Friday, February 27, 2015

Mexico Owling 2015

February  27th A momentous day. After nearly 11 years of working as a social worker at United Cerebral Palsy I had gotten a new job working for Multnomah County. This was my last day of work. I had negotiated a week between jobs and quickly came up with a plan to go owling in Mexico. Beside the season, and proximity; going to Mexico is a strategic choice. With the drug war in Mexico it's a real risk that things may deteriorate. I had decided to go now in case Mexico plunges deeper into the drug war.

My plan is to chase down the four new owls: Cape pygmy-owl , Tamaulipas pygmy-owl, Guatemalan pygmy-owl and Balsas screech-owl. I had missed Guatemalan pygmy despite several days of searching in 2013. Back in 2000 I had missed both Balsas screech and Tamaulipas pygmy on a birding trip to central Mexico. Additionally I would like to see Elf owl, the Western screech (Baja race), vermiculated screech and Eastern screech (NE Mexican race).

My trip begins with getting to Baja. After saying goodbye to Tui and the boys I fly out to Seattle. There I sleep on crappy airport chairs awaiting my early morning flight to San Jose del Cabo.

February 28th After a pretty reasonable night at the airport I catch my 7am flight. I suffer a caffeine headache, but otherwise everything is OK. The car rental guys asks if he can substitute a SUV for a minivan, I ask around and end up with a tomato red Tacoma 4WD. I make my way to San Antonio de la Sierra; basically a dirt road that goes into the Sierra de la Laguna from the North. Starting at KM11 I tape for the Cape pygmy owls. Every 1/4km I stop the truck and try for the owls. The terrain is hilly oak forest and thorn scrub/desert. By KM23 I am at a big wash and its getting late. I park the truck and head out on foot towards the mountains, taking a right 0.5km after the wash. The sun sets and I debate turning around. Instead I press on and ten minutes later I get a response! The bird is really aggressive and quickly flies in. I get great views as it called from just above me in a thorn tree. It is very similar to the Northern Pygmy owls in Oregon, but was perhaps a bit paler. The crown is spotted whitish. It's bill and feet are really large. Four whitish tail-bars are visible from below. The slow double tooting song is the obvious identifying characteristic. (The bird is 0.5 km past a rough creek crossing). On the walk back to the truck I hear three other pygmies calling after dark and find a pair of elf owls. I get brilliant views of the elf owl, my first since 1998. What a crazy little owl.

I had only eaten a couple of OXXO, (Mexican 7 eleven), hot dogs all day, and by now I was starving. I drove back to the highway and head North East to San Antonio. The town was pretty dark and quiet, but I find a priest talking to a lady who was selling huge hamburgers. I eat two and would have asked for two more, except it seemed immodest, doubly so with the Padre to witness my gluttony.

I return to the safety of the mountains for the night. Back along the dirt road, I stop and tape for Western screech owl. No luck, so I try a little further up the road by some dense thorn forest. I get a response right away. I get good views of the owls. The Baja race is quite different from the Oregon birds, being smaller, brown and much less crisply marked. I continue on, past where I had had the first pygmy and come to a locked gate. I park the truck and fall asleep on the bench seat.

March 1st. The day breaks late and I don't start 'till 7am. I stash my backpack under an oak, away from the truck. I  plan to hike up to the Sierra de Victoria to look for Cape pygmy high in the pine forests.

Its a long steep hike up the road. Made steeper by not having breakfast. A couple of kilometers above the gate I tape out another Cape pygmy and get great views again. This bird is warmer colored than yesterday's, apparently there are no red morphs, but female birds are generally redder. At a col, I take a jeep track to the right that leads to the peak. The track is quite steep, and ends at a lesser peak, where a ruined lookout had been built into a huge granite boulder. The variegation is oak scrub, so I failed to get into the higher altitude pine forest. Still the view is beautiful. I walk quickly back to the truck, eager to eat.

I drive to El Tiunfo, an ideal little Mexican village. There I demolish a couple of burgers and a Coke. Then I drive North through uninspiring flat desert scrub. I find a place to email at the edge of La Paz, across from the Walmart and the Sex Shop. Then buy supplies at the grocery store and return to the sanctuary of the mountains. I pick up a hitch hiker along the road, a well dressed older rancher who had been visiting kin.

I return to the big wash at KM 23. There I wash my clothes. I was doing this when I look up and see a couple of young dudes checking out the truck. I yell "hola", and they look surprised. They come over to chat, then head off up the wash. I can't tell if they were planning on breaking in, or just curious about the red truck in their wash. I decide to carry my backpack and set out to explore the forest along the side of the big wash. I don't find any pygmy-owls. By now it's dark, and I drive about 6km back towards the highway. Here there is a smaller wash with better prospects for camping unobserved. Then I walk back along the road for a few miles taping for Western screech owls in the open oak woods. Three times I hear elf owls calling in response to my screech owl tape. The first elf that calls is easy to tape in and I get good views of a pair in an oak tree in a pasture. I don't see any screech owls, but it hardly matters. Its a gorgeous night with a three quarters moon illuminating the white granite road. Above, in the hills, a fox screams.

Again I am too tired to set up the tent and sleep soundly in the truck.

March 3rd. I am so tired that I sleep until the sun is in the sky. It's a lovely blue morning. There is dew on the grass and cow bells ring. I spend the morning catching up on stuff. I eat a real breakfast and study the information I have on the Balsas screech owl-tonight's target. I figure out the route then pack.

On the way back to town I drive right over a big rattler without hitting it. Perhaps it's a warning because I get totally ripped off at the gas station next to the airport.

San Jose del Cabo airport was full of party people escaping the winter. I can't wait to leave them all behind and get on my flight to Guadalajara.

Guadalajara is hot and busy. I pick up my VW rental and fight my way through traffic. At a light a legion of desperate window-washers descended on the waiting cars with filthy wash rags and buckets of gray water. They climb up on hoods of big chromed trucks, wash, then retreat in unison before the lights cycle green.

Eventually I break free from the traffic and head West towards Colima on highway 54. My destination is the microwave towers (microondas) on a small hill outside of Colima. I had tried this location for Balsas screech owl back in 2000, arriving well after midnight on a windy, owl-less night. This time I was determined to reprieve myself. The perfect expressway crosses a vast dry lake bed. The sun set, silhouetting the majestic of me Volcan de Navado. I drive fast and make good time, reaching the gate for the microondas by 9pm. The guard agrees to watch the VW while I look for owls.

I impatiently gear up then set out into the warm night. At the beginning of the trail, I tape and instantly a big screech flew into a leafless thorn tree. I get a nice view of a lovely Balsas screech perching next to me. It is a little bigger than a Western screech. Both below and above it is less crisply marked. Above it is grayish-brown. It's a brown eyed owl. I hear its gruff three note song and a second bird bird nearby. I continue up the ridge trail though dry thorn forest. A kilometer away I hear another, but this one was in a deep gully, no doubt infested with terrible snakes, so I pursue it no further.

I pay the gate man and drive off into the night. The Balsas screech was so easy I feel like a thief. I have all night to make my flight, so decide to take to free (libre) road back to Guadalajara. It will help me recoup the pesos I lost at the gas station this morning and will be fun. The road begins with lots of beautiful curves and wild country. While descending into a gorge I try to pass a semi between switchbacks. Confronted by headlights mid pass, I slam on the brakes. The semi shot past to the right. Forcing the car into first, I lurch right as a blaze of light and horns pass. Floods of adrenalin!

March 4th. The rest of the drive to Guadalajara was uneventful. I arrive around 1am at Fox car rental. The agent looks confused that I am returning the car after so little time with so many new kilometers. I sleep on the crappy plastic airport chairs. Above me guys arc-welds a new ceiling, but it wasn't going to keep me from sleep.

At 530 I get up and left the terminal to go to OXXO for a hot dog. I get put on an earlier connector to Mexico City. It was an uneventful flight across brown dry land.

Mexico City's Aeropuerto Benito Juarez was busy as usual. After a bit of confusion I figure out my flight to Tuxtla. There I pick up another VW rental. I was planning on driving along 90 via San Cristobal to Comitan and on to Laguna de Montebello. Instead I end up following the lowland route though cane fields to Comitan. The heavy cane trucks had destroyed the road, so everyone has to swerve chaotically to dodge the worst potholes. I follow a van that drives quick and knows the potholes well, making good time.  The horn didn't work on the VW, making passing the swerving traffic risky. Eventually I stop for a plate of excellent tacos with fiery salsa.

Laguna de Montebello is cool and blustery. The wind isn't going to help my efforts to find Guatemalan pygmy-owls. It was a touristy place without tourists, and registers as the kind of place my car might get broken into. With that in mind I spend the last two hours of daylight driving short distances, and then getting out and taping/listening for pygmies. I get no response. I am starting to feel like this was a big ugly repeat of 2013 when I had spent two or three days not seeing this owl around San Cristobal. Even the recording I am using is the same.

Once it was dark I find stalls serving food. I order carne asada. The cook reheats a stiff piece of meat, which smell like old feet. It was difficult getting it down, but I had an audience and I put on a good performance of a man enjoying his meal. I find a lakeside cabana. It's populated by big brown spiders. At least I have a safe place to leave the car while I owl.

I spend an hour trying for bearded and whiskered screech owls. I am not certain either occur here, but it would be fun to lay eyes on either. Alas it is not to be. It was still windy so I give up and get some sleep.

March 4th I get up at 5am and resume my search for bearded and whiskered screech owls. It was a lovely night, no wind and a big moon. However I get no responses. Perhaps Laguna de Montebello is too low to support these mountain owls.

At first light I resume my quest for Guatemalan pygmy-owl. I start at the end of the sealed road and work my way back to the gated entrance, then south, off the road and onto a series of trails through the forest. I take a brief break for breakfast-which was much better than dinner; chorizo, avocado and black beans on a bed of soft cheese. Then venture out to a rickety lookout tower above a dry cenote. Everything looks good-beautiful pine oak forest and lots of birds. Just no pygmies. Ah this bird is killing me!

By noon, I decide to cut my losses and head up to San Cristobal. A couple of birders had recently found the owl high on Cerro Huitapec, a mountain that overlooks town. I find a cabana on the lower slope of Cerro Huitapec and ditch my bag. After asking around I finally figure out the dirt road that leads up to the microodas. The peak was clothed in beautiful evergreen oaks, while lower down were drier pine woods and small farms. It looks great. Still I get no a whisper of a pygmy owl.

After a spectacular dusty sunset and then a big moon rises I switch tracks and search for whiskered and bearded screech owls for an hour. The conditions are perfect, but it wasn't meant to be. Tired and a bit defeated I drive back to San Cristobal. I find a store and buy provisions for tomorrow. Next door is a fantastic taqueria. A big coke in a glass bottled and slow cooked meat bathed in fiery salsa-better!

Back at the cabana I pack. I go to bed early, but feel nervous at the prospect of missing the pygmy owl and the huge drive I have planned for tomorrow night.

March 5th What a night. Every hour I woke between manic dreams. I dreamed of my sons, and awaken feeling guilty about the risks I am taking tonight.

Although I thought I had left plenty of time to get to the Chanal Rd, with traffic and topes (speed-bumps) I don't make it out there until just before sunrise. This site has several recent reports of the pygmy owl. I am a bit disappointed when I arrive. The habitat is very fragmented and there is a lot of traffic on the road. People are everywhere, which makes me a bit nervous. (The indigenous people who live here have a reputation for harassing birders and chasing them off their ancestral lands. This is part of a bigger rebellion that continues to simmer between the army and the people here). I try three sites, but get no response. I decide to go back to KM2 on the Ocosingo road. (A classic birding site, but also the one with the worst rap for conflict). Sure enough I get five minutes of owling in, when a couple of local guys move me on. Strangely one of them has a tablet (I-pad). I am more used to getting moved on by guys carrying farming tools.

I decide to try Las Grutas-some tourist caves down the road. I can park safely there and explore the adjacent hillsides for pygmy owls. This is my last chance. I pay to park and pull in to the parking area. The whole site is fenced. Heading for better forest I hop the fence and walk through the forest. After a couple of minutes I notice that I have walked into the extensive military barracks that parallels Las Grutas. Luckily I retreat without being noticed. I escape the fence at the other side of Las Grutas-not sure if this is part of the army base so I keep my eyes pealed for soldiers. I end up ascending into some lovely pine-oak forest that leads into the mountains. The trees are festooned with epiphytes and orchids. It's a beautiful day but the owls are not singing. By noon I return to the car and eat lunch under the powerful sun. It's a relief to be out of time, to be defeated. I will be back, with a better plan soon.

I return to the cabana, stopping off to email Tui. I shower and wash my clothes then hit the road for Tuxtla. It's a long twisty drive on the libre road. Tuxtla is hot and amazingly windy. Returning the car to National is annoying. Every mark is discussed at length and I am changed for returning the car about a gallon short on gas. I plan for the night's drive as I wait for my flight.

I sleep a little on the flight to Guadalajara. The same clerk at Fox car rental greets me. It takes just a couple of minutes 'till I hit the road. My big adventure. My Mexican Cannonball Run! After a wrong turn I get orientated and hit the ring road, then the cuota (toll) road that crosses the backbone of the country all the way to Luis Potosi. Traffic is light and I can go as fast as I dare. There are a lot of Federales catching speeders so I settle on 120kph. Just before midnight I pass a delicate barn owl. I love owls. What a  perfect omen.

March 6th I pulled into San Luis Potosi just after midnight. It's an orderly sort of place and soon I figure out my route across town. I miss a cuota to Rio Verde, so end up on the libre road. Its a misty wet road through the mountains and down far, far below to Rio Verde. The road is quiet and I drive the little VW with vigor. I try not to think of bandits working this lonely road. I stop to piss and it's freezing out.

At each OXXO I stop for a coffee or coke, sometimes both. By 2am I am still feeling good. After Rio Verde I take the cuota down to Cuidad Valles. I roll in to town at 4am. The place is deserted. I feel paranoid. I am in Tamaulipas, a state with a horrific reputation. Some repugnant roadside crimes have happened here. Doors locked and keep the car in gear at the red lights. Look left, mirror, right, repeat.

I head north out of the city on 85 towards Ciudad Mante. The road is deserted. Nothing for five minutes, then ten then fifteen. I am praying for traffic. To not be so alone. I think I see a shadow far down the blacktop. I press harder on the gas. From the left a rabbit bolts out and hits the tire. Thud. I flinch and press down harder on the gas. I pass Cuidad Mante and burning cane fields.  I see my turnoff for Gomez Farias. It's over. I escape the highway and retreat into the sanctuary of the mountains. Above Gomez Farias the road becomes a cobbled track that climbs a bold limestone escarpment. I find three vermiculated screech owls before dawn.

I park at the mirador and feel pretty victorious at having made it here. It's 6am. I got my gear together and wait for dawn. At first light I start taping for Tamaulipas pygmy owl. A bat falcon flies in to check me out.

It's beautiful country ;tall hills, separated by white cliffs from the vast gulf plain far below. Despite the cold, the forests are subtropical. Birds are everywhere. After Chiapas I am feeling really good about this place. I walk for 5km, taping and listening as I go. Then I hear a very distant response. I debate walking through the thicket of vines towards the pygmy owl, when I suddenly hear it right next to me! It's surrounded by scolding small birds. A beautiful bird. I just love the "least" pygmy owl group. It's a bizarrely colored bird-the upper-parts are almost mauve-chocolate color. The crown is delicately flecked with white. It's very short tailed and stout. The bill and eyes are yellow. It's song is a very slow paced series of notes, mostly single, but some are paired. It also delivered a trilling series of notes. I am elated. What a relief. What a  brilliant little owl.

It's a slow bumpy ride back into town. I find a nice hotel. It's closed, but I ask around and am let in. By now it's late morning.  I should be exhausted but instead fall into a fitful sleep with manic dreams. I get up around noon in search of a meal. I scour the town, but all I find to eat is a guy with a hand cart selling boiled corn bathed in mayo, margarine and chili. Back at the hotel I speak to the owner who knows a lot about birds. He explains both mottled and ferruginous pygmy owls  dwell in the hotel's gardens. He also let me use the phone at the front desk to call Tui. She didn't answer, but I leave a message.

By now I am truly exhausted and I fall into a deep sleep.

March 7th I awaken at midnight. In this small town everything has been closed for hours. I start owling in the hotel garden and almost immediately get a mottled owl to respond. It moves around and ends up in a gully below me. It stops calling and I decide to look for a more cooperative bird.

I drive to the entrance of town and work my way down for a couple of kilometers, taping for Eastern screech owl. No luck. then I return and on the walk up tape in a mottled owl. I flush the bird, and end up with good views of it perched low in a tree. A lovely dark-eyed creature.

I drive to the top end of town and work the cobbled road for the next three kilometers, taping for Eastern screech again. And again I get no response. By now it's 430am and I am tired so I return to the hotel for sleep. At 7am I awaken and try for ferruginous pygmy owl in the hotel's garden. Below the hotel I get a response. Fortunately there is a great trail that leads to the forested valley below. There I find the ferruginous pygmy owl below the canopy. It's great to compare it with yesterday's Tamaulipas pygmy owl.

The only place open at this hour is a small tienda where I buy yogurt and cookies. I hit the road with the intention of stopping at El Naranjo. This is a site that I visited back in 2000. The cane trucks and heavily armed convoys of Federales make for a slow journey to El Naranjo. There I stop for tacos. The cook tells me his sorry story of how he fled the law across the boarder and in doing so abandoned his wife and children.

Above El Naranjo the habitat is similar to Gomez Farias with subtropical oak forests. I carefully pull off the highway and hide the car down a gated track. It does not take long to draw out another lovely Tamaulipas pygmy owl. It's midday and I am still tired. I sleep in the car for a few hours then spend the balance of the afternoon reading and studying the map. At dusk I set off again in search of Eastern screech owl but come up short.

By now I am ready to go home. I drive up to Ciudad Maiz, where I eat excellent tacos. Past town I see roadside foxes and a coyote and demolish an unfortunate road way possum. Mostly it's a fast easy drive to San Luis Potosi. I arrive there about midnight. I pull into the first motel. It's kind of weird. You pay from your car to a guy at a window, then pull into a garage, close the garage door, then enter a side door into a concrete room. It's a sketchy whore fucking sort of joint that gives me a bad feeling. I drift off to sleep while I ponder the likelihood of being robbed.

March 8th I get up at an ungodly hour and search for a working ATM. It takes three tries before I get money. For breakfast I hit a taco stand and eat with the late night friendly drunks. I notice that all the drunks are driving. Then I hit the road for Guadalajara. It's a fast beautiful drive with the dawn sun rising in the rear view mirror. I drop off the car and make my flights home. All the way home I plot how I will find my Guatemalan pygmy owl.