Chasing the Starthroat
It's July, 2012, and I'm heading off to a long-needed vacation in Southeastern Arizona with a field ornithology class from UCR Extension.
I pull up to K's house half an hour early. I'm in a hurry, like a kid on Christmas morning. Apparently K, the class instructor and my birding guru, and M, his friend who will be driving, feel the same, because they have M's truck pretty much loaded.
As we head east on the 10, M says something to the effect that his truck has been making strange noises and he thinks it's about ready for the junkyard. I wonder why we didn't take K's. Half an hour later, somewhere around Chiriaco Summit in one of the bleakest stretches of desert in the States and with the outside temperatures topping 100, the air conditioning quits. We try to make believe cold air is still coming out, but it's no good. We turn the system off for the climb past Chiriaco, and when we turn in back on, it works… for the time being.
Our conversation is typical for the start of a birding trip. What birds can we see? What life birds might we get? What wonders are reported and might, with luck, be ours? There are several enticing reports, and one of the best is a Plain-Capped Starthroat, a large, brilliant hummingbird that isn't a regular Arizona bird.
By the time we reach Tucson, the air conditioning has quit, the air smells of burning belt, and the truck is making a funny noise. We check into our motel and regroup.
The next morning, M takes his truck for a service (he ends up having to replace his air compressor) while K and I catch a ride to the Sonoran Desert Museum with one of the class members. There, we meet up with five more people and the birding begins! Cactus Wrens are feeding young a few feet away. A Purple Martin flies over. White-Winged Doves sing everywhere. A tenebriid beetle plays dead in K's hand. But where are my Gilded Flickers -- the only life bird I really think are a sure thing for the trip?
They are not to be seen.
Nor are they to be seen at the Saguaro National Park headquarters. Those who haven't been to Arizona before are in heaven. I'm getting some year birds, but where are my flickers? I've driven down Cima Road in Mojave Preserve at 5 MPH looking for them with no luck. Now I'm supposedly in the heart of their territory. Secretly, in my heart, I despair of them.
But a roadside stop later, there they are, flying through the saguaro cactus. One, a male with his brilliant red "moustache", lands and can be seen through K's scope. Life bird!
On we go to Sweetwater Wetland, a sewage pond where we pick up a few species, including a close Great Horned Owl being harassed by Cassin's Kingbirds, but miss the local specialty, the Harris's Hawk. Then it's on to the great shopping at the Tucson Audubon Society headquarters, meet up with M and his rejuvenated air conditioning, and we hit the road south for our real destination: the sky islands of southeastern Arizona. A quick Safeway stop, and it's up a washboarded road to a little-used trail and a rumor of rare Rufous-Capped Warblers near a "check dam".
A word on timing: these trips move fast. There's always another bird to find. It helps to be stocked with food, drink and ice when you start out, to keep your eye on the leader, and to plan your siestas for after you get home.
Anyway, for the next hour or so, we bicker about what exactly a check dam is and whether it might be this pile of rocks or that old scrap metal, and it becomes the catch-phrase for the trip: the rare bird is near the check-dam. The warblers are nowhere to be seen, but Varied Buntings give us good looks from ocotillo stalks, and a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, not always an easy bird to see, goes into a frenzy at the sound of K's iPod.
We head up to the Santa Rita Lodge. Mixed oak and pine forest immediately provides new species, and I find that my study of local birdsongs is helpful, especially in identifying most of the weird noises as Brown-Crested Flycatchers. Hummingbirds, which can swarm these feeders, are a bit scarce, but we see a few. After making our dinners in the room kitchenettes, we head out into the darkness, where K's tireless hooting calls in a Whiskered Screech-Owl.
The next day, we head up the canyon, where there's a trailhead for various well-used National Forest trails. We pick up many more mid-elevation forest species, but the real treasure here, the Elegant Trogon, is elusive. We listen for its deep clucking call in vain.
Still, hopes are high: we're heading to Montosa Canyon, site of the Black-capped Gnatcatcher (life bird for me), Five-striped Sparrow, and our first Plain-Capped Starthroat. In the heat of a rocky wash, we try to see gnatcatchers' tails, but can't really distinguish a white tail among the others and the horde of Bell's Vireos. Canyon Wrens are there in hordes. We try really hard to make a juvenile Broad-billed Hummingbird a starthroat… but finally have to be honest with ourselves. As for the sparrows, they don't show. It's disheartening, at least for me.
We go back to the lodge for a short break.
Then the skies open.
A note on the weather. Generally, southeastern Arizona is deadly sticky hot and humid. Many afternoons see giant monsoon storms, and that is what we wait out in the trailhead parking lot. Usually these clear up after an hour or so, but they must be treated with respect, as they can produce lightning and serious flash floods. That night while owling I am actually cold, and I go to sleep shivering -- so be prepared.
The storm clears, and we hike back out into the clean, fresh, dripping woods. A trogon calls just off the trail. We waits. A male and female briefly come into view. Most people get looks at them; I see a flash of moving color and hear the call, enough to count my year bird; a few miss them. That's the way it goes. You have to expect to see stunning, soul-satisfying views of some birds, bad views of some, and no views of others (even while the person next to you is crying out in rapture).
After dinner, more owling. Did I mention waiting to sleep till after the trip is done?
The next day, back to Montosa to continue the quest. This is beautiful country, with or without birds. Mesquite flats, green with the monsoon, lead up into rocky canyons or shady mixed forests, which in turn lead to tall conifers on the peaks. This day, lots of other birders show up at Montosa, and some of us get looks at the sparrow; its head is behind a branch from my perspective, so no Five-striped Sparrow on my year list for 2012.
And then, we wait (by a culvert, another water-control structure supposedly pointing to a rare bird) for the starthroat. Feeders have been set up. Binoculars raise every time another hummingbird arrives. We wait. Clouds drift by. Cardinals, Canyon Wrens, Bell's Vireos and Varied Buntings make the canyon ring with song.
After over an hour, we drag ourselves away, defeated.
But there is no time to mourn, because riparian birds await on the road to Patagonia. We quickly add beautiful Gray Hawks and Black-Bellied Whistling-Ducks. Then it's on to the famous Patagonia Picnic Table, where Thick-Billed Kingbirds are always to be found, one of the only places in the States to see them…
Except today. Where are they? We desperately play their calls and strain to stare at every distant Cassin's Kingbird (or any bird at all). But they are nowhere to be seen.
Defeated again, we check into the Stage Stop Inn in the little town of Patagonia and have time for a quick swim before going to the Patons' feeders to pick up the lovely Violet-Crowned Hummingbird. Then it's dinner at the local restaurant, and finally bed -- but some of the group drive up Harshaw Canyon, where they see a mountain lion!
Tomorrow is another day, and this tomorrow starts with more disappointment at the picnic table. I wonder if this stresses K out. He generally doesn't seem very susceptible to stress, but this is another specialty bird that's not cooperating, and we try for a long time before moving on. Still, people don't seem too frustrated.
Every group seems to have a beginner who can't really identify birds yet but is very good at spotting them; someone who is picky about restaurants and lodging and when are we going to stop for ice; someone who has trouble staying with the group and always needs to be looked out for; at least one expert birder. Due to a core of cheerful, interested people, this is an extra-good group. The fiftyish guy with the blond ringlets who brings nothing but black clothing, the rather deaf older gentleman who keeps declaring there aren't any birds around because he can't hear them, and the emotionally unstable oddball are there, but nobody minds much. Seeing birds is a bit of a drama at times, with helpful directions -- "It's in the green tree! No, on the other partially obscured, semi-dead, diagonal small branch" and cries -- "I can't see it!" "Oh, it's beautiful!" and snarls -- "George, you are STANDING IN MY WAY."
As for what role I play, I'm not quite a beginner and I've been here twice before, so I try to help by finding birds and directing others to them, but I'm not really sure if I'm a help or just that obnoxious girl who has hummingbirds on the brain thus yells "Broad-Tailed!" as a Zone-Tailed Hawk flies over. I don't quite know where I stand. But that's nothing new.
On this trip, I get frustrated with myself for not doing better, for not finding the good birds first, for not being able to hear the distant Elf Owl. It's not that I want to compete with others, but with some standard I set up for myself that I feel I'm not attaining. I probably need to be more Zen, or something.
Another stop by the Patons' brings another tyrannulet, but no Thick-Billed Kingbird. But we get lucky at our last chance, a huge sycamore on Harshaw Canyon Road. There it is, harassed by its Cassin's cousins. And now goodbye to Patagonia, as we head out across the open grasslands -- Grasshopper Sparrows, Lilian's Meadowlarks, distant pronghorn -- and over to Sierra Vista. There, we hear of… another Plain-Capped Starthroat. This one is in the yard of one of K's friends. Supposedly. We never see it. We do see elusive, harlequin-patterned Montezuma Quail as we dodge a storm. Then it's up one of the canyons, following a road that was burned over and then suffered badly in storms; huge debris flows cross it and it looks like it'll give way in the next rain. At Beatty's bed and breakfast, accompanied by redbone and blue tick hounds, we get such close views of a White-eared Hummingbird that we don't need binoculars. Then it's up the rocky trail in search of Spotted Owls.
I collect rocks for my yard. I'd promised K I wouldn't fill M's truck with them. In fact, I said I would collect only one. But secretly, I am squirreling away rocks under my feet in the back seat. After we see the owls -- dark-eyed benign shadows in the wet woods, and a ball of fluff that is the chick -- I sneak one more rock -- irresistible red veined with quartz -- into my backpack.
The next day, it's up another winding, steep, precipitous (but not currently washing away) canyon road to get the mountain specialties. These birds, found in the higher chaparral and the conifer forests, can be hard work, but we find many Greater Pewees in a burned area, brilliant red Hepatic Tanager, even an apparently breeding pair of Indigo Buntings.
Another day, and onward. We've already stopped by the excellent gift shop at the San Pedro River, but now, in the relatively cool morning, we go down to the river to find Yellow-Billed Cuckoos. We head off to a break from birding, a tour of the Copper Queen Mine in Bisbee, for which I strive but fail to find another adjective than "quaint". The adjacent open pit mine is, however, more Mordor-like than quaint. Then it's on to the slightly cooler weather and the striking cliffs of Cave Creek overlooking tiny Portal, Arizona. There are more trogons here -- but they evade us completely, despite several tries over our two-day stay. And there's another starthroat, seen in the yard of a hospitable but endlessly talkative local. Do we see it? Of course not. It turns out that Plain-Capped Starthroat really wants insects and only visits feeders as an aperitif. Still, we see other birds, and a night drive produces a fluffy gray fox crisscrossing the road in search of prey.
One more day in Portal, and, after a stop to look at javelinas, up another steep dirt road to another mountain forest. We hunt down local warblers and chickadees and see a Short-Tailed Hawk dive from a mountain meadow; we chase an orange-breasted Apache Fox Squirrel up a tree.
Then car trouble strikes again. We've had interim needs for oil and panics about gas smells, but now one of the trucks has made a clunking noise and then proceeded to act very ill indeed. The driver continues down to the lodge (which is remote, and doesn't have cell phone coverage), eventually gets a tow, and finds out that his pre-trip service resulted in a bolt not being tightened properly and racketing around his engine. Due to generous carpooling, he doesn't miss too much, but it strikes a note of caution, because had he been traveling alone, he would have been very much more inconvenienced. (And, after writing this, I saw a group email that someone had to stop in Blythe to replace her radiator.)
Now K becomes the Captain Ahab of the Juniper Titmice. This little gray pointy-headed bird can be found in California, but not easily, and K decides that we must stop at every turnout in suitable habitat and call for them with iPod, owl sounds, and pishing. They don't appear, and it's the same sense of concern (they SHOULD be here!) as earlier with the trogon and the kingbird. I don't need the titmouse for the year, having seen it on January first in Sedona, so I'm just sort of bemused by this obsession. Later, I'm annoyed when I realize that we could have been calling for another little gray bird, Virginia's Warbler, which I still have seen only in un-countable silhouette, nanosecond flash, and mocking chip note form. But I get over it. We find the titmouse at a local feeder, and we also get amazing looks at normally elusive Montezuma Quail -- including one that crouches in the road, pretending to be a rock or a cow pie, and is almost missed until his black and white head pattern suddenly comes into view.
The next morning, there is still no starthroat at the feeder. Our last chance is gone, but even though this would be a life bird for everyone, I don't think we really mind not seeing it. Is that because we didn't really believe we would see it (I know I didn't believe in it after the first long wait), or because, as a rare vagrant, it doesn't reflect on our skills to miss it? Or is it some kind of philosophical thing where the quest is more important than its end?
On to Willcox, a sewer pond (birders love sewer ponds), where we find shorebirds, including Baird's Sparrow and hordes of phalaropes. Then to stay in Benson, and a drive to Tombstone, complete with its reenactors, for dinner. Being somewhat claustrophobic, as I discovered last time I was here, I skip that day's tour of the hot, wet, drippy Kartchner Caverns, but for those so inclined, they are interesting, and the visitor's center is exemplary. By now, there are five large rocks under my feet -- a striped purple one from Montosa, two medium-sized red ones from the picnic table, the red and white one from near Beatty's, a quartz from the top of the Huachucas near Sierra Vista, and a striped brown one from near the Kartchner state park. There are also little rocks in my bags. I have not quite kept my promise to take only one, but nobody seems to mind, except for the occasional surprised exclamation from people riding in the back when we leave M to rest, I get a rare turn in front, and we head out owling.
And then for home -- with a last Sweetwater stop, and a noble Harris' Hawk watching from a post, and picking up a desert iguana to repatriate in California (he scratches unhappily at his cardboard box for the whole 8-hour drive, and poops several times judging by the smell, and I expect he is happy to be released). A stop at Cracker Barrel, a stop at the bookstore popularly known as the Naked Man due to the state of almost complete undress of its proprietor, and we are back in Palm Desert, 100 degrees and witheringly low humidity.
I get in my reliable, happy little Corolla, turn the keys, and… click.
There in civilization, AAA comes rapidly to give me a jump start. The tow truck driver says, "You know, I've been having a Plain-Capped Starthroat coming to my feeders. They're just up the wash by the check dam…"
Not really. But I dreamed of one last night, brilliant green and white with a red star at its throat…