Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Guerrero Negro Part 2: The Start of It All

We arrived in Guerrero Negro, unable to contact or find Victor, a biology student that was organizing this project. Unsure as to where to go or what to do, we went to the salt company security office to explain who we were looking for and find out where to go.

Unable to get anything informative, we left the office and went in search of food and beer. We found Pizzeria Lizardo, in the heart of Guerrero Negro.
As are most places that we have frequented, nobody was in Pizza Lizardo. I wasn’t altogether sure that it was open. Even after entering and hearing voices from the kitchen, I was shocked to find that they were serving, despite their obvious lack of clientele, and odd and garish décor that looked as though they were just moving in. In fact, they still had a Christmas tree – no evidence of lights, tinsel, or ornaments – just dry, sad branches that erupted dead needles to the floor when touched.

We ordered Tecate Light (which is as good as it sounds) and a pizza “suprema” which included carne asada, pepperoni, mushrooms, and onions. Shortly after ordering, a woman and a child that were in the kitchen left. We chatted for a while, stomachs starting to growl, until ten minutes later when both mom and child returned with a grocery bag and headed back into the kitchen. Shortly thereafter, we heard the grinding of a dough press, and realized that they had gone to the market for some, if not all, of the items we ordered. Fresh from the grocery. Friends, THAT is customer service.

The pizza was amazing, and we finished up and headed back to the security office. Once we got there, we were able to talk to Victor, only to find that he and his professor Roberto had broken down on the highway on the way from La Paz, and wouldn’t make it until long past midnight. We made arrangements to stay at a local motel – no Hotel California, of course, but soft beds and a warm shower.

The following morning, we met everyone from breakfast. The group included several biology students from La Paz, and a few employees of the salt company that owns the land the bird captures would take place on.

The company, Exportadora de Sal, is the second largest salt company in the world, next to one in Australia. They harvest about seven million tons of salt per year. The process is complicated, and includes thousands of acres of dikes and reservoirs that have different salinity levels. The salt water goes through 2 years of stages before it’s ready to harvest as salt, and eventually it’s loaded onto trucks, and hauled to large ships to be exported. The reservoirs and the surrounding area attract a lot of wildlife, including many species of birds, antelope, and coyotes, and are a prime location for the bird studies these students conduct each month. In fact, the land Exportadora de Sal is on is part of a much larger wildlife refuge that spans to both coasts of the Baja.

After an hour of introductions, mingling, and coordination, we congregated at the salt company’s security offices (which are also home to the ecology department) and we were split into three groups to do a bird count census. My Dad went by boat, his colleague Bridget, who had been traveling with us, went with the second group, and I went with the third.

We spent the day driving to different areas of the salt fields, scouting out different birds. A student named Nallely would look through a telescope and count birds while her professor, Roberto, scrawled in a notebook. I stood by and found interesting wildlife and things to photograph, as well as search the fields for interesting things. I watched as the pumps, with their deafening roar, churned hundreds of gallons of sea water into the first segment of the salt fields. Ospreys and gulls circled above, and the employees chatted in Spanish about their neighborhood coyote, Tonito, as I found remnants of his dinner scattered throughout the parcel.

We drove, and stopped, looked through binoculars, took photos, counted, and drove some more. Both Roberto and Nallely spoke no English, so although I tried to keep up with most of what was going on, I missed more and more of the details as the day went on and I grew tired. We saw Scaups, Egrets, Ibis, Osprey, Burrowing and Barn Owls, Dowitchers, Godwits, Grebes – too many birds for me to identify or name. We also saw a handful of coyotes, and played with a penned group of pronghorns that were all too willing to nibble on my sweatshirt and fingers.

At the end of a long, windy day, we all met back up at the bunkhouse and ate dinner. I don’t recall what I ate, but after a beer and a game of pool, I was content and asleep at an earlier than respectable time.

The next morning, we dragged ourselves out of our dorm rooms and met in the cozy, wooden bunkhouse dining room for breakfast. We ate eggs with bacon, juice, and toast, and after everyone had their fair serving of coffee, we jumped into the trucks and headed to a location we had scouted Marble Godwits at the day before. After a flurry of packing, organizing, and planning, we broke into groups and discussed the plan for the bird capture.

The idea was fairly simple – we found out where the birds were, keeping the activity and the noise on the beach to a minimum so as not to scare them off. A “cannon” net was set up near the water, and while someone waited at the net’s “detonator”, the rest of us would drive to either ends of the site and walk inward to herd the birds into the net area.

After some walking, lots of radio transmission, translations, and some Spanish profanity, the birds were gradually pushed into the net area by groups of us walking in towards them, and the net was fired.

From up the beach, we heard the cannon net and saw a flock of birds leave, but from so far away, it was hard to know whether we’d been successful. After returning to the site, we found our catch to be well over the hundred mark – more birds that we needed.

For the next few hours, we circled chairs in the sand, taking birds and passing them down the line, one person weighing, one person measuring wings and beaks, one person taking blood and one person recording data.

Once we reached 84 birds, we ended our count and passed the time watching seagulls and brant geese, and eating ham sandwiches until the truck arrived to load the gear.

Dusted in sand, salt, and bird shit (and some feathers and a dot or two of injured bird blood) we returned to the dorm to shower, rest, and relax before dinner. I opted to shower, and then drive the rental car through town. Knee-deep in a Mexican pork rind obsession, I picked some up along with some Tecate and some time at the terminal at an internet café.

Back at the bunkhouse, we met and talked about the day’s success, ate a plate of steak, beans and spinach, and chilaquiles, and finished up with more billiards, and a plan for tomorrow.

Bridget and I will be accompanying Martin, a local biologist, and the census that are conducting a gray whale count early in the morning, while my dad stays behind to help the birders. We expect to see several hundred if not a thousand whales, and a crisp, windy day on the ocean. My mind and body are tired, but I don’t expect to fall asleep easily.

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