“Let’s go wide open….let us go,” we said, “into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region…
“Each…discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things — plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” — John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, p. 178
Climbing up into the panga felt so familiar. I was instantly transported back in time, suddenly 15 years younger. The tractor backed us down the boat ramp, the boatman started the motors, and we were off on a Gulf of California (or Sea of Cortez, if you prefer) adventure.
Back in 2000-2001 I made a somewhat surprising decision to leave my job as the education director of Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (now Bird Conservancy of the Rockies) to accept a research fellowship with the Prescott College Kino Bay Center, in the small community of Bahia Kino, on the central Sonoran coast of Mexico. On the surface it seemed like a step backwards for my career. I hadn’t ever lived in the desert or swum in the ocean before, much less lived in Mexico. The pay was a small monthly stipend and a place to live. I was giving up a job that I truly enjoyed, not to mention one that provided things like a steady pay check, health insurance, and retirement benefits. But something was calling me. I whittled down my belongings to only what I could fit into my 1986 Subaru station wagon and headed south. I would spend the next nine months studying seabirds and wading birds on a near-shore island and doing environmental education and community outreach work with residents of Bahia Kino, as well as mentoring Prescott College students doing their senior projects at the field station. My Spanish was an advanced-beginner level at very best, but I jumped at the chance to take this wild fork in my professional (and personal) road. I jumped in with both feet. I went wide open.
My year in Kino was life changing in every sense of the word, personally and professionally. I learned Spanish. I learned about seabird ecology and conservation. I learned about working with communities to achieve conservation. I experienced living on the ocean for the first time. I attribute so much of the good in my life to my time in Kino, from finding people who remain some of my closest friends to this day to the trajectory that my career has taken. I’ve been back to Kino many times since my fellowship ended in the summer of 2001, including living there for several more extended stretches when I was doing field work for my dissertation in 2008 and 2009.
In late May 2015 I found myself back at the Prescott College field station. The program I work for, the Sonoran Joint Venture, was hosting our biannual “technical committee” meeting. Biologists, educators, and others with an interest in the conservation of birds and their habitats in northwest Mexico and the southwest U.S. gathered to talk about our priorities, share successes and challenges, and figure out how to better collaborate to protect the natural resources that are so important to all of us. Over the course of two days we heard about Prescott’s wading bird and seabird monitoring efforts, as well as the work of many other great folks working in the region, from the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California to the tropical deciduous forest of the mountains in southern Sonora. It was a great meeting, but I’m not going to write about that. Instead I want to give you a snapshot of the Eastern Midriff Island region in the Gulf of California.
The morning after our meeting dawned clear and calm, and the plan for the day was to go out in the boat and explore the Gulf. We drove down to the boat ramp, climbed aboard the panga (the regional name for the outboard skiffs that fishermen use) and we were off. We first headed toward Isla Alcatraz, a small, near-shore island, located just 1.4 kilometers from the town of Bahia Kino. The island is dripping with birds at any time of year, from one of the largest colonies of Double-crested Cormorants in the Pacific to Brown Pelicans to Yellow-footed Gulls to a heronry with nine species of wading birds to Craveri’s Murrelet to…well, you get the idea. There are a lot of birds there.
We reached the island and did a long, slow circuit. There was a huge group of Elegant Terns staging on the spit—unusual for that time of year, when 90% of the world population of this species should be nesting on Isla Rasa, to the northwest. Researchers saw near total nesting failure for this and other seabird species in the Gulf in 2015, seemingly due to a collapse in food sources (El Niño? Climate change? A combination?)
Brown Pelicans lined the shoreline of the island. Magnificent Frigatebirds soared overhead. An occasional Blue-footed Booby flew in and perched on the guano-encrusted rocks of the island.
As we pulled around to the south side of the island we began to see the wading bird colony—Great Blue Herons, Reddish Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were all there, to name a few.
Yellow-footed Gulls with their ugly-cute, fuzzy chicks walked along the beach. A pair of California sea lions bobbed in the water, one flipper extended skyward to thermoregulate.
A Peregrine Falcon swooped in, keying in on an unfortunate Turkey Vulture that was being harassed by a pair of Yellow-footed Gulls. The falcon came at the vulture once, twice, three, four times, eventually driving the bird to the ground on the island before retreating.
Prescott College students and fellows have been doing both informal and formal seabird and wading bird research on Isla Alcatraz since the late-1960s. In fact, this island was my main field site during my fellowship in 2000-2001, where I studied the Double-crested Cormorant and wading bird colony on the island.
A few years before I arrived in Kino, David Mazurkiewicz, now a seabird biologist with the National Park Service at Channel Islands National Park, had started a formal effort to monitor the Double-crested Cormorant colony on Isla Alcatraz as part of his Prescott College senior project. This was the start of a standardized, long-term monitoring effort for the cormorant colony that continues today. In a wonderful instance of life coming full-circle, David was on the boat, too. It was amazing to return and hear about all of the excellent work that has continued since our time there so long ago.
From the island we headed over to Estero Santa Cruz, the estuary that abuts the town. As we slowly motored into the mangroves (aside: Kino Bay is almost the northernmost extent of mangroves—red, black, and white can all be found there), Lorayne Meltzer, the director of the field station, and several of the current cohort of conservation fellows told us about their work in the community and with the birds. One of the more impressive accomplishments in recent years was Prescott College’s successful nomination of the estuary as a Wetland of International Importance under the United Nations Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Yellow “Mangrove” Warblers sang from the branches. White Ibis flew by. A Belted Kingfisher called as it flew over the mangroves along side the panga.
From the estuary we headed offshore for a bit. The Eastern Midriff Island Region of the Gulf of California, where we were, is incredibly diverse. You never know what you might find. The day didn’t disappoint. A Black Storm-Petrel flew over the water in front of us, legs dangling down. A Sooty Shearwater buzzed the boat.
Then I heard it: the distinctive blow of a marine mammal. We scanned the horizon and suddenly there it was—the blow of a fin whale. Two, three, four…we were surrounded by a group of at least ten whales, surfacing to breath before diving down again. I have spent a fair bit of time on boats in the Gulf, but this was one of the more amazing fin whale experiences I have ever had. We slowly motored along, stopping to watch the whales that seemed to be following us.
Then someone from the back of the boat called out, “Tropicbird!” All eyes turned to where he was pointing, and sure enough, a Red-billed Tropicbird was taking flight from where it had been sitting on the water. It flew in front of the boat and gave us a wonderful view before winging off into the distance. Cosme, the boat captain, remarked that this was the first time he’d ever had a boat full of people be more excited about seeing a single bird than seeing whales. We’re birders. If you are reading this, I know that you understand.
From there we headed back to shore, giddy with excitement at all that we’d seen and experienced. Heermann’s and Yellow-footed Gulls led us back to the boat ramp as we laughed with amazement at the incredible luck we’d had.
It was no ordinary field trip. I felt like the Gulf was giving me a special message. It reminded me of the spectacular beauty of this place, how much it meant to me, how much I had learned there over the years, and how important the friendships I made there still are to me today.
Message received, Gulf of California. I’ll be back soon.