Forty-thousand Flamingos

Ria Lagartos/Rio Lagartos

You don’t pass through the little fishing village of Rio Lagartos, Alligator River, going anywhere. Unless you intend it as a destination, you will never come upon it. The village is remote—at the end of a road in the middle of the northern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. However, it is a place rich in wildlife and natural beauty, the home of Mexico’s Reserva de la Biospera Ria Lagartos.

Alice and I drove from Merida to Rio Lagartos. Once there, we hired a guide to take us on a birding adventure. We wanted to see some of the hundreds of species of birds living in or migrating through this reserve. We understood very large numbers of Flamingos were the main attraction, and we were not disappointed.

Our guide, Roman Fernandez, was a gifted naturalist well versed in the life histories and habits of the creatures we saw—birds and others. He told us Flamingos weigh 2.5 kilos for females, 5.5 kilos for males. They may live for 20 years, have few if any predators, lay and incubate one white or green egg per year and mate for life.

With Roman, we stood on the dikes of a huge salt works bordering the reserve and looked into the very salty water. It was pink-colored from thousands of tiny brine shrimp and other small carotene-loaded organisms. Roman, scooped a handful to show us the pink-orange squiggles thrashing about in the water.

“This,” he said, “is what makes the Flamingos pink!”

When you see the huge population of wild Flamingos there, sometimes as many as 40,000 in the reserve, they appear little changed from their earliest appearance on this earth. Gawky looking with their upside-down bill, yet graceful, they glide across the vast flats.

Roman also told us, 56 to 34 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch, the dawn of mammals, Flamingos were wading about here. They are gregarious birds in the genus Phoenicopterus and family Phoenicopteridae. Worldwide there are six different species. One of these, the American Flamingo, lives in the Caribbean Islands, Caribbean Mexico, Belize and the Galapagos Islands, with the greatest numbers in Mexico frequenting the Ria Lagartos area.

Although we had traveled to Rio Lagartos to see the Flamingos, they were just a part of the great show we experienced. Among the birds we saw were:

American Flamingo / Flamenco Comun
Great Blue Heron / La Gran Garza de Azule o Garzon Cenizo
Great Egret / Garzon Blanco
Boat-billed Heron / Garza Cucharon

Boat-billed Heron

Snowy Egret / Garzita Nivea
Great Black-hawk / Aguililla Negra
Osprey / Gavilan Pescador
Wood Stork / Ciguena
Roseate Spoonbill /Espatula
White Ibis / Ibis Blanco
Magnificent Frigate Bird / Fragata
Brown Pelican / Alcatraz Pardo
White Pelican / Alcatraz Blanco
Neotropical Cormorant / Corvejon
Anhinga / Huizote
Ruddy Ground Dove / Tortilita Rojiza
Scaled Pigeon / Paloma Escamosa
Yucatan Parrot / Loro Yucateco

And many, many other birds.
We also saw:
Crocodiles / Cocodrilos

BIG Croc hiding in mangroves

We saw several. One was huge, and we saw it up close!! Roman said it was nesting. I later read nesting crocodiles are the most dangerous!

The once-numerous crocodiles gave the town its name as the Spanish mistook them for alligators, el lagartos—the big lizards.

It is interesting to note the name of the village is Rio Lagartos while the reserve is Ria Lagartos. Roman explained that Ria is used to describe an estuary where salt and freshwater meet and mix. Spanish explorers mistook the narrowing of the estuary, ria, for a river, rio, and the crocodiles for alligators.

The Maya knew the place as Holkobén and used it as a rest stop on their way to Las Coloradas, a part of the vast estuary stretching east almost to the border of Quintana Roo. There they extracted precious salt from the waters, a process that continues on a large scale today.

***

Less than 1km east of town, on the edge of the estuary, is a beautiful natural freshwater spring, ojo de agua dulce. The locals called it a cenote, although it didn’t look at all like the cenotes we saw farther inland. There was no cave or lake, instead, the spring bubbled water up to sea level where it mixed with the salty water of the estuary. It is the town swimming hole.

 

The Tell

A Tell is what is demonstrated when a poker player, grifter or salesman—some person who wants to know something about his subject’s future—discovers a clue that enables him to predict whether a person is sincere or not—lying or being truthful.

Sometimes, A Tell may be delivered by a third party. For instance, in an old I Love Lucy episode, Lucy sees Desi’s poker hand and her big facial exclamations telegraph to the other players his great hand. Of course, the other players fold leaving Desi disappointed.

***

In January, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is an almost perfect place to be. Christmas is over and the weather is sunny with a fresh light breeze blowing every day from the ocean. Humpback whales cruise around the protected waters of Bahia Banderas, Mexico’s largest bay. They are busy with mating and birthing their calves. And, the city is full of grateful refugees from the frozen north.

One day while walking from our apartment on Calle Ecuador down the steep Calle Panama, I looked up from my feet as the cobbles levelled out and caught a glimpse off to my left of a bright colored bird in an alcove. The bird’s perch was a young man’s shoulder. He was working on cleanup of the demolition of a small building. I turned in and asked the man if I could take a picture of his bird, as I had never before seen a parrot like this one. The red blaze across the bird’s forehead distinguished it from other parrots I’d seen around Puerto Vallarta.

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Si, por supuesto!” he said flashing a huge open-faced smile.

I took several pictures as we spoke.

“You have a beautiful bird. What kind is it?”

Perico.”

“Did you raise it?” I asked as I took another picture.

I understand it is illegal here in Mexico to possess wild birds. Yet, I’ve seen many for sale.

“Ah no, lo encontré en el bosque,” I found it in the forest.  “Se había caído de su nido,”  It had fallen out of its nest.

I do know most parrots live and raise their young from tree hollows, huecos en los árboles, no en nidos.

As the words exited the man’s mouth, the bird made a deft move toward his ear and bit it.

“Pinche perico!”

After a quick examination of the red trickle exiting his wound, he calmed and in English asked me, “You like to have a perico like this? I can get you one.”

I’ve since compared my photo of the bird to various illustrations and texts I found online as well as my own bird identification books, and I believe this bird is a Lilac-Crowned Parrot, Loro Occidental or  Cotorra Frente Roja. In 2006, Birdlife International classified this species as Vulnerable. In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature uplisted this species to Endangered.

These birds are very intelligent. They are often taught to speak and they know how to Tell.

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The Eye of the Curve-billed Thrasher

Cuitlacoche común

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How is it possible for these birds to fly into such tangles of spikes and thorns unscathed?

Handsome with  intimidating fierce yellow eyes, the Curve-billed Thrasher, Cuitlacoche, is high on my list of favorite Mexican birds. Calling with high-pitched, trilling chirps, they draw your attention while ripping apart ripe tunas on a nopal cactus with their powerful down-curved bills.

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Red nopal tuna fruits, ripe for a meal

Curve-bills are as comfortable around thorn brushes, cactus spines and scrub as Brer Rabbit was in the briar patch. Their diet of insects, seeds and berries, draws these birds into improbable places. It is quite a show to watch these fearless birds land in spiny, well-guarded spots. Their careful landings often appear to be downright miraculous.

I once observed a Curve-bill fly into its nest in a Cholla cactus, a true snarl of sharp points.

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Cholla

Although these birds are common throughout Mexico, loss of habitat to urban development and agriculture continues to cause their population to decline.

The Many Voices of the Zanate

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Every day from the vantage of our roof terrace in Puerto Vallarta, I see a shiny purple-black male zanate lord over his kingdom of a great mango tree. That tree—more than sixty-feet tall—is the largest in our neighborhood. It towers over all the houses around and anyone looking toward the tree can likely see the big bird strut about the topmost branches. This puffed up garrulous creature points his head up, gapes his mouth, cocks back his wings and squeals his wild songs. His sounds surpass the mimicry of any mockingbird.

Cars drive by on the street below blaring mariachi music and the bird adds trills to the ends of trumpet accents. Other cars play US rap music and the bird attaches wild scats between pauses. This mastersinger comments on almost any stray sound—from raucous to melodic.

In México, the bird commonly called a Zanate is what I supposed to be the Boat-tail Grackle, a handsome bird found in my former home on the salty coast of North Carolina.

I find I was wrong. The Zanate, is a different species of grackle. It is the Great-tailed Grackle, Zanate Méxicano. They are the largest of the grackles and they often hold their tails fanned in flight—magnifying their apparent size. Other distinguishing characteristics are big bills, flat heads, long keel-shaped tails and an amazingly huge repertoire of songs.

***

One day I had carried laundry up to the roof and after washing, pinned it on the clotheslines. The zanate was busying himself, tending the sizeable harem of brown to bronze ladies he manages in the big mango tree. The bird gave an unusual whistle and I reacted with a whistle—attempting to imitate the bird.

With the bed sheets hanging the zanate could not see me. My re-creation was clumsy but he immediately offered a correction. I tried again—a better copy yet still unacceptable to the bird who returned the original phrase once again. On the third attempt, my offering was apparently satisfactory as the zanate offered a new sound. This time it was guttural—not a whistle. My response was laughable and he replied with a wild multi-sound song—too complex for me even to consider trying to imitate. Instead, I constructed my own complicated reply. I produced a high-pitched whistle transitioning into a low dove-like trill followed by a voiced gargle.

No reply. Then, a shadow passed over me. The bird had flown around to my side of the drying sheets. There only ten feet above me, I saw the hovering zanate’s blazing yellow eyes looking to see just who or what was messing with him.

***

I read a Mexican legend that told of the zanate’s greatest talents, his songs. Those songs are said to be of the seven passions—love, hate, fear, courage, joy, sadness, and anger.

The songs of this bird are awesome, however, I now understand there is another important trait of the zanatecuriosity.

Día de los Muertos

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Looking at individual altars set up in doorways, on porches and even in yards, parks or other public places during the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, I am struck by an unexpected realization. There is nothing spooky, macabre or sinister about this celebration. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Viewing photographs of those now dead, seeing objects that are reminders of their lives on these altars and offering a little rum, tequila or some of their favorite foods there prompts memories of loved ones. This is a commemoration of lives gone before, a celebration of the continuous nature of life.

Unlike Halloween in the US where trick-or-treating while wearing scary costumes has become a contest to see who gets the most stuff and plays the meanest tricks, the Mexican celebration is a time for introspection. It is a time to take stock of what is important in your life, a time to share traditional foods with family and remember loved ones now dead.

The colorful sugar skulls and displays of marigolds, cempazuchitles, are fun to see, but do not distract from the real point—to make us aware of the natural cycle of death, birth, love and loss.

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Playa Naranjo Turtles

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Santos

While strolling down the beach at Rincon de Guayabitos in Mexico’s Pacific state of Nayarit on a Sunday morning, a man approached us. He introduced himself as Santos and offered to take us to a turtle camp. At first, this seemed funny to me. A camp for turtles? But, the man was so sincere and positive. We listened and were glad we did.

The turtle camp, he explained, was not at Rincon de Guayabitos, rather at a nearby beach called Playa Naranjo. We would need to go in a small bus in, maybe, two hours. He would arrange the transportation and would get a group together to defray the cost for all. It would cost about one hundred pesos each round trip, and the whole visit would take two to two and a half hours.

As promised two hours later, Santos appeared with six other interested people. We rode in a van north from Rincon de Guayabitos then turned off the highway onto a sand road that went through a swamp. We crossed several creeks without benefit of bridges and less than twenty minutes later we arrived at Playa Naranjo. There we enjoyed the sight of miles of unspoiled beachfront—protected by the Mexican government.

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Our Turtle Group

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Observation Tower at Playa Naranjo

At the camp, volunteers and staff from Los Grupos Ecologistas de Nayarit explained there are three types of sea turtles lay eggs in this area, the Hawksbill, Leatherback and the most common, Olive Ridley. All three are endangered species.

Workers monitor this beach and several others in the state of Nayarit at night during the times for mature female turtles to lay their eggs. When located, the eggs are collected and taken back to protected nursery areas—the camps. Forty-five days of incubation later, the baby turtles hatch.

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Nesting records

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Temporary Protected Nesting at the “Camp”

The workers examine the hatchlings, record statistics from the many groups and then hold them in the protected areas until ready for release into the Pacific. They liberate the babies at night to avoid disorientation, to eliminate the risk of burning in the hot sun and to increase their survival rate by reducing daytime predation from birds, crabs, dogs, etc.

Olive Ridley turtles hatch between August and mid-January.

During the camp technician’s explanation of work at Playa Naranjo, I realized the young man describing the work processes was Santos’ son. Santos had hustled up a group to be educated about this important work. It was clear he was proud of his son’s involvement. The experience was a gift we all appreciated.

Gracias Santos!

As with many wildlife preservation efforts, money for these projects in Mexico is in short supply. Donations are welcome to help fund the turtle camp and releases.

Contact

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Los-Grupos-Ecologistas-de-Nayarit-AC/129156655364

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Chickens in Mexico

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On my first visit to our little neighborhood grocery, tienda de comestibles, I carefully requested in Spanish, “Quisiera una docena de huevos, por favor.” I believed this to mean, I would like a dozen eggs, please. I was surprised by the reply, “¿Te gusta blanco o rojo? Rojo? I was stumped. I thought rojo was red. It is, of course. Yet, it took me a minute to realize the patient shopkeeper referred to what I have always called brown eggs.

When it comes to chickens, Mexicans have viewpoints different from most US citizens. Actual contact with chickens for most in the US generally consists of buying chicken parts wrapped in plastic. Mexicans, on the other hand, are not fazed when a flock of hens and biddies strut down a public street—even in the middle of a city. They don’t find it unusual if roving chickens poach a couple of bugs from their gardens, or if a rooster crows at any time of day or night.

Perhaps the reason for their higher tolerance of live birds is Mexico’s long history of tending chickens.

It had been widely thought that the first import of chickens to the New World arrived from Europe with the early voyages of Columbus and others. However, recent scientific investigations have revealed that bones found in Chile followed the same DNA sequence as prehistoric Polynesian chickens from Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Hawaii and Easter Island indicating an earlier introduction of Asian chickens perhaps via Polynesian explorers. Radio carbon dating of recently unearthed Chilean chicken bones indicated a date of between 1321 and 1407 AD. So, introduction of the Asian chickens to the New World must have taken place at least 100 years before the arrival of European chickens on the continent.

Likely, the arrival of chickens came much earlier as evidenced by language references. Also, Gavin Menzies’ book, 1421, suggested another introduction of Asian chickens may have taken place when the Chinese undertook to map the world from a huge fleet of junks around 1421. He believes there is evidence of the Chinese sailing into New World harbors including Acapulco. He also notes the easily discerned difference in crowing by European and Asian roosters—both heard throughout Mexico today. Menzies believes the Chinese left behind Asian chickens as well as other strange animals.

Here in Puerto Vallarta, we see chickens on roofs, chickens in yards, chickens in the neighborhood and chickens on the table. Mexicans love chicken. Chicken eggs are an important protein source for many Mexicans.

Neighborhood tiendas sell unrefrigerated fresh-that-day eggs by weight—not dozens by size. These eggs vary wildly in size—ahh, that’s why they weigh them. The yolks are a rich orange color and don’t break when you crack them into a pan to fry.

Mexico abounds with chicken restaurants. There are chains and Mom ‘n Pops. Pollo Feliz—why is that chicken happy?—El Pechugón—the Bustier, huh?—are examples of chains. In addition, the US, thanks to NAFTA, has introduced the Colonel’s contribution to chicken in Mexico—KFC/Kentucky Fried Chicken. Some Mom ‘n Pops offer awesome hardwood-fire roasted chickens. You will see them along the streets. They are relatively inexpensive and well worth trying.

Perhaps it is time for us to all embrace chickens in a more natural way and adjust our history books.

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The Silence of the Birds 

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Tenochtitlan rises

From the great lake of life

Shines like a jewel

Shines the natural light

*

The causeway is lined

With the birds of their world

With their colors so vivid

With their songs so pure

*

Symbols of beauty

Symbols of grace

Hernan has seen them

He knows their power

*

Now the silence has come

He has burned the birds

There is a new order of power

Of power without grace

*

The illness of the heart

That is only cured by gold

Is Hernan’s  obsession

Is Hernan’s shame

A Dare?

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 A tiny Inca Dove, Tortolita Colilarga, flew into the casita where I was writing today

He landed on an interior windowsill and we studied each other for a moment

I see this bird and his mate side-by-side in the jardin every day

I glanced outside and there she was—his companion—waiting on the stonewall

I moved toward the dove and cupped my hands around—no resistance

The dove turned his head back and forth eyeing me—first from his left eye, then the right

At the doorway—openhanded—I watched him fly the short distance to the wall

The couple touched bodies then flew away

A Dream of Moon and Salt Water

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I dream of the full moon in November

Sunset and moonrise coincide

The surging tide ignores its limits

I seek the extreme point of beach left exposed

A careful look for that place where fish will surely be

I cast my line far out into the surf

Then wait

My old friends find me

First a fat Striped Bass

There are more

Each, save one I will eat, is returned to its element with love

I flop down—breathless on the still warm sand

The moonlight charges me like a crystal

And I return to the phosphorescent night waters

For another test

A test of what

I ask myself

No test at all

Just here to feel the wildness—that remains