One of the last things we did before we left for this trip was to purchase and deliver a couple of gifts for two boys on our village “wishing tree.” A nice pair of Sony over-the-ear headphones for Aiden and a cool Lego village building kit for Deaghan. We went back to see if there were any wishes left, but happily our fellow Corraleños had come through – the tree was bare.
A couple of days into our birding, we took a drive out to the far end of town to briefly have a look at a landlocked pond that used to be part of the now defunct Club Med. There is rarely anything there, and that streak was continued with a single Loon and a handful of Gulls. While there we stopped into one of the local expat hangouts – The Soggy Peso – to have a look at their “wishing tree.” It was covered with tiny photographs of the children of La Manga, a pop-up fishing village that has grown from nothing to 5 pangas, drying nets and a handful of fisherman crashed out for the day on the dunes, to a full-fledged village made of scrap plywood and roofing tins and dozens of families living without water or electricity. We chose four children – 2 girls a boy and a baby – and headed off to Walmart to play Santa. Contrasting the requests of the boys of Corrales with these kids was stark – instead of headphones and Legos, we had shoe and t-shirt sizes.
We picked up a nice haul for each child, clothes for the children, onesies for the baby and a toy for each. While shopping, we ran into another American on the same mission, she’d taken a single little girl and was really loading her up. Nice thought and I imagine in a place like that what she doesn’t need will go to a needy cousin, sister or friend. Nothing goes to waste in a place like La Manga.
Our December trip is mostly dedicated to birding for the Christmas Count and this year has been quite rewarding. As always, things move around, local populations ebb and flow and we’re often wondering what it means and how that big die-off on the Salton Sea contributed to what’s in front of us. A couple of prolific spots reminded us that water in the desert is always a good thing to seek out. We sat for an hour at a seep on the way to a palm-lined canyon in the foothills, marveling as quail and finches and Pyrrhuloxias and Cardinals came in wave after wave for a quick drink and perhaps a bath. Pyrrhuloxias and Cardinals are hard to keep straight for me, as I don’t see them often so having a male and female of each sitting on the same branch waiting for their turn to dip down into the spring was a genuinely educational treat. The canyon itself was a letdown after that banquet but it’s nice to support the local economy by handing over 50 pesos to the sleepy girl who comes out of yet another plywood shack when you pull up to the gate.
Another aspect of birding here that has developed for us in the last few years has been our newly labeled “Tour de Sewers.” Using Google Earth and the knowledge of a few local birders we have constructed a nice path of sewage settlement ponds associated with various hotels, gold courses and dry-docks. I found the first location years ago, by hiking off the road behind the town boat storage. When that place was mostly destroyed by a hurricane in 2008, they restricted access and we had to move on. One day while out driving in the desert I spotted a Frigatebird coursing over the scrub. Thinking that odd, I went home and used satellite photos to discover three ponds hiding in the Mesquite. This year the locals found another and over the course of the 20+ year of the count, we’ve found a way more easily scan the ponds at the country club. So, starting at the farthest away point it’s one sewer after another.
As I mentioned above, water in the desert is a miraculous thing, and when the water is the size of a pond, the game changes entirely. In addition to thirsty birds stopping for a drinking, nesting water birds live and nest full time. Coots, Moorhens and even the tropical Least Grebe are easy to find and happy to be observed. And this year was a banner year for each of them.
Perhaps the hardest thing about engaging with the physical world here is the outrageous amount of habitat destruction. We’ve seen several good birding spots degrade to a waste of time simply based on the volume of construction trash left behind. In a country without landfills, the country becomes the landfill, and it’s not the least bit unusual to drive down a regular road that is dotted on both sides by piles of debris. A small consolation I suppose is the reliability of the Empalme dump – nothing more that trash lining a dirt road out on an ancient tidal flat – for Cattle Egret, often found up to their necks in white plastic garbage bags. Despite the destruction, we still manage to find a lot of life in these places, albeit some of them have been reduced to “visit only if time permits.”
Yesterday we visited the Sunday market in Empalme solely for the cultural experience. Last time there we found some neat Christmas decorations and wonder of wonders, fresh Churros. This time the market was more about used clothing and so it wasn’t as interesting as last time around. We did take the opportunity to buy some additional gifts for the children – a handily won bargaining contest that resulted in 6 stuffed bears (and a gratis monkey.) MLW proved that her in-Spanish negotiating skills had not atrophied and we got out of there for $15 depending on which exchange rate you watch. (We added another $4 to give them a good wash and dry in the condo laundry.) Today we went off to the store and spent a bit more on soccer balls and hopefully this second batch will supplement the giving to children whose names were not chosen from the Angel Tree for the children of La Manga.
Next year, I think a trip to Target before coming down would be time better spent. Clothes and toys in varying sizes and ages that could be matched up once here.

And so, the days blend and the birds mount up and time passes on the beach. My yoga teacher often challenges us to be grateful for something at the end of each practice. Just sitting here is relative luxury pondering a tiny Christmas card from a child asking for nothing more than a pair of size 16 shoes is enough to make one feel grateful for a lifetime.