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......


  1. Sounds as if you're putting things together in and new and pleasant ways, Chris! The only thing that made me long for Cabo again (used to have a timeshare in Cabo San Lucas) was that I wasn't a birder birder, then. Just tried to get names for the birds I saw...and, in having fun, it was not a terribly long list. Thanks for the info you provided about Estero San Jose and the endemics you found there. Congrats!

    1. It has been wonderful Babs. After these past two months, I'm ready for some lovely weather again. Cabo was so beautiful. I think you'll be surprised by how much it has all grown! October probably wasn't the greatest month to go because of the crazy heat but it was beautiful nonetheless. I know that if you go back, you'll find some fantastic birds:) It was like birding AZ, CA and then a little bit of Mexico. All of our birds, the CA birds intermixed together with some fun new ones:) The two shockers for me were the California Scrub-Jay and California Quail! I had no idea that they went down that far in this deserty area. Gray Vireos were also down there. Pretty cool stuff!

  2. Oh Chris..hw I adored your "back in time" moment, seeing your 20-year -old self again. I loved all the nostalgic thoughts and feelings, and photos, of your wonderful Mexico. yes, the COLOR! I love it. The best Mexican food I have ever tasted was in a little restaurant near La Buffadora and I don't even know what it was, but it was glorious! Anyway, we would have loved to have gone on down to Cabo, but we didn't go that far on our little cruise. I loved your photos. Oh that yellowthroat was so wonderful. Not overly pleased with the political turn your post took, but I do understand. God bless!

    1. It was pretty magical. I think if the two of us traveled, we'd be foodies. That's one of my favorite parts of the trip, looking for unmapped delicious food marts. And the CRUISE ships are HUGE down there. It was incredible! It looks like that would be a fun way to visit all the cool coastal towns. Baja is pretty unique. However, I will say the heat was a little much....:) Enjoy your weekend!!!

  3. Hola Chris.. Bonito paraje, con muchas aves exótica para mi e interesantes.. La música muy marchosa.. :-)))

    Saluditos españoles..

    1. Gracias Ana!! Saludos mexicanos! y de Arizona:)

  4. Chris, thanks for a very engaging post.

  5. Hello, Chris! Your Mexico photos are awesome. I love the scenery and the awesome birds. So glad you had a wonderful trip, I am sure you were sorry you had to come home. Great post and photos. Happy Birding.

    1. I am sad to come home. But I know now that I will be returning this year. It always hits me hard. Mexico played a huge part of my youth and over the years, I've just gotten so busy that I haven't been able to make it back as much as I'd like. But my love is still there. I love all my spanish speaking countries but it's Mexico where I feel the most spiritually connected. That is the one most certain truth that I do know in this life.

  6. I grew up in a time when one nodded and spoke to all we met. I miss that in the Texas of this time. Why did it go away. I mean there was even the pointer finger salute to drivers one met on the road. certainly not the 'one finger salute' too prevalent in this day and time.

    1. I know, right??!! Where have people's manners gone? We still say hi to drivers on the road. Some people get it.....but I agree, the one finger salute is terrible:(

  7. Wonderful post Chris with superb photos. It sounds as though you had a really lovely trip and I loved how you met your younger self :)

    1. Thank you. It was fun.....and it was a really deep awakening that happened for me. I wrote this long post for this week but decided it was too heavy for this blog. Deleted several hours of work and put fluffy stuff up instead. All I can say is that I am awake and firing on all thrusters now in my personal, financial and FINALLY professional life. The US is in a dark place right now and I've felt helpless since that guy has stepped into the president's chair. Now I've found a way that I can combat this stress and anger and fight against everything this terrible person stands for. He's the worst kind of humanity. And it goes beyond politics. So, I can't change the world, but I certainly can step up in my community:) And I have been!

  8. Hi There, I have some friends who dearly love Mexico also. They go down on Mission Trips about twice a year and have established so many wonderful relationships there... I've never been there.

    I have a "Thrasher" story for you--only it's our Brown Thrashers here. One day in spring, I was trimming a bush only to have a Mama Thrasher pop out and almost bite me... Scared me to death!!!!! She was protecting those little ones in the nest (which I didn't even know was there).... Lesson learned: Do NOT trim bushes during Spring mating season!!!!! ha


  9. Hello!!!! Mexico is fun. But I've discovered that you either really love it or don't. But I'll tell you that the people are awesome and the food is sooooooo good!

    I can't even imagine getting bit by a thrasher. I think that would be painful. Glad she popped up to say hi. A mother of any species can be scary:)


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