Thursday, March 27, 2014

Boobies and I'm on a boat ... to the Marietas Islands (#294)

One of the places near Puerto Vallarta that we absolutely wanted to visit was the Marietas Islands (Islas Marietas). The islands, thanks in part to Jacques Cousteau, are now a protected national park. Previously, the islands were used for military bomb testing, which created some interesting formations, but did some serious damage to the resident wildlife population.
Not my pic, but so you get an idea---More pics and info on Hidden Beach here
If that pretty much sounds like paradise, the beach is much smaller than it looks. Now imagine the 120 other people you showed up with it and the pervasive scent of bird guano. 

Well, it is still an interesting spot. But we got there...

This story isn't really about birding, but it's all part of the adventure. If you think for one second that travelling with Matt and me is glamorous, you are terribly wrong. Our schedule was, let's say rather hectic, and we had to get from Sayulita to Puerto Vallarta for a boat departure at 8:30 am. That meant needing a bit of breathing room for something going wrong (it always does), plus the bus ride of an hour or so, plus getting to the bus from our remote jungle casita. That meant waking up at 5 am and getting a taxi for 5:30 am.

We'd arranged a taxi the night before, and our driver says "No problem, I come pick you up, no problem," but we have the phone numbers of two other drivers in case. By 6 am our driver has still not arrived, the other two are not answering their phones, and I sit on the step to figure out the options to realize...we have none. So, I turn to Matt and there's only one thing to do: start walking.

Through the dark jungle, on a ridiculous potholed dirt road with our suitcases, backpacks, and me...remember that ceramic sink I bought the night before? Yep...I'm carrying it too. At first the road is cobbles and the suitcases are rattling away behind us and I wonder if the wheels are even still attached. Then the road gives way to sand and the wheels sink right in and we are essentially dragging them through it as the sand builds up at the front. At this rate it will take us at least an hour to walk into town. The only positive thing is that I thought to pack a headlamp, so we can see...sort of. Because in the jungle, when it is dark, man is it dark.

This continues for about 10 minutes until we hear a rumbling behind us and I'm not sure what to think--this is either our saving grace or our worst nightmare--here we are in the Mexican jungle in the dark---and the old, battered truck comes rattling down the road looking like something is going to fall off it any minute and stops next to us. The driver asks in Spanish if we want a ride and Matt and I look at each other we have any other option? I'm calculating how long it would take for us to walk to the bus stop and I know we aren't going to make it, so we throw our suitcases in the cab and squeeze into his truck, and I thank god for my broken Spanish and explain we need to catch the bus to Puerto Vallarta from Sayulita. He nods his head and I learn a few things about him and hope we haven't found our way into serious trouble, but 5-10 minutes later we jumping out at the bus stop just as the bus is getting ready to leave. Bless this Mexican man's soul!

A very bumpy, dark ride to Sayulita. Most people are clearly heading in for work, and lots of kids in uniforms are making their way to school. We get dropped off close to the marina and walk to it, we walk around for 20 minutes or so and can't find what we're looking for. Eventually we find someone and realize we are at the WRONG marina and we need to be at the other one NOW. We still have all the stupid luggage and get in a taxi to the other end of the marina, where we realize there is nowhere to put our luggage during the boat ride. I've been out of resort mode and forgot this is a "day trip" for most people, so we end up taking all of out luggage (including the sink) onto the boat.

So, we are finally off. We are also, literally, the very last people on the boat. There are not a lot of options to get to the Marietas. No boats are actually allowed to land on the islands. Most people are not going for the birds. We had looked into just renting a water taxi to get to the islands, but it turns out most of the water taxis would run out of gas before they got there. The the tour we took (Vallarta Adventures) was way more tolerable than we imagined (except the part where the crew dressed up like the Flintstones and air guitared Guns & Roses on the top deck).  The ride is about an hour, and it's not long before we spot what we came for: boobies! I mean, blue-footed ones!

We are also treated to sea turtle sightings and several humpback whale sightings. We have seen a lot of humpback whales lately, but it was really amazing how many there were.

We get breakfast on the boat, which is a real unexpected treat since we didn't have time to eat earlier. When we get to the islands, there are thousands of birds and the distinct smell of bird poop. Everyone piles out of the boat and swims through the tunnel to Hidden Beach.

I'm wearing leggings because my legs are sooooo burnt

It's really not long before they round us up to get back on the boat for "activities." The options are all splendid, and I would do all three but the choice is easy:
  1. Paddleboarding
  2. Kayaking
  3. Birdwatching
  4. Staying on the boat and getting drunk
Of the 120 people on our boat we were two of only six people who chose birdwatching (and I'm pretty sure two if them didn't even really want to do it but didn't speak English and I think they misunderstood what was happening). Anyway, it was pretty great. We got into a smaller boat and were able to get way close to the birds.

The guide explained that the name "booby" comes from the Spanish bobo, meaning dumb, since they are so clumsy on land and not scared of people at all (and we basically got right beside them).

 #294: Blue-footed Booby; Mexico; February 2014

There were both brown boobies (he called them yellow-footed) and blue-footed boobies, in addition to lots of Heerman's Gulls and magnificent frigatebirds.
Brown Booby
Crazy that these frigatebirds looks small! And neat to see them landed.
Heerman's Gulls. I think they are quite striking!
Laughing Gull
I watched this guy land after he caught a fish. Beautiful breeding plumage and he's swallowing his food. Great view of neck pouch.
Down the hatch! Amazing how slender his neck is!
Royal Terns looking cool. Also, check out the speck of red on the tip of the bill of the laughing gull in the back!!

Overhead there were so many birds, mainly frigatebirds and vultures. The guide explained something I didn't know (and these tidbits really made it for me)--that frigatebirds, though pelagic (they live mostly at sea), their feathers are not waterproof, so they just fly around and then steal their food from the boobies. Frigate refers to the ships that pirates used. So they are piratebirds! Stealin' all yer goods!

I don't often check to see if they are black vultures anymore since I never find one, but when the guide said there were both turkey and black cultures, I was like "WHAT!" He was right, and we saw lots more later in the trip.

Once we got back on land, we raced down to Los Muerto pier just to get on another boat--the water taxi to Yelapa. While waiting, I loved watching the pelicans on the fishermen's boats. I imagine the owners hate it since they must have lots of cleaning to do. 
I have a sneaking suspicion that #300 is coming up really soon. See you in Yelapa!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mexico II: Sayulita (290-293)

Wow, time flies! At this rate I'll never keep up with my birding adventures. Life has been a little bit nutty...I've been working my tail off (and let's face it, playing pretty hard too)...but it's time to take a timeout for the birds!

Following our morning jungle birding earlier that day, we walked into town. The surf was not so good in Sayulita when we visited, so we found van to take us out to La Lancha. On the drive over, there was a pond with some birds, and we made the van full of surfers stop so we could take pictures (just in case it was the only time we saw them. i apologized profusely and swore we wouldn't ask them to do it. luckily everyone was pretty chill about it...ha).

When we got there I was a little sad (but not really) that we couldn't take anything at all. La Lancha is guarded and you can only get in if you have a board, and your board is all you are allowed to take with you. So we headed in and I have nary a shot to show for it. Not that the camera would have been useful to me anyway. Sometimes I need something to get the camera out of my hands so I can just see things.

So my highlight of the whole day was actually this: hanging out on my board, waiting for the next set, scanning the scene ahead of rock turning into white beach and coast. A convoy of 10 or so pelicans cruise low along the surface of the water toward the shore...they are a ways down the beach but they approach, hugging the water's surface as they go, until they are right where I am, and one by one, each silently, gracefully, effortlessly lifts directly over me just as we appear to collide. the very last one, I swear, looks me in the eye as he goes. i don't think any camera could capture that, and words barely do either. I think that feeling will stick with me forever. i just sat there in awe and my mouth gaped. this, this is a happy girl. i turned around and said to everyone, I don't care if I get another damn wave. it was all worth it just for that moment.
Luckily this girl has some pictures of La Lancha

It was only a few hours before I was totally wiped, so we tried Sayulita Fish Tacos with our new friend Aryn and we had one thing on our minds: margaritas. Not having eaten all day, and only one rather strong margarita was all it took to put me out of commission. Afterwards, we wandered around town and found a great birding spot (the wastewater treatment centre beside the river) but Matt took all the photos, me still being in my "margarita mindset"). 
This one little area was a hotbed of birds! Just about a block from the beach was a totally different scene, but here we had some really beautiful species that we're just so unused to seeing that it was a real treat.

I love the shots where there are different types of birds together...especially when they are birds I don't normally get to see!
White Ibis, black-necked stilt, snowy egret
 #290: White Ibis; February 2014; Sayulita, Mexico
(I guess we did see the white ibis again after all, but they looked totally different! We never saw the all-white ones again)
There were so many beautiful and interesting birds in such a small area. The snowy egrets were a blast to watch, chasing each other around and hopping over each other, it's easy to laugh when such an elegant bird is being so inconsistently awkward compared to its appearance!

We'd seen the Hawaiian subspecies of the black-necked stilt, but here's the more common variation:

As you can see, the water wasn't looking very clear, but this little blue heron didn't seem to mind. Yuck!

#291: Little Blue Heron,  February 2014; Sayulita, Mexico
Again in BW. I'm not sure which I prefer. I never do this so you can see the colours, but I think this one looks really nice. So strikingly elegant.

It seemed that a lot of birds came to this little spot to roost for the night. The area was taken over by caciques--detected most easily by the total racket they were making, but also the flashes of yellow and black They were incredibly hard to photograph.

Soon we saw a tricolored heron land in a big palm tree across the creek.

#292: Tricolored Heron; February 2014; Sayulita, Mexico
Then a snowy egret came into land. A cormorant also came in, and they didn't seem to mind each other at all.
And then we noticed a little blue also in the same tree, standing silently.
I was just a little bit in awe that there were so many spectacular birds in one tree.
There was also a green heron at the bottom!
Clockwise from bottom left: green heron, double-crested cormorant, snowy egret (circle moved somehow!), tricolored heron, little blue heron, snowy egret. Amazing!
Then, all that was left to do was head toward the beach, enjoy basking in the warm glow of the setting sun, watch some fisherman hand cast nets in the shallows and watch the pelicans dive for fish--my favourite activity and the end of a perfect day. Sayulita, our stay with you was short and sweet, but absolutely wonderful. But we like to move and we have more adventures waiting for us...always!