The last two days have been devoted to a bit of exploration. This place changes so much that each time we’re here we devote a couple of hours to just cruising around looking at the sights and assessing how things are evolving. The weather was a bit marginal due to something going on out in the Gulf and so we decided to put the time to good use by sitting in the car.
We started on Sunday, combining it with a trip down to Emplame to put the scope on whatever shorebirds might be scurrying about on the mudflats. On the first pass the tide was too high and the high areas were flooded and so after almost getting hit by a slow moving train making its way, unannounced, across the major north-south route through the Americas, we pulled behind a couple of open air restaurants to discover that one of our most reliable spots was now a shanty town dedicated to drying fish nets. So much for that, our best place for Marbled Godwits. We went back across the highway this time avoiding the now returning train by turning right in front of the tracks and heading into town.
I’ve always loved the name Empalme as it conjured the tropics – sun, beaches, lazy morning lunches of fish tacos on plastic chairs under a palapa – in my mind the very first time I heard it. I was more than a bit disappointed to learn that its true definition is “place where trains are repaired” which makes the town an eponym. Ah well, they do manage to suck the romance out of everything, don’t they?
Our goal on this random track was to find the way to the dump through the town as an alternative to our regular way which involves lots of washboard roads out in the middle of nowhere. Now you might ask why anyone would spend any of their vacation time searching for quick routes to the local landfill (in this case more of a linear dump, nothing more than trash along the road) but we know it as the one reliable location for Cattle Egret. And no bird count is complete without those little trash loving birdies.
The first thing you notice when driving the city streets is that Empalme is much tidier than Guaymas (where we had just finished searching for the apocryphal cruise ship dock), composed of little streets with tiny little single family homes nestled beneath orange and lemon trees. I wouldn’t call it a tourist destination, but it is far easier on the eyes than the mean streets down by the docks here or in China. Eventually the paved roads ran out and we continued on hard dirt lanes that must be a complete disaster every time a hurricane blows through. When we reached the edge of civilization we found ourselves back on the pavement on a grandly named boulevard called Avenida de los Americas which was split down the middle by giant power pylons. After some driving back and forth and disagreeing about the one other time we had made our way through this area in the past 15 years, we settled on a road that ended up taking us in a giant loop (when it was discovered that every side street dead-ended in the only hill in sight) back to La Avenida. We agreed to take the one road out of town that appealed to our mutual sense of direction and a half mile later we were presented with endless piles of trash lining both sides of the rutted dirt track – we were in Egret country. And sure enough dancing among the white plastic garbage bags were a dozen of them.
Just to close the loop we continued on past the dump to see if this was in fact our regular route in. We passed a friendly old ranchero driving to town on a buckboard pulled by a surprisingly fit looking bay horse. The road continued on through the desert, the estuary off to our left and Sonoran scrub off to the right. As we came out of a wash, our suspicion that this was “the road” was satisfied when the Cardon cactus forest came into view. We’ve been coming out here for perhaps ten years monitoring the condition and decline of this splendid spot and it’s always nice to see it. They are the largest of the North American cacti and stunning to see, big green giants soaring 20 or more feet into the air. But one thing had changed enough to make us wonder if this was the place – it was now fenced. It appears that the Mexican government finally wised up about this resource and decided to make it a bit more difficult to access. A good thing, no doubt.
Since our plan for the day involved making a stop at the Ley grocery store in Guaymas, we turned around and headed back the way we came. It was far easier finding our way out than it was finding our way in and this time there was no train blowing its whistle 10 feet from my car door. We drove back through town and stopped at the store, doing a running analysis of which place was worse, Ley of Guaymas or Trust Mart of Dalian. In the final tally, Trust Mart won if only because of the general feeling that you don’t want to eat anything they have on offer. I guess I have to ask though, is that really a “win”?
Heading back to our place we decided to close the loop with the dump road by coming at it from the other side, the different look of the Cardon spot was still haunting our geographical sensibilities. This is the nice thing about unlimited time and $1.50 gasoline – you can put mysteries like this to bed with only a tiny bit of dedication. When the road to the airport presented itself, we took it and headed back out into the scrub.
Last year along this road I was presented with a small flock of Eurasian Collared Doves. Non-native to North America, this species was discovered some time in the last century in the Southeast and had slowly spread across the country by establishing itself in tiny little pockets, here and there. I remember when the first one was seen in New Mexico and there was one bird in my bird feeder within the last year. Its status in Mexico is uncertain, and so I was a bit excited to find them when I did. Sure enough, there was a single bird on a wire in the same spot and I figured we’d stop and have a look at it on the way back. This is one of the coolest things about birding – on returning, they are often just where you left them.
Like everything else, this road had changed dramatically since our last visit. For one thing, the pavement was continuous from side to side along the whole length of our drive. And it stretched all the way out to the little town of San Jose de Guaymas and around its little town square. Gone was the house on the big sweeping curve into town that had the water line running across the road. Gone were the muddy and rutted washes, this was civilization at its finest. On the far side of the square though, reality came back in the form of 5 miles of dusty washboard but sure enough we found our way back to the now fenced Cardons and so the circle was completed.
Heading back to town I pulled over to have a look at that suspect Dove and sure enough it was what I was expecting. Purely on impulse I pulled across the road and onto a dirt lane that ran parallel to the wire the bird was on. Coming around a bend we found ourselves at a grain mill and decorating the wires and chutes were hundreds of these rarest of encroaching visitors. When it comes to birds, there is but one truth – find their favored habitat and you will find them. In this case, a free hand-out at the Grist Buffet.
Yesterday we headed in the opposite direction, into San Carlos for a Double Fudge Mocha Frap and out beyond into the environs. In this direction, the building boom has transformed the landscape. Even down by the sewage ponds where we found our annual Least Grebe, the hills were dotted with gaily colored homes. Out and past the old Club Med, we took the road to the village of La Manga which has evolved from a couple of shanties to an entire village of shanties; such is the inexorable march of progress. The huts have now been joined by a few travel trailers stripped of their wheels and deposited on a small plot of ocean front property, their lives of peregrination now forever ended. We followed the road out past a beautiful and abandoned white powder beach and finally took a road away from the coast when it was clear we could blow the whole day just bouncing our way along this path. Every time I do this kind of driving I think back to the days of my youth and how I used to think getting thrown against the roof of my 4×4 was “fun.” Amazing how things change with maturity.
The road we chose to head back on ran pretty much parallel to the coast but as always unguided bushwhacking sets me to wondering if we’re not going to drive 30 miles off into the wilderness and end up behind some locked gate. However, simply relying on the Rule of Turns (always take whatever right or left presents itself) we ended up back on a road to La Manga. What gave it away was the ever increasing amount of trash along the road – we’d found way into yet another linear dump, this one without any Cattle Egret but one graced with a fully functional fishing boat neatly tied up to a mesquite tree a mile from the ocean. It was waiting for the day when the oceans rise and the waves lap again at this little copse in the middle of the desert.
We finished the day at our favorite spot and another dinner of Carne Machaca this time enhanced by CNN International and a continuously running tape loop of some Iraqi bombing President Bush with his shoes. Fishing boats in the desert, shoe-throwing Arabs, the world is a wondrous place.