Wednesday, October 25, 2017

An Arizona Autumn

After Mexico, we hopped into our car and drove to Pinetop in the beautiful White Mountains of Arizona. Autumn has arrived. 

It's great to get outside and really BE outside. 

American Dipper gets a little breakfast
We hiked around the Greer area and saw lots of beautiful things. 

There is something very wonderful about fall. Maybe it's the fresh air.  Maybe it's about standing in one spot and enjoying the observations a little longer than usual.  Or maybe it's the hot sweet potato soup that is served at a local restaurant. 

Red Crossbill-this is the female AND she is yellow:)
Whatever it is, autumn is pretty awesome.

Red-naped Sapsucker
During the weekend, we hit all my favorite hotspots and counted birds.

Mountain Chickadee
We checked up on Payson's local resident, the Bald Eagle.  I've been wondering if this bird will ever pair up.  Ever since the severe drought of 2012, this bird has hung around the local watering holes.  I interviewed several residents who told me that the bird still continues "the single life".

Bald Eagle
After an intensely hot summer, I am so happy that the cooler temps have arrived again. 

There is so much to look forward to. Until next time......

Thursday, October 19, 2017

More Than You Know

Perhaps a little too close to the arches in Cabo San Lucas
Fall break each year is a spiritual commitment to myself as I exit from this routine life to reflect.....on life.  

Last year, I took you to Monterey, CA with Debi Love Shearwater.  This year, we are heading to sunny San Jose del Cabo in Baja California, Mexico. 

This whole trip was based on a crazy happy hour we had a couple months back. So I blame it all on the tequila:)  I was with friends Lori and Tami talking about taking a trek to the baja Mexican pennisula. And so it happened.  

Ruddy Ground-Doves are the common doves in San José next to the White-winged Doves
So we began to plan.  We got a beautiful Airbnb in the sleepy town of San José del Cabo. 

As a birder, it's important to get a place close to where you are intensively birding.  Our place was located along the Riparian area making it SUPER easy to wake up and bird.  
To make things sweeter, this historic building was situated along the beautiful riparian area known as Estero San José, a birder's paradise. From the blue dot down to the beach, it's excellent habitat for many birds which include a few endemics. 

a nice example of a Ruddy Ground-Dove
I had been studying this area for three particular birds, the endangered Belding's Yellowthroat, a subspecies of Northern Cardinal(Santa María) and the Gray Thrasher.  We kept our eyes out for a random Xantus's Hummingbird but as I pieced my research together, I figured this hummer would be hard to spot in this location right now.  Knowing the habits of our hummingbirds here, I suspected the Xantus to be in the foothills of the mountains or along farm/ranch areas.  We did check out golf resorts and hotels with flower gardens but we didn't spot a SINGLE hummingbird species while there.  I suspect the behavior is a cross between a Costa's and a Broad-billed Hummingbird. 

a cooperative Sora
In the picture below, you'll see a mountain range behind the town.  This is where the recently split Baird's Junco, a relative of the Yellow-eyed Junco, and the Xantus's Hummingbird hang out. Other specialties include several subspecies that will most likely be split down the road like the American Robin and the Northern Pygmy-Owl. While doing the research, I found that all the Baja endemics can be done easily by birders in one full week but I didn't have that much time. Plus we were there to have fun.  And we did:)

a small kettle of Turkey Vultures hang out in a section of the Estero of San José del Cabo
So my only focus for this trip was the riparian area in San José del Cabo. Our first bird was the Gray Thrasher.  It looks like a cross between the Curve-billed and Sage Thrashers.   

the endemic Gray Thrasher
To find this bird is to understand the word "thrasher".  Thrashers are active in the early morning and right before sunset. The weather in Baja California is so hot and muggy right now.  So at sunset, before our beer fest, we walked along the cooler mesquite lined path of the estero and found these birds in great numbers feeding along the path with Cactus Wrens. They prefer desert scrub and sure enough, that's where we found them.  For my birder friends, this thrasher isn't as skittish as a Crissal or LeConte's. BUT having birded the estero throughout the weekend in both the AM and PM hours, I found that they were most visible during the evening hours (at least for this time of year). And I can understand why!  It was HOT and disgustingly muggy!

One of many Orange-crowned Warblers seen in the estero
That was a fun lifebird and even though my friends are not birders, they had fun playing detective:)  Last month, San José del Cabo was hit with a hurricane and the riparian area was torn up pretty well.  In fact, a chunk of the bridge and main highway were destroyed. So we carefully birded around the exposed metal joints and dangerous steep cliffs.  We discovered a warbler sanctuary!  It was SO birdy! The warbler show was incredible.  I also believe the whole world's population of the Scott's and Hooded Orioles winter in Baja.  They were EVERYWHERE.  Instead of flocks of robins, there were flocks of Orioles.  Impressive! They are permanent residents of Baja and summer residents of AZ. 

As we got closer to where the ocean meets the mouth of the river, I noticed more birds.  The trails were in better shape and we were able to navigate into really nice birdy areas. 

Common Gallinule
Common Gallinules were present and far outnumbered the American Coots. Rails were everywhere and getting photos of them were near impossible. 

The hurricane cut away a huge swath of land.  Clumps of dead vegetation which included concrete chunks and fallen trees littered the riparian area. 

I forgot that the Ridgway's Rail and Least Bitterns can be found down there. I really tried for photos of a Least Bittern but it snaked its way into the reeds quickly before my camera could focus.  The Ridgway's Rail could only be seen with binoculars at the far edge of the river.  We couldn't get closer because of the hurricane damage on the path.  In fact, we had to be careful with the loose ground near the edges of the river.  If the ground had given out, I probably wouldn't be drinking my coffee and writing to you all now because my arm or leg would be in a cast:) 

a Turkey Vulture perches on some fallen trees from last month's hurricane in San José
Between the beers and laughs, we walked and did quite a bit of exercise. There was ONE bird that I wanted more than anything else on this trip. I studied the endangered Belding's Yellowthroat a lot.  It looks similar to the Common Yellowthroat that is found throughout much of North America. I searched inside of reeds and lumps of wet vegetation for these birds.  Having memorized their calls, I located two pairs. And then we went to work.....

female Belding's Yellowthroat
And I shouldn't just say "I".  I went over the calls with my friends and we spread out creating a network for this tricky to photograph bird.  The Belding's Yellowthroat is endangered because it is a true endemic of the Baja pennisula(this area is mostly desert and the bird requires wetland/riparian habitat).  Why is it endangered?  Housing development. Similar to Florida and the Florida Scrub-Jay, this bird faces an uphill battle as the real estate market booms in the Baja.  As humans manipulate the limited water resources for their own needs, this bird's habitat is disappearing.  Thankfully, the Estero San José is a protected sanctuary for this bird and many others. 

So to understand the word "Yellowthroat", birders KNOW that any warbler that carries the name, Common or Belding's Yellowthroat, will be difficult to photograph. I thought I'd have difficulty with the ID on these similar looking birds but here's what I learned. 1. We had both Yellowthroats at this location.  However, there were more Belding's present. 2. These warblers are very vocal and it helped us zone into the area where they were feeding. Their call is different and sorta reminded me of a wrenish rattle. I was able to successfully record the male calling. We were able to watch these secretive warblers with our binoculars.  3. They are overall very YELLOW.  The male has a black mask similar to its relative the Common Yellowthroat.  But it was their call and deep yellow coloring that caught our attention.  We observed one pair in a nesting territory for about a half hour.  After that, we went to an all you can drink event on the beach to celebrate our success and um....enjoy our vacation. 

Don't do it guy!  The current is TOO STRONG!
Our next day was a mini pelagic on the ocean. I overdressed once again because I needed pockets for my equipment.  At one point, I nearly passed out. It was 95 degrees with a high humidity rate. 

Some fun cliff diving in Cabo San Lucas at Pelican Rock
While my friends enjoyed the pelagic, I counted birds along the fascinating rock formations.  My particular study was focused on Blue-footed Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds.  BUT it turned out that my observations would mostly be on the Frigatebirds and Ospreys.  We found the Boobies but only for a second. 

This Osprey watches over all of us during our pelagic
Then something very "spring breaky" happened to me.  I don't know how to explain it because it was a moment.  One of those PURE moments.  The kind that makes a person feel complete joy and sadness all at once. Otherwise known as bittersweet:)

A Wandering Tattler flies into view for a few seconds
As we were coming back into port, I heard one of my favorite club tunes from this year, More Than You Know, carried across the waves.  I searched for the source of the music and discovered two young men overlooking the ocean as if they were kings of the world. And for a brief moment, I felt like I was in my 20's again with that same bliss/naiveté.  Twenty years later, I was saying hello to my old self.  And then our boat docked and it was over. 

Striped Shore Crab
For the rest of our trip, the song played over and over in my head.  I tried to process why this moment had affected me so much.  Thanks to my friends, we were able to talk it out.  Life experiences shape us and make us who we are.  But there is something very beautiful about innocence. So thank you Tami and Lori for helping me connect the dots. 

This sea lion attempts to sleep but the crabs taunt him
So yeah it was a weird experience.  How the hell does one go from dance party aficionado to birder?!!!  I like me now but sometimes I wish I could be footloose and fancy free for just a moment. But that would require late night parties and staying awake:) That's too much work!

an ancient looking Brown Pelican 

Anyhow, I love Anthony Burdain from the various food networks and his constant search for secret local culinary delights. One night on our way back from Cabo San Lucas, I smelled something really good. I saw many locals all gathered at this hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a random neighborhood outside of the historic San José del Cabo district. The kitchen was run by a smiling Celia Cruz type and I had a feeling that this place was something special. The next night, we went back to investigate and I asked our waiter what was it that everyone came to their restaurant craving.  He laughed at first and then realized I was serious.  The next thing I knew, he brought me the most delicious PAPA RELLENA.....a stuffed potato.  And. It. Was. Good!

My heart lit up again.  I felt the fire rekindle inside of me.  I missed my Mexico.  I've missed it so much.  I missed being around fun and wonderfully polite people who just chat! Where it's okay to say "hi" to a complete stranger and not have the other person think you're insane.  I had forgotten how incredibly rude some Americans can  That's wrong.  I haven't forgotten how rude Americans are.  I had become immune to it!  I hate where this country is right now. It's embarrassing. I hate the hatred and division this so called clown has created between Republicans and Democrats. And here's a little personal observation.  While on my flights, everyone I sat next to began talking about this idiot.  I swear to the gods that I never brought up the topic.  I didn't want to...but I've got this strange presence that allows people to open up to me.  They needed someone to listen.  And I listened.  The US is not in a good space right now. 

And in Mexico? Well, they would start talking about this cheeto puff as well!  As an unofficial ambassador, I reminded them that he doesn't speak for most of the country.  Then I switched the conversation to birds:)  

Magnificent Frigatebird
We watched the pirates of the air, the Magnificent Frigatebirds, glide and dive trying to steal food from each other.  One day, I will see one of these birds in Tucson.  And when I do, I will be ready with my camera. 

Spotted Boxfish
Normally I'm not into fish but the fish around the waters of the Baja Pennisula are stunning!!!!  While I was sitting on our boat, I looked down and observed several colorful species coming up to the surface of the water. 

Color is everything. Mexico IS color.  There is color in the food.  With her people. With her culture.  In the language.  In her wildlife.  It inspires me and many many others.  Mexico recharges my battery and reminds me why our neighbor to the south is pretty awesome. 

We had a blast.  This crew in the pic above is awesome.  They are genuine, down-to-earth, and know how to vacation properly.  Work out/bird in the morning.  And then, explore! And have a good time.  I needed this trip more than I knew. 

Here are my checklists in case you are interested in exploring the San José del Cabo area which includes the birder's paradise Estero San José. From the airport, San José is about 20 minutes away.  Don't pay the 50 bucks they quote you inside the airport! It's cheaper taking the busses or a taxi outside the terminal! Have courage and you will have saved yourself money! People will pester you.  Just get out alive with your luggage! As for Cabo San Lucas. It's about 45 minutes away by bus or taxi. For 2 bucks, catch the Ruta del Desierto bus from San José.  But bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. Alcohol doesn't count:) Cabo San Lucas isn't for everyone.  If you want quiet, stay in San José or at the resorts that lead up to Cabo San Lucas.  In a year or so, I'll plan my next trip back to the town of Todos Santos and schedule a visit to the Sierra de la Laguna area of the mountains for the rest of the endemics. 

For the reports on California/Pacific Coast birds, Baja Endemics, and waterbirds for the month of October from Estero San José, click here(Day 1) and here(Day 2).
For the pelagic birds from Cabo San Lucas, click here.  Life doesn't wait.  In the next couple weeks, we're going to get our cold on.  Stay tuned for more......

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Hardest Decisions

Red-eared Sliders
With the cooler temps arriving and a new fiscal year of bird planning, the month of October brings me to a very personal space. I often find myself alone on the trails deep in thought remembering what it's like to walk in cooler temps.  The sweaty summer temps begin to vanish and are replaced with "chillier" temps.  Over the past several weekends, I have had to make some difficult choices. 

Botta's Pocket Gopher
I ran across this quote, "Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same." After my Grandma passed away this summer, many personal decisions were thrown into question.  My lifelong quest to understand birds, both new and old alike, took a turn.  Normally, I would target areas for new birds and go with other birders.  It has been a lot of fun and I know we'll continue to do so again.  But, I have other friends who are non-birders. My Grandma reminded me that I can't ignore that part of my life. One of my favorite trips last year was a trek out to Monterey, CA where I had the opportunity to bird AND spend time with good friends.  It was the perfect balance between birding and chilling out. 

Gray Hawk
So during that time in Wisconsin, I began to think about all my friends and family everywhere around this world that I haven't seen in a LONG time.  When a birder birds with other birders, they look for birds 24/7.  Okay, maybe we stop for a bite to eat, but it isn't for long.  There are birds to be found!

Red-naped Sapsucker
It's so much fun and it's an addiction.  When a birder finishes one trip, they begin to plan another and often with their birding pals. With these past years of travel, I've been hardcore birding and not taking the time to enjoy the other side of these treks with my college friends, etc. This is where it gets to be a tricky balancing act.  

Lesser Long-nosed Bat
I've gotten so used to birding with my bird pals that I've forgotten how I used to travel before my birding days. Margaritas over birds? Oooooh yes:) Each of us tells one another that it's okay and that we understand.  But deep down, we wish we were there with each other exploring new habitats for birds and other wildlife.  One part of me feels guilty while the other tells me that I cannot deny the part of "just being". Somehow I have to moderate my birding addictions. My non-birding friends remind me that I am human and that it's okay to sit on the beach and enjoy the waves. HOWEVER, the birder inside of me tells me not to waste the opportunity.  So I carefully study my target birds and strategize. 

Willow Flycatcher
Here are several examples that have shaped my decision making this year.  At a happy hour, after a few margaritas with friends, we decided to head to Baja California for break.  There are birds there but it's mostly about enjoying the beach 

a male Painted Bunting along the DeAnza Trail
My Mexican mother turns 70 years old this year in the ancient Aztec stronghold of Tlaxcala.  This is a very personal trip.  I don't speak much English on these trips because not many people speak English there. And to be honest, I never know how to plan for these visits because it's Mexican. Schedules are meaningless:) And that wouldn't sit well for many of my birding friends. You can't plan anything because everything changes on a daily basis! This is usually a trip I do alone. It's the one true place that I can be me.  In Mexico, I become a free spirited gypsy.  There's nothing like waking up and drinking a little coffee outside with your friends speaking Spanish. Here in the US, my life is a factory every day. So for me, not having an agenda is something quite special. 

a female Painted Bunting
And there's so much more to it all. It takes careful planning to achieve my goals each year. Next year, I am hoping to hit the 1000 lifebird mark. But as I have birded more and more every year, I have discovered that these journeys into unknown spaces must have heart to them.  It can't be solely about the birds.  My life will always revolve around birds but it's the heart of the journey that will tell this story of 10000 birds and anchor me as I head into unknown waters. 

I cannot live my life waiting on tomorrow because I know that tomorrow may not happen.  So living and enjoying life is more important than material wealth.  I have found that if I deny my birding side, I get depressed.  But if I deny everything else, it all feels empty.  Life has to have meaning and purpose.  

American Kestrel
While I wait for the next big trek, I stay close to home to take careful observations of my desert birds. This has been very rewarding. 

A female Anna's Hummingbird feeding from a cloud of insects
So when I'm not birding, I'm often researching new areas. Or we're having fun somewhere in town. 

When this year began, I had lost my footing.  While it was a financially tight year for me, I was still able to budget several birding treks with my friend Gordon to the Pacific Northwest and Costa Rica. I can now say that I've finally paid off some major debt known as the "STUDENT LOAN". As I get closer to the end of this year, I see a new chapter beginning in my life. It'll be one where I am with friends, both birding and non-birding alike, family and my other half as we globe trot into new places.   

Black Vulture
 For now, I have scheduled several important treks to visit people I haven't seen in a LONG time.  Several themes that I'll explore over the next year include questions like, how does a young person become a birder? Are there pyramids buried under three large hills in central Tlaxcala? And in an area that I've studied around those hills, will I find the Transvolcanic Jays? With my Jedi skills almost complete, can I find a Dusky Grouse on Pike's Peak near Colorado Springs with my family?  These are just some of the things I'll be exploring as I plan for next year.  Next week kicks off the new season of Las Aventuras.  Until next time....