Blog 12: Amazon

December 1, 2013

             Between San Pablo Etla and the next town to the north is a several kilometer stretch of thorny scrubland cut east to west by arroyos that come down from the mountains. They channel streams that in the rainy season carry enough water that they are impassible except by the most intrepid high-carriage vehicles. By the middle of the long dry season, which began a few weeks ago, they go dry; these days you can tiptoe through the trickle without getting your heels wet. Most of the arroyos are dammed to prevent erosion and to store water for irrigation during the dry months. The Presa Gutiérrez, in the third arroyo north of San Pablo Etla, is a pond about 400 meters long and 100 meters wide, fringed by scrub on one side, eucalyptus on the other, thick flowering shrubs along the dam, and a swampy, willow-choked swamp at the other end. The diverse habitat makes it one of the premier birding spots in the Etla Valley. Bill checks it out every five days.  One evening he telephones me at our house, El Huajal.

             “Tomorrow at 8:00 to the Presa Gutiérrez? Manuel Grosselet doesn’t know the place, and he wants me to take him out there. You know that should be an experience.”

             “I’ll be there.”

             I had heard about Manuel. That his birding skills are legendary. That he is French. That he is married to a local woman named Georgita Ruiz. That he monitors listings for the entire State of Oaxaca the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory. That he coordinates the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count for Oaxaca. That he is a fabulous photographer. That he has written a couple of books, one about birding in Mexico City, another about birds of the Oaxaca Valley. That he is in charge of the bird-banding program that meets the last Sunday of every month in the Botanical Garden next to the Dominican Monastery. That he sometimes guides tours for birders. That his ears are better than his eyes.

             At 8:15 we meet at the Church in San Pablo. He follows us on dirt roads up and down the hills and through the stream at the bottom of the gully. Up the next hill there is a tiny airfield where I am told that sometimes model airplane enthusiasts meet on Sunday morning to fly their radio-controlled toys. We draw the cars off into the scrub and park on the bluff overlooking the pond. What with Manuel’s accomplishments and all, I had pictured him to be a man of about our age, or perhaps a few years younger, but he must only be in his thirties. He presents like an assistant professor: short, thin, casually dressed, trimmed beard, with binoculars similar to mine hanging on his chest and a camera that is attached to the sort of five-kilo lens that one associates with paparazzi or end zones at football games. I'm the new man, so Bill introduces me succinctly.

            “Manuel, David. Rhode Island. Winter resident. Good birder.”

            “Intermediate at best,” I protest. “Transition from beginner.”

            “Not beginner; strong intermediate,” Bill corrects. “I’ve told David about your books. He writes too.”

            We are speaking mostly in English, the language Bill is most comfortable in. Manuel prefers Spanish or French, but his English is better than Bill’s Spanish.

            The gods of chitchat thus appeased, we get to work. On the ride to the reservoir Bill explained to me that Manuel wants to do an quick inventory of the birds at the presa, so as maybe to include the reservoir on a visiting birders tour sometime. Bill’s role is to be recording secretary. My role, obviously, is to tag along as an extra pair of eyes. 

            We start up the road. I see nothing but can make out faint indistinguishable chirpings in the scrub on both sides of the road. Manuel starts calling off bird names faster than Bill can write.

            “Shrike, yellow-rumped warbler, Nashville, rufous-capped, white-winged dove and mourning dove, western tanager, orange-billed nightingale–thrush, Cassin’s kingbird, brown-backed solitaire, blue mocking bird, MacGillvaray’s warbler, housefinch. “ Pause to take a breath. “I hear a hawk.”

            Manuel quickly scans the sky.  It must be a ....  probably a white…. There!”

            Manuel points to an empty patch of blue sky over toward the mountains on the far side of the Etla valley. Bill and I raise our binoculars and scan the sky. 

            “I see it!” This from Bill. 

            I stand slightly behind him to sight where he is aiming. Finally I glimpse a black speck, soaring high above the tan hills. I track the speck for a few moments until it banks, turns, and I catch a glimmer of white.

            “White-tailed hawk,” Manuel confirms, already striding up the road away from us. Bill writes it down on the list.

            For about an hour and a half the three of us prowl the scrub, the willow swamp, the eucalyptus grove. Swimming in the water are two grebes, a pied-billed and a least, and a flock of a dozen blue-winged teal. One great white egret stands regally on the shore near the willows, scanning the water for minnows or crayfish. A spotted-sandpiper, bobbing his head like a sewing machine, prowls the rocks along the far shore. Overall Manuel calls out 59 species of birds, seen mostly by ear. He sees about 40 of these with his eyes. Bill and I catch looks at about 30.

            Bill and Manuel turn back on the path toward the cars. I’m about to follow when suddenly rocket of green and white zips past me. 

            “Look! I think it’s a ...!”

            Bill and Manuel whip around. By the time the bird has perched on a eucalyptus branch on the far side of the pond Manuel has his glasses on it. The bird is masked by some leaves, with its head and feet hidden, only its back and part of its tail in view.   

            “A green ...?” I venture tentatively. It should be a green kingfisher, a small, jewel-like member of the kingfisher tribe. They are common in these reservoirs, and I saw them here at the Presa Gutiérrez twice last year.

            “Too big,” Manuel answers. “And no spots on the back. Maybe an Amazon kingfisher. But there’s never been one reported in the valley.”

            As keeper of the records and monitor of the legitimacy of claimed sightings, he speaks authoritatively. 

            “We’ve got to get a picture.” 

            In thirty seconds we have planned our attack. Bill will stay on the south side of the pond as spotter. I will lead Manuel to the hidden entrance to the trail across the dam which I recall from last spring, and the two of us will try to get close enough to the eucalyptus to snap a picture.

            Manuel bounds ahead of me like a goat, paying no attention to the thick bushes that have all but closed down the trail. There are thistle-like plants and the acacias have wicked thorns, as do several of the trailing vines. Once I have pointed out the entrance to the dam trail, Manuel sprints on ahead, his binoculars clutched to his chest, his massive camera and lens over his shoulder, catching on the vegetation as he pushes through. I can’t keep up, my lungs won’t take it, and I keep having to retrieve my hat where I have left it snagged on a liana. Halfway across the dam the foliage thins, and I can see Manuel, slowed now to a tiptoeing walk, carefully inching his way toward the eucalyptus grove, holding his camera at ready. He turns back to me and puts his finger to his lips for silence. I am not moving, I can see Bill on the south shore and I decide that the gap on the dam is a good place to triangulate from. Manuel raises his camera. It has a rapid-fire motor, and I hear the soft ratatatatat that means he has snapped a dozen shots.

            Suddenly the kingfisher flushes, bolts the eucalyptus, flies low and fast across the reservoir, and perches again on a low branch that protrudes from the brush over the edge of the water. Again it is one third masked by leaves. Manuel motions for me to stay still, and a moment later he is back beside me, not even panting from his sprint through the snaggy tunnel.

            “Have you seen my cell phone?” he asks, keeping his voice low. “It bounced out somewhere while I was running.” It is just the two of us, so we are in Spanish again.

            I start looking in the weeds along the path.

            “No matter, I’ll find it later. You saw where the kingfisher flew in?” he whispers.

            “I think so.”

            I point out the bushes where I think it landed, and he sets off, holding his camera in front of him to be ready if he should catch another glimpse of the bird. I stay put, scanning the water in case it flushes again. A minute later I hear the ratatatat and again followed by the flash of white and green as the bird crosses the pond, skirts the far shore, and loses itself in a thicket of willow and thorn and white-flowered casahuate trees.

            The three of us come together on the bluff near where we parked the car. Bill and I winded from the climb, Manuel glowing with the excitement of what we have just seen. The cell phone has been forgotten. He got a few pictures, and will submit the site report, and the photographs, to an independent monitor later this afternoon. Confirmation of sightings of birds that are out of place, or out of time, is normally something that he would rule on, but since this time he—and we— were the see-ers, independent judgment is required.

            By five o’clock Manuel emails Bill and me and the greater Oaxacan birding community. The cummulative comprehensive list of birds sighted in the Valley of Oaxaca has been officially increased by one Amazon kingfisher. Manuel will go back to look for the cell phone tomorrow.



Postscript: I managed to get a picture of the Amazon, but it was at maximum telephoto, and the resolution was not good. Manuel did much better with his maxi-rapid-fire, and his shots are posted on his flicker page:

His website is: