Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Adventures

Baja Stories part 1

Monday, January 5, 2009

Cactus, Quail and Squid

A short hike took us to the top of a ridge where we looked out over a desert landscape of jumping cholla, cardon, torote, mesquite and ocotillo. hikersThis rugged terrain is peppered with species that thrive in a world of extremes. As one discovers the adaptations of each plant and animal that calls this isolated southern extension of the Sonoran Desert home, you will be drawn into a remarkable world of survival. A land of twenty meter taproots, centuries old active pack rat nests, photosynthesizing tree bark, tarantula hunting wasps and coral eating parrot fish are just some of the surprises that this “desert by the sea” reveals to us as we take the time to explore the Baja peninsula.

Our twenty-eight day paddling trip took us from San Lucas to San Bruno along the Eastern coast of the Sea of Cortez. To take advantage of the calmer conditions in the morning, we were up by 4:00 for a weather check and on the water at first light. bay overlook imageEach day we were entertained by acrobatic manta rays leaping out of the water, flying fish flapping their fins, sometimes traveling just above the surface for thirty feet or more and schools of jack bounding in unison in front of our kayaks as they fled from predators like the rooster fish. Some days we were joined by a traveling pod of dolphins, escorting us along the coastline for hours at a time. Swimming very close to us, they periodically would turn on their side and look up at us. Their sleek bodies, perfectly designed for swimming, would glisten as they drafted in the slipstreams created by the dolphins just ahead of them. Each new encounter with dolphins is a spiritual connection, I laugh about my initial skepticism abandoned long ago. A number of years ago on a different trip, we had an amazing encounter with dolphins. As we enjoyed calm wind and sea conditions, we had made a significant move around Punta Pulpito. Late in the afternoon we paddled into San Basilio, dolphin imagea gorgeous bay with kilometers of white sand beach that extend well into the shallow waters, making it easy to look down through the turquoise water. Behind us, moving right into the bay was a large pod of dolphins in hot pursuit of a swarming school of jack, above were dozens of brown pelicans attracted by the commotion. All three groups headed straight towards us, we stopped paddling and drifted together in a fairly tight group. When they reached our kayaks the feeding frenzy started. We sat in awe as we watched dolphins catch their fish, sometimes surfacing within arms reach off us, we could watch the pelicans tuck their wings back and dive into the school of fish, their huge bills opened as they scooped fish that were confused by the dolphins sophisticated hunting techniques. This went on amongst our boats for what seemed like fifteen minutes, the frenzy moved off towards the west and we sat frozen for a good half hour, throughout the scene we had shared smiles and looks of wonder, but nobody spoke a word. Later that night in our daily debrief, as each of us described our experience, we spoke in hushed tones, some were moved to tears.

Other birds that share the air with the pelicans are magnificent frigate birds, blue and brown-footed boobies, ring-billed, California, herring and Bonaparte’s gulls and an occasional tropic bird. Rafts of hundreds of eared grebes swim close to shore. At bocas, where the wash and alluvial plains of the larger desert valleys meet the ocean, small colonies of mangrove give cover to herons and egrets. The deeper arroyos create shade and the diversified plant life that thrives in the cooler climate offers living quarters to cactus with bird imageCosta’s hummingbirds, vermillion fly-catchers, hooded orioles, phainopeplas, canyon wrens and gnat-catchers. Harris’s hawks, turkey vultures and peregrine falcons use the mid-day thermals to search for their next meals.

At first glance the desert looks quiet and still but if you look down towards your feet, the desert floor is scattered with prints created by dozens of the desert’s tenants; quail, striped skunk, sand tracksraccoon, coyote, rattlesnakes, hermit crabs, lizards, centipedes and kangaroo rats. The under-stories of creosote bushes are riddled with the multiple doorways to the kangaroo rats’ homes. These industrious creatures build a labyrinth of tunnels that lead to living chambers, these complicated structures are reinforced by the creosote bush’s root system. The kangaroo rats’ close cousin, the pack rat, builds their nests with thousands of midden imagefound objects often interweaving cactus and cholla thorns into their structures for protection from their predators. Some of the pack rats’ “middens” can be centuries old, housing generations of these clever architects.

We returned to our camp as the sun was setting, the four of us decided to make a daily habit of a late afternoon walk for the duration of our month long journey. We made a list of all of our sightings before we departed to our separate cook groups. Mariah and I were excited to hear our designated chefs, Corrine and Melisse had made cheese raviolis from scratch. After a wonderful meal and shooting star show we all found a spot for our sleeping bags. Anticipating tomorrow’s paddle and daily exploratory walk, I drifted off to sleep as the cool night time temperatures settled in. Evening sky image