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Mexico Part 1 – Into the Magrove Labyrinth

Drops of water kept falling on my face.  I tried to roll over and cover up with my sleeping bag but instead nuzzled a pool collected at a low spot on the floor of my tent.  Cactus Wrens churred away and Curve-billed Thrashers whistled their double note call mere paces away and Whimbrels screamed incessantly only a bit further off.  Here I was rolling around in a soppy tent.  The sun was up, time to rise.

After driving nearly 700 miles – from Madera Canyon in Southern Arizona to within a short hike of the coastal Sonoran-Sinaloan border, I wasn’t quite expecting this.  Sore from the slog south, squeezed into various seats with my friends Alison, Jeff, and Jenny in my friend Danner’s truck, I was ready for some sunshine and lots of birds.  Somehow there was enough fog that I couldn’t see past the two tall cacti next to my tent.

We’d gotten to Navopatia late the night before after braving some seriously boggy roads.  Apparently our friends at the field station had endured epic rainfalls unusual in duration and frequency.  The field station was far from running water and a truck delivered non-potable uses.  Trucks hadn’t been able to get in and they’d not been able to leave to get drinking water either.  Things were actually looking a bit serious.

Fog and a weeklong bout of torrential rain in the Sonoran Desert?  This wasn’t the winter Mexico I’d expected.  I needn’t have worried; we weren’t in for anything but spectacularly pleasant sunshine.

Almost everyone else was up wandering about.  The other vehicle in our convoy included my friends Sarah and Alex, the latter of whom was still sleeping off a jetlag from a flight back from New Zealand.  Those of us who’d never visited before stumbled about wide-eyed.  Several mystical looking White Ibis flew by, pink faces glowing in the ethereal light.

Everyone was dumbstruck by the fog, truthfully quite beautiful, creating dew on all the vegetation and casting a wonderful glow about everything.  I noticed lichen growing on all the tall plants nearby apparently thriving off coastal moisture, a floral arrangement quite unexpected.  The horizon was like nothing I’d ever seen, cactus crowns towering above all else.  A jumble of skyward spires lined my scope in all directions except over the water to the west.

I had already seen two new birds – Mangrove Swallow and Yellow-footed Gull.  The bird life just at the beach of the field station was astounding.  Several species of Terns, large numbers wading birds from over wintering shorebirds to resident herons and egrets, and oh the songbirds.  Pyrroloxia, Orioles, Gnatcatchers, Towhees – a surprising number of songbirds wintering from the north.

Our friends Adam and Sallie soon found their way down from camp to greet us.  They have been doing research here at the Navopatia Field Station through their non-profit, which they founded with several others, the Alamos Wildlands Alliance (AWA).  Along with Heather (and others I will get to), my friend Oliver’s elder sister, they are currently running the field station and working toward the goal of preserving this fascinating and important landscape.

Adam’s master’s thesis is on the importance of Costal Thornscrub (the gringo name for the habitat) for over wintering migrants.  The local name is the Pitayal, from the physically dominant, organ pipe cactus or Pitaya (Stenocereus thurberi).  With several other species of cacti and multiple decidedly thorny shrubs all typically never growing higher than 20 feet, Thornscrub is appropriately descriptive.  I still think “scrub” is a drab descriptor for a landscape so immediately alien and exciting.

As the fog lifted a bit, I couldn’t help but break into a shit-eating grin at the glory of it all.

We weren’t going to waste any time sitting around just yet either.  There were the mangroves and here were some kayaks.  Time to explore.  We paddled across the water to the bank of the saline forest surrounding the main island in the Agiabampo Estuary.  Reflecting that this was a habitat I’d seen so often in my travels but I knew so little about except some cursory facts, I reminded myself to steady my excited pulse and to try to observe more effectively.  Into the labyrinth our throng of boats went.

Clams clapped closed and we paddled through the narrow waterway.  Crabs painted stunning blue and red clung to the mangrove roots and scuttled to the opposite side and out of sight as we passed.  Tidal fluctuations obviously dictate the ecosystem and there was a different feeling of fluidity about everything, nothing like landlocked habitats.  Filtered sunlight crept through the low canopy of yellow-green leaves, giving one the impression that many secrets were held deep in the trees.

I could hear Mangrove Warblers; a decidedly recognizable subspecies of Yellow Warbler that is so different with its reddish head, distinct song, and specialized habitat that I swear it deserves splitting.  And I’m not saying this just because I want another bird to have on my life list.  Sure they’d breed with other Yellow Warblers (females are largely the same) but can you really deny the separation their obligation creates?  I suppose now I need to look at the research!

Another lifer I never did see was a Mangrove Vireo, though I heard them a couple times as we pushed and pulled through the aptly named little labyrinth.  It eventually opened up and I had spectacular views of male Mangrove Warblers singing from the highest points they could find.  It didn’t matter that I’d forgotten sunscreen (winter in the Pacific Northwest leaves me cadaver pale) and that my butt was sloshing about in the brackish bottom of my self-bailing boat.  Day one certainly wasn’t a bust.

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