Go West… Man
We were leaving the Big Bend of the Rio Grande. Following a northerly route to New Mexico, we would be on a westward track until the coast of California. The west was familiar territory. It was where I started my life list. Going west this time, I was not young, but not ready to accept a paraphrase of advice originally penned by John Soule, a writer for an Indiana newspaper. Horace Greeley made famous Soule’s “Go West, young man” 14 years later. I had gone west as a young boy when my parents drove part of Route 66 to the move to Oregon. I did go west as a young man in 1963, with my field guide closed and binoculars hung low, a victim of mechanical meltdown. Now, I was going west as a sexagenarian. Go west old man would have to wait, maybe a decade or two, perhaps on the way to Oregon from a trip to Florida or after a revisit to Big Bend.
We were going west with young hearts, but wishing for time that had not so quickly aged each day. We were competing with only our collective selves and could not help but regret not finding some of the eastern species. In a 1961 letter, Roger Tory Peterson replied to me “It is difficult to be at all the best places at the best time.” We were trying, and had followed some of Peterson’s advice, especially by spending so much time along the coast of Texas. He also wrote that I should spend more time in the interior of the continent than Fisher and he did. To emphasize the point, Peterson seemed to lament that Stuart Keith‘s “Mother apparently owns a ranch in Alberta and that is where he scooped us.” My 1963 journey did include time in the interior, but I skipped Petersons’ recommendations to visit Bear River Marshes of Utah for breeding birds, and Point Pelee on Lake Erie and Cape May for fall migration.
Missed species and found species are the yen and yang of birding. It was time to move on, to continue the chase, to go west. Leaving the grandeur and birds of Big Bend left us full yet empty because we could never know it all. While in the park, our trip list increased by about 20 species. However, targeted Elf Owls, Varied Buntings, Black-chinned Sparrows and Western Screech-Owls did not make themselves known. We missed the Broad-winged Hawk Jon Dunn identified three days after our visit to Rio Grande Village. In fact, we never saw the species during the trip. I missed Zone-tailed Hawks and Linda missed Colima Warbler. We missed several species by not visiting Boot Springs. Most of all we missed the feel of Big Bend, its geology, its vastness and history. Linda said she even missed its strangeness as an earthling might miss a beautiful mars. We tried to imagine Big Bend before white settlement and wondered about the difficulties in preserving a national park once ruled by ranchers and their livestock. We pondered the difficulties rangers had dealing with the illegal smuggling of candelilla wax made from a plant in the genus Euphorbia. The wax, once used in making phonograph records and packing rifles is now in makeup. The practice of digging or pulling up plants, root and all, left thousands of acres of an already barren desert virtually denuded. Even residents once living on private parcels within the park sold the wax. Later, and probably today, illegal drugs and alien immigrants are problems in the park. Additionally, air-borne pollution, mostly from U.S. sources, chokes the air and stains the view with a haze of sulfates, nitrates and other unhealthy manmade byproducts. This is a rough land of beauty attacked from many sides and revered by all but a few.
As we drove from Terlingua or where ever we were, we vowed to revisit Big Bend. There was just not enough time to do it justice, and we now realized we would have to skip the Davis Mountains and stops we planned to make in New Mexico. Lesser Prairie-Chickens near Roswell, New Mexico, would not make the trip list. Would the other target birds be in Arizona? Time would tell.
Alpine, once the candelilla connection was a long 78 miles from last night’s stay. Still further was our northwest journey to Van Horn and the awful bout of impatient traffic on Interstate 10 to El Paso. Once situated in a motel, we took advantage of the later afternoon for a journey across the border. Neither of us had been in Mexico for a few years, and walking into Ciudad Juárez, one of the country’s largest cities, was a surprise. The main street near the crossing was crowded with busy stores selling pharmaceuticals. We had to search for tourist souvenirs. It might be fun to explore a city of 2 million, but we opted to spend the remainder of our day in little El Paso. Most of all, we wanted a good rest and a fast morning escape from metropolis to country.
Once again, we drove like, well, as fast as we dared and still keep our license. Signs along I-10 continuously warned drivers of dangerous wind. They were correct west of Las Cruces, New Mexico, but not heeded by two illiterate pale-phased Swainson’s Hawks. We tacked across New Mexico to the junction of the highway to Rodeo. Originally, we intended to turn west to Portal, Arizona, bird Cave Creek, then head south through Rodeo on our way to Douglas and Guadalupe Canyon. Instead, we headed for Sierra Vista, our headquarters for the next few days. We arrived there at 3:30. After two hours of unpacking and a brief rest, we were ready for Arizona birding.
It was too late to bird the canyons in adjacent Ft. Hauchuca, but Beatty’s Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon held promise. The canyon road climbed past modern houses and desert to taller and taller oaks. Gambel’s Quail zipped across the road and an Arizona Woodpecker stopped us in our tracks. What a beautiful shade of brown. Calling Mexican Jays were paler blue than the ones seen in Texas. Our host greeted us at the end of the road. Standing erect on an agile graying frame, dressed impressively somewhere between birder and beekeeper was Tom Beatty. He immediately exuded pride about his hummingbirds, rare frogs, cabins and orchard on the 10 acres nestled in Miller Canyon. Tom, and wife Edith, moved to the canyon in 1967, grew apples and bees, and opened their hummingbird feeding stations to the public in 1997. The Beattys maintain about 45 feeders, and hold the U.S. record for the most species of hummingbirds, 14, in a single day. Eager to begin the hummingbird safari, Tom led us up a steep and rocky slope to a set of feeders. Thinking earlier at the motel that the area was flat, and I have no reason for those thoughts, we arrived in sandals. Somehow, we barely managed to keep pace, and arrived at the first level above the main string of feeders above the parking lot. Shortly, a large male hummingbird arrived that looked unlike anything I had seen alive or in the museum. Tom announced that the strange bird was a hybrid Magnificent X Berryline Hummingbird. At that moment, I had seen neither species. Gary Graves, the younger Smithsonian curator I used to tease, liked hybrids, especially ones difficult to identify. This hybrid de jour was, once I checked a field guide, understandably identifiable, with fairly equal shared plumage characters of the two species. There was no need for a complicated and detailed hybrid index, similar to those Gary might devise. That parents of the hybrid belonged to different genera suggests further studies of the systematics of hummingbirds are warranted. Tom said publication of a photograph of the hybrid was in the wind. It would be in our copy of Birding that would arrive sometime before our return to Oregon in mid-May.
The hybrid was extremely aggressive, which is not the mark of hybrid vigor. We left it tilting at windmills for another seemingly vertical march behind Tom’s quick footsteps. We arrived a few yards from one of Beatty’s cabins and a set of feeders and chairs. Two people sitting near the feeders interrupted the quiet by occasional gushes and faint star wars sounds emanating from a large digital camera. Sharp high frequency bird tinks, squeaks, assorted chips and lower raspy sounds broke the silence. Naturally, there was plenty of humming, mostly from the birds, but also from the birders. The feast was on. The big ones, the ones Tom called Mags, were absolutely Magnificent. The most abundant were the smaller Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Joining the palate of hummingbirds were violet crowned and throated Costa’s, rosy red throated Broad-tailed, Calliope, with streaked red and white throats, Anna’s, with a rosy head and throat, and true to its name, Rufous hummingbirds.
An early sunset caused by the tall mountains to the west and a chance to see a Blue-throated Hummingbird lured us to the lower feeders. Tom had seen one there during the last two evenings. On the way down, we learned that the two birders at the upper feeding station had just flown from Harlingen to El Paso and driven to the Beatty’s where they were staying. The four of us joined others who were waiting for the Blue-throated Hummingbird. The bird never put in an appearance.
We arrived back in Sierra Vista for some close R & R. What an incredible day.
We drove nonstop to Bisbee, once known for mining and the largest town between St. Louis and San Francisco in the early 1900s. A jolting stop at the edge of the famous Lavender Open-Pit Copper Mine opened a vein of despair. It is amazing what man can do to the earth. The 2,000-foot hole began in 1951, and 46 million tons of removed earth dumped everywhere, was profitable to some, perhaps for a few generations and ecologically disastrous for perhaps ever. Linda recalled, in the early 1970s, the massive earth gouging machines and huge, overgrown trucks mounded high with Arizona’s flesh. Noisy machines rumbled and smelly burnt diesel blackened the air. Profit dried up by 1975 when Bisbee’s mines were joining 100,000 closed mines in Arizona. By then 8 billion pounds of mined copper and tons of other minerals left some water sources toxic, the land profoundly wounded, and that is just in the Bisbee region. World-renowned turquoise and other minerals have contributed to making Bisbee, now 5900 strong, a town of art galleries and gourmet restaurants. In 1963, I would have seen a smaller Lavender Pit, about 4,000 more people, and probably the same number of birds as today, that being zero.
It was difficult not to be impressed by Bisbee. However, what lay ahead was even more impressive, the famed Guadalupe Canyon. For decades, birders had been coming to the canyon in the extreme southeastern corner of Arizona and southwestern corner of New Mexico. The canyon was high on my list of locations in 1963. I was slightly disappointed, in the 2004 planning stage, to learn it was no longer such an important birding site. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to drive the long and dusty road from Douglas to the place where so many species had first visited the United States. Although we had 16 target species for Guadalupe Canyon, I was there more for the history and the nostalgia than the birds.
Time, always at our heels, was gaining as we drove east of Douglas on Geronimo Trail, the only practical way to the remote Guadalupe Canyon. In a cloud of dust and bouncing gravel, we barely slowed while passing San Bernardino Ranch, formerly owned by John Slaughter, a Wild West lawman contemporary with Wyatt Earp and Poncho Villa. We passed the road to San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, established about 20 years after I would have traveled the road in 1963. We followed the unimproved road more miles and time than we could afford. Geronimo, famed leader of the Chiricahua, an Apache group, probably thought the route was too long when he was avoiding the cavalry in the 1800s.
The road is remarkably wide, possibly to accommodate the large trailer trucks laden with cattle that we dodged. We also saw Border Patrol vehicles numerous times. Because of my usual propensity of wanting to be sure we were on the right road, we flagged down a ranch pickup. A man, in neat cowboy regalia, was on his way to town. We had just passed a road leading to the north, so I asked if the road east was the correct one. He said yes, and when I mentioned that we had earlier received permission from the landowner to bird the canyon he looked me in the eye and said “Of course.” We hoped he believed us. We rushed onward, passing Chihuahuan Desert creosote and cactus, sometimes around 50 mph, sometimes necessarily slowing to 10 mph. Finally, we headed down a hill toward the gate I had seen photographed in the bird finding guides. Guadalupe Canyon had waited 42 years, now it was only minutes away.
On the way to the gate we had been followed, sometimes well within our cloud of dust. We thought the driver was possibly a fellow birder. By the time we parked just off the road, the vehicle stopped at the gate, a man, again clad with cowboy boots, hat and big belt buckle dismounted his trusty pickup, didn’t look our way, unlocked the gate, drove through, locked the gate, and hurtled up the canyon. A stiff breeze soon blew away the dust and we entered the inner sanctum of Guadalupe Canyon.
We soon glimpsed a large hummingbird, possibly a Magnificent and a smaller Black-chinned hummer. Flycatchers seemed everywhere, perching in the sycamores, cottonwoods and lower growing shrubs in the riparian canyon. Abundant Vermilion Flycatchers dotted the gray-green trees, and Brown-crested and the paler breasted Ash-throated flycatchers snagged aerial insects. Western Kingbirds provided a little more yellow and Dusky-capped Flycatchers provided a new life bird. A breeze was gaining speed and the sun brought hotter temperatures and still increasing wind. House Finches and Gambel’s Quails were at home in the drying heat. Bridled Titmouse added to the mix of black-bibbed Hooded Orioles and migrant Wilson’s Warblers.
A Yellow Warbler sang from a high sycamore. I had seen the same subspecies, sonorana, in the Mojave Desert in the late 70s. Years later, I assembled thousands of specimens of the Yellow Warblers while enduring a study of geographic variation. To paraphrase a well-known politician, it was hard work. Although the process necessitated naming new subspecies, and confirmed, as many modern field guides illustrate, birds breeding in southern Arizona have faint narrow chestnut markings on the back and underparts. Naming the new subspecies and reviving one not recognized for many years serves to draw attention to geographic populations and their need for conservation. During the 1960s part of the trip I found Yellow Warblers at several localities. Linda and I were now seeing our first Yellow Warbler for this leg of the trip. We may have been too early for arrivals of migrants elsewhere and too late to see riparian habitat that is now destroyed.
We walked as far as a windmill before returning to our dusty vehicle. A Rock Wren called through the now steady wind. A few white puffy clouds were thickening in the western sky. It seemed a long drive back to Douglas and north to Portal. The wind was steady and strong, gusting to around 25 or more miles per hour. Surprisingly, it began to rain. Dark bluish-black clouds brewed over the high Chiricahua Mountains. For the first time in weeks, I had to switch on the windshield wipers.
Portal Road climbs steadily from U.S. 80 north of Rodeo to Portal’s 4,773-foot elevation. We parked near the tiny store just as the mood of wind and rain became serious. I jumped out of the car and onto the worn wooden floor of the general store. Noon had passed and doing justice to the Chiricahua region would be impossible. The wish list would have to be limited to only a few species. I asked about Blue-throated Hummingbirds. The clerk and a single customer said the species had been seen at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Southwestern Research Station up Cave Creek. Because of the worsening weather, I dismissed trying to check local bird feeders. Juniper Titmouse might have been possible.
We were not prepared for the beauty of Cave Creek. As the splendor increased, the weather improved. At 5,400 feet, we reached the research station where the wind seemed to have vanished. We parked, and asked a couple of different people where the feeders were located and would it be all right to view them. No one seemed to mind what we did. This was far more laid back than the required security I experienced decades earlier as a visiting researcher at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Memories of some of my early visits there included meeting the late Stuart Keith, world-class birder who held the 1955 Big Year of 598 species, 26 more than Peterson during the Wild America marathon. Dean Amadon, truly a gentleman and scholar, wonderfully frank John Bull, John Farrand, my friend and roommate when he worked at Smithsonian, Bob Dickerman, who later went to New Mexico and mutual friend to erasable Allan Phillips, generous Mary LeCroy and many others flooded my mind. Central Park West seemed not so far away.
While approaching the feeders a few yards down from the parking lot, we heard a loud sound that only a hummingbird or a birder could love. Split seconds passed and a large hummer came into view. It was blue-throated! It was another new life bird for Linda and me. As more threatening clouds skimmed overhead, several Yellow-eyed Juncos began foraging below the feeders. Their pale eyes suggested anger compared to the docile eyes of Dark-eyed Juncos. Of course, both species were prone to attacking each other if one violated the space of another.
Reluctantly, we left the station and headed up Forest Road 42. Rich Hoyer and Alan Craig had generously provided me locations where Mexican Chickadees might be. The panorama up the dirt road was increasingly beautiful national park quality. Mammoth 3,000-foot cliffs loomed from the green pines and oaks. We stopped at the junction of Paradise Road to listen for chickadees. The only sound was the wind through the pines, the sound of mountains breathing. We hurried on, twisting around blind curves and dizzying vertical drops. An oncoming car crowded the narrow road. My knuckles were whitening. We stopped to take only pictures until we reached Onion Saddle at 7,600 feet and a cold stiff wind howling loudly through the trees. I was beginning to feel frantic–all this way and no Mexican Chickadee. Just as my sky seemed to darken, I heard the unmistakable call, the same one heard on our CD. The gusts kept the trees moving so much that it was a while before I saw one of the chickadees. Blustered but not flustered, we headed back down the mountain. Not far from Onion Saddle, a flurry of bird activity stopped us for an unbelievable feast. Grace’s Warblers first got our attention, which led to Linda spotting a Painted Redstart. Red, black, white and yellow birds kept us busy enjoying them and new ones were chiming in. A Greater Pewee whistled. Amid the Grace’s Warbler, a small flood of Olive Warblers appeared with a male Hepatic Tanager. The warblers and tanager were new birds.
In first gear, and foot over the brake, we descended, stopping only to take more pictures of the outstanding views. Half way between the saddle and the research station, Linda identified a Buff-breasted Flycatcher. I was glassing a different bird that got away. Mexican and Steller’s jays grouched from the slopes. We hated it, but we had to leave Cave Creek. The drive back to Sierra Vista was long, a fight with the gusting wind and boring.
Yesterday’s almost brutal itinerary was hard emotionally because we knew there was so much more to see in the Chiricahua Mountains. The day was difficult physically because of the long hours and too many miles driven. Our minds were numb; our eyes burned. Linda took the day off. I slept late, getting up about 8 a.m., packed a lunch, kissed my bride and drove north on highway 90. There were intersecting roads named Bobcat Lane and Camino de Tundra. At milepost 300, I turned onto a narrow dirt track and crossed a cattle guard just north of the highway. A road climbed gently up the alluvial deposits washed from the heart of the Whetstone Mountains through French Joe Canyon. There was nothing gentle about the road. It was littered with large and small rocks, water eroded ruts and holes. An empty pickup sat just passed the cattle guard. The driver was walking, with a small dog, a few hundred bumps up the route. Catching up to him, he told me he was a volunteer at nearby Kartchner Caverns State Park and was out exploring.
After a jolting half-mile of dodging the larger boulders and deeper ruts, I decided to follow the volunteers lead, parked, packed a bottle of water and walked toward the canyon. About 29 Arizona residents die annually from heat related causes, mostly because they are not sufficiently hydrated. Linda, my very own personal nurse, who is an RN of considerable expertise, makes sure we drink more water than our thirst demands or at least eight glasses per day. As for waterless birding, or any other activity, I would not want to be suffering from thirst. According to a few sources, half of the people dying from desert thirst, for example, perish in 36 hours, a quarter die in 48 to 50 hours. No one makes it past 80 hours. It is not a pretty way to die. Following the feeling of thirst, a victim goes through stages ranging from water treatable cottonmouth and shriveled tongue to the untreatable blood sweat phase. That phase is when mental capacity is unclear. By then the pain of thirst is gone, the body shuts down and you die. Yikes. I will be glad to carry an extra bottle of water.
Plastic water bottles gurgled from the back of my vest, the vest that held a compass, field guide, paper and pen, whistle for emergencies, an energy bar or two, camera and tape recorder and more. I trudged up the last remnants of the dirt track to the creek bed of French Joe Canyon. Reliable sources outlined where to look for targeted Rufous-capped Warbler seen in the canyon last year. I also kept an eye out for Fan-tailed Warblers, but what was I thinking? The species had not been seen there for eight years. A flash of bright yellow teased my wishes, but it was a male Yellow Warbler foraging abnormally close to the ground. Rufous-capped Warblers were not to be found, and, I learned later, had not been seen in the canyon since the end of June 2005. Black-throated Gray Warblers were abundant and was a new species for the trip. A pair of Scott’s Orioles swooped by to identify me. The water bottles in my vest were becoming lighter and the day hotter. I turned back.
After bouncing to the highway, I threaded through Saturday traffic of Sierra Vista and south to Miller Canyon where Flame-colored Tanagers had been reported. More cars and people had converged at the end of the canyon road than two days ago. Tom Beatty was busy directing visitors to hummingbird feeders and informed me that no new species had arrived since the day before yesterday. When I told Tom I was going to hike up the canyon, he volunteered that I could use the short cut through his property. The gate he directed me to was locked. Turning back, I saw Edith Beatty, who unlocked the gate and told me the combination number of the lock. What generous and trusting people.
An old access road reaches up the canyon toward the trail and a spring that supplies water to Tombstone about seven crow miles to the northeast. Water pipelines from Miller and Carr canyon and three other sites in the Huachuca Mountains have supplied water to Tombstone since 1882. The springs in Miller Canyon still helps keep the dust down in the O.K. Corral. Ruins of buildings sat just off the trail. An exposed pipe appeared then disappeared under the rocky surface of the narrowing trail. Loose rocks littered the steep climb. A binocular bedecked couple coming down told me they had photographed a Flame-colored Tanager in the canyon in 2002. I asked how far up the trail. Months earlier, a friend confessed that the trail to the tanagers was physically demanding. Yesterday’s ordeal had worn down my sixties something self. Could I meet the demands of Miller Canyon?
Onward and upward, I slogged passed trees reaching from the deep canyon floor. Towering Douglas fir stood high above me, many growing taller and wider in girth than most Oregon loggers (and lawyers) would allow. Cool air from the riparian lushness of Miller Canyon was nearly canceled by the rising afternoon temperature. The roughness of the canyon trail contributed to the rise in my own temperature and the beat of my heart. I needed to see a bird just to slow me down to a healthy pace. Finally, I reached the location on the trail where the couple photographed the tanager three years ago. Sweat was running into my eyes, my pulse was slowing from freeway to a reasonable speed. My brain was telling me I was crazed.
Expecting to see a Flame-colored Tanager at the very spot where one was photographed three years earlier was ridiculous. Further, some of the tanagers more recently observed were hybrids between Western and Flame-colored tanagers. I couldn’t count a hybrid, a point I considered as I turned downhill. Descending was a welcome trend albeit a little treacherous. I hoped my Big Bend rubber knee syndrome would not rear its ugly head. Just as I decided to face the music that a Flame-colored Tanager was not going to be possible, I heard a loud Western Tanager as if on steroids. Something flew from one thickly branched tree to the other. It was reddish, not yellow and red and not wholly red, and it was out of sight. I froze, shuffled a few feet up and down the trail, waited and then saw a loud gray-billed and streak-backed tanager. It seemed to match its mug shot in my field guide.
The remainder of the trip back to the trailhead was long, physically arduous and tanagerized. My knees began to protest slightly and my water bottles no longer gurgled. The well was dry. By the time I arrived at the upper gate, I had forgotten the combination to the locked gate. I never was much of an excellent student of math. Besides, numbers are much harder to remember than are field marks of birds. It seemed a long way around Beatty’s property; I should have written down the combination. The car was a welcome sight where a cool bottle of water waited in the icebox. Before reaching the car, I saw the female side of the couple who gave me direction about the tanager. She was sitting in a chair next to an open vehicle. I thanked her, told her I saw a tanager, but was not 100% sure it was not a hybrid. “Oh, don’t you have Sibley?” I said no; whereupon she said, take a look at theirs, “it’s in the car.” A large dog, the same one that accompanied them on the trail, was in the back seat of the open vehicle. I rethought reaching for the book, telling her I was not too sure if her dog would be happy about my intrusion. Debbie Parker walked past the dog and handed me the book. Jim Parker walked up about the time I had decided the bird I saw was a pure Flame-colored Tanager. We exchanged emails and good birding salutations. Soon I was back at the motel. After a hot, yes hot, soak for my tired muscles, Linda and I went over our notes.
We registered our vehicle and ourselves at the Ft. Huachuca gate, and headed for Garden Canyon. The fort occupies 113 square miles on the east slope of the Huachuca Mountains. During the 1970s, Linda picked up a privately published history of Fort Huachuca that stated, “Huachuca, in Indian language, means “thunder” or “stormy,” and that a careful listener could hear the sound of “Troop ho!” and horse hooves pounding the ground. I doubt that was what the Apache had in mind. To us, Huachuca meant canyons and birds. We were happy that the Fort tolerated birders visiting Garden, Scheelite and Sawmill canyons within the boundary of this historical and currently active military installation.
Below the mouth of Garden Canyon, we encountered Bullock’s Oriole and Gila Woodpecker. At the upper picnic grounds, several cars and more people had converged. We parked, walked to the creek and heard the unmistakable sound of a trogon. It is not the sound associated with demur beauty or even average good looks. In moments, we saw an Elegant Trogon mapping out his territory from a tall sycamore. The bird did not seem to mind the milling throng below who acted more as if they were witnessing a fireworks display. One group of the gushing dozen across the creek went into such a state of audible awe that the male perched obligingly for Linda’s waiting camera lens.
We rushed up Garden Canyon to Sawmill Canyon. About a quarter-mile hike from the cable-gated road, we discovered a Buff-breasted Flycatcher. One the easiest species in the genus Empidonax to identify, it is also possibly the prettiest. Red-faced Warblers added to the excitement, as did skulking Mexican Jays and more flycatchers. Back at the trailhead and the cabin where we parked, we broke for a quick lunch. A van of three birders soon arrived, parked and set up a table for their lunch. Realizing we still did not have a picture of ourselves together, we asked our neighbors for help. Two of them chimed that the third was a great photographer and would be happy to accommodate us. As we posed but before we could explain anything about our camera, the self-imposed photographer announced his success. Wonderful, we thought, as we returned to our vehicle. We checked the results but there were none. We were too shy to ask for a second sitting.
Several minutes later, we parked at the entrance of Scheelite Canyon, famous for Spotted Owls. That was the species we needed. As an ornithologist, a long time birder and resident of the Pacific Northwest, I was slightly embarrassed that I had never encountered Spotted Owls. The late Robert T. Smith, former caretaker of Scheelite Canyon’s habitat had guided thousands of birders to their first Spotted Owl for twenty years since 1978. In 1963, I would have had to negotiate a trailess canyon. We checked the log sheets at the trailhead. Rich Hoyer wrote that he saw one on the upper fork. One owl? Only one? I had envisioned Spotted Owls dripping from the trees. Even so, one Spotted Owl was better than no owls, but would there be even one?
Compared to what lay ahead, the beginning of the trail is relatively flat. Beyond, it is a steep rocky scrape, with many places requiring sheer footedness and good hand holds. In little over an eighth of a mile, we began to scour the trees for owls. The trees were birdless. Not far ahead, we met a couple coming down the trail. He was constantly talking inanely about how easy the trail seemed. She was speechless, with a tired expression of jumbled embarrassment, anger and detached sadness. He was as nimble as the intoxicated donkey he emulated. I knew it was no point in asking them about owls. Somewhere between what our trail map called the “Jaws” and a cliff, we decided to turn back. Hiking down had often been lucky for finding the prey. Yesterday, in Miller Canyon, was a good example of the so-called descending technique. We were not giving up; we were changing the angle of our view.
In a few steps, we met the Parkers coming up the trail. Although their owl list today was spotless, they were fairly certain they could show us our target bird. We followed, or at least the best our bodies would allow. If their aging dog had not slowed them down, we would have had more difficulty keeping up on the ever-steeper rocky canyon. We finally arrived at the middle roosting area where the Parkers had seen owls the previous year. The last few yards were a real puffer. If only a Spotted Owl had replaced our oxygen starvation, but, again, there were no owls. When the Parkers said they were heading down the trail, Linda and I decided to wait to catch our breaths. The Parkers agreed they would mark the trail if they found a Spotted Owl. We thanked them and eventually began our descent. I looked at the trail to the upper roost. It looked steeper than any part of the canyon, and I knew we had to get to the car. The sun would soon be setting.
On the way up Scheelite, we noticed a couple of recent fire pits, water bottles and garbage in several places along the upper part of the trail. A birder related that they had encountered about a dozen immigrants on the trail. We worried about the potential of wildfires and hoped no one would ever find a Spotted Owl reduced as a mere drumstick.