Thursday, February 20, 2014

San Blas Part 3: The creatures of the mangrove lagoons

A Great Blue Heron poses for a photo during a boat tour of San Blas' lagoon. Its calm, graceful beauty was nicely set against the green jungle of the mangrove swamp. The Great Blue Heron is the largest heron of North America and can be found along the shores of open water and in wetlands throughout North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Birds like this one used to wade in the creek behind my house in Salem, Oregon. They are year-round residents, not migrants. The little seaport of San Blas is surrounded, on the land side, by lagoons and mangrove swamps. These are filled, almost to bursting, with plant and animal life. For example, almost 300 species of birds have been identified in the area. In order to see all this famous wildlife, we hired a launch with an experienced boatman at "Embarcadero Aguada," a few miles south of San Blas on Highway 76, just before reaching Playa Mantanchen. Look for the launching point across from a row of crafts stalls. Embarcadero means, roughly, "place of embarcation." The Spanish word aguada is an old maritime term. It refers to the fact that 18th Century colonial ships sent their sailors here to fill barrels with clean, fresh water. The proximity to the ocean means that much of the water of the surrounding lagoons is brackish and unfit for human consumption.

Beginning the tour

Victor was a skilled boatman and had incredibly sharp eyes for wildlife. He obviously loves his job and has fun with it. Since he is out on the lagoon every day, he gets to know where the various creatures like to hang out. He almost always spotted an animal long before I did. Victor spoke only a little English but, along with our intermediate level Spanish, we managed to communicate just fine. We had the entire boat to ourselves because we were taking the extended tour and no one else had signed up for it. The cost (for both of us) about $50 USD, but the adventure was worth every penny. On other, similar tours, someone in the crowded boat was always getting in the way of my photos, and the boatman had to accommodate the desires of the whole group. On this tour, we had the boat to ourselves and Victor was ours to command.

A quiet green channel leads through dense mangrove thickets. The water was very still and perfectly reflected the vegetation. The jungle closed over our heads, creating a long, winding, green tunnel.  While the channels themselves are natural, they are regularly cleared of low-hanging branches that might inadvertently sweep an unwary tourist right out of the boat. These thickets are unbelievably dense. I can't imagine leaving the channel and trying to force my way through while waist deep in water. I suspected that the local crocodiles would love me to try.

A tourist boat pulls over to the forest's edge so passengers can click away at the wildlife.  This would have been our craft, if we had taken a regular tour. The boatmen can maneuver quite close to the animals before reaching the limits of the creatures' tolerance. The area is protected, and the boatmen help enforce it because they depend upon tourists for their livelihood. Under these conditions, the animals are not as frightened as they might be if regularly hunted. Often we were able to approach within a few feet before the creatures moved off. Sometimes they posed, completely stationary, almost as if they understood their roles in this little drama.

Life among the mangroves

A female Snail Kite, surveys its domain from a tree top. The 42x zoom of my new Nikon was very helpful, since birds like this Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis) like to sit on a limb high above the swamp. There was some difference among the various birders who saw this photo, but this appears to be the correct i.d. The bird gets its name from the fact that its main diet consists of large snails. It likes freshwater swamps and roosts in groups.

After leaving the mangrove tunnels, we moved out into the open swamp. The scene above is very typical of the channel's shore in this area. Palm trees are found in clumps, towering over lower trees that hang out over the water. In some areas, the shore area was covered by tall grasses. Except for where it was disturbed by our wake, the water in most areas was very still.

A Northern Potoo was sleeping on a limb when we drifted by below. Northern Potoo (Nyctibius jamaicensis) are nocturnal birds, which probably explains why this one was napping at mid-morning. The Northern Potoo can be found in Mexico, Costa Rica and the islands of Jamaica and Hispaniola. It hunts by resting on a branch and sallying out when prey happens by. Hmmm...hanging out in Mexico or the Caribbean; staying up until the early hours; sleeping late in the morning; making your living by sitting around until dinner appears. My kind of bird.

The spiny-tailed iguana is found all along Mexico's Pacific Coast from Sinaloa to Chiapas. Its formal name is Ctenosaura pectinata, which refers to the spiky comb along its back. This one appeared to be as curious about me as I was of him. Although rather ferocious-looking, they are harmless unless cornered, and would rather flee than fight. They can grow as much as 140 cm (4.6 ft) long, although the females are generally smaller. The juvenile animals are generally bright green and assume the adult colors as they mature. Unlike other species of Ctenosaura, the Mexican spiny-tail is very social.

Bromeliad, one of many we found perched on tree branches over the water. The family Bromeliaceae is a relatively recent addition to the plant world. They are very widely distributed, from sea level up to 1280 m  (4200 ft), and from rain forests to deserts. Bromiliads possesses some extraordinary survival tecniques. Some species do not root in the earth but take sustenance directly from the air. Many can store rain water within their tightly interwoven leaf bases, which gives them an advantage in dry climates.

An Anhinga drys its wings after diving for fish. Rounding a bend in the channel, we came across this Anhinga, casually drying its wings. It took no notice of us and I was able to get several good shots as we slowly cruised by a few feet away. Anhingas (whose formal name is Anhinga, anhinga) are also called Snakebirds, Darters, and Water Turkeys. The Anhinga name, meaning devil bird or snake bird comes from the Tupa language of Brazil. It gained the Snakebird appellation from its habit of swimming with only its sinuous neck and sharp-beaked head out of the water. The long narrow beak is used to spear fish and other game. 

An abandoned set for the movie "Cabeza de Vaca" stands in the middle of a lagoon. The 1991 Mexican film chronicled the adventures of a real-life Robinson Crusoe named Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. He and three others were the only survivors of a 600-man Spanish expedition to the Florida coast in 1528. After various misadventures decimated the expedition, Cabeza de Vaca and a handful of survivors were enslaved by Gulf Coast tribes. However, they managed to move from tribe to tribe across the American Southwest and into Northern Mexico. After traveling down the coast of Sinaloa they finally encountered other Spaniards in 1536. Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain the following year and.published an account of his amazing journey in 1542. After meeting one of Cabeza de Vaca's fellow survivors, Francisco Coronado launched his famous 1540-1542 expedition in search of Cibola and its fabled (but non-existent) Seven Cities of Gold. He traveled north from central Mexico to the vast plains of Kansas before giving up. Cabeza de Vaca is considered a proto-anthropoligist because of his detailed--and sympathetic--observations of the lives and cultures of the native people he encountered during his incredible journey.

A Mexican River Crocodile takes its ease on a partially sunken log. Crocs rest with their mouths open as a cooling mechanism. This guy was so totally blissed-out that he seemed unaware of our presence. All he needed was a beer and the ball game playing in the background. River crocs are found in rivers, lagoons, and estuaries such as those surrounding San Blas. According to a local sign, they reach maturity at 2 m (6 ft) but have been known to grow as large as 7 m (21 ft). While some crocs have reached the age of 100+ years., there has been a significant reduction of their overall population because of poaching. They usually prey on fish, water birds, and small mammals, with an occasional tourist as a special treat.

A fresh-water turtle prepares to dive as we approach. Mexico has six different species of fresh water turtles, but I was unable to determine which this one fell into. We also saw several other species during our visit.

Tangled vegetation overhangs water roiled by our passing. These bare, overhanging branches were ideal for spotting birds. Those roosting in the shoreline jungle are very hard to discern.

A White Ibis possesses a long curved beak. This one was immature. White Ibises (Eudocimus albus) do not have the snowy white plumage as juveniles that they obtain when they are full grown. They are found along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the US as well a Mexico and Central America. White Ibises prey on small aquatic animals such as insect and fish. During breeding season, they gather in huge colonies near the water.

A juvenile spiny-tailed iguana stretches out along an overhanging branch. He has not yet lost his youthful green tint. This one appeared to be about 1 m (3 ft) long, and blended fairly well with his surroundings. Although our boat passed directly underneath his branch, he barely blinked at our close proximity. If you wish to observe the creatures of the lagoon in the wild, I suggest taking one of the early boats. That way, the animals will have been less disturbed when you come by.

El Cocodrilario

Two adult River Crocodiles bask in the afternoon sun at the Cocodrilario. Crocs are very social animals and can often be seen in close proximity. The San Blas lagoon's Cocodrilario performs several important functions. In order to increase the overall population, the facility raises crocs from eggs and protects juveniles from predation. It also provides a sanctuary for injured or elderly crocs that might otherwise starve. Finally, the Cocodrilario confines crocs that have attacked humans in order to keep tourists safe and dangerous crocs out of trouble. Of course, all crocs are potentially dangerous and should be treated with the utmost respect.

My zoom allowed me to get up-close and personal with a snoozing cocodrilo. The jaws are immensely powerful and the teeth have evolved as instruments for gripping and tearing flesh. While they primarily hunt at night, they will feed at any time during the day. Adult crocs can weigh more than 907 kg (2000 lbs) and have been known to attain swimming speeds of 32 km/hr (20 mph). Fortunately, they are not usually aggressive toward humans. This species prefers to live in water that is salty or at least brackish and is widespread along Mexico's Pacific Coast beaches and lagoons. These crocs are very susceptible to temperature and are found almost exclusively in tropical areas. They would become helpless and drown in cold water of a temperature that alligators can tolerate.

Two peccaries snuggle together during their afternoon siesta. The Cocodrilario also functions as a zoo for other kinds of animals found in the lagoon area. Peccaries are part of the family Tayassuidae, or New World pigs. They are also called javelinas or skunk pigs, and are distantly related to the hippopotamus family. These New World pigs are different from Euro-asian pigs in the shape of their feet and tusks and their internal organs, although their eyes and noses look similar. Peccaries are omnivorous and will eat small animals, but prefer roots, grasses, and seeds. They are very social and have been known to gather in herds of up to 100 animals. 

One turtle clambers on top of another in an apparent game of King of the Hill. These two are of a different species than the one shown previously. Their shells are flatter and of a darker color. Along with other turtles, they frolicked in a fenced off area of the lagoon near the Cocodrilario. The water here was very clear and clean and we could see the bottom easily.

A large school of fish shared the fenced off area with the turtles. The Cocodrilario sells small packets of food that you can sprinkle in the water, causing the fish to swarm close to the pier. I have not been able to determine the species of these fish but, from the shape of their mouths, they may be some sort of catfish. If any ichthyologists are reading this, please help me out.

A jaguar keeps a close eye on things. I almost didn't see this fellow until I was stopped in my tracks by his unwavering stare. Although I felt sorry that he was caged in here, I was glad the fence was between us. Jaguars are the third largest of all big cats, behind African lions and Asian tigers. They are fierce and powerful night hunters. These aspects gave them mystical powers in the eyes of the pre-hispanic people. Their nocturnal habits suggested a connection to the underworld and their power and grace were admired by the warrior castes. The jaguar societies were the most elite warrior groups among the Toltecs and Mexica (Aztecs) of Central Mexico, and the Maya of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. 

A smaller cat occupied a nearby cage. There was no sign, so I couldn't determine the species. It looks quite a bit like a common house tabby, but is about twice as big and the tail is shorter. Once again, I welcome any expert identification. NEWSFLASH! I got a couple of quick responses to my request for information. One person suggested an ocelot. However, upon Googling a photo, the ocelot's ears and tail were different. Another suggested a bobcat, and presto! We have a winner! The ears, tail, and general markings are a match. Bobcat ancestors arrived in North America about 2.8 million years ago via the Bering Sea land bridge that then existed. Modern bobcats (Lynx rufus) evolved about 20,000 years ago. Their favorite prey are rabbits, but they will feed on anything from insects to deer. Bobcats get their name from their stubby tail.

La Tovara

La Tovara is the end point of the extended tour. There is a rustic restaurant and a fenced off swimming area with a hanging rope for the adventurous. Our guide told us that at one time the little cove wasn't fenced off and some crocs lived here. After someone jumped into the water and landed on one, triggering an attack, the crocs were moved out and the area was secured by a chain-link barrier. 

Cold drinks are available at the restaurant, along with some simple dishes. We had brought some snacks, so we only ordered cokes for ourselves and Victor. The setting was lovely, shady, and very tranquil. After finishing our drinks, we clambered back in our launch, eager for more photographic possibilities on the return trip.

This completes Part 3 of my San Blas series. Hopefully you have enjoyed seeing and reading about it almost as much as we did directly experiencing it. I always encourage feedback and questions. If you would like, you can leave your thoughts in the Comments section below. If no one has commented yet, it may say "no comments". Just click on that and it will take you to the Comments page.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, February 10, 2014

San Blas Part 2: Aticama Beach

An ultralight cruises along just above Playa Aticama as the sun drops toward the horizon. To the right you see the end of one of the palm-roofed palapas that line the beach for miles. Carole and I stayed in a B&B just north of the town of Aticama. This was the view out the back gate. Playa Aticama is one of several long beaches that form the rim of Bahia Mantanchen south of San Blas.  We picked this beach for our winter get-away because, in addition to sunny, balmy weather, we were looking for a serene experience. To find Aticama on a Google map and see its relation to San Blas, click here.

Our "backyard" beach

Playa Aticama viewed from across Bahia Matanchen. Immediately behind the beach are palm groves, farmland, and mangrove swamps. A couple miles further back are what seem like sizable bluffs when viewed from the beach. However, from the distance this photo was taken, the bluffs are dwarfed by the mountains in the background. The high mountains are part of the range that parallels the southern half of Mexico's Pacific Coast from Los Mochis to the Guatemalan border. In some areas the mountains crowd in and seem to drop right into the ocean. In other places, they rise many miles further back, leaving broad, flat areas suitable for agriculture.

A long string of palapas lines Aticama Beach for a couple of miles on its southern end. About the only company we had on this early morning stroll was the seagull standing at the waterline. We came to the right place for serenity. Every winter, hordes of foreign tourists flood some Mexican beaches, but our beach was almost totally empty this January morning.

A close look at a palapa reveals a very simple structure. A regularly spaced line of bamboo poles is sunk deeply into the beach sand. More bamboo poles are laid across the top as rafters, then palm fronds are woven together to form a rustic roof. A bit of twine here and there holds everything together. As you can see, during high tide, this area is covered with water. The poles must be sunk deeply to keep everything stable while the water moves in and out. Surprisingly, for a structure with such a flimsy appearance, it seems to work.

A Mexican family unloads kids and beach gear into their newly rented stall. Plastic tables and chairs are also available for rent by a local person who lounges under another palapa.  Given the number of stalls available, this area could accommodate hundreds of people and their vehicles. Fortunately for our peace and quiet, there were never more than a handful of stalls occupied during our visit.

A man and his dog, out for a ride on the beach. This young guy tooled along on his 4-wheeler ATV while his little dog stood on its hind legs and helped him steer. It was hard to say which one was enjoying himself more.

Looking south toward the Aticama bluffs

Looking south toward the bluffs where the town of Aticama begins. The long stretch of beach beginning at San Blas ends at these bluffs. As you can see from the tracks, vehicles are allowed on the beach. However, most of these tracks were made by only a handful of cars, ATVs or motorcycles. In the morning, after the tide has swept through here, the beach will be smooth again.

A mansion perches on the edge of the bluffs at the end of the beach. There are a handful of these opulent spreads in the area, but most of the homes and hotels are much more modest. Fortunately, this area is not yet overrun by the McMansions that have spoiled the simple beauty of so many other coastal communities.

The fishing village of Aticama is built right up to the rocky shore. Beginning at the bluffs, the shore becomes very rocky. To the south of bluffs, the land flattens again and this is where most people live. The rocky shore is lined with rustic, open-air restaurants. Not surprisingly, the main items on the menus are seafood.

Lucy's Restaurant, the best place to eat in Aticama. Our B&B owner recommended Lucy's, and he was absolutely right. While the food of the seaside places was acceptable, it was also surprisingly expensive given the rustic accomodations. Lucy's is located on a side street away from the water. The menu is filled with traditional Mexican dishes, but the house speciality is pozole. This dish is a sort of thick stew made of maiz (corn) and pork, among other ingredients. When done right, pozole is scrumptious, and this place served the best I have eaten in Mexico. The prices were very reasonable, and much lower than the shoreline places. A chico (small) bowl of pozole goes for $30 pesos ($2.26 USD). I was totally stuffed by a chico serving and can't imagine attempting a grande ($40 peso or $3.00 USD). 

South of Aticama, the bluffs drop directly into rocks lashed by the ocean waves. There are some stretches of sandy beach, but most are very short, and often can be found in tiny coves between rocky points. We expected the water to be chilly, as we had experienced in previous winters at Puerto Vallarta to the south, and Mazatlán to the north. To our surprise, it was almost bathtub warm, making it a pleasure to wade along the beach while the gentle waves washed around our legs.

Looking north toward San Blas

The wide beach stretches mile after mile to the north, finally curving west near San Blas. Two people, so tiny as to be almost invisible, can be seen walking near the water far to the north. They may be the owners of the only car parked in the palapa on the upper right. I included this otherwise unremarkable photo to show you just how quiet and empty this beach was during most of our visit. In the far distance, where the beach curves to the left, you can see a low hill. San Blas is located in the low, flat area to the right of the hill.

In front of a palm grove, a palapa restaurant awaits customers. A Mexican flag tops the rickety bamboo lifeguard station. It was unoccupied the whole time we were in residence. People not wishing to be served in the restaurant can receive their food at one of the red plastic tables you can see under the palapas lining the beach.

A strolling group of young Mexicanas giggled when they saw my camera. Behind them you can see several piles of freshly dumped sand. According to our B&B owner, the local government is building a cement malecon (shoreline walkway). It may eventually extend most of the way from San Blas and Aticama. While the shoreline property owners think this may increase tourism, which they welcome, they are also unhappy that the new malecon may cut off their view of the ocean. Progress is always a double-edged sword.

At its farthest northern extent, Bahia Matanchen ends at this rocky point. It was a bit hazy when I took this shot. As a result the sea seems to merge almost seamlessly with the sky. Overhead, a lone seagull floats on the gentle sea breeze.

The Sea Bird Convention

Several different species of sea birds convened at the water's edge. I found it odd that almost no other birds could be seen along the shore in either direction. Why all these different birds decided that this was the only acceptable spot to gather along miles of otherwise empty beach was a mystery to me. While, as the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together, these were birds of decidedly different feathers. It appeared to be a Bird Convention attended by delegations from at least 5 different species, all in close proximity. They didn't appear to be feeding and most just seemed to be resting. Perhaps someone familiar with bird behavior can enlighten me.

A Ring-billed gull looks me over. My friend Tom is an avid birder, and as such is one of my prime sources of bird identification for my blog. I have been very fortunate to obtain help in a variety of subject areas from very knowledgeable folks who, like Tom, have been glad to share their expertise.

Two Neotropic Cormorants dwarfed the gulls in the background. All the other species were light colored and somewhat smaller. Neotropic Cormorants have a wide range, from the Gulf and California coasts of the US, down through Mexico and over most of Central and South America. They can also be found in the Bahamas and the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Trinidad. An adult Cormorant grows to 63.5 cm (25") in length, with a wingspan of 101 cm (40"), and a weight of 1.2 kg (2.6 lbs). Cormorants are monogamous and tend to be permanent residents of the areas where they are found.

Sanderlings are light colored for most of the year, but darken in breeding season. They can often be seen scuttling up and down the beach, just out of reach of the incoming waves. While these Sanderlings are wintering here on the coast of Mexico, their summer breeding grounds are in the high Arctic. They are plump, but weigh only about 57 gr.  (2 oz.). They grow to 20.3 cm (8") in length, with a 43 cm (17") wingspan. 

A Royal Tern (foreground) stands regally erect.  Royal Terns have a wide range, including the coasts of both North and South America and the West African coast. The one seen above will breed along the California coast and then winter in Mexico or even as far south as Peru or Argentina. The Royal Terns like the saltwater of the ocean shore or the brackish coastal lagoons. They feed on small fish, shrimp, and insects. Terns have an average wingspan of 130 cm (51"), and their length is 45-50 cm (18"-20"). Their average weight is 350-450 gr (12-16 oz). 

The Playa Aticama Air Force

Three ultralights maneuver over the beach, watched by a handful of spectators. Late one afternoon, we heard a persistent buzzing sound coming from the direction of the beach. It sounded like an incredibly large and angry wasp. A bit of investigation found these daredevils zooming up and down the shoreline. Although the berserk snarling sound of their engines broke the serenity, I had to admit that they were quite entertaining.

With my telephoto zoom, I caught this fellow in mid-flight. He sits in a harness with what appears to be a lawnmower engine strapped to his back. He is protected from the 1 m (3 ft) blade by a light aluminum cage. He takes off and lands on his feet, in a somewhat hunched over position.  Upon close inspection, it appears that he is wearing a microphone attached to his helmet, probably to communicate with his fellow lawnmower pilots or the ground crew below. When he alights, he must make sure that his chute lands in front of him or it will become entangled with his propellor. One pilot experienced this misfortune and issued some mighty curses in Spanish while I looked on in amusement.

A more substantial machine is parked on a hotel lawn near the beach. This one has a fixed wing and tricycle wheels for landings and takeoffs. The engine is a much-more-substantial two-cylinder affair, and the prop is considerably larger. These craft can carry a pilot plus a passenger, who generally sits in front. 

The large ultralight breaks ground and soars up from the beach. I might be persuaded to try a ride in one of these, but I'll leave the lawnmower jockeying to someone else. I might be crazy, but I'm not nuts.

Sunset at Playa Aticama

Carole and I took a sunset stroll along our beach. The ultralights had departed, so our quiet returned. Only the shushing of the gentle waves broke the silence. As the sun dropped the slanting light took on a softer and more golden hue.

We sat on the sand to watch the last of the light. This turned out to be a mistake. Carole was immediately attacked by je-jenes (also called "no-see-ums), one of the few downsides of the beaches in this area. In a short time she was bitten a couple of dozen times. Tom, my bird expert, is also a retired dermatologist. He says that people get the itchy bumps after being bitten because they are allergic to the proteins in the insects' saliva. Apparently I am not yet allergic, because I got no bumps at all. This left Carole somewhat annoyed. 

The end of a gorgeous day was an even more gorgeous sunset. There were more sunsets to come after this first evening, but none could quite match this one. We are extraordinarily fortunate to live in Mexico and be able to enjoy places and sights like these. We hope that the frost-bitten folks in the northern climes can use these postings to remind themselves that somewhere it is balmy and warm. Try holding your feet close to the computer screen and see if that helps...

This completes Part 2 of my San Blas series. I hope you have enjoyed it. I always appreciate feedback and questions. If you have any, please use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you see "no comments" below, it means no one has commented yet. In that case, just click on "no comments" and it will open the window to the Comments section.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim