Winter break in Baja

…part the second

Everywhere we went in Loreto, there were turkey vultures soaring or perched on the tall cacti or clustered on the tops of palm trees. The ground was not littered with carcasses for them to eat, and I was told that they generally make a living at the beaches, where lots of animals wash up (for whatever reason). Indeed, we saw picked-over carcasses of triggerfish and pufferfish, eared grebes, a heron, and some of our group found small manta rays on the strand.

On one beach walk, we saw a willet with a foot-long worm dangling limply from its bill. Willets are medium-size shorebirds, very plain until they open their wings. This one walked to and fro with that big worm, sometimes dropping it, only to grab it again. This went on for many minutes. Every so often, the bird swallowed part or all of the worm, but every time, that worm was coughed up onto the pebbles and picked up once more. That made me wonder if the worm was somehow making itself unwelcome in the bird’s digestive tract.

One day we hired a car and driver (an excellent guide) to go to the west side of the peninsula. The roads that go over the rugged mountains follow the most serpentine routes I’ve ever seen, snaking along steep hillsides and dipping into dry washes. Our goal was a visit to the gray whales that shelter in the lagoons on the Pacific coast. Although these whales are known to approach boats so closely that a person can reach out and pet them, on this day the whales were not in that mood. They were mostly out at the mouth of the lagoon, where they were cavorting and breaching. But we did see one mama with her calf—headed out to join the others.

Along the way, a big stand of mangroves was crowded with perched double-crested cormorants and frigate birds. Some of the cormorants had their two tufty crests erected, so we could readily see how they got their name. Occasional frigate birds soared high above on their angular wings, but we never saw them swoop on another bird that had a fish—frigates are kleptoparasites, making a lot of their living by stealing the prey of successful fisher-birds.

The west side of the peninsula is much more agricultural than the east side, with cultivated fields and scattered farm animals making a living as best they can on the thorny, spikey, prickly flora. Here the crested caracaras are common. They are scavengers as well as predators: they clean up carrion and I bet they also take newborn baby farm animals (as they do in Chile, I know). They like to nest on high places above the scrubby vegetation and would use the powerline poles, but clever managers have erected special high towers away from the powerlines, and the caracaras like those even better. Ospreys share a liking for those high towers.

Other wildlife seen from the road included iguanas, perched on rocks, and rock squirrels. These squirrels are big ground squirrels, with fur of variable shades of black, and gray, and brown. They are mainly herbivores, sometimes annoying people by chewing up a garden; I saw one with beet juice all over its face. They are reported to be polygamous and females can produce two litters a year. We saw them scuttling in and out of rock piles along the roadside.

A very special sighting was a great egret perched atop a giant cardón cactus. A perfect symbolic juxtaposition of desert and water.

A little boat trip around an island near Loreto passed by a huge flotilla of eared grebes, a pinnacle loaded with blue-footed and brown boobies, and brought us to a haulout of California sea lions. They are known here, not as ‘lions’ but as ‘wolves’ (lobos marinos). The noise and the aromas emanating from them reminded us of our Steller sea lions. But in contrast to the Alaska sea lions, these big critters were utterly unconcerned by our proximity. In fact, it is a popular sport for visitors to swim among them.

On the other side of the island, we too hauled out–on a white sand beach made of crunched up coral, to which parrotfish had made a significant contribution when they nipped off and digested the coral animals and defecated white coral grains that washed up on shore. My friends and I perched at the upper edge of the beach and pulled out our lunches. Immediately, a pair of yellow-footed gulls claimed ownership, in hopes of getting their own lunch from our leftovers and offerings. They were successful, and any other gull that came near was fiercely driven off.

As we sat there, we noticed that some nearby intertidal rocks were crawling with hundreds of black crustaceans, two inches or less in size. We found out later that these are locally known as ‘cucarachas marinas’ (marine cockroaches). I think they are probably isopods—but catching one for close inspection was a vain endeavor, because a pursued ‘cockroach’ speedily scuttled under a rock.

Two species of small songbirds provided other treats for us. Vermilion flycatchers nest in tree forks and were common in some places. Males are very conspicuous, with their black wings set off against brilliant red plumage; in bright sunlight, the head feathers earn the bird its scientific name of ‘pyrocephalus’ (‘fire head’). Females are a streaky brown, except for the posterior underparts, which are typically orange-ish on adults. On younger females, these feathers are pale yellow, getting darker as the bird ages. We were told that females sometimes breed at a very early age, when they still have the bill characteristics of nestlings! Does that indicate a shortage of adult females in the population? Females of this species do all the incubation of eggs and brooding of chicks, while the male regularly feeds her on the nest.

The verdin is a tiny bird, roughly the size of a kinglet, sporting a bright yellow head on a gray body. Its nearest relative is thought to be a species that lives in Europe—an interesting distribution. Verdins build well-insulated spherical nests, with a side entrance near the bottom. We found a nest that was just a bit bigger than a tennis ball–this was presumably a roosting nest; verdins build many of these. Nests for eggs and chicks are bigger and bulkier. Nests are usually placed in the outer part of the canopy of shrubs, where the female tends the eggs and chicks, with help from the male as the chicks age. They feed chiefly on insects, but also sip nectar from flowers.

It was very refreshing to spend time in a place so different from Southeast, where almost everything was new to me. But it was also good to get home again!


Winter break in Baja

For a refreshing change of scene, I went with some friends to the deserts of central Baja California. The little town of Loreto in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur sits on the shores of the Sea of Cortez (a.k.a. Gulf of California). A glance around the horizon reveals some rugged, crumbling, brown, dry mountains, a segment of open sea, a lot of tall, columnar cardon cacti, and the waving fronds of fan palms. A change of scene, indeed!

I awoke in the morning to the swish of palm fronds and the persistent cooing of white-winged doves. A short beach walk from our temporary residence was a broad, braided, tidal flat that would be an estuary if and when the now-dry river delivered water. This was a great place to watch birds, especially at low tide, when mudflats and shallow-water sloughs offered good foraging. There were several kinds of shorebirds, including some familiar ones (dowitchers, greater yellowlegs, least sandpipers, semipalmated plovers, marbled godwits, willets, whimbrels) from home waters. Wilson’s plovers were there too, sporting a much heftier bill than the other plovers. A large flock of (mostly) royal terns rested on the outer sand bars. Big white yellow-footed gulls stalked along the water’s edges and yelled at other gulls that flew overhead.

There were six kinds of herons, including two species of white egrets. A new species (for me) was the reddish egret (so-named for the reddish neck feathers, presumably), whose active foraging techniques were fun to watch. After standing quietly for some minutes, one of those egrets would burst into a bit of fancy footwork, dancing and turning, in hopes of stirring up some small fish. At other times, one would half-spread its wings into a sort of hood and run in a small circle, perhaps corralling fish that might then try to shelter in the shade of the spread wings. So different from the more usual stalking techniques of many other herons.

Another interesting heron was the little blue heron, much smaller than the familiar great blue heron (also present) and decked out in lovely shades of grayish blue. This species is unusual because the juveniles are pure white during their first year (and easy to confuse, on a quick glance, with the white egrets), and the legs looked greenish to me. They start to get the blue plumage in their second year. I have to wonder why they have such a distinctive juvenile plumage.

We made an excursion (bundled up to our ears, owing to a cold north wind) onto the Sea of Cortez to look for blue whales. We found the whales cruising back and forth, occasionally diving and showing their flukes. But it was hard to assess how big they are because only part of the back was showing at any one moment. Blue whales are said to be the biggest animals that have ever lived on earth. They grow to over a hundred feet long and have to eat two to four tons of krill every day during the feeding season. This prodigious size is possible because the great weight is supported by water. Females gestate for almost a year, producing a calf that may weigh two or three tons and reach twenty feet in length. Mama makes over fifty gallons of milk per day—milk that is 35-50 percent fat. On that rich diet, a calf can gain two hundred and fifty pounds a day. Imagine!

On the way to see those whales, we happened upon a spectacular show. A prodigious school of sardines was under attack by a battery of predators, a real feeding frenzy. A bunch of common (or saddle-backed) dolphins, at least a hundred of them, churned the surface water as they dashed to and fro. Overhead, there must have been about a thousand brown pelicans that plunged down into the turbulence, sometimes dozens of them diving all at once, adding to the chaos with their splashy dives. Blue-footed boobies darted in and out of the diving pelicans, making elegant dives that sliced cleanly into the water. There were a few cormorants and big gulls in the mix and a humpback whale came through too. Smaller gulls, most of them in dark charcoal gray plumage, were juvenile Heerman’s gulls. These gulls have the interesting habit of landing next to a pelican that is just emerging from its dive—in hopes of nabbing a fish that is escaping from the pelican’s big bill. (That reminded me of the Steller sea lions that swim next to the jaws of a humpback whale that has scooped up a mouthful of herring, snatching any hapless herring that managed to jump out of the whale’s maw.) This fantastic show went on for some time, but eventually the remaining sardines moved away, followed by many of their predators. I wonder how much of that enormous group of fish remained, after that heavy onslaught by the predators.

On the way back to the harbor, we encountered a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins that came to play with the boat—dashing alongside and splashing in the bow waves. We also saw a pair of small dark birds floating together peaceably and we immediately said to each other—oh, those look like murrelets. Indeed they were. Called Cravieri’s murrelets, they nest on some dry, rocky islands in the Sea of Cortez and a few islands on the west side of the Baja peninsula. Such an extremely limited distribution means that their population very vulnerable to many potential dangers.

That’s Part one of fun in the sun on winter break.