There are two things we always do when visiting at Christmas – count birds and feed cats.

The cats here at Pilar are the remnants of vast herds of them that once roamed the desert in this vicinity. For a time, Pilar was the local dumping ground for unwanted kittens and there were dozens of them, both tame and completely feral. Over time, the flock thinned and the remaining cats were treated and neutered by a local vet. These days were down to about 5 cats, and all of them are hanging out on our patio waiting for a soft touch to provide them with dinner. Judging from the amount of fat they’re carrying around their backbones, they seem to be able to consistently judge which condos are occupied by suckers and to park themselves there, looking desperate. We always bring a couple of cans of the cheap food with us and I try to feed them once a day. This reliable meal results in cats hanging about languidly dripping over the edges of our camp chairs and regaling us with a chorus of “feed me, feed me” each and every time we enter or exit our place. This year we’re host to two calicos, two all blacks, one very athletic tortoise shell and a second tortoise shell with a white visage that we call “puffy face.”

Last night on our regular walk the entire troop must have decided that we were on the move, because the decided to walk with us. The sight of the shadows cast by the condo lights of two people and four cats – three following and one leading – tight roping down the seawall was one for the scrap books. They didn’t make it the entire way, as the sprinklers were running and I imagine they thought wet fur was not worth the risk of letting us slip away. This morning when I pulled back the drapes, they were there once again.

Yesterday we began to count birds in earnest with low tide visits to the local sewage ponds, Tular and Empalme. The former is here in town, the middle just over the hill and the latter is the tail end of a bay, extending back into some marshes.

Most people would not find a visit to the local sewage ponds high on their list of vacation goals, but for us it’s a special stop. The one place locally where we can almost be guaranteed the sight of the elusive Least Grebe. They were there this year along with eight or ten cows that could not decide whether to run or to attack. Moving on to Tular, hundreds of gulls and herons were present as would be expected as well as an uncommon Gray Hawk, a species normally found in riparian areas along the Santa Cruz river in Arizona. The gulls were all tucked in for a late afternoon nap arrayed across the mudflats like so many gray and white pillows. From there on to Empalme and many, many thousands of herons, pelicans and shorebirds.

I remember when I first located Empalme on the map and found the name so evocative – beaches, swaying trees, sun and palapas. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it meant “train repair yard” and the image at once changed to greasy engines belching steam in the morning haze. Today, the area where for so many years we have sidled up to a stinking polluted mudflat in hopes of finding some oddball bird is a busy intersection with an army checkpoint and groups of men selling cooked shrimp by the railroad crossing. Birding here used to be punctuated by a small band of feral dogs led by a dowager we called “Blackie.” Today, it’s traffic and noise.

Birding today started on the early side in a canyon that we had discovered on our first Christmas Count twelve or more years ago. The Count here in San Carlos had been done once before by some New Jersey tourists back in the early 1980s. Because birding is not foremost on the minds of most Mexicans, it had laid dormant for about 10 years when I decided to pick it up. We’ve been far more reliable – missing only two since we started it. The original counters spelled out their locations and one was listed as a “palm-lined barranca.” Sea birding is easy down here, good land birding is less so, so we hunted high and low until we found this place and have visited it many times since, always with quirky changes and events. The first year we were busy counting when along came a friendly load of policemen in a pickup truck who proceeded to park at the end and open fire on a group of wild dogs. Gunfire and birding generally don’t mix so we departed in haste. The middle years were notable only for the fact that we always managed to pull some good birds out of there. Two years ago, fetid water had somehow rolled back into the canyon and the result was the overpowering smell of sewage. That year we stuck to birding the road. This year, it was construction debris. San Carlos has been undergoing quite a building boom and now we know where the detritus is being dumped. The birds loved it – myriad places to hide out and perch. To us, it was just another case of third world trying to be first world as fast as can be. Take what could be a beautiful spot for a park or picnics or hiking and turn it into the town dump. Of course, the tourists trying to find a more permanent attachment to this place don’t see it, and probably don’t care as long as they can find a little casita to roll their home equity money into. As usual, the birds were great if the scenery was sadly diminished. We stayed there until the sun crested the canyon walls and the birds headed into the shade.

In the back of the harbor this morning was a large pale blue converted trawler by the name of the Arctic Eagle. According to the stern, it hails from Sitka, Alaska. Aside from the color, what caught my eye was the large motor yacht sitting on its deck and a four person runabout sitting on that. Sort of a maritime marushka doll. According to Google, it may be a crab vessel although it looks like it’s now better suited to research or touring. Guess we’ll never know.

As the day winds down, we’re here again at the Marina enjoying a quesadilla(this time with chicken) and an evening’s margarita. From here it’s out to see if we can find some owls and then home to yet another 2005 NYT Sunday Crossword Puzzle. Our never ending challenge to work off a year’s backlog.