16 July 2010, the remainder of the day
Once I drag what I need from the broiling car, the next step is to check the motel computer for any rarities. Knowing I had exhausted most reasonable possibilities, and added some much-unexpected ones, there still might be something out there. I click on the site I had checked daily since arriving in Arizona. Bold letters spell out “Brown-backed Solitaire.”
The report is of a bird in Miller Canyon! However, what is a Brown-backed Solitaire? First, it is Myadestes occidentalis and is not in my Geographic field guide. Googling, I discover that the bird is a renowned singer, perhaps one of the best in North America, that it is a thrush with a brown back, gray belly and patterned head. A picture of it is set to memory. The tiny speaker of the computer plays back an unbelievably wondrous and prolonged song. There is some daylight left, but hiking up Miller Canyon, especially the lower part, in the late afternoon heat for a dirty and camped out traveler is just not that inviting. I also realize my tired demeanor would not evoke welcome by other birders up Miller Canyon. Rest and a bath trump the solitaire. There is always tomorrow.
17 July 2009
Up at 5:30, I gulp scrambled eggs, a biscuit smothered in gravy, juice and a half cup of coffee. Motels in Arizona know how to serve a hearty breakfast. It is still early, but the temperature feels warm as I drive south to the trailhead of Miller Canyon. The parking area is three-fourths full. I enter Tom Beatty’s place with the hope he will tell me to take the short cut across the orchard and through his gate to the trail. He yells from his front porch to use the gate. Grateful, I recall that, in 2005, traveling the section of trail around Tom’s property. That segment of trail is a little under a half-mile, but it is rough, with ample number of rocks jutting up to trip and sometimes quite steep inclines to tax. Now, through the gate, the steady climb angles up an old road, the aged Miller Canyon Road. Years of erosion expose rocks in the road, some solid in the ground and many more loose enough to make walking difficult. I begin wondering if I should have skipped the breakfast gravy. The old miner’s road passes by the dilapidated Tombstone water works, probably built in 1881 when the town began collecting water from Miller Creek and other streams in the Huachuca Mountains. Slightly up the creek, a small concrete structure, enclosed by a cyclone fence, is the modern catch basin that helps collect and send creek water 30 miles to Tombstone. The road ends before crossing Miller Creek, now mostly a dry streambed. I am now 1.5 miles from the parking lot and about 370 feet above the parking space. It feels further and higher. I should look for two Spotted Owls roosting over the trail at the First Crossing. By now, the morning air is not cool enough to keep me dry; sweat is running into my eyes and down my back. That I am over 6,000 feet above sea level does not matter. It is a good thing I packed industrial strength deodorant. I am late; I have an important, very important date and push my 65 years to press onward and upward. I have to, I must, see a Brown-backed Solitaire.
A few yards above the First Crossing, the trail ascends the south side of the streambed. Narrowing, the trail is now steeper, with one side rising abruptly and the other dropping down sharply. Rocks, some round and jagged enough to send the unsuspecting over the edge randomly cover the trail. The drop ends at the streambed, which is now more and more feet below the trail, the route angling higher and higher above Miller Creek. After several more gasps for air and sweat soaking my t-shirt, I meet Rich Hoyer coming down the trail. He and I have corresponded for years, he birds in Oregon regularly and we share friendships with Alan Contreras, coauthor of the book on Oregon birds, a book I gave five or more years of my time to complete. He asks, laughingly, had I read Alan’s book chronicling his trek of Miller Canyon a few years ago. I had not, but Alan had told me Miller Canyon Trail was an unforgiving trail. Of course, the conversation turns quickly to the solitaire. No one had seen or heard it. Further up the trail, maybe 40 yards from the first crossing and still sweating profusely, I meet other birders on the quest of the rare thrush. When asking if anyone had found the solitaire, the usual positive answer is “Not yet.”
Red-faced Warblers, House Wrens of the brown throat persuasion and Hermit Thrushes are some of the species typical of the upper canyon. The trail ascends the southern side of the canyon. Like its beginning, even the wide section of the old road, the trail is littered with rocks, many as large as your foot, some larger, all laying on a loose gravely base. So many rocks, everywhere. The rocks are round and rough, many with sharp corners, some flat and all crunchy under a well-placed boot. After the First Crossing, the hand constructed trail looks to have once been wider, but the near vertical upper sides have eroded, squeezing the trail toward the its north side. That is the side of the trail no one wants to ignore. It is now nearly a vertical drop to the canyon bottom, with nothing to stop a fall but some thick Douglas fir miraculously growing out of the stony terrain. Falling from the trail probably will not kill anyone, but it might. I imagine miners, with heavily loaded mules or loyal burros plodding up the trail to a possible get-rich-quick claim. Now, I am close to 1000 feet above the parking lot and near the last observation of the solitaire.
A couple of birders are coming up behind me, their knees bent, backs anchoring tired leg assisted by sheer footedness and will. Their eyes are mostly on the surface of the trail, being ever careful not to step the wrong way on a loose rock or tumble over the edge of the trail. Above me are five people; I cannot see how many others are up and around the bend. There is a white haired man, a young, twenty-something woman, her blond ponytail flapping out the back of her ball cap, a similarly aged guy in shorts, two more men, a middle-aged woman, and two young guys decked with special carriers for their equipment. The two are earnest birders, with serious stuff. They carry field guides, I-pods, probably laptops and no telling what else. My fishing vest turned into my brand of a birder vest may not be stylish or contain an I-pod or similar ilk, but it turns out that one of the two young men is hungry. My vest pockets are pregnant with food. Once, while sitting on a rock waiting for the solitaire, I grab a handful of peanuts. The nuts are in a plastic container, with a flip top lid that once contained anti-acids tablets and still dressed in its original label. It is my peanut pez. One of the hopeful birders looks at me askance.
Beating him to the punch, I said, “It is not what you think. They are peanuts.”
The other birder laughed. “That good. If it was what I thought it was, you would be worrying too much.”
I am worried, but not anti-acid worrying. The pangs of regret and self-blame creep into my thoughts and I accuse myself of being lazy. If only I had hiked up Miller Canyon late yesterday. I could have rushed up immediately after reading the report on the web. What was I thinking?
The sun is now overhead and the solitaire is apparently not around. Two people leave, going higher, to the Second Crossing. Others leave, going down the trail. I stay put. The comings and goings elicited hellos and goodbyes between many of the birders, who know one another from years of birding in southeast Arizona. Looking for the Brown-backed Solitaire had become a social event, a time to catch up and tell stories about the bird that got away or the neat bird they found. I keep quiet about my Plain-capped Starthroat, the Salton Sea Blue-footed Booby and the Yellow Grosbeak. Not that I was unsure of what I saw, I feel uneasy because I am the only person who saw them. I am the only person in the forest when a tree falls.
Stubbornly, I stay at the spot, the place where the rare solitaire was last reported until my rump can no longer endure sitting on the hard flat boulder on the edge of the trail. Not ready to return to the parking lot, I trudge up to the Second Crossing. I meet the two returning from there, ask them if they saw anything remarkable, hear their negative report and continue hiking. The trail is less rocky and levels off in a few yards before gently dropping down maybe 6 feet to the creek. Here, it is dry as a bone; below, where the solitaires refuses to be, water is running. As I approach the crossing, a bird flies up the creek bed, just under the canopy of several large riparian trees. It reminds me of a Varied Thrush, and had I been in my Pacific Northwest, I might casually identify it as that. However, the bird has no hint of orange coloration, but it is strikingly dark above with white in the wings and tail, or maybe not the tail. I am not sure, and the color and pattern of the unseen underparts are a mystery. I hurry up the creek bed, but find nothing. I turn around, trot to the crossing and lunge up the trail, now climbing up the north side of the creek. Looking down into the creek is no reward, no sound, no birds, zero. I am 85% sure that the bird is an Aztec Thrush, which is not good enough. Returning to the solitaire station, I wait, alone, until 2 p.m. and begin descending toward the First Crossing.
Several people ask earlier if I had seen the Spotted Owls, and this time I finally locate them. They are less than 10 feet away, blinking, keeping an eye on me and trying to sleep. I take three blurry pictures before heading down to the car where I drink part of my stash of now warm water. It is wet, which is what counts.
With time on my hands, I drive up to Ramsey Canyon. It is not as I had imagined it. Missing is higher elevation and taller trees. Actually, the elevation, at the parking lots, of Ramsey and Miller Canyons share the approximately 5700-foot mark. Both are about 1,000 feet above Sierra Vista. Owned by the Nature Conservancy, Ramsey Canyon Preserve is a pretty place, but in the heat of the afternoon lacks interesting birds. I tell the staff about the solitaire. They say they will keep an eye out.
In southern Sierra Vista, I find a fast-food place; have a sit down burger, salad and strawberry Sunday before heading back to Miller Canyon. A computer entry had reported two birders finding the solitaire late in the evening at the abandoned Tombstone waterworks. Planning to be there is my next chance for the bird. Again, Tom said to use the gate. The sun is sitting on the other side of the Huachuca Mountains, but the old Miller Creek Road, above the gate, is the same familiar chore to climb. Fortunately, I only have to hike only a half of a mile, but all the zigging and zagging to avoid the worst of the rocks and washes on the road make the trip tiresome. I take the left fork, following a former road to the remains of a concrete and rock structure of the waterworks. Carbon steel pipes, about 7 inches in diameter enter the building, now recognized by its crumbling walls. Much further up the stream, I had seen these pipes. Sections are broken and no water flows through them. Whether water traveled to Tombstone through the now broken water line remains as mysterious as the location of the solitaire, but it is fun thinking that once the water from Miller Canyon flowed to the OK Corral.
The same couple who observed the solitaire at the waterworks yesterday is somewhere ahead of me on the old road. They must have gone above the First Crossing. The two and I, as far as I know, are the only ones on the trail. I wait, planning to hold vigil until 6:40, the time they heard the Brown-backed Solitaire. It is still hot; I take off my vest and hang it on a dead branch. While waiting, sitting on the broken concrete and rock wall, a male Berylline Hummingbird flies up, circles me, hovers around my vest, perches a foot away on a branch before flying away. The birder couple comes down the old road, which is about 30 feet above where I am sitting. We exchange greetings and I tell them I am waiting for the solitaire. They leave. I wait some more, several minutes past 6:40 and decide to give up. Light is disappearing, but not enough to keep a male Magnificent Hummingbird from checking me for pollen. Car lights are a good idea as I enter Sierra Vista.
18 July 2009
The alarm chimes at 5:30 a.m., but I am already up, getting ready for another try at the Brown-backed Solitaire. It is Saturday, and I worry the parking lot at Beatty’s will be full of rare bird birders, but I’m wrong. There are only four cars. Tom left the upper gate open. Today, I will take the trail with a descent stride; recognize its rigors and stroll instead of rush up Miller Creek Canyon. A young couple, hikers, not birders overtake me on the old road and I overtake an older birder couple at the First Crossing where my sweat index is much lower than yesterday. The elders are looking for the canyon’s Spotted Owls. I stop to help search, but unfortunately, the owls have moved from yesterday’s roosting perch, perhaps a reaction to my sweat index. More than likely they did not care for so many solitaire chasers. Only owl feces and pellets remain at the site they had been using for days. I ask the couple if they are going to look for the solitaire. They say no. I wonder if the reason is the inhospitable trail. Will I, at 75+ be able to hike Miller Canyon? Not much further, I meet Tony Battiste, who, with his wife, runs a B & B in Hereford, a place that had a Yellow Grosbeak last year. He is with guests, looking for the solitaire.
At the same spot, where I polished my rocky seat yesterday, I sit, looking and listening. It is hotter today and Hermit Thrushes are singing less frequently. Two people come down the trail. The female of the two introduces herself as Erica Wilson, who lives in Sierra Vista and is on the ABA board. With her is an older man, tall, portly and balding. He smiled when I said my name. He is Paul Sykes, retired from the Fish and Wildlife Service; he is a longtime associate, a business friend and always-interesting conversationalist. We corresponded for years, had great visits when he came to the museum, and I had noticed, from reading ABA periodicals, that he is an earnest bird chaser, so much so that his ABA list stands at 860 when last checked. Since our last sighting of one another, age did a good job of disguising what was once familiar. Paul and Erica had just returned from the Second Crossing. They did not find anything special. They didn’t see any Aztec Thrushes and I didn’t mention any.
Paul had flown from his home in Georgia to see the Brown-backed Solitaire. He lamented that he no longer can hear warblers, kinglets, waxwings and others. Hearing aids don’t help. He makes a point that every new bird he lists is a bird he sees. I told Erica and Paul about the starthroat, booby and grosbeak, how I hate finding rare birds alone and that I almost don’t want to find a rare species. They laugh, we exchange phone numbers and they continue down the trail.
Hiking onward, the Second Crossing is quiet. I sit on a giant boulder in the middle of the dry stream, waiting for anything with feathers. Glancing up the trail, I happen to catch a Coati Mundi crossing the trail and bustling up the steep slope to my right. The trail looks inviting. It narrows to a path, suitable for single-file only and in places precarious as it meanders up the south face of the canyon. Going slowly, I scare a small. 18-inch pale brown banded rattlesnake. It warns me with a courteous rattle before slithering to the side of the trail. I poke a long stick gently in its direction to make sure it is out of striking distance. Birds are almost nonexistent. Somewhere near 7100 feet, according to my GPS, thick brush nearly covers the trail. I turn back and hear the clicks and clacks of something on rock. I look up through the brush and watch a 20 something guy hurrying along, his two walking sticks noisily announcing his stride. We meet at an intersection in the trail, a fork in the path I didn’t see going during the ascent. He said the forest service made the new trail since the lower one was so brushy. I told him about the snake before he clattered ahead of me. I slowed at the Second Crossing, again searching for a possible Aztec Thrush.
Back down to the solitaire location, I find Paul sitting on a rock, waiting for the solitaire. We sit, listen and watch for birds and talk for two hours about birds, birding, good bird places, ABA rules for counting species, people we knew in common, retirement, politics, economics, getting old, feeling young and more birds. Talking with my old friend, high up in Miller Canyon where now not even a solitary solitaire shares the remoteness feels exactly right.
Paul mentions he has never seen the Mexican subspecies of Spotted Owl. We walk down near the second crossing where I relocate the collection of feces and owl pellets and the empty perches occupied yesterday. I show him my blurry pictures, which is little consolation. The Mexican subspecies had been thought to be specifically different from populations in California and the Northwest. Paul, as did I, thought it prudent to see any such potential species. However, genetic research only a year or two ago by Susan M. Haig and others found genetic distinctions of the Mexican birds, but the differences were not sufficient to recognize a separate species. Probably the jury is still out on the Spotted Owl complex, but in the meantime, what person can pass up enjoying perhaps the most adorable North American Owl.
A little dejected, Paul and I continue our descent of the canyon trail. In a straight stretch of the old road, where the sun blasted in between the trees, we notice someone coming up the trail. It is a woman and she is wasting no time in this usually boring section of the canyon. She is Erica Wilson. She stops, waves and continues a little further. Something is up as Paul and I quicken our pace. Shortly, we are within shouting distance and hear “It’s at Ramsey.” Paul nearly broke into a sprint. I said I’m going to hang back at the next bush. In a quick shake, I am moments behind Paul as he catches up with Erica. The three of us crunching on the trail sound like an army. Rocks are flying as we push ourselves to an even faster pace. Erica doesn’t know where the gate is; apparently, she came from the parking lot by taking the long way around Beatty’s property. Beatty’s upper gate is soon behind us as is the apple orchard. We are nearly breathless. Erica said she had driven up and seen our respective vehicles and the only way to alert us, since cells don’t work in the canyon, would be to fetch us. Between breaths, Paul and I thanked and thanked her again. We could have missed the solitaire. Crap, we can still miss the solitaire. Ramsey Canyon is over 10 miles away and Miller Canyon Road to highway 92 is at least a 10-minute drive.
The three of us dive into our respective vehicles. We needed no one to wave start our engines. Erica is in the lead. She is driving a large pick-up, Paul and I each have economy rental cars. Now, the dust and rocks are really flying. It’s the Dukes of Hazard in caravan mode. We are careful to stay back from one another to avoid cracking a headlight or windshield and close enough to breath the dust. Erica’s pick-up is doing well on the downhill washboards and various styles of bumps, but I feel the roughness of the road, the loose rocks under the tires on each sharp corner. This is hell on tires. I see Paul breaking for a big bump, having judged one coming from the bounce of the pick-up. I break, speed up, slow, crank the wheel on the turns, carefully feeling whether the rear-end is floating too far to the left or the right. My little four-wheel vehicle at home has spoiled me. I think Erica would drive even faster, but doesn’t out of politeness, and, I suppose a modicum of safety. We rush down through the paved section of the road among the houses along the lower part of Miller Canyon, blow the stop sign at highway 92 and gun our engines. Bringing up the rear of the caravan, I lookout for police cars, hope that Erica, in the lead, is doing the same, while making sure I don’t tailgate Paul too closely. Because there are no oncoming vehicles, there is little need to slow for the left turn onto the paved Ramsey Canyon Road. We speed as fast as one can dare through residential area, keeping a birder eye out for pets, children and rare birds. I worry that the tiny parking lot at Ramsey Canyon will be full of solitaire watchers. It is Saturday, and I fret that hikers and tourist will compete with our dust collecting vehicles.
Past the narrow parking lot entrance, we careen right, past car after car to the end and then make a hairpin turn to the other half of the lot where we are able to dismount. I get out of the car as if is on fire, which, with the afternoon temperature, is not too far from truth, trot to catch up with Erica and Paul and walk briskly to the Nature Conservancy building to pay a visitor fee. A trail, out the side door of the building leads up the canyon. It is a gentle climb, but only Erica does not need to catch breath as she explains how she knows about the Brown-backed Solitaire. Cell phones work in Ramsey Canyon, and Erica tells us she received a call at her home in town, from a friend who was called from the canyon by a birder who saw the solitaire. On the other hand, did a staff member pass the word? I’m not sure. Names were provided, but, as usual, they went in one ear and out the other. Besides trying to remember names after climbing over 1,000 feet, descending, racing on a dirt track, and now, hoofing it up another trail is not the time to remember names. In addition, the smooth gentle trail is one that invites leisurely strolling becomes more difficult as we push our lungs and legs to get to the target.
Below a staff cabin, a few feet off the trail, are at least 12 people huddling, looking in every direction like a covey of quail protecting young from a lurking predator. We join the flock. Paul looks flushed. I feel flushed yet relieved it is possible now to stop moving. Many of the excited group is talking. Suddenly, an ethereal unfamiliar sound, beautifully musical, falls down the slope above, through the trees and bushes, landing on all ears except those of poor Paul. Everyone clams up. There is a moment of quiet. We all smile, to ourselves and to each other. Most everyone had heard a recording of the Brown-backed Solitaire and everyone recognized the wonderful sound. Hearing it in person is akin to comparing a recorded concert to live music. Hardly before anyone could say anything, the solitaire began its long magical refrain again. I can easily understand why so many consider its fine song a cut above most any other species. Paul, exasperated, asked in what direction. He couldn’t count what he could not hear. Silence at the end of the song adds to Paul’s frustration as I begin to wonder if the bird will show itself. In about how long it takes to think that, a bird flies down the hill and lands in a tree about 20 feet away from the awed group. It peers around some foliage. Its head is gray, with large white-eye ring, interrupted only by black lores. I sing out, not so beautifully. It is really a blurt.
“It’, it’s in the bush straight ahead to the right of the blue berry under the viney leaves.”
Viney? Viney leaves? What the hell is that? I’m a little embarrassed, but mostly excited that I’m seeing the Brown-backed Solitaire and can point it out to the birders standing behind me. I figure out that the viney leaves are some kind of grape hanging off the tree and the blue berry, I’m told, is the fruit of the Wilcox Barberry. The bird stays hidden in the leaves of the bush. Following the demise of an unknown number of berries, the solitaire takes off to the other side of the trail and is momentarily from our sight. It is spotted, over the creek, high up in an oak, I think, and peers down on binoculars and a scope or two. I finally catch the bird in profile; it really does have a brown back. Someone, probably Joe Woodley from Hereford, offers a look through his scope. The beautifully drab gray and brown bird, with the bespectacled eye fills the lens. Barberries are in abundance and the Brown-backed Solitaire appears to be in no hurry as it moves up and down a short distance of riparian growth around the creek. A Cooper’s Hawk swoops through the vegetation, possibly after one of many of other species in the canyon. Erica relates the tale of a Slate-throated Redstart that did not get away. A contingent of birders were ogling the rare warbler in Carr Canyon, the canyon between Miller and Ramsey Canyons as a Cooper’s Hawk flew into the scene and pounced on the Slate-throat. Horrified, the group of birders audibly gasped, which startled the hawk so much it loosened is grasp on the rarity. However, it was too late; the Slate-throated Redstart was dead. It is now a museum specimen.
By now, Paul has had several good views of the Brown-backed Solitaire. The group begins to break up. It is late; people are tired and hungry, but mostly giddy. Paul invites Erica and me for dinner. Erica, being a Sierra Vistaian, happens to choose a restaurant adjacent to the motel I am residing. I had not noticed it. My stomach radar was confined to fast-food joints and grocery stores where I obtained most meals. I rush back for a quick shower and change of clothes before meeting at 6 p.m. The restaurant serves primarily Japanese sushi, but luckily for Paul and I who long ago swore off eating raw fish, have venison. Erica’s husband completes the table. They had lived near Washington, D.C., and Erica worked with Roger Clapp on a local breeding bird atlas. We revisit the events of the day, Paul and I again express our gratitude to Erica for getting us to the solitaire.
Back at the motel, I call Linda. She sounds so good, so wonderful to hear. Tomorrow is my last day in Arizona and I am looking forward to being with my Linda.
19 July 2009
It is a morning of leisure in Sierra Vista, with a wake up at 7 a.m., an hour and half later than my usual starting time. It is Sunday and late. The breakfast room is startlingly crowded with tourist, something I happily missed during my earlier mornings. I check the computer. The Arizona website contains lots of chatter about the solitaire; otherwise, there is nothing new. I stop at Patagonia to check the bird feeders. Under the barely cooling canopy, I sit, drink water and snap pictures of Blue Grosbeaks, woodpeckers, nuthatches, towhees and, of course, hummingbirds. I stop briefly at the Patagonia Rest Stop. Even the boisterous Thick-billed Kingbirds are too hot to advertise. The drive back to Green Valley is uneventful except for storm clouds spawning over the Santa Rita Mountains. I reach my motel, the one I checked into 12 days ago, and see that the mountains are completely engulfed by a blue-black cloud. I check in and stay in.
20 July 2009
On my last morning in Arizona, I drive up Madera Canyon for a final look around. I see Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and still no Berylline Hummingbird at Madera Kubo. Satisfied as much is as possible, I drive to the Sahuarita post office to mail home my care package, the general delivery box I picked up when I arrived. This time it contains dirty clothes.
Not wishing to miss my plane, I give sufficient time for the drive to Mesa, on the outskirts of Phoenix. The airline tells me my plane, the only one going to Medford, is delayed. I phone Linda. Minutes later, I find the plane is on time. I phone Linda. More time passes, but I get word that the plane really, truly, without a doubt, will be delayed. I phone Linda. I decide to go to the gate and wait there, but going through security is slow and tedious, with my binoculars setting off the neck hair of one of the inexperienced TSA staff. Everyone acted as if they are doing the passengers a favor, but there is little to feel amused about the inane questions and searches or to have gratitude that we are all better off with the security. Because of the delay and remoteness of the airport, where there is little to eat beyond candy, the airlines brings in about two-dozen pizzas, but more soft drinks than water. The pizza tastes good and is relatively nourishing compared the pieces of beef jerky I have in my pack. I arrive at Medford around four hours late. Off the plane, I suddenly have tunnel vision; the people and air terminal disappear, with only Linda in my view.
Once home I began taking stock of the trip. First, thanks to Linda, I could feel calm and collected. In days, my parcel, the one sent to General Delivery, Sahuarita, arrived, not too much worse for wear. I quickly unpacked the bag of dirty clothes. Nothing had grown on the birder soiled shirts. The knee stains didn‘t go away, the cuffs remained brown and gritty, but what was that horrible smell. My nose, not particularly a great instrument, sniffed out what could have been a disaster for the entire parcel. In a couple more days, the contents of a plastic grocery bag would have leaked into everything, even my notes. The culprit, smelling worse than a dead body, something only a medical examiner might love, was a largish baking potato, an expensive purchase so far from northern potato country. Hauling it from Green Valley, to the Salton Sea and back, to the Huachuca and Chiricahua Mountains, and back to the Santa Rita went against my intention of micro waving it one night. Forgotten, but not gone, it reared its ugly head back home in Oregon.
Although calm and collected, more or less, feeling cool was impossible. A high, stalled offshore, brought temperatures into the three digits, with some days exceeding all-time records all the way from Seattle to my home turf. While remembering the importance of hydration, I began again to monitor bird sightings in Arizona and Salton Sea up to the end of August. Besides the August booby at the sea, a Blue-footed Booby visited New Mexico for an extended and welcome stay. A Plain-capped Starthroat became a regular at a Patagonia feeder after I left Arizona, but no one reported a Yellow Grosbeak, anywhere in the state.
Heavy traffic on the Brown-capped Solitaire continued into August. The bird returned to Miller Canyon not long after I saw it and then back to Ramsey Canyon. On the other hand, was it the same individual? Paul Sykes and I postulated that there could be a solitaire in Miller and another in Ramsey Canyon. It just didn’t seem logical that an individual would visit both places even though the canyons are only about four miles apart, as a solitaire flies. Why would it bother going over the high ridges to get from place to place? We, as did an Arizona birder, suggested an attempt to examine the many photographs to look for individual variation. In the meantime, another person listed all the observations made at Miller and Ramsey Canyons. The solitaire was never in both places at the same time. Paul and I are probably wrong. Other people questioned how a Brown-backed Solitaire, with probably the closest breeding population somewhere in Sonora, got to southern Arizona?
The day after I left Ramsey Canyon, the Arizona web site contained postings of several people discussing the age of the bird, whether the species is migratory or not, where is the northern most range of the solitaire and how did the visitor get to Arizona. Someone suggest the bird is in first-basic plumage, that it is a young adult. Brown-backed Solitaires are known as regulars about 200 miles south of Miller Canyon, that it has been found only 50 miles from New Mexico and maybe occur even further north. As I often stated in my taxonomic papers, “more research is needed.” The jury is out on whether the species is migratory.
The provenance of the Arizona Brown-backed Solitaire is problematic. As my old friend, Alan Phillips stated in volume 2 of his “Known Bird,” the species is a “favorite” cage-bird. A web poster even jokingly wrote of finding an empty beat-up cage in Miller Canyon, a route too frequently used by illegal border crossers. Allan warned that specimens “must be carefully checked for tell-tale signs of captivity.” Several birders examined the photographs carefully. One suggested that the bird’s feet are too pink and it was not grasping its perch normally. There was a suggestion the solitaire has bumble foot, an inflammation of the foot often found in caged birds. A veterinarian concluded that he could not determine from photographs that the solitaire has bumble foot or abnormally long toe-tails. An experienced bander, Laurens Halsey, concluded that the there is nothing wrong with the toes; bird toes do not necessarily grasp perches in the neat way illustrators arrange them. This person stated that the plumage, including remiges, the tail feathers make the solitaire a second year individual, a common age bracket for many vagrants. He thinks the plumage indicates the bird spent considerable amounts of time in the sun, and that a caged bird would less likely be gathering so many rays. Other web posters are skeptical on many or a few salient points.
Was the Brown-backed Solitaire held captive and then accidentally or purposefully released in Arizona? The Huachuca Mountain bird is not the only Brown-backed Solitaire record in Arizona. A bird was photographed in Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains in early October 1996, but the Arizona Bird Committee did not accept the record because the bird may have or may have not been a cage-bird. The provenance could not be proven. An accidental or purposeful release, if by someone illegally entering the country is less likely there than in Miller Canyon. The person posting the older record mentioned that the bird had some bent feathers, but who hasn’t noticed juncos and sparrows at their feeder or a robin in the old cherry tree with a bent feather.
A spate of messages on the Arizona web site discussed birder ethics, including the use of playback. Any scientist worth their salt, at the admonishment of the local birder community, should have used playback in Miller Canyon. It could have helped decide whether there were more than one individual. If I had had a recording, I might have tried using playback, but, of course, I would not have wanted my sword broken and drummed out of the state. Finding the truth and avoiding emotional upsets do not always coincide. We will never know how many individuals there were nor can it be proved that the species arrived on its own power. It is all a guessing game.
Is the species countable? It is not if it is deemed an escapee, a decision, a guess, really, will eventually come. In the meantime, Paul Sykes, who has seen 860 species in the ABA area, and I, perched at 644, will place Brown-backed Solitaire on our escrow lists. Personally, it was great to see and hear America’s most popular cage bird that I hope never knew captivity. That is the truth.
Another electronic message I read upon returning from Arizona is an email from ABA’s Bill Maynard replying to me questioning Aplomado Falcon of on the coast of Texas as not being countable. Someone earlier had asked if an unbanded bird there is countable and I had questioned ABA’s decision that coastal Texas falcons are not countable. One of the restraints to be able to count a species is is it wild. Under the term “Wild, ABA rule number 3 states that a bird’s occurrence at the time and place of observation is not because it, or its recent ancestors, has ever been transported or otherwise assisted by man.” Aplomado Falcons were introduced to the coast of Texas, and part three of Rule 3 addresses the fact a population must be an established one. Bill Maynard explained that there was no ancestral population of the Aplomado Falcon in Laguna Atascosa for 50 years before the release of captive reared falcons began and that the current populations are recent ancestors. The recent ancestors are from human transported birds. Crap, I thought I was at ABA number 644, sans the solitaire, but they pull me back down to 643.
28 August 2009
Talk about uncountable species, Linda and I drive south, up and over the Siskiyou Summit into California, where a White Stork has been reported eating grasshoppers, flying from field to field and hanging out with cattle. The bird may have even been seen days earlier minutes from home, but it is last seen almost 60 miles south near Yreka and Montague, in the upper Shasta River Valley where its identify is confirmed. It is not a baby stork; it is an adult, a photographed adult, without leg bands, neckbands, or other markings indicating human confinement. From photographs, the wings of the bird clearly have not been altered as one might expect of large species. Nonetheless, we consider the bird, even without signs of captivity, to be an escapee. No captive bird enthusiasts are coming forward to admit losing a big white bird. Who wants to admit their stork went over the fence? The bird is just too far from its home, Europe and western Asia, and its visit too much an isolated event. White Storks are not a happening species anywhere in the U.S.
The day is cooler than usual, a nice day for a drive, a great time to scout rural landscapes. It feels good to bird with my best friend. Large pale birds, the distant big white Great Egret, quicken our pulses a little. We drive up and down narrow country roads, stop at the state administered Shasta Wildlife Area for local information, and, though there are no known sightings of the stork in a couple of days, we roam a few more roads. Hours pass. Finally, we give up and return north. Further, up the road, climbing toward the summit of the Siskiyou Mountains, I imagine someday grandfathering the 2005 Aplomado Falcon sighting with my list of ABA species. I mentally place it with others of my escrow list. As for the Brown-backed Solitaire, the game is not over.