A birdy lagoon—Enterprising ninos—A rephoto opportunity—Working harder not smarter—Some reflections on rephotography—A rephoto first—The Gray Thrasher—In which I develop an affection for cactus—Rancho Meling—Paid in lizards—A rephoto second—Christian’s gift

1 June 2017, 9am, Ensenada

We depart Casa Naranja after bacon, eggs, avocado, and coffee, prepared by James and Whitney. We stop to bird at Lagunitas el Cipres, a lagoon bounded to the west by high dunes and surrounded elsewhere by development. North of the lagoon there’s a casino. To the west, beyond the dunes, the Pacific Ocean lies beneath a dense morning marine layer. The Black Skimmers, gull-like birds with black wings, are new to me: they’re distinguished by a long, sharp bill with a pronounced underbite, like a red-orange spike. These birds don’t seem to mind keeping company with other water birds. In fact, the lagoon is a regular water-bird party: crammed with Western Gulls, Cinnamon Teal, Black-crowned Night-Heron, American Coots, Ruddy Ducks, and Willets. Everyone notes a Peregrine Falcon scanning the marsh from atop a beachside apartment building across the way.

Casino at El Cipres Lagoon
Peregrine Falcon
Gray Hairstreak

We also observe a species of blue hairstreak butterfly (later confirmed as a Gray Hairstreak) and a White Checkered-Skipper among dense, tall bushes of white and yellow Garland Daisies. The insects and other animals get “snapped” (photographed) for later upload to iNaturalist, the citizen science web-based platform that will be our de facto digital record of the trip. Many of our observations on this trip will be “firsts” for iNaturalist.

1 June, 1pm, Colonet

We eat lunch at the small family Restaurante Raiz de Mexico, where our meal is made entirely to order. Stop at Pemex to check tire pressure, where 2 ninos “help” us take the pressure reading on the Armada in exchange our purchase of a woven bracelet for $.50, or around 8 or 9 pesos. The boys are quite pleased with their haul.

1 June, 2pm, San Telmo Valley

The turn for the Observatory road is not far from Punta Colonet. Once we turn off the highway, we set to work on the historical expedition photographs in the hopes of stumbling across a re-shoot opportunity along the road through the valley. A number of the photographs are labeled simply “San Telmo Valley,” which makes the prospect of locating specific opportunities along the 50km stretch of road a little daunting: all we have to go on are the horizon lines of surrounding hills and mountains, which are mostly not too distinctive.

We stop first to bird briefly by a reeking arroyo, where we also observe some curious invertebrates: a wasp-like critter moving around a small pebble that serves as the door to its lair; this animal pauses periodically to chase off some ants that wander too close. A white cottony insect, a Thistledown Velvet Ant, distinguishes itself by moving along the ground quickly and erratically, exactly like a piece of cotton blowing along in the wind.

Back in the trucks, James soon thinks he spots the horizon line of #4803 to the north. The horizon line is close but doesn’t exactly match up. We try to guess where in the valley we might have to be for it to do so. The only text of the photograph, “Looking Across San Telmo Valley,” leads us to consider what exactly “across” means: all the way across? The road we’re on cuts straight through the middle of the valley, so we hypothesize that the correct angle might be looking “across” the valley floor from higher up the hillside on the far south side. We speculate that if we walk 1/2 a mile across the valley, which is essentially a wide arroyo, and climb to a rocky outcrop on the cactus-and-buckwheat-covered hillside, we might get the right angle. John and I set off, but we quickly separate in the choking willow brush, and so I make the trek alone.

Interlude: A thought or two on re-photography.

I might pause here to interject with two thoughts I had before going into the rephotography on this trip: One, I thought that getting these reshoots would be hard, if not impossible, given how little information these photographs contained. So whatever else the process involved, it would involve trial and suffering. And two: I thought that I had to demonstrate to my companions not just my usefulness on this trip (the degree of which was not immediately obvious to me), but also my enthusiasm and commitment. Together, these thoughts–which were both mistakes that I would make repeatedly on this trip–sent me tramping across a hot, choked arroyo to scramble up a steep thorny cactus-covered hillside in the midday Baja sun.

Back in San Telmo Valley

Across the valley and up the chaparral hillside, I eventually achieve what seems to be the best approximation of the scene in the photo, where I do my best to get the shot. (I am shooting with both a Nikon Coolpix p900 digital camera with GPS geotagging, as well as with a 1974 Pentax KM 35mm manual SLR, with black and white film and 50mm lens. I use the Nikon mainly to log data; the Pentax I’m using to get some nice landscape photographs for side-by-side then-and-now comparisons.) When I return, my compatriots patiently waiting by the trucks in the hot sun ask if I got the shot. My response–“well, if that’s the shot, then I got it”– reveals a third error in my re-photography practice: namely, that “getting the shot” would be a matter of guesswork. I know this is an error now because just a mile or two up the road, we spot the actual spot, and this time, the correctness of the view is immediately apparent: no imagination (or scrambling) required.

The whole experience forces me to revise my early premises. It is clear that Borell, the original photographer, did not exert any extra effort to make this picture. This makes sense, given that he was likely not lugging his camera into the field while also setting hundreds of mammal traps. Instead, he probably took the photo directly from camp. Also, he wasn’t necessarily trying to capture the scene from the most advantageous angle. Rather, he was documenting the landscape as part of their survey, probably to document habitat and floral associations. So any art value of the photographs is constrained or mitigated by this scientific aim. Further, I learn that rephotography is as much a psychological as a technical endeavor: we’ll be working not only to get the right shot, but to inhabit the frame of mind of the original photographer. This means setting aside one’s desires, expectations, and a neurotic tendency, in Devon’s words, to “work harder, not smarter.”

I’m at least pleased to have learned that in the future, getting the right shot may not be as hard as originally thought. We celebrate the first successful re-photograph with a group shot.

1925 & 2017: Looking Across the San Telmo Valley

1 June, 3pm, San Telmo Valley

James spots his Gray Thrasher in a cactus field a little farther up the valley, a “lifer” for him–a term that I learn means “a bird from one’s life list,” like a bucket-list for birders. The Gray Thrasher is one of the two endemic Baja birds (the other being the Xantus’s Hummingbird). It’s a large brown spotted bird (not gray at all) with a “decurved” bill like a California Thrasher, and lives mostly in cactus communities (desert or “xeric” scrub). It has a habit of perching on taller plants like the Old Man Cactus, where it is easy to spot. We observe other good fence-post birds, as well: the Loggerhead Shrike and the brilliant Vermillion Flycatcher.

Candelabra cactus
Pitaya Cactus

This desert landscape hosts some distinctive cactus species. These plants seem so animalian that I can’t help developing a special affection for them. The Sour Pitaya cactus is a large, sprawling, many-tendriled creature covered in with 2-3” spines. Its central arms can be quite thick, and those that curl to the ground can take root, making new Pitaya. In this way, the cactus “walks” around the desert. This is a “nearly” endemic plant in Baja, according to Baja California Plant Field Guide.

The Candelabra Cactus is another remarkable character: a huge, upright, thick-skinned beast with many dozens of short stout “arms” that emerge from a single main trunk or trunk-complex and curve upward. The Pitaya and Candelabra frequently hybridize, and we see many examples of this. This cactus has many folk uses (see Roberts 136).

The Velvet Cactus is a smaller, more delicate cactus, with a multitude of narrow arms of varying heights, but reaching as high as 5’ or 6’. These arms seem like golden “fur” that is, in reality, innumerable thin spines that trap sunlight and appear to glow, obscuring the plant stems. It is comparatively dainty alongside the others, but equally formidable: though its spines are hair-thin, they are as long as 4”.

Velvet Cactus

More common Tuna (Nopal) and Beavertail cactus are abundant as well, as is the Diamond Cholla. This cholla appears “fleshier” than a “jumping” or Teddy Bear cholla, having fewer spines, and has great big meaty buds or joints at its terminal points.

1 June, 5pm, Rancho Meling

When we arrive at Rancho Meling, we meet Christian Meling, great grandson of Salve Meling, who ran the ranch during Lamb, Borell, and Grinnell’s time in Baja, when Rancho Meling was called San Jose (as it is in the field notes and photographs). Meling Ranch was a convenient waystation between the coast and the higher mountain meadows and so a regular and frequent destination for Lamb and other naturalists working in the region. When Grinnell and Lamb lodged here in 1925, Grinnell paid Ada Meling, Christian’s great grandmother, then 10-years-old, a few pesos for each of the lizards she collected for him “by turning over boards and stones around the ranch early in the forenoon while the lizards are yet numb from the cold” (Grinnell, field notes, October 17, 1925, p2592).

Christian and his parents purchased the ranch 10 years ago from the family. The Ranch has been in the family since 1912, and has been bought and sold continuously by various members. Christian mentions an aunt living in Vista, California who likely still has the old guest books from Lamb’s days.

Christian still herds beef cattle on the ranch and entertains tourists and adventurers, including Alan Harper of Terra Peninsular, who has been working on a rephotography project of small pueblos of the region, and Javier Cota, a Baja historian. Christian used to give pack tours himself into La Grulla meadow, but quit during the drought when the water became scarce and the business dried up. (Nevertheless, he reports that there is water in La Grulla twelves months of the year.) A stream runs through Rancho Meling, and there’s a pond as a result of an earthen berm he’s built that traps excess irrigation water and sustains many water fowl that were likely not here in Lamb’s time. He hopes eventually to stock his pond with Rainbow Trout to attract Gringo fishermen.

Christian listens to our plan to visit the old mining community of Valladares and nearby San Antonio Ranch in the Santo Domingo River valley later during our trip and insists we will need a guide: the roads are poor, little traveled, and not well marked. A 4×4 will be necessary.

Lisana Meling and cousin, Rancho Meling

I meet Christian’s daughter Lisana and her little cousin playing by a goat pen. Both are delighted to have their photos taken and even pose a little. A few ranch dogs roam about, one of them in particular seems sweet: a mottled gray and black fellow with big brown eyes who likes to play “football” with a deflated soccer ball he’ll bring to you. He has a limp.

The Ranch consists of the main dining hall, a main hall with multiple guest rooms, and two larger guest houses. The original ranch house no longer serves a function except storage. Nearby are sheep, chicken, and dove pens. A small air strip lies to the east of the ranch, beyond the flowing stream. The hills are cactus and buckwheat chaparral. Farther out are juniper forests. The grazing to the east of the Ranch has made grass of the native habitat, here as in many places in San Telmo Valley. The Ranch sits at 663 meters. Farming usually ends around 2000 meters up into the mountains; according to Christian, the snow line can descend as low as 3000 meters in winter. There was frost on the ground here in the mornings in October when Lamb and Grinnell visited.

1 June, 6pm, Rancho Meling

John and I capture a much simpler rephoto opportunity, #4806: a view of the original Rancho, from a hilltop site where the newer Meling residence now sits. From this vantage, the original Rancho is now obscured by a massive walnut or pecan tree in the middle of the property. We are reasonably confident of this shot, but later, after comparing the angles, realize we might have done better. It occurs to me only now that my camera lens is probably not as wide as Borell’s.

We stay in the guest house, Casa Andre, neighbor to the original ranch. In the main guest hall there’s a pool and rec room with books. John and I briefly peruse the library for titles familiar from the field notes left by Grinnell, who spent some time reading around the Meling library. I was hopeful to find one on California grizzlies, but no luck.

Phainopepla—a striking black desert bird with red eyes and a tall head crest—are common on the ranch. Its name in Greek means “shining robe” and it almost never drinks water, instead getting its moisture from the mistletoe berries it eats (www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Phainopepla/lifehistory). Also common are White-winged Doves and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.

We eat dinner in the main dining all: vegetable-stuffed meatloaf roll, mashed potatoes, and salad, with apple pie and a Tecate for desert. Christian eats with us and obliges all our inquiries. At dinner, he gifts us with a copy of Where the Old West Never Died, a book on Rancho Meling’s history. When we at first demur from excessive politeness, Christian presses: “What? You don’t take gifts?” We humbly accept.

The rest of the evening we spend working on bird lists, uploading to iNaturalist, and planning. Tomorrow we will bird and “naturalize” (photography everything we see for upload) around the ranch and prep to leave for La Grulla the following day.

In bed reading and journaling by 10pm. Grinnell is famous in part for his “Grinnell method,” a method for rigorous field note-taking, one of whose dictums is “no sleep before journal.” After just two days of this, I realize I’m in for some late nights.