Sunday, December 12, 2010

An Impromptu Weekend in Guadalajara, Mexico

Let me begin by telling y’all my husband, Avi, is a rock star! Back in 1981 he graduated from the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara (UAG) Medical School. A few weeks ago he was invited back as one of the Medical School’s December graduation speakers. The answer was a no-brainer. We had only been back to Guadalajara once over the years, and that was over 15 years ago. So, he accepted the invitation, we paid for my ticket down and, on December 2, we flew down.

I tried to find a birdingpal there. None are listed. I also tried to find recommended birding spots in the city. Again, nothing. But we packed our binoculars and our Howell guide anyway. After all, we’re eternal optimists.

We flew into Guadalajara, were picked up by our driver, Prospero, and a welcoming hostess, Patti, and were taken to our accommodation for the weekend, a new Holiday Inn Express owned by the UAG.

That night we attended a cocktail party honoring the U.S. (“International”) graduates, complete with Mexican botanas such as empanadas, tortas, and taquitos. Naturally, a Mariachi showed up as well. FYI, they’re playing the song “Guadalajara”, the unofficial anthem of the city.


Also, FYI, here’s Avi and me all cleaned up and looking good! (I told you he’s a rock star!)


The next day was a full one. We had graduation in the morning and had been offered tickets for the Latino Medical School graduation party. That meant a 10 p.m. start, partying until about 4 or 5 in the morning, and then going out to an all-night restaurant for a soup called Menudo (tripe based with hominy and, sometimes pork).

Graduation was where Avi’s rock star came out. He helped in handing out diplomas and was the final speaker, talking about how the school benefitted him, how bilingual/bicultural abilities enhance a medical practice in today’s United States, and urging the graduates to remain active members in the Alumni Association.

Here’s what rock stars at graduations wear:

Avi closeup Grad Procession

At the short coffee and cookie reception afterward, we got a taste of birding. As people were coming up to Avi to speak with him, we both saw bright red birds up in the canopy – that, with no time nor binoculars. But it certainly got us to thinking about a good birding spot!

One of the students invited us to join him and his family and friends at a graduation party. Avi was much more amenable to a late afternoon/early evening affair than the all-nighter. So, after a brief tour of the campus, our driver dropped us at the student’s party, where we enjoyed ourselves and their warm hospitality for the rest of the afternoon. The student, in his speech to the party attendees, told everyone how honored he was to actually have one of the graduation speakers (rock star!) at his party.

Realizing the UAG campus (right next door) had some incredible green spaces, we set out to bird part of it the following morning. May I say, if it hasn’t already been conducted, someone should do a birding survey of the campus. At times the quantity and variety of birds rivaled the best spring migration birding at Pt. Pelee.

We birded along the road in a pine/acacia/oak area at the edge of a canyon drop, then spent some time in the University’s Botanical Garden filled with cacti and rimmed by oaks, acacias and low shrubbery.

We even got a decent shot of one of our life birds, a Russet-crowned Motmot.

P1110186 Rufous-crowned Motmot different view

Another life bird for the trip was a Canyon Towhee, scratching around in the Botanical Garden. This was a tougher ID, since we weren’t sure which birds were around the area. Luckily, I was able to find a checklist for the birds of Jalisco (Guad’s state) and worked off that and online photos.

unknown bird 4

For the afternoon, we spent a bit of time downtown at the “new to us” Plaza Tapatia. There was a sidewalk art competition that weekend, so we spent some time wandering around, checking it all out. The art was impressive and, as usual for Guadalajara, the weather perfect.

Downtown Art Festival 2 Downtown Guad Art Festival festival art

We also had lunch inside the San Juan de Dios market. (If you want to know my philosophy about why this food is generally safer than larger restaurant food, contact me.) It was fresh, delicious, and cost about $6.40 for the two of us.

My meal is the plate with the drink behind it (apple soda), Avi’s is the one with the just made tortilla held above it.

april lunch avie lunch

Look at the selection of salsas! There was also a bowl with radishes and one with nopalitos (Prickly Pear Cactus leaves).

We ended our afternoon in typical Guadalajara fashion, with a beer on the Plaza.

beer on the plaza

The next day was our last day. But, since we weren’t flying out until 5:20 p.m., we walked back to the UAG campus for a last morning of birding. Again, it was very birdy, and we got a few species we hadn’t seen the previous day. Unfortunately, I forgot the camera’s memory card so we have no photographic record of anything from that morning.

That afternoon, we were picked up, taken to the airport, and returned to San Antonio. But we’re hoping for a future invitation for my rock star to perform in another capacity, either as a visiting professor or to help consult on a project the University is planning.

Meanwhile, I leave you with my favorite photo of the trip (check out the lower right corner of the shot), and our bird list.

Hasta luego!

baby NOT for sale

The list of birds:

Turkey Vulture

Common Black Hawk

Short-tailed Hawk

Rock Pigeon

Inca Dove

Common Ground Dove

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Russet-crowned Motmot

Gila Woodpecker

Willow Flycatcher

Hammond’s Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

Social Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Western Kingbird

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Bright-rumpled Attila

Plumbeous Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Bewick’s Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Curve-billed Thrasher

Rufous-backed Robin

House Sparrow

Cassin’s Finch

Orange-crowned Warbler

Virginia’s Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Black-throated Gray Warbler

American Redstart

Gray-crowned Yellowthroat

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

Great-tailed Grackle

Striped Sparrow

White-collared Seedeater


Friday, December 10, 2010

A Taste of Big Bend – Day 2

We woke early, hoping to do a few trails before we had to leave the park for home.

On our way for morning coffee, we came across this planted right in the middle of the lodge area:


Don’t let the photo fool you. It was a HUGE pile of scat filled with berry seeds. Avi and I quickly ran down the possible list of animals and deducted it could only be the scat of a Black Bear. So, as the paraphrased saying goes, “There be bears in them there hills!”

We hiked a ways down a trail near the lodge. It was pretty quiet except for a few birds. But the views of the sun rising against the walls of the mountains was spectacular.

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We went back to the room to pack up the car for one last time. Before leaving, I took a photo of the “TV sign” in the room. The lack of tv was mentioned in the previous post. But I guess there are people who just can’t live without one. So sad.


Avi and I intended to drive down to the Rio Grande Village, hoping to hike the Dugout Wells trail (water generally = birds). But this time the convertible was our major disadvantage.

The Parks Service decided to repave the road we needed to drive on. This basically consisted of dumping loose gravel on it and allowing vehicular movement to (eventually) set it into the underlayment of asphalt.

Even though the signs said 20 miles per hour, those SUV drivers figured they could go 40, kicking up the loose gravel. Not only was the car in danger of being damaged, so were our heads. So we reluctantly turned back after a few miles.

We DID visit the Fossil Bone Exhibit on our way out of the park. You look out on a huge, arid desert, but find out it all used to be wetlands, supporting a wide variety of prehistoric mammals.

Also on our way out of the park we had a lovely close encounter with a tarantula, warming itself on the road.


And once we left the park we found a large colony of Prairie Dogs along the road. We took quite a few photos, but only a few came out well.

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Of course, every trip has its final bird. Ours was a giant Roadrunner in Fort Stockton, TX. I believe his name is Paesano Pete.


Our Southwest Boogie had come to an end and we had to drive back to San Antonio. Avi had work the next day and I had to get back to real life. It was a great trip and our little Mazda Miata functioned above and beyond.

Next year we’re thinking of going up through Colorado and Utah. But before then, I have a weekend in Guadalajara, Mexico to report on and our upcoming March trip to bird the island of Cuba should be great!

Until then, I leave you with a photo of the Miata in the Chihuahuan desert:


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Taste of Big Bend – Day 1

Avi and I spoke often about visiting Big Bend. We just hadn’t ever made the trip. When I was planning our Southwest Boogie I discovered the timing would be perfect for a couple of days at the end of the trip. So I booked a room at the Chisos Mountain Lodge in the park and put it on our itinerary.

When we got to the park, I realized we were ill-prepared to bird it. Even though you read about how large it is, the truth doesn’t sink in until you start driving through it. It’s a good 23 miles from the park entrance to the first signs of civilization. You find yourself driving and driving and driving through the Chihuahuan Desert.


Advice we were given about making sure you have water and sufficient gasoline are no joke. Even though you’re in a National Park, cars are few and far between and, even in October, the desert is hot. Dehydration can be a real problem without precautions.

We spent some time looking for birds as we drove. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy The Birds of Big Bend, a book I’m sure would have been useful. Good thing we plan to go back sometime this year!

Of course, on the way in, we took a couple of “tourist” shots.  P1110021P1110018

We hiked a bit on one of the trails leading to the ruins of the Sam Nail Ranch. There was supposed to be some water there, which made us hope to see birds. The water was there, pumped up by an old, but still working, windmill. Alas, all we really saw was a group of Javelinas (Collared Peccaries).


We spent some time driving along an escarpment by the Rio Grande River, hoping for a glimpse of the water. The road down to the river access was closed and the escarpment prevented us from seeing the river itself.

We decided to leave the desert and drive up into the Chisos Mountains and to the Lodge.

Now comes the interesting part of what makes Big Bend National Park such a special place.

You see, you have the Chihuahuan Desert – this huge expanse of a land barrier. It acts almost like an ocean, a barrier for mammals, who need water and certain types of nutrition to survive. Then you have the Chisos Mountains – an oasis in the desert, almost like an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s an area offering greenery, cooler air, and water. And it’s a mountain range entirely within the confines of the park.

The success of the geography of the region is exemplified by the species of deer there. These are Carmen Mountains White-tailed Deer, found only in the Chisos Mountains within Big Bend National Park.


Birds also enjoy the higher altitude and cooler climate of the mountains. Cactus Wrens, in spite of their desert name, were in great abundance around the lodge, with their mess of a nest apparent in the cacti around the area.

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We checked into our room at the lodge. There were fabulous views from our back terrace. I especially enjoyed the fact the lodge thought enough of its location to NOT include a television in our room (though you COULD rent one if you really couldn’t live without it).

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Of course, we made sure to hit “Sunset Point” at the appropriate time to enjoy the beauty of that time in this setting.

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We had dinner at the lodge’s dining room and spent some time sitting outside, enjoying the sky (and virtually no light pollution) with its millions of stars. It was so incredible it was everyone who passed us commented about it.

We turned in early, anticipating an early hike in the mountains and some birding around Rio Grande Village the next day.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chiricahua National Monument

It’s been a while since I posted anything about our Southwest Boogie. I guess it’s time I finished writing about it – before I forget everything.

I believe I left off in Willcox, AZ. We spent the night there and woke early. We had decided to spend the day exploring the Chiricahua National Monument. A guide book to the Southwest made it sound like an interesting stop. It wasn’t kidding.

Chiricahua National Monument is a fascinating landscape made up of rock formations with interesting names like Pinnacles and Hoodoos. The park’s explanation is better constructed than anything I could write so I insert it below:


As we drove through the park we passed vista after vista, one more incredible than the other. It seems the most dramatic balancing rocks and other formations must be hiked to. But the ranger promised us spectacular formations along the road or via some shorter hikes and she was absolutely correct.


As we drove into the park, we began to ponder the millions of years it took to create something in such juxtaposition to what we had seen in the Grand Canyon. Rather than looking down into a gorge, here we were looking up at formations that looked like standing sentinels. In fact, the Native Americans who lived here believed them to be just that, _________________


As we drove along the park road we continued to enjoy the incredible formations. As it is with others, we were fascinated by the balanced rock formations. One wonders how many years it took to form these precarious formations and how quickly they might crumble at some instant in the distant future.

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We also stopped to enjoy the many Mountain Spiny Lizards in the park. We took too many photos of these beautiful iridescent reptiles. My personal favorites follow:


These two are planning something – be it a battle or coupling. Whichever it is, the blue in their display was vivid enough they spent a good while showing it.


The ranger (mentioned earlier) recommended we take an easy hike down the Grotto Trail. We decided we were up to a bit of hiking. The hike is down an modest incline with up close and personal views of some of the types of rock formations we had seen along the road.

I don’t think we hiked all the way through the grotto area. But we got a taste of how large the rocks making up the park’s attractions were.

On our hike back to the head of the trail Avi stopped to take a photo of yet another Mountain Spiny Lizard. Something caught my eye and I said, “Avi! Don’t move. I think there’s a rattler by your feet.”

Sure enough, there was a baby snake the right coloration for some sort of rattlesnake, minus any “rattle”. Luckily, it was much more interested in trying to bag the lizard than in defending itself from Avi. Avi got off a few good shots of the young’un before the lizard shot off and, shortly after, the snake crawling away as well.

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Jumping ahead in time a bit, we showed the photos of the young snake to a ranger back at the Visitor’s Center. She looked it up in a guide and identified it as a Rock Rattlesnake. She knew it was a Rattlesnake by the taper of the end of the tail. Rather than it being a gradual one, there’s a sudden angular turn to the tail exactly where the rattle (currently just a nubbin) will develop.


It was lucky I saw it. You can see in the photos how well the snake is camouflaged against the ground. Had it simply been sunning, it would have been easy to just step on it by accident.

We spent some extra time after the trail driving along the road through the park, continuing to enjoy the pinnacles, hoodoos, balanced rocks, and columns, even giving some of them names such as “Bird Rock,”  “Flying Seal,” “Earless Rabbit,” or “Magic Turtle”. Can you tell which is which?

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After we left the park we drove back to Willcox to rejoin Highway 10. Along the way we saw a sign that said “BIRDERS” with an arrow to the Willcox Wastewater Treatment Plant. Well, really just a large pond. But, being that “birders” seemed to apply to us, we took the dusty road to the water, where we found all types of waterfowl. Though there was nothing spectacular about the species or the numbers, it’s always nice to have a place appreciate the value of birding to its economy.

On the way out of the Treatment Plant, we came across a nicely perched Northern Harrier. Avi tried to get a photo with the bright light against the screen of our camera (a good reason to try and get one with a rangefinder). This is all he managed. But I happen to love the photo anyway. I didn’t even bother cropping it, since it captures a moment in time perfectly.


We grabbed a late lunch at Big Tex, a local BBQ joint located in an old red railroad car. Not fast food, but good food!

We spent the rest of the day driving to Van Horn, TX (yet again) to put us in position to hit Big Bend National Park the next day.