Milestone 700, Ch 38, The Little Year, Part 2, Something New

2014, The Little Year, Part 2, Something New

July 2014 came to southwestern Oregon with triple-digit temperatures. My Jackson County, Oregon, year list is missing several species that I normally find by summer. There is nothing to suggest that 2014 is going to be a big year, maybe not even a mediocre year. Shorebirds are already migrating south. Surely, we will sell our home and take the leap to a life of more birds and more places. Although realizing that seeing a few birds now and then might alleviate our high anxiety, we must contend with the chores at hand.

*****

5 July 2014

Yesterday, we wondered why Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is so often played by radio stations on the United States Fourth of July and worried that wildfires might be started by careless handling of fireworks. We also continue to downside. Today, we put out a “For Sale” sign.

10 July 2014

 We enlisted a realtor to sell our home a couple of days ago. Now, it a waiting game. Anxiety creeps in with thoughts of the final packing that includes food, cloths, the last remnants of about seven years of occupying our current home, and the next step.

In the meantime, I read on the internet, which means it must be true, that bird people have some unexpected news. The headline is that proposals voted on by the AOU committee on taxonomy and the subsequent manuscript on their decisions, aka, the supplement to the check-list, was submitted to the editor of Auk in June. Normally supplements appear in July issues, but this year’s manuscript will be published in the October issue. Does this mean that any changes to the check-list will not be official until October or will the AOU post a copy of the supplement on the web before the shorebirds have migrated south and ahead of the first mountain snow? Will the unofficially split rails languishing on the editor’s desk prevent listers from jumping overboard? Now, without the latest AOU supplement, taxonomic uncertainty on check-list news cause our immediate anxiety produced from wondering where home will be  to join our checklist angst.

In the meantime, there is the question concerning that list of birds. By AOU standards, the list is a check-list, but it seems the hyphen is eliminated by others who use the word checklist. What is a birder to do?

15 July 2014

The second phase of our plan begins on the ides of July, the day the realtor calls in the news. A couple, who earlier offered a much lower price for our home than Linda and I could accept, countered our counter with an amount we believe will cover the third stage of our plan, which is to purchase a used class B recreational vehicle.

What we are about to embark on is what we hope will enrich our remaining years. We will not just travel in the RV. We will live in it. People living in self-contained RVs, not the giant passenger bus ilk, but a smaller Class B RV built on commercial van chassis, say that downsizing from a house to around 140 square feet is difficult if not frightening. That scare factor is there to remind us that we are changing our lives drastically. We accept that. We embrace the change and look forward to new places to call our back and front yards, to visit people we miss and to find new birds and renew experiences with so many species we have earlier experienced on the fly. We also look forward to the freedom. Someone once said that freedom is carrying all your belongs in your backpack. We cannot do that, but most of our important belongs will be carried in our portable home. That will be freedom.

24 July 2010

Money for what is now our old home is transferred to us. We have eight days to vacate.

30 July 2010

The last six days of packing are grinding down our physical and emotional strength. The end seems closer and soon, we will be departing our home. During the first years there we thought that would be our last territory until we have to move to a retirement home. However, our trip to Alaska last year changed our minds about living locations and life styles. Emotionally, we are almost too tired to feel. Packing today seems like packing yesterday, never ending and that leaves little to look forward too.

A brief respite on the computer, specifically birdforum.com, reveals a copy of this year’s AOU supplement to the Check-list. A possibly pirated version of the manuscript of the supplement not due for printing until this October is a leak, perhaps scanned to a laptop in the underground parking lot of Watergate? It might by directly from a committee member trying to correct the delay in official publication. Nonetheless, a quick scroll of the document reveals that the northwestern split rail has the English name Ridgway’s Rail. I am not sure how I would like my name associated with the binomial obsoletus, but that is the name for now. The eastern birds remain with the English moniker of Clapper Rail. The non-ABA rail south of the border in the Mexican highlands is now Aztec Rail. Not everyone will appreciate the new English names. Some will especially rail on about the retention of Clapper Rail for the eastern rails. Admittedly, I am not thrilled with the new names, but accept them, knowing that those names are representing taxonomic relationships.

The proposal to split the northern populations of Curve-billed Thrasher failed. This new proposal is in part of a response to committee’s comments on my proposal submitted in early 2010. I thought mine was a slam-dunk, but it failed. Three of the committee voted yes to eight voting no. Of the naysayers, one was not very sure (= no?), one said, “Possibly correct” and another considered the evidence weak from a biological species standpoint. Robert Tweit’s new proposal is much longer and cites more sources than mine, but no literature newer than referenced in my proposal. There is more to thrash over on the northern Curve-billed Thrashers.

My formerly listed Nutmeg Mannikin can now be listed as Scaly-breasted Munia, a much more accurate and less confusing English name. Complainers do not like the Scaly-breasted part of the name, voicing that anything with a scaly breast is creepy and evokes snakes. What? Okay, are Red-eyed Vireos reminders of alcoholics, Black-eyed Junco victims of physical abuse? Last, but not least is the Common Black-Hawk Linda and I first witnessed near the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park all too many years ago is now Common Black Hawk. We are looking forward to seeing more hyphenatedless black hawks after we complete the next hurtle, purchasing a RV.

So far, this Little Year brings something new besides a lack of a hyphen. It is in the form of a split rail, Ridgway’s Rail, which, since it was on my escrow list, is ABA life bird 687.

3 August 2010

The thermometer continues hovering in the low one-hundreds, but at long last, Linda and I have completely vacated our old abode and are safely ensconced in Linda’s brother’s home. Much of stuff goes to a commercial storage unit. It is embarrassing just how much stuff we have remaining after giving away more stuff to relatives and friends and conveying more stuff, furniture mostly, to the new owners. Even so, too much stuff remains. Some of it, we believe will be needed in the RV we will purchase. Because our move is so hurried, we gathered up some of our belonging into a depressing number of containers marked for sorting. Since Linda and I will annually return to this neck of Oregon woods, we will likely root through some of those storage boxes to remove or add to our RV. Even so, we need to rid ourselves of more stuff. George Carlin was a great sociologist. The f word, which he so frequently used, applies to our piles of stuff.

25 August 2014

After months, I go birding, hitting Agate Reservoir, a hotspot for shorebirds this time of year. It is early in the day before the temperature reaches 100. There is a good variety of shorebirds, including half a dozen Black-necked Stilt, a species unusual to the west side of the Cascade Mountains. As hard as I look, not one Gray-tailed Tattler or a Long-toed Stint give hint of their presence. Those species that may have gotten away remain but a wish. By noon, the heat waves interrupt good scoping. I head to Mt. Ashland’s cool slopes. Besides crisp air, I find Mountain Bluebirds and Mountain Chickadee. The sometimes-occurring Clark’s Nutcracker is silent, but I do not care.

28 August 2014

Today, we take possession of a used 23-foot class B RV. After transferring a suitcase and a few other items from the birdmobile to our new home on wheels, our helpful salesperson took a picture of the two vehicles as I stood between the two machines, patting a heartfelt thanks and goodbye on the roof of the birdmobile. What a great conveyance, our birdmobile that took us up four-wheel only roads during dusty treks into forested mountains, through mud from the Rio Grande Valley, snowy roads in winter, burning sun at Salton Sea and that could easily turn around on narrow roads, speed down interstates and carry us safely and comfortably to Alaska and other spectacular panoramas. These are sweet memories. I also felt a great appreciation that the birdmobile had transported the way to so many new life birds. Now, we are abandoning the trusty birdmobile, but with knowledge that it has at least 100,000 more miles of fruitful years to bestow on some lucky person. The birdmobile, sadly left as part of the financial deal in acquiring the RV, looks smaller and smaller in the RV’s side-view mirror as we leave it behind. We will miss our birdmobile.

In less than twenty years, Linda and I traveled from Smithsonian to Oregon at our happy setting at Morgan Springs. In six glorious years, circumstances, mostly beyond our will, caused us to abandon what we originally thought might be our final home. During the next decade and three more moves, we acquired the birdmobile. During that period, we lost Cat, and although we did not abandon her, we had to let her go. As far as leaving our last home, one solidly anchored to the ground, regret or feelings of abandonment are nonexistent. It just never felt like home. However, Linda will miss the English garden she created in the back, adjacent to a Rainier cherry tree and partly under a large red leafed Japanese plum tree. She will miss the other plum and cherry trees, the fast growing apple tree full of sapsucker drill holes and the lavender, butterfly bushes and other plants reacting to her most efficient green thumb. Of course, the birds visiting the feeders there will be missed. Will there be an individual junco or more that will remember the millet, will the pair of Downy Woodpeckers miss the empty suet feeder left hanging on the tree out front? About a week before the sale, a pair of bushtits searched for a crumb of suet. Was one or both of the birds part of the winter flock that swarmed over the suet feeder last winter? I know I will miss Spotted Towhees, hearing their song and watching them scratch with both feet together. I will especially miss the plaintive evening song of Golden-crowned Sparrows. My hope is that the new owners will take up the torch and feed my birds, but that is doubtful. Will the birds feel abandoned? Not exactly, but it is possible some might. They probably will not have a thought of regret or sadness, but some will wonder what happened to their winter food source.

Because of its breadth and especially is length, our new class B+ motor home, our new bird finder, is intimidating. Gratefully, driving it is almost easier than I worried it would not be. It is about seven feet wide and, did I say, 23 feet long. A roof air conditioner just clears under the 11-foot mark above the ground. Our new steed is self-contained, replete with a 30-gallon tank for potable water. The new set of wheels is three shades of gray. We did not choose the color as our criteria focused on mileage and interior layout. Will only three shades of gray be enough? We will decide as we travel.

*****

So far so good, or is it? There are many things to learn concerning the operation of a home on wheels. While wishing to become one with our new mode of travel and living, it is a great time to dream about birds. Our initial plan of wintering in Arizona and being in Florida by early spring will surely reveal the 13 needed species needed to break 700 before turning 71. There are some big ifs ahead. For example, what if the previously returning Nutting’s Flycatcher does not visit Arizona this winter? What if I again miss Groove-billed Ani and Masked Duck in Texas? What if? Nonetheless, planning is educational, it is fun and it might help find those 13 species. I decided to make a wish list of what could cross my vision between this autumn and 4 April 2015.

Wintering in Arizona offers some great possibilities: Rosy-faced Lovebirds ought to be easy in Phoenix. We will then head south for a possible Rufous-backed Robin. Less likely, but contenders based on their past visitations, are Eared Quetzal, Tufted Flycatcher, Aztec Thrush and Crescent-chested Warbler. I sure hope not to locate any of these rarities alone or, if alone, I hope I can obtain photographic proof. Thankfully, there are active birders in Arizona who I can contact. Once Linda and I hear, if we hear of Nutting’s Flycatcher, we will head its way. A quick sojourn to Salton Sea might yield Bean goose and Ivory and Little gulls. At least Linda could have opportunity to add Yellow-footed Gull and Ridgway’s Rail. Who knows what species may have gone awry and ended up in southeastern California and Arizona.

After the Southwest, we will travel to Texas, the state that may host a few new ABA lifers. Some are familiar target birds that I historically never got a bead on including Groove-billed Ani and Masked Duck. The ani and the duck could be a title for a chapter about species missed in Texas. Streak-backed Oriole, missed in 2005 and, more recently, Rufous-backed Robin, are a growing handful of species missed in Texas by just days. As always, it is in the timing. Seven possible species to add to my ABA list grace the lone star state include Amazon Kingfisher, Roadside Hawk, White-throated Robin, Golden-crowned Warbler and Blue Bunting, and the ani and that darn duck. Who knows what might reveal itself. When we visited Bentzen-Rio Grande State Park that same trip, Linda saw a White-throated Robin, which is confirmed by staff. I was in the restroom splashing water on my face or in front of a fan disparately trying to get my core temperature below 150 degrees.

The wish list of birds in Florida in late March to early April includes about 15 species, most of which are residents, including several introduced birds. In northern Florida, we will need to find Budgerigar and Nanday Parakeet. Further south, we hope Swallow-tailed Kite will have returned and we will be searching for Snail Kite, a species I missed in the winter way back in the early 60’s. Snail Kites are actually more abundant now than earlier and therefore should be easier to locate. Iceland Gull seems to be reported frequently at Daytona Beach and just maybe one will be hanging out there. Purple Swamphen, Common Myna, White-winged Parakeet and the new kid on the ABA block, Egyptian Goose ought to be findable. La Sagra’s Flycatcher and a spindalis might be available and maybe a flamingo will be waiting at Snake Bight. The Florida list of birds for late April includes even more species.

*****

Sometime in early October 2014

The ABA’s Recording Standards and Ethics Committee (RSEC) revised part of the count ability rule by removing the criteria that a re-expatriated species must be wild and therefore holding their own without human assistance. The change now allows counting Whooping Cranes occurring as part of the reintroduction program in Florida. Countability of a second species, Aplomado Falcon, is also sanctioned by the ABA. Ever since observing this striking bird in Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on a Texas spring day in 2005, Linda and I have thought the species should be countable, especially for unbanded birds that could be wild individuals from Mexico. Finally, Aplomado Falcon goes on my ABA list. The new rules now also allow counting California Condor. Wait. Has ABA stepped into a sacred area by allowing people to count the once wild condor, the species that presently is made up mostly of patagial wearing offspring that exist only as the result of human intervention. I never thought that California Condor would ever appear on my ABA list, but there it stands, but with some pangs of regret that I did not finagle my teenage and carless self to see a Californian California Condor before the species was nearly erased from our avifauna. Now, I do not feel so stupid for not looking for California Condors when I was a teenager. Still, what was I thinking? Some older folks may think the new ruling is unfair and grumble that they got their California Condor the old fashion way. A glance in a mirror resets time by the realization I am one of the older folks. Should I grumble? Should I begrudge anyone the pleasure of counting such a wonderful bird? No, and a warm feeling that Linda and I do not have to wait for the condor to become established is welcome. Besides, becoming established will take several condor life times, which is more than we have. Today, I gladly accept ABA number 688 and 689 under the relative calm of the new ABA ruling. People will someday see condors and Aplomado Falcons when the birds are living on their own steam.

The ABA changed another rule, that being “Rule 2B(iii) – It was the unanimous consent of the RSEC that once an exotic species is accepted to the ABA official checklist, if it is recorded during its time on that checklist, it should always count on a birder’s list, even if the exotic species becomes extirpated or is removed for other reasons at some future point from the official ABA checklist.” Is there such a species once off on my list and since expunged from the record? My experience at locations hosting introduced birds is primarily limited Los Angles, California and Florida. California’s record committee is exceptionally reluctant to accept foreigners to sit on their list. Perhaps I saw something in Florida. Could I count the Blue-gray Tanager seen there 50 years ago?

21 October 2014

Finally, we leave Medford, Oregon. Departing has not been easy owing to health, wealth and daylight savings time, not to mention too many communications with politicians pontificating over the air and via junk mail that they should hold office. Electing to leave our old way of life behind feels good. The day ends selecting a campsite in the darkness at Lava Beds National Monument in northern California. It is cool and windy. At last, we are on our way.

IMG_2824
Looking northward from Lava Beds National Monument campground.  Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge is in background

 

During the night, Linda and I realize that we suffer what we pen as Involuntary Synchronized Urination (ISU). The symptoms are simple. When one of us wakes during the night for reasons of going to the bathroom to urinate, the other person suddenly has the urge to urinate. Sometimes the urges are extreme. ISU manages to put us both at a wakeful state. Once ISU passes, slumber sets in until ISU 2 arrives. ISU 2 and sometimes three and hopefully never four do not differ from the original ISU (ISU 1). All bouts of ISU are bothersome sequels. Controlling ISU takes practice. Those suffering from ISU may need a second bathroom or second bush and have good kegel techniques. Is ISU communicable? ISU is not. ISU is not airborne, usually. So, what is ISU? ISU is a social condition, like synchronized swimming, laughing during a sermon or nervous coughing during a concert and synchronized menstruation in a college dorm.

22 October 2014

We decide to stay another night in the monument. Townsend’s Solitaires are taking advantage of the abundance of juniper berries. The elevation, 4528, makes for a cold night. Turning on the RV’s propane furnace takes away the chill.

23-26 October 2014

Our route southward will help avoid a winter storm coming off the Pacific that could freeze the water system of our trusty RV. Nonetheless, storm wind buffets us along our way southward, which is down U.S. 95 from east of Reno to Las Vegas, Nevada. The route is not a sight for sore eyes. In fact, the route reveals a desert of boring proportions and is a sight to make our eyes sore. With some relief, we pull into Lake Havasu State Park in Arizona on 26 October where in seconds we witness a roadrunner and Gambel’s Quail scurrying across the campground road.

27-28 October 2014

We pass the junction of Planet Ranch Road. It looks narrow and not the road I imagined while reading about last year’s sightings of Nutting’s Flycatcher seen there by hundreds of birders. Would the species be up that road this winter? The route appears inaccessible to our RV. Would I be able to find transportation up that formidable appearing passage? Some ideas pop into my head as we pass the headquarters of Bill William National Wildlife Refuge, the preserve hosting the rare flycatcher. Perhaps we could rent a small vehicle or maybe I could wangle help from the refuge staff, as a courtesy to my past employment.

We had hoped to boondock at a Walmart in southern Phoenix and at the same time maybe pick up Rosy-faced Lovebirds, introduced to Phoenix in the late 1980’s and recently sanctioned by ABA as an established and countable species. It seems that every Walmart in the region do not want RVs on their lots or is there a city ordinance against overnight parking. However, a Walmart in Maricopa said come on down, but the location is out of the range of the little parrots. We stayed two nights to rest up for the good things to come.

29 October 2014

We back into campsite number 9 in Bog Springs Campground. Arrival in Madera Canyon and the Santa Rita Mountains changes our moods as we sign up for 14 nights of camping. There is a picnic table, bear-proof refuse containers, a vaulted restroom (this has nothing to do with the ceilings) and very tasty potable water originating high above from Bog Springs, the springs. Mexican Jays patrol the campground.

IMG_2849
Bog Springs Campground, Madera Canyon

 

It is early in the day, with time to explore one of the many trails. Setting off shod only in sandals, I think how I privately criticized people wearing inappropriate footwear on rough trails, but I could not wait to lace up boots before looking for Santa Rita birds. My trail takes me from the campground to the familiar Madera Canyon amphitheater, just below Kubo and just above Santa Rita Lodge. The search for birds brings Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Bridled Titmouse, a Ladder-backed Woodpecker and a surprise, a male Painted Redstart. Before dark I hand-wash my field pants, which are dry in only a couple of hours.

30 October 2014

A trudge down the paved campground road and up the paved Madera Canyon Road to the upper trailhead includes stopping at the lodge where a retired schoolteacher finds her life Wild Turkey. A life bird is a life bird and I congratulate her. At Kubo, and by now the climb is taxing me, a Magnificent Hummingbird is cheering. Onward and upward, toward Vault Mine Trail. A section of the creek there inspires me to soak my t-shirt. The cooling is at first shocking, but not as much as glimpsing an Elegant Trogon flying across the trail from a sycamore and out of sight. The trail becomes very steep and rocky, something I remember from 2009. Turning around seems the better part of valor, even if I am wearing the same trusty boots worn 5 years ago. Miraculously, I relocate the trogon. Maybe there is hope in finding a trogon sitting quietly on a branch, but the quest is not for any trogon. I hope to discover a fall dispersed Eared Quetzal. At least one appeared near Josephine Saddle some years ago. In keeping with the mission, I catch a right and begin climbing up the Old Baldy Trail toward the saddle.

IMG_2830
Elegant Trogon, Madera Canyon

 

About halfway to Josephine Saddle, I begin wondering where all the birds are. Ever more tired and hot, a sound grabs my attention. A reasonably audible “chuck” is coming from some thick understory to my left, down the steep slope. Two more “chucks” really pull at my curiosity. First, one, then another Hermit Thrush responds to my spishing. The vocalization is not that of a Hermit Thrush or any species I have ever heard. Suddenly, a larger bird flies from behind a heavily leafed branch. This is no Hermit Thrush or any species ever sighted. Initially, I notice only a rufous color. Near the same instance, I could see the head, a head not terribly unlike that of an American Robin. The bird’s heavy dark streaks along the throat are nonetheless much more extensive than the familiar Turdus. As for the rufous, it is bright and rich, is on the upper sides or at least the side I can observe. No, this is not an American Robin, Spotted Towhee or any other species having rufous feathers. Further, the rufous extends to a large dorsal patch. Yes, the bird is undoubtedly a Rufous-backed Robin. Of course, the camera is not out and ready, but in seconds, it is, but without a subject. I wait. I spish and wait and wait and spish until my mouth is dry. Not a single bird of any kind responds. All is quiet.

Once again, I locate a rare bird; no one is with me for corroboration and no photographs are taken to prove the observation. I recall telling legendary Paul Sykes in Miller Canyon five years ago how much I hated finding something rare with no means to prove my observation. He laughed. We have all been there, but why now. I was not even entertaining the possibility of seeing a Rufous-backed Robin. I was thinking the trail is becoming boring and wondering if I would make it to Josephine Saddle where the timing is betting for an Eared Quetzal than a Rufous-back Robin. With a spring in my step, I lurch on to Josephine Saddle, but as the sun begins to dip behind a ridge, my water bottle becomes lighter, my sandwich is gone and my aching body protests to mark the time to turn around. It does not take long to return to the robin site since, after hours of going uphill, going down is remarkably easy. Again, but with camera at the ready, I wait and spish and wait. Nothing. The temperature is cooler. Soon, I reach the trailhead and travel down the steep Madera Canyon Road. Along the way, a Townsend’s Warbler stares down from its tree. Nearby are more titmice and several Black-throated Gray Warblers. Lumbering up the paved campground road, I recall the Virginia’s Warbler foraging at road’s edge this morning. That was not a bad bird to find, but the robin is even better. Today, unexpectedly, my ABA list goes up one more notch.

31 October – 3 November 2014

Birding around camp today allows time for my body to heal from yesterday and more time to acclimate to the high elevation. A map reveals yesterday’s session on Old Baldy Trail was but a sample of steps to come. I had actually only gotten about a quarter of the way to Josephine Saddle.

As the ridge to our west begins to block the sun, a bird lands near the RV. Linda and I are inside and barely able to see the bird that is vocalizing a strange ditty that reminded me of a whisper song often heard in spring. We look up through the RV window and see a long-tailed bird. The lighting is such that color is impossible to discern, although we think the upper breast is dark gray. We estimate the size to be slightly larger than a Mexican Jay. This is not a slim individual, further seeming to rule out a jay or an Accipiter. Jumping out the back door for a possible better look seems foolish. The mystery bird would flush. We stare into the growing shadows of the premature sundown in the steep walled canyon. It appears the bird has hunched shoulders or is its head small for its body. Our bird terminates its pleasant chortling and quickly flies from the juniper it occupies. Its direction, we believe is down into a deep and heavily forested wash a few yards west. The characteristics of the mystery bird is leaning to an Eared Quetzal, but that is ridiculous. Surely, this was an overstuffed Mexican Jay out on a prank. Nonetheless, we never hear any Mexican Jay vocalizing similarly to our mystery bird.

As expected, the unusually beautiful campground is almost full with weekend campers. Because the trails will be busy with weekenders, I decide to keep my birding locally to the campground, especially since I stupidly had let the batteries for the “house” go down to the point it was impossible to start the electric generator that charges them. A call back to the Oregon RV dealership produces the information needed; it is possible to jump the house batteries from the vehicle battery. It works. Birding during the day is uneventful, but there is campground excitement from a cranky and foul-mouthed woman across from us. She is constantly cooking something and ordering her daughters, who apparently are delivering the mysterious food, into submissive minions. We wonder if the woman is making Bog Springs Bagels. The water of Bog Springs is tested weekly by the forest service and is definitely tasty water. Whether it has properties to ward off superstitious beliefs or enhance specially wrapped and blessed bagels is questionable.

Monday night might bring freezing temperatures, something I do not want to hear for fear of a frozen water system. We brace ourselves. Oh, one other thing, the mystery bird appears again on the night of 31 October. We notice the same characters we saw earlier and again, we cannot discern bill color or see any red, except from the embarrassment of being bamboozled twice.

4 November 2014

The coldest outside temperature was 35, which was cold enough to turn on the furnace. At 10 am, with food and water at the ready, I set off for the Old Baldy Trail and Josephine Gap. On the way, I stop at the lodge and meet a retired military man. He is an avid birder. To make his buck go further, he lives in a van, camps off forest service roads below the canyon and spends month after month birding southeastern Arizona. He drove me from the lodge to the trailhead. In return, I show him the trail leading to a trogon seen a few days ago. He said, “Don’t tell me your name because I will forget it,” but upon going our separate directions, we exchanged first names.

Maybe a fourth of the way up Old Baldy Trail, a resting man is holding a large flexible hose. The black hose is maybe 3 inches in diameter. The man said the pipe is 500 feet long and that he and two other strong men are wrestling it down the trail. The pipe had served to bypass pipes frozen last winter. He said water from Josephine Saddle supplies the residents of the canyon. The third person, further up the trail, asked me to let him know when I arrive at the upper end of the pipe. I did. In seconds, the pipe slithered down the trail and out of sight like some giant hollow snake.IMG_2860

Birding up the trail is uneventful during the 3-hour climb to Josephine Saddle. At the top, I eat lunch and meet two women who are avid birders. One admits they are searching for a quetzal. They arrived via the steep Vault Mine Trail and then came down the ridge to the saddle. We compare notes. The two saw a Golden Eagle, which I did not observe. They, as did I, spent considerable time scanning trees for a quetzal. Our results are similar; no rare trogons came into view. On the way down, I finally see a Yellow-eyed Junco, first for the trip.

A stop at the lodge produces a female Arizona Woodpecker. Sundown takes me home, where our view is from a couple of campsites up the slope from the first camp. The site is more level, but sits on a paved pad above the picnic table. As darkness falls, which is early in the south to north running canyon, I hear a scream. Linda inadvertently stepped off the pad, which at that point is at least three feet high. There are no broken bones as far as we know. She does not hit her head, but it is a serious fall.

7 November 2014

The last couple of days include a trip to Green Valley. Linda is slowly recovering from the fall. Today, I again trek up Old Baldy, not with the goal to reach Josephine Saddle, but just to see a quetzal. I am not asking for much. Actually, the rare tropical trogon is a considerable dream. What I do see is a plethora of hikers, 40 plus by my count. Arizona people, regardless of age seem tough. The trail is not easy, but 50, 60 and 70-year-old people are going to or from Josephine Saddle. A twentyish male came down with no footwear. I think I saw sparks fly between his feet and the rocks. Although the hikers seem tough, they all talked incessantly, going up and down. If a quetzal was around, it had plenty of warning to hide.

9 November 2014

Yesterday was devoted to attempting to organize the RV. Today, my goal is to reach Fern Canyon, a site not marked on the maps, but recommended by our camp host’s friend Evelyn. The route to the site involves hiking old roads. Such roads converted to trails often mount inclines more steeply than more contoured routes crafted for people, not vehicles. I never reach Fern Canyon, but do hear some strange birds along the way. From descriptions of the vocalizations, the sound is similar to Aztec Thrush. Of course, verbal renditions of sounds are often not accurate and are sometimes misleading. I must hear a recording before making the arduous hike back. The bird or birds never come into a good view, only one shows me a silhouette of a slim bird that appears smaller than an American Robin. Of course, the black outline might not have been the individual vocalizing. Even if the mystery bird is unidentifiable, I feel good about picking out a couple of Eastern Bluebirds from a flock foraging along the trail. Not all thrushes remain a mystery.

13 November 2014

After three non-birding days, we take a drive to Tucson yesterday, stop at a RV facility to arrange for a slight interior makeover scheduled for 1 December, and then drive west out-of-town. Our destination is Tucson Mountain Park and home to the internationally famous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Linda has been to the park several times in an earlier life. I have only read about the region from captions of the wonderfully photographed magazine Arizona Highways. My earliest recollection of the museum is, I think, from a borrowed copy of an early National Geographic Magazine. The further we drive, the more alien becomes the landscape even though we are only about a dozen miles west of Tucson. Entering 20,000-acre Tucson Mountain Park, we pass Old Tucson, a name given to a set of buildings in remembrance of several western movies filmed there. Saguaro cactus tower above the desert flora protected since 1929 by this largest of municipal parks in the country. Further along the winding and narrow pavement, we drive into Gilbert Ray Campground, a county operated facility surrounded by even more species of cacti. There is no way to adequately describe camping in a cactus forest. Birdwise, I know this is a place to stick around.

IMG_2914
Cactus everywhere.  Gilbert Ray Campground near Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

 

After a night of serenading coyotes, the13th proves to produce as I had hoped last evening from a wake-up call from a Curve-billed Thrasher. The bird whistles a while next to the RV, and then flies away. There is more whistling from other Curve-bills not far away. A look out the back door reveals a silent Bendire’s Thrasher and a Northern Mockingbird. Gila Woodpeckers sit as sentinels atop tall saguaro cacti. A flock of Phainopepla seems to cavort from branch to branch on the few mesquites daring to grow among the dense cacti. Gambel’s Quail scurry. At dusk, Linda and I witness over a 100 White-winged Doves coming to roost in the few bushes. We are not sure where they are coming from.

14 November 2014

The sound of continuous shooting from a county operated gun range rises from the slope to disturb the cool desert morning. We ignore the barely muffled explosive banging and turn our attention to an occasional scolding Cactus Wren or Curve-billed Thrasher as we drive from the campground to McCain Loop Road named for J.C. McCain, the first park ranger of Tucson Mountain Park. A pullout near the junction is handy for a stop to adjust our home for a bit of travel to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. While at the pullout, a Rufous-winged Sparrow offers a great view, with rufous wing and all, but disappears before Linda gets a bead on it. Rufous-winged Sparrow will be a new life bird for Linda. However, the bird is coy. Dialing up a Rufous-winged Sparrow vocalization on our new smart phone is prudent, and in seconds, the bird is sitting still on a branch and singing. Linda gets her bird. Some birders abhor using playback recordings to entice birds. Others do not. I am of the camp believing that sometimes using playback may be the only means in which to detect and identify certain birds, not to mention giving your partner a life bird.

In minutes, we arrive at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, created by William H. Carr and editor Arthur Pack to reveal the desert to the public. Carr had earlier founded an outdoor museum in New York, which was affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York. For years, my earliest recollection of the Desert Museum associated it with the American Museum, but I had somehow muddled the relationship in my teenage mind.

The Desert Museum opened in 1952. It is supported entirely from entrance fees, donations and an army of 500 volunteers. Linda tells me it has changed some, but that outdoor museum was and will be a treat. She is correct. We take a quick walk through the hummingbird aviary and the non-humming bird aviary. Both do not have the denizens of birds earlier imagined, but the aviaries offer some close up views of many species. Although looking forward to the opportunity to view several species of thrashers together, only one Curve-billed Thrasher is in residence. A so-called free-flying raptor demonstration down the trail compels our attention to the performing birds consisting of one each of Gray Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Barn Owl and a hunting troop of 6 Harris’s Hawks. These birds are trained well and do not attempt to escape.

In the afternoon, a stroll around the compound reveals a pitifully caged Kestrel, seemingly happy Thick-billed Parrots, a species once wild in Arizona, several captive mammals that are probably in healthy confinement, including a cougar, a couple of bobcats, red fox, a nervous coyote and a nonchalant Mexican wolf. A Gilded Flicker sounds off from some unseen distant perch, the only new bird for the day. With five o’clock approaching, it is time to exit the enthralling cactus slopes of the Desert Museum. Someday, another day. However, at an entry fee of $17.50 per adult, we will not be returning soon.

Sunset from Gilbert Ray Campground

16-18 November 2014

Returning to Madera Canyon, our NOAA radio announces cause a freeze warning. Because of that and partly to experience different habitat, the next three nights camping is on the margins of Proctor Road below the mouth of the canyon where it should be slightly warmer than at Bog Springs. The campsites are in what the forest service calls dispersed camping sites. There is no water, no fire pit, no nothing. It never reaches freezing any of our mornings along Proctor Road, but the temperature did dip close to below liquid water. We never enjoyed the stupendously spectacular picturesque sunsets witnessed from our back door while at Gilbert Ray Campground. Nor did we hear Curve-billed Thrashers whistling their tune. We do witness more Chipping Sparrows than seen anywhere and anytime including decades of summers in the mountains of southwestern Oregon. In the mix of sparrows are also a few Rufous-winged and White-crowned sparrows. A single Northern Cardinal is a surprise. It seems a novelty in this harsh land and, from experience, the species will become almost a pest in the East as it draws attention from other interesting birds. A Canyon Towhee scolds outside our back door.

Around noon on the 18th, we leave Proctor Road and return to Bog Springs Campground. Our preferred campsite, number 7, is in use until tomorrow. A site three places below is ok and soon becomes outstanding as a covey of Montezuma Quail scurry through the straw grasses below the oaks mere feet from our window. This is only my second sighting of the species. A short walk to Santa Rita Lodge is fruitful, with a pair of Hepatic Tanagers, a Pine Siskin foraging among 30 or more Lesser Goldfinch and a lone White-winged Dove.

19 and 20 November 2014

Two days of hard hiking, with the possibility of discovering something new, occupy hours while scanning trees for a vagrant thrush, an Eared Quetzal, a rare warbler, anything, but the time offers the usual suspects and a good grinding of the soles of my boots. The first day begins from the trailhead of Bog Springs Trail. Passing the junction leading to that springs, I trudge upward to the wash where a few days ago I heard a bird left unidentified. With perhaps too much exuberance, I had wondered if the vocalizing bird might have been an Aztec Thrush. However, today, the wooded wash is silent. I decide to go forward, at least to the junction of Kent Springs Trail and the trail up Fern Canyon, which I do not enter. Linda, wanted to see the quiet Fern Canyon and its described waterfalls, but owing to her fall is taking a regretful rain check to experience the canyon. Some other year, probably next year, we will visit Fern Canyon together.

View into Green Valley              Madera Canyon and alluvial fan below

The climb is steep. The trail, the old jeep road, is rocky, slippery and tedious. My patience and boot tread are wearing thin. Finally, I reach the unmarked trail so many hikers are mentioning. The habitat, essentially riparian, which equates to dominant sycamores, promises birds. Onward and upward, I whisper to myself. So far, my horizontal travel is only about 2 miles and it has taken me two hours to accomplish the distance. Of course, stops to check over birds and spish now and then add to travel time. The delays also affords a little time to rest. I can only spish when my breathing allows.

Meeting the only hiker on the trail, I ask if there is another way down from Kent Springs. He said yes and hands me his forest service trail map. I had forgotten mine. Profuse sweating and profuse questions of why am I doing this abound as I reach Sylvester Spring. Birdlife is dead. Kent Springs is just up the draw and around the bend and then up the draw and around more bends, not to mention the pitch of the old jeep road does not change from steep. The road was once built for the very low granny gear and four-wheel tracking, but I am able to muster a gear barely engineered for a slow upward slog. Finally, Kent Springs is in sight. Years ago, someone built a cement enclosure measuring about 2 X 3 feet and perhaps 2 feet deep to hold water from the spring. Today, water in the enclosure looks good for mosquito larva. The trail down, the trail I asked the hiker about, is a real trail. It is also narrow and cut from the side of the mountain that has about a 50-degree slope. There is no room for error here and each step forward must be planned or it is over the side. Luckily, the rocks on the upper part of this trail are angular and flat sided, not round and treacherously rolling underfoot.

Getting “home” by sundown is becoming unlikely, but reaching Bog Springs, the springs, the source of our camp water, is encouraging. Mammoth pale greenish-gray trunks of thick sycamores sparkle in the low light of a sundown less than an hour away. The fall leaves have lost their summer green hue and are now a warm yellow that shine through the dark pines to help light the trail along the riparian garden. Although emotionally uplifting, in short order, the trail leaves the riparian habitat and returns to rough arid juniper and oak before it junctures with the Kent Springs Trail, the horrible jeep road. Having earlier gone up this section twice now, I am wary of the many steep and slippery parts that will surely take me down. So far, no problems until, like lightning, maybe faster, I am horizontal. Well, not really horizontal, but my landing is about 45 degrees from flat. Horizontal is rare anywhere along the route. I am lying on the ground, with feet mostly downhill and wondering why I am there. I took a slip, a fall. Fortunately, this is my first complete fall, the down on all fours kind, in many years despite the fact I have been in many places that could have caused considerable hurt if not embarrassment. Okay. Pants are not torn. Legs and arms work. I can see. In fact, I look around, with worry that some bird is perched on a nearby alligator juniper while laughing its head off. Wait, why are blood drops on my right pant leg. Checking myself over, I have only minor scrapes on my right knee and elbow. It is time to get back to Bog Springs, the campground, and admit to Linda my accident. No quetzal or Aztec Thrush today. Just some hurt.

Although not as early as I might need to be out birding on 20 November, I head down the campground road, make the usual stop to check birds at the lodge and at Kubo on the way to the trailhead. Shamelessly, I hitch a ride about three-fourths of the way up. Three fourths is better that nothing. Soon, I am on the trail up to Agua Caliente. Called the Vault Mine Trail, the ascent is close to 2,000 feet in 1.5 miles. Few birds appear along the trail. Most are juncos and kinglets with an occasional flock of Mexican Jays. It is quiet. There are no humans above or below me. A faint breeze softens the otherwise harsh trail. Stops are frequent. That is when I hear strange bird calls, with a few sounding at a distance with soft gurgles, momentary high-pitched whistles, wheezes and coughs. Wheezes and coughs? All those sounds are coming from me as I struggle to bring in enough oxygen. Switchbacks are so numerous to become boring and uncountable. There are too many. Entertaining the idea that reaching Agua Caliente Trail is not possible, I reject the idea of going down the trail I am climbing. It is much too steep and loose to descend. With the completion of one more breath-taking switchback, I see the brown metal sign. Holes cut in the thick metal spell out the names of trails and that Josephine Saddle is 2.2 miles from the junction.

It is now 1:30. I look down. The Vault Mine Trail is breathtaking with a great view of Madera Canyon far below. Of course, while going up, all I saw was mountain slope, with occasional glances for absent birds. The Aqua Caliente Trail is also narrow and follows the canyon side of the ridge toward Josephine Saddle. Most welcoming is the trail is mostly level as it passes through oak and pine, the respective fallen leaves and needles nearly obliterating the trail less traveled. This time, my trekking poles are in use. They helped push me up the Vault Mine Trail, but the Agua Caliente Trail, cut from the mountainside much as the trail yesterday, is too narrow for a set of sticks. My left pole does not readily strike the edge of the trail, but frequently wavers in thin air. Caution dictates I lean uphill and not rely too much on the left stick. Could I traverse the 2.2 miles in an hour? Maybe if I have the balance of an acrobat. Where I am able, I increase my speed, but many narrow places and the four or five talus falls across the trail prevent any rapid movements. Josephine Saddle appears down the trail after an hour and 45 minutes. For the first time since beginning the climb, I see and hear people who have arrived at the saddle via the much easier Old Baldy Trail. During the ascent, I nibbled at a ham and cheese sandwich, took a bite of peanut butter wedged between bread and drink copious amounts of water. At least that lightens my load, but the pack contains still more food and water, which I consume a good portion while sitting on a log at Josephine Saddle. A few minutes pass on the restful log before sauntering down the Old Baldy Trail.

Self-punishment from the trails was not awarding any new birds. Health wise, my attempts have put me back into an earlier and more active body. Emotionally, the scenery is positive. Nonetheless, that elusive species of bird, perhaps one of those accidentally finding itself in Madera Canyon or its mountain trails, could appear, and I need to be there to see whatever shows itself.

People in the canyon continue to help. I meet a group of which most are over 70 years of age hiking down Old Baldy to their waiting car. They offer me a ride to the campground road. My knees tell me to take the invitation. I do and enjoy the conversation with three more trail trekking spirits.

21 November 2014

Today is an anniversary. One month ago, Linda and I left Medford, Oregon, behind for a new life. Today we complete one month of full-time RVing. We have yet to spend a night in an RV park. Looking back at expenditures, we are under budget. For a small amount of money, sunsets, birds and amazing scenery full of habitats and wildlife continue to entice us onward. Today is also a day to rest from the previous days on the trails. Surprisingly, I am only a little sore.

22-25 November 2014

The next days are days we keep alert for birds in the immediate neighborhood, that being site # 7 in Bog Springs Campground. We also pay close attention to our weather radio that blares out periodic local conditions. Winter is coming, even in southern Arizona and especially in the mountains, including our Madera Canyon home. Our water system cannot freeze. Setting our little furnace to blow heat produced by a small propane tank should do the trick as long as the temperature does not plunge too far below 32. Freezing temperature or not, the nights are cold and we nearly exhaust the supply of bed covers to keep us warm. The furnace takes away the morning chill and sun typically warms the day to improve our dispositions.

A trip to a fast-food Wi-Fi system allows for sending a few emails. Messages can be sent and received via our smart phone, but the phone has a limit on data use and I cannot seem to send messages anyway. The smart phone continues to outsmart me. Between sending emails among the smells of fried food, a check of the Arizona site on bird observations reveal observations of a couple of different Rufous-backed Robins. That makes me feel more comfortable about my own sighting. A check for records of anything rare elsewhere, especially southern California and Texas, does not invoke birder envy. On the other hand, reports of Sinaloa Wren and Green Kingfisher grab Linda’s attention.

1 December 2014

The question regarding counting an expatriated species of introduced bird again rears its head. Having brushed away accumulated cobwebs and taken three deep breaths to oxygenate my brain, I had sifted through memories to determine if I had ever seen any introduced species that were no longer extant in ABA land. It turns out, unless I have lost my ability to recall important things like where are my glasses and what bird is that, there is only one species fitting the bill of the new ABA ruling. In 1962, while on an extended birding trip around the country, I steered my 1955 VW beetle to a Florida address for a Hollywood stop south of Ft. Lauderdale to see yet one more species, the introduced or escaped Blue-gray Tanager reported in 1960. At the time of my quest, I had only glimpsed a picture of a Blue-gray Tanager. With much grinning from surviving navigation of southern Florida’s urban streets, I was able to check-off Blue-gray Tanager for my trip and life lists. However, was Blue-gray Tanager then on the official ABA checklist? Was there an official ABA checklist in 1962? At that time, I reasoned Blue-gray Tanager was on someone’s checklist, so why not add it to my list. I had not heard of the ABA since it was hatched later in the decade. When the organization got organized, their first official ABA checklist hit the streets in 1975 and Blue-gray Tanager was on that list. The species was removed from the list in 1982, having been expatriated since 1976. The new ruling brings Blue-gray Tanager back for some, but since my observation was before an ABA list existed, can I technically count the bird on my ABA list?

A few weeks ago, our accumulated mail sent to our Oregon address is forwarded to Sahuarita, Arizona, by our trusty mail service guys. Among the statements, an unsolicited catalogue and insurance and credit card offers, we surely could not refuse was an ABA publication. A brief article with news from the ABA Recording Standards and Ethics Committee occupies one page written by Nicholas Block. The article does not clarify, in my mind at least, what I should do about the tanager. I decide to email Nick: “In 1962 I observed Blue-gray Tanager in Florida before there was an ABA list and even an ABA.  The species later appeared on the ABA checklist and then it was eventually removed.  The way I understand it, I could count the tanager if there had been an ABA list.  What is the ruling on seeing a species that would be countable had there been an ABA checklist in 1962?” I thought of asking how can the tanager be counted since I saw it almost before there was as was. My hope is the ABA will realize there were people out there in 1962, and earlier, seeing all kinds of birds.

It is early on this first day of December and Nick sends a reply: “The current rules do not preclude you from counting the tanager. The wording is that an extirpated species “may be counted if encountered prior to its removal from the main Checklist“. Technically, your encounter fits the bill, so I think it would be perfectly acceptable for you to count it!” Okay, it is official. Blue-gray Tanager is now, after decades, on my list of ABA species. It takes position as number 691.

5-21 December 2014

Not all travel is a birding trip, especially if the conveyance is by recreational vehicle and more importantly, when one is a newbie RV traveler. We must continue to discover the most efficient uses of our space. Every square inch means storage and what ever is stored needs to be readily accessible. Our new customized cabinet is helping, but deciding what goes where and what should be jetisoned is time consuming and labor intensive. Some have said it will take at least a couple of years to be comfortably organized, but we are impatient and plan to have it mostly done before heading east and are making great head way to that end.

22-25 December 2014

We spend two nights in Patagonia State Park east of Nogales. A Rufous-backed Robin reported earlier is long gone. I hike the creek trail and the wash called the Nutting Trail, once a famous for the Nutting Flycatcher that began the Big Year. Patagonia Lake hosts several species of ducks, a group of birds not seen since the few seen on Upper klamath Lake iin Oregon since late October. During the last few days, we gathered food, for a 14-day stay at remote Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southeast of Tucson. The refuge is 118,000 acres of mostly mesquite and rolling grasslands and is especially known as the last outpost for Masked Bobwhite, an unusually marked subspecies I first heard about during my early museum days. Linda and I arrive at a designated campground not far from refuge headquarters. It is ideally secluded, with an adjacent fox den and a foraging Say’s Phoebe and Gray Flycatcher. Christmas Day, Linda and I agree, is the best one we have yet to experience.

IMG_3109
Wetlands at Patagonia Lake State Park

 

26-27 December 2014

Rain during the night muddies the road. Because we are below a small ridge, it is necessary to vacate our campsite and drive the slick road to a spot near the highway. Soaked, but safe, we sleep to the sound of an occasional vehicle and wait for daylight.

The short drive to refuge headquarters is decorated with countless sparrows, most of which are not even remotely identifiable and a couple of flocks of meadowlarks. The flocks contain both Western and Eastern Meadowlarks, with the last having extensive white on the outer tail feathers that agree with the subspecies lilianae. At the visitor center, another retired Fish and Wildlife Service is just outside. He is Marshall Howe, who I had not seen in 20 years. Our visit is short as Marshall and his wife are on their way to Madera Canyon. While visiting, a small flock of wintering Lawrence’s Goldfinches flies from a manmade water feature to a nearby tree. We watch this California bird a few minutes and promise to stay in closer contact. Our last encounter was by email a few years ago when I asked for his meatloaf recipe. It is the best.

The wind and time dried out the road to our campsite, which we return revisit for more nights. Once parked, I walked to the end of our road. Besides a good view of a Baird’s and Grasshopper sparrow among several others sparrows, I found a Great Horned Owl. I had forgotten how pale this species could be, especially since my days working on the systematics of usually darker Pacific Northwest birds. I flush first a covey of Gambel’s then another of Scaled Quail amid the hundreds of Vesper Sparrows.

IMG_3120
Baboquivari from Buenos National Wildlife Refuge

 

27-30 December 2014

The mornings of the 27th and 28th are freezing cold, with temperatures in the low to mid-20s, degrees. The propane furnace keeps the system in a liquid state, but begs the question of why we are not somewhere warmer. On the 30th, we drive to friendly and progressive Arivaca for gasoline, propane and to pick up our mail sent general delivery from Oregon. An earlier stop to walk to dry Arivaca Creek was mostly birdless.

After our business in Arivaca, we travel eastward on Ruby Road toward Arivaca Lake. The paved road is choking with potholes. Even at 25 mph, travel is much slower than five years ago when the vehicle on a tour to California Gulch hit a bump along the very same route Linda and I are now taking. To borrow a phrase from Alan Contreras, I hit my head on the vehicle roof and squealed like a small rodent. We spend the night at a large pull-off along the windy and winding Ruby Road.

31 December 2014

The last day of the year in Buenos Aries refuge is a stormy time, with rain driven by wind blustering hard enough to rock our home. Our NOAA radio warns us of snow down to four to 5,000 feet tonight or tomorrow. We are near 3,000 feet and keep the furnace going to avoid freezing our water system while waiting for the onslaught to pass before heading west.

It is the end of the year. I found 71 species in interior Oregon and since traveling from Oregon in October 144 species, mostly seen in Arizona, bring the total of the little year to 215 kinds of birds. Several species are birds seen only once previously, including Montezuma Quail, Whiskered Screech-Owl, and Rufous-winged and Rufous-crowned sparrows. Of course, the Rufous-backed Robin was especially good to add to the ABA life list. The little year is full of big returns.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s