We will email you so you're the first to know when we launch new features.
“Lagunas de Chametla” — sounds like a romantic getaway doesn’t it? If one peruses the Baja California Peninsula regional reports in North American Birds, this site is referenced often. Many rare birds have been discovered here, including the male Ruff that Steve Mlodinow and I re-found on 12 January. This bird, which first wintered locally in 2006-2007, has now returned three years running. Located in Chametla, a small suburb of La Paz, Baja California Sur (B.C.S.), Mexico, the “lagunas” are actually a series of filtering ponds that process the area’s wastewater, hardly a tourist destination unless you’re a birder.
If one can endure the odor, wastewater treatment facilities, particularly the less modern settling pond variety, offer excellent birding. The insects and other invertebrates that inhabit sewage ponds provide a diverse and teeming prey base for herons, egrets, waterfowl, shorebirds, and gulls. Such sites often provide wonderful opportunities to study and photograph waterbirds from close range while they are busy gorging themselves on the local delicacies. During a recent trip to B.C.S., I captured some exceptionally detailed and artistic images (see below) at the Lagunas de Chametla.
Some of you may have noticed our journal has been a bit quiet in recent days. I want to thank David Fix who, in my absence, offered a nice change of pace with his excellent essay on “Hemispherical Birding.”
From 7-14 January Steve Mlodinow and I spent eight days enjoying the sunshine, tacos pescados, relaxing beaches, and the beautiful desert scenery of Baja California Sur (B.C.S.), Mexico. We saw a few birds too.
The southern Baja peninsula is a great escape from the mid-winter frozen fog that often blankets Oregon’s southern Willamette Valley. A steady string of clear days and 80-85F temperatures was exceedingly tolerable (read: I loved it). This was my first trip south of the border and I would gleefully go again tomorrow. Steve has made 14 trips to B.C.S. in recent years, and his knowledge of the area, and of the status and distribution of the region’s birdlife is incredible. His expertise and experience saved me from the typical trials, errors, and logistical headaches that come when one explores new lands.
Prior to the trip, several family members and friends had expressed concerns for my safety in the wake of recent events along the U.S./Baja California border. While it was a bit unnerving to hear reports of kidnappings, murders, and drug wars, I expected that the southern tip of the peninsula might be a bit more tranquil than the northern end. That was undeniably the case. At no time were we faced with a situation that felt unsafe. We often parked our car along the sides of lightly traveled rural roads, in some cases with valuables in the trunk, and had no attempted break-ins. We crossed paths with dozens of local residents and found them to be cheerful, friendly, and universally welcoming any time we asked permission to wander about on private property. They seemed unthreatened by our presence, were patient with our butchered versions of Spanish, and showed genuine interest in what we were looking at and photographing.
We spent our first four (of eight) nights at El Delfin Blanco in San Jose del Cabo at the southern terminus of the peninsula. Overlooking the Sea of Cortez, the cluster of thatch-roofed “casitas” evoke an image of what accommodations must have been like before this region became a major tourist destination. A concrete wall and wrought iron fence surround the property, creating a quaint little courtyard perfect for an afternoon siesta. A fully equipped outdoor kitchen, where one can cook meals, sits in one corner of the courtyard.
After dropping our bags etc. at our casita, we loaded up on food and drink at “The Mega,” which may have been the biggest grocery store I’ve ever seen. Since tap water is not suitable for drinking, brushing ones’ teeth, or even washing hands before eating, The Mega offers row upon row of bottled beverages, most important of which is purified water. In addition to several 3.75-liter jugs of water (don’t get caught without it), we bought cold cuts, cheese, tortillas, snack bars, drinkable yogurts, and some fresh fruit that were used for breakfasts and some lunches. Evening meals were varied. Twice we enjoyed inexpensive ($5-6) visits to taquerias in The Mega shopping center and on two other nights we dined at nice restaurants along the plaza in downtown San Jose del Cabo.
On our third day, we abandoned birding about 2PM and spent most of the remaining afternoon and evening wandering about the plaza shopping for gifts, taking pictures, and just playing turista. Typical of many Mexican towns, the plaza in San Jose del Cabo is flanked on one side by a Catholic mission (church). The interior of the mission was still festooned with decorations from the holiday season, which only enhanced its overall beauty. The center of the plaza features a large fountain, which is lighted at night and cycles through a variety of spray patterns. Don’t stand downwind with your camera if it’s breezy!
Over the first day and a half we did most of our birding right in San Jose del Cabo. The Estero San Jose offers close-up views of a host of waterfowl, herons, egrets, marshbirds, and a few shorebirds. Steve and I were able to get great close-ups of several species, most notably the shorebirds (Least and Western Sandpipers, Snowy and Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings and Dunlin) that flocked along the outer beach. The region is home to three endemic species, Xantus’s Hummingbird, Gray Thrasher, and Belding’s Yellowthroat, all of which can be readily found in and around San Jose del Cabo.
The marshy trail that winds along the west edge of the estero right behind El Presidente resort is particularly good for seeing Belding’s Yellowthroat, which can be tough to get a glimpse of in bigger marshy tracts. Gila Woodpeckers, Common Ground-Doves, Black Phoebes, Cactus Wrens and Hooded Orioles are nearly omnipresent along this trail. Keep an eye open for the occasional Tropical Kingbird found here. Typical western warbler species (Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s and McGillivray’s) winter here in abundance and can be found nearly any time you start “pishing” a vegetated patch. Soaring Ospreys and Turkey Vultures are almost always in view, and Peregrine Falcons make somewhat regular strafing runs through the duck flocks on the estero. Among marshbirds, the most frequently encountered species include Snowy Egret, White-faced Ibis, Common Moorhens, American Coot, and Soras (mostly heard calling). Lesser numbers of Great Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons, and Great Egrets are about. If you linger until dusk at the estero, you will likely see the hundreds of Lesser Nighthawks that come in to feed over the open water near sunset. Up to 600 nighthawks have been counted here during the winter months.
Further upstream along the Rio San Jose, the riparian margins are loaded with wintering flocks of the expected warblers listed above. Endemic Xantus’s Hummingbirds are common and you will likely see numerous Costa’s Hummingbirds here as well. The Xantus’s are exceptionally curious and seem to show up and perch nearby if you are pishing up a warbler flock. The first one I saw was hovering about a foot from the end of Steve’s camera lens. Close scrutiny of passerine flocks will likely yield Bell’s or Plumbeous Vireos, and perhaps one of several species of vagrant warblers one normally associates with the woodlands of the eastern U.S. During our first full day of birding we turned up single Blackpoll (exceptionally rare in B.C.S.), Tennessee, and Chestnut-sided warblers, along with multiple Black-and-Whites, the most expected “vagrant” in B.C.S. We found both Common and Belding’s Yellowthroats. With a bit of practice, these two species can be told from one another by call. The call note of Belding’s is lower-pitched and heavier than that of Common. Along with the ubiquitous Hooded Orioles, Scott’s Orioles are fairly common. The scrubby open areas that border this riparian strip are full of Verdins, Blue Grosbeaks, flocks of Lark and Clay-colored Sparrows, a few Varied and Lazuli Buntings, Pyrrhuloxias, Northern Cardinals, and the brilliantly colored local House Finches. The local male House Finches are mostly red above and below and look more like Purple Finches than more northerly House Finches. There are also a few White-colored Seedeaters about. This local population is presumed to have originated from cage bird releases, but it is apparently self-sustaining now.
In the next installment, we’ll travel inland and slightly upslope into the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna north of the San Jose del Cabo. The streamside woodlands and small agricultural lands around the pastoral communities of Miraflores and Caduano offer some of the peninsula’s best passerine birding.
For going on two decades now, from shortly after the vernal equinox into early June, groups of people have assembled an hour before dawn in a meadow abruptly fronted by a living wall of three-hundred-foot redwoods. It is an untrammeled corner of the world, usually heavy with frost or dew, silent with primeval hush. The rank grass underfoot is peppered here and there with “elk duds,” untidy piles of Roosevelt elk exhaust. The meadow lies shortly east of the campground at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, a couple of miles inland from the northern California coast. Each spring since 1993, it has been my job to challenge these new acquaintances across four days of training to use their eyes, ears, and wits to become Marbled Murrelet surveyors.
Because of loss of habitat to logging, the murrelet is Federally listed as Threatened in Washington and Oregon and State-listed as Endangered in California. As with other Endangered, Threatened, or Sensitive species protected by the Endangered Species Act, known or potential habitat for these birds must be surveyed before timber harvest or any other potentially modifying activity takes place at sites where they may occur. The training concludes with a seventy- or eighty-minute survey during which their skills are matched against those of an experienced evaluator.
The students in this training course, which is offered by Mad River Biologists of Eureka, California, come from varying walks of life. Many arrive bleary-eyed at the “oh-dark-stupid” hour on Monday morning with no training in the life sciences. Most have never seen or heard a Marbled Murrelet. Indeed, some have never before raised binoculars at a wild bird, nor cupped a hand to their ear to strain the aural “wheat” from the “chaff” of American Robin or White-crowned Sparrow song or the intermittent tree frog chorus. Aiming to raise all ships on a steadily flooding tide of understanding and awareness, I tell them about murrelets as animals, as appealing beings that can neither complain nor vote; as ancient creatures, at home both on cold North Pacific swells and in the remnant stands of old-growth scattered across the Pacific Northwest.
Laying forth the essential rudiments of biological field survey, I show them how to box-in the red end of a compass needle, decipher the visual spaghetti of a topo map, pick out a good murrelet survey station, and spot the birds. Recalling how bewildering such a blizzard of new information can be, I strive to try to put myself in their boots. In so doing, I, too, enjoy learning all over again how to listen for the birds, how to pick them out as tiny dark specks speeding past in wavering flight against the fog layer, and how to begin to interpret the marvelous behaviors we so often see but fleetingly in the rosy blush of false dawn.
Because many of the students in the Marbled Murrelet survey training have little background in birding, it’s necessary to teach birding basics each week. Over the years I’ve done this job, I’ve come to understand that our shared time in the field is short and precious. What they need to know—must know—in order to find employment looking for murrelets gets taught. What is unnecessary is avoided. The lichen-encrusted and mostly self-serving tales of Uncle Fix getting flipped out of a boat while counting murrelets on the ocean back in ’97 or nearly being gored by a feral steer while stumbling in to a survey station at four in the morning up the Klamath River in 2006 are related less often every year. The bare bone ins-and-outs of how to simply see and hear birds are stressed more frequently.
The resulting curriculum stresses just three elements: knowledge, preparation, and awareness. The pointers I pass on integrate these concepts. To be sure, they find application not only in murrelet survey, but in almost every kind of birding one might imagine pursuing. Shortly after each week’s covey of survey trainees has nodded a dutiful Howdy toward each other in the gloom and is standing at easy attention in the meadow, I begin their week’s training by outlining these elements, of which awareness is key, and which together comprise what I’ve come to think of as the “hemispherical birding” approach. It’s really too simple. Here’s what it’s about.
Starting out, I ask the group how often they look at the sky—as in actually, pointedly look at it. To be sure, I’m not as interested in getting responses as in getting each trainee to consider the curious question. The point is made that, going about our daily lives, we see the sky above and around us merely as simple vista; as pastels, the cloud that sort of looks like a llama, a jet contrail, the half-noticed position of the sun. A vital opposing thought is then brought into play--that, as observers being paid to do a specialized job, we occupy and must scout a bubble of space which is essentially hemispherical. An arm’s sweep of one hundred eighty degrees from bottom to top to bottom, three hundred sixty degrees around and about: here’s this region of earth, trees, and open sky that has to be scanned and must be heard in order to look and listen for murrelets.
Focus your eyes out, I urge them, and you’ll still see what’s nearby. Keep your feet moving, and you’ll remember to look all around you more often. If your neck begins to complain, you’re glancing overhead often enough. Keep in mind a preconceived “search image” for flying murrelets—or whatever species is sought. See the species’ wing shape, its bulk, and the cadence of its wingbeats in your mind’s eye, and anticipate that experience every moment you’re on the job. These suggestions not only increase the chances of detecting Marbled Murrelets, they can be used in ones’ general birding as well, in Council Bluffs or at Key West as well as in forested Pacific Slope environs.
If there are clouds, scan against them, thankful for the pale gray or white three-dimensional background they afford. If you’re scanning into a depthless blue sky, pre-focus your binoculars on a treetop a quarter-mile away so that you’re prepared to get a sharper look at a bird when it happens to fly past. And don’t be distracted by the “floaters” and “worms” that dance before your eyes! Glimpse them, acknowledge them, be with them, know them, and then simply work past and through them. The zen tang of this particular suggestion never fails to generate nervous chuckles of kinship, and an odd relief, shared by the group.
It happens nearly every morning, in that meadow: when all is still, and it seems as if no birds are going to appear in the empty hemispherical bubble of sky, a Great Blue Heron, pair of Canada Geese, raptor, or yellowlegs passes hundreds of feet, perhaps a thousand feet, above us. Suddenly, the sky is again given life. I remind the group that, for probably millions of years, birds have commuted through that very space and, at some point, one will again, whether in the next thirty seconds or six days. At those moments I’m reminded of a book with a sun-faded dust jacket that lived on a high shelf in a hallway of my growing-up house, one that I never read, but whose title I found endlessly evocative: The Crowded Sky, a novel of World War II by Ernest K. Gann. The sky is crowded, I tell the surveyor trainees, and it’s up to you to report on the action.
Having presented the idea of the Big Bubble Of Space and having demonstrated how to use binoculars the right way, we move on to using your ears. The point is made that, during our mostly urban lives, sound comes crashing in upon us almost continually. Only a very small amount of that sound makes any real difference to us: the hailing of a companion, voice media, the opening of a door, the beeping of the microwave, a car horn. In the outback where Marbled Murrelets live, sound becomes more interesting. “Do we have to learn all these bird voices?” is a question plaintively asked. Heads nod, and hesitant eye contact is made among the trainees. No, I assure them, you don’t have to learn them to know them…but you must know what is, and is not, a murrelet. To this end, a CD of various species’ voices is offered, heavy on the murrelets, and we do spend time identifying the routine forest singers. I do urge them to try to recognize from Day One the most frequent sounds they hear.
To put them at ease about the issue of using their ears in an unaccustomed way, I talk about sound by presenting a scenario familiar to everyone. I think of it as the idea of the Third Table Over.
Say you’re in a restaurant, any restaurant. You backfold the sports section and sip tepid coffee. At the table next to you, someone drawls on over their Denver omelette about blowing in some R-4 insulation in their attic. Do you pay attention? Nope.
At the second table over, someone talks about how their ex-husband’s Uncle Hank just got his hernia repaired. Interesting? Don’t think so.
But then…at the third table over…it’s Sex! or Drugs! or Rock ’n Roll! The box scores before your eyes dissolve as your hearing takes over. You are Tuned In. You’re no longer hearing—you’re Listening. It’s not robins or White-crowns any longer, it’s the sought-for Keer calls of a Marbled Murrelet! This concept—mindful listening, hearing as an actual act of effort—is, of course, old news to those of us who bird every weekend, but for many who are new to the pursuit, it’s an idea worth talking about.
Finally, with the bounds and metes of the Big Bubble Of Space accounted for, we talk about the why and wherefore of Letting Go. What if you glimpse a bird you think could have been a murrelet? Or heard what possibly were three distant Keer calls? I smile, shake my head, and tell them that if you’re not positive, you’re not positive, and it’s likely that no amount of excited mental reconstruction of the event will convince you. In the next breath, I assure them that, contrary to what they might imagine, coming back to the office with the news that you might have seen or heard a Marbled Murrelet won’t cause you to lose face. You’ll probably gain your coworkers’ respect for deciding that, after all, you simply remain uncertain. As we stroll from the meadow toward the parking lot, raising our bins to the singing White-crown whose territory is centered on the lone blackberry clump, I leave off the morning’s field session with the old-time bird collectors’ lament:
What’s hit is history; what’s missed is mystery.
What is it that makes Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) so special? Many birders would rank CBC participation among the highlights, if not the highlight, of their holiday season. For some, it is the one time all year when they start birding (owling) before dawn. Others find comfort and joy in returning to a favored network of patches they have been covering for years. Query these folks about their area and they can usually tell you which slough will hold the group of Wood Ducks, or direct you to the bramble patch that will yield the best sparrow flock. They’ll bend your ear with tales of the Black-and-White Warbler on the 1984 count, or the Snowy Owl back in ’78. Counts that enjoy a strong core of veteran team leaders tend to avoid those “bad miss” species — known to be in the count circle, but not found on count day–that plague those counts with a less savvy observer base.
Camaraderie is another important element to CBC enjoyment and success. During my teens and early twenties I was a regular participant on the Tillamook Bay CBC along the Oregon coast. Part of the appeal of this count was hanging out in the motel the night before the count as compiler Bill Thackaberry and other veteran birders passed around a bottle of whiskey and gave the upstarts in the room a ration of good-natured grief. When the sun rose the next morning and we fanned out from The Big Cheese Restaurant (yes, that was the name of the place), it was “game on” as the youngsters vowed to outwork the old boys in an effort to find the count’s best rarities… and we often did. When teams compete, the species total climbs.
Clearly, crossing paths with old friends and birding familiar turf are part of the attraction and tradition of CBCs. However, when CBC discussions turn serious, this is what you are more likely to hear: “Do you know who made that enchilada casserole? It’s awesome.” “You better get over there and get some of Anne Heyerly’s rum cake (see recipe below), there’s only a few pieces left.” “Were there any lemon bars still on the dessert table?” When it comes to evaluating CBCs, those with potluck post-count dinners — ideally hosted in someone’s home — rate highest.
I spent my formative years and did my first Christmas counts in northern Indiana. When you are well under five feet tall and weigh less than 70 pounds, winter birding in the Midwest is best remembered by (a) how you nearly froze to death and (b) what you were eating when you commenced the thawing out process at day’s end. A good day list for one party was usually well south of 35 species, and these counts often struggled to turn up 50 species total. Yet, no matter how mundane the birding might have been, to this day I would happily drive cross-country in a snow storm to spend a day counting Tufted Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, and American Tree Sparrows if my reward was another one of Gwen Smith’s “Gookie Bars” or a cup of Dorothy Buck’s homemade eggnog. We’re talking nirvana for an eight-year-old.
Our family joined the South Audubon Society in 1963 and remained heavily involved with that chapter until we moved west in 1970. Seemingly every chapter function involved a potluck meal, causing some members to refer to our group as “the South Bend Eatabon Society.” The aforementioned Gwen Smith — who was the chapter’s treasurer — would invariably show up with a Tupperware container full of various layered sheet cookies (Gookie Bars) as her “dish to pass.” For the South Bend CBC, Gwen would break out the heavy artillery and bring along a large assortment of her finest confections.
In addition to the South Bend CBC, our family always made the one-hour drive to Hamlet, Indiana to help out with the Southeastern LaPorte count. Dorothy Buck (“DB” as she was known to her friends) was the compiler of this count. She was a long-time board member of the Indiana Audubon Society, where she became well-acquainted with several veteran members from our chapter. Her count circle was nothing special, mostly corn and soybean fields, a few scattered woodlots, mile upon mile of fenceline and telephone wires, and one creek (usually frozen over) that meandered through the area. As I recall, there were no other local birders who joined the count. It was DB, her husband John, and a few families from South Bend. The Southeastern LaPorte CBC was dependable for one thing… c-c-cold!
I don’t remember anything about the birds, but memories of the eggnog are indelible. It was nectar of the gods. The Buck home seemed tiny even to a little kid. There was a cozy little living room that wrapped around into a modest dining area then continued into a closet-sized kitchen. I’m guessing the whole place might have been 800 square feet. How we shoehorned 15-20 counters into their garage-sized abode is hard to fathom. The sacred nog was always in a voluminous punch bowl on a table in the dining area. Aside from the raw eggs, I can’t provide the list of other ingredients, which were shared about as often as Colonel Sanders’ secret blend of eleven herbs and spices. Thankfully, there was always more than enough to go around, so my elders did not frown on my repeated visits to the punch bowl.
After moving to Oregon in 1970, my parents routinely hosted post-count potlucks for the Portland CBC. In later years my mom came up with a simple lentil soup recipe that she referred to as “Bird Count Soup” (see the recipe below). It has been my experience that almost any birder will brave rain, snow, ice, wind, and even occasional sunshine to count birds if there is a home cooked meal and house full of rosy-faced compatriots to greet them at the end of the day. “If you cook, we will bird… and eat!”
Judie Hansen’s Bird Count Soup Recipe — serves 50
3 medium onion, chopped
6 large carrots, chopped
3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
3 large cans of tomato juice
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 pounds of lentils
2 tablespoons of dried basil
1 quart water
salt and pepper to taste
Put all ingredients in a large soup pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for three hours. If necessary, due to swelled lentils, add more water and divide into two pots. Serve sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
Anne Heyerly’s Rum Cake Recipe — there’s never enough!
1 C chopped pecans
1 18.5oz cake mix — I use butter pecan
1 3.75oz Jell-O Instant Pudding mix (I use butterscotch or pistachio)
¼ C cold water
1/3 C veg. oil
½ C Dark Rum (Meyers)
1/3 C sour cream
Grease & flour a 10 inch tube or a 13x9 pan. Put nuts in bottom of Tube pan or sprinkle on top of batter if using 13x9. Mix all ingredients together. Bake about 1 hour. Cool. Prick top of cake with large fork. Drizzle glaze evenly over cake allowing glaze to soak in. Wrap cake tightly in saran wrap and stick under seat of car so you must smell it all day while counting birds.
¼ pound butter (NOT margarine)
¼ C water
1 C granulated sugar
½ C dark Rum
Melt butter in non-stick saucepan, stir in water and sugar and boil 5 minutes. Allow to cool to just warm then add rum (makes it stronger!) Do not add rum until it has cooled a bit. Pour over slightly warm cake.