Sunday, March 28, 2010

Beside the Desert Sea

The Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona crosses the border with ease and takes its show down into Mexico, to the Baja Penninsula and south along the western side of the mainland in the state of Sonora.  There it enfolds the rich and diverse Sea of Cortez in its arms, where dolphins and whales play and birds of every feather come to spend the winter.  Recently on a whim we packed up HR, our old reliable travel trailer, and joined friends already camped on the beach at Puerto Peñasco, otherwise known to most American tourists as Rocky Point.  It had been several years since we had felt the sand of the Puerto Peñasco beaches between our toes, explored its tidepools and sipped a cold cervesa while watching a large pod of dolphins frolic just offshore. 

Much has changed in the funky little town since we first began our journeys there.  Gigantic condominium complexes now rise from the once deserted Sandy Beach.  Americans now shop at supermercados and play on golf courses hacked out of the desert.  Much has not.  The Mexican people still live in poverty, the vendors still cruise the beach with their beads and doubloons, shrimp boats nightly ply the gulf waters bringing their catch to open-air stalls along the malecón. 

Few things make me happier than wandering along a deserted beach with camera and binoculars, discovering a new species of bird, examining tidepools and piles of empty shells, hearing the gentle lap of the waves, being entertained by the shorebirds diligently poking their beaks into the sand, listening to the constant chatter of gulls and terns, watching in awe as an osprey dives and makes a catch, seeing a crab scurry from a big shadow, trying to photograph the bomber squadron of pelicans as they skim the wavetops.  Egrets and herons become as statues, watching and waiting for some unfortunate prey which they will suddenly stab with their knifelike bill.  A large flock of birds circles and lands in a shallow pool and my binoculars reveal American Avocets in beautiful breeding colors.  Beside them stands a group of odd-looking Black-necked Stilts.  Red-breasted mergansers skim the water just below the surface, back and forth.  Eared grebes pop up briefly for a breath of air before disappearing beneath the water again.  Cruising overhead is a Magnificent Frigatebird, dressed in black and looking menacing.  Two American oystercatchers, with bright orange bills and eyes, squak as they fly back and forth along the shoreline, then settle to look for crustaceans among the rocks.  Royal Terns chatter constantly to one another, while the smaller, more solitary Least Terns silently fly along the coast, head down, searching for an unsuspecting fish, then diving straight down, smacking the water with gusto and coming up with a meal.  A little skate gets trapped in a tidepool by the rapidly receding tide, flapping its 'wings' and alerting me to its plight.  A handy plastic bag, brought along to collect trash, becomes the vehicle to scoop up the skate and deposit him in deeper water.  Centuries of shells have fossilized and become the rocks that line the shore, shaped by the relentless sea into ridges, canyons, holes and mesas. 

A new experience was geocaching.  Sites are listed on the internet, giving coordinates and details about the hike to reach the cache.  Our group drove through the American enclave of Cholla Bay to the trailhead on a rocky, steep hillside that fell away to the gulf.  The hike revealed fascinating geology, strangely eroded formations, colors ranging from slate to white, pink to beige, some colored by the the guano of thousands of birds over centuries.  Ribbons of pink granite ran through the dark gray matrix and covered the top of a small outcropping.  An osprey hunted overhead while dozens of brown pelicans roosted on the rocks below.  At one weird spot there were carcasses of numerous birds, all appearing to be cormorants, some long deceased and others appearing to be more recent.  Feathers and bones littered the area.  A few small plants clung to life on the unforgiving landscape, the cactus you might expect, and the composite you might not.  After some searching, the cache was finally located and we added our small contribution and wrote in the notebook, telling those who follow just a bit about us. 

The road to and from Puerto Peñasco is a feast for the eyes this time of year - the wildflowers offering a riot of colors and shapes to the normally monochrome land.  Purple sand verbena carpeted the dunes, interspersed with white primroses.  Ocotillos, decked out all in green from the recently-abundant rains, waved their brilliant red wands, enticing the hummingbirds to come for some nectar.  Yellow was a popular color, provided by brittlebush, bladderpod, creosote bush and the golden yellow of fields of poppies.  Among the poppies, the blue of lupine stood out, as did an occasional reddish owl's clover.  Whole hillsides glowed with the colors, breathtaking in their intensity. 

Too soon it came to an end.  Thank you, Shellie, Gary, Carol, Jimmy, Carol and Gene for this lovely interlude.  And thank you, especially, to the amazing Sonoran Desert in all its color and diversity.