For any use of my photos, please contact me at monika.wieland (at) gmail (dot) com

Friday, February 28, 2014

Heading Back North

On our last day in Baja - already two weeks ago today! - I got up extra early. People had been giving reports of a beautiful moonset on previous mornings and I decided to fully take in our last hours there. It was a bit cloudy, but still impressive as the moon disappeared into the lagoon:

Almost simultaneously, the sun was rising in the opposite direction:

After another delicious breakfast, we had a few more minutes to take in the whales off the point before the panga ride back to Kuyima. As an added bonus, a big mixed flock of shorebirds flew up, too!

Marbled godwits
 Included in the group was my last year bird for Mexico - a few short-billed dowitchers (130):

Marbled godwit, willet, and short-billed dowitcher

All too soon it was time to go. The planes were waiting for us at Kuyima:

Luckily the weather cooperated for another smooth flight back north, and the scenery was stunning for the whole flight. Here was our last look at Laguna San Ignacio:

A few more scenic shots, looking east towards the Sea of Cortez:

As we began our descent, it was back into civilization at Tijuana. A bit of a culture shock, even after just four days away!

Luckily our trip wasn't completely over quite yet. We had some more friends to visit in San Diego and some more birds to see first!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mating Whales and Mangrove Birding ~ Day 3 in Baja

It was hard to believe we had already arrived at our third and final full day at Laguna San Ignacio. Time felt both suspended and going by too quickly while we were there. 

A panga off our camp at Punta Piedra
By this point we were all well-versed in gray whale behaviors, in both English and Spanish. Espia (spy hop), brinca (breach), and, our favorite, cola (tail).

Our group had fun playing off the double meaning of the word cola in English and Spanish. In addition to calling out when we saw a cola, we had a Cola Cero (Zero) for when it looked like you were going to see a tail but didn't, a Cola Lite for when the tail barely lifted above the surface, and a Semi Cola for when just half the tail flukes came up.

Cola Lite

Semi Cola!
We also learned to recognize several things on the surface when the whales weren't even visible, like a footprint (or fluke print) where the movement of the whale's tail creates an upwelling at the surface, helping you track the whale while it was swimming underwater:

Gray whale fluke print
Another common behavior we observed was a bubble blast, where the whale exhales underwater creating a burst of bubbles at the surface, a behavior that supposedly is also accompanied by a vocalization:

Bubble blast - somebody's down there!
And of course, we were all very familiar with the distinct heart-shaped blow of the gray whale, a unique spout shape created by the angle of the double blow holes on the whales' heads.

Beginning of a heart-shaped blow
Heart-shaped blow with the Three Virgins Volcano in the background
Here's a nice shot of the blowhole. Baleen whales have two blowholes, just like we have two nostrils. In toothed whales, like orcas, the two nostrils have fused into a single blowhole. I thought it was interesting to see there are whale lice right around the edge of the blowholes; I would have thought they'd get blown right out of there by the force of the exhalations!

Our morning whale-watch on the last day was highlighted by a mating group of whales. We saw a female being pursued by about 4-5 males, and I heard one other group saw a female being pursued by 9 males!

Pursuit! 2 males surface right behind a female
You still get amazingly close to the whales when this is going on, but you don't want to get too close. Let's just say they seem to be a little less aware of their surroundings when they've got other things on their mind.

Pec wave off one of our other pangas - I don't think this was part of a mating group, so they were safe being that close!
When mating pursuits turn into actual mating, you start seeing lots of rolling at the surface. It's hard to figure out exactly what all the body parts are that you're seeing, and who they belong to.

One body part, however, was totally unmistakable - the so-called pink floyd, or whale penis. According to one of our guides, the site of a pink floyd makes women gasp and men fall silent.

A belly-up male, showing his six foot long pink floyd
After our exciting whale watch, the tides were just right to visit the mangroves by boat. It's bizarre to see such a change in landscape between the stark desert and the lush mangroves.

San Ignacio mangroves with the Santa Clara Mountains in the background
The bird life changes noticeably, too! We switch from looking at pelicans and terns to all kinds of species of herons and egrets. The shorebirds like both habitats, however:

Willets and marbled godwits
I knew this was my best chance to add some of my hoped-for life birds on the trip. I was all eyes as we slowly motored through the mangroves:

It didn't take long to spot my first life bird of the day - a tri-colored heron (year bird 123):

Tri-colored heron
Next we saw a pair of eared grebes (124), and then this guy crossing the channel:

Turns out it was a clapper rail (125), another life bird! We would hear several more of them throughout our trip.

It's interesting to me that so many heron-like birds of the southeast United States find there way to the west coast only here in Mexico. I totally lucked out and saw all of the species I was hoping to see:

Little blue heron adult (top left) and immature (botton right) - year bird 126 and another life bird
A distant look at a yellow-crowned night heron (year bird 127 and another life bird!). It was only a quick view but the facial pattern was unmistakable
We also got much better looks at white ibises:

Back at camp I had been told about the elusive mangrove warbler, a colorful little bird of the mangroves that is incredibly hard to see. When we got on board our panga, I told our boat driver (half-jokingly) I would love to see a mangrove warbler, and could he please find me one? He gave me a thumbs up - he would find one.

I have to reiterate that our boat driver, Chope, is a local fisherman. He and the other boat drivers amazed me with their knowledge of local wildlife that went beyond just the whales. It makes sense that someone who makes their livelihood from the land and water around them would be familiar with all aspects of their local landscape, but perhaps I've been jaded by the reality of many American fisherman who wouldn't necessarily know the difference between a marbled murrelet and a surf scoter. I was continually impressed by the depth of knowledge of the natural world the local fishermen had, and they turned out to be a much better resource for information about the local bird life than the American naturalists, who tended to specialize on the whales. I turned to our boat driver to confirm my IDs of the clapper rail and little blue herons, and he also pointed out to me the song of the savannah sparrow (128), which sounded much different here than the race of savannah sparrow back home on the island. 

As we were cruising along, Chope suddenly stopped the boat and pointed into the bushes where a quiet chipping sound could be heard. He indicated it was a mangrove warbler - not even singing, just making it's call note! It sounded way back in there, was there going to be any hope of seeing it? He proceeded to "pish" at the bird, in apparently just the right way, because the little guy made his way forward and hopped out onto a branch for perfect viewing! I couldn't believe it! We only got the quickest of views, but it was more than enough - I was thrilled.

Later, I learned that the mangrove warbler (129) is actually considered a sub-species of the yellow warbler rather than a species in its own right. So, it wasn't my fifth life bird of the day, but another year bird, though it will remain probably my favorite bird sighting of the trip just based on how it came about. I had binoculars up rather than a camera to confirm the ID of the bright yellow body with an all-chestnut head, but a friend of mine snapped a photo which I'll hopefully be able to share in the future.

As with every day at Laguna San Ignacio, by lunch time we had seen enough wildlife to fulfull a whole trip, but the day was only half over. While lounging on the shoreline before our afternoon whale watch, we had a close pass of a mom and calf right off the point. Often the whales were a little further out than this, but this shows why Punta Piedra is the "Lime Kiln of Baja"!

Here's a close up of mom and baby - a very young one! It was so tiny, in whale terms anyway - probably still 12-15 feet long! Those dimples on the head are hair follicles. Whales are mammals, and they still have remnants of the hair that once covered them when they were terrestrial creatures! Each dimple has a single hair coming out of it - I made a point to touch a gray whale hair at one point when given the chance!

It was, by the way, somewhat of a San Juan Island reunion down there at San Ignacio Lagoon. Us whale folks tend to stick together - here's a photo of all of us who were on San Juan Island last summer and reunited here at Punta Piedra:

The afternoon whale watch was a fitting grand finale to our panga trips. It was a pretty laid back boat ride with more beautiful viewing, though we had several people on board who had yet to have an encounter with a friendly gray whale. It was nearing the end of our trip, and we were among a group of whales with one other panga from our camp. We were trying the Jolly Rancher bag shake one last time, and our guide joked that we should all lean over one side of the boat to make the other panga think we had a friendly whale. "No way," one of the passengers said. "That would be really bad whale karma!" No sooner had she gotten the sentence out then out of nowhere a friendly whale popped up RIGHT next to our boat. Not only that, a second whale surfaced right by our other panga at the exact same time!

Three ladies who got to touch their first gray whale right at the end of our last boat trip!
I was so fortunate to have had another friendly encounter the day before, so I mostly deferred the touching to the rest of our boat group who hadn't had the experience yet, though I did lean over once and get another very wet arm to get one more feel of one of these blubbery leviathans. I was of course snapping away the whole time with the camera! Here's another close up of whale lice surrounding barnacles. I have to say, at the time you hardly notice them, but as I've looked at them in my photos, I've been a little bit grossed out by them! Click to see an even larger view - I'm kind of glad I wasn't the one person who got a whale lice stuck to their finger.

This seems an appropriate final shot for this blog, showing a friendly whale off the other panga from our camp. It gives you a little bit of a size comparison!

I read somewhere that being in a panga next to a gray whale is a bit like being in a Volkswagen Beetle next to a semi-truck. Maybe that's why I was so comfortable out there, being a Beetle driver myself! Really, despite being so out-sized, fear is never an emotion that overcomes you out there next to these gentle giants!

Next up, it was time to head back to the States, but that doesn't mean there wasn't a lot more beauty to take in on our way back! The final day in Baja and the trip back north will be the next post, followed by a recap of a few more days (and lots more birding) near San Diego.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Las Ballenas Amistosas - Day 2 in Baja

While Laguna San Ignacio is an incredible place to experience in its own right, there's one phenomenon that occurs here that make it a must-visit place for any cetacean lover: Las Ballenas Amistosas, or the Friendly Whales.

In the 1970s, in the very same lagoons where they were almost hunted to extinction, gray whales started becoming friendly with humans. Animals started approaching fishing boats, showing what appeared to be in a mutual curiosity in us, and local fishermen discovered that the whales were willing (and perhaps even enjoyed) being touched. Given what they have experienced as a species at the hand of humans, it's an especially remarkable turn of events.

Naturalists say about 10% of the gray whales are "friendly" (does that make the other 90% aloof, I wonder?) Despite what you see on the travel brochures, an encounter with a friendly whale is not a given (no wildlife encounter ever is). With what we witnessed while we were there, it seemed like fewer whales were friendly than anticipated, most likely because it was early in the season and they were engaged in either pursuing (or attempting to evade) a mate or taking care of a very young calf. Mothers with calves tend to be more likely to be friendly, with moms often urging their babies over towards the pangas, but this happens more often when the calves are a few weeks older than when we were there. I wonder if really it's the moms looking for a break from taking care of their exuberant growing babies, taking advantage of us willing human babysitters to catch an extra nap before the long migration north!

We certainly got close to whales on Day 1, but my hopes were still high for touching one, and it didn't take long on the morning whale watch of Day 2 to get very near to whales again. Our first encounter of the day was with a very playful mom and calf. They certainly seemed interested in us, but again didn't quite come close enough to interact directly, perhaps because the calf was still so young. Here's a shot of the baby using mom's back like a slide - you're seeing the calf's tail as it disappears on the far side of its mother:

They were close enough to us that for the first time I got out the handheld underwater camera I got specifically for this trip. Even though they were only 10 yards or so away, the waters proved too murky for the whales to show up. I liked the effects I got in the water shots anyway, though.

Camera being lowered underwater
I like this underwater shot, even without a whale in it - shows how rich these waters are with microorganisms
The mama whales all looked very broad - a good sign that they're carrying enough fat reserves to both feed their calves and make it back to their northern feeding grounds. Mom's dispense milk that's 53% fat to their growing babies, all while having nothing to eat. She'll lose about a third of her body weight before reaching the feeding grounds again.

Big mama
People are so enamored with whales and so desiring of a close encounter that they will try anything to beckon the whales closer. We all at one point or another splashed the surface of the water, trying to attract their attention. There are a whole range of other superstitions, too - a popular one at our whale camp, led by our American naturalist guides, was the shaking of a bag of Jolly Rancher candies. Supposedly "scientifically proven" by an eight year-old, after shaking the bag, the driver gets offered a candy first, then all the passengers. The debate is ongoing as to how effective this method is, but my opinion was solidified by the next whale we met. Nothing you do is going to make an uninterested whale come over to you. You don't choose the whale, the whale chooses you.

A nicknamed this whale White Head, and unlike any of the other whales we encountered, when he saw us, he made a beeline straight for us.

White Head - The Whale That Chose Us
He swam directly at us and stopped right by the side of the boat, rolling over to be touched. Here is a photo I like to call "First Contact", as we reach out to touch him (that's my hand in the middle):

Contact was made:

I've touched a dolphin before, and it felt firm, like a wet rubber tire. Gray whales were surprisingly squishy, like you could grab a handful of them. It's also amazing that something that comes out of the frigid ocean waters feels so warm.

I actually think this may have been a juvenile whale, but he sure seemed big next to our 22-foot panga. You can't get much closer than this:

This time, the whale was definitely close enough for some underwater shots. I took about 200 of them, clicking away randomly, but the payoff was huge. I got what I call my dream shot, an underwater view of a whale's eye. Probably my favorite whale picture from the trip.

Here's a similar view when both whale and camera were above the surface. See the eye?

I really love the abstract nature of the following shot, where just a few inches of water is covering the whale's head. You can still see his eye here, but it's closed.

You may have noticed by now that these gray whales are covered with a lot of "stuff". Slower moving than the killer whales I usually photograph, grays get latched onto by both barnacles and whale lice. There's actually a species of barnacle specific to gray whales, and it breeds in the lagoons at the same time the whales do - it never ceases to amaze me how ingenious nature is. In between the barnacles are the pink whale lice, most of them about the size of the dime. Here's a look at both from underwater:

White Head went back and forth between us and another boat a couple of times. Each time he left our boat, he did this backing-up head raise out of the water. I know it's anthropomorphizing, but it sure felt like it was his way of saying, "See ya later."

White Head says "See ya!"
Another panga interacting with White Head
When we and he went our separate ways, he breached three times! He sure seemed like a happy whale. It's this full-body shot that makes me think he's a juvenile - what do you think?

The best breach shot of the trip
This was an amazing enough encounter in itself, but as we slowly started motoring back towards camp, we came across another friendly! This one, a female, seemed like she may have been using us to try and shake off a male pursuer, who remained nearby but didn't come over to interact with us. Whatever her motives may have been, we were sure grateful to meet her. Here's a shot that shows me face to face with her:

And here's the photo I was taking in that moment:

I also got some neat underwater shots of some other whale body parts during this encounter:

Side and pec fin
Skin and barnacles
I could have spent the rest of the day savoring that incredible morning whale encounter, but there was too much else to see! Right when we got back to camp, it was time for a desert plant walk. Quite a few of the cacti and other plants looked more or less dead except for their bright flowering parts. We were getting the English, Spanish, and Latin names for each species, so I'm afraid I got a bit muddled and am not entirely sure what this one is, but it's fruits were edible and tasted (according to others) like strawberries:

I could have sworn this next one was called Adam's bush, but I can't seem to find anything by that name. It was mostly dry wood but had these intricate little red flowers, proof it was still alive:

Then it was lunch, and back out on the water for our second whale watch of the day - what a life, right?!

The highlight of this trip turned out to be some smaller cetaceans - a quartet of bow-riding bottlenose dolphins that stayed with us for a good ten minutes or so!

They were with us long enough I decided to try and get some underwater shots of them. This proved more difficult, because both the panga and them were moving, and I was higher away from the water at the bow of the boat. Most shots just captured water motion - I like to think this is what it must look like to a dolphin when it bow-rides:

I did get a few shots of the actual dolphins, or at least parts of them:

Bottlenose dolphins tails
Half hanging off the front of the moving panga, I got thoroughly drenched, but as you can tell from this shot immediately after, I couldn't have been happier. That Baja smile pretty much never left my face the whole time we were there:

Oh yeah, there were of course gray whales around all over the place again too :)

The beginning of the tell-tale "heart-shaped" blow of a gray whale, caused by it's angled dual blowholes

Whales clearly dominated the day, but I did add least sandpiper (122) to my bird year list.

Believe it or not, we weren't done yet. Still another full day of whale-watching, plus an amazing mangrove birding trip awaited us on day 3!