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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.


The K said...

Another cool read about your adventrues. I love the fact that you got to go in the mangroves, too. Looking forward to a slide show one day.

Vera said...

I very much enjoyed this blog and am so glad you had such a fantastic time with lots of good luck down there. Those lice do look rather gross but the whales are amazing, as are your photos.