More cowbell

We had begun the day early, just as Puerto Vallarta’s partiers were stumbling back to their hotels in the early morning blackness. Our van crept through the darkened streets and we arrived at the OXXO—Puerto Vallarta’s version of a 7-11—where our guide stopped for coffees and Mexican hot chocolates. “How much is this?” one of the women from our van asked me in a whisper as I pushed the button under the picture of the hot cocoa mug, filling my styrofoam cup.

“It’s included in the tour,” I whispered back. And then followed it with, “I think.

Turns out I was right. Michael, our guide, paid the cashier for the three coffees and two hot chocolates and when we got back to the van he pulled out pastries from a brown paper bag he had bought the day before from a local bakery. We gobbled the pastries before getting back into the van, careful not to get the sugary crumbs in the van or all over us. I settled back into my seat next to the window and leaned my head on the glass. The darkness always makes me sleepy, and combined with a full stomach of pastry and hot cocoa with cinnamon, I closed my eyes and let the vibration of the motor engine lull me into a nap as the van pointed away from the city of throbbing discotheques, bikini-clad tourists and street performers and took us to the Sierra Madre Highlands.

“First we are going to see the Military Macaw,” our guide said to us, wakening me from my sleep. “An active pair has been seen where we’re going.” No one said anything in response. No one else seems to be a morning person either, I thought. The dark curtain of the night was beginning to pull back and open to the light of dawn as our van continued up the mountains behind Puerto Vallarta. There was not a lot of traffic on the road that wound its way up the mountain. Trucks delivering milk and other goods to the town chugged down past us in the opposite direction toward Puerto Vallarta and the drivers waved to Michael, our guide, as they passed. I couldn’t tell if they knew each other or if it was just the friendly way of life in and around Puerto Vallarta.

Before cresting the hill, Michael turned on to a dirt road that meandered around another hill. Our tires kicked up dust into sienna clouds illuminated in the early morning sunbeams. After about a quarter mile he pulled the van over to the side and turned to us. “We can see them here, he said.” Michael was out first and then the five of us in the van tumbled out to the dirt road, stretched our legs and looked to him to find out where we should look.

I hadn’t even gotten the kinks out of my joints before I heard Michael say, “There!” as he held his binoculars to his eyes and pointed. “There!” he said again. “There’s one on the branch on that tree straight ahead!”

The tree he was speaking of was way far off in the distance. The tree with its piney needles was one of the bigger trees, towering over a gully that looked like a sea of green made up of other trees densely packed.

The spot of technicolor green, red and blue was illuminated by the sunlight, standing out from the rest of the green of the trees. I shoved my binoculars up to my face and the bird filled my binoculars like a colorful kaleidoscope.

“There’s one in the nest hole!” the woman said as she looked through her binoculars. “In the tree trunk. About five feet down,” she instructed

Yes. There was a little head poking out with its cartoonish beak and big, bulging eyes, and it looked like it was grinning at us as if to see our reaction after telling a bad joke.

It’s actually difficult to determine which is female and which is male, we were told by Michael, so I assigned my own genders to the birds, stereotypically assigning female to the one in the nest hole and male to the bird perched on the branch, as though stalwartly protecting the home.

I was pleased with myself that I now had a big lens for this trip that could zoom in to the macaws. I set up my camera and tripod and snapped pictures of the bird in the hole as she cooperatively posed and seemingly grinned, and then adjusted the tripod and snapped pictures of the bird nicely perched on the branch. Then I lifted my binoculars to look at that same macaw on the branch. And then back to the bird in the hole. With two birds (or more, sometimes) it’s hard to know which one to focus on or when to take a snap pictures or to look through the binoculars. To look at one means you might be missing something interesting going on with the other. Or you might miss a good shot with your camera.

Birding continually reminds me that I need to stay in the moment and try to take it all in. Sometimes that means focusing narrowly and other times it means looking broader, or wider. Sometimes it means putting down the camera and looking through the binoculars or other times, it’s noticing the great sunrise and colors in the sky that might be ignored by others who are fixated on just looking through their binoculars.

Then I heard a…bell?

Cling, clang. Cling, clang.

It was getting louder.

Cling, clang. Cling, clang.

Yes, it was a bell. It was growing louder because it was moving closer.

Cling, clang. Cling, clang.

I turned to my left and looked up the road where it bends to the left around a group of small, bushy trees and a milky white cow with a bell around her neck, accompanied by two caramel-colored cows, ambled from behind the trees and then stopped. They were frozen and the bell still shook to a slow cling, clang before it, too, stopped.

“Oh, it’s just a cow,” said the husband of the woman, turning only slightly to look and then pressed his eyes back to his binoculars to look at the macaws.

“You mean COWS,” the wife corrected.

I supposed the cows didn’t know what to do either. Should they continue looking at us? Should they move on? The cows stood as statues, looking as though they were contemplating what to do next, like how to handle the situation with a group of middle aged people in khakis, looking through binoculars and taking photos.

Then the cow with the bell turned around with her cow friends and went back from where they came, roaming around the Sierra Madre.

Cling, clang. Cling, clang. The ringing shrank and disappeared around the bend.

I turned back to my camera and tripod and decided to take some pictures but the macaw on the branch was gone.

And then I looked to the macaw in the hole. She decided to leave too and spread out her wings, flashing the blue in her outstretched wings as she swept over the smaller tree tops below.

See? Sometimes there is too much to look at all at once.