Chapter 3. Central Plateau
(Bert) Barn Owls frighten me. Neither my adult maturity, nor my scientific curiosity of birds, completely suppresses a childhood experience. When the white ghost, illuminated by Heather’s flashlight, flies across the black sky screeching menacingly, a deep-seated feeling of evil is aroused. We had been talking about the calling owls over dinner and Jill and Heather’s description of the birds in the trees sounded to me like Barn Owls. So, after dinner we walked below the tall trees in our San Miguel campground. We could hear the surreal hissing, screeching, fingernail-on-blackboard calls of two owls communicating. Jill’s flashlight upsets one and it flies to another tree, large with long wings, a bump of a head, flapping wildly with just enough airborne lift to change perches.
A couple of hours later I am awakened by a dream, one powerful enough to pull away the cobwebs of sleep and leave me at full alert. I think of Barn Owls. Was that the dream or just the first thought that pops into my head? But what is it I find disturbing about Barn Owls? When people ask me how long have I been a birder, I answer “Since I was ten years old.” Although I didn’t know what a birder was at that age, I certainly had a keen interest in birds and I say 10 because I have almost no memories at a younger age. But, actually, one memory goes back even farther, because the Barn Owl experience must have happened when I was 7 or 8, as my sister was not old enough to play with us, so it was my two younger brothers and me that discovered the baby Barn Owls in the silo. We grew up my Grandfather’s southern Wisconsin farm. It must have been early summer, as the silo was empty and the nest was on the wooden beam spanning across the top. The chicks had fallen from the nest and somehow we maneuvered the three or four birds into a box. Too young to fledge, the chicks starred up at us. We were afraid to touch them and must have poked them with a stick, because they hissed at us and opened their beaks, the ugliest creatures I’d ever seen. Far from lovable, their actions and hissing were more like a box full of snakes and they frightened us.
I can vividly recall every incidence of seeing Barn Owls throughout my adulthood. Being a creature of the night, there are not many times: in Central Texas one dropped from the sky into the brushy shoreline of a sleuth in mid morning and we watched it through a spotting scope for 20 min; one roosting in a hole in the wall at the spillway of Falcon Dam on the Texas-Mexico border; another two years later in the same area in bamboo along the Rio Grande; two other brief incidences in Central Texas, separated by years; in South Texas a pair flew from a hunter’s tall hide frightened from their roost and another time years later at the same ranch I saw one flying low across the night sky; in Wyoming Shari and I found one sleeping in an abandoned barn and the state’s Department of Wildlife asked for my photographs since the sighting was so rare for the state; flying near our campsite in San Blas, Mexico, it hissed in flight; two dead next to a bridge, discarded by farmers who didn’t want them on their Belize farm. And, now, tonight! The memories keep me awake and it must have been an hour before I fall asleep again.
(Shari) Thomas, our guide for the day trip to Guanajuato, in my opinion is the best guide in Mexico. His English is impeccable and his knowledge of history stems from his college degree and his lifelong interest in the subject. As we ride in our 24-passenger minibus through the countryside to Guanajuato, he has us enthralled with the pre-Columbian beginnings, Spanish conquests, colonial rule, the independence and peasant revolts. Before we know it, our hour drive is up and we are changing into a small glass-domed bus for our tour of the city. Again, Thomas tells us of silver mining and takes us to a hacienda of gorgeous rooms and gardens and later a mine. A visit to this town would not be complete without seeing the Mummy museum. It has changed since the last time I saw it and no longer smells of formaldehyde. The bodies on display are the unfortunate souls who have no family to continue to pay the 20-year lease on the burial plot. Bodies of the unknown are still dug up today and added to the collection. The “newest” body I say was a woman who drowned in 1977. I saw a baby still in plastic diapers and blue knit sweater. Another newborn with soft fine hair still intact had its own glass case of display. The bodies are naturally preserved supposedly from the minerals in the drinking water. It seems morbid but also sad, and yet Thomas explains that the Mexican perspective also includes joy upon death. Our bus takes us through the tunnels formed by the river and drops us off in the city center for lunch on our own. Then we visit a beautiful church and lookout. Some walk, some ride the bus, while others take the “funicular”, a glass enclosed rail cart back down the hill to the main square. We walk to the alley of kisses and Bert tricks me into thinking I have to walk the alley to reach our bus. Pictures are taken of us oldyweds kissing for another 15 years of good luck. Even shop keepers have to come out of their shops to look at couples married well over 40 years stealing kisses like teenagers. Our bus picks us up at the market but, alas, with no time to shop. We are exhausted from our long day and many grab a few winks on the way home.
(Bert) Our third visit to Guanajuato, I remember trying to write journals about prior visits. The problem is not that there is nothing to say, but rather that there is too much to say. This day we pack in Hacienda Misión Guanajuato, Museo de las Momias, El Nopal silver mine, Guanajuato centro for lunch, the church of San Cayetano de Valenciana, and a walking tour of the downtown area. Geronimo is our bus driver who skillfully maneuvers the convoluted streets and underground tunnels. Tomas is our guide and he excels at knowing and succinctly relating the struggling, yet colorful, history of Mexico. I’ll pick just one place to describe, the hacienda where we spent much of the morning. Haciendas are places where something is produced – in this case, silver is mined – and include a house – in this case, a grand house fitting of nobility but used in summers by the mine owner. Now owned by the city, it has been refurbished with period furniture and includes named gardens that reflect the varying styles and plants such as Arabic, Japanese, Queen’s and many more. Birds have found the gardens too, and we see Summer Tanager, Nashville Warbler and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. The city rents out portions or all the hacienda for parties such as wedding receptions and what a fantastic setting it would be. Tomas relates the history of silver mining, the awful conditions under which the miners worked that shortened their lives to the mid 20s and the eventual revolution of 1910 when the workers and other peasants fought against the tyranny of the rich Spanish owners and governors. Next year Mexico will celebrate its bicentennial, a dual anniversary of its 1810 independence from Spain and its 1910 peasant revolution.
By the time the bus returns us to San Miguel, the Barn Owls are again calling. This time I get out my microphone to record the juvenile owl’s perpetual calling – begging for food - and my flash attachment to photograph the pair. Long-staying campers tell us they have heard the owls nightly for a month and that they are small. Now, though, illuminated by a high-beam flashlight, they definitely have grown to almost full size and are in the brancher stage.
(Bert) On our first two visits I don’t think El Charco del Ingenio was here, but on the third visit I heard of it and didn’t have time to check it out. So, this morning I’m anxious to see this reserve and botanical gardens. Trying to find the place from a map I downloaded from the Internet, I miss one of the turns, but Milo knows the way because on a previous San Miguel visit while on a home tour he passed by the reserve. Just on the edge of the city on a steep hillside surrounding a small lake, the park is a bird haven and a delightful place to explore. We are barely out of the cars when a large flock of White-faced Ibises wings overhead. Then it’s a female Blue-throated Hummingbird that has our attention. An oriole is perched on a utility wire and we have trouble identifying it, some thinking it is Bar-winged, especially after Michael takes a good photo of it. I am reticent to accept a species that far out of range. We talk about it all morning, not finding it again, and after getting out a few books we recognize it as Scott’s Oriole. We walk the nicely laid out trails and find a good variety of sparrows: Chipping, Clay-colored, Lark, Black-chinned and Lincoln’s Sparrows and Canyon Towhee. The lake is filled with ducks, the most interesting being the many Mexican Ducks (Mexican Mallards) and we study the finer points of how these differ from Mottled Duck and the U.S. version of Mallard. The list goes on with Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, the Black-eared subspecies of Bushtit and a constant parade of other birds, always something to entertain us birders. Charlu, however, gets sidetracked when she discovers a native plants tour and joins the group. She comes back telling us of the cactus that were identified and described to her. Just as I am about to leave I photograph a male Broad-billed Hummingbird. This is definitely a birding spot worth revisiting.
(Shari) Yup, yup, yup! This caravan has the makings of a favorite. Bert leaves for a bird outing, I roll over, close my eyes and fall back asleep finally greeting the day at 8:15. I needed that rest. I spend the next three hours doing a bit of pickup, caravan administration and correcting road logs before I take my computer to the office to download my E-mail messages. I am surprised to see a big group in the restaurant watching the Obama’s inauguration and, as I retrieve my messages, I watch too. Bert returns at noon and we go out to search for a Tuesday market. We must have driven right by it but we find no market and return empty handed. We decide to eat again at Pollo Feliz for dinner. As we sit outside enjoying a glass of wine, Heather comes over to read the white board. She sits to visit and mentions that she and Bob and Jill and Mike are also going to eat at the Pollo Feliz. Word spreads, and an hour later we have 14 people sitting at a table ordering chicken and enjoying the company. There is a lot of laughter on all sides of the table as we nibble from the salad bar and devour the delicious charbroiled chicken.
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