Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A brief meditation on observation of the natural world

For years, we’ve been counting birds down here and trying to draw conclusions from what we observe. Back in the late 1990’s, I read about a Grebe die-off in California and sure enough, months later we had hundreds of little emaciated bodies washing up on the shore. And since that time, we’ve never gone back to the amounts seen before the event. In other years, we’ve observed crashes of the Brown Pelican and Double-crested Cormorant populations that I wrote gloomily about as evidence of the destruction of the Gulf fishery and the doom of both species. But as time went on, the birds came back and today they appear to be about the same as ever.
This year though we seemed to be down on both those two and the local Blue-footed and Brown Booby populations. In the case of the former two, decent numbers seen from shore but far less than the thousands I normally count. The observed numbers of the latter two though has been downright depressing. Instead of hundreds, I’d only managed 4 birds in the whole 10 days of looking. They simply were not present.
So today my friend Doug and I powered up a friend’s $50 aluminum boat and took our annual 3-hour tour of Bahia San Francisco. The slightly overcast sky made it a bit nippy as we headed out to our first stop, passing a local fisherman snorkeling for rock lobsters and a single sea lion basking on the surface, a single fin held straight up to the sky.
Closing in on the big rock locally called “Haystack” the reason for the missing birds was immediately obvious – hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants clinging to every niche on the side of the white-washed rock. Many hundreds in fact. My initial conclusion was that the food must have moved out of the bay and so the birds were resting further out and closer to it.
Having counted this host, we moved on to the next two rocks where we ticked off the expectedly small group of Pelagic Cormorants and a few more Pelicans. Not a surprising result, one way or the other. Our last stop was a long, flat volcanic seamount closer to shore and known for a small population of wintering Savannah Sparrows. We passed another sea lion enjoying the day on the way over.
Doug told me that he’d been out here a few weeks earlier and seen more Pelicans that he’d ever seen before. Arriving, it was clear he was not exaggerating – the place was covered from one end to the other with thousands of them. We landed and stopped to watch a Least Sandpiper picking its way through some shore seaweed, dining on gnats and almost walking right up to us. The Savannah Sparrows were just where I’d left them last Christmas.
Climbing up the rocks we found ourselves standing among dozens of Pelican nests, each still containing eggs. A Yellow-footed Gull was smashing one on the ground and flinging the contents into the air. And that’s when it dawned on me – the birds weren’t missing because of depleted food or decimated populations, they were missing because they were nesting for a second time this season. Spread out over the top of the island was a vast colony of Pelicans sitting on their surprisingly neat nests, incubating their eggs. We’d unintentionally caused a bit of damage by chasing a few birds off their nests and creating an opportunity for the Gull to jump in and grab a snack. We backed off quickly and watched as the birds returned.
There are two lessons for me from today, the first being that it’s tough to draw a meaningful conclusion from what seems to be clear information. The birds are gone, therefore there are less birds, and less birds probably means disease or food supply problems. Had we not gone out to sea, we never would have found either of these groups and I would have written a completely different update for our count when it’s submitted.
The second lesson is a bit subtler – there is some reason why these birds are suddenly capable of nesting twice in a season. I’ve been out to that little island just about every December for 20 years and never has it been covered with nesting birds. Nesting is a spring thing, designed to give the chicks the greatest opportunity for survival, having grown to a reasonable size before the dodgy winter weather begins. Not this year - clearly nature is allowing a second chance, and that can only be due to adequate food and warmer weather, both no doubt due to our changing climate. An ancillary bit of data confirms the temperature theory – we now have Sand Fleas chewing on us at this late date, something we never had before.

The good news is we have very solid populations of these species. The bad news, the cause is probably not good. It seems as the Arctic melts, things get rosier elsewhere. Well, at least for now. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Mid-week Mexico Check-in

One of the last things we did before we left for this trip was to purchase and deliver a couple of gifts for two boys on our village “wishing tree.” A nice pair of Sony over-the-ear headphones for Aiden and a cool Lego village building kit for Deaghan. We went back to see if there were any wishes left, but happily our fellow CorraleƱos had come through – the tree was bare.

A couple of days into our birding, we took a drive out to the far end of town to briefly have a look at a landlocked pond that used to be part of the now defunct Club Med. There is rarely anything there, and that streak was continued with a single Loon and a handful of Gulls. While there we stopped into one of the local expat hangouts – The Soggy Peso – to have a look at their “wishing tree.” It was covered with tiny photographs of the children of La Manga, a pop-up fishing village that has grown from nothing to 5 pangas, drying nets and a handful of fisherman crashed out for the day on the dunes, to a full-fledged village made of scrap plywood and roofing tins and dozens of families living without water or electricity. We chose four children – 2 girls a boy and a baby – and headed off to Walmart to play Santa. Contrasting the requests of the boys of Corrales with these kids was stark – instead of headphones and Legos, we had shoe and t-shirt sizes.

We picked up a nice haul for each child, clothes for the children, onesies for the baby and a toy for each. While shopping, we ran into another American on the same mission, she’d taken a single little girl and was really loading her up. Nice thought and I imagine in a place like that what she doesn’t need will go to a needy cousin, sister or friend. Nothing goes to waste in a place like La Manga.

Our December trip is mostly dedicated to birding for the Christmas Count and this year has been quite rewarding. As always, things move around, local populations ebb and flow and we’re often wondering what it means and how that big die-off on the Salton Sea contributed to what’s in front of us. A couple of prolific spots reminded us that water in the desert is always a good thing to seek out. We sat for an hour at a seep on the way to a palm-lined canyon in the foothills, marveling as quail and finches and Pyrrhuloxias and Cardinals came in wave after wave for a quick drink and perhaps a bath. Pyrrhuloxias and Cardinals are hard to keep straight for me, as I don’t see them often so having a male and female of each sitting on the same branch waiting for their turn to dip down into the spring was a genuinely educational treat. The canyon itself was a letdown after that banquet but it’s nice to support the local economy by handing over 50 pesos to the sleepy girl who comes out of yet another plywood shack when you pull up to the gate.

Another aspect of birding here that has developed for us in the last few years has been our newly labeled “Tour de Sewers.” Using Google Earth and the knowledge of a few local birders we have constructed a nice path of sewage settlement ponds associated with various hotels, gold courses and dry-docks. I found the first location years ago, by hiking off the road behind the town boat storage. When that place was mostly destroyed by a hurricane in 2008, they restricted access and we had to move on. One day while out driving in the desert I spotted a Frigatebird coursing over the scrub. Thinking that odd, I went home and used satellite photos to discover three ponds hiding in the Mesquite. This year the locals found another and over the course of the 20+ year of the count, we’ve found a way more easily scan the ponds at the country club. So, starting at the farthest away point it’s one sewer after another.

As I mentioned above, water in the desert is a miraculous thing, and when the water is the size of a pond, the game changes entirely. In addition to thirsty birds stopping for a drinking, nesting water birds live and nest full time. Coots, Moorhens and even the tropical Least Grebe are easy to find and happy to be observed. And this year was a banner year for each of them.
Perhaps the hardest thing about engaging with the physical world here is the outrageous amount of habitat destruction. We’ve seen several good birding spots degrade to a waste of time simply based on the volume of construction trash left behind. In a country without landfills, the country becomes the landfill, and it’s not the least bit unusual to drive down a regular road that is dotted on both sides by piles of debris. A small consolation I suppose is the reliability of the Empalme dump – nothing more that trash lining a dirt road out on an ancient tidal flat – for Cattle Egret, often found up to their necks in white plastic garbage bags. Despite the destruction, we still manage to find a lot of life in these places, albeit some of them have been reduced to “visit only if time permits.”

Yesterday we visited the Sunday market in Empalme solely for the cultural experience. Last time there we found some neat Christmas decorations and wonder of wonders, fresh Churros. This time the market was more about used clothing and so it wasn’t as interesting as last time around. We did take the opportunity to buy some additional gifts for the children – a handily won bargaining contest that resulted in 6 stuffed bears (and a gratis monkey.) MLW proved that her in-Spanish negotiating skills had not atrophied and we got out of there for $15 depending on which exchange rate you watch. (We added another $4 to give them a good wash and dry in the condo laundry.) Today we went off to the store and spent a bit more on soccer balls and hopefully this second batch will supplement the giving to children whose names were not chosen from the Angel Tree for the children of La Manga.

Next year, I think a trip to Target before coming down would be time better spent. Clothes and toys in varying sizes and ages that could be matched up once here.

And so, the days blend and the birds mount up and time passes on the beach. My yoga teacher often challenges us to be grateful for something at the end of each practice. Just sitting here is relative luxury pondering a tiny Christmas card from a child asking for nothing more than a pair of size 16 shoes is enough to make one feel grateful for a lifetime.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Ah, Mexico

How exactly does memory work when it comes to planning? Do you have a mental checklist that’s refined over time? Or do items jog your memory, demanding to be included? When it comes to travel, I’ve always found it to be both ways – there are things I know I need to do and things I see when I am doing the former that are included in the preparations. This time around, my system failed me.
We’ve been coming down here in December for more than 20 years. In that time our preparations have ebbed and flowed and been refined to the point that it’s pretty much a rote process with the only variation of how I put things in the car. What we need always makes it, and what we need to do beforehand always gets done. So, imagine my surprise when back from the immigration hut, 21 km into this foreign country, I recall that we don’t have Mexican car insurance.
For years, I bought an annual policy, renewed by mail, purchased, shoved in the glove box and forgot about it. That approach was the most efficient when we came 3 times a year, but lately we’ve been down to twice, and the price difference is significant. So, I’ve changed to buying a 90-day policy that gets us through February when we’ve been making a second trip. This year though it never occurred to me to do it at all and only when I stepped out of the vehicle and saw the “Seguros” sign did the little brass gears start to turn. I even said “no thank you” as I walked pass the salesman, and only after enduring a lecture from the Mexican immigration officer about our responsibility to get our visa canceled in 7 days (yea, right) did the gears start to form an actual thought. Leaving the office, I knew it – we had no insurance – which left us with the option of trying to buy it on-line via my phone while sitting in the car, or availing ourselves of the helpful insurance-touter trying to shuffle us into his office.
The process turned out to be one more funny little foreign country official duty experience and $34.50 later we were once again on the road, secure in the knowledge that for the next 24 hours we were covered. I later bought a policy once I had wi-fi, securing us until the beginning of next March.
This being a Sunday, we’d hoped for a reasonably peaceful drive but it turned out to be the opposite. A lot of traffic, most of the cars speeding, and many, many miles spent white-knuckling it through construction zones. They are not merely re-surfacing the 89 miles from Hermosillo to Guaymas, but replacing all the bridges and most of the roadway with enormous concrete sections, cast and set in place by these huge gantries on wheels. It wasn’t much fun driving in single file at 60MPH on whichever side of the road they wanted to send us, but soon enough the mountains above Guaymas came into hazy view and before we knew it, we were making the sweeping bend onto the road into San Carlos.
The second reminder that my memory wasn’t working fully came when I was unpacking and pulled my spotting scope out of my camera bag. Tripod? No, my tripod is back in the US leaning up against the table where it normally resides. Now we’ve been counting birds down here for all these years, and a tripod has always made it into the car. I even saw it as I was scurrying through the house on Saturday morning, even made the mental note to grab it. But no, this being that second kind of memory, the one where seeing something includes it in your forward process, failed to sink in far enough. Instead, I’ll be trying to scan the distant mudflats trying to use my scope like a spyglass. A 21st century pirate.
Memory glitches aside, it’s easy to sink into the regular routine here. A bowl of tortilla soup, a plate of machaca, a walk on the beach and a couple of sunsets. Everything to put one straight into vacation mode.
Our second night here we went to see the venerable JJ, purveyor of the finest tacos in Sonora. He always remembers us and points out the honorable placement of the Corrales license plate we brought him a couple of years ago, His place is one of our favorites, plastic chairs and tin tables under an enormous palapa. Deep-fried fish and al pastor are our favorites, served with cayenne scented popcorn and cold beers. Each plate wrapped in plastic bags, to avoid having to wash them I suppose. The best possible evening.
Last night we went to listen to the local blues band at a bar in town. An interesting crowd, many who clearly found themselves at the end of the road from somewhere and just stopped, no intention to go forward or back. A completely gray-haired bunch drinking beers and listening to the band. MLW requested “Route 66” and that brought a few of them out on the dancefloor. But mostly everyone is content to just sit and perhaps ponder whatever had brought them here. Or why they stay.
We though, know exactly why we’re here.