Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Life at the edge of the water

Friends hangin' out. I love to walk along the Lake Chapala shore, camera in hand, capturing images of our wildlife as the animals move about, swim, fly, and feed in their own little piece of paradise. Sometimes, like the egrets above, they simply stand still, seeming just to enjoy the quiet beauty of sparkling water and golden sun all around them. These two egrets are among some of the most common birds along the shore. They look alike, except for their size, and pairs like this can often be seen together, leading to the mistaken impression that they are mates. When I finally got around to preparing this posting, I decided to find out a little more and, to my surprise, I discovered that they are entirely different species, although they are both part of the overall heron family. The large bird is the Great White Egret, while its smaller friend is the Snowy Egret. Aside from the size difference, they can be distinguished by the color of their beaks, and by the yellow feet of the Snowy Egret (not visible in the picture).

Prime egret real estate. Unlike some of the other local water-oriented birds, which swim and fish some distance off shore, the egrets like the edge of the water. They perch on a ledge or wade with their long spindly legs at the edge of the floating water hyacinth gathered along the shore such as that found at the intersection of the Ajijic pier and the seawall protecting the lake front park shown above. In these areas they find small fish, water snakes and insects.

Fishing buddies. Another pair of egrets fishes off the seawall of the lake front park. Once again, a Great White and a Snowy Egret have paired up. I may be misunderstanding the interaction, but it certainly appeared that the Great White was giving a few fishing tips to its smaller buddy. These two stayed together for some time, with the Great White uncoiling its long neck and peering into the shallow depths, while the Snowy Egret observed the action closely. Because they were so concentrated on their project, I was able to get rather close to take the picture.

Score one for the egret. A Great White Egret has captured a small water snake at the edge of the water hyacinth. Now the task is to position the snake so that the egret can tilt back its head and swallow it, a maneuver that the egret will find surprisingly difficult.

Now what? The snake fights back, wrapping its body around the egret’s beak, preventing the swallowing maneuver. I wonder if this is an example of what is known as a “Mexican Stand-off?” I took these shots with a telephoto lens, and didn’t see clearly what was going on until I put them on the computer and zoomed in close. I was instantly reminded of the old cartoon, titled “Never give up!” In the cartoon is a frog, half-swallowed by a pelican, which reaches out with its front paws and throttles the bird, preventing the pelican from swallowing, creating a similar Mexican Stand-off.

A breezy afternoon on the waterfront. A cool breeze ruffles the feathers of this Snowy Egret. Another way of distinguishing the Snowy from the Great White is the tuft of feathers along the back of the neck. Also, although it has a similar s-curve, the neck is much shorter than that of a Great White. The Snowy does have the same beady-eyed intensity of its larger cousin as this one surveys its turf for lunch.

Friendly competitors. Some of the other birds I found with egrets include these seagulls and a solitary Blue Heron. Oregonians will recognize the Blue Heron from the label on the bottle of the local brew pub ale they may be quaffing even as they read this. Although we can’t get the ale this far south, at least we do get the bird.

Big Blue. The Blue Heron looks very similar to the Great White Egret, except for the color. They are related, but apparently not as closely as the Snowy Egret. The Blue Heron’s feathers are a variety of colors, in addition to blue. I may well have seen this very bird wading in the creek behind my former home in Salem, Oregon.

Up and away. When the Great White takes off, unfolding and flapping its broad wings with rhythmic grace, it is breath taking. The white feathers show their translucency in the afternoon sun. The egret holds its neck and legs in the most aerodynamically advantageous position and simply soars.

Into the distance. The egret glides along just above the water, taking advantage of air currents as it looks for fish. The volcanic mountains lining the south shore of Lake Chapala show in the background. Because human settlement is much less intense along the south shore, the bird population is reported to be much greater. Soon, I will visit Petatan on the south shore to see the mobs of white pelicans that gather at the fishing village when the catch is cleaned.

Liquid gold. A solitary egret wades and fishes as the late afternoon sunlight turns the water to liquid gold. The egret’s long neck, extended from its usual s-curve to full length, gives the bird a great visual advantage for both hunting and defense.

For more detailed information about egrets and herons, click here.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Fiesta de San Andres: Ajijic gets down

Mexicans do like to party! Immediately after el Dia de la Revolucion, the Fiesta de San Andres (Saint Andrew) begins and runs for nine non-stop days. San Andres is the patron saint of Ajijic. Every town in Mexico has one, and usually the local parrochia is named after the saint. A town saint’s fiesta is usually the biggest, longest, and liveliest of the year. Cajititlan, a small town between Ajijic and Guadalajara, has one that in the old days ran for 3 months! In modern times, it was cut to about a week. Officials called it “progress.” Seems a shame. For a calendar of major Mexican fiestas throughout the year, click here.

Preparing the Castillo. Each of the nine days is different, but certain activities are common to all. There are always lots of fireworks. In the picture above, workers prepare a section of the Castillo, a thirty-foot high tower with spinning wheels of fireworks set off each night near midnight. But that's just the finale. Fireworks start about 5:00 AM with rockets that take off with a whoosh and end with a tremendous boom high in the air. These rockets, called cohetes, go off all day and most of the night, but reach crescendos resembling the siege of Stalingrad at 6:00 AM, noon, and from around midnight to o’dark thirty. The cohetes are a little unnerving at first, being unguided, highly flammable missiles capable of reaching 300-400 feet in altitude. People don’t appear to bat an eye and a good time is had by all.

View from our home. Groups of people led by bands march through the streets at various times of the day, but we had the good fortune to live by the launching point for each evening's parade, which originates at Seis Esquinas, about 1 1⁄2 blocks down the street, and proceeds past our house along Calle Hidalgo.

Packed Parrochia. The parades all finish at the Parrochia, about 1⁄2 mile away. The parades display an unusual mix of the sacred and secular, the traditional Catholic and the pre-Colombian Indian religions, the serious and hilarious.

Altar boys lead off. The marching group is often led by a priest in his vestments or by altar boys carrying tall crosses. It often seemed that the church was struggling to keep a Catholic veneer on a pagan harvest festival.

Local military gets in the act. A marching band is always included, sometimes a drum corps, but most often very heavy on the brass. The military leader (not in picture) of this troop of largely female drummers looked very stern until I realized his tiny grandson, also in military uniform, marched beside him, tootling on a horn.

An ancient heritage. Several nights, groups in elaborate and beautiful pre-Colombian dress accompanied the march, dancing and shaking rattles, their high feathered headdresses bobbing and waving above them.

Relaxing after the march. Unlike many of the traditional Indians in the area who turn away when approached, these dancers are proud to be photographed in their finery. Once they reach the Parrochia, their serious mien drops away and smiling young girls and impish little boys emerge.

Gremios on the march. Always a part of each march is a group of people carrying a large banner or picture. These are the sponsors, or gremios, of the evening’s march, sometimes employees of a local hotel, or carpenters, or maids and gardeners, or other group.

Lighting the way. Following their banner, members of the gremio carry paper-shielded candles, creating a lovely glowing procession in the early evening darkness. Each gremio sponsors a night and contributes all year to the expenses of the night’s festivities including the bands and the fireworks. Most agree that the construction workers, or albaniles, kick in the most and their night has the biggest fireworks, and the best bands.

Gettin' down. By the time the early evening march reaches the Parrochia, the party on the plaza nearby is kicking in bigtime. On most nights, a large stage is erected for the main band, which can have as many as twenty performers who really get the crowd cooking.

Waiting their turn. When the main band takes a break, many other small bands hanging out on the fringes will strike up a tune for a few pesos. Sometimes the various small bands and the main band overlap in a deafening roar not lessened by the boom of the cohetes and the cheers of the crowd. Fiesta time is not for those with over-sensitive ears.

Taco Bell, eat your heart out! Street food is usually available most times, but the fiesta brought the vendors out in droves. This man is carving up a large chunk of roast pork, from which he made me some very tasty tacos. He seemed puzzled that I would bother to take his picture, but he was willing to demonstrate his technique for me.

Wall-to-wall bars. The bar scene was incredible, with outdoor bars set up side-by-side all around the plaza. One of the more elaborate of the temporary bars was Paradise Tropical Drinks.

God in Paradise. Tending bar in Paradise was a ten-year old boy, wearing a startling t-shirt. Perhaps he was just warning his customers against their wayward behavior.

A different marketing strategy. For some reason, this particular bar usually seemed to get more than its share of business. I was lucky to catch these two bartenders at a quiet moment.

Party hearty! One night at the plaza party, I was adopted by three young Mexicans who demanded to know where I came from and how I like Ajijic and Mexican fiestas. Their English, while pretty sketchy, was much better than my Spanish, but the language of a party is pretty universal. The scene reminded me of Mardi Gras. At one point, apparently to demonstrate the good feelings of the evening, one of my new friends grabbed the nearest girl and gave her a big smooch on the lips. She looked surprised but not offended, and I suddenly realized she was there with someone else and didn’t even know the kisser.

Mexicans do like to party!