We met our guide Armando at 5:30 am and in the dark of morning, stopped the car at a small house with sheets in the windows. Armando hollered in Spanish from the car to the dark house, and a man inside the house lifted the window sheet and shouted back, while dozens of dogs barked and howled at the disturbance. Then off we went for a day of birding. Armando told us he was reminding our boat driver to be at the dock at 3 this afternoon to take us birding in the mangrove swamps.
We were in the state of Nayarit Mexico on the outskirts of the town of San Blas. Our target bird to find in the mangroves was the northern potoo. They are a night bird, so it was necessary to take a boat ride late in the day, boat down the river an hour through the narrow mangrove channels where the bird would probably come out at dusk to hunt for insects.
We spent the morning and afternoon birding, and at 3:00 we pulled up to a small dock on the sandy edge of a river. The driver we woke in the morning apparently didn’t show, but after a short delay Armando found another friend to operate the boat. It was a small motor boat only big enough for four people, and we found out why very soon. This section of the San Cristobal River is a very narrow channel; big enough for one small boat and closed in on both sides by long spear-like mangrove roots. At the time it seemed charming, but the day was young.
This spot, we soon discovered, was popular among Mexican tourists as well as birders. Whereas birders poke along and admire the nesting herons and crawling crabs, the Mexicans have the exact opposite idea of a fun time. Every few minutes, as we would be stopped in the middle of the channel photographing a perched osprey or searching in the mangrove roots for the elusive tiger heron, we would hear a squeal of laughter and screaming coming toward us. In the next second around the bend would come a motorboat jam-packed with two or even three Mexican families racing along, laughing, shouting, and drinking beers. It always seemed like we were surely going to collide, but at the last minute both boaters would veer away from the center and into the roots. In a river where he had already spotted numerous crocodiles, it seemed serious and dangerous, but only us gringos failed to laugh. All the Mexicans, they just laughed and laughed.
When we got to our destination we sat in the boat and waited for dark. It was prime mosquito time, in the heart of the mangrove swamps, and it was the full moon which we were told was when the mosquitoes came out in force. The still river night sounds were exotic—hooting, high-pitched cries, and occasional splashes in the water. As dusk disappeared and the night darkened, the sounds seemed to swell even louder. We saw many night birds before it got dark, and soon the potoo flew in.
Up ahead of us in the reeds was the dark silhouette of a post. Our guide told us to look again and sit still (yes, that means don’t swat at the mosquitoes). And as we did, we saw the potoo was perched atop the post. We spent about a quarter hour admiring and photographing this strange bird, watching him fly off occasionally and snap up an insect. We thought this was the highlight, but we were wrong about that too.
Cruising back into the thicket of mangroves for the return trip, we noticed the channel had filled up with substantially more water. The tide had come in. If you reached your hand out of either side of the boat now, you could touch (ugh) the fleshy roots. The further we went into the channel, the more enclosed the mangrove jungle became, completely obscuring the light of the moon. It was pitch black and the mangrove roots were so close overhead that eventually it was just easier to stay crouched, chest to knees. Mosquitoes became so incessantly invasive that we soon stopped opening our mouths to exclaim or even talk. After that we found that squinting our eyes at half mast helped keep the bugs off the eyeballs.
So we’re in this boat, in the dark, motoring down a high water channel filled with crocodiles, keeping our eyes half shut and our mouths clamped tight. Armando held a flashlight for the boat driver, creating a small visual flash of what was directly in front of us as we sailed up the channel, curve after curve. We knew the boat ride was an hour long, so we settled into this rather creepy but completely exhilarating journey. You know how that is—it’s the thrill of an outdoor adventure. You don’t know what’s around the corner, literally, and there is more discomfort than you want. But you surrender, think about the time ahead when you’ll be safe and warm again, and enjoy the unique adventure for all the mystery and excitement that it is.
When we came to the bridge, we knew we were nearly done with our ride. But wait, this can’t be the same bridge; and yet there was only one bridge. The one-lane concrete bridge we had easily glided under before was now seriously close to our heads. The driver slowed the boat, shouted something in Spanish and under the bridge we went. There was only enough head room for the boat to go under the bridge. Only the boat. All people had to bend and squeeze and flatten their bodies completely into the bowels of the boat!
No doubt about it: this was a crazy thrill. No regulations, no signs with clearance levels, no warning…just a quick-duck-or-lose-your-head moment.
Only a boater who knew this river like the back of his hand could have traversed these waters in the pitch black of night. And only a bird guide who had been showing people this channel for most of his life could so easily laugh off the near-miss collisions, the eerie darkness of a mangrove swamp, and the bottom of the bridge that was within inches of our heads. And yet, that’s exactly what made this such a wild and special adventure.
I’m happy to say I was featured this week as a guest author on the blog site “Life in Russia.” Click here for my guest post, “Living on San Francisco Bay.” I am deep in the research and plotting of my next mystery novel, set in San Francisco, and enjoyed presenting this brief overview of what it’s like to live in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Many thanks to Steve at Life in Russia for inviting me to write on his blog. Here are a few of my favorite posts from his culturally-fascinating and fun blog:
If you have ever had the delight of attending a San Francisco Giants game, you know how fun it is to go to a game at AT&T Park. Of course many people have not had that experience, so let’s play ball right here. It’s a very special park in a very special city. And although there are many fun, special baseball stadiums in this country, this park is especially fun because it is on the San Francisco Bay.
Built in 2000, AT&T Park is picturesquely set on the San Francisco Bay, with views of the Bay all around. As you approach the park, there’s a rickety old draw bridge that fans cross to get to the modern, animated stadium—it makes for an unusual combination of vintage and 21st century architecture. In lieu of driving or public transportation, there is also a special ferry boat that delivers fans right to the stadium. I’ve watched people getting off this boat and it is a sea of orange and black clothes, and a wild group of excited fans.
When you arrive at the stadium entrance you are greeted by the Willy Mays statue on Willy Mays Plaza. My personal favorite sculpture is inside the stadium, but you can see it from outside too: the 80-foot Coke bottle. Inside the Coke bottle are numerous slides that you can ride down, and there are viewing platforms too. There’s also a 26-foot high baseball glove! It’s an old fashioned four-fingered glove and you can see it from very far away as it beckons of baseball frenzy.
Concessions at AT&T Park are crazy. There is so much food and it’s all gourmet. The garlic fries are a favorite for fans and nachos are also a big hit. There’s every ethnic food imaginable from grilled hot dogs, sausages and chicken, crab sandwiches, pizzas, and tacos to vegetarian foods. In a town full of foodies, the stadium is no different.
But what I like most about this park is The Cove. McCovey Cove is a watery part of the Bay that is adjacent to the stadium. Every once in awhile a “splash hit” home run soars out of the stadium and into this cove. In 13 years there have been 63 splash hits. That means that the people you see here in their boats and kayaks are floating outside the stadium, hoping a home run ball will come their way. Look at those fun-loving crackers! Hours they wait, for a powerful freak hit that will miraculously escape the 20+ foot high walls. To me this is the quintessential combined spirit of San Francisco and baseball: hope, devotion, and a wild bit of craziness. I hope you can come here sometime!
Of all the antelope in this world, the Sable Antelope is the most elegant I have ever seen. I saw two rare individuals on a three-week safari, one day and one day only, grazing near the Chobe River in Botswana, Africa.
Most antelopes are native to Africa, but there are also some in Asia, and one, the pronghorn, is native to North America. There are over 90 species of antelope on this planet, and they’re in many sizes and shapes. If you have the fortunate experience of going on an African safari, you will see hundreds and hundreds of gazelle leaping across the plains. But even here in the United States we have a stunning antelope. I’ve talked to many residents of Colorado, Wyoming, and the expansive states of the American West who love their native antelope, the pronghorn.
In sub-Saharan Africa there are over 78 species of antelope. The Sable is primarily in southern Africa, though there are also places in Kenya and Tanzania where they live as well.
One day we were on safari in Botswana. We had just had the most incredible experience finding a pack of wild dogs, a very rare and unexpected find. (See earlier post: African Wild Dogs.) While our guide drove us around in the safari vehicle, our group of six was completely satiated by the wild dog experience. So whatever came along next was just icing on the already-delicious cake.
We were driving around in Chobe National Park, looking for whatever came along, with hopes of maybe finding a Sable that our guide had heard was around. Driving around in Africa waiting for wild safari animals to appear is one of my all-time favorite things to do in this world. To me, it is heaven on earth. So we were driving around, and our guide spotted a Sable. It was grazing under some trees several hundred feet away from the vehicle—too far for photographing, but not too far to admire.
We admired it, the guide gave us some background on this lovely animal, and eventually we drove on. Soon after, we found another Sable. This time it was pretty close, only about 200 feet away. He positioned the vehicle perfectly so that we could see it, photograph it, and enjoy it. And we did. That is who you see here in the photographs. A bull, he grazed quietly, while we snapped photos and watched.
Sables are very shy. Because of those long, strong, scimitar-shaped horns, they have been hunted, and are understandably reticent of the gun-toting human species. Our guide said if we would be as quiet and still as possible, the skittish gent we were watching might stick around for awhile. If only our guide had done that….
You can see in some of the photos that there’s a bird on the Sable’s upper mane and side. These birds are red-billed oxpeckers. They have a symbiotic relationship with many different African mammals. I’ve seen oxpeckers on giraffes, buffalo, antelope and many other big game. They hang out on the animal’s hide eating ticks, flies, maggots and other hard-to-reach pests. It works out for the antelope because it cleans his hide.
We were very contentedly enjoying this solitary, shy and rare Sable, seated in the safari vehicle, when our driver accidentally honked his horn. Oh man, that didn’t really happen did it?
That’s why the antelope is running here. He’s just been totally spooked. He took off running, oxpeckers upended, and we never saw this beauty again. Our guide, of course, was mortified at his mistake.
Our guide had been flawless up to then. He had found us wild dogs where they hadn’t been spotted for five years, walked barefoot through a swamp to show us a rare butterfly, wrestled with a spitting cobra so we could get photos. It was funny then and it’s funny now, his elbow accidentally hit the horn on the steering wheel. Just another wild and wonderful experience on the African savannah.