Milestone 700, ch 17, More Sky Islands and Borderlands

 More Sky Islands and Borderlands

Leaving Salton Sea, all its glorious smells, flies and boiling heat, I could not help feel some regret. As I gain momentum in the age of Medicare use and with increasing aches and pains of a worn but not worn-out person, I am sure I will never see that sea again. Perhaps it is for the best. At least, it is possible to check off another. Would a return trip bring any more rewards than the gull and a new booby? Probably not. Yet.

There is an excitement from reentering Arizona. The classical radio station emanating from Phoenix and stops at a couple now open rest stops are welcoming. The section of travel reminds me of the scores of ailing saguaro cactus I saw on my way to Salton Sea. Many of the giant cactus have black and broken bases, limbs with holes and entire saguaros fallen to the hot desert floor. Chip Littlefield of Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, told me damage to saguaro cactus might be the result of aging, scabbing over cavities dug by birds, and abuse. The abuse is from humans, with nothing on their minds much but illegally destroying cactus. They shoot them! They even blow them up. Apparently, one incident, when a person was trying to get the better of a saguaro, ended badly. The cactus fell over, but it fell over on the person. Both died. Talk about sharp objects poking out an eye. The incident seems good western justice.

12 July 2009

It is Sunday. According to everything heard or read, avoiding crowds on weekends in Madera Canyon is a good idea. That’s fine. Florida Canyon is off the beaten track, and my 5:15 am arrival to this steep and arid canyon at the base of the Santa Rita Mountains may assure a parking place at the trailhead of the canyon. It does. There’s one car. Only a few feet from the trailhead and very close to the concrete bridge, the creek is flowing, but it is an easy jump. The trail is dryer than it was a couple of days earlier and the creek’s flow is down enough to walk up the streambed. Below the dam, I meet a man with a camera on a heftily sturdy tripod. Attached to the camera is a telephoto, perhaps three feet long. The man has difficulty getting his gangly equipment through the vegetation and over the dam. An Indigo Bunting, singing from the top of the sycamore rattles my nerves so much I shortly think I’m hearing the Rufous-capped Warbler. After so many attempts finding the warbler, I am more than ready to have it served up for a new addition to my list. I settle down and hunt up the canyon. No warbler, not one peep.

Florida Canyon, again


A young couple and I meet join forces, continuing up the canyon, further than I had gone on earlier visits. We find a giant centipede, tan and close to six inches long, near the creek bottom. Perhaps the warbler is just a little further, but it isn’t. Two women are coming up the creek as I retreat downstream. They are from Biddeford Pools, Maine, and a place I enjoyed shore birding in August 1962. More people arrive, at least a dozen, crowding the small canyon. No one is seeing or hearing the prize warbler. It is now 9 a.m. when I pass the wire gate and start down the trail. There are too many people and not enough Rufous-capped Warblers.   2009_0720AZ0130

Back at the motel, I sign up for one more night, review my wish list, itinerary and take a nap. About 5 p.m., I cannot resist taking a trip to Madera Canyon. Traffic coming down the road is heavy as people end their weekends and head to Tucson and other points of the compass. A very dead road-killed rattlesnake lies on the side of the road, emphasizing a new meaning to retire. Birding is not productive. By now, cars exiting the canyon are mostly gone. Half way back to Continental, a Gila monster, my first, lumbers off the road. Parking partly on the road, I jump out to document the black, with orange speckled lizard. Its length is over 14 inches, but its flicking tongue tells me to keep a distance. The remaining day, I reorganize, shower and eat. The telephone call with Linda is short. She sounds tired but tells me she feels a little better. I hit the sack early.

13 July 2009

The alarm rings me awake at 3 a.m. I rush up to the parking lot at the trail head of Florida Canyon. There’s just enough light to see that the flow of water is less than yesterday. No one is around. At the wire gate, I am able to make out more details, including the rocks that could send me tumbling. Handholds are easy to see as I climb up the dam. The sycamore stands tall and silent. Soon an Indigo Bunting is singing. It does not fool me this time. I am in focus, I think. A Scott’s Oriole flies overhead. Above the sycamore and to the left is a steep rock bench in the streambed. This is what some call the waterfall. Today, a thin ribbon of water trickles through the boulders. There is not enough water to fall. However, this is the last place that I had heard might produce the warbler.

A large boulder, below the nearly waterless waterfalls, is a great place to sit and wait. In seconds, a Rufous-capped Warbler flies up from bushes on a bank above me. It perches in the open, allowing easy observation. At 10 feet, it fills my binocs. After it was satisfied that I had a good look, so it seems, it moves to a new perch about six feet to my right. I pivot on my rump on what is thankfully a smooth rock. Again, the bird gives the impression that it is looking me over or is making sure I see it. What is it thinking? The warbler changes perches again, and, as usual, sits for easy viewing. I am too excited, after all the attempts for this species, to think of my camera. The warbler then dives into a dense clump of herbaceous vegetation about eight feet from where I sit. It is out of sight, but sings. The song is short and almost a whisper.

Elated, I feel light footed if not light headed while nimbly rock hopping in satisfied daze down the creek to the waiting birdmobile. Four years ago, I had seen my first and only Rufous-capped Warbler in Panama. Another person in the group and I share a laugh since the bird in Panama was found easily by the guide. The laugh was an ironic laugh as both of us had been unsuccessful in finding the Rufous-cap in Arizona’s French Joe Canyon in the Whetstone Mountains near Sierra Vista. The Rufous-capped Warbler today is a new ABA bird.

The motel’s breakfast is still available. I savor every bite, check out, drive south to Nogales and take Arizona Highway 82 to Patagonia. The temperature rises and I slow near the site where the Sinaloa Wren lives. Disappointingly, strains of its rather loud song are silent. I do see a couple of Phainopepla and remember being entertained by the Sinaloa Wren and Yellow-breasted Chats vocally clamoring in the thick underbrush. Phainopeplas, with wings flashing windows of white, stream back and forth over the canopy of sycamore and oak. They are our only regular Silky-Flycatcher. The other species in the family and not so regular in ABA territory is the Gray Silky Flycatcher. It is known from a 1985 record to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, another 10 years later in El Paso and four questionable records from California. The scientific moniker for this accidental visitor is Ptilogonys cinereus. About a week before leaving for Arizona, Dick Banks emailed me that someone was questioning the spelling of the generic name. I thought the matter had been resolved, even though I never agreed with the decision.

Back in the dark ages, 1989, to be exact, a paper was published in the Auk that showed that the correct spelling for the generic name of the Gray Silky-Flycatcher should be Ptiliogonys, not Ptilogonys. Yep, that’s what I wrote. The spelling change was discovered when I found that Swainson, the author of the generic name, had first published the name as Ptiliogonys. The earlier spelling, according to, for example, the Fifth Edition of the A.O.U. Check-list, cannot stand since what was thought to the original publication of the generic name was not a publication at all. It is a long and sordid story. The late Burt Monroe, who knew about my work much earlier than the paper (lag time between acceptance and publication of a manuscript may be months), wrote a memo agreeing that the spelling should be Ptiliogonys. However, for no known reason, Burt opted for Ptilogonys in Sibley and Monroe’s 1990 Birds of the World. At the time Burt was chair of the A.O.U. Check-list Committee on Taxonomy and Nomenclature. The A.O.U. opted for Ptilogonys. The official conclusion is a surprise, but I moved on to other projects. Nonetheless, the matter of the number of i’s in the generic name is, about 20 years later, a matter of backroom chatter. Ah, what is a name but a rose?

Recalling all that and keeping the car on the road is not an impossible feat. Light traffic and no pedestrians allow thinking and at least staying in the proper side of the road. Not hearing about anything new at Paton’s place, I drive on to Sierra Vista and check in a motel on the southeast side of town. After unloading the vehicle, getting perishables out of the foam chest and into the room’s refrigerator, I rest and eat a hearty mid-afternoon snack. It is about 4 p.m. when I head south on Arizona highway 92. The Huachuca Mountains, with peaks up to over 9400 feet, tower 5,000 feet over the highway. Four years ago, Linda and I arrived at Sierra Vista in early May to bird the Huachuca Mountains. The region was familiar to Linda, but the Huachuca Mountains was my introduction to Arizona birds.

About a month earlier, I sent Tom Beatty an email about a 2009 visit. Of course, he would not remember Linda and me visiting there, when news of the Ivory – billed Woodpecker broke or when we walked us up the hill to see the hybrid Magnificent X Berylline Hummingbird.

Beatty’s B & B, Miller Canyon, Huachuca Mountains


It is a good thing there is a small delay between eating and travel up East Miller Canyon Road. Crawling almost 1,000 feet up a mostly dirt and gravel road, full of washboards and loose rocks, to Beatty’s Guest Ranch and Orchard is physiological; the shaking from the road completes the digestion process. A large white van and a couple of other cars occupy the parking area. I walk into Beatty’s property and meet Mrs. Beatty. I mention I am looking for Berylline and White-eared Hummingbirds, and she tells me Tom and others are up on the hill at a hummingbird station. “Just follow the voices.” Up a rocky trail, hidden by trees, is a little amphitheater, with two or three rows of chairs facing toward several hummingbird feeders and about eight birders. Tom sits on the end of one row. We introduce ourselves and he actually remembers or politely says he recalls my email. To the side of the group is a bench occupied by one birder. I take the empty spot and wait for the concert to begin. Shortly after sitting, I hear a familiar voice. It is Jon Dunn, undoubtedly the sharpest birder at least in North America. We had not seen each other in a few years but keep in contact by email. I had earlier not noticed his busy schedule and therefore it is a surprise to see him. Always generous, he asked if I had been seeing any Yellow Warblers in Arizona before introducing me to his group of WINGS clients as the author of the definitive publication on Yellow Warblers. I am more interested in seeing a couple of new hummingbirds than talking about myself. Besides, I’ve been up now over 12 hours. I’m tired and have another stop to make.

Legendary Jon Dunn (standing) and colleagues


Fortunately, a White-eared Hummingbird arrives at one of the feeders, then another, then a Berylline Hummingbird. Tom had loosely attached clumps of hair from his dogs on short poles. The Berylline hovered over a clump of whitish hair before grabbing some presumably for a nest. New ABA hummingbirds 641 and 642 are minutes apart. It is amazing how beautiful are the two, especially the more subtle colors of the Berylline named for the color of the mineral beryl. While the birders oo and awe, others hum along with Anna’s, Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. It is almost too much. Even so, at 6 p.m., I say good-bye to Jon and his group, thank Tom for his hospitality and bump back down the Miller Canyon road to the pavement.

A few miles south of the intersection of East Miller Canyon Road and highway 92 is the sure place to find Lucifer Hummingbird. The site is on the north side of Ash Canyon where the terrain is flatter and more arid than Miller Canyon. Mary Jo Ballator is proprietor of a bed and breakfast and feeds hummingbirds. I turn on Turkey Track Road and shortly pull in to a parking area across from a thick stucco wall and stroll through an iron gate. A pale stucco house sets beyond the gate among sparse vegetation, mostly low bushes and an occasional tree dotting the gently sloping desert. Rough and dry hillsides peer from the west. Hummingbird feeders, labeled with letters of the alphabet circle from a tree’s branches. Nobody is around and I choose a lawn chair. Mary Jo walks out, holding an adult African Gray Parrot named Cookie. Every time I see one of these birds, I remember a telephone call from the State Department back in the day. “Uh-O. What kind of trouble am I in now?” Whew, they were after bird smugglers attempting to import wild parrots and my number was somehow on the State Department’s rolodex. Maybe the information I provided the agency helped protect the parrots.

Mary Jo and I talk a while. Annabel, really Diane, from the California Gulch trek arrives and she and Mary Jo talk. I give my full attention to the feeders, while Diane apologizes for not staying in Mary Jo’s bed and breakfast. The talking continues, with comparisons of how nice one bed and breakfast is to another. I try to listen for the hum of a Lucifer Hummingbird. Having been up since 3 a.m., my patience is running thin. Finally, a male hovers to a feeder. It has all the correct colors, the green back and magenta gorget, but shape is atypical. Separation of the throat from a whitish upper breast is sharply defined, not the raggedy demarcation expected. The bill is almost straight. The bird leaves. Another male arrives, this time, with a slightly raggedy gorget and with a bill more curved. It hangs around for a couple of minutes and then departs. Replacing it is a third, textbook male Lucifer Hummingbird.

The name Lucifer for this hummingbird has nothing to do with what one might read into a curved bill or a forked tail. This is not a devil bird although I recall reading somewhere that a group of Lucifer Hummingbirds is dubbed an Inferno. The name lucifer actually refers to the original meaning of lucifer, light bearer, and the third male proves its namesake when it perches on a nearby bare branch. Its gorget is at first a metallic purple bending in the range of magenta. As the bird turns, the west light reflects back a violet hue, then back, gradually, to a magenta-purple. Thinking about the maybe 40 or 50 species of hummingbirds that have flown across my path, I believe the iridescence of the male Lucifer sitting on the branch is more than magnificent, greater than grand, surpassing the pearly color of inside some ocean shells I’ve seen. Far surpassing a bright tanager and other larger colorful birds, the gorget of the small Lucifer is truly inspiringly stunning, almost angelic.

Lucifer Hummingbird is ABA life bird number 643. Twenty-three more new ABA species and Lucifer Hummingbird would be species 666. Where could I have gone for those 23 species? I might have followed several scenarios. For openers, I should have been chasing birds during the museum days. Alternatively, maybe, and, a trip elsewhere before seeing my first Lucifer Hummingbird would put the numbers closer to the signature total. I wonder if any birders have Lucifer Hummingbird as their 666th species on any list. Why do I think these things? Maybe the devil makes me do it.

Female Lucifer Hummingbirds are absent. It gets dark while Mary Jo and Diane continue to parley. The discussion turns to the Border Patrol and the border wall, the set of fences alleged to prevent illegal border crossings. Pros and cons weigh in and practical insights bring up analogies to walls erected on other international borders, their failures and successes of those who enforce the rules of the day. I successfully do not let myself get started on the subject. It is late. I return to my temporary Sierra Vista abode at 8:30, exhausted.

14 July 2009

Eight hours of sleep last night and prospects of the remaining time in Arizona are good morning thoughts. To date I have the good fortune to find 15 new ABA birds. Based on observations this week, as gleaned from the computer available at motels, I will not add any more species. My hope now, if I am to pick up any lifers in Arizona, is that a waif will to show-up soon. In the meantime, with five birding days left, the Chiricahua Mountains might reunite me with a few species I have not seen since 2005. A Mexican Chickadee will be a most welcome sight as I motor south.

First, I have some unfinished business. Female Lucifer Hummingbirds might be at the feeders in Ash Canyon. A short road passes the residence immediately east of the house with the hummingbird feeders. This time, I take time to view the route. Unexpectedly adorning the green grass of the yard between the road and a house are maybe a half-dozen large bronze statues. They are of humans or mostly human. Someone covered by a large robe, but without a head, and or feet, a mermaid whose head is a planter with ornamental grasses sprouting above are the works of Robert Wicks. His works, some displayed in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, are eye catching. I stop, snap a couple of pictures and drive on to see a female Lucifer Hummingbird. I have the feeder tree to myself. There are no birders and at first, no hummingbirds. I wait about 30 minutes. There are no Lucifers, regardless of sexual orientation. There is nothing to do but continue on to the destination. I stop at the border town Douglas, pick up a couple of grocery items, grab a burger at a nearby fast-food joint and call Linda. I tell her, which is true, that cell phones are obsolete in the Chiricahua Mountains and that I will call her in a day or two. Being out of touch makes me nervous. I am not the only one nervous. On the way north on U.S. 80, several miles from Douglas, I notice white and green border patrol vehicles parked in almost every off road ravine. What or who are they looking for or are they taking coffee breaks? I’m glad there are no must see birds in the immediate area.

I nearly miss the turn up to Portal. When Linda and I were here last, we had a hurried day. From Sierra Vista, we drove to Douglas, rattled up Guadalupe Canyon and back, drove the road to Portal, up a road even further to Onion Gap, back down and returned to Sierra Vista. It was a hard, yet rewarding, but tiring day. This time, I take more time and stop at the Portal store to check on any reported rarities. There is nothing but the usual, albeit wonderful suspects. The Gray-collared Becard, last reported less than a month ago, is long gone. It disappeared some time just as I finished putting together my Arizona itinerary. Even though chances of relocating the becard are slim to none, I make a foray through Sunny Flat Campground. It is, of course, hot, and late in the day. There are no rare birds here, or, at least, if there are, they are hiding in the shade.

Maybe it is cooler up in the mountains. Maybe I will find Mexican Chickadee. The American Museum of Natural History Field Station is on the way. They moved the hummingbird feeders, the place where Linda and I viewed our first Blue-throated Hummingbirds in 2005. I relocated the feeders, but the feeder is hummingbirdless. A Flame-colored Tanager is, I am told, apparently nesting behind the dorms, but it must be taking a siesta. A Crescent-chested Warbler was near the road at the intersection with Turkey Creek Road. That was last year, but I’ve always enjoyed history. A Hermit Thrush sings loud enough to hear over Turkey Creek’s water sparkling in the patchy shade. 2009_0720AZ0172

Onion Gap is quiet, except for an occasional vehicle coming up from the west slope of the mountains. I wish I had known the road was passable from that side. I could take in Chiricahua National Monument, work my way down to Sunny Flats where a very rare becard might be and south to Slaughter Ranch east of Douglas before returning to Sierra Vista. Coming over the mountains from the west, based on what little I know, is not recommended for passenger cars. I should have checked the road conditions yesterday. People I talk to tell me the car I’m driving would easily negotiate the road over the pass. Damn, I could have saved myself a lot of driving. Now I have to double back in order to visit the Slaughter Ranch. Even worse, I can’t find any Mexican Chickadees. There are no Olive Warblers; there are only a couple of Yellow-eyed Juncos at Onion Gap.

Two of the people at the gap are looking for butterflies and said they would camp there in their vehicle. They looked to be in their mid-70s. Returning to Turkey Creek, I stop to listen to the Hermit Thrush. There still is no Crescent-chested Warbler and I turn down Turkey Creek Road. The road is actually worse than forest road 42 from Cave Creek. Several washes are thankfully dry. At the gathering of buildings called Paradise, I stop at the 1902 George Walker House. A dozen residents live in the former mining town.

Jackie Lewis and her husband Winston operate a bed and breakfast at the Walker House. Jackie comes out of her house and invites me to the porch for a better view of the bird feeders. Juniper Titmouse frequents the property but not today. The hummingbird feeders are lifeless. Jackie, who is familiar with Tom Beatty’s operation, apologizes for the lack of hummers. “There are often fewer hummingbirds at feeders in the Chiricahua Mountains.” It is getting late as I angle down the driveway and bump down Turkey Creek Road toward Portal.

About four miles from the intersection with Cave Creek Road, my path is along the upper reaches of a canyon. It is dry and thorny. Suddenly a large yellow bird flies across my view. It instantly reminds me of a Black-headed Grosbeak but slightly larger. The bird must have been coming down from the ridge above, perhaps perched in the sparse cover before passing over the upper part of the windshield as it flew over the road and down the slope. Framed by the windshield, I knew this is something different. Although only seconds tick by, my brain records a bright yellow bird, with black tail and wings. The wings appear to have white spots. The head is bulky and the dark bill massive and could not be a thin- billed oriole. My bird is too bulky and with most of the body a canary yellow, with all yellow head. Coming to a sliding halt, I set the CD that is in the player on the species I am already certain it is. The windows are down and I turn up the volume. The bird answers. Holy Pheucticus! The big yellow bird is a 100% sure Yellow Grosbeak.

Elation makes me forget that the Gray-collared Becard may be lurking in Sunny Flats. By now twilight is shading Cave Creek Canyon enough that I have trouble reading the sign about camping fees. I hurry to a site and barely find something to eat before it is too dark to see the fork in front of my mouth. This is my first night sleeping in the car, and I am not anxious to test my bones. After a brail-like dinner, I settle in. It isn’t so bad. Being tired helps as does the satisfaction of seeing the grosbeak. Sleep.

Just one view from the campground


15 July 2009

Morning comes at 5:30 a.m. with a dash to the restroom. I tell a fellow camper-birder about the Yellow Grosbeak. His interest suggests he does not realize the rarity of the species. I walk around the camp, again futilely looking for the becard. Around 7 o’clock, I break camp, which entails closing the car door and drive to the location where the grosbeak was yesterday. I fumble around the site for about two hours and then work down to a riparian area about a quarter of a mile down the canyon. I even play the CD, something many birders are reluctant to do. The CD and good luck seems the only commodity that might help relocating the grosbeak. That the recording might disturb the bird, a reason some birders do not use electronic playback, seems highly unlikely. There is no answering Yellow Grosbeak. There is no luck. Reluctantly, I drive back to Cave Creek Road.

Before checking in at Portal, I visit Cave Creek Ranch for any action there that might be at their advertised bird feeders. The site is down a long driveway, ending at yet another bed and breakfast establishment. I paid the requisite donation to view the feeders. The money bird is a Band-tailed Pigeon shyly working limb to limb from the top of a riparian tree downward to waiting feeders. Other Band-tails join and gather at a feeder. My preconceived notion that the species is a denizen of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains is changed. It has been some time when I have seen so many Band-tailed Pigeons so effortlessly.

At the Portal grocery, I ask if I may use the phone to call young Chris West. He is a local bird guide. The tiny store in the tiny settlement appears to have four or five employees on duty and most know Chris. I ring him, and relate finding the Yellow Grosbeak. Chris tells me a Yellow Grosbeak had been found near my sighting locality last year. That’s somewhat vindicating; I no longer feel the need to say, “No, I am not making this up.” I would have expected some excitement, but so many birders of different levels of experience pass through this part of the Chiricahua Mountains reporting all kinds of things. After all, he does not know me from a cake of soap.

Before leaving Portal, I visit their library adjacent to the post office where I notice people sitting in front, waiting to visit with the next person who picks up mail. The library computer is on and a quick check at the Arizona site at lists reports of the usual Southwestern suspects. Time is a wasting as I head to the highway to New Mexico; turn south through Rodeo, the closest source for gasoline, and southwest into Arizona to Douglas. A McDonalds serves up a burger, a mini-salad and some ice cream. I ask a clerk about the best street in Douglas that will get me on the Geronimo Trail. She asks why, and I tell her I plan to do a little birding at Slaughter Ranch. I get through town and soon run out of pavement. The Geronimo Trail immediately feels rougher, with more and deeper washboards than when Linda and I last traveled it four years ago. One of the reasons reveals itself. There is more traffic. The wide dirt road is littered with rocks competing in size with baseballs. If there ever was gravel, it had long been scattered by vehicular traffic. Not infrequently enough, solid rock, too large for any road builders, protruded to the road surface. The rental’s shock absorbers protested no matter my speed. Geronimo Trail road now not only serves the cattle trucks and birders, it is access to the border by those white and green patrol vehicles. Not only are the vehicles more prominent than four years ago, I can actually see the border. At first, it appears to be a broad black line; just as naive students might think any international border might look. With binocs, I can see that the dark line is a fence and sometimes a double fence. A road parallels the black border fence on the north side. A similar fence crossing the southern California landscape boldly rears its head from Yuma to beyond the Salton Sea. It goes on for miles. A couple of fairly decent roads, better than the Geronimo Trail, branch off the road toward the border wall. These are access roads for the border patrol and are clearly marked with signs. Birders and anyone else are definitely prohibited.

The border wall is an invention to keep people from illegally entering the United States. The plan by Homeland Security is to construct the wall from San Diego, California, to the coast of Texas, slice through Big Bend National Park and parcel private land, refuges and preserves along the Rio Grande. Much of the wall is completed as I view a section just south of the Geronimo Trail. Part of the lengthy conversation that late evening in Ash Canyon included a consensus that a wall did not work in Berlin and will not on the North American continent. Regardless of politics and culture, the wall is a biological detriment that many, including the ABA recognize as a mistake. From an ornithological point of view, birds along the border will never be the same. Even anecdotally, it is not difficult to realize that the avifauna along the International Border is changing. We do not know how much, since current studies along the border are essentially lacking, and with the construction of the wall and restrictions now in place even near the wall, we will never know.

A few early studies provide an idea of the historical avifauna. The first base-line data is from a survey of the U.S. – Mexican border began in 1849 and completed in 1855. Among the many specimens collected are of birds. Only 28 pages of species accounts, edited by Spencer Fullerton Baird, summarize the findings of the survey. Later, beginning in 1891, Edgar Mearns traveled the border for three years as a member of the International Boundary Commission, an expedition to place substantial markers along the international border. Some of the stone markers remain today. Luckily, Mearns also collected specimens, including birds, and his archived papers are at Smithsonian. His research on birds involving the Commission was never published because of lack of Congressional funding. Dick Banks and I once thought of assembling the boundary specimens and journal notes, compare them with current specimens, and weave the old and new into a report on the birds of the U.S. – Mexican border. Of course, current specimens for comparison to the Mearns material are essentially not available. Maybe someone could fill in missing information and ascertain species status today. Time flew by and, with other research obligations, Dick and I never got the birds of the borderland project off the ground. What a missed opportunity. Now the border wall has destroyed or sufficiently altered most of even the remotest parts of the boundary. Too bad.

From the Geronimo Trail the International Border cuts through the land. 


Slaughter Ranch, originally known as the San Bernardino Ranch, is tucked a few yards off the Geronimo Trail in a valley oasis of huge sycamores and other herbs and forbs around ranch buildings and a small lake. Artesian wells provide much of the water. The region is ripe with history. Father Kino, the missionary that once roamed California Gulch, was here. The Spanish liked the area and built a garrison named San Bernardino in the late 70’s, 1770’s to be more exact. Some of the Forty-niners, the gold mongers of the 1849 gold rush in California passed through the region. Later, John Slaughter, sheriff of the county and known for crime-fighting skills in Tombstone, resided in the small valley. An earthquake in 1872 destroyed his buildings. The buildings I see driving in were built in 1893, including the house, which is now a museum. The ranch once straddled the International Border. After John Slaughter died in 1922, the year my mother was born, the Mexican and U.S. portions were sold, the Nature Conservancy acquired the land north of the border, deeded the eastern part that is now the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge and the western part to the Johnson Foundation. The nonprofit works to preserve and restore the range and land surrounding the ranch.

Driving down from the Geronimo Trail Road to the ranch, I see the black wall, the border fences and the wide paralleling patrol road. I also see trucks and cars bustling east and west on Mexico’s Federal Highway 2. The western part begins at Cuidad Juarez, a city Linda and I visited in 2005 that is across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Because of drugs, Cuidad Juarez in now one of the most dangerous border cities. Highway 2 passes to my south as it stretches westward to Tijuana, a place I visited back in my Navy days. The caretaker enumerates the acres the ranch lost to building and maintaining the new border wall. He quickly tells me that the chagrin is his personal annoyance and not necessarily that of his employer. I pay the visitor fee and ask if anything out of the ordinary, birdwise, is on the ranch. He said he didn’t know since there had been few birders there since the temporary residency of a Blue Mockingbird, which had disappeared months ago. It must have gone south, back over the formidable border wall.

Donning my cooling vest, I walk down a ranch lane to a clump of cottonwoods that are obese, well over three feet thick and looking healthy. A couple had grown around four or six-inch irrigation pipes placed in their path during their younger years. The shade is welcome in the heat and humidity generated by all the greenery and the large nearby pond. I hear a strange bird somewhere in the tangle behind the cottonwoods. An initial glimpse doesn’t help identify it. Trying my best to stay in the shade, I circle around behind the sound for a possible best look while the bird continues to call. Reluctantly, I enter the tangle of dry dead and not so dead limbs under the giant trees as the bird continues to emit the never before heard call. My pulse quickens. Maybe it is something I would never guess, something new from Mexico, a bird flying across the traffic of Mexico highway 2, a species ignoring protocol for crossing an international boundary. I move closer. The bird is sitting on a bare branch, not moving, waiting for identification. I manage to crawl to within 10 feet of the, the, immature bird. Immature birds are confusing, especially those you are not used to seeing, and this immature is no exception. I back up, all the while keeping the bird in view. Maybe its parents will come to feed the little beggar. However, the calling elicits no animal except me. Minutes go by as the sun, even in the shade, begins to roast, and the more it appears in the west, the later it gets. The species of the immature will have to remain unknown. I take a few more minutes to walk to the pond where a rattlesnake rousted a couple of grounds workers. A couple ducks swam near the opposite bank acting clearly like anenamored couple although both appear to be female Mallards. Years earlier, John Hubbard was mining data from specimens at the museum. Later, I learned he was working on a project, which would lead to the demise of the Mexican Duck, the birds I am now watching. John relegated the Mexican Duck to a subspecies of Mallard, and although his conclusions led the AOU to follow suit, some taxonomist believe the Mexican Duck deserves recognition as a species distinct from Mallard. For now, the two brownish birds are Mallards. Back in the car, I cast another look south to Mexico and spy a flying Yellow-headed Blackbird.

Half way down Geronimo Trail I pull to the side of the road to take a picture and to take advantage of the remoteness by doing what any over-hydrated person might do. I finish my job seconds before a border patrol stops.

“Everything ok?”

I see the agent’s expression change from unsure to everything is ok for them. I look too much like a gringo and the binocs give me a pass. We chat a few minutes until a large trailer truck interrupts as it roars past, grinding up the road at least 60 miles per hour. That is fast for the loose dirt and rocky road. Luckily, most of the road is at least three lanes wide. The truck never slowed as it zipped over the next rise in a choking cloud of dust. The patrol agent said he thought that was too fast, but otherwise is unperturbed.

Back in Douglas, I finish filling the gas tank and I am almost behind the wheel when a car drives to the other side of the pump island. The passenger quickly jumps out. It is the clerk at the McDonalds. She informs that a group of birders were just at the burger store and she told them about meeting me earlier. She described the leader, who had to be Jon Dunn. She said the group is heading for Portal, in the Chiricahua Mountains. Thanking her, I drove a couple of blocks, pulled over and phoned Jon before he got out of cell range. Not having his direct number, it took a while, but he returns the call. Jon had made mention of the visiting Blue Mockingbird to the clerk. Our shared clerk got birds and timing slightly confused, but her effort is appreciated. I tell Jon about the Yellow Grosbeak and he says he and his group will look for it. I keep my fingers crossed that he or someone will corroborate my sighting.

Late in the day, I arrive at the only campground at Bonita Canyon in Chiricahua National Monument. There are no special birds on the agenda; this is strictly a tourist destination. Rock formations, pinnacles and spires are remnants from erosion of volcanic ash and pumice left by an ancient volcanic eruption that was 1000 times greater than that of Mt. Saint Helens in Washington. The monument has been on my to see list and today is my chance. Although most of the rare birds are reported from the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains, a few are found on the west side in the 12,000-acre preserve. I am keeping my binocs well oiled, and, in fact, tomorrow, I will hike to the location where an Eared Quetzal had been seen a month ago. Who knows, maybe the quetzal is still there.

My second night sleeping on the slightly inclined driver seat is again not too bad. Even the usual creaks and aches fail to rear their ugly head as I climb out of the rental at 5:30 a.m. before a double-time beeline to the restroom. By 6:45, I step onto Echo Canyon Trail. At 6,780 feet, the temperature is cool, even in the morning sun. Built in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corp, Echo Canyon Trail was designed and engineered by Ed Riggs who managed the CCC crew in the monument. Former owner of the historical Faraway Ranch near the entrance to the monument, Ed Riggs worked to convince the National Park Service to protect much of the western Chiricahua Mountains in a National Monument. I am grateful, but even more so as I hike down the trail. It is a masterpiece. It twists around massive rhyolite columns and fallen pinnacles and cascades through cathedrals of towering rock down the steep canyon wall. Without a trail, picking a way down to the canyon floor seems impossible. The route along the red and gray rocks to the bottom is a gentle descent, even where there are switchbacks, and steps cut in the stone. The scenery is eye popping, worthy of more pictures than taken. I reach the bottom, the place dubbed Echo Park. Apache and Ponderosa Pine are thick here and so are mosquitoes. Luckily, I have on my handy-dandy birder vest and pull out a small container of DEET. Singing Canyon Wrens appropriately echo off the eroded walls above. I enjoy the scenery and solitude for 45 minutes, eat a snack of jerky and peanuts, finish off most of one of my bottles of water, and try to ignore the hordes of mosquitoes while I half-heartedly believe an Eared Quetzal will make an appearance. The scenery, solitude and snack are enjoyable, the water quenching, the mosquitoes almost itching and the quetzal lacking.

Looking up from Echo Canyon


The canyon is too steep to get a reading on my GPS and I know it is a few hundred feet to back to the top. The temperature is rising and with it, diminishing shade. I begin counting switch backs and soon loose count as I come to the steps cut in the trail. Canyon Wrens continue singing, adding a sweet echo to an otherwise quiet climb. Not far from the last switchback, a flock, probably a family, of Mexican Jays storm the canyon wall with loud raucous calls. Three jays approach within 10 feet; as if curious, perhaps believing I am a predator. Large, black-collared lizards, their tails dark black, with grays and pale greenish-blue specks, scurry on the warming rocks. More shadows dash from sight as the sun reveals pale greenish-yellow lichen growing on the strange rocky shapes along Echo Canyon. From the trail, I look down on top of pinnacles, look out and see some level with my eyes and other towering overhead. Boulders balance precariously, if not impossibly, on other rocks, appearing ready to topple at any moment. Ascending from Echo Park turns out to be not difficult at all. It is a pleasurable experience and unpleasing to leave behind.2009_0720AZ02632009_0720AZ0269

Less than a mile south is Massai Point, I enjoy a 360-degree view of the monument and the mountains well beyond the boundary. Too bad the monument doesn’t take in National Park quality of Cave Creek Canyon on the east side. A gnatcatcher interrupts a nice lunch at a shaded picnic table. The bird, sounding like a Black-tailed has a smear of black in front and over its eye and two of the outer tail feathers white, not black as might be expected in a Black-tail adult male molting between breeding and nonbreeding plumages. Hybrid? Individual variation? An answer fails to come as I negotiate the final curves of the monument road and head to Sierra Vista via Tombstone. The day is not over and is not without a pleasing surprise.

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