Tucson Arizona, May 25-27, 2015
Well, Big Years take planning and prep work so on Sunday when I heard not just one but two rarities I needed for my lifelist were being seen in Southern Arizona and well I needed a “chase” practice run so since I had my go-bag in my car, and well after attending my wife’s brother-in-law’s funeral, dying at age 63 on Saturday I said what the heck.
I jumped a flight to Tucson on Monday the 25th for 48 hours of heavy birding
while I was in the air I decided that there was 10 things I decided I didn’t look forward to in doing a big year, some I really didn’t want to do ever again. There might be worse things, but these I know but at least I didn’t have to do these 10 things naked so that is good but here they are………
The Top Ten things I don’t look forward to experiencing again in doing a Big Year Birding:
10. Driving to my winter Owling spot in the Sprague Creek WMA north of Roseau MN, the area is flat windy, and in January, 30-40 below zero, in 2013, I watched someone die when his car flipped over
9. Tiptoeing along on the frozen ridges on top of Loveland Pass in Colorado looking for white-tailed ptarmigan, the view is amazing but generally I am too afraid to look.
8. Having to deal with ebird questions, like Monday’s when I found out that a 4 mile birding hike was only 2 miles since I walked 2 up and 2 back, but if it was a loop it would be 4, only in birding does 2 plus 2 equal….2………?
7. Driving up the steep Carr Canyon Rd in Sierra Vista AZ to go to Reed CG to get the buff-breasted flycatcher, the road is narrow, rough, loose rocks in places and in places I don’t know what to do if you meet someone. It is the road to hell, but the only place to get a bird is on top and on this trip, a second one.
6. Getting stopped by the border patrol, repeatedly and in some cases a few minutes apart…”yea, just birding sir…?” I wish they were the “birder patrol.” A corollary is the cops between Roma and Rio Grande City Texas…them I could also do without.
5. Sitting in a prairie chicken lek blind an hour before sunrise and realizing you can’t feel all of your toes.
4.The fun of traveling, like: Flight delays, bed bugs, bad food, no food, hard beds, hard ground in a tent, oh the fun of it all
3. The climb up the Pinnacle Trail to see a Colima warbler in the Big Bend National Park is a four mile brutal ascent that must be started pre-dawn if the weather becomes too hot. The good news is that in the predawn gloom, elf owls are calling in April but there is a sign that states 12,000 calories can be burned on the climb, once in 1994, we went the other way, and packed water, three gallons, whew!!!! Hot Hot Hot!
2. The mosquitoes in the pre-dawn at St Mark’s NWR in northern Florida, waiting out Black Rails, 70% DEET didn’t even slow them down.
- At Sea on the Puk-Uk where the Pacific meets the Bering Sea. In my mind it isn’t the seasickness that frightens me it is the worry of finding Davy Jone’s Locker instead of a short-tailed albatross
Day 1 Afternoon: May 25th
Back to the chase…….I landed at 1230 and headed to the rental car and they upgraded me to a…Dodge Charger, wrong car but they didn’t have anything else so off I went. The birds were seen at Ramsey Canyon and the preserve closes on Tuesday and Wednesday, so I had just a couple of hours.
I arrived of 205 PM and by 215 I was looking at the Flame-colored Tanager, Life bird #701, it ducked back in the trees and then I met a guy named Chris I had been emailing for info. Then I discussed the trek up for the rarer of the two birds, the Tufted Flycatcher, 1.5 miles generally up hill, despite cooler heads I sacrificed a photo of the tanager to go for the flycatcher, a code 5!
I hiked liked I was in training, and I got up there fast and I was tired. There were 9 people at the stakeout, “well it left about 40 minutes ago, but when we were seeing it, we were seeing it up there.” He pointed. I stayed until the last moment, the last possible moment to get back my closing time so my car wouldn’t be locked in at 5, no bird…and turned the ignition at 459 of my car disappointed. I said something when I remet Chris at the bottom about things for me tend to even out.
I drove to Patagonia, after I thought about driving up Carr Canyon Rd, a road the reminds the driver that passenger cars should not proceed, my Charger a bad choice for such a road and drove north and then west.
In the early evening I walked around the old rest area and then I felt a bird behind me….there were two Montezuma Quail six feet away, they were too close to photograph and with the low light and with my set up for a five inch flycatcher and not a quail, all I got was blurr. So for those of you that think I always get great photos, here you go.
#702 Montezuma Quail
Well it is identifiable ……I was lucky I got this before the two of them flushed. Oh well, birding. I stumbled back to my room happy with a two-fer day.
Day 2, May 26th
I awoke before dawn and tried to find Chino canyon the home of the five-striped sparrow and then I realized that were I thought the road dead-ended, it didn’t, just a trail tapered off in the desert.
Learning Point 1: Rent an off-road SUV in Arizona!
I gave up and went to Madera Canyon, I saw a FOY Gambel’s Quail when I turned the car around.
I started then what I call working the checklist which was taught to me from Laurens Halsey, I had made a list and so at Madera, I started hammering it. I went to my treid and true ash-throated flycatcher, Botteri’s and Summer tanager spot, it took five minutes counting my time in the bathroom, check check check…
I went up to the top of the road and then decided to work on my nemesis bird, I waded through all kinds of birds, including…
and then I found it, then more, I was in red-faced warbler heaven
#703 Red-faced warbler
Nine in all, very pretty birds. I then spotted a trogon and heard that there was a nest nearby…
Learning Point #2: Sometimes you find the Holy Grail, but most of the time all you find is a hole.
I staked out this hole for over an hour but all I found was a nearby..
Cooper’s hawk on a nest
and a lot of other cool birds like Greater pewee’s, magnificent hummingbirds, yellow-eyed juncos, and grace’s warbler. But with that pair of hawks nearby, it was a really tough neighborhood to be an elegant trogon.
Tired, I went down and did some feeders, and then headed to Patagonia to work the list
Patton’s is the only reliable place to get a violet-crowned hummingbird in ABA area, and I was not disappointed
next I got the word out after slogging through 10 species on the list that the owling party had moved to a place called Bear canyon. I didn’t know where that was, it turned out there are four places north of Tucson with that name and as it turned out the one they were really at, wasn’t actually named that, middle Bear…I drove 150 miles got lost three times, and we never met up.
At dark I was standing out in a sea of Cactus and trying to think of what I had done for four hours. I tallied up a lesser nighthawk and a common poorwill and then it came to me.
Learning Point #3: Treat misfortune as an opportunity.
Learning Point #4: Get better directions or don’t waste your time ‘winging it.’
Unfortunately, I am a very gifted man with a map, I can instantly memorize any map, BUT the forest service occasionally cuts roads and that is what happened here as I was looking for Bear canyon campground, in the Sonita Recreation area and that is how I kept ending back in a visitor center and was out standing in a forest of Cacti
I had to drive past the airport to get back to the hotel and so at 9PM, I drove into Hertz and swapped cars, I said the car was not running correctly and pulled out a cable slightly and in the end I got a Nissan Pathfinder and driving back I decided to go get the Tufted Flycatcher! It was a big day with a 4 hour pause to drive but I saw 82 species of birds!
Day 3, AM, May 27tha
I was out owling at 3am, but nothing except a Northern Pygmy Owl, and lots and lots of Mexican whip-poor-wills, then at 620 I was going up the dreaded Carr Canyon rd, it was loose and steep but I made it, I stopped at the first campground, and found the ever present Buff-breasted flycatcher, the easiest place to get them and then I drove on a mile to the end of the road.
I had some trouble finding the trail and then Chris called and reported about his owling adventure and well, I made a mental note, I’d be back next year. I didn’t really have to go there this year.
It was a brutal hike to Hamburg Trail from the Ramsey Lookout, bad trail, loose rocks, fallen trees, and over 2.5 miles but I was not alone in this quest. I hooked up with a couple of local type A birders and then I was there…and so was the bird!
#704 Tufted Flycatcher
It was trying to make a nest for some reason, but there was only one of them, a code 5, a very rarely seen bird in the US
After 40 minutes of bliss watching I decided I better work back up the slog to my car. I passed a birding guide I knew, the aforementioned Laurens Halsey. he was guiding a woman down the hill and it was a struggle but later he reported they made it and she was very happy. That is what life is. I passed an older birder who looked like he may die and he just shooed me on saying if he died right there he would die a happy man. I passed birders half crazed and getting down to see it and then, finally I made it!
On the way out I even passed the impeccable Neil Hayward, the co-owner of the big year record at the top of the road. It was the whose who of birding, but then again it WAS a code 5!
I was tired out and my long dormant exercise induced asthma came back due to the dry air and altitude, so I learned I needed to bring an inhaler with to the desert too.
final score, my year list was moved up to 445, not bad but when I’m back here next May, I need to be nearing 600 before Alaska, I need to clean off al the warblers, but then again, this is only a scouting year and I had added 4 really good life birds and all in 48 hours on the ground, I had to get back to see my son off to Europe for a while to do research………….and the three life lessons…priceless
next tune up……..Nome! My final trip to Alaska, four prep trips to go