Friday, February 27, 2009

Guerrero Negro Part 6: Liquor and Produce

Our last two days of the trip were the long stretch back home. We drove 40 miles down an shabby, dirt, out-of-the-way road to a town called San Luis Gonzaga to find a radio transmitter on a bird captured by Bridget that had stopped 'migrating' some time ago. There were some speculations between her and my father (read: a long standing bet) about why the transmitter never migrated. Was the bird dead? Did the transmitter fall off? Was the bird still alive and didn't leave the area for whatever reason? Something else?

Bridget had an aerial map with coordinates that the transmitter had been at frequently, and we searched the area for either the bird itself, a bird carcass, or a lost transmitter. It amounted, if not on a living animal, to a needle in a haystack in a way. Until I found out what transmitters cost. And I imagined looking for a bundle of bills amounting to $4000. I would hunt around for that much money in a wetland.

We didn't end up finding it, but not for a lack of looking. The mystery, and the bet, still stands.

After heading back on the same road we came in on (the only road out of the town), we headed back north towards the border. We stopped at a cheap motel, with water hot enough that it could flay the skin off of your body. I couldn't figure out how to turn the lights on or work the outlets in the morning, only to find out that the generator was turned off during the day. Trying to wrap my brain around that one, Bridget's voice chimed, "Yeah, why would anyone need electricity during the day?"

We stopped at a neat breakfast spot with a cozy, inside chiminea that we circled around with our morning caffeine.

Once we found the Otay Mesa border crossing, we found it much faster than the normally three hour long wait at the main crossing. We were tired, dirty, and ready for an early night and the sight of our own beds.

Bridget is a biologist that has worked with my dad previously. Working with my dad was lots of fun, but it was very nice to have some additional estrogen around. Bridget is a riot, and she added a rad dimension to the trip for me.

She was talking about a store (owned by a friend, relative, or stranger, I can't remember) called Liquor and Produce. We couldn't determine which came first in the store. Perhaps a produce store needed more clientele, or, because the store was in Utah, that it needed to add something more wholesome to the product list. Either way, once we discussed the random nature of those two items being sold together, we noticed lots of places and things that went together but probably shouldn't. And now back in the US, I'm still finding amusement in the odd things that are sometimes paired together.

This last post contains more than a pair - a smattering of the random bits of the trip that I wanted to share that didn't fit anywhere else. It's my liquor, produce, spaghetti, and blankets (bonus points for those who got the Mitch Hedberg reference).

First, a few more photos of The Hotel California, including the dreaded room 13 that Bridget and I shared, and some photos of the hotel in San Quintin that I had kite surfed at with my dad that we revisited:

A snack I found on the trip up but was too grossed out to try:

A giant cactus (notice the two, itsy, bitsy humans standing at the base - it's that freaking tall):

Some random birds (the one of the quail was taken by Roberto Carmona):

Salt, salt, everywhere. No wonder I felt all fat and swollen the week I was there. Plus, I added salt to my food - out of respect for the company, of course. Here is salt that we saw in its many forms, and a little bit of its effect on the environment:

Tonito, one of the resident coyotes, caused quite a havoc finding his daily meals. Here are a few of the gifts he left in his wake:

We got to hang out with some very friendly Pronghorns that were bred as part of a repopulation program. Though they had alfalfa to last for a millennia, they clearly had the taste for human blood. And my sweatshirt:

An example of liquor and produce - The Ecology and Workplace Safety Office. Because nothing goes quite as well together as shorebirds and wetland ecology, and paramedics and firetrucks:

There are very strict rules at the bunkhouse. My personal favorite is rule 2d - No drinking liquor in the rooms - uh, wish I would have read that at the outset. Oh, secondly, no scandals. Scandalous behavior is only allowed off the premises, please and thank you!

Diligently working:

This one lacks a bit of the actual weirdness of a beak's true flexibility. Still, nature rocks:

I really loved the people I met. Definitely changed the whole tone of the adventure:

Ending out lineup is a video of one of my favorite people from the trip, Martin. He works at the Exportadora, and was the one who allowed us to go out on the whale count. His spanish was nearly impossible to understand, but what I did understand was hysterical.

I had heard that Martin was the security manager at the Salt Company, but evidently there was another Martin, a Martin Garcia who was Martin's boss. Martin commented (and this had to be translated for me) that his boss looked amazingly like Squidward from SpongeBob Squarepants. I never got to confirm or deny that, but I did get a sampling of Martin's impression of him. And Martin, if you're reading this, I know you asked me not to put this on YouTube. You didn't say anything about Blogspot, mi palomilla:

The only proper way to end this post is to go eat a freshly made salad and three fingers of whiskey. Oh, and make sure not to do it in your rooms, or cause a scandal doing so.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Guerrero Negro Part 5: The Process

We woke up early, had breakfast, and geared up to head to our last capture site of the trip. Everyone had been happy, well-fed, upbeat, and the entire trip went off without a hitch thus far. Which, of course, means that we were due for a snag. And that came in the form of an untimely flat tire.

The Isuzu Trooper that we spent most of the journey in, the same vehicle that Roberto and Victor broke down in on the way from La Paz, had held up fairly well since the breakdown. Despite Roberto's ballsy driving, not shying away from the nastiest of dirt roads or tight corners, we had yet to experience any issues once the car actually made it to Guerrero Negro. It was a miracle that a flat tire was all that was to come. Although "flat" wasn't terribly accurate.

More like shredded.

The sight of what once was our tire was fairly disconcerting, until I realized what our 'new' tire looked like. I envisioned driving on tacks with an inner tube, and feared plunging into a ravine somewhere, mounds of salt preserving my rotting corpse. To my delight, it held up nicely, and I didn't have to worry about seagulls picking at my remains.

After changing the flat with the bare minimum tools to do so (I took the lug nuts off, thank you very much) we hopped in our cars and back down the road.

On the day of the last capture, I decided to remain out of the fray to at least try and capture some of the process on video. While it doesn't convey the true chaos and adrenaline, it gives you an idea of what happens right before the net fires, through the events of the data circle.

This particular day didn't quite go as planned (I found that is usually the case.) We had barely decided on a spot for capture, and were merely hoping for success rather than expecting it.

We had all rounded up and were put in three groups. One group was to walk across the net area to the other side of the dike we were on, one group was to stay close behind the detonation point, and one would remain on the near side of the dike's edge.

I was placed in the first group, and we were all headed out to cross the net area when birds started pouring in unexpectedly. Everyone dropped to the ground where they were at and waited, nobody even close to their intended positions. Victor, chief net detonator, actually had to crawl military style to get to the detonator. Very covert. It was a stroke of luck, but one that came before we were ready.

The videos (two of them, due to photobucket restrictions) begin from there, and they sum up the few hours to follow, from the birds arriving, the net being fired on through the end of the capture day:

Once we got back to the bunkhouse and washed up, Bridget and I went out shopping. We ended up buying some delicious snacks and some Oso Negro vodka (which came with a set of bonus Stanley screwdrivers, which I hope Bridget has put to good use around her house) and we proceeded to drink it with mango and pineapple juice. That lead to the bigger expedition of late night pool playing. Those of us who were still standing headed out to karaoke until, if I recall correctly, close to 4am. And yes, I sang. And also yes, it was in spanish.

Needless to say, it was difficult to wake up the next morning. We all had a final breakfast together in the bunkhouse dining room and said our goodbyes. It was so great to meet and work with all of those people, and sad to say goodbye.

We headed out on our 2-day drive home, stopping in a town on the other side of the Baja coast to look for a lost bird transmitter. More on that, and the last installment of Guerrero Negro, entitled Liquor and Produce (courtesy of Bridget), to follow soon.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Guerrero Negro Part 4: The Capture

Our second bird capture was one I would be present during. Due to the logistics and the location of the first capture, my team was herding birds south and ended up too far away from the net's location to see what we had caught until we hiked back down shore. Or, in my case, hiked back north returned to get the deathtrap of a truck we were driving that our team left and then drove it back down the beach.

The area of the second capture was a fairly wide beach that the biologists had scouted the day earlier. Around high tide, the birds would fly in and be pushed to shore towards the net, and compressed further by the two teams on the shore. We would get there while the tide was low to set the next, back off while the tide came in, and wait for the birds.

I was partnered up with Lupillo, a 22-year old student from La Paz. We were placed far back from the beach, barely able to see the net without binoculars.

Lupillo and I got along really well, standing by the deal we made that he was to only speak english and I was to only speak spanish. He behaved as most of the other students did - as though his english was much worse that it actually was. He needed a little prodding, and my refusal to speak to him unless he spoke in english helped (more accurately, I put my cupped hand up beside my ear and yelled that I couldn't understand him if he was speaking spanish. Obnoxious, but effective.)

Each of the pairs had a radio, and I was relieved to find out that Lupillo was in charge of ours. I was learning that my spanish comprehension left a little to be desired, even without lots of static, cursing, and ancient motorola 2-way radios with spotty batteries.

Walking to our post, Lupillo picked up an object on the ground that I would have never identified as something interesting, and handed it to me. The discussion that followed, each in our second languages, was fraught with details I missed. But I did understand the most important part - that the seemingly boring object was a shark's egg casing.

My first question was painfully strung together in spanish, telling Lupillo that I thought sharks had live births. He explained (most of it was in spanish - we gave each other mulligans, occasionally, when we were too frustrated to go any further and had to resort to our native tongue) that certain sharks do lay eggs, and others have eggs that hatch inside of them and the birth is then live. I suppose I could look on animal planet to get full details if I really wanted to. Aside from being certain that it was a shark's egg sac, I was pretty happy with being uneducated.

We got to our position, slugging through the mud with our rubber boots. Most of the biologists had boots that came all the way up their legs, like chaps, and the rest of us had knee-high galoshes. At first, I wasn't sure I needed them, but was extremely thankful for one of the employees of the salt company for forcing me to take them with me to the site.

Lupillo threw his backpack down in the muddy marsh and plopped himself down after it. Looking up at me, and wondering if I was going to stand and wait until the tide came in, he motioned for me to sit.

The muddy slop, when walking, fully covered my feet and was at least a few inches deep. I did a quick mental play-by-play and noted that I was wearing my last semi-clean pair of jeans, as well as pondered their absorbency level. Realizing there was no other choice, and regardless of what patch of land I sat in, or how gently I sat, that I would be wet, cold, covered in mud, and crawling in bog-critters. So I closed my eyes and sat. And the mud and water oozed up around my legs, butt, and back, and started soaking into my clothes.

After a few minutes of adjusting to muck-sitting, we started our "language lessons" we had begun the day before. They included regional and uncommon words and phrases, especially those that were never taught in english/spanish classes. For instance, a giant derogatory remark against women in Mexico is to refer to her with the spanish word for 'fox'. It can also be used between friends as a joke, sort of like 'bitch' or something similar. Of course, I tried to explain that calling someone a 'fox' in english is quite a compliment, although somewhat outdated. By the look on his face, my explanation was hazy at best.

Lupillo, out of either nervousness or boredom began nibbling on little nubs of this succulent plant that was growing all around us. He handed one to me, and i bit into it. It was the consistency of a grape, and very salty. I found myself unconsciously grabbing them while we talked, biting into them, and throwing them aside. Sort of like swamp sunflower seeds.

After a few hours, the tide was coming in, and coming in fast. I had to go to the bathroom at this point, and knew I needed to go quick before the net was detonated and we all had to run and help. Feeling embarassed, I mentioned that I had to pee, and was at a loss for where to go. A fleeting thought was to just GO since I was already sitting in a puddle of mud. But Lupillo told me not to worry, to walk about 15 feet behind us. I stood up to ask how that was going to help, since we were in a flat marsh field with a highway on one side and a beach of people on the other. Lupillo smiled and waved me on and announced, in spanish, into his 2-way radio:

"Sharon is going to pee, everyone, so all of you look at the ocean."

I had to wonder what was worse: having a few people spot you peeing from far away, or a whole entire team of biologists getting an announcement outloud on their 2-ways that you're peeing and that they should look away.

About five minutes after, we got a fuzzy radio transmission, that many birds were in range of the net but some were too small a species and would be killed or injured if the net was set off. So again, we're left to wait.

After a long silence, Lupillo grabs my hand and his backpack with the other, and pulls me up and towards the direction of the net. I walk cautiously behind him, crouching as he does. We get to a dry, sandy patch close to the beach when he slowly sets his backpack on the ground. I do the same. Then over the radio comes "tres, dos.."

I didn't hear an 'uno' over the sound of the net detonating and the resulting chaos of people running towards the net to get the birds. I started running as Lupillo did, but even with bare feet, he was to the net long before I was.

Once there, half the people pick up the edge of the net that's in the water and slowly walk it into land, herding the birds underneath inward, so as not to lose any of them. The other half of people grab modified laundry baskets covered with fabric flaps and began filling them with birds.

I realized I was little help at this point, since I couldn't tell the difference between the species of birds to know which ones to keep and which to release. I make sure that everyone had a basket near them to put birds in, but mostly I just stood there trying to not be in the way.

To make matters worse, my dad told me to grab the few dead or injured birds and bring them to him. I looked to see where he was pointing and noticed one, bleeding and missing a wing, that was hopping sadly on the sand. Being the sappy, uber-sensitive girl that I am, I walked over and gently cupped it in my hands and handed it to him, my eyes welling with tears. Noticing my slow pace despite everyone else's speed to finish the task, my dad looked up at me, took the bird from me and dispatched it, and realizing he had made a mistake, quickly assigned me another job.

Once the birds were in baskets, they were carried to the car and a circle of chairs was set up. Two of us had clipboards, to transcribe weights and lengths, one person weighed, two people measured the beaks, legs and head, a pair collected and organized blood samples, and two more placed colored bands on each bird before letting them go.

The circle itself was a weird assembly line. Numbers were shouted out in spanish, and birds were passed from person to person. It was a constant flurry of talking, counting and joking, measuring birds and then eating the occasional ham sandwich, ceviche or carne asada burrito, plus apples and fresca, all packed in a freshly prepared cooler each day. We ate, we counted, we scribbled.

The weirdest thing to me was the bird-weighing, which was my job the first day. The logistics of weighing a bird didn't really occur to me other than: a) put bird on scale and b) read weight.

What you don't realize when you don't work with birds at all is, how do you keep a bird on a scale long enough to weigh it without it jumping/hopping/flying away? You do so by placing said bird in a juice container, modified to place a bird inside. Do they like the juice container is another question, which after a few hours and 80 birds, I am certain I have the answer to. They don't.

Once we did our counting, and I got a few awesome rides out of the 4-wheeler that we had, we headed back to the bunkhouse. Nallely rode on the back of the ATV with me on the way home, and if she was afraid, she didn't show it - apart from warning me about upcoming speedbumps, yelling, "Topo! Topo!

We have one more day to catch birds, and then a 2-day ride home. The chefs at the bunkhouse are starting to warm up to me, and they know by now to give me a chocolate milk after dinner along with the students from La Paz. Then comes billiards followed by sleep and a 6:30 wake up call.