Milestone 700, ch 14, Next the Southwest, but First a Word from a Local Species

Next, the Southwest but First a Word from a Local Species

The long-time goal to bird Alaska in summer of 2009 is on the table. Just months ago, I had written Dan Gibson, my old friend and colleague, who just retired from his tenure at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “Should everything go as planned, we will be in your area by mid-June.” Plans of mice, men, and eager bird travelers do not mix well with an economy similar to the Great Depression. Consequently, we cancelled our ferry reservations and emailed various people, including Dan, that no, once again, we would not be heading north to Alaska. As consolation, I would spend two weeks at the other end of the country.

Before pointing to the great Southwest, I might possibly find one of the species targeted on the return from Alaska and that is on my list as a potential lifer in Arizona. That would mean my present nemesis owl, the ever-elusive Flammulated Owl, the same species breeding in my own local county in southwestern Oregon. Since I’ve missed it at least three times on occasions that were thought to be sure-fire hits, Flammulated Owl became a species warm in my heart. I am hot to see one and each time I have looked, I’ve flamed out, no pun intended. Perhaps, the owl was the cause of occasional heartburn or was it something I ate. Guessing that the forest service roads will be clear of snow by mid-June, I planned to squeeze in an owl night in the Cascades. I emailed Norm Barrett. He replied, suggesting to meet at the Forest Service headquarters near Prospect, or about 10 miles from the Flammulated Owl sightings of past. He later emailed that he had some sort of bug and couldn’t make it. Determined, I was ready to roll with the original itinerary. If I end up Flammulatedless, get an owl egg, or skunked once again, there’s always Arizona.

19-20 June 2009

Friday, 19 June, I back out the carport and meander through the home territory of the lower Rogue River Valley. I bird a few of the local watering holes, mainly looking for Blue-winged Teal, a species missing from my county year list. By five p.m., with finds of a brood of Ruffed Grouse, a Dipper and a nesting Black-backed Woodpecker, I pull into the traditional campsite at Huckleberry Campground. This is the one Norm and I have occupied either together or separately during earlier Flammulated Owl quests. Cumulus clouds are gathering above the otherwise unoccupied campground. It’s early, so I scout around the campground and hike a trail two miles up an easy incline along a wooded ridge above. Townsend’s Solitaire and Williamson’s Sapsucker help fill in my county list. I’m surprised that Red Crossbill is absent.

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Norm placed nest boxes for Flammulated Owls near the Huckleberry Mountain Campground.

 

With time to spare, I check one of the Flammulated Owl houses Norm mounted near the campground on a hemlock about a half-dozen years ago. The house is on the ground. It is empty, with no sign of past occupancy. Now the sun is low and I drive north about a half mile from the campground, walk up a meadow and locate two other owl houses. They are still on the trees, about 20 feet above the forest floor. Returning to the road, I make careful mental notes of the surroundings. I need to be able to recognize the meadow’s patches of skunk cabbage and enfant trees in the dark. One cabbage patch is about 2-3 X 6 feet, as if growing over a grave. How is that going to look when I return in the darkness to search for owls?

The sky is shining brightly, but long shadows and darkening clouds clustering in the east brings night ever nearer. I drive up the road toward Huckleberry Mountain. Stops along the three-mile gravel road require some road clearing. Luckily, the trees and branches, mostly hemlock and fir, are small and easy to drag to the edge of the road. Two places along the narrow route have snow, but these are easy to negotiate, thanks to the old blue Honda CR-V. I arrive well before sundown and just as thunder rumbles in a dark cloud toward 9,182 foot Mt. Thielsen and peaks in Crater Lake National Park. Late spring snowfields dot their slopes. The sharp crags of Thielsen, even from my 30-mile viewpoint, appear formidable. I have a hard time believing I climbed it around 45 years ago. Lightning strikes pockmarked the summit, and I wonder if new strikes will chisel the rock tonight. Now, the entire sky is in shades of white, gray and bluish black. Just short of the summit of Huckleberry Mountain is where Norm and a party of four others, including myself failed to Flammulate almost two year to the day. To increase my possible success this year, the modus operandi is not to disturb the area in the light of day. I wait for darkness. Norm’s rule not to play the recorded Flammulated Owl call until thirteen stars are in view is moot. There’s no open sky and no Norm.

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Mt. Thielsen

 

Stumbling out into blackness and only a few yards up the trail, I try the tape. Maybe I will be lucky and won’t have to hike the entire length, which from my experience two years ago, is a short trip going up in daylight but too long going down in the beams of dancing flashlights. There was something wrong with the tape. I was hearing Hal, just after being unplugged, but this isn’t 2001. The sluggish sound was enough to endear a lonely sasquatch. What the… I realize I cannot fix the problem until I see the face of the field guide sized player. I don’t have my glasses and scurry back to the Honda to get them. Somehow, the speed of the play back had been turned to slow speed. Once corrected, the monotonous call of the Flammulated Owl, all too familiar to my peaked ears, cheers me back up the trail. On the second playback, I thought I heard a Flammulated until I realize it is on the recording. It’s a distant bird answering the closer one on the tape. In a few yards, I come to a fallen tree. Above it, snow, up to two feet deep, blankets the trail and more downed trees, all formerly 30 feet or less high lay jumbled in my path. More snow over the fallen trees block the trail. Gritting my teeth, I detour around the mess by crunching through broken dead limbs below the trunks of a thick grove of hemlock. I tell myself there nothing harmful out there except Flammulated Owls in waiting. Shortly after the detour, I try the playback, listening to the quiet, and again play the tape.

In minutes, I arrive at the easily recognizable site where in 2007 the owling group stood for what seemed a painfully long time. I stop and play the tape. Silence. I hit the play button again. Nothing. Once more, I push the play button, push stop and listen. This time I check the nearby trees, most of which are less than 40 feet high that surround an opening that is about 50 feet in diameter. The light beam catches a bird, a bird about the size of the Hermit Thrush I’d seen around sundown. However, this bird is too chunky for a thrush. It flutters toward me not unlike a large Western Screech-Owls. The mystery bird is about 10 feet above the open ground and only 20 feet from me. It has big eyes, not the small orbs of a thrush that are fast asleep deep in the needle-laden boughs of a fir. The eyes are black and the bird is vermiculated. Suddenly the bird, apparently aware of the error of it way, turns to my left. I follow it in the flashlight beam to a stand of conifers, noticing that the dappled plumage extends not just on its breast but also its back. This bird is most definitely an owl. In about ten seconds, the bird had appeared, flew toward me with good eye contact, changed directions and disappeared. I’ve made identifications in far less time but not in a dark forest on a remote mountain. My racing mind put together a plump 6-inch bird, an owl, with relatively large black eyes and heavily variegated plumage. Holy flammeolus, it is a Flammulated Owl.

Returning to the waiting transportation, I try not to hurry. I try harder not to trip or stumble on the rutted trail in the darkness engulfing all but the narrow beam of the flashlight. I don’t want to appear wounded or scared, just in case a cougar is tracking me. Intellectually, I know I am safe. Cougars very rarely attach humans, sasquatch is a myth, I think. Back at the waiting chariot, I turn the key and the trusty engine whirs to life. Negotiating the deserted road, with its twists and spur road intersection, is not a worry. The most danger to safety as I approach the more traveled forest road are humans.

I park at the edge of the meadow that I checked out before dark and walk as far as the two owl houses. The ground is uneven and partially compacted, mostly from cattle ranging in the meadow when it was wet. It is now dry and difficult to walk on, especially in what must be the blackest of nights. I play the tape, listen, play the tape, and listen. I play the tape, listen, I give up. If they are there, the Flammulated Owls do not give a hoot. By now, it is approaching midnight. Trying to sleep, I think of the captive Flammulated Owl in Malheur in 1962. Gene, one of the many influencing me to follow birds, occasionally visited the museum during my time there. I looked forward to his stay. While the biologist of the Hawaii National Wildlife Refuge, he visited the museum and gave a seminar on his work there. I was even more inspired from his zeal for studying distribution and migration. I cannot tell him about the owl and thank him for my wonderful ride. He died in 2007. I climb into the back of the birdmobile and lock the door. The darkness is cold and falling asleep difficult with broken thoughts ranging to satisfaction to grim realization that no one is forever.

Six hours later, after a horribly uncomfortable night, the sun pokes through the heavy hemlock boughs, Olive-sided Flycatchers sing and kinglets call high above. Limping out of the back of the Honda, I bear the pain of both hips hurting from lack of sufficient padding during the short night. I decide that the hip joints could be saved on my next sleep over by a strategically placed hemorrhoid cushion.

Before driving home, I revisit Huckleberry Mountain to look for evidence of the owl. As a Gray Jay flies, the mountain is only two miles from the campground. The elevation of the campground is around 5,456 feet or about 900 feet below the summit of Huckleberry Mountain. I’m not sure since various sources on the elevation of the summit vary from 6,281 to 6,352 and 6,370. None of these elevations is from my GPS, which is in a parcel post box I sent to myself in Arizona. Regardless of the elevation, the trail to the summit looked very different, less menacing, in the daylight than it did last night.

Scouting the open area where I observed the Flammulated Owl reveals trees potentially large for woodpecker holes and ultimately owl nesting cavities. Also apparent are more blown down trees than I saw in the night. I explore the trail to the summit, which requires stomping foot holds in a tall snow bank blocking the trail. Up and over, I climb up 60 feet to the summit in not much more horizontal distance. A few more feet, and this mountain would be at timberline and I would be breathless. On the way back to the owl spot, I find a woodpecker hole probably large enough for a Flammulated Owl. A Sooty Grouse is somewhere further down, near the edge of the trees where I stood last night. At that spot, I try spishing, something I had been doing throughout yesterday and today at other localities. This time, the spishing brought in a myriad of birds from Mountain Chickadees, juncos, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Golden-crowned Kinglets and one very agitated Red-breasted Sapsucker. I then attempted a whistle of a Flammulated Owl. That brought an even more frantic response. The sapsucker nearly landed on my head. Could the response of these birds, which was far more reactive than similar species elsewhere, be more pronounced because of the presence of a Flammulated Owl? Are birds that reside in an area occupied by an owl more on the alert? It seems logical they would. Forgetting the scientific method, I happily accept the anecdotal observation as further evidence for my nocturnal observation.

On the way home, I first check the campground one last time for crossbills. I’ve never missed them there, but this is not the time. With sightings of a pica, two healthy looking coyotes and a Northern Goshawk, I congratulate myself for finally picking up a local lifer and recall earlier experiences with specimens of Flammulated Owls. Prior to my time at the museum, a fellow named Hekstra visited there, delving in the collection of owls. He later published in 1982 on some of his exploits, which included naming 24 new subspecies of owls. The proposed taxa were based on specimens he examined at Smithsonian and at least 10 other museums, mostly in the United States. Staff at the museum informed me that Hekstra was discovered erasing data and changing data of specimens and that he apparently did so at several other museums across the world. Smithsonian’s policy, and as far as I know, that of other museums, is completely against anyone removing information from a specimen label. If changes are made, a single line is penciled through the original specimen label data and any changes added are dated and initialed. Quoting a 1989 paper of mine published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Hekstra’s paper on the new owls included “Incorrect information…with regard to museum designation, museum number, and collecting locality of many of the holotypes.” My paper included the correct data for the specimens, and no attempt was made to evaluate any of the new taxa proposed by Hekstra.

Three of the new subspecies were proposed by Hekstra as representing populations of Flammulated Owl, with one from British Columbia, one from Colorado and another from Mexico. According to my old friend Joe T. Marshall, the subspecies from Colorado is a recognizable subspecies. The next year, I published in the same journal, that frontalis, the subspecies from Colorado, is indeed recognizable and ranges from the Rocky Mountains to probably the Great Basin. The subspecies from British Columbia, which might migrate through Oregon and possibly stopping at Huckleberry Mountain on the way, are within the range of morphological variation in an already named subspecies idahoensis described 100 years earlier than Hekstra’s publication. Thus, the name of Hekstra’s subspecies from British Columbia is a synonym of idahoensis. The subspecies recognized from ABA land in my studies is preliminary. The basis for some ornithologists considering Flammulated Owl as monotypic, meaning there are no recognizable subspecies, is likewise not supported by a thorough analysis based on suitable sample sizes of data. My fleeting glimpse of the Huckleberry Flammulated Owl was well, too fleeting for any taxonomic comment beyond species identification and that is good enough for me.

*****

“Winging It” arrived the following Monday. A short article in it announced that Aplomado Falcons seen in coastal southern Texas are not countable. That means that my coveted Flammulated Owl, my ABA species 628 is actually number 627. Seems someone asked if an unbanded Aplomado Falcon seen in Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is countable. That’s where Linda and I saw our Aplomado Falcon. The bottom line is that the species is not established in that general region even though a release program began there in 1985. On the other hand, an Aplomado Falcon seen in 1992 was countable in western Texas. It was believed to be from a breeding population in northern Mexico. However, a release program is also going on in western Texas. How does a poor birder know whether an Aplomado Falcon is a wild bird wandering in from a distant Mexican population or one of the birds from the release program? Birds do fly, especially falcons. It does not matter. It does not matter? Are Aplomado Falcons from coastal Texas non-birds?

There are seven deadly rules that establish establishment before a species enters Camelot, when it may be counted. In a nutshell, the rules are: (1) the record must be confirmable (photo, specimen); (2) “There is a more-or-less-contiguous population of interacting or potentially interacting individuals;” (3) the population is not on a chopping block, with all the birds being flogged, fogged or shot to death; (4) the population is large enough to withstand “routine” amounts of mortality; (5) the population produces enough offspring to at least maintain itself; (6) the population has been hanging around for at least 15 years; (7) someone needs to document rules 1-6 in a hopefully peer-reviewed publication. What is the story about counting Aplomado Falcons? The occurrence of the coastal falcons is well documented, the birds are in a “more or less” contiguous population, no one is thinking (more or less) of whipping the falcons from the face of southern Texas. However, Texas Parks and Wildlife are not so sure the population is large enough to withstand normal mortality and maintain its populations (rules 4 and 5), but the Peregrine Fund website dated June 2008 concluded that a “self-sustaining population appears to be established in South Texas.” If someone would follow rule 7 and write that paper documenting southern Texas birds as being established, I could count the Flammulated Owl as ABA 628. Maybe I will anyway.

The Flammulated Owl, regardless of it number in the scheme of things, does serve as a transition. I could have found it on the southern return from Alaska or I might find it trying to beat the heat in Arizona. The little owl bridges the gap. Somehow shifting thoughts of Eastern Yellow Wagtails and eiders to Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and trogons is not so difficult.

Ever since first birding in the Southwest in 2005, I felt an emotional tug to go back to southeastern Arizona. Sure, there are some birds I need to see, but come to think of it, that is emotional too. In 2005, Linda and I were then on the down-slope of a 45 day birding trip and spent only eight days in SE Arizona in late April and early May. Some of the unchecked southwestern birds include a few we simply missed. We were too early for a few species. After the fact, we read of a Berylline and a Lucifer Hummingbirds were observed while we played in Arizona. A Berylline was in Chiricahua National Monument and the Lucifer was at Ash Canyon and so were we. The monument was too far off our route, we just didn’t, for an unknown, and regrettable reason, did not include Ash Canyon in the crowded itinerary. Maybe we reasoned we couldn’t bird everywhere in Arizona. We heard, verbally, that a Thick-billed Kingbird was near the Paton’s hummingbird haven just outside Patagonia and worse, a Botteri’s Sparrow was reported in the Madera Canyon region the very day we left Arizona. If we would have listened, maybe it could have been heard singing as we drove toward Green Valley. Since 2005, the idea of finding those and several other unseen species whirled in my mind then and today. I had planned and cancelled trips to Arizona (or Alaska) for summers every year following 2005. Ever the optimist, I thought last year would to be the year for the dream, but birding in ’08 was relegated to the home state, not to mention my near-death experience in August.

While keeping an eye, virtually speaking, on birds of Arizona, I read on the internet of tantalizing species gracing lucky birders. Besides the usual but wonderful summer birds, such as Five-striped Sparrow, a nightjar, three or more hummingbirds and a host of other potential lifers, southeast Arizona was visited by some exciting vagrants. Yellow-green Vireo, Crescent-chested Warbler and others could have garnished a July 2008 trip. During the winter, Tufted Flycatcher gave a rare appearance. Might this and other winter visitors from Mexico be looking for cooler summer homes? A Sinaloa Wren, not even then on the ABA list is hanging out for many to see and hear. Maybe someday, and to be prepared for these life birds, I found web pictures of the two even though I felt fairly certain I would not find the two species. Of course, there’s always hope; maybe the wren will stay for the summer. Why not?

Seeing pictures of the Sinaloa Wren brought a flood of memories of days and late evenings working with Allan R. Phillips as he checked and rechecked some of the thousands of specimens used in his conclusions about “The Known Birds of North and Middle America.” My part in Allan’s project was mostly technical support, or more realistically, packing and unpacking hundreds of loans he had sent from other museums. Many of the specimens were wrens. Years earlier, he worked out of the Delaware Museum of Natural History, where he also tasked their staff with similar support. A falling out between the Delaware Museum and Allan left him without a base to examine specimens. Anyone ever meeting Allan knows that he was frequently difficult company, mostly because he was very single-minded about his mission. If asked to comment on something other than birds, he usually would produce a loud harrumph followed by what some considered a snide remark. “Well, I wouldn’t know.” The erasable Allan or ARP as many referred to him, settled on the old USNM, the National Museum of Natural History. Formerly the U.S. National Museum, the USNM acronym remains in use to identify individual specimens (e.g., USNM 564358). I don’t know what that example number belongs to and I’m certainly not going to bother my remaining, un-retired, friends at my old stomping grounds look it up.

Anyway, the loans Allan requested over the years kept pouring in. Each loan is accompanied by an invoice, list of its contents, itemized by species and subspecies and each specimen’s catalogue number of the lending museum. Every one of the specimens borrowed by Allan was checked against the invoice to make sure all that were listed are there. Experience taught me that very rarely a museum would either add an unlisted specimen, omit an invoiced bird, or include a specimen with a catalogue number not quite the same as that on the invoice. Dyslexia strikes again. Or maybe not. Smithsonian was responsible for the specimens lent by other museums, not Allan who often chomped at the bits waiting for a loan to be turned over for his eagle eyeing. Once he was finished with them, which might be weeks away, my hope was that each and every one of the specimens on the invoice that originally accompanied them would be there. Most of the time they were fully accounted for, but the possibility of a specimen being mixed with birds from a different loan was always possible. Once Allan got possession of the loan he laid them on their backs, often row after row of other borrowed specimens and those housed in Smithsonian. Allan traveled with several yards of flat-black cloth, which he would place under the specimens he examined. This prevented reflection from the bank of lights, including special tungsten and florescent bulbs balanced to produce a natural Northern Hemisphere light. There were several comparable specimen examination areas in the vast collection. The examine area where Allan worked was the same where, for many mornings Alexander Wetmore and I would exchange greetings. It was the same one others and I sometime more recently might stare at a series of specimens attempting to discover taxonomic relationships.

Dr. Wetmore, one of the few I never felt comfortable calling by his first name, was long since retired from the post of Secretary of Smithsonian. Pouring over specimens mostly from Panama, most of which he had collected, was a labor of love, and he often stopped me to show his latest findings. Was this a test? Could I also see the differences of two groups of specimens representing two locations in Panama? Was there a recognizable subspecies to be described? If Dr. Wetmore thought so, it was likely true. Although most of my taxonomic endeavors concerned species from North America, I never found fault with his conclusions. One of the ornithologists before me that did create a load of taxonomic problems that ate a large portion of my time was Harry Church Oberholser. Storrs Olson dubbed him H2O. Allan agreed that Oberholser’s taxonomy was often at fault, but for Allan, he most negatively evoked the name van Rossem. Contrary to Dr. Wetmore, who I never heard speak negatively about anyone, Allan essentially held disdain for almost everyone, but especially Berkeley and Harvard graduates. That’s just a sampling of his list. More insight to Allan’s taste in taxonomy and taxonomist in the lengthy introduction in part 1 to his “Known birds of North and Middle America” is a must read. Fortunately, Allan liked me, most of the time. It was mutual. His frankness, although sometime bordering between malicious and untested truths, were insightful and often entertaining reading. Our relationship was not all wine and roses. A few times Allan’s irascible nature got the better of me and I would snap back. He was not the king nor would I be his servant and I tell him so. He would never express regret, but in a couple of days, he would ask me what I thought about this or that taxonomic conclusion. That was his apology.

Almost always, I would agree with Allan‘s taxonomic findings. Once, I did differ concerning subspecies of Ruby-crowned Kinglet. He earlier published a description of a new one, but specimens in the museum, my museum at the time, did not support its recognition. I borrowed specimens from several museums to bolster my n value, the sample size. Turns out the variation Allan described for his new subspecies was nothing more than individual, not geographic variation. A short publication describing my study did not seem to rankle Allan, who followed my conclusions in his “Known Birds.” Having at least leaned over Allan’s shoulders during his studies he published in those two volumes of “Known Birds,” I think that evaluation of the new subspecies he described would favorable. In fact, I ended up recognizing most of subspecies he described in volume 1. My formal recognition was part of a paper on birds described from 1957, the last year the A.O.U. Check-list dealt with subspecies, to 1987, the year following Allan’s part 1. Part 2 of “Known Birds” contains more descriptions of new subspecies, even Vireo pallens browningi. The subspecies is surely a good one. By part 2, I was tired of evaluating new subspecies. I needed a life and besides, I had a few new subspecies of my own to publish.

News of Arizona rarities brought more than just a flood of memories. Allan, along with Joe Marshal and Gale Monson, made the birds of Arizona a science by including subspecies, molt and as much other data they could pack into the 1964 “The Birds of Arizona.“ Allan might utter a negative shrug upon hearing of Sinaloa Wren, Northern Jacana and others showing up in his state. Allan took any distributional record not supported by a specimen lightly. I’d like to think he would have a change of heart when now camera-challenged people like me have a shot, so to speak, of documenting a sighting. Well, almost, a bigger lens might help me. If a rarity and I do ever cross paths, maybe someone with a better lens will step up and do the honors.

Digression, digression. Back to draining my flood of memory. During Allan’s many pilgrimages to Smithsonian, I happily did learn a few tricks about identifying flycatchers and other species, including wrens. Watching him sift through specimens, comparing geographic patterns of variation often led to new information. Sometimes it meant discovering that a named subspecies was nothing more than a case of individual variation. Occasionally the specimens reveal a new subspecies. Allan frequently drew me into his domain, pointing out geographic variation. Birds in fresh plumage and on their breeding ground tell many stories. Taxonomic conclusions about them help define the birds systematically and, ultimately, identify the taxonomic units for conservationists. It helps to know what might be saved. However, Allan kept his focus on the immediate, the series of specimens he was working on at the time. As he plugged away, I knew, marveling at his tenacity, that I should pay more attention and now wish I learned more from such a unique sage. Allan was mostly on the money and his taxonomic conclusions, right or wrong made everyone think and try harder. Too bad there are not more like him to stir the pot.

As my departure date approached, I began thinking of the downside of going to Arizona. That is because Linda does not do well in the heat. She elected to stay home, catch up on gardening and enjoy air conditioning. Two weeks apart for us is a milestone we hoped to endure and survive.

*****

6 July 2009

I am up at 4 a.m. in time to fly out of Medford to Phoenix, Arizona. However, when I arrive at the airport, no one is at ticket counter. Oh well, it‘s a smallish airline, maybe they stepped out for a smoke. To be sure, I ask another airline staffer. With a smirk, the person said my flight would be in the p.m. The e-ticket, indeed, states that my plane leaves this afternoon. I call Linda to tell her my idiotic mistake. The taxi driver picking me up at the airport asked how I was, whereupon I replied. “Stupid.”

He said, “Now that you’ve told me, you don’t have to tell anybody else.”

Returning home, I reschedule my night’s lodging, took a nap, got up, now at the correct part of the day and once again said good-bye to Linda. Once in one day was bad enough, but the second good-bye seems only slightly easier until I get on the plane and rumble down the runway. I’m going to miss my love.

Many thoughts swim in my aging head as the plane drones south from the green Oregon mountains to the hot and dry Southwest. Will the rental car be ready? It won’t be the little blue Honda CR-V; the usual birding chariot that I know will be missed. That vehicle remains at home, with Linda. Leaving my darling behind is difficult to say the least. We haven’t been apart as long as the projected two-week solo. Linda, who has spent more time in Arizona than I ever will follow a copy of my itinerary I left sitting on the home desk. The jet drones southward while I choke on leaving the greatest treasure homebound.

I’m reminded of a story. As I recall, four people from the Natural History Museum went on a bird-collecting trip on an island in the Greater Antilles. The trip was during the mid-1970s. The mission went quite well, except one member of the party talked about missing his wife so much that the rest of the crew grew annoyed. Likewise, the lamenting associate was not doing his job to the supervisor’s satisfaction. Somehow, the associate was put on track for the duration of the expedition. I am certain I’ll stay on a self-imposed track, especially with something not then available to my colleagues. Cell phones.

Suddenly missing spouses and the late Allan Phillips jumps from my mind as the plane bumps on the Arizona tarmac. During the taxi to the terminal, my pulse quickens. Is luck going to smile on me? If that smile is from ear to ear, a Berylline Hummingbird, maybe an Aztec Thrush and a Yellow Grosbeak will repeat their last summer’s visit.

Hot, dry air brushes my face and bare arms as I stride from the plane to the terminal. The landing for the smallish airline, which serves about 15 cities from Medford to Springfield, Mo, uses the former Williams Field, the Williams Air Force Base dating back to World War II. The base closed in the early 1990s and became a civilian airport. The rental car is waiting. The airport is in the middle of now where, but I finally get going after taking the wrong turn and doubling back to the terminal to get my bearings. It is a long ride to Green Valley and there’s plenty of time to think about what is ahead and who is left behind. I remind myself of Linda’s encouragement and edge up past the speed limit on a nearly empty freeway in the wee-hours of the morning.

*****

During the drive from Phoenix, I kept myself awake with thoughts of great birding in one of the last mountain ranges Linda and I experienced in our 2005 journey. The Santa Rita Mountains, the nights nestled in Madera Canyon at Madera Kubo, a bed and breakfast, the Elf Owl in the cavity of a utility pole, with the Flame-colored Tanager singing at our doorstep of our little blue cabin, the places left unexplored and the history are things to recall, relive and marvel. The more distant past also entertained during the drive south. When at the museum, I sometimes needed to refer to earlier works about specimens and taxonomic comments pioneer works might offer. Once, identifying subspecies of a large series of Horned Larks, I consulted the early publication, “The birds recorded in the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona” by Florence Merriam Bailey in 1923. It was published by the Cooper Ornithological Club as Pacific Coast Avifauna Number 151. The journal Condor is published by the same organization. Too many museum specimens and live birds have flown by to recall all the details and finding the paper on the net helped refresh memory. Florence Bailey, one of the earliest recognized female ornithologists, compiled records dating back to 1873. In the introductions, Florence M. Bailey mentions that some of the data and specimens are at the National Biological Survey, then called the U.S. Biological Survey. These early specimens were a short walk from my office. Now that much of the bird collection database is available on line, I checked the web. Sure enough, among the hundreds of birds I asked about, those collected in Santa Cruz County, Arizona, I found specimen USNM 111640, a male Caprimulgus vociferus arizonae (the language I used to speak) collected by F. Stephens and E. W. Nelson on 4 July 1884. The locality was given simply as “Santa Rita Mountains.” Several specimens are from Madera Canyon, including USNM 262665, an immature male Melanerpes formicivorus formicivorus, collected on 8 August 1918 by A. B. Howell. On 24 January 1921, the Smithsonian database lists V. Bailey as the collector of an Aphelocoma californica woodhouseii at McCleary’s Ranch. Birders of Madera Canyon are familiar with McCleary’s Wash as a place to check for some of the regions avian specialties. These three examples, a Whip-poor-will, Acorn Woodpecker and Western Scrub-Jay are specimens I likely touched during my 25 years. I worked on taxonomy of Acorn Woodpecker in order to sort out what H.C. Oberholser had written about the different subspecies. Later, I became involved curating all of the woodpeckers in the collection at the Division of Birds. Since the only available treatment of the family lacked the detail and accuracy I needed to curate woodpeckers, I worked up a systematic list based mostly on the literature. That spun into two research projects concerning Downy Woodpeckers. I also attempted to work out a few taxonomic issues concerning scrub-jays, particularly those populations occurring in Oregon. While logging many hours looking over Allan Phillip’s shoulders when he worked on his “Known Birds” volumes, a better understanding of the species complex was developed but my conclusions never hatched into a published project. During my time working on jays and woodpeckers and while being tutored by Allan, I never, unfortunately, imagined actually going to the Santa Rita Mountains.

One of the earliest people Florence Bailey chronicles is Captain Charles Bendire whose egg collection I helped curate. In 1881, Frank Stephens collected birds in Madera Canyon, then locally known as White House Canyon. He later collected with E.W. Nelson, the latter well known for his expeditions into Mexico. Another collector she listed, and the collector of the scrub-jay just mentioned is “Mr. Vernon Bailey. “ Mr. Bailey, principally a mammologist, was her husband. He worked with Clinton Hart Merriam at Smithsonian, who went by C. Hart Merriam. I hope he didn’t have the trouble with his name as I do. When getting that askance look about not using a middle initial, I try to explain that, no I don’t use my first name. I end up saying it is like J. Paul Getty, without the money. C. Hart would have had to come up with some other example, or maybe people then were not so, so, something. Merriam developed the life zone concept and worked with Mr. Bailey. Merriam, along with Nelson and yours truly are among the twenty or so fellow members of the National Biological Survey.

The map in Bailey’s publication shows an existing road going up Madera Canyon. Although not shown on the early map, the road from the west probably goes through Continental, a locality mentioned many times in her work. Green Valley was then not even a figment in the imagination of the retired folks now residing there. About 60 species were collected in Madera Canyon in a little over two weeks in late July to mid-August 1918. Flame-colored Tanager is not on the list, but the usual suspects are named. Many of the English names Bailey listed are the same as those used today, including Canyon Towhee, a towhee’s name that has gone from Canyon to Brown to Canyon since Bailey’s publication. The locality Stone Cabin Canyon is mentioned numerous times throughout the species accounts. The canyon is now called the Florida Canyon, where I would be searching for reported Rufous-capped Warblers, a species Florence Bailey does not list. Two surprises in Bailey’s paper are the inclusion of multiple records of Lark Bunting around Continental and omission of brown-throated House Wrens that I hope to find above Madera Canyon.

Going back in history and comparing the canyon and other sites to the present, even anecdotally, adds flavor to hunt for more than a dozen targeted species soon to come.

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