4 hours north of La Paz is the much smaller town of Loreto. It was established in 1697 as the capital of California, the farthest west of the Spanish colonies. The final leg of our short visit to Baja California, Loreto is much smaller than La Paz and retains the finer elements common to Mexican beach communities of years past. There is a Malacon, but only a dozen or so vehicles are in sight as we walk from our hotel, The Oasis, to the marina to photograph Boobies. Its name comes from the Spanish word bobo (“stupid”, “foolish”, or “clown”) because the Blue-footed Booby is, like other seabirds, clumsy on land. Watching it acrobatically hover in the afternoon winds, scanning the shallows for fish, is far from clumsy, and its streamlined contour is stunning.
The 4-hour drive from La Paz to Loreto was unremarkable and, just because, we took a 30-minute detour from Ciudad Insurgentes to Puerto Adolfo López Mateos to dip our toes in the Pacific. Somebody posted an eBird Checklist from the Gray Whale Sanctuary there, so we gave it a shot. A far more interesting thing about this side trip were the dozens of Osprey nesting platforms adjacent to the road, beginning a good 5 miles before we reached the Pacific. What’s with that? Well, I learned the platforms were constructed to protect the birds from perching on the towers supporting “hot” power lines. There were too many crispy carcasses discovered at the base of the towers and, since the predominate bird sighted were Ospreys, the system appears to be a resounding success.
The coastline near Loreto is slowly becoming developed for tourists, and on one of our forays into town we were solicited by a fast-talking salesman representing yet one more major destination resort on the coast. There’s already the predominately ex-pat community of Nopoló, featuring a beautiful golf course bordered by colorful and tastefully landscaped vacation rentals. We’re grateful to have visited sleepy Loreto before it, too, loses its character and succumbs to the lure of tourist money. Facilitating the development of tourism is its viable, international airport with regular service to Los Angeles and seasonal service to several other US cities and Canada.
In addition to our foot explorations of Loreto, we dedicated one day to traveling a couple hours north to the community of Mulugé. En-route we passed several sandy coves with beautiful white sands and shallow, turquoise water. The firm composition of the beaches permit RV’s to park, most often side-by-side along the shore, creating impromptu Margaritaville-like beachfront properties. Another characteristic of these encampments is the absence of any shade; getting blasted by sunlight and Jimmy Buffett all day long would drain our sensibilities, regardless of the tranquility and beauty of the water. You can only kayak and shore-fish so much. Sooney and John had read about a coffee roaster in one of those communities, and during their stop for a cuppa I wandered around the quiet shoreline of the marina and spent 20-minutes with Xantus’s Hummingbirds, both the female and, a first for us, the colorful male. We didn’t travel north of Mulugé, and while we birded the river overgrown with non native plants of the Rio Santa Rosalía, we thankfully weren’t walking in the front yards of foreign snowbirds.
We explored the ancient mission, built on a bluff above the River, and birded the area beneath it. There was a dam-like structure across the river that permitted us to access the other side, and it was in a cluster of tall grasses that Sooney heard the call of a Yellowthroat. She had previously listened to the Belding’s Yellowthroat’s call on her phone’s Merlin app, and when she heard the live call from the rushes, she correctly identified it as our target bird. The Belding’s Yellowthroat is was one of the endemic birds on our search list and it is more brightly yellow than the “Common” Yellowthroat and features yellow lining to the black mask. That sighting was our 4th life bird of the trip and we celebrated that auspicious find with a greasy lunch in a local cantina. It made absolutely no sense that an Oregon Ducks flag was posted prominently on the wall, and my Spanish wasn’t up to researching its provenance. The mere sight of it was sadly anticlimactic because we’d actually timed our arrival to Loreto a few days earlier with barely enough time to watch the Ducks play the Washington Huskies for the final Pac-12 championship football game. John had researched a place in Loreto that reportedly would be screening the game, and after checking into our hotel, the three of us huddled around a table at Augie’s Bar & Bait Shop. The game was aired during happy hour and we were surprised to have a small bite presented by the server to complement our tasty Margaritas. (Sooney looked up periodically from her Soul of an Octopus read.) Alas, the game didn’t end as we’d hoped, and we’ve got next season to look forward to (but unlikely at Augie’s!)
Another day of exploring had me fast-talking the receptionist at the exclusive Loreto Beach Resort & Spa. At first we were not permitted in, but I explained to the security guy we were not going to enter the lovely golf course but simply bird the perimeter and the shoreline. He consented, and we had a fine introduction to the Napoló area. One particularly good sighting was a second hummingbird species, the Costa’s, and I got good looks of the female both perched and taking off. El Señor was in the area, too, and Vermillion Flycatchers were characteristically eye-catching. At one point, we got too close to the golf course and a member was quick to point out that we were off-limits. Somewhat surprised at her tone, I explained that permission had been granted by the receptionist. The golfer was visibly relieved and lamented, “We’re seeing a lot of gate crashers and I don’t want a fence installed in my front yard.” Yea, we got it, and she proceeded to strike a beauty down the fairway and walked away.
We left the resort after watching a number of bird species devouring insects and dates from some palms near the entrance. Directly across from the Resort were literally hundreds of vacation rental properties and, supposedly, residences. They were well designed and the stuccoed walls were randomly painted in a lovely variety of warm hues. We learned that the inaugural offering was constructed approximately 20 years earlier by a Canadian firm. These were followed by subsequent subdivisions that added small markets and eateries into the mix.
The landscaping was tastefully done and we wandered about on foot with beautiful sprays of multi-colored bougainvilleas bordered the paths and often cascading down from privacy walls. Adjacent to the paths, carefully raked gravel was spread to create an authentic look, intermixed with cactus and native plants that add a nice touch. In addition to hummers, Verdins, and other chirpy species, a French bakery was sensibly located next to the community pool and we enjoyed their authentic pastries and delicious coffee. There was absolutely no trash, and recycling bins were hidden behind unobtrusive structures. Sadly, we were hurtled back into trash reality during the 11km drive back to Loreto.
It’s really sad how little regard is given to keeping the countryside natural and tidy. Our excursion to Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó was a 45-minute early morning drive into the Sierra de la Giganta mountains where every curve highlighted craggy peaks, ridges, arroyos, and native plants dominated by the Cardón Cactus. Wherever we stopped to take a picture or walk a bit, the pullout and beyond as far as one could throw a bottle or can, was covered in trash. The mission is an eBird hotspot in that others have been there and submitted sightings. We thought we were smart to wait a few days after the Mission’s annual Festival to allow for clean up to be completed. Indeed, upon arrival we noticed an effort to clean up had begun, and bags of trash and overflowing cans were stacked for eventual pickup. The problem is that marauding vultures and feral dogs ripped apart the bags, resulting in trash strewn all over the grounds and, enter canyon winds, into the arroyo. We found a trail along an irrigation canal that took us to the oldest olive tree in Baja; it’s said to be 300 years old. There were still a few venders packing up all their crap in preparation for the next festival elsewhere. The small town of a few hundred were left with a mess after thousands of party-goers departed following four days of chaos.
On our final day in Loreto, Sooney visited the Loreto Tourist Office on the plaza and spoke to a young man who relished the opportunity to practice his English. As a kid, he’d lived in San José, California and picked up an American accent. Sooney inquired about community parks, a botanical garden, or places with trails to experience native plants and wildlife, like the Greater Roadrunner. He thought a spell and came up with a phone number he could share for a tour on horseback to a ranch to see a fat pig and goats. Hmm? We suspect further tourist development will inevitably descend upon Loreto, and it’s likely to resemble Nopoló with thoughtful, creative and native landscaping. Realistically, the urban sprawl of tiny, affordable parcels fingering farther and farther into the desert isn’t going to follow that model, and it’s unlikely to expect a miraculous reversal of a trash mentality any time soon. The local economy is based on fishing and those residents not associated with the tourist industry circumvent spiraling costs of living through domestic gardening and plying the sea. So what do you do with a leaky boat or a broken motor? Park it on your rancho with all the other debris and figure out how to get another.
This post is titled Birding Baja for a reason: we spent 17 days exploring Baja California Sur looking for birds and, with the exception of having Martín guide us to see the Elf Owl, we did it entirely on our own. Unlike recent trips to Panamá and Costa Rica where our accommodations, meals, and daily outings were structured by professional tour organizers, this trip was plotted out on a day-to-day basis, the three of us doing research and sharing our findings over wonderful buffet breakfasts included with the lodging. John was comfortable doing the driving, enjoyed the excitement, and embraced our concept of a more nature-oriented travel paradigm.
Particularly significant about our visit to Loreto was the 60-year-old beach hotel where we stayed: The Oasis. Each morning we’d grab a cup of coffee (or not) and share the sunrise with a remarkable variety of shorebirds right outside our beachfront accommodations. Adjacent to the Oasis (appropriately named) is the estuary of the Rio Loreto.
We regularly consulted our tide table and, combined with forceful winds that arose each afternoon, we had different viewing situations to choose from. In the late afternoon, with strong South Winds at our back, diving birds (Royal Terns, Brown Pelicans, and Blue-footed Boobies) used them to hover more or less in one spot while searching the shallows for sardines and other tasty morsels. Early mornings were much calmer, and shore & wading birds scuttled about, working the exposed sand from the receding tides. In all, we saw 19 different species at that one estuary: plovers (Wilson’s, Snowy, Semipalmated, Black-bellied), sandpipers (Spotted, Least, Western, Sanderlings), herons (Great Blue, Reddish, Tricolored, Baby Blue, Yellow-crowned Night-heron) and the egrets (Snowy & Great). Then there were Greater Yellowlegs, Whimbrels, Willets, and on our last day, a Short-billed Dowitcher.
We’re thrilled with our success to see (and photograph) nearly all of the endemic birds of Baja California. Our life list continues to grow, and over the past couple weeks we’ve added the Belding’s Yellowthroat, Xantus’s Hummingbird, Wilson’s Plover, Yellow-footed Gull, and the Gray Thrasher to the list. In addition, I’ve captured 4 new (to me) species in my lens: American Oystercatcher, Least Grebe, Royal Tern, and the Blue-footed Booby. All in all, Sooney has listed 108 species in several eBird checklists during this holiday to Baja. Here’s a link to her eBird checklist
Here are maps illustrating our driving routes during our visit:
A gallery of photos supporting this Travel Journal may be viewed at nickviani.com/birdingbaja23. As usual, wildlife-specific images are housed at sobirds.us. Finally, here’s a LINK to the first episode from this series, Birding Baja. Enjoy.