a lot of time dedicated to wandering around the environs looking for birds. And the area provides some interesting ones, species that are local and a whole host of visitors that has traveled from the Arctic and my back yard. Each fall, western North America is abandoned in favor of a little time down by the ocean where the temperatures are mild and the food supply less marginal. There are even some that “reverse migrate”, leaving homes in the rainforests of Panama to spend the winter where the Sonoran Desert falls into the ocean.

We’ve seen a lot of changes over the years – from the first count where Isla Blanca, a mile off shore, would start bare close to sunset and end up covered from one end to the other with a standing room only party of Brown Pelicans and Cormorants – to the recent counts, bereft of the thousands of Eared Grebes we used to see, all lost to Avian Cholera outbreaks far to the north on Mono Lake and the Salton Sea. While the CBC as it’s known has never been “scientific”, it has always provided insight into what’s really going on in the environment from the northernmost count at Point Barrow Alaska to the handful of counts that are held in southern Central America. And in our experience the patterns are not good – no longer does Isla Blanca fill up nightly and the thousands of Boobies that once plied the waters along Bahia San Francisco have either disappeared or moved on to more productive climes. Across the board, the birds have disappeared in our short time with them and it doesn’t take a statistician to draw that conclusion.

A couple of days on the beach forces you into a new pattern – breakfast on the seawall and a cursory count of the loons followed by a trip to town for a cup of coffee followed by a drive here and there to see what birds might be hanging around and whatever changes might have been made. Sometime breakfast starts at Rosa’s, our favorite place. Carne Machaca, tortillas and a Pepsi. Sometimes the trip to town is later, around ice cream bar time. But despite the minor changes, the days pretty much fall into the same routine. And sometimes a routine is a wonderful thing to fall into.

This year the place showed a lot changes due to Hurricane Jimena which rolled into town back in November. We were told that it had rained non-stop for 38 hours and the effects were obvious. The bridge on the main road was out forcing a paved detour through the desert for a mile or two. On the far side of that diversion the road had been damaged by water that had built up on the barren slopes of the stony mountains that surround the town and then rolled down the main arroyo in the area, scouring everything in its way. One of our more romantic stops – the San Carlos Sewage Ponds - was at first glance unaltered, but a walk down the levee in search of Least Grebes brought us to an amazing sight – one entire wall of the impoundment was gone which meant that years of sewage sediments had washed down the channel to the sea during the deluge.

Nacapule Canyon is one of our regular stops as it often provides us with some truly unusual birds. For years we had our favorite canyon just beyond town and far more accessible than Nacapule but over the course of the last decade it had been filled with construction debris and so has been degraded as a habitat. So much so that while we still drive in, we rarely bother to spend any time. A couple of years ago we met a fellow from Washington who was down for a week and he spent some time in Nacapule birding in earnest. His birds – Trogons, Orioles and Warblers – made it clear that it was a destination worth the drive, so one morning we went out early and took the road out of town after a fruitless stop at our adopted coffee shop which happened to be closed.

The bridge across the main drainage was gone. Long ago we had taken the traditional dirt road across the stream bed only to find once back up on the sandy pan that this bridge had replaced our accustomed 4-wheel track with a route both paved and shorter. Now we were back to the primitive way, driving slowly by to assess the damage. Blue plastic pipes that once held power and phone lines swung in the air where there had once been half of the span. A six foot diameter conduit had been pulled up and out of the rocks, its end crimped leaving it looking like a giant pastry bag tip. Heading out on the marked road we were slowed significantly by a constant series of small arroyos that cut diagonally through the dirt track forcing us to creep along at 10 or 12 miles per hour. Eventually we saw the canyon walls off to our left and we took the last dirt track heading towards our goal.

We had to cross the main channel one more time before heading up a small hill to the small parking lot. The destruction here was even more vivid – the walls of the stream were stripped of vegetation and now perfectly vertical to the stream bed which was littered with downed trees and boulders. A new road had been cut through and the climb out was easy. We parked the car and walked down the trail at the mouth.

The trail here was completely new and perhaps 10 feet below the surface that we had walked on in previous years. Like the channel below, the canyon was littered with broken palms, uprooted bushes and countless new boulders. The old path which once wound its way along the canyon walls was simply gone, remaining only in a few places where bigger rock forms had provided protection for the land downstream. In short, Nacapule looked nothing like it had before. An hour or so up the trail we found the old palm grove that once served as the crossroads for hikers planning on climbing up and over the mountains. Today, while still a small oasis among the red granite, the paths leading off to the other three cardinal points were simply disappeared beneath tons of rock and displaced vegetation. Unable to go further, we headed back down to the car, stopping to pick out some birds here and there.

On the way in we had crossed a second road, newly bladed and heading back in the general direction of town. I’d decided when we crossed it that we’d try it on the way back, one of the best things about vacation being a complete lack of schedule. And so when we came to it we took an angular right turn and headed back. For a dirt road it was pretty well tended and we were able to get up a good head of speed. A short time into the drive we found ourselves back at the wrecked bridge – the new road cut off across the desert in parallel to the road we’d struggled in on. Our thirty minute ride had been reduced to ten.

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